BACKGROUND

The book's loom will be my travels across the entire Gran Sabana region, whether on foot, in jeeps, planes or dugouts.

I begin at the source of so many myths regarding South America: El Dorado.

The place is in fact an old mining town to the northeast of the Gran Sabana. There was a gold rush here back in the late 1840s, and the road south has been dubbed the 'billion-dollar boulevard' due to the huge deposits that still exist there.

Possibly El Dorado's greatest claim to fame is its prison, where a certain Henri Charrière, better known as Papillon, was incarcerated in the 1940s. He'd escaped from the penal camps of French Guyana, and was eventually set free here.

From there I'll travel south, up the winding La Escalera ("The Staircase") to enter the wilds of Canaima National Park, the sixth largest in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Cutting west from the main road, I'll head for the remote mission village of Kavanayen, established by Capuchin monks in the 1940s and '50s. On the way you pass the 100-metre waterfall of Chinak Meru and the lovely-sounding Pemon Indian hamlet of Liwo-Riwo.

From Kavanayen, a very rough road leads down to the River Karuay. Here, I'll embark, most probably with the Pemon guide Carlos Lambos and his family, for an adventurous trip downriver. I'd also like to raft this river with some local tour operators (or nutcases, depending).

Before the Karuay merges with the River Aponwao, lies the even more remote mission of Wonken (another fine name!). There are no roads to Wonken as yet, and when I visited in 1997, they hadn't seen a foreigner for a year. The village sits close to several beautiful tepuys, including Upuigma, one of my favourites.

From Wonken, I'd like to head down to the Aparaman waterfalls on the Karuay, or else trek back east towards the main road at San Francisco de Yuruani. This is the largest Pemon settlement in the Gran Sabana. The village 'captain' is an intriguing and intelligent man called Juvencio Gomez. Time conversing with him is seldom wasted.

To the west of San Francisco, at the border of Venezuela, Brazil and Guyana, stands the towering mountain of Roraima, the highest of the tepuy mesa mountains which puncture the plains.

The Pemon regard it as the Mother of All Waters, home of the goddess Kuín. The mountain became the setting for Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World. He based his novel on the first Victorian explorers' accounts of their ascent.

Trekking with my favourite Pemon guide Julio Lambos (a sprightly sixty-three year-old!) and his family, I'll recount the tales of early exploration, Pemon beliefs about the mountain and describe the eerie, mysterious lunascape of its surface. I'd also love to ascend Roraima's more challenging twin, Kukenan.

Santa Elena de Uairén, the region's capital, lies close to the Brazilian border. It's a remote outpost which essentially services the local mining and tourist industry. The town is unremarkable, but intriguingly, it's thought to boast more places of worship than any other town in Latin America - from every shade of Christianity through to temples to Sai Baba, the Indian guru.

From there, I'll travel west, into gold and diamond mining country. I'll visit the mines deep in the forest, hear the stories of the men, learn about the industry, its history and the disastrous impact of modern man's need to "ease its disease" - as Cortés described Europeans' lust for gold to Moctezuma's ambassadors.

In this area, in the 1950s, three miners found the second-largest diamond unearthed in South America: the Barabas. 154 carats of sparkling, billion-year old carbon -- the size of a man's fist. If funding for the book looks uncertain at this point, I might be joining the miners.

Further west nestles probably the most remarkable village in Venezuela, El Paují. Here, since the late 1970s, alternative and creative types have established a community in the beautiful, untarnished wilds.

Although many of the early settlers and my friends have left, the stories of the early days, of parties, drugs, hopes, dreams, psychoses, and numerous illegitimate children are as vivid as ever. A plan is in the pipeline to set up a satellite and solar-powered computer system in the village, so I might spend some time there, writing up my notes.

To the west of El Paují, along an atrocious road, lie the mining settlements around Ikabarú, established in the 1950s and 1960s by fortune hunters.

One of them, an Italian, wrote a book of his life with the Indians and the first mining camps in the area. He opened it up to the present environmental and social disaster.

Swapping a jeep for a dugout, I'll make my way along the River Ikabarú to join the fish-hook arc of the River Caroní, the region's most important river.

I'll travel for six days down its course, hopefully with a maverick American man called Harry, eventually emerging at the village of Canaima, in the northwestern corner of the park.

Canaima's idyllic location by a lake was recognised for its tourist potential as early as the 1950s by the bush pilot Charlie Baughan. Today, hotels and posadas ring the lagoon, and regular flights ferry tourists back and forth to Caracas.

Tomas Bernal lived as a hermit in a cave here, and Alexander Laime spent a secluded life on an island, occasionally venturing up the mountains in search of dinosaurs. Today, the struggles of the Pemon Indians to control and manage the development of this part of their lands is more pressing than ever.

A day's journey upriver from the lagoon cascade Angel Falls, the highest waterfalls in the world at nearly a kilometre high, vaulting from the flanks of the region's largest table-top mountain.

Its discovery in the 1930s by the pilot Jimmie Angel and its measuring by the gutsy journalist Ruth Robertson make for amazing stories.

From the foot of Angel Falls, I'll continue upriver to embark on an arduous ascent of the mountain from which it chutes, Auyan Tepuy, the Mountain of Evil.

The trek passes by the spot where Jimmie Angel landed his plane on one of his numerous efforts to find his 'river of gold.'

Back down, I'll head east on another tough seven-day trek cross-country to the mission of Kavanayen. From Kavanayen, the loop closes back at the main road and the return to El Dorado.

I have one travelling companion in particular in mind. Santiago Ramos knows the Sabana by foot better than anyone alive. He is an accomplished artist as well as being an exceedingly interesting, stimulating, and - dare I say it, 'powerful' - individual. Between jobs gold and diamond prospecting, he sells esoteric books and teaches Tai-Chi and meditation. He claims, take it or leave it, to have astrally projected inside the tepuys...

No doubt other people will join me en route: Roberto Marrero, the corpulent regional expert who's a rabid UFO believer; Trastor, my eccentric, computer-geek friend who helps the Pemon build websites; Hilda and Pierro from El Paují who make honey and tend to their goats and vegetable patches; Doña Aura, the village matriarch; Cristóbal, the intelligent, youthful head of the Pemon of Canaima village; Carlucho the tour guide who lived in London in the late '70s and gets through his tour schedules with scoops of cocaine; Nelson who builds houses worthy of gnomes while cobbling his jeep together with string and inner tubes...

No doubt I'll meet more characters to add to the region's hall of fame of eccentricity...

 

This site forms part of the much larger website thelostworld.info. Please visit it for further background, travel information, maps, contacts, bibliography and guidance on the amazing Gran Sabana...


Travels in the Lost World -- © Dominic Hamilton