In Search Of The Real Lost World: Scaling Mount Roraima
Monday, January 30, 2012
My trek the top of Mount Roraima was an accidental adventure. Serendipitous? Yes. Rewarding? No doubt about it. However, there were times when I would have given anything to be anywhere other than on that mongrel of a mountain in Venezuela.
A table-top mountain or mesa — synonymous with this part of South America — Mount Roraima rises an imposing 9,210 feet above sea level. Though nestled in Venezuela’s southeastern corner, part of the mountain crosses the border into nearby Brazil and Guyana.
Before deciding to make the trek, I found myself one day sitting in an Internet cafe in the small Venezuelan town of Santa Elena de Uairén. I had just come from Brazil whose border lies just 9 miles away. I arrived with very few remaining Brazilian reals and only enough U.S. dollars to get by for a day or two. New country, new currency, no problem — I’ll just go to an ATM and withdraw some Bolívars. Now, while that is entirely feasible, it is not especially wise. Changing money at the black market rate on the street gives you just about double the buying power.
So, scaling a demanding mountain to reach a so-called “lost world” (Mount Roraima is said to have inspired Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World) was not at the forefront of my mind. However, it was the focus of the guy sitting next to me. Enter Katzi, an affable Austrian who asked me whether I would be at all interested in joining him and his girlfriend in climbing Roraima independently. That is, not with a tour company that would hire local porters to shoulder the burden of carrying food, cooking equipment, tents and all other manner of paraphernalia that weighs one’s pack down.
Katzi eagerly explained that by carrying our own gear and hiring a local guide on our own, we would save a considerable amount of money. While I barely had a Bolívar to my name and hadn’t even considered climbing the imposing mountain, the idea of saving money was an appealing one. After looking at some images of the spectacular mountain online I was sold, provided I could sort out my currency (or lack thereof) dilemma. The seed of new adventure was sown.
Before the adventure could start I had to spend a day going back and forth between Venezuela and Brazil, hitching rides with Brazilians filling their tanks with dirt-cheap state-subsidized gas, visiting banks and arousing the suspicion of heavily armed Venezuelan soldiers guarding the border. Finally, though, I had some Venezuelan money in my pocket.
The following day we were ready to begin our quest. At 6 a.m. we took off from Santa Elena for Paraitepui, a small, indigenous village that serves as the main starting point for hikers.
When Katzi and I set off we were joined by his girlfriend Cynthia, and our guide Antonio, a proud father of a son born just the day before. The pack on my back was heavy but it felt good and I tackled the first stretch of the path with optimism and vigor. The only hiccups in the early stages were a few physically harmless falls on the slippery path that left me muddy and a tad miffed.
All in all the first day was successful. The most challenging part of the day came during the second river crossing. While the water was only waist high, the current coupled with the heavy pack upsetting my balance made it a difficult proposition. The surroundings were scenic and lush, expected of a terrain where it rains every day on average. By the end of the day we finally arrived at our camp for the night with the knowledge that the next day would be the true test of our mettle.
We set off early on day two, and after a few hours we arrived at the Roraima base camp where the path changed dramatically. We now found ourselves in the midst of jungle on a narrow, steep and rocky path. As we began to navigate some particularly steep parts of the trail, I started to question what I had gotten myself into and how on earth we were going to be able to come down this same way without breaking our necks or any other important parts of our bodies.
Luckily for us, the weather was clear; rain would have only made the path even more treacherous. As we took a lunch break on the narrow trail, I mention this to Katzi and Cynthia. I spoke too soon. Torrential rain began within the minute and my half-eaten tuna sandwich suddenly turned very soggy.
The next section of the path demanded the ascent of a running creek that flowed down the steep side of the mountain, crossing under sheer-drop waterfalls. Drenched to the bone and with my pack weighed down even more from absorbing the rainwater, the journey suddenly became a true strength of mental and physical fortitude. I told myself to be strong and push myself to make it to the top, while my sense of logic suggested that it would be quite a miracle if I actually did.
I pushed on, focused on conquering this beast of nature. By that time I was on my own; there was no one else nearby to offer advice or support. It was me verus the mountain in the truest sense.
Finally, after several more hours of surviving the crushing rain and pushing the strained muscles in my legs, we arrived at the peak of Roraima in one piece, and the only feeling I had at that moment despite everything was euphoria. The rain continued to fall, so we took shelter under a boulder offering some protection.
Later, we made our way to an existing campsite to pitch our tents and settle into our home for the evening. Thought we wanted nothing else, the incessant rain and thick fog prevented any possibility of ours in exploring the peak in an effort to garner some reward for our hard labor.
Instead, we retired to our tents for some much-needed rest.
The following day the weather still had’t improved, and a thick fog was blanketing the peak. Despite this we set out to explore a little of the moon-like landscape. Antonio, our guide — who didn’t seem particularly interested in guiding during the first couple of days and was indeed largely superfluous to our needs — was suddenly of much value as he guided us to various points of interest on Roraima’s intriguing tabletop.
Narrow canyons, unique endemic flora and fauna such as lizards, birds, frogs and carnivorous plants added to the mysticism of the unique place. However, our exploration was cut short when heavy rain once again reared its ugly head and we were forced to scurry back to the safety of camp.
The highlight of the entire trek came early the next morning. We awoke to completely clear skies and set off shortly after sunrise to la ventana — a famed lookout spot on the mountain — to experience the most spectacular of views across the thickly forested valleys surrounding Roraima. Supreme and sheer beauty surrounded us. We stood perched on the edge of this lost world peering over the edge, admiring the splendidness of the vistas, in awe.
Spellbound and satisfied, we made our way back to camp to pack up and begin the descent. En route, however, Katzi and I couldn’t miss the chance to refresh ourselves in the freezing natural springs on top of the mountain. We hoped it would give us the required vigour to successfully negotiate the descent. Cynthia chose not to join us.
The way down proved to be as challenging as I had thought. I was more than ready to get back to civilization, but just as the ascent is a two-day affair, so is the descent. This time, Antonio, decided to forge ahead of us at a cracking pace in order to get to a camp where he could get a meal.
After the heavy rain of the past couple of days, the more challenging of the river crosses was impassable. We had no choice but to prematurely end the day, camp on the far side of the river and hope and pray that we would be able to cross the next morning.
Luckily, overnight, the river subsided sufficiently to enable our passage. We finished the last day of the trek with still quite a distance to cover. With the heavy rain the path was even slipperier that it was on the previous days, and I found myself spending quite a bit of time on the ground. At one point I burst into hysterics, swearing at the muddy path — the only reaction I could muster to my repeated slides and consequent tumbles.
My ankles began to swell to a point where a stuffed Christmas turkey would look lean in comparison to their plumpness. I began to sing to pass the time and dream of the moment when we arrived back. Finally, after hours of soul-searching and coaxing of my own will, we made it back to where it all started.
A large group of trekkers were already there ahead of us, eating a hot meal provided by their tour company. They looked utterly exhausted, despite not having to carry their food and sleeping equipment. We earned their instant respect when I told them that we had completed the journey unassisted in this way.
A kind German woman who seemed particularly affected approached me and offered me the remainder of her hot meal. I accepted gratefully and leaned back, eating, in bliss.
By Peter W. Davies
About the Author
Peter W. Davies is an Australian writer and teacher currently living in Mexico City. He has traveled extensively and lived in Latin America for the past 2 years. His feet are still itchy (metaphorically) and his writing/typing hand(s) are just warming up.