The pump sucked water from a pit and shot it into a wall of packed red earth with enough force to send the wall tumbling upon itself.
Clumps of the fallen mud hurtled through a hose, cascaded across scraps of a filtering material and finally spit, into the withered hands of a lean man, bits of gold.
Noon-sun baked soil and skin. This man, and all the other people in this crush of picks and pumps and lean-tos, had scrambled to this jungle outpost to stake a claim in El Dorado's newest gold rush. The miners labored in the thick forest, but also at the edge of another world, of cool and solitude, a sprawling divide between one South America and another.
Just down the road from the open-pit mine, green-leaf sweat gives way to towering savanna. It runs southward a hundred miles, then descends into Brazil, where lowland savanna finally yields to yet more jungle _ the Amazon.
This ancient ground has long nurtured natives, enchanted explorers, taunted colonizers and defined the boundaries of Venezuela, Guyana and Brazil. It is an intersection of remote terrain and the will to live within it.
South America may seem a conquered continent. Yet deep within, newcomers and natives continue to stake modern claims, for ore and for souls, for power over people and over land.
To hear of such a place is one thing. What would come from following serendipity and instinct, journeying across the divide and into these lives?
+ + +
It appeared in the black buzz of a Monday night in the tired village of Las Claritas. Shadowy forms, some plump and plodding, most lanky and loose, milled outside roadside shops and bars. The next morning, pickup trucks shuttled men, women and children west along a rocky road to the gold mine that they all, remembering the day one high mud wall fell too rapidly, call Los Cuatro Muertos, the Four Dead.
The mine was conceived as a vast operation, digging deep to tap one of the world's largest gold deposits. It is controlled _ as is so much in South America _ by foreign interests. Crystallex International Corp., a Canadian company, in 2002 obtained long-disputed rights to the Las Cristinas mine, as it is officially known. Crystallex hoped to harvest a half-million ounces of gold a year, beginning in 2006.
But in southern Venezuela, more than a century of mining has left behind holes of poverty. So as Crystallex lawyers battled and engineers plotted, independent miners came, picks and pans in hand, to clamor at the gates.
President Hugo Chavez, a champion to many in Venezuela's poorer classes, did not stop them.
An estimated 4,000 swarmed at the chance.
Inside the mine's open gate, three laughing miners, arm-in-arm and singing boldly, sauntered past guards, two of whom loosely held sawed-off shotguns. A woman sold soft drinks and lemon cake from a makeshift shop. A mother, father, and their children, ages 17, 13, 12, and 6, clustered near a wide pit and shared bowls of chicken smothered in a rich sauce.
Fifty feet below, Alejandro Ortunez stood waist deep in water and rolled small wads of mercury through silt because the liquid metal can capture flecks of gold.
At 29 and already a 17-year mining veteran, Ortunez works 24-hour shifts for the owner of the pump. Ortunez would earn perhaps $75 a week _ enough, he said, "for family, for beer, for dropping some panties."
An ancient land
Back on Route 10, a trucker with square shoulders and a round face promised that his steel flatbed rig, with its powerful engine, could handle the climb out of jungle and into the divide.
The truck swayed through the last, dense squeeze of the forest and growled up a series of switchbacks, slowing at a rock face in which many claim to see the image of the Virgin Mary.
The switchbacks climbed more than 2,000 feet in elevation, and then, suddenly and only 30 miles from Las Claritas, Venezuela's Grand Savanna opened beneath a chill wind.
As it runs east to Guyana, south to Brazil, west toward the Pacific, the highland canvas is cut by forested valleys, is spiked in red cliffs, and is splashed with torrents of water. But here at the savanna's northern edge, meadows of green and brown crested from low ridge to low ridge.
Dozens of parrots, rounded heads tucked hard against the breeze, flew west, toward rain.
The savanna is set atop a geological foundation known as the Guyana Shield, born more than 2-billion years ago. During hundreds of millions of years, layers of rugged red sandstone eroded, shaping the region's massive table mountains.
