Christopher Ely goes in search of the table mountains of Venezuela - and the tallest waterfall on earth
RISING sheer-sided from the dark sea of rainforest in front of me rise at least a dozen table mountains. This is dawn at Kavanayen, a remote Indian village in south-eastern Venezuela.

Delicate wisps of cloud float above the forest. Far away a bell-bird calls, like a hammer on a distant anvil. The table mountains - tepuis in the local language - are all around us. The first light strikes the top of the highest, Ptari-tepuy, and its rim begins to glitter a pinkish amber. The tops of lower tepuis are then lit up: Sororopan (the whisper of waterfalls), Aparaman (house of the evil spirits), and Tukuy-woki-yen- tepuy (the flower where the hummingbird sucks the nectar). In the distance, the light strikes the massive walls of Auyan-tepuy, where Angel Falls, the tallest waterfall in the world, drops half a mile into a forest canyon.

This is the land of the Pemon people. Their villages are thinly scattered across the vast open miles of high grasslands behind Kavanayen. To other Venezuelans this is La Gran Sabana, or "El Mundo Perdido" - the Lost World. It is now protected as one of the largest national parks in the world.

The sun rises higher and I return to the village's Capuchin mission where we are staying. This substantial stone building is a bit of an incongruity: its size and sharp angles are at odds with the traditional Pemon churuatas, or round thatched homes. Last night, we joined the evening rosario in the chapel, chanted by two dark-fringed Pemon girls, before slipping away to a village family where the lady of the house cooks for occasional travellers: casava bread, and a delicious fresh grilled fish spiced with an optional hot sauce (the zip in the sauce comes not from chillies but from whole ants. The crunchiness of their thoraxes is distracting).

Later that morning we drive along a dirt track that eventually gives on to a ribbon of metalled road connecting Venezuela and Brazil - almost the only real road in the Lost World. A light plane flies over; we catch up with it at a landing strip by the side of the road. The pilot is helping a smartly-dressed lady from the plane, who turns out to be the capitan for her community.

Local politics is discussed, but this is not parish pump stuff. Here the issues are big: healthcare and education for Pemon tribal communities, better economic opportunities while preserving cultural strength, and the environmental problems of gold mining and logging in the rainforest.

The road has come down through the impressive lowland rainforests of El Dorado, and up a steep escarpment that leads out on to the high plateau of the Gran Sabana. There are places on the escarpment where that unique bird the Cock-of-the-Rock dances. Groups of males, ridiculously bright orange all over, congregate in a small arena as females arrive and take up position in the surrounding trees, like theatre-goers before curtain- up. The dancers bristle their plumage and flap their wings, twist and twirl, scratch the ground and leap in the air. At the end, each male stands stock still, his crest pointing to his intended bride. If she is willing, they will then fly off to happiness.

On its way south, the road passes within sight of Mount Roraima, the tallest of the tepuis, its stately forbidding walls guarding a massive summit. This is the real "Lost World" - the story of its first ascent inspired Conan Doyle to write his adventure story of that name. His heroes climbed the summit for the first time and discovered a land where evolution had stood still and where dinosaurs still thrived. In this weird, primeval landscape, the story seems eminently plausible.

There is still only one route up Roraima's mile-high sheer walls, a weaving path that winds through forests where orchids grow, among ancient tree ferns, around rocks and under waterfalls, until it emerges at the entrance to the summit, far above the plains below. Some of the oldest geological formations on Earth, the rocks of Roraima's summit have been eroded into weird shapes, phantasms that haunt this storm-swept place. There are labyrinths that the Pemon will not visit for fear of unsettling the Gods, valleys carpeted with layers of pure white quartz crystals, sink holes, underground rivers and caves where oilbirds live. Gleaming pools of water in the rock are fringed with bright insectivorous plants.

Close to Roraima is Jaspe Falls, where a shallow river runs over beds of solid jasper, its reds, oranges and yellows glowing brightly in the sun. A morphos butterfly, deep metallic blue, eight inches across, flies haltingly across the tumbling water as we arrive.

The Gran Sabana is peppered with gold, silver and precious stones. There are hills said to be composed entirely of diamond-bearing rock, just as forecast by Sir Walter Raleigh before his second expedition to these parts.

