Page last updated at 11:11 GMT, Friday, 9 October 2009 12:11 UK

Conan Doyle's Lost World gets connected

Angel Falls
The Lost World told of a landscape inhabited by dinosaurs and pterodactyls

By Will Grant
BBC News, Venezuela

The rugged, untouched landscape of Venezuela's border region with Brazil inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's book The Lost World, and is now a national park, but the outside world is gradually creeping in.

"Curupuri is the spirit of the woods, something terrible, something malevolent, something to be avoided. None can describe its shape or nature, but it is a word of terror along the Amazon."

In the book, Professor George Challenger alarms intrepid reporter Edward Malone with those words.

The two men planned to visit the region together, but in fact Arthur Conan Doyle's Lost World contained much more to fear than the place it is actually based on: what is now Canaima national park in Venezuela.

Nevertheless, Canaima is still the source of inspiration for adventure and fantasy writers.

It recently caught the imagination of the bright sparks at Pixar Animation in Hollywood, the people behind the Toy Story and Finding Nemo films. Their recent movie Up features the same table top mountains or "tepuis" which inspired the creator of Sherlock Holmes a century earlier.

Angel Falls

But today the "lost world" is not so lost.

Sapo Falls

The mountains we can see around us are as they were 250 million years ago
Gabriel, tour guide

True, it takes a trip in a tiny and rather rickety plane to get there.

And yes, to reach the ultimate destination of Angel Falls - the tallest waterfall in the world - you may need to make a five-hour journey in a boat whittled out of a single tree trunk. However, now there are signs of the creeping intrusion of modernity into the jungle.

Our guide to Angel Falls is called Gabriel. Of course he is, what else could he be called?

Gabriel is a young Venezuelan with uncommonly blue eyes and mousy blonde hair for a Latin American.

Driving to the simple jetty where the boat is moored, he tells us about the village of Canaima on the shores of the Canaima Lagoon.

"Most people here are indigenous Pemon Indians," he tells us over the rattle of the motor. "There are about 600 people in total, but the village is gradually growing and most of the newcomers are mixed race, like me."

And with them are coming changes.

Modern technology

As the silent Pemon boatman takes us to the camp in front of the awesome Sapo Falls - another of the dramatic waterfalls here - he whips out his mobile phone and, with one hand, deftly sends a text to say he is on his way.

A man in a Borussia Dortmund football top ambles over, tweeting something on his Blackberry

All over the village, the indigenous inhabitants are clutching their mobiles - jungle drums replaced by agile thumbs.

Our camp is a simple affair - a few hammocks slung underneath a thatched roof and a long table in the centre for communal meals. But there are other, more luxurious, resting places.

Early one morning, I head over to the impressive Campamento Canaima for an overpriced black coffee and an iced orange juice.

It is the off-season but all around me are European voices, expensive-looking sandals and designer sunglasses. A man in a Borussia Dortmund football top ambles over, tweeting something on his Blackberry.

The view from the hotel restaurant is majestic. Three of the region's finest waterfalls can been seen from its panoramic balcony.

The restaurant also has a thatched roof, a nod to the adobe-and-palm huts which once graced this now prime real estate.

Yellow-breasted tropical birds flit in and out of the open windows. At least they do not seem to have changed much since Conan Doyle's times.

Internet cafe

Today, though, workmen are putting the final touches to the village's first bank, which is designed in the style of an Indian hut but with a red cash machine sticking out of the side.

Map of Venezuela

Further along, I cannot resist the idea of nipping into the new internet cafe to check the football scores and send myself an email from the Lost World.

And yet, Canaima is still in many ways unspoilt. Angel Falls itself cannot fail to impress. A thousand metres of water falling into a vast spray which soaks us, watching from the rocks opposite.

"This is the oldest place on Earth," Gabriel claims, explaining how the region was once a lake when South America and Africa were still the same land mass.

"These rock formations are four and a half billion years old," he says, "and even the mountains we can see around us are as they were 250 million years ago."

No doubt he has said these lines to thousands of visitors over the years, but the wonder still creeps into his voice when he says them to me.

Lost beliefs

Gabriel has observed the changes in the Pemon community close up.

His wife is half-Pemon and half-Mestizo (she has both Spanish and Indian-American ancestry) and her grandparents lived very different lives.

"They couldn't look directly at the tepuis," he says, "because that's where the evil spirits were held" (the notorious "curupuri" described by the Lost World's Professor Challenger).

"They could only see the tepuis in the reflections of the water," continued Gabriel, "and they'd have to look down when they paddled past in their boats.

"But now," he says with a shrug, "the Pemons look straight at them. Those beliefs have been lost."

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