Only 900 years ago _ or was it 9,000? The experts debate still _ the indigenous Pemon people began roaming the savanna as nomads. Only in recent centuries did outsiders, including Capuchin monks, follow, boating up the Rio Caroni.
Today, much of the savanna has been tamed _ by Route 10's two paved lanes, a string of power lines loping toward Brazil, and a modest military base _ and contained within the bounds of Canaima National Park. The park draws tourists in search of table mountains and Angel Falls, the highest in the world.
But the savanna is home to a relative few, the descendants of the Pemon who had wandered so long.
Past the military base, a rutted road ran west, toward Kavanayen, a town of stone houses and settled souls. The flatbed truck bucked. After more than an hour, flashes of lightning captured the outline of a high, long tepui, as the table mountains are called. At arm's length, clouds of fireflies sparked. I left the trucker at Kavanayen.
It was there that I heard a quiet voice from the gathering darkness say, "When I was in Las Claritas, a spirit showed itself to me. It was good . . . because it didn't do anything bad. It was like the wind. It came, moving tree branches, then left. Only once."
It was twilight the next evening and Gregorio Espana, the boy who had been speaking, sat with six friends at the edge of a dusty walkway. For 45 minutes they had sprinted and shouted across the village square, chasing a soccer ball that struck, occasionally and accidentally, the high, steel cross at the center of Kavanayen.
Their conversation would quickly accelerate toward banter about the Cartoon Network, Univision, MTV, and the other channels that arrive through the satellite dishes rising above the corrugated metal rooftops of the village. But the conversation had begun darkly, as Gregorio, a steady 14-year-old with short-cropped hair, laced his leather shoes.
"Sometimes an evil spirit shows up among us, just like one of us, and then he disappears," Gregorio said. "And that spirit makes you sick."
That morning, as with every morning, this farming village, anchored by a stone mission, church and schoolhouse, awoke to the toll of a bell and the slow stroll across the square to Mass, where hymns were accompanied by acoustic guitar.
An hour later, children wearing white, collared shirts stood in tidy rows before the school and lifted their voices in song:
Here in the savanna,
Here we the Indians,
With our feet on the soil,
And our face to the sun . . .
Beyond the village, a deep valley brimmed with white fog. Buzzards soared on columns of air. To the west, profiles of several tepui brightened with the rising sun.
Such rhythms, especially in the cold clarity of morning, beat on as if Kavanayen had sprung from the savanna itself. But it was only about a century ago that Capuchins, contracted by leaders of the young Republic of Venezuela to contain and "civilize" native peoples, built the mission on a desolate bluff.
The monks solidified their stake in later years, with the school, a grid of streets and, most recently, dozens of homes made of heavy stone blocks.
Some traditional homes remain, and in one low, earthy dwelling, an evening fire roared and an old woman tended a pot of boiling yucca. Nearby, the soccer boys continued their sidewalk conversation.
"What do they make in the United States?" one boy asked.
"Bombs," said another, rolling onto his side with laughter.
Two of the boys, Gregorio, and Danlly Lopez, 13, did most of the talking. Danlly kneeled in the back of the group, his silhouette a study in straight-backed confidence. Danlly said he hoped to become a soldier. Gregorio said he would like to be a lawyer, or a farmer.
All seven boys confirmed their attendance at weekly Mass.
If the boys' souls were the gold the Capuchins sought, they had been claimed. Almost.
As night fell fast, Gregorio turned again to the savanna, describing the boys' forays into its solitude. They always travel in groups.
"If we go alone," Gregorio said, "the spirits will get us."
Diamonds in the rough
Father Eleazar Meyor drove the mission's pickup truck into the next day's shrouded dawn. He kept a punishing pace along the dirt track from Kavanayen back to Route 10, then turned south to Santa Elena de Uairen, a border city that now, with its Internet cafe, serves as base camp for Grand Savanna tourists.
