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Jan 04, 1999
Mount Roraima: Journey to the Lost World - Adventure Travel

After the half day bus ride through the Brazilian jungle on a long pile of rocks that some hard-butted engineer called a "road," after passing through five interminably thorough military checkpoints, after a spine-crushing Landrover  ride through rough savannah and raging streams, and after a two-day hike through a series of steep hills and rivers which were forded by nosing your worldly goods in an inflated plastic bag through chest-high water , Martin, the diminutive Pemón Indian guide whom I had hired in the thatched village fifteen miles behind me told me that, no, he would not take me up Mount Roraima unless I doubled the fee we'd already agreed upon.


He did not speak much Spanish, which was fine, as neither did I--a good thing as a universally understood concept like "bugger off" is best left expressed in its vaguest form. Nevertheless, he received my response with a resentful stare. Intrigued, he decided to stick around anyway to see if I really had the balls to spend a night alone on the summit.


 I was kind of relieved he didn't leave me there at the base of the mountain. Then suddenly I realized that the prospect of spending a few days in this isolated spot with this larcenous Pemón and my money belt gave me something other than the dinosaurs to worry about.


Yes, dinosaurs. 

Located in one of the last spots on Earth to get mapped, Mount Roraima is a Manhattan-sized butte sticking a third of a mile above the pampas along the Brazilian/Venezuelan border. Its sheer cliffs have formed a virtually impregnable barrier to the outside world, resulting in evolution having been arrested by a few million years on its perpetually cloud-enshrouded summit.

These flat-topped peaks, called tepuys, are unique to the area known as La Gran Sabana in southern Venezuela.  Roraima, whose enormous summit plateau was considered unreachable until the Victorian age, has intrigued explorers since Sir Walter Raleigh. Around the turn of the century Sir Arthur Conan Doyle witnessed a lecture on Roraima sponsored by the Royal Geographic Society and was so fascinated by the evolutionary possibilities of  this isolated mountain plateau that he made it the setting for his science fiction novel, The Lost World.


 In this novel, the "Jurassic Park" of its time, the fictional Roraima became the last refuge of prehistoric creatures, including dinosaurs. The heroes of the tale manage to climb to Roraima's plateau only to be harassed by pterodactyls, tyrannosauruses, ape-men and other thought-to-be-extinct unpleasantries.  Ever since that book, Roraima's summit has been intertwined with dinosaur legends.


 Up until now, the most prominent prehistoric creature discovered on Roraima was a form of black frog that had been thought to be extinct for millions of years.  But the isolation of the area and the knowledge that the mysteries of the summit have never been thoroughly explored left a lot of room for the imagination. 


 My ruminations were aided by the clouds that seemed permanently attached to the mountain's massive summit plateau and enshrouded any creatures that may have been hiding from the 20th Century up there.  In fact, so much cloudwater gathers on the summit that several waterfalls streak Roraima's sheer cliff face.


 Martin and I hunkered down for the night amidst the verdant brush that clung to the base of Roraima's walls, which in the darkening light seemed to tower into oblivion. We were truly on the edge of another world. The local flies, the plaga, which looked like small English houseflies but whose bites developed into impressive Transylvanian welts, commenced their dinners just as I was commencing mine. The plaga had the better end of the deal, as I was reduced to eating porridge.


 The Venezuelan border town, Santa Elena, where I had hoped to purchase provisions for the trip, did not have any shops open when I was passing through, so a local woman had kindly sold me a bag of oats.  I had eaten nothing but porridge and candy bars since then. On our first day's hike to the mountain, camping in a scenic spot on the Tek River which flowed off the tepuys, Martin had helped himself to my porridge pot, made a face, and disappeared into the tall bushes of the savannah. A while later, he returned chewing on flatbread he had baked out of the manioc flour he carried around in a plastic bag. He never offered me any, and given his current sullen state, he sure as hell wasn't going to offer me any in the near future.

So I guess Martin and I weren't going to have any great "Last of the Mohicans"- type bonding experience, which was alright with me, as the isolation provided the right atmosphere to absorb the starkly beautiful savannah landscape and the eerie mountain which brooded over us like a haunted citadel of fantastic proportions.

Nevertheless, the next day, Martin silently walked ahead of me on the steep path that traversed up the mountain wall. When the path narrowed so that we looked straight down a gut-wrenching drop, he even offered to carry my knapsack, but I suspected that this was so nothing in it would break when he threw me off the precipice.


 To our left, a neighboring tepuy, Mt. Kukenau, rose into sight. Kukenam's compactness gave it the appearance of a giant tree stump shooting abruptly out of the Savannah.  No one had set foot on its summit plateau until 1963, and its biological features are still largely unknown. If there were any prehistoric creatures in this area larger than a frog, I hoped that they were over there.

