The topography and ecology of the planalto are unique, known within Brazil as the cerrado, only partly translated by the word “savanna”. Much of it looks startlingly African: red earth, scrubby vegetation, dusty in the dry season, missing only giraffes and zebras for the illusion to be complete. What makes it spectacular is the topography, which begins to break up the high plains into a series of hill ranges, cliffs, mesas, plateaus and moorland almost as soon as you start heading north from Brasília. This irregular landscape is situated between two enormous watersheds, the Paraná to the south and the Amazon to the north, both of which have the headwaters of major tributaries in the planalto. The hills and mountains are riddled with thousands of rivers and streams, forming spectacular waterfalls and swimholes within easy reach of Brasília.
As ecotourism grows, so too do the threats. Good soils and communications, and its proximity to Minas Gerais and São Paulo mean development here is far more intense than in the Amazon. The ranchers who spearheaded the early wave of settlement of the planalto are still there, but giving way to large-scale commercial agriculture, especially soybeans. This has underlain the development of the two largest cities in Goiás, Goiânia, the state capital, and Anápolis, and as it becomes one of the world‘s breadbaskets much of the planalto now looks like the US Midwest when you fly over it or drive through, with endless geometric fields and irrigation canals stretching to the horizon. Over sixty percent of the native vegetation has been converted to farmland or pasture, compared to fifteen percent of the Amazon, and the unique flora and fauna of the cerrado – the giant anteater and armadillo, the maned wolf, the glorious wildflowers that speckle the area with colour in the rainy season – are all increasingly endangered. If things continue at the present rate, within a generation the only islands of true cerrado left will be the national parks.