In a town without pity at the end of Venezuela, our traveler gets the distinct impression he's gone a tepui too far
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.'
No me digas, I'd reply thinly. 'You don't say.'
After two hours of this cheery banter, another human materialized. A passing army sergeant gave me a lift into Icabaru proper. The place wasn't exactly a village-more like a Latin trailer park, a tropical pit stop carved out by gold and diamond prospectors who have trudged through here since the 1940s. There were three bare dirt streets strewn with garbage; the only accommodation was a broken-down hovel called Hotel El Ni?o. The rooms were rented by the hour, so it seemed that procreation was low on the list of priorities. In any case, the sergeant helpfully informed me, the madam had the only civilian-owned radio in town.
Se?ora Esmeralda was a vast, round woman, sitting in the gutter on an upturned bucket, languidly peeling potatoes. Yes, she had heard of Kawaik, but she told me it was about 100 miles away. She even had a radio-but she didn't know Kawaik's frequency. Nor did she care. Waving her hand about her ears as if she was brushing off flies, she told me to stop bothering her.
'It's not my job to help you!' she proclaimed, accurately enough.
Over in the 'plaza,' an open-air bar attracted a dozen miners playing dominoes; they had scales to weigh their glistening specks of ore for bets. The road to Kawaik was so bad-torrential rains regularly washed it bare-that two drunken truck drivers refused to risk their vehicle on it. 'Maybe for $1,000,' they chortled. There would be no more scheduled flights for a week. At least.
The tepuis sat on the horizon, indifferent as the pyramids. Nothing moved in the heat, not even a bird. And the sign in front of me read: WELCOME TO ICABARU-GATEWAY TO FRIENDSHIP.
Ah, the Lost World.
In a sense I could trace this whole debacle-and the world's long-running fascination with the region-back to a lecture given in London 110 years ago by a Welsh botanist, Everard Im Thurn. Mr. Im Thurn was the first European scientist to scale a tepui, and his findings caused a minor sensation. On the damp plateau of Mount Roraima, he'd found dozens of plant and insect species that had evolved in isolation from the rainforest below. The tepuis were 'islands in time,' as isolated as the Gal?pagos.
Sitting in the audience was the omnivorous Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Some 25 years later, the lecture became the basis of his classic adventure novel The Lost World-in which a scientific expedition climbs a Venezuelan tepui, only to find the surface inhabited by dinosaurs, passed over by evolution. A hokey parable of social Darwinism it may be, but Venezuelans knew a good marketing ploy when they heard it. Sometime in the 1960s, they began routinely referring to their border region-which is properly called Gran Sabana-as 'El Mundo Perdido.' Today travel groups merrily head down to the village of Canaima, a sort of tourist summer camp, for flyovers of Angel Falls.
And yet the whole region is also one of the more volatile in South America, and not just because the borders are unenforceable, encouraging Brazilian and Venezuelan air force fighters to strafe one another's outposts at irregular intervals. The now familiar cast of South American Indians, hard-bitten miners, righteous missionaries, ranchers and environmentalists is locked in hidden battles where the principle of survival of the fittest is more pitiless than anything Conan Doyle ever dreamed up.
So when I decided to visit this very farthest corner of the Lost World-only to get stuck in Icabaru-you could say I should have known better.
After a long, hard night on a cot in the Hotel El Niño-listening to clouds of hungry mosquitoes and the gurgles of passion until dawn-escape wasn't looking any more probable. No new trucks. No buses. Not even any private vehicles. Back in the bar on the plaza, the same beer-guzzling miners were already drunk at 9 A.M.; they seemed to be fingering their bowie knives, looking me over in a rather predatory fashion.
And then one of the barmaids, who was obsessively curling her hair, said: 'Of course, you could get an air taxi. . . .'
I couldn't believe my ears. Apparently at any given time there were a dozen freelance pilots buzzing around in the skies above, zipping back and forth like bees, just waiting to be radioed down by someone like me. That was how diamond miners got about when they were on a lucky streak. But since they were expensive, nobody in Icabaru had thought to mention them. All I had to do was go back to Señora Esmeralda, bribe her with a few bolivars, call down the closest air taxi and fork over a crisp $100 bill.
It worked. Soon I was back at the airstrip, strapping myself into the front seat of my own private Cessna, waving farewell to the recruit (who looked extremely peeved that I'd worked this much out). By air, it was only six minutes to El Pauji, where a football field doubled as an airstrip. All I had to do was cajole someone else to drive me the last half hour to Kawaik. . . .
Nothing to it.
I had history on my side: Bush planes have been integral to the mythology of the Lost World since 1935.