Half way up the mountain our traverse went through one of the icy waterfalls that fell from the summit.  The water had evaporated so much by the time it met the path that we avoided getting drenched.  After a few more exhausting switchback the plains below disappeared in a layer of mist.  I began to shiver in my tropical weight cotton garments and shed the Indiana Jones gear in favor of fleece and nylon.


Although it was a four hour climb from the plains to the summit, the geological and psychological distance seemed to be a few million years.  Instead of the expected view over the summit, a craggy moonscape awaited us on the top. My view was blocked in every direction by monolithic boulders. Their damp surfaces were devoid of any vegetation, as if sunlight never reached this part of the world. It was all a bit like Croydon in the summer.

The ever-present mist kept my senses on a three-alarm alert. As the pale light faded with the dusk, the rock formations appeared in my peripheral vision as crazy, dancing silhouettes.  Of course, every silhouette was the EXACT IMAGE of a dinosaur, each one with jagged flesh-devouring teeth. Had Martin demanded that his salary be doubled there and then for sticking with me, I would have assented without hesitation. Happily, Martin seemed more intent on finding our way to a decent campsite.


Walking along the plateau was like being in a house of mirrors where you couldn't go more than ten feet in any one direction without smacking into an obstacle. I followed closely behind Martin as he expertly sashayed the narrow corridors between the rocks. Within a minute I had totally lost all sense of direction, and would have been hopeless were I to try and find my way back to the summit traverse. After twenty minutes of seemingly aimless twisting we came upon a patch of sand beneath a large rock overhang. This place was to be our summit camp. 


It was freezing up here, so I hastily erected the tent and stoked up the stove for yet another glob of porridge while Martin quietly munched his flatbread. We didn't say a word to each other, which allowed me to concentrate on the other-worldly noises of the wind whistling hard through the boulders.

As darkness fell, the mist cleared enough for stars to appear in the sky.


At least I didn't have to worry about Martin cutting my throat up here as he duly rolled up in a burlap sack in the tent and fell to sleep. I, in the meantime, tossed around fitfully in my snug sleeping bag, waiting for some giant creature to emerge from the subterranean shadows between the rocks and turn us into hors d'oeuvres. At one point, a distinct roar in the distance had me sitting bolt upright in my sleeping bag.  It was probably just the wind, but as I fell asleep I contemplated whether I could outrun Martin if we were chased by a giant reptile.


 


The mist had returned in the early morning.  Scouting around the camp I noticed that there were indeed a few lumps of prickly plants that grew in this inhospitable environment.  They seemed to have defied evolutions as I had never seen anything like them before. The Grand Sabana's tepuis contain over 1000 species of plants that don't exist anywhere else in the world, which, to my porridge-addled mind was no great loss as I didn't see anything that could conceivably be used in a salad.  Too bad the plants couldn't say the same thing, but the fact was that several of them could have used me as a salad. One of Roraima's more notorious carnivorous plants, the  utricularia quelchii, is adept at sucking the interior out of animals that get stuck in its roots (hmmm, maybe that's what happened to the dinosaurs).. 


Apart from the plants, I never saw another living organism up there, not even the famed black frog (come to think of it, those utricularia quelchii looked kind of large).

Martin and I spent most of the day gingerly stepping around a million rock obstacles in order to tour the summit plateau.

At one point, we entered a virtual forest of majestic boulders which were evenly spaced almost as if they were deliberately constructed by some ancient temple-building civilization. Martin told me that this place was called "El Labryinthe" which left me wondering what the hell they called the rest of the plateau.


Further along we entered a large wet depression known as the "Valley of Crystals" where trickles of quartz sparkled eerily in the gray light like diamond-paved roads to the underworld.  This would definitely be the place to have a heavy metal concert.


A few miles beyond that we were greeted by the incongruous sight of a concrete three-sided obelisk sticking out of the rock like a tombstone.  The obelisk marked the national border between Brazil, Venezuela, and Guyana, as well as the mountain's watershed into all three countries. While Martin was taking a boulder loo break I did my obligatory head-in-one-country-while-legs and-arms-in-two-other-countries contortion.


Once that festive moment was over, we set our course back to civilization.  Descending from the stark black and white landscape into the green plains below was like emerging from a sensory deprivation tank, where colors and light seemed far more brilliant than earlier. By nightfall, we were back in our scenic camp beside the Tek River, Roraima looming slightly less mysteriously over us.


THINKING OF GOING?


VENEZUELA

Venezuela (population 22 million) is one of the most stable democracies in South America, though economic downturns and political corruption have resulted in civil unrest in recent years, particularly in urban areas.


Oil-rich Venezuela is one of the founding members of OPEC and has one of the highest per capita incomes in South America. Thanks largely to the cheap oil supply, internal flights and bus tickets are inexpensive.

La Gran Sabana is located in the southwest corner of Venezuela and Mt. Roraima stands on the intersection of the borders between Venezuela, Guyana and Brazil.


Visas are required of British and American visitors arriving overland to Venezuela. Otherwise, airlines will automatically provide mandatory tourist cards.

