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An Orchid Trek in Venezuela's Gran Sabana

Part 1

Text and photos © Nina Rach

Edited 20 Oct 2005
Published in the Winter 2001 issue of "SWROGA News"

The Gran Sabana of southeastern Venezuela is a very beautiful, remote plateau at the edge of civilization. It's covered by extensive, rolling grass savannas from which arise the famous table mountains, locally branded "tepuis," the most famous of which are Roraima ("The Lost World" of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle), and Auyantepui (site of Angel Falls, the tallest waterfall in the world, plummeting 3212 ft). There are tropical forests skirting the base of many of the tepuis, and throughout the Sabana are riverine forests and "morichales," seasonally flooded stands of sedges and native moriche palms (Mauritia flexuosa) which provide oil, sugar, and shade. It was dubbed "The Tree of Life" by Alexander von Humboldt, one of the first European travelers to this area. The climate of the Gran Sabana is mild and very agreeable, partly due to the altitude of 2200-2500' (700-800m), and the continual fresh, buoyant winds. In short, a very promising orchid habitat.

Venezuela Map
The Gran Sabana occupies about half of Canaima National Park, which was established in 1962. In 1975, Canaima was tripled in size to 30,000 km2, making it the largest national park in the world (slightly larger than Maryland and about the size of Belgium). In 1994, Canaima National Park became a World Heritage Site, in recognition of the extraordinary scenery, geology, and biology. How could we resist the urge to visit such a place?

At the beginning of October, immediately following the 37th Miranda State Orchid Society (SOEM) show in Caracas, seven intrepid Venezuelan orchid enthusiasts climbed into SUV's and made the day-long drive between Caracas and Puerto Ordaz, a bustling manufacturing city strategically located along the Orinoco River, in eastern Venezuela. The other five of us boarded an Aeropostal jet for a slightly easier trip, via Margarita Island. We crossed the Orinoco in the final part of our descent into Puerto Ordaz, just after cruising through dramatic sunset thunderstorms. Watching the sun set on one side of the Orinoco and the moon rise on the other, was memorable! The heavily-laden cars and their drivers and copilots (Dr. Jorge Morales, Dr. Pedro & Miriam Barreto, Silivo Piccinato, Eugenio Uzcategui, and Giancarlo & Flora Marchioretto) were waiting for us at the airport. Jana Morales, who had chaperoned our Aeropostal group, was reunited with husband Jorge. Rounding out the group were Renate Schmidt (AOS judge from FL), Greg Allikas (AOS Photographer & Webmaster from FL), and my husband Marc Bik and me from Houston. We continued on in the dark to the large town of Upata, where we stayed the night at the spacious Hotel Andrea after dining on "bifsteak" at La Fontana D'Orazio.

After consuming small cups of cafe marron and pastries, we drove off in the light morning drizzle toward the Gran Sabana. Along the way, we drove through chaparral - extensive areas of oil palms ("palo de aceite") and scrubby trees ("chapparros") under 15 feet tall, with occasional patches of taller forest. This area is host to Schomburgkia crispa Lindley, Catasetum macrocarpum L.C. Richard ex Kunth, and various epidendrums. Yuca/cassava (cassave) is a staple food, and we stopped to buy roadside goods baked in mahoghany-fired ovens (cassava pie, choriato), naiboa, dulce de coco, and fresh cheese around the town of Guasipati.

A little further along, in a town called Tumeremo we admired a large tree heavily laden with very big clumps of schomburgkias, and then filled the SUV tanks for a relatively "pricey" 80 Bolivares (Bs.)/liter (equivalent $0.40/gal). We continued on to the rugged little frontier gold town of El Callao (near "El Dorado"). Surface miners ("Garinpeiros") bring their finds here to sell, and there are a multitude of tiny stores selling heavy 18k jewelry as well as the native nuggets. Like most towns throughout Venezulea, it has a town square called "Plaza Bolivar." No orchids here, though.

Sobralia candida on tree; photo by Nina Rach We began the ascent up the plateau at KM marker 88 just out of San Isidro (last available fuel), the traditional start of the Gran Sabana ("Grand Savannah"). The winding road is called "La Escalera" (the staircase,") and it passes through lush, moist forest, laden with epiphytes and roadside terrestrials and frequent small waterfalls. I would have liked to walk the entire distance. This road is the only paved road in the Gran Sabana, and it runs roughly north-south, paralleling the Guyana border.

Near the top of La Escalera, we stopped at the Piedra de la Virgin ("virgin rock" at Km 98.5, which withstood all efforts to blast it out of the way), and in addition to the statute of the Virgin surrounded by offerings from other wayfarers, we saw scaphyglottis, epidendrums, encyclias,and other epiphytes. We were told that phragmipediums and sobralias were also plentiful here, but we did not linger long. However, we finally took a lengthy tailgate lunch stop at some small cascades before KM 114, and were treated to a venerable cornucopia of orchids - even big patches of phragmipedium growing on leaf and moss-covered rock benches under light tree cover. We saw Sobralia candida (Poeppig & Endlicher) Rchb.f. (epiphytic, in shade - photo at left), Scaphyglottis violacea Lindley, Elleanthus graminifolius (Barbosa Rodrigues) Løjtnant, encyclias, epidendrums, and brassias with spikes a meter tall. We were approaching nirvana.

About a mile up the road we came to a small, cliffy area of bright white sandstone and sandy soil. We were first attracted to the clumps of Epidendrum ibaguense Humboldt, Bonpland & Kunth blooming in various shades of pink on 0.5m (18-in) inflorescenses. There were robust plants of Eriopsis biloba Lindley and a sobralia species with wide, leathery leaves growing terrestrially in the lichen-covered sandy substrate (photo below, right). Around KM 120, just before Salto de Danto, we saw beautiful clumps of Epidendrum secundum Jacquin along the roadside, growing amidst tall ferns, with branched inflorescenses of dark-lavender, closely bunched flowers.


