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Wild Adventures
Los Llanos, western Venezuela

by Sarah Shuckburgh

The vast number of animals and birds drawn to the plains of Los Llanos, in Venezuela, are just one more reason to visit, as Sarah Shuckburgh discovers.

Who would guess that the highlight of our trip to Venezuela would be three days staying in a spartan cabin on a dead-flat 100,000-acre cattle ranch? The plains of Los Llanos cover a third of the country, from the Andes to the Orinoco. The climate is uncomfortably extreme – torrential rain and floods, followed by searing heat, wind and drought – but we have, by chance, arrived after the rains, and before the worst of the heat. This is the best time to visit, when the plentiful wildlife congregates at dwindling waterholes. I feel I have stepped into a childhood I-Spy book in which each illustration contains a fascinating but improbable assortment of animals and birds.

We arrive late at night, bumping through pot-holes, and halting every few minutes to wake capybaras blocking our route. Hefty-headed rodents the size of large dogs, the capybaras are reluctant to budge, but eventually trudge grumpily to the verge, followed by gaggles of adorable babies.

We wake next morning to croaks from a small tree-frog in the bathroom, and to a cacophony of birdsong – the nasal knock-knock of buff-necked ibis, the honks of Orinoco geese in the treetops, the low grumble of cormorants, the loud cries of thornbirds and kiskadee flycatchers, the tweets of wrens and a raucous chorus of caws, chatters, chirrups, coughs and coos. A hummingbird flutters at the window screen. This is one of the world’s best places for bird-watching - at breakfast we meet three Norwegians who have spotted 220 species in two days. The temperature in the shade of the palm trees is perfect. A cloud of yellow butterflies swoops across a hazy blue sky. Half a dozen bright green iguanas stalk past on scaly dinosaur legs, and plod methodically up trees. Beyond the picket fence, cowboys herd white, hump-backed cows – riders and cattle forming pale silhouettes in a halo of dust.

By 9am, the sky has darkened to a deep turquoise, fading to the horizon where it meets the flat, grey-blue savannah. It is getting hotter. We meet our wildlife guide, Jack, whose first words are: “Don’t go out of the gate. That’s where the crocs have laid their eggs”. Our driver, Musiú, is a local, who gained his French nickname as a tall, pale-skinned child. Musiú promises to find us an anaconda.

We clamber aboard a huge canopied truck, and bump slowly across bleached grasslands and past sunlit lagoons on our first wildlife drive. Clouds of dust billow behind us. All around, capybaras loll in the sunshine, with eyes closed. We pass a young researcher, sitting in a jeep. “She is studying the social behaviour of capybara but she is very bored”, says Jack. “Capybara do nothing all day”.

We stop at an unremarkable sandbank by a shallow river. It is a peaceful scene, with the usual hordes of dozing capybaras. In the muddy water, the comical heads of fresh-water terrapins bob beside the snouts of basking caimans. Jack, a Venezuelan Crocodile Dundee, jumps down from the truck on to the sand. Immediately, the muddy waters heave and two gigantic Orinoco crocodiles, each 14 feet long, pound towards us at 30 miles per hour, eyes glinting. It is thrilling and terrifying. Jack leaps nimbly back on board and the crocodiles suddenly freeze. Beneath the sand, their eggs are incubating. Woe betide anyone who comes close.

Driving on, we see a 9-banded armadillo, which Jack catches and allows us to hold. Despite its tough, rubbery armour, its ears and belly are soft and fluffy. Later, we peer at the strawberry-blond rump of a giant anteater, asleep on a branch. It hears us, and lifts its head drowsily, flicking a long, thin tongue. Huge, straggly wrens’ nests dangle untidily from branches. Termites’ nests jut from tree trunks. In a hollow log, we see a barn owl with four round-eyed babies. Later we shine a torch on two raccoons inside a tree stump.

