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Wilds of Venezuela are explorer's sandbox

July 01, 2007|Ian James | Associated Press

CHIMANTA TEPUI, VENEZUELA — Charles Brewer Carias has found sinkholes, collected new species of plants and scorpions and rappelled into unexplored caves on his nearly 200 expeditions into the flat-topped mountains and jungles of Venezuela.

The 68-year-old says his passion makes him a throwback to the explorers who once trekked through South America. His hunting grounds are the sandstone plateaus of Venezuela, known as tepuis, that tower above the rain forests and savannas.

Brewer has spent much of his life learning to spot subtle anomalies in this rugged landscape, which is home to Angel Falls -- the world's tallest waterfall -- and was the setting of Arthur Conan Doyle's famous dinosaur novel, "The Lost World."

"The idea of discovery is to see things that no one has seen before," says Brewer, who calls the tepuis "islands in time," each of them isolated much like the Galapagos Islands, allowing evolution to run its distinct course on every mountaintop.

His knowledge and keen observation have made him the best-known explorer and naturalist in Venezuela.

Flying by helicopter, he gazes down at the tepuis searching for changes in vegetation, rivers disappearing into holes or other clues to determine his next expedition. This time he is headed to the site of one of his grandest discoveries: a quartzite cave in a plateau, which he is exploring with scientists from Slovakia and Croatia.

Five years ago, he spotted a river emerging from the mountainside. He returned with a team and hiked inside to find what experts believe to be the world's biggest quartzite cave. They named it after Brewer.

Nearly 3 miles long, the cave runs along the river through chambers as tall as 130 feet. The explorers pause to examine amphibious crickets, rare scorpions and mineral deposits that grow like coral reefs from the floor.

A total of 22 species -- plants, reptiles, insects and a scorpion -- have been named for Brewer, including a new genus of bromeliad that he found in 1981.

He also led a 1998 scuba expedition to a sunken fleet of 17th century French ships off Venezuela's Islas de Aves.

Some scientists accuse Brewer of excessively seeking credit and attention for discoveries.

But he sees a simple reason for their complaints: "Jealousy, sheer jealousy."

Brewer has long been captivated by Sir Walter Raleigh's writings about his travels in Venezuela more than 400 years ago. And, citing stories related by Raleigh, Brewer is convinced that the city of El Dorado, or the Gilded One, for an Indian chief who covered himself in gold dust, is hidden in Venezuela's jungles.

He hopes to prove it by returning to explore a site in the Amazon where in 1990 he unearthed pottery shards made of clay mixed with gold dust.

Brewer, the grandson of a British diplomat who married a Venezuelan, has pursued a variety of interests, including botany and anthropology. But his father urged him to specialize, so Brewer became a dentist like his dad.

But he soon gravitated to broader interests. In 1961, he went to live with the Yekuana Indians, performing dental anthropological studies and learning their language. He did similar work among the isolated Yanomami Indians.

The author Patrick Tierney criticized Brewer in his book "Darkness in El Dorado," accusing him of clandestine gold mining and saying repeated expeditions involving him, scientists and journalists were harmful to the Yanomami.

Brewer says the charges are false and prompted in part by his complaints that Catholic missionaries have harmed the Indians. He acknowledges trying to get involved in mining elsewhere but says he gave up because he couldn't obtain permits.

Instead, he has focused on other pursuits. He designed his own survival knife, gathered rare plants for collections and published eight books with photographs taken during his forays.

The government used to support his expeditions, but today he struggles to get funding and asks scientists to pay their own way. Brewer sometimes regrets his 1978 decision to give up dentistry and the financial security it brought.

Brewer boasts he can go for long periods without food or water and still swim faster than most men half his age. His enthusiasm is evident as he collects ferns and flowers outside the cave, reciting their Latin names as he presses them into his log book.

"You have to have a childish, inquisitive nature," he says. "I'm discovering new caves, places where people never imagined before. I'm getting answers where no one ever asked questions."

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