Mount Roraima is the highest of the tepui plateaus in South America reaching 2,810m. Surrounded on all sides by sheer 400m cliffs, it is virtually inaccessible by foot except for a narrow path to get on top of the lower cliffs from where you can make an ascent to the top through a deep clefts. These tepuis inspired Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous book ‘The Lost World’ about the discovery of present day living dinosaurs – who knew what we may find!
We had been travelling up from Brazil, across the border and into Venezuela reaching Santa Ulrien. To prepare for our hike to Roraima, we had collected some food (mostly rice and some bits to liven it up) and any information we could on the best route. Along the way, we had met two fellow travellers – Rick and Emma – from the US and Essex respectively but who lived in St Vincent and had spent the last few months travelling around South America. They said they would be interested in joining us and we were happy for the company!
We negotiated a ride in the back of pick-up truck for 15,000Bs (about $15) from Santa Elena to the tiny India village of San Francisco (now known as Kumarakapay). We found a tour agency called ‘Roraima Tours’ and they agreed to provide us with a guide (we would not be allowed in the park without one), a tent and a stove. Their jeep (which would take us to the park gate 30km away) was broken and wouldn’t be fixed until tomorrow – so we found a room for the night which cost us $2 each but at least it had a bathroom.
After a pretty good beef-steak dinner and chatting with Rick and Emma about their own travels (they were a mine of information about good places to go / places to avoid), we started packing our bags for the morning. We were able to leave a few bits with the tour agency but I didn’t quite trust them enough to leave our valuables – so along with our trekking gear, the food (~2-3kg each) and other essentials, our rucksacks became pretty heavy. We wiled away the rest of the evening with a few trivia games before gradually falling asleep.
20th September 1999: Roraima Trek Day 1 (Day 61 overall)
At 7am we woke up and quickly showered in the freezing bathroom. As we were at quite high altitude already, it got quite cold at nights and we were shivering when we awoke. We had met our guide Benedico the day before and he was sitting outside in the jeep ready to go. He didn’t say much at all but seemed sort of quietly friendly.
The jeep was really battered and a few minutes after we set off on the the dirt track to Paraitepuy, it was clear why! Benedico drove fast over every bumps and gully and in the back we were performing a chaotic dance along with our rucksacks. It was a clear day and the views of Roraima were great. With its dark high cliffs raising up from the much lower grassy hills around it, it looked more and more ominous as it appeared through the early morning mist.
The journey took about an hour including two river crossings where some water even came into the back of the keep. Luckily our rucksacks were perched on a spare tyre towards the front so avoided getting soaked. The village of Paraitepuy was very basic with just a few huts made from sticks and mud. We stopped on the other side of the village where we had to register with the park warden and show him what food we were taking (presumably to ensure we would return with all our rubbish). Afterwards, we donned our packs and set off.
Roraima still looked long way off and we had to cover 22km to base camp where we would spend the first night. At first, the path was up and down across the many hills, through small forests and over streams. After an hour or so, it began to smooth our into a more or less flat walk over open grasslands straight towards Roraima. The sun was hot so I sweated considerably and drank copiously. Just before lunch time, we had two rivers to cross. We took off our boots and socks and waded through with the water only reaching our bums. It was a very pretty river but many wretched biting flies made it uncomfortable to stay around too long. Not too far away, we could see the river came down from a very high waterfall which fell from the top of the partner tepui to Roraima (‘Eastern Tepui’). It is apparently Venezuela’s second highest waterfall at ~600m and one of the highest in the world. However, at this time of year, there as not much water so it didn’t look very spectacular.
After a quick stop for lunch which was some simple crackers and a biscuit, we pressed on. The weather became more overcast and it occasionally rained but never seemed to last more than about half an hour. The path left the grasslands and became more arduous as it started to slope upwards which was tiring and not helped by the lack of food. It became boggy underfoot and we had to rest more and more thinking we could not go much further but each time – we got up and carried on.
After 9 hours of slogging we finally reached base camp and found the only place of flat sandy ground we could find not too far from the river. Benedico had arrived well before us, erected his tent, eaten his food and already gone to bed which pissed us off somewhat – but then we thought we might as well do the same! We cooked up some rice with a few vegetables and it tasted fabulous after the long journey. We were all so hungry and it disappeared very quickly. I managed to drop the lid off our large water container into the stream and it floated away into the darkness before I can grab it which was very annoying. After the rice, we made some hot chocolate to round off the day before retiring to get some well earned rest.
It was a not a great night! Mark, Jono and I slept in our bivvy bags which we had to zip up completely to keep the mosquitoes out. Their loud whine was so loud on the outside as there was so many and it became quite hot in the bag. Then it started to rain. The noise of the rain on the bag was even louder but what bothered me more was that the rain as getting into the bivvy. Before half an hour was up, I was lying in a pool of water in a soggy sleeping bag freezing my nads off.
