Venezuela, 1989

Personally I think he had the wrong approach to the romance of the Amazon jungle, this bearded stranger.

I was guiding him and some others on a day-long boat trip along the Carrao, an Orinoco tributary, sometimes 200 metres across. There’s no point in going to the Angel Falls really: it’s a four-day hike there and back to the highest waterfall in the world and anyway in this season, November, its practically dry.

So we went along the river looking at the undergrowth, the height of the trees, the parrots and toucans, and the remarkable cliffs of the Auyuntepuy. They say that’s where Conan-Doyle set the ‘Lost World’ because this mesa was one of earliest landmasses to appear above receding oceans and thus hosts unique plant types.

And I told them my usual stock of stories: the mesa called White-Hair after the medicine man who found his herbs there; and why that hill was called the Deer, after the Indian who had tracked a white deer to it, followed it up a narrow path and found herds of deer which kept his tribe fed for years. And we stopped for a bathe at the pools where I told them why the local tribes used to stop here during their wedding ceremonies.

The highlight of the tour is always the visit to Laime. No-one knows where he is from or why he came but he has been here prospecting and hunting for decades. He was the leader of the national geographic expedition in 1949 to measure the height of the Falls which Jimmy Angel reported after his plane crashed up there. The tourists are talked at by Laime for a while, sipping a warm Polar beer. Then this bearded one asks Laime a question which makes me turn slowly and wait in dread for the answer: ‘What did the Indian tribes do when you and other prospectors first arrived here?’  

Laime has come to believe his answer, and certainly the tribes avoided the Auyuntepuy itself, out of superstition. But it isn’t a true answer. So will the bearded stranger look at me strangely and leave Venezuela just believing the last thing he heard from a local? Laime answers him: ‘There were no indigenous tribes in this area’.