That was when a penniless American pilot named Jimmy Angel, hanging around a Panama City hotel lobby, was offered $5,000 in cash to fly into Venezuela on a secret mission. Angel took his employer, an elderly Mexican, onto the surface of Auyan-tepui ('hell of a place to land a plane'), where they supposedly gathered 75 pounds of gold from a stream. But when Angel tried to repeat the stunt alone, not only did he find no gold, but his monoplane became bogged. As a sort of consolation prize, Angel discovered the world's highest waterfall on the long climb down. It now bears his name-confirming the idea that anything could and would turn up in this part of South America.
The latest proof was right in front of me. In a sculpted garden oasis surrounded by dry sandstone scrub, Kawaik's so-called 'jungle lodge' looked like a clubhouse designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. It had no walls, so cool breezes could waft through; exotic flowers bulged from every corner. And even more disorienting, the place was run by South American yuppies. Mauro, who came out to meet me, looked like a Hollywood agent, his ponytailed hair bleached by the sun; his angelic, honey-tanned wife Elsa wandered barefoot in a flowing caftan; two naked children cavorted in a tenuously burbling stream. Had I come all this way to visit a Venezuelan version of Santa Fe?
'You arrived in Icabaru yesterday?' Mauro giggled. 'I thought you were coming tomorrow! What do you think of those miners, eh? They're people without culture. Very angry. Very violent.'
From one of Mauro's wooden cabins, inhabited by hummingbirds and tiny frogs, I had a shower watching the sun set across a distant tepui. This was the last outpost of the Lost World, last stop before Brazil-but it felt like I'd gone too far. There was a sense of detachment, of being in fantasyland. What was I doing here? Even more to the point: What were these guys doing here?That night, slugging back cuba libres, Mauro and Elsa recounted Venezuela's Great Yuppie Exodus of the 1990s. Apparently it was a far-reaching social phenomenon. They had both been working as architects in the capital, Caracas-polluted, crime-ridden, traffic-clogged. One year, they came down to the Gran Sabana on vacation; a few weeks later, they'd quit their jobs and moved down here to live.
Over the next few days, Mauro did show off the wonders of his new home. Not far below Kawaik sprawled empires of rainforest-although, of course, gold miners had reduced great strips to fields of smoking dust, like trench scenes from World War I. The diamond prospectors who trudged past with their picks on their backs were Greenpeace activists by comparison.
Clusters of these latter-day conquistadores gathered at a solitary bodega to buy flour with stones. The diamonds all looked like specks of dirty quartz, and identifying one amid the dross was the most valuable skill of all-at least according to one leader, an obese old Italian named Luigi. Mi ojo, he said, pulling down a lid and patting his potbelly. 'I'm old and fat, but one good eye is worth 40 arms.' In fact, he was being modest; the 154-carat Bolivar diamond, found outside Icabaru in 1942, had been spotted by a miner looking through the offcuts of other digs. Someone had tossed it aside as worthless.
At the end of humid trails lay sinuous rivers, where the occasional motorized canoe would speed up and down-past canyons of vegetation and falls spurting water the color of tea-to Pemon Indian villages. Easily reached by missionaries, these long ago lost their thatch-roofed huts to concrete boxes. Each settlement felt eerily deserted. Most of the Pemons were leaving for the towns, Mauro explained, since apart from helping miners transport their gear, there was no work. 'Nobody does anything here anymore. They don't even grow fruit.'
Below a river headland, a team of miners was landing with their canoes. I was watching them through a telephoto lens. The men started screaming and hiding. One put a rifle to his shoulder. There were some sharp noises, although I wasn't sure from where.
'They're not shooting at us, are they?' I asked.
'I doubt it,' Mauro sighed. 'But let's go. If they're Brazilians, they're here illegally. They don't like to be seen.'
At the end of each day Mauro introduced me to more of his tribe. There was a nuggety character named Javier, a former Caracas legal clerk who had, inexplicably, come to the Lost World to raise bees-the African killer variety. He confessed that his arms were stung so often they blew up 'like Popeye's.' And there were young artists trying to make a living from the sale of their handicrafts. I wasn't buying.
Increasingly desperate to escape Kawaik, I hiked to the fringe of the last tepui, scrambling past the array of prehistoric mosses, lichens and triffid-like bromeliads that first brought the region fame. This was 'El Abismo,' the Abyss. A cliff dropped straight down to the jungle canopy, and an ocean of vegetation stretched off unbroken, brushed with pale mist, toward the horizon. You could picture it continuing for thousands of miles, across Brazil, to the Andes of Peru and Bolivia. It was impossible to imagine all the dramas going on beneath that green carpet; the outside world, once obsessed with the Amazon, no longer seems to care. And so it remains, true to the theme around here, lost as the wayward souls of Kawaik.
FromEscape(September, 1999.) Subscriptions: $18/yr. (4 issues) from Box 462255, Escondido, CA 92046.