Jasper is used by the Pemon to make graters for yucca: sharp chips of the stone embedded in a resin-coated board. These are highly prized and traded with other groups: boats are bartered from neighbouring Yekuana communities; one boat for two graters. For the first time we meet some tourists, a young Brazilian threesome who have stopped for a break on their way up from the border; in two minutes they are exchanging the heat of the drive for the cool waters below the falls.

The landscapes here are so impressive. Gentle grasslands, quilted with stands of elegant moriche palms, criss-crossed with rocky rivers and tumbling waterfalls. The quiet power of the table mountains, brooding over the land. Massive skies, with puffy white clouds repeating into an infinite distance of deep blue sky.

We stop near the Brazilian border, at Santa Elena de Uairen. It is a lively little border town, with a scattering of small hotels and a tiny airport. Our flight out is in a Dakota, built in about 1940 but now fitted with panoramic windows. As it throbs and climbs into the sky we see why: the views are stupendous. Thousands of square kilometres of forest, scattered with table mountains, large and small, as far as the eye can see.

We land at Canaima, the tourist camp near Angel Falls, and take a light aircraft to see the falls themselves. The plane climbs rapidly and passes over the top of Auyan-tepuy. Suddenly the ground drops away, and there is Angel Falls itself, tumbling down a sheer wall of pinkish sandstone, glistening with quartz, then disappearing into a cloud of spray at the canyon floor a kilometre below. The pilot flies us around, passing close to the water, circling and buzzing the falls again and again.

The beauty of the falls and the thrill of the flight are intoxicating. Eventually the pilot signals to us and we agree to fly on. He skims low along a river, round the walls of the tepuy, and returns us to Canaima. We have had an utterly dazzling experience.

Delicate wisps of cloud float above the forest. Far away a bell-bird calls, like a hammer on a distant anvil. The table mountains - tepuis in the local language - are all around us. The first light strikes the top of the highest, Ptari-tepuy, and its rim begins to glitter a pinkish amber. The tops of lower tepuis are then lit up: Sororopan (the whisper of waterfalls), Aparaman (house of the evil spirits), and Tukuy-woki-yen- tepuy (the flower where the hummingbird sucks the nectar). In the distance, the light strikes the massive walls of Auyan-tepuy, where Angel Falls, the tallest waterfall in the world, drops half a mile into a forest canyon.

This is the land of the Pemon people. Their villages are thinly scattered across the vast open miles of high grasslands behind Kavanayen. To other Venezuelans this is La Gran Sabana, or "El Mundo Perdido" - the Lost World. It is now protected as one of the largest national parks in the world.

The sun rises higher and I return to the village's Capuchin mission where we are staying. This substantial stone building is a bit of an incongruity: its size and sharp angles are at odds with the traditional Pemon churuatas, or round thatched homes. Last night, we joined the evening rosario in the chapel, chanted by two dark-fringed Pemon girls, before slipping away to a village family where the lady of the house cooks for occasional travellers: casava bread, and a delicious fresh grilled fish spiced with an optional hot sauce (the zip in the sauce comes not from chillies but from whole ants. The crunchiness of their thoraxes is distracting).

Later that morning we drive along a dirt track that eventually gives on to a ribbon of metalled road connecting Venezuela and Brazil - almost the only real road in the Lost World. A light plane flies over; we catch up with it at a landing strip by the side of the road. The pilot is helping a smartly-dressed lady from the plane, who turns out to be the capitan for her community.

Local politics is discussed, but this is not parish pump stuff. Here the issues are big: healthcare and education for Pemon tribal communities, better economic opportunities while preserving cultural strength, and the environmental problems of gold mining and logging in the rainforest.

The road has come down through the impressive lowland rainforests of El Dorado, and up a steep escarpment that leads out on to the high plateau of the Gran Sabana. There are places on the escarpment where that unique bird the Cock-of-the-Rock dances. Groups of males, ridiculously bright orange all over, congregate in a small arena as females arrive and take up position in the surrounding trees, like theatre-goers before curtain- up. The dancers bristle their plumage and flap their wings, twist and twirl, scratch the ground and leap in the air. At the end, each male stands stock still, his crest pointing to his intended bride. If she is willing, they will then fly off to happiness.

On its way south, the road passes within sight of Mount Roraima, the tallest of the tepuis, its stately forbidding walls guarding a massive summit. This is the real "Lost World" - the story of its first ascent inspired Conan Doyle to write his adventure story of that name. His heroes climbed the summit for the first time and discovered a land where evolution had stood still and where dinosaurs still thrived. In this weird, primeval landscape, the story seems eminently plausible.

