PLAINS, MANES AND AUTOMOBILES

Some paragraphs extracted from the Traveler's Venezuela Companion The Globe Pequot Press. Reproduced with permission.

Mummy and baby capybara "chiguire"A land of infinite skies.

Unbending plains that stretch the imagination, where mirages massage horizons with their heat-haze fingers, and clusters of cumulus clouds, their puffy shapes echoed by the military green of the gallery forests below, carpet the sky above the flat lands.

A family of comic, rectangular-muzzled capybaras lounges near the road, occasionally sloping into a nearby stream to cool off. Flocks of egrets, ibis and heron swoop over the waters, eyeing their prey. Furtive, buff-coloured deer spring away from the road. On sandy banks, next to muddied turtles, spectacled caymans slouch, mouths agape, teeth glinting "all the better to eat you with, my dear".

So these are Los Llanos, The Plains.

Llanero cowboys, "indomitable and long-suffering" and tough as old boots, herd thousands of head of cattle from pasture to market. Like the cowboys of Stage Coach or the gauchos of Argentina, they have assumed mythical proportions, central to the country's identity and historical heritage. Often barefooted, they break wild horses, and sing laments to comfort their lonely souls. Four-string ukulele-like instruments (cuatros), maracas and small harps accompany their cris-de-coeur. The tunes of the llanero have become Venezuela's national music, while the song, Alma Llanera, is the country's unofficial national anthem - and a lot prettier.

Don Ramon, with his flattened-feature face always about to burst into a smile for his 39 grandchildren, manoeuvres through the hyacinth-choked waterways. A caracara hawk screeches alarm as kingfishers dive-bomb the boat. Cormorants fumble ineptly into the air as the craft approaches. Piranhas happy snap at meat bait dangled from fishing rods. Get your fingers sliced in 24 seconds.

The sun beats an unrelenting rhythm on the landscape's pistachio skin. Hundreds of horses and herds of cattle graze for mile upon mile. Above, flocks of storks and heron arrow their way across the blue and white skies. From its lookout in the bough of a tree, a maguire stork stands to attention over its nest, its long white neck an iridescent arc in the searing light.

STAGECOACH
Accommodation at Hato El Cedral

Carlito, the diminutive black-wellied waiter of the Hato Cedral (Cedral Ranch), attempts to assert his manhood in this land of cowboys, steaks and hats by the gallon. I reckon, when he goes to town, he lies about his job description. Hanging out in the kitchen with the women is hardly the stuff of Stagecoach.

Storms brew ever-more menacing shades of grey in the distance. The rains have come at last. As clouds mass, the breeze picks up and the bird calls become more urgent. After a few curtain-raiser drops, the main act begins. The frogs have been waiting months for this moment. They chirp and burble their joy in a giant amphibian fanfare. When the rains finally stop, it sounds like the land's beating heart has been brought to life.

On the map, the blue lines form a giant spaghetti funnel, thickening as they flow east from the Andean peaks. At the funnel's mouth, the mighty Orinoco.

Roseate Spoonbills take flightThe Plains are a land of two seasons. In the dry months from November, water holes wither away to puddles, stranding fish which flip-flap helplessly. Rivers are shrink-wrapped by the incessant heat, while mighty anacondas die dusty deaths in mud coffins. Dust clouds swirl in the winds, sculpting dunes twenty feet high. Animals throng the few remaining water sources, until, finally, in May, the rains begin at last. By July, swathes of savannah are transformed into marsh and lake, flooding huge expanses. Droves of breeding birds of every description congregate to fish in the fertile waters.

After lunch, a cowboy sits under the shade of a tree, his chair lent back against the trunk, his starched-white hat tilted down over his tan brown brow. He's reading People magazine.

The ranch banned hunting years ago. Slowly but surely the wildlife came back. There are now over twenty thousand capybaras, the largest -- and possibly most endearing -- rodent of all, and a few Orinoco crocodiles survive of the seven million exterminated earlier this century. Water courses are damned and sluiced, to maintain the thirty thousand head of cattle that keep the farm going, and roads criss-cross the countyside with Roman rigidity. In other parts of the Plains, capybaras are hard to spot. Here they're so docile they almost get run over. They're tasty too. Capyburgers, yum.

We landed in the eye of a torrential rainstorm. I couldn't see a runway, only pasture. I spotted some people herding capybaras to one side. Then I understood. Landing gave a whole new meaning to grass stains...

 

 

 

This tour can be booked through Alpi Tour, one of Venezuela’s foremost, and most experienced tour operators and travel agents. Contact tel +58 212 283-1433 fax (0212) 285-6067, in the USA (520) 447-7959 email: alpitour@viptel.com web: www.alpi-group.com . Bob Sonderman puts together first-class flying safaris to the wilds of Venezuela.

 

 
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