Before reaching Santa Elena, Meyor pulled off the highway at the crest of a hill. A rocky, red gully descended toward stands of palm trees. Single stumps, relics of gradual harvesting, were scattered at the edges.
Far to the east, a series of tepui trailed south toward Mount Roraima, a tabletop so vast it has its own ecosystem and marks the triple border point between Venezuela, Guyana and Brazil.
A string of power lines sliced the landscape stretching toward Mount Roraima. The lines, fiercely opposed by native communities, were designed to deliver cheaper energy from Venezuela's hydroelectric dams to Roraima, the Brazilian state isolated from the rest of its country by Amazon forest.
Venezuelan leaders hoped such cooperation with the continent's largest nation would, among other things, ease their own country's entry into Mercosur, a South American trade alliance. It did not.
Even the creep of simpler technology _ such as the paving of the highway's two lanes across Roraima and on to Manaus, a teeming city of 1.5-million people _ has done little to bridge the distance between modern nations.
After one border station, where Brazilian guards checked yellow fever vaccination cards, then another, where guards stacked confiscated cans of bootleg gasoline, the highway twisted and fell from the highlands through forested foothills into Brazil, where the road is known as BR-174.
More savanna opened, this time thirsty and pancake flat. Cattle grazed. Spikes of hardwood trees framed pastures. The two lanes split the horizon, a shimmering asphalt river running into Roraima and, eventually, its capital, Boa Vista.
Late on a Saturday afternoon, near the center of spoked streets that angle toward the banks of the Rio Branco, all was quiet outside a colonial home that had leafy courtyards and a sign, on the front, that read, "Brasil Family Big House."
Inside, downstairs, walls of a private gallery were hung with, among other items, four works by the painter Augusto Cardoso. One, in riots of bright color, portrayed a parrot and a fish fleeing a fire; another depicted nude native women lying in hammocks.
Near the paintings stood a collection of goblets carved from purple heart wood and baskets woven by members of the Yanomami tribe, whose lands lay west of Boa Vista.
Amazonas Brasil, the owner of the house, idled in the gallery, seeming at once impressed and bored with his collection, culled from the people and land of Roraima, a diamond-shaped state covered by savanna in the north and rain forest in the south.
"What's interesting to me is to have a cultural expression of Roraima," Brasil said. "If I like it, I'll buy it."
Brasil's ancestors, too, had a penchant for acquisition. One grandfather colonized the territory, helping to clear it of most indigenous tribes; the other founded Boa Vista, which became the territory's capital in 1943.
The native people are not all gone. Some have integrated into Boa Vista, which has surged in past decades to more than 200,000 residents. Others live on heavily regulated enclaves that cover nearly half the state.
The Macuxi and several other tribes are still struggling with judges and political leaders to remove ranchers and farmers from their traditional lands along the border with Guyana.
Amid such battles, a man like Amazonas Brasil, a retired state finance official with a soft belly and fine, white beard, would hardly seem vulnerable.
But as Brasil settled on a corner couch, he recast the scene.
"There is a problem," he said. "There are three big areas in the world without people: Antarctica, the bottom of the oceans and the Amazon. But the Amazon is the richest of all. It has a marvelous biodiversity, all the minerals in the world, and a lot of drinking water."
Brasil shared his theory:
Powerful foreign interests want to lock up Roraima's deposits of gold and tin ore, copper and diamonds. Private cartels, he believes, secretly finance groups helping native tribes regain land and rights.
The United States and other governments, Brasil said, pressure the Brazilian government to give land to the tribes. Then Roraima's riches, sitting unmolested by native stewards, will be ripe for exploitation in years to come.
"It is like a trick," Brasil said. "The land I own is my land. The land an Indian owns is owned by the federal government. In the future, these lands will be in the international interest."
Roraima's tribal leaders and their allies dismiss talk of international conspiracy. Such theories, they say, are just scare tactics used to keep them from regaining a share of the land.
