Lost in the Lost World

In a town without pity at the end of Venezuela, our traveler gets the distinct impression he's gone a tepui too far

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Certain ironies of the road are best savored in retrospect. So it was with a recent trip to a Venezuelan province known as El Mundo Perdido-the Lost World. After three days of trying, I'd finally found myself at the area's most obscure fringe, the shadowy tropical frontier where Guyana and Brazil meet. And-yes!-I was hopelessly lost.

The sheer spectacle of the journey had given me no hint of troubles ahead. A small propeller plane had skimmed along the shores of the Orinoco River, then slipped beneath a layer of storm clouds through a corridor of tepuis. These tabletop mountains, rising like giant petrified tree stumps from a carpet of jungle, are one of South America's truly mind-boggling sights: At 2 million years old, their orange cliffs form part of the cracked Guyana shield, whose contours geologists are only now mapping. The silver plume of the world's tallest waterfall, Angel Falls, plunges from one grand mesa, Auyantepui (Devil Mountain).

My fellow passengers, Pemon Indians, were not as impressed as I was. Unaccustomed to the rockiness of low-altitude flying, they were sick to a man, taking in the view of the floor between their legs.

At last I was dropped off at a lonely dirt airstrip called Icabaru. Someone named Mauro was supposed to meet me there to take me to his even remoter abode. But as my plane buzzed away into a shimmering heat haze with the poor Pemon Indians aboard, no Mauro was to be found.

Silence descended. No vehicles. No anybody.

Well, there was one individual lurking in the rusted plane hangar: a 16-year-old army recruit, who carried a gun taller than himself. This was a sensitive border area-there were occasional shootouts between Venezuelan and Brazilian miners-and so this kid was here to hold the fort. He ordered me into a stifling back room, then pored over my passport, page by page, as if it contained a cure for acne. Every 15 minutes after that, as I sat in the brain-twisting heat, the recruit would come over, nudge me with his gun and repeat how he'd never even heard of Mauro or his jungle home, 'Kawaik.'

Nadie aqu?, he kept grinning. 'Nobody here.'

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