CASH

Venezuela has strict foreign exchange controls and visitors should keep all receipts for currency exchanges while in the country. It is advisable to exchange money in the larger cities, as it is far more difficult to exchange money in rural areas. Mastercard and Visa are widely accepted, even by most travel agents in Santa Elena.

WHAT TO BRING:


Waterproof hiking boots, sneakers, light clothing for hiking in the heat, rain gear, warm clothes for the summit, bathing suit, waterproof tent and sleeping bag, sun protection, lots of insect repellent, water bottle (though fresh water sources are plentiful, water purification solutions are recommended), stove, waterproof bags for fording rivers with gear.


A FEW FACTS


The name Roraima means "mother of all waters" in the local dialect.

Roraima whose rocks are around 600 million years old, is one of the most ancient rock formations on the Earth's surface.


Mt. Roraima, at 9,216 feet, is the tallest point in Venezuela. It was considered unclimbable until 1884 when two explorers sent by the Royal Geographic Society managed to get to the summit via the same route used by trekkers today.


Venezuela's  tepuys were first described in Europe by Sir Walter Raleigh who in his 1596 treatise "The Dicoverie of the Large Rich and Bewtiful Empyre of Guiana" describes an inaccessible flat-topped "crystal mountain" with a large waterfall cascading from its summit.

Roraima is in the same region as Angel Falls, which, with a 3,212 feet plunge, is the world's tallest waterfall.  The falls are so remote that they were not "discovered" until 1934 when an American pilot named Angel crash-landed on top of them. Trips to the falls are easily arranged in Santa Elena and Ciudad Bolívar.


 HOW TO GET THERE


Flight from London to Caracas. Take cheap internal flights on Aeropostale to Ciudad Bolívar, from where nine daily buses depart for Santa Elena (12 hours, around £ 8).  


You can also take a daily light plane on Rutaca Air from Ciudad Bolívar to Santa Elena (One and a half hours, £ 50 per person each way).

The picturesque frontier town of Santa Elena, which seems to have stepped right out of a Clint Eastwood Western, forms the usual starting point for trips to Roraima. Located in southern Venezuela a rifle shot from the Brazilian border, this town is a hub for tourists, miners, indians, and soldiers patrolling the frontier.  


Alternatively, Santa Elena can be reached from the South via bus from Boa Vista, Brazil, though overland tourists will need a visa.

From Santa Elena, there are several outfitters who can drive you overland via four wheel drive to Paraitepuy, a Pemón village from where you  can hire a guide and/or porters for the subsequent three day trek to Roraima's summit (jeep with driver are usually  £30-50 per day ).  Be sure to arrange with outfitter when he should return to pick you up from Paraitepuy.  There are usually many groups who head to Roraima from Santa Elena in the dry season and it's usually not a problem to hook up with one of the Venezuelan outfitters who are heading out there. 


Guides and jeeps can also be arranged in San Francisco de Yuruaní, a speck of a town on the main highway 60 km north of Santa Elena.  Buses to and from Ciudad Bolívar stop here.  


WHERE TO STAY

Santa Elena has many decent budget hotels, though they can sometimes get a bit crowded.  Recommended digs:

Posada Del Meson, clean bungalows for £8 /day. 


Hotel Frontera, £12/day. Comfortable lodgings. A lot of expeditions stay here on their way to the tepuys. Good restaurant. 


Hotel Luz, £8/day.  Another central location for expeditions, largely due to the fact that one of the big outfitters, Tayukasen Tours, is located here.

San Francisco de Yuruaní has two simple hostels which cost around £2 /day


ITINERARY

The usual schedule to Roraima from Paraitepuy is like this:

Day 1: Easy four hour walk to Tek and Kukenan rivers which offer good campsites with excellent views of Roraima.


Day 2: Six hour trek across sloping savanna to tree-lined campsites at the foot of Roraima's sheer 2,000 foot face.

Day 3: Strenuous four hour diagonal hike up face of Roraima straight underneath waterfall.


Day 4: Camp on summit--usually at the "Hotel Roraima" ledge which offer shelter in often heavy rain and mist.

Day 5-6: Explore summit and descend.

Last day: return to Santa Elena.


If you are feeling rushed, this trip can also be done in 4-5 days, though make sure you have agreed on the time schedule beforehand with your guide and porters.

GUIDES


Given that the Venezuelan National Guard and the Pemón tribe jealously guard their jurisdiction of this border area, hiring a local guide is practically mandatory.  A guide is indispensable for finding fords in the rivers after rainfall and for exploring the giant rock maze that comprises the summit plateau.


It is advisable to negotiate price, itinerary, and items such as whether your guide will be eating from your provisions or his own, and whether they will also serve as porters. . Guides generally cost £ 15 - 20 at Paraitepuy, and slightly more if you hire them from Santa Elena or San Francisco de Yuruaní. Although Tauripen is the local dialect, most guides speak some Spanish and a few speak English.

   
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