Eriopsis biloba photo by Nina Rach We reached the first National Guard station on the plateau at KM 123. These stations are found on every major road throughout Venezuela, and every vehicle is expected to stop, announce their travel plans to the guards, and perhaps sign a large ledger. All vehicles are also subject to search. It was a great relief to have our Venezuelan hosts chat with the Guardsmen; it would be a daunting task to attempt this in rudimentary Spanish.

Just beyond the guard station, an epiphany awaited us. We had our first glimpse of the vast blooming fields of white Sobralia liliastrum Lindley, amidst sandy, rocky grassland. The plants grew 1-1.5 m (3-5-ft) tall, topped with large white flowers with golden streaks on the lip. Heaven for any sobralia lover (like me!). Growing in with the sobralias were blooming plants of Epidendrum carpophorum Barbosa Rodrigues, which grows upright to about two feet tall, with large flowers reminiscent of Epi. nocturnum Jacquin. There were aslo clumps of the dark purple Epi. ibaguense HBK. We could see the outline of Etari tepui on the right (to the west). It was all quite a sight. Our main reference throughout the trip was the three volume "Orchids of Venezuela" illustrated field guide, originally published by Dunsterville and Garay in 1979. We were using the newly published second edition (2000), with minor edits by Romero and Carnevali.

We crossed the Aponguao River (which we would visit further upstream later on in the week), and had another reconaissance stop at the intersection of the road to Kavanayen, before Km 154. Here we saw many different colors of Epi. ibaguense HBK, along with cyrtopodiums and Catasetum discolor (Lindley) Lindley. By 5:00 p.m., we reached our destination for the evening, at Rapidos de Kamoiran, KM 171. With a little more than an hour before the daylight disappeared, we explored the savannah on the west side of the road and found beautiful, tall inflorescenses of orange Eriopsis biloba Lindley, Epi. secundum Jacquin, and white/green Encyclia carpophorum B.Rodr.

It cools quickly at night on the plateau. Waking up our first morning in the Gran Sabana was very pleasant indeed. We saw a great amount of dew on the savannah plants, and identified Koellensteinia kellneriana Rchb.f., with pale yellow flowers, and gazed rapturously at a very great number of clumps of lavender/magenta Sobralia stenophylla Lindley among the rocks in the river. Our first stop down the road was precipitated by the appearance of the brightly-colored, full flowers of Epistephium hernandii Garay. They were dark lavender with a white blotch in the center of the lip and a white hairy callus. This species was first described in AOS Bull. 30:498 in 1961. At the same location we also found eriopsis, epidendrums, sobralias and catasetums blooming.

At Km 197, we saw our first native cattleyas - the lavender C. jenmanii Rolfe. This is known as "Jenman's Cattleya" and it is only found here and in neighboring Guyana. The native Pemón Indians are the only people permitted to collect indigenous plants in the national park, and one can see baskets or pots of cattleyas and other orchids hanging around homesteads in almost every one of the widely scattered villages. At this particular village, they also sold carvings made from a very attractive local striped siltstone, jewelry carved from local red jasper, as well as jars of local piquant sauces, made from either termites, ants, or mixed ("mixta"). I suspected that the USDA would not approve of me importing those particular items, so I didn't bring any back.

We proceeded on to Kama-meru Falls at Km 201, a beautiful curtain falls, 55m high. Here we saw more white Sobralia liliastrum Lindley, white, pink and purple epidendrums, catasetums, and Eriopsis biloba Lindley. As we headed south, we saw vast rolling plains of grassland, frequently punctuated by the "morichales," and dramatic flat-topped tepuis in the distance. We stopped again at dusk when we spotted Catasetum longifolium Lindley and Vanilla palmarum Lindley growing upon moriche palms, before continuing into the town of Santa Elena. We settled into a lovely ecotourist camp called "Ya-koo" and enjoyed the twinkling lights of the Santa Elena Valley.

(To be continued...)

Lost World cover In the meantime, you can follow up and read the following:

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1912) The Lost World. [reprinted many times since!]

Any book or article by G.C.K. and/or Elinor Dunsterville, or works by Dunsterville & Leslie A. Garay:
Orchid Hunting in the Lost World (and Elsewhere in Venezuela), by G.C.K. & E. Dunsterville
Venezuelan Orchids Illustrated, by Dunsterville & Garay, 6 volumes, hardcover.
Orchids of Venezuela, An Illustrated Field Guide, by Dunsterville & Garay, 3 softcover volumes in slipcase.

Flora by MOBOT Flora of the Venezuelan Guayana, edited by Julian A. Steyermark, Paul E. Berry, Kay Yatskievych, and Bruce K. Holst. St. Louis: Missouri Botanical Garden, MOBOT Press.

Volume 1. INTRODUCTION (1995). 320 pp. of text, plus 44 pp. of color plates, 10 black-and-white photos, and 51 line drawings (includes vegetation map and topographical map.
Volume 7. MYRTACEAE-PLUMBAGINACEAE (Jan. 2003). 1338 species treated. 646 line drawings.

U. George (1989) "Venezuela's Islands in Time," in: National Geographic Magazine, May 1989, pp. 526-561.

William LaVarre (1935) Gold, Diamonds & Orchids: Explorer in Guianan Jungles. New York: Revell.

Go on to Part Two of the Gran Sabana Trek

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