I was shivering violently and decided that I couldn’t stay here any longer if I wasn’t to die of hypothermia. During a pause from the rain, I took the chance to climb into Rick and Emma’s tent wearing only my boxer shorts and clutching my wet sleeping bag and thermo fleece I had been using as a pillow. Inside, I found Rick and Emma were also a little wet because the floor of their tent was leaking along with Jono – whose bivvy (previously unused) had also been leaking. They welcomed me in although it was a bit of a squash and I warned them that I’d seen Mark outside also having the same problem with his bivvy and he would be joining us too!
We laughed about it and Jon kindly went and got his dry sleeping back (as he hadn’t been using his in the bivvy) and gave it to me as I still couldn’t stop shaking from the cold. Mark came in as predicted 5 minutes later completely drenched and we arranged ourselves to spend the night – 5 of us in a 2 man tent! It seemed rather strange that we’d only known Rick and Emma a couple of days and yet now we were all sleeping on top of each other! I was crouched in a foetal position and beginning to warm up again. The night pressed on slowly and I awoke many times in bouts of violent shivering but somehow managed to get some sleep. What a day!
21st September 1999: Roraima Trek Day 2 (Day 62 overall)
As we cooked porridge and laughed about the night, we actually felt lucky that it had stopped raining and our stuff was slowly drying on the rocks nearby. Our bags were covered in mud and we had now realised what we didn’t know in the dark the previous night. Base camp was a patch of wide flat sand because it was part of a river bed which of course fills up when it rains. Last night, we had actually been camping in a river.
We also observed that our guide Benedico had pitched his tent on a small patch which had a trench dug around it! It was obvious in hindsight but we still got annoyed that he hadn’t bothered to mention any of this. He was sitting on a rock a little way away and was obviously itching to be making a move. But we were stiff, tired and wet so just stayed put to finish breakfast. The porridge was restorative and were began to feel a little better. We wanted to let the clothes and sleeping bags dry as long as possible but at 10:30 we decided it was time to finally set off again.
Ahead of us we knew was the four hour ascent of the lower slopes of Roraima before we would reach the vertical 400m cliffs of the mountain. However, the clouds were low and we couldn’t see much but the dark cliff walls would occasionally loom through beginning to tower above us.
The first 2 hours were spent scrambling up the muddy foot hills covered in dense rain forest. I had to grab the roots of trees to pull myself up and feared accidentally grabbing a snake or worse! The rain came sporadically but the forest cover ensured just a continuous gentle dripping. I had my rain coat over my pack to try and avoid them from getting too wet which would increase the weight still further. We had waterproof bags inside the packs so at least our stuff was safe.
We reached the vertical wall of the upper mountain. Looking up, the black rock disappeared into cloud so we couldn’t see the top. I was amazed by the sheer scale of it which you can’t really determine when you’re further away or looking at a picture. The path turned parallel to the wall and the climb became steeper still. We were following a 20 meter wide fissure which made its way up the cliff face. There was a thick covering of vegetation and we stayed close to the wall so views were limited but the clouds were still low so we wouldn’t be able to see much anyway. Occasionally, the view did open up and the walls of Roraima could be seen stretching endlessly in both directions.
The climb seemed endless and we had no bearing of how close we might be to the top. At one point, we had to walk under a light waterfall falling down from somewhere above. From here, we knew it couldn’t be too much further since we had seen this waterfall from the bottom the day before. The final part of the climb was very tiring and we stopped every short while to catch our breath – we were around 2,800 m so climbing at this higher altitude took its toll.
We passed a large pillar of rock to the right hand side which I thought looked like some spooky sentinel. It marked the point where the path turned into a crack in the cliff for the final climb. Above, the craggy turrets of the walls could be seen as if guarding the top of the plateau.
We wove in between huge igneous rocks, black and pitted from harsh weathering and then, all of a sudden, the clouds seemed to lift, a large patch of blue sky appeared and we found ourselves finally on top. The views were amazing. The black rocks continued everywhere across the massive rising and falling in strange formations. Miniature valleys, mountains and plains had formed with boggy ponds trapped in the hollows. A myriad of plants clung to the edges – spiky shrubs, small trees and delicate flowers. A few birds darted around but the whole landscape matched Arthur Conan Doyle’s nickname – The Lost World.
As quickly as the blue sky came, a thick grey cloud descended and enveloped the rocky landscape. We set off again and picked a very varied route to avoid a steep sided valley as the bogs within were apparently very deep. After another half an hour, we came to a place known locally as ‘El Hotel’ which was an overhanging rock set half way up a small cliff which could provide shelter for our tent and bivvies. The ground was dry dirt and we were pleased we would hopefully avoid the drenching we got the previous night. Benedico went off to camp in a separate overhang and we didn’t see him for the rest of the day.