Musiú stops the truck by a hole in the sandy track – it’s an iguana nest, shared by three or four females. A pile of broken eggshells are evidence of a visit from a jaguar or a caracara. The middle of the road is surprisingly popular for nests - we see two burrowing owls sitting in their underground lair, and later a turtle, squirting caked mud and digging with clumsy flippers.

By noon it’s hot, and we return to the camp for lunch and a siesta, lulled to sleep by shrill crickets. At 4pm Musiú steers us across the wetlands in a flat-bottomed boat, forging watery trails through floating carpets of mauve water-hyacinths. Everywhere, wildlife forms spectacular tableaux. In the shade of a stunted tree, capybaras stand, suckling their babies, and spiky iguanas strike elegant poses, next to less exotic white-tailed deer. Spectacled caimans lurk in the water, with only bulging eyes and broad snouts showing. Terrapins, basking on the bank, plop into the opaque water as we approach, and bob like brown ping-pong balls.

The sky is full of birds, and Jack teaches me to recognise the most colourful and exotic. The roseated spoonbill is the dusty pink of nylon knickers. Ibis come in startling hues – scarlet, metallic black, blue and green. Flocks of jacana flash bright yellow in flight, turning jet black with wings folded. With long toes, they can stalk across floating water-hyacinths. The lanky jabiru waders stand 4’6” tall. A snake-necked anhinga stands at the water’s edge. Vermillion and yellow-fronted flycatchers dart from branches to gobble flies. Black collared hawks and Amazon kingfishers hover with fluttering wings, and nosedive for fish. Opportunistic caracaras chase other birds away and scavenge caiman eggs. Small black vultures sit hunched on branches. And a hoatzin clambers through the tangled vegetation, like a miniature dinosaur.

Musiú watches the birds intently, and can tell when an anaconda is lurking beneath the water. Suddenly he points at a bed of hyacinths, and daredevil Jack wades in, returning, minutes later, with a writhing anaconda, 10 feet long, and as thick as his leg. We take turns to hold its tail and feel the muscles of its scaly body, which coils and clenches thrillingly. Musiú is not impressed – sometimes anacondas are 36 feet long, he says.

Back in the truck, we pass a tiny, barefoot boy on a mule. Behind him, in a cloud of dust, looms a straggly herd of floppy-eared cows - a hardy mix of Brahmin and Brazilian, bred to survive the extreme climate. Their ribs show beneath folds of loose skin. Three wizened cowboys follow, with lassos looped from their saddles. Jack hands out iced water. Later we pick up the empty bottles, arranged neatly by a gate.

El Cedral ranch was founded 100 years ago by a Rockerfeller. Today the ranch is owned by Venezuelan businessmen, but is divided into dozens of ‘fundos’, small ranches run by llaneros. We pass a llanero homestead – a bleak, isolated shack built on a small bank just above the flood level, with a scrubby patch of manioc and banana plants. Tousled children sit at the door – they have never been to school. A wind turbine raises water to a tank, but there is no electricity.

At dusk, we arrive at a lake surrounded by tropical forest. For several minutes we listen to the night jars, and watch flocks of birds settling in the trees. An opossum sneaks by, its long tail pointed and stiff. Then suddenly a freshwater dolphin leaps gracefully from the inky water. Further out, another appears, splashing and spouting water; then two together, elegant pinkish bodies arching out of the lake in a synchronised dance. We watch them, spellbound, as darkness falls.

Los Llanos is the home of joropo music. Every village has a band, and the ranch is no exception. After supper, a local trio start to play – a young gardener plucks a small but manly harp, a grizzled llanero strums a cuatro – a 4-string guitar – and Musiú’s old father jiggles maracas, making a sound like crickets. Another llanero sings. The music is fast, wild and hypnotic, with complicated syncopated rhythms. The melodies on the harp ring out, clear, passionate and poignant. At intervals, power-cuts plunge us into darkness, but the musicians play on by the light of the moon and a thousand stars.

Sarah travelled with Sunvil Latin America,

First published by the Telegraph

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