Message sent to friends and family, returning to El Pauji after two years' absence

On the "road""Welcome to El Pau--" said Jorge, aged 9, at the top of the last hill. Famous last words.
Cough. Splutter. Cough. Death by Niiii.
It turned out to be something to do with the distributor cables. They were drenched in battery acid. Then again, it could have been little green men fiddling with my points. Ignorance is not always bliss.

The definition of 'road' should be re-thought. It's a word too lightly bandied about. "2 miles down the road". "Road rage". "On the road". "Hit the road". It trips off the tongue like tarmac. It needs to be redefined because it should never be applied to the piece of "it" which scours its way westward from the town of Santa Elena de Uairen, on the border of Venezuela and Brazil.
Pit. Rock. Mudbath. Pothole. Larger versions of these, mixed in a terrain blender with a healthy dollop of rain, add tree-trunk bridges, for about four hours, would be closer to "it".



"Todo es vida", called out Cristobal, aged 12, swimming through the current. Everything is life. Down by the river, letting ourselves be pummelled by the power of the water. Wooshing down the flat riverbed into pools. Paddling back up to start again. Sunshine. Forest. His father, Manuel, looked on with a grin.

It's six years since I met them. Since this river changed my course. Over on the bank, perched on the hillock is the Gajo. I saw the house, even took a photo, when I first came down the path that leads to the falls. Wondered, gawping, whose mind could have dreamt up such a construction. Later I would meet him, and tell a girl I loved her, in that house. That was when Manuel and Alina were still a couple, when tourism was good, when the days passed.

I helped Manuel move his stuff over to his house. Gone is the battery for the solar panel, and so the lights, the TV and the radio, the toilet's blocked and there's no gas. It's my car. He's separated, lives in Miami, is older, and the days pass...


Rodrigo shows off his new "house"I'd never gone much further than about 6 kilometres down the road. It always seemed too much hassle. I'd heard about the people in Cantarana. UFOs and the like. I went to tour the places you can stay and tick more rivers off my list. People stuck out in their private No Man's Land, living out lives many would say were decided for them. One couple, or rather one man, got me in particular. 'Got' in the sense of stripping your skin clean, like a banana. Exposing your inner soul, with just a few pertinent questions. Each one seemed to carry so much weight. When I told him I was writing a guide, he replied, Yes, but what are you really writing? He talked of living in the present. He didn't seem to want me to leave, and there was a strange space as if the moment was making up its mind. Place your bets I'll meet him again.


I taught her how to say the words forest, savannah, river, leaf and stick. Little cherubim, in pudding bowl haircut, playing in the water, splashing about between tantrums. I would take her by the hand and sit with her on the hill, watching the mist materialise on the forest's canopy.

"I can sing you a song, if you like," she smiles at me. "Bye-bye" and "Hello" she parrots in English.

"Let's go to the river," she orders. Her hair is longer, with a big wide fringe which frames her face and cacao-dark eyes.

She's been to Caracas, I'm told.

Lots of people live there, I'm informed.

How many?

Oh, at least eighty. There's lots.


A spider shows off its "house"Pierre takes Mamut for a walk.

"He needs his exercise," he says. The sun is low in the sky, but still warms. There's a dark cloud coming in. Later, a rainbow shone, and then another.

Mamut bucks and sits up on his hind legs. He seems disinterested in the grass.

Pierre and Hilda want to get another two. Two females. So they can have lots of little goats, and probably as much as two litres of milk a day. And some company, Hilda says with a smile.

Lots of the people have left the village. It's maybe harder for the ones who have stayed on. Plugging away at the holes in their roofs and expectations, mending the fences, building more rooms, or a little terrace there. Much of the life of the village went with those who left, for one reason or another.
Pierre is skinny. He's 6'4 at least, and can't weigh much more than me. He's one of the most gentle men I've ever met. No-one has a problem with Pierre. He's everyone's friend. Especially Mamut's.


Gold and diamonds on sale at the general store in El Pauji"You can visit it all you wish" said Otto.

Otto's a bitter man I'd say. At least, that's the way he's always come across to me. If it's not one thing, it's another.

Tourism is bad. The groups that did make it down the road, or came by plane, have dried up. His camp, all spick and span as it is, is empty. All that work and nada.

I'd feel sorry for Otto. You would too. The village is highly dependent on tourism revenues. But the thing is, Otto's camp is a ghost camp. I've never ever seen anyone stay there. Nor has anyone else, or very nearly. Otto buys diamonds, not tourist dollars. Diamonds are a boy's best friend. Forget the rest.

Not that long ago, about a year, Otto and some other villages all invested in machinery and a mine. It was just down the road from the village. There were some houses nearby, but not too close. They bribed the guy with the huge earth-mover for the road. They got him to excavate a hole as large as half a football pitch in the river. And then set to work. There are mines everywhere, all around the village. But this one was too close for some people. Before they knew it, the mine was denounced in Caracas, the Guardia were on top of them and the whole thing had to be stopped. One in a hundred. But one, none the less.

Otto's fate is still unsure. He might yet go to court with the others.

"We should all go back to the caves," he began to ramble as I started my engine.

The hole will become a lake. With thatched houses and some wooden boat curiaras to paddle about in.
For the tourists who don't come.


You'll see the photo some time, maybe. In the foreground, a wooden panel set in a stone base. The words "Bienvenidos al Parque Nacional Canaima" carved in white letters. The road stretches off into the distance, over the hill and faraway. The last of the light, struggling between clouds, colours the panel and the surrounding swaying grass.

Behind it rises a silver cenotaph, a needle planted in this ancient landscape. It doesn't sway like the moriche palm, or seemlessly fill the pockets of forest and plain. It stands, testament. We'll look back on these folies in years to come, and wonder.

The pylons will take electricity to northern Brazil. Or at least that's what it says on paper. No-one was consulted, least of all the local Indians. Even the paper makes no economic sense, according to the conservationist Audubon Society. The money is jobs-for-the-boys contracts. The beneficiaries of the electricity brought south to the frontier will be the gold miners and the mining companies. With greater power at their disposal, the more precious nuggets can be excavated. The only cure for 'saint-seducing' gold fever: la medicina. More gold. Unless the stockbrokers and banks cut the ground from under them.

Into the forests of Imataca, the veins of greed burrow. Through the range of Sierra de Lema, the pylons cut their swathe. And on down the road in the land of the Pemon and their tepuy mountains, the testaments to Man's folly are paced every 200 yards.
I was so filled with joy to be here once more, to be stepping back into this prehistoric world I discovered. I'll never look on the landscape again, or mention the Gran Sabana again, without thinking of scars. Bienvenidos.


For more on El Pauji see

For more on El Pauji and the Gran Sabana see


The Venezuela Travel Specialist Your Venezuelan Adventure Begins Here! Venezuela and Latin America at your fingertips  NATOURA travel & adventure tours  -- call us in the US on (303) 800-4639 ES Time
The most comprehensive English-language site dedicated to Venezuela's unique Gran Sabana and Canaima National Park All material on this site is © 2000-7
Dominic Hamilton and
The Globe Pequot Press.

Dominic Hamilton Home