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The Real Jurassic Park
Canaima National Park, Venezuela

by Sarah Shuckburgh

In a remote corner of Venezuela, Sarah Shuckburgh discovers a land of unique wildlife, superstitious people - and thunderous waterfalls.

There are only three of us in the Piper – the pilot, my husband and me. From the co-pilot’s seat, I can’t help noticing that the cockpit dials are held together with parcel tape and the needles on the fuel gauges are all on Empty. A tattered portrait of the Virgin Mary is glued to the altimeter.

Our destination is a remote and beautiful corner of Venezuela, reached, according to official statistics, by only 3% of the country’s visitors. From Ciudad Bolivar, a charming old colonial town on the Orinoco river, we are heading towards a lost world.

With no preamble or safety drill, we rattle along the dirt runway, and lurch into the air, jerking as if bumping up a flight of stairs, and then tipping as we wheel over the scattered remains of a crashed plane, and head out across bleached grass of the Gran Sabana. A cool breeze blows through gaping holes in the fuselage. Outside the window, the plane’s wheels remind me of my lawnmower, and the tyres have no tread. Both compasses are jammed at north, even though we are flying south-east. “No worry,” shouts the pilot, “Very new engine inside.”

For a few minutes, I can hear my heart beating with alarm above the roar of the very-new-engine, but soon I am transfixed by the views and forget my fear. The savannah stretches to infinity in all directions - a gently undulating, mottled carpet of faded green, ochre, khaki and beige, with occasional swathes of darker tropical forest. Sunlit clearings are littered with match-stick-thin tree trunks, slashed by local Indians. We soar over a wide, brick-red river, and cross smaller tributaries which meander in tight loops through the forest and swirl out across the plain. Lines of moriche palms mark the course of underground streams. Pale webs of narrow footpaths link clusters of palm-thatched mud huts. The lichen-coloured highlands are dotted with plumes of smoke, curling into the hazy sky. Pemón Indians burn the savannah to trap meat - two weeks later, juicy new shoots will attract tapirs, armadillos and deer.

The sky is magical and constantly changing as sun streams through layers of cloud. We soar above fluffy white cumulus, bump through banks of menacing grey, and then dip beneath flat, sausage-shaped clouds as a splatter of rain hits the windscreen.

After an hour, we reach the tepuys, astonishing rocky remnants of the time - two billion years ago - when South America, Africa and Australia were joined. Isolated millions of years ago from the surrounding plain, the mist-shrouded summits of these table-mountains are home to unique forms of life.

This is Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle’s Lost World. The author never saw Venezuela’s Gran Sabana with his own eyes, but he listened to travellers’ tales of this wild and desolate spot, and described it with uncanny accuracy. We have flown over his ‘irregular palm-studded plain’, where, in its ‘damper hollows, Mauritia palms threw out their graceful drooping fronds’, and seen his ‘brooks with pebbly bottoms and fern-draped banks gurgling down the shallow gorges in the hill.’ And here is his ‘line of high red cliffs’, ancient outcrops on whose summits Jurassic flora and fauna have survived.

We land on a bumpy airstrip at Santa Elena, a small mining town near the Brazilian border, where our guide awaits us. It is reassuring to have Julio with us- at road blocks, he speaks deferentially to the armed teenage soldiers as they moodily check our passports, rip open our luggage, and inscribe our names in dog-eared ledgers. Julio is also glad to have us, because with tourists in his car he can avoid a four-hour queue for petrol. President Chavez has fixed the price of petrol at a generous 2p per litre, much cheaper than in neighbouring Brazil, so hundreds of people make a good living by buying petrol in Santa Elena and selling it across the border on the black market. Soldiers wielding rifles supervise mile-long queues of dilapidated vehicles - locals in one line and Brazilians in another - and collect unofficial ‘taxes’. Many of the pick-up trucks have been fitted with huge (illegal) tanks to maximise earnings.

Santa Elena is a jostling, ramshackle frontier town, with open-fronted shops selling hardware and food, extended families lounging on doorsteps, tousle-headed prospectors swigging beer, and a mission church with an unusual wooden roof, carved by an architect who seduced all Santa Elena’s maidens before being drummed out of town.