There is still only one route up Roraima's mile-high sheer walls, a weaving path that winds through forests where orchids grow, among ancient tree ferns, around rocks and under waterfalls, until it emerges at the entrance to the summit, far above the plains below. Some of the oldest geological formations on Earth, the rocks of Roraima's summit have been eroded into weird shapes, phantasms that haunt this storm-swept place. There are labyrinths that the Pemon will not visit for fear of unsettling the Gods, valleys carpeted with layers of pure white quartz crystals, sink holes, underground rivers and caves where oilbirds live. Gleaming pools of water in the rock are fringed with bright insectivorous plants.

Close to Roraima is Jaspe Falls, where a shallow river runs over beds of solid jasper, its reds, oranges and yellows glowing brightly in the sun. A morphos butterfly, deep metallic blue, eight inches across, flies haltingly across the tumbling water as we arrive.

The Gran Sabana is peppered with gold, silver and precious stones. There are hills said to be composed entirely of diamond-bearing rock, just as forecast by Sir Walter Raleigh before his second expedition to these parts.

Jasper is used by the Pemon to make graters for yucca: sharp chips of the stone embedded in a resin-coated board. These are highly prized and traded with other groups: boats are bartered from neighbouring Yekuana communities; one boat for two graters. For the first time we meet some tourists, a young Brazilian threesome who have stopped for a break on their way up from the border; in two minutes they are exchanging the heat of the drive for the cool waters below the falls.

The landscapes here are so impressive. Gentle grasslands, quilted with stands of elegant moriche palms, criss-crossed with rocky rivers and tumbling waterfalls. The quiet power of the table mountains, brooding over the land. Massive skies, with puffy white clouds repeating into an infinite distance of deep blue sky.

We stop near the Brazilian border, at Santa Elena de Uairen. It is a lively little border town, with a scattering of small hotels and a tiny airport. Our flight out is in a Dakota, built in about 1940 but now fitted with panoramic windows. As it throbs and climbs into the sky we see why: the views are stupendous. Thousands of square kilometres of forest, scattered with table mountains, large and small, as far as the eye can see.

We land at Canaima, the tourist camp near Angel Falls, and take a light aircraft to see the falls themselves. The plane climbs rapidly and passes over the top of Auyan-tepuy. Suddenly the ground drops away, and there is Angel Falls itself, tumbling down a sheer wall of pinkish sandstone, glistening with quartz, then disappearing into a cloud of spray at the canyon floor a kilometre below. The pilot flies us around, passing close to the water, circling and buzzing the falls again and again.

The beauty of the falls and the thrill of the flight are intoxicating. Eventually the pilot signals to us and we agree to fly on. He skims low along a river, round the walls of the tepuy, and returns us to Canaima. We have had an utterly dazzling experience.

venezuela fact file

When to go

Venezuela's Gran Sabana has two seasons: a drier season (Nov-April) when rain is unusual, and a wetter season (May-Oct). Both are comfortable for travelling. The Gran Sabana's waterfalls are at their most spectacular during the wetter season, and river journeys to the foot of the Angel Falls are only possible at this time. Treks and general touring are possible all year round, but the drier season is usually preferred.

How to get there

Iberia (tel: 0171-830 0011) flies four times a week from the UK to Caracas, with an easy change in Madrid. The airline has a special offer of fares at pounds 418.40 including taxes for return flights departing between 5 April and 3 May. A one-hour internal flight with the domestic airline Avensa then takes you to one of several possible gateways to the Gran Sabana: Canaima, Puerto Ordaz, Ciudad Bolivar and Santa Elena de Uairen. Avensa has a UK office: for reservations tel: 0171-244 6855, and general enquiries tel: 0181-563 9779.

Who goes there

Geodyssey, London (tel: 0171-281 7788, Internet: www.geodyssey.co.uk) is a Venezuela specialist. It offers tailor-made tours through the Gran Sabana by comfortable 4WD vehicle, small group treks to the summit of Mount Roraima, river journeys to the foot of Angel Falls, and jungle and river expeditions across the heart of the Gran Sabana. Hayes & Jarvis (tel: 0181-748 5050) features a seven-day Los Roques and Lost World itinerary in their Latin America brochure.

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