The rain set in and a thick mist covered the mouth of our overhang so after we’d set up our little camp, we sat, relaxed and tried to keep warm. It was only 2:30pm but we thought we’d have an early dinner. To start with, a chicken noodle soup and then a main course of tuna and pasta mix which was all very tasty. It rained non-stop into the evening with only occasional glimpses through the mist of the alien world around us and the distant green forests somewhere below the mountain. We strung up a clothes line for our clothes and bivvies to dry and I just slept in my sleeping bag although it was still slightly damp. I slept well but had to move my bag in the night when the wind picked up and whipped the rain through the mouth of our shallow cave. At least here there were far less bugs although we did get an unwelcome surprise from a small scorpion which Jono found under his camping mat.
22nd September 1999: Roraima Trek Day 3 (Day 63 overall)
The morning provided clear views in all directions. We could see the other tepui with a small patch of far below greenery separating it from ours. We cooked up some more porridge and a cup of chocolate to warm up. I had sprained my thigh at some point yesterday and it was really stiff and hurt badly. We decided against the 8 hour walk across the tepui to another camp as it was raining non-stop, our stuff was still pretty wet and we knew we wouldn’t find a better alternative to our bivvies (or 5 people in Rick and Emma’s tent) than our current cave camp.
Instead, Benedico stayed in camp and the rest of us went off to explore. We found lots more of the weird rock formations and had fun just roving around the valleys. I found another small overhang which someone must have previously used for camping since there was a pile of dry firewood stacked up so I marked it for our return.
Further on, we saw what looked like to be the highest point of the tepui and so set off to reach it. This involved a fair bit of climb up various small cliffs and as we made our way, the route led over large rocks and then deep chasms would suddenly appear forcing us to find a new direction. After an hour, we finally made it to the highest point and from here, we could see the plateau stretching off into the distance and into the mist. As far as we could see, it seemed to be a similar to where we were – black rock surrounded by bogs but it was captivating to see. It started to rain hard and we found some shelter under a large rock until it began to subdue.
Making our way slowly back to camp, we picked up the firewood we had spotted earlier and finally reached our camp. Not long after, looking out from our camp into the distance, we saw what looked like 5 other people heading for the camp where we had found the firewood so we were lucky to get the wood when we did!
After a lunch of another chicken and noodle soup, the weather began to clear up a bit and Benedico offered to take us on another walk. With the cloud lifted, we all wanted to get to the edge of the tepui and peer straight down the cliff and so we trudged along for an hour or so Benedico thought would be good. On the way, Mark, who was wearing his Tevas and delighting in jumping into the bogs, found one of them a little deeper than he expected and ended up sinking up to his shorts!
It was still quite cloudy as we reached the edge of the tepui and it felt like we were floating in a sea of white froth. I climbed onto a large rock that jutted out from the edge and looked down but it could have been any depth. The clouds made it look bottomless. Benedico said that this point had the highest parts of the cliffs (without the jumbled rocky lower slopes which we had used to ascend) and that they reached 1,800 meters straight down. At this point, the rock I was standing on didn’t feel that safe and when Jono joined me, I’m sure I felt it wobble! We all carefully climbed on for a photo and then jumped off as quick as possible! It made everyone feel giddy to think we were sitting above a 5,000 foot fall and we tried to work out how long it was take someone to fall that far (about 20 seconds).
By the time we got back, it was dark but the full moon illuminated our way with a soft white glow as there were now no clouds above us. We cooked up another rice meal and ate it slowly while the chill of the night set in. We could now see the light from Paraitepuy over 25km away and even the faint light of San Francisco about 50km away.
That night, I pulled even further into the cave and used by own bivvy which had dried to keep warm. We played charades to pass the time and told all the jokes we knew. Rick and Emma both seemed like a really friendly couple and we got on very well. My leg was still giving me hell but at least I was warm and dry throughout the night.
23rd September 1999: Roraima Trek Day 4 (Day 64 overall)
It was time to head back and we had an eight hour trek before us and got packed to leave early. It was a clear and sunny day and we took a final walk to the nearby edge to have another look and take a few final photos.
The walk down was much faster to begin with and offered spectacular views although our knees quickly became sore from the downward climb. As on the way up, we met a few other groups working their way up who were only too pleased to have a break and a quick chat. In one group, we learned that one woman in their group had suffered a hernia problem and the guide had had to phone for a helicopter to fly her out. We did notice that no other group was carrying their own equipment as they all had porters – and they still complained of being knackered – wimps!