But as Brasil made his case, he did not raise his voice, or shake a fist. He slowly walked from the couch to his corner desk, where he drew two documents from a file. He held out one, a transparency charting mineral locations throughout Roraima. Then he held out the second, a map marking the boundaries of land protected for the tribes.
He laid the transparency across the map. The tribal borders enclosed nearly perfectly the pockets of Roraima's mineral wealth.
Deep into the Amazon
South of Boa Vista, BR-174's flat run across the savanna collided with the green wall of the northern reaches of the Amazon rain forest.
At the river port town of Caracarai, the highway rose above the Rio Branco and cut toward Manaus, the Amazon capital roughly 500 miles south.
The Rio Branco, already wide and strong, angled on its own course into the jungle, where, after 350 miles, its waters would merge with the Rio Negro, and later the Rio Amazonas.
Minutes before a Monday midnight, I rode a long, flat boat that motored from Caracarai into the river's current. Six hours downstream, the sun rose through a muggy prism. A second boat, a small junk, puttered faithfully, shuttling locals between the few meager villages perched on the Rio Branco's banks.
As the boat pushed deeper into the Amazon, the savanna lingered, its expanse having offered relief, at least, from the crush of the jungle.
The next morning, the boat turned upstream on one tributary of the Rio Branco, then another. There, at a gentle bend in the Rio Amajau, it anchored in Canauini, a young settlement cut from the forest, where howler monkeys greet the break of day.
Beyond the dusty riverside flats of the village, past stands of brush and down a narrow footpath, ash caked a jagged swath of earth 50 yards wide, 300 long. Coals smoldered and flames leapt from the center of a tree fallen upon the ground.
Back by the riverbank, women gathered beneath a canopy and squeezed ground manioc to rid the root of its poison. In a neighboring hut with slatted walls and filtered light, a mother of 12 fought the pain of an infected bowel; three of her children lingered in malaria's dull embrace.
Canauini's first settlers had arrived four years before from a village deeper in the jungle, along a small river that ebbs to rock bottom during dry season. Twenty-one families, all related, had since joined them. Tethered canoes floated beside a bank of stumps and scrub, and a church, Assembly of God, rose behind stilted huts.
Beyond the church, near the scorched plot, a farmer's shack held a scattering of tools: a hoe, a hammer, a post-hole digger, and a broom. Scallions grew in pots on a table. Mango, papaya, sweet peppers and passion fruit rose from nearby soil.
A man approached, his sloped shoulders covered in a worn Parmalat soccer jersey, No. 9.
The man, Luis Nazario Pereira, moved easily, comfortable on the land. Pereira said he had spent many of his 30 years in Manaus, earning a living from the seething sawmills. Then he married, and, after his wife gave birth to their first child, they came here to stake a claim.
He had cleared the land simply: cut the small trees, then the big. Waited 60 days, then burnt it all. Cut the big ruins into pieces, then burnt it again.
Five years before, drought and runaway slash fires combined to burn millions of acres of savanna and rain forest in Roraima. Posters had since been hung in schoolrooms to warn of fire danger, in hopes that children, at least, would teach their parents not to burn fields.
Pereira fingered the leaves of a plant that would grow pineapples in six months, and a palm, which would bear fruit in six years. A second man, old and slight, arrived. He carried an empty white sack and offered a wide, gummy smile.
Pereira followed this man, Basilio Almeida, his father-in-law, across the charred field and into the high stand of forest. A flock of birds chattered above. A nut fell to the leaf-covered floor.
The men climbed aboard two wooden canoes and paddled beneath low branches into a still creek. It opened onto a cove, a backwater of the Rio Amajau.
Almeida stopped to check a net and withdrew one silver fish, the size of a hand. Then the two men angled their canoes onto the river, tracing a circular route back to Canauini. A stingray, caught on a trap line, floated on the surface, alive but barely.