Julio is full of stories. At a riverbank scarred with illegal gold and diamond open-cast mines, we hear about a local called Barrabas, who found the world’s largest diamond and sold it for millions of dollars, only to die as penniless as he began. Julio explains cheerfully that miners who find gold often kill team-mates to increase their share of the haul. Then they spend their earnings on drink.

The Gran Sabana is as beautiful from the ground as it is from the air - utterly silent and still, an immense, empty, sepia-tinted vista scattered with wisps of pale smoke. In the distance, the craggy tepuys loom, including Roraima, the highest and most famous, home of Conan-Doyle’s terrifying dinosaurs. We are attacked by smaller but equally unwelcome beasts – puri-puri gnats. Our legs are soon covered in red welts, which itch for days.

Julio drives us to Quebrada de Jaspe, an orangey-red riverbed of pure jasper - a radiant, shimmering palace floor overhung with tangled primary forest. We crouch under a waterfall for some bracing hydrotherapy, and then tiptoe gingerly over the slippery slabs. The semi-precious stone still bears the marks of British prospectors who supplied luxury bathrooms until 1972, when the area became a national park. Next, Julio practises his off-road driving skills to reach Arapena Meru, a frothy cascade of inky, tannin-stained water, known locally as Coca-Cola falls. Crested caracaras and vultures wheel overhead in a hot blue sky. At midday, we reach Woy Meru, a waterfall linking two palm-fringed pools, where we swim and wallow, and have more head-and-shoulder massages under the thundering cascade. We lunch on beef, plantain and yucca in a palm-thatched cabana.

Only Indians are permitted to live in the vast Canaima National Park – its 7.5 million acres make it one of the largest parks in the world. A new tarmac road linking Venezuela to Brazil has brought relative prosperity to villagers who live near it. On the way back to Santa Elena, we stop at some half-built stalls, buy a palm-woven basket, and then stroll with Julio through a straggling village. Beside each new, government-issue concrete bungalow, we see families sitting in the shade of traditional, open-sided mud huts thatched with shaggy palm-fronds. Julio explains that the new corrugated-iron roofs are too hot and stuffy. Children scamper out to wave at us, but not everyone in the village welcomes strangers - suddenly we are engulfed in smoke. An old woman has lit the grass outside her house to purify the air, and banish our bad magic.

Back on the tarmac road, we pass ancient villagers, bent double under baskets of dusty manioc. At a river, brightly-coloured clothes are spread on rocks to dry. We pick up four park rangers – locals who work as conservationists and fire-fighters, trying to educate their peers against burning grass near their homes.

After two days, we take to the air again, soaring over a bobbly green mantle of forest spiked with tall palms, sacred Ceiba trees, and unexpected patches of pink blossom. There are over a hundred tepuys, some isolated, others separated by deep, wooded canyons. Waterfalls slice down sheer cliffs in thin, sparkling ribbons. We skim over grey craggy summits, deeply fissured with pinnacles and fairytale battlements, or dotted with patches of coarse grass – Conan-Doyle’s ‘beautiful fringe of verdure.’ Finally, we circle over a dramatic labyrinth of eerie gorges, and our pilot points out Angel Falls, the tallest waterfall in the world - a slender, glistening thread of water, plunging for half a mile before dissolving into a cloud of vapour. Moments later, we reach Canaima, a tiny settlement on a lagoon, with a row of fat, foaming waterfalls, surrounded by tangled forest.

The next morning, we wake in time to see the sun rise beyond the waterfalls. We swim in the silky saponin-dark lake, fringed with freshwater mangroves, moriche palms and dense jungle. There are no roads to Canaima and the sense of peace is intense. We could have spent the day journeying in a dugout canoe to the foot of the Angel Falls, but instead we loll in palm-fibre hammocks, soothed by the roar of the falls and caressed by cool spray which wafts across the lake. Macaws and toucans, in unlikely, gaudy colours, strut past our veranda. Monkeys chuckle from a large cage. In the afternoon, the skies turn stormy and then radiantly pink.

At dusk, we stroll along a beach of soft, pink sand and watch village children splash in the terracotta-coloured shallows. Mothers, sitting at the water’s edge, pause from their laundry to gaze out across the inky ripples of the lagoon. As darkness falls, fireflies flash from the jungle, frogs croak, macaws screech, cicadas chirp, bats swoop and the inky sky is covered with stars. And the waterfalls thunder on.

First published by the Telegraph

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