Another group was being led by a guide from the ‘Explore’ tour agency and I was glad I wasn’t in that one. Most of the people were quite old (35-60 years) and I though their group leader was a bit of a prat. He was young, wearing branded jeans and yellow wellies and only caught up with the rest of his group after they’d already been there for twenty minutes – including the couple in their 60’s. He then proceeded to ‘inform’ the rest of his group that they could go as slow as they liked an he “wouldn’t mind”. Well maybe it was a bit harsh to think him a prat but I certainly wouldn’t have expected to find someone in his image leading an expedition like this in the heart of Venezuela!
We headed on down and eventually reached base camp about three hours later. From here on, I started to lag since my leg was getting worse and Jono had also developed a knee problem from the steep descent. But we took it slow and suffered a painful walk back through the foothills in the by now pouring rain. I had my anorak on but my trousers were quickly soaking and my boots sodden. The path became little more than a muddy river and I got caked from much sliding about and falling down. Eventually, we caught up with the others who were having a break beside the river we had crossed a couple of days ago. I described how Jono and I had sung every song we knew in order to keep our spirits up and by now – we were in a good mood!
Benedico went ahead to scout the river crossing since he said it would be more difficult because of all the rain. We stayed put and finished off all the crackers before heading down to join him at the river. Benedico had crossed the river and was coming back with a rope. The river was much deeper and faster flowing than on Day 1 and it seemed to be getting worse by the minute. I loaded all my gear into my water proof inner bag and sealed it tight. During this time, we watched the water levels rise up the bank by another 5 inches! We all headed out into the river using whatever we could to get across – the rope, rocks but trying to stand against the terrific force of the water was all but impossible. Emma lost her footing and was having trouble keeping her head above the water but Rick was able to grab her and pull her ashore.
Not long after, we reached the second river but luckily this one didn’t look much deeper (only thigh depth) than our initial crossing on Day 1. As we approached the river, we noticed another small group on the other side busy taking off their shoes and socks and rolling up their trousers preparing to cross. We didn’t break stride and marched fully clothed straight into the river and out the other side. We were already covered in mud and looked a state but we took amusement from the surprised looks on their faces we were cheerily walked on past.
The camp for that night was a couple of hundred meters further on and we found shelter in a small wooden hut. Another group just starting their trek also turned up and camped nearby and we laughed at the sight. First of all three heavily laden porters arrived. About an hour later, a guide and two English guys showed up. What a lot of stuff for only two people! We chatted to them and they told us they were here to scout out the area for an expedition. One of them was working out how many porta-loos they would need to bring whilst the other was focused on how much food they would need to bring in since they didn’t like what their porters had cooked up. They seemed nice enough though and even shared a bit of their chicken dinner which they didn’t seem fussed over but tasted great to us!
After finishing dinner, we settled down to an uncomfortable night shared with red ants, termites, mosquitoes, bitch flies and cockroaches – but at least it was dry!!
24th September 1999: Roraima Trek Day 5 (Day 65 overall)
Our stuff wasn’t quite dry but we put it on anyway and in the heat of the sun, it wasn’t so bad. We cleaned up at the river and watched the two English guys with their porters and guide attempt to make their way across. The rain had stopped and the river was only ankle deep and down to a gentle flow. However, they took 15 minutes to cross (without any back packs) doing so in a tight circle holding hands with the guide and porters. We could hardly restrain from pissing ourselves with laughter from this seemingly completely unnecessary process!
We finished our own packing, I downed a couple of painkillers for my leg and set off for the final stretch back to Paraitepuy. I made my way as fast as I could to get back before the painkillers wore off. It didn’t rain and apart from the mud, we stayed pretty dry. A couple of brown snakes slithered into the grassland as I approached but otherwise nothing of interest. I reached the final river and took the time to wash my socks and trousers of the newly acquired mud. The jeep was waiting at the top of the hill and I gladly unloaded my pack. Everyone else came in shortly afterwards and we congratulated ourselves on a tough trek.
The jeep ride back to San Francisco was as bumpy as we remembered and we chatted about what to do next. Rick and Emma were heading back home to St Vincent in the Caribbean and we thought we’d head to the town of Ciudad Bolivar. Back at the tour agency in San Francisco, there was no one around but we found our stuff and said good bye to Rick and Emma. It was a shame to see them go as we had become good friends. The bus came late but we squeezed on and set off.
The journey was about 10 hours but the views were spectacular. In particular, the ride down from the high Gran Sabana plateau to the Orinoco river delta with views across this vast plain of forests and hills with clouds sprinkled around – a spectacular view!
It was 3am when we arrived in Ciudad Bolivar so we took a taxi from the bus station to the Hotel Caracas where we got a shitty room for £7. We didn’t care though – we finally had a shower to wash off 5 days of grime and fell fast asleep with amazing memories of Mount Roraima.