Almeida, at 70 a father of 21 children, crouched tight, his paddle knifing into the graying flow. He sought someone to watch over his people, someone to guard this homestead carved from the tangle of jungle.
"Luis is my son-in-law. But I see him as a son," Almeida said. "He is a little short, but he works hard. He has two kids, but they are never sick, because he provides for them."
An hour later, after night had fallen, Almeida donned pressed trousers, a plaid shirt, and loafers and walked alone toward the Assembly of God church.
The huts of the village huddled in weak light. In one home, a child wailed as a hand rose and fell and, to the cadence of a shouting adult, delivered blows.
Almeida stepped into the one-room chapel, where ceiling fans turned beneath a tin roof and unshuttered windows invited the croaks and calls of night.
A crowd of more than 20, some women, most children, took seats on hard pews. A girl in a polka-dot dress drifted to sleep and, guided by the gentle arms of an adult, slumped to the concrete floor.
Arao, a timid 11-year-old boy, rose to lead a song.
Almeida reached into the air and joined others in their shout: "Glory to God!"
The preacher, a stocky man with a tightly-knotted tie, took to the pulpit and talked of fish and fruit and the richness of the earth. God, the preacher said, was a good farmer.
"Glory to God!"
The preacher criticized outsiders, those who lectured against slash-burning, who dared to tell these people how to live in this place. He promised that Armageddon was on its way, that one day all this land would burn.
"Glory to God!"
If you go
The overland journey began in the central city of Ciudad Bolivar, Venezuela, on the banks of the Rio Orinoco, after a flight from Caracas. It ended, after crossing the savanna, in the Amazon capital of Manaus, Brazil, with a return flight to Caracas.
Because the goal while crossing the divide was to connect with people, the journey often followed main traffic routes: Route 10 into Brazil, then the Rio Branco. Some traveling was by public bus, but most was on quickly arranged private vehicles, either car, truck, or riverboat.
How to get started: The transportation infrastructure in both southern Venezuela and northern Brazil is basic but reliable. Bus routes connect Ciudad Bolivar by Route 10 to Santa Elena de Uairin and on to Boa Vista and Manaus. The journey can be made in a few days, but count on at least a couple of weeks if you are interested in exploring cities, or savanna and jungle terrain.
Obviously, navigating bus schedules and hotels is easier with some knowledge of Spanish and Portuguese, or at least a phrase book.
The Venezuelan government issues a 90-day tourist card for holders of U.S. passports on arrival in the country. It is necessary to get a visa for entry to Brazil before leaving the United States. For exact requirements and general information for both countries, visit www.travel.state.gov.
State Department safety warnings also can be found at the site. Venezuela's Grand Savanna and Roraima, in Brazil, are stable regions. During our two weeks of travel, we felt no cause for unease, and we saw no crime. Locals reported that visitors seldom have problems. Still, always exercise caution and keep a low profile when in remote areas.
This trip can work with little planning or lots.
Lonely Planet (www.lonelyplanet.com) and Rough Guides (www.roughguides.com) publish comprehensive guides to South America, and to Venezuela and Brazil.
Several Internet sites offer forum discussions and links to plumb the potential of trips. Two worth looking at:
www.samexplo.org (Membership is required for access to most information.)
AN EASIER WAY: The world's highest waterfall, towering table mountains, big, colorful fish . . . the region has plenty of natural wonders and the tourist infrastructure for those looking to visit them.
In Venezuela's Grand Savanna, Angel Falls, the highest single-drop falls in the world, could be the highlight of a backcountry adventure. Or consider a strenuous trek to the top of Mount Roraima, the mountain that inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's novel The Lost World.
New Frontiers Adventures, which offers many fully supported trips into the region, is tucked in a small office in Santa Elena de Uairin. Visit the company online at www.newfrontiersadventures.com or call 011-58-289-995-1584.
For a thorough introduction to birding near the Grand Savanna and in other parts of Venezuela, visit www.venezuelavoyage.com/birdvenezuela.