Lost in the Lost World

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.’

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.

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