The Gran Sabana of Venezuela

words + photos by Katherine Braun Mankin

 

IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE

I stared out into the empty plain of the Gran Sabana and thought about my husband, Don. I was glad that I wasn’t with him. He was at that moment climbing a tepui, a rocky, table top mountain.  I didn’t want to climb the tepui.  I don’t like walking uphill.  I don’t like cold or wet places, and I especially don’t like cold and wet together.  Sleeping on the ground hurts my back, and I prefer indoor plumbing to more rustic alternatives.  And I’m a wilderness wimp.  So, instead of hiking a tepui, I went to the middle of nowhere. 

Photo Slide Show by Katherine Braun Mankin

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The Gran Sabana in the southeastern corner of Venezuela, bordering Brazil, is a high plateau of wide savannah interrupted only by clumps of jungle, shadowy outlines of distant tepuis and many waterfalls. My husband and I were in Venezuela at the invitation of Venezuela Elite, a tour operator offering trekking, biking and cultural trips in the region and elsewhere (www.venezuelaelite.com). While my husband climbed the tepui, I spent a week in the Gran Sabana with a guide and a driver, staying at eco-camps or small hotels (indoor plumbing !), going on relatively easy hikes and visiting the indigenous people of this area. For a week I had the pleasure of looking out at landscapes that stretched endlessly into an uncluttered vista of land, sky and water. 

There are so many waterfalls in the Gran Sabana. The most famous waterfall in Venezuela, the highest in the world, is Angel Falls, which my husband and I were planning on visiting after his tepui trek. I never get tired of looking at waterfalls and was soon able to train my eyes to follow the water as it poured from the top of the falls to the bottom.  So the experience of watching the water fall over rocks at Karuay, El Hueso, and Chinak Meru  was not at all compromised by the prospect of soon seeing the highest one of all. And, unlike Angel Falls, these waterfalls are easily accessible, more or less, by four-wheel drive or on foot. 

I also visited villages where the Pemon live, the indigenous people of the Gran Sabana. “Pemon” means the People, as in the Sky, the Sun, the Parrot, and the People. The Pemon have a rich mythology, and most of the Pemon I met and had a chance to interact with were energetic and friendly.  The people are typically short, with brown eyes, brown hair, and nut-colored skin.   They dress in shorts or pants and wore shirts with short-sleeves and collars, or t-shirts, frequently with inscrutable English-language messages, such as “Next Exit Super Fast.”  I learned that the Pemon population is growing because the Pemon are healthier than they used to be, they live longer, and infant mortality has decreased. 

One morning, I strolled around the village of Kavanayen, where many Pemon live, and peeked inside the schools.  In the afternoon two Pemon boys, Noel, age 13, and his cousin Jose, 12, gave my guide and me a tour through the jungle.  I imagined myself as Indiana Jones, absorbing the sensations of the jungle – dense, moist and silent.  I wasn’t the only one infected by the magic of the jungle. Noel and Jose ran with exuberance up and downhill in their flip-flops!

The Pemon call the jungle the evergreen forest, not because there are evergreens in the forest – there are none -- but because it’s always green, wet season or dry.  Other Venezuelans call them gallery forests because the trees grow tall and form a roof, a high ceiling like in a gallery.  Later, I rested from the intense heat in a Pemon house, a wood structure with a tin roof and open sides, while my guide demonstrated how the Pemon make manioc, their staple, from cutting, grating, and draining sap from the root via a long expandable, contractible woven basket, then baking the flour on a circular grill. 

Another afternoon, we picnicked on a hillside with a view of space devoid of people, vehicles, or signs of civilization – just hills and the occasional tree, the grass still brown from the end of the dry season, the sky filling with clouds and readying for the quick cloudbursts so frequent in this region at this time of year.  As we finished our meal my driver spotted a giant anteater.  This animal, to my Norte Americana eyes, is such a strange and weird -looking creature.  When we walked into the plain to get closer and watch it through binoculars as it moved back and forth and in circles, it took some concentration on my part to figure out which was the front and which the back. The tail is wide and bushy and the front is narrow with a pointed nose, but both ends are long.  As the animal searched the ground for ants (of course) and termites, both ends were on the ground, making it difficult to differentiate front and back. 

My favorite site in the Gran Sabana was Kako-Paru, Jasper Creek.  Kako Paru is one solid piece of dark orange rock, 500 yards long and 200 yards deep. I had an idyllic afternoon here, the sun warming the water, a brief rain shower that finished almost as quickly as I found shelter on a comfortable seat on a rock under a tree, followed by more sun. I took many photos of water running in rivulets over the textured rock surface. I hope that I can enlarge one or more to hang on a wall at home and that the enlargements will look like a piece of abstract art.   

My guide told me that the scientific explanation for the unusual color and formation of the rock is due to the mineral composition and a geological event that occurred many many years ago. But I prefer the Pemon explanation -- shamans playing in the forest, mischievously touching trees they were not supposed to touch and playing tricks on the animals who lived there, until the god of the forest got fed up with them and said, “Enough!  I’m making you two into a rock right here in the forest and you’re going to stay put.” 

I loved the waterfalls, the jungle, the indigenous people, and the anteaters, but what struck me most about the Gran Sabana was the spaciousness, the huge, wide-openness when you look out and see unlimited land and space.

 

Katherine Braun Mankin is a labor lawyer for the National Labor Relations Board. She shares her life with another YourLifeIsATrip.com contributor, Don Mankin. In a former life, she was an actor. 

 

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