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Venezuela’s Gran Sabana



Faded and stained photographs are laid out in front of us on the floor of the house – a construction fit for a gnome and typical of the village of El Paují.

“It sounds a crazy thing to do, but this guy really wanted to kill me,”recalls Nelson, his eyes glazed with memories. “We were so captivated by the Sabana though, it didn’t seem too odd to use the plane as somewhere to stay. I never thought we’d end up there for as long as we did.”

Stories similar to Nelson’s are not uncommon in El Paují on the southern edge of the Gran Sabana, in Venezuela’s lost and forgotten south-east. Urban professionals in their twenties who gave it all up, leaving behind the bump and grind of Latin American city life, to build ingenious houses and a remarkable community alongside Pemon Indians, in what is, frankly, the middle of nowhere.

Nelson tells his story with a broad, cheeky grin on his weathered, handsome face, shaded by the straw hat which rarely leaves his head. He’d fallen in love with a married woman, Elisabeth. When her husband threatened retribution, they fled to the south and the savannah.

On their wanderings they discovered the wreck of an old DC-3 on the edge of a forest, and, young lovers being young lovers, decided to make it their home by converting the fuselage. It soon became a focal point for artist friends, and the ‘Aeroplane Workshop’ has grown and matured steadily ever since. Itinerant exhibitions of their works have been held around the country, promoting the region and the importance of its conservation.

Until the 1930s the Gran Sabana was terra incognita, the domain of Pemon Indians, zealous missionaries, fool-hardy explorers and the odd gold prospector. Although it’s now fast becoming an important element in Venezuela’s tourism portfolio, and is gradually being colonised, it is still essentially the Wild West, Latin style.

 
Straddling the Guyana Shield 800 metres above sea level, the rock of the Gran Sabana is some of the oldest on Earth, dating back to the pre-Cambric Era two billion years ago. Concerned by the encroachment of colonisers, in 1962 the government ensured the protection of an area the size of Belgium by creating the National Park of Canaima. The park harbours the Sabana’s most precious flora – 20,000 species of orchid alone and the exquisite Heliamphora flower – and its most endangered fauna, mainly large mammals, jaguars, giant armadillos and ant-eating palm bears.

The main road connecting Venezuela and Brazil to the east of the region was only completed in the late nineteen eighties. On its back swept a gold and diamond rush which every year lays waste to ever-greater tracts of this fragile landscape, contaminating rivers with mercury and waste, and bringing crime, disease and vice in its wake. Many of the most precious forests, essential for the country’s huge hydroelectric generation, and home to innumerable species, are succumbing to the inexorable invasion of miners. Large multinational companies have also started to move in, this ecocide supposedly justified by Venezuela’s present economic difficulties.

Within Canaima the region’s highest tepuis or table top mountains, Roraima, Kukenán and Auyantepui, rise vertiginously to over 2,500 metres. On top of each of these islands in time entirely endemic species of prehistoric wonder survive in nooks and crevices. The tepuis’ surfaces evoke moonscapes drawn from the wildest imaginings of science fiction, with weird and wonderful rock sculptures carved by the unforgiving rains and winds.

The tepuis are the celestial kings and queens of the Sabana, enthroned in majestic castles which tower above the supplicant plains. From the heights of the Mountain of the God of Evil, Auyantepui, Angel Falls thunders down for a vertical free-fall kilometre, the tallest waterfall in the world, sixteen times the height of Niagara.

 

With such natural wonders on offer, tourism is beginning to take off in the Gran Sabana. Local tour operators offer trips of a few days in jeeps to beauty spots throughout the region. However the only real way to get a feel for its haunting landscape and colourful people is on foot. The experience and knowledge of a Pemon guide are as invaluable as the pace of their walking is intolerable. Quick-marching would be more appropriate to describe keeping up with them. An adventurous, and arguably less strenuous alternative to four unecological wheels or two tired legs is to weave through the tepui ranges in dug-out canoes. Watching the world unfurl from the relative comfort of a boat seems preferable to the often hard slog of trekking.

El Paují, where Nelson and others have eeked out an existence in the wilds of the savannah, lies about fifty miles of rump-numbing dirt track west of the town of Santa Elena de Uiaren on the Brazilian border. Seven different places in and around the village offer rustic and basic accommodation, and village social life, for the middle of nowhere, can get surprisingly lively. Most years in November they hold an international ‘Creators Encounter’ with musicians, artists, dancers, writers and bohemians converging to exchange ideas and initiate projects.

The community has fought hard for ideals and a way of life which many pronounced dead long ago. Despite the inevitable squabbles and feuds, the villagers have managed to build their own school, church, community hall, health clinic and rescue service. Although much of their enthusiasm and energy is lost to the beauty and tranquility of the savannah, their achievements are still remarkable in view of the lack of government support and the settlement’s extreme isolation. The dream of making the village into a showcase for sustainability still remains a long way off, but its creative community spirit is still a breath of fresh air in our all too cynical world.

Photos are all that remain of Nelson’s avion. Once he abandoned the plane to come to El Paují, someone took a blow-torch to it for scrap. The leaky roof and low ceiling were a pain in the neck anyway, he admits, passing another photo over to me.

He still does all his cooking outdoors though. Old habits, not unlike DC-3s, die hard in the Sabana.

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