The pilot turned casually to me and asked my weight. Unimpressed with both my Spanish and answer, he proceeded to reposition me and my four fellow passengers, taxied onto the small airstrip, took off and promptly began reading the newspaper. His nonchalance belied the extraordinary beauty and scenery of our flight.
Flying south from Ciudad Bolivar on the banks of the Orinoco in the heart of Venezuela we were headed for Santa Elena, the gateway to Mt Roraima and my chance to fulfil a childhood dream of reaching its summit. As a young boy, I had been fascinated by the dashing exploits and adventures of Lord John Roxton and co, told so well in Conan Doyle’s, wonderful romp into prehistory, ‘The Lost World’. Now, flying over hundreds of miles of the dense green carpet of the jungle, I was fortunate enough to be following in their footsteps albeit somewhat more comfortably but certainly no less dramatically.
The geographic smorgasbord that unfolded below and around us – for many minutes we were flying alongside the imposing face of Ayuantepui from which Angel Falls, the highest waterfall in the world, plunges to its fate nearly a kilometre below – was quite simply stunning. I have rarely seen such majestic scenery. The clouds seemed to pour off the striking flat-topped mountains or tepuis as they are locally known. The sheer faces stood, like medieval battlements, towering over the jungle below. The verdant green of the forest broken only by the inky darkness of rivers meandering their way through the entanglement of undergrowth to eventually feed the Orinoco and Amazon.
“Sorry I am late,” Eric apologised.
Eric prided himself on his punctuality and was exasperated that no message had been passed on to us as we were waiting by the airstrip.
“Hey, this is Latin America,” we said unphased by the delay and actually having enjoyed hanging around in the sun, watching the coming and going of this quiet corner of the world and listening to the swing of samba.
Eric needn’t have worried this was the only glitch throughout our whole stay. By way of introduction to the region, he took us on a guided tour of Grand Sabana
We set off across the rolling savannah with Roraima in full view. No dramatic unveiling but rather its full majesty beckoning us forth. We marched eagerly toward it, crossing small streams, up and down over small hills, no sound except the rustling of grasses in the breeze and the occasional metallic clanking of a frog. Inexorably we drew closer to our goal.
We stopped at Rio Tek for a cooling swim beneath a small cascade that was looked upon by the towering presence of Kukenan, the tepui adjacent to Roraima. Afterwards, it was heavenly to be lying on the rocks in the sun, feet cleansed and refreshed, a breeze massaging our tired bodies with wafts of the sun’s warm rays. The combination of the gurgling of the stream, the fluttering flight of butterflies and the splendour of Kukenan in the late afternoon sun was soothing and soporific. It was both unexpected and tranquil and as a result, has stuck in my memory.
Day two we began climbing imperceptibly to base camp from where everything changed. From there on the climb became steep and unforgiving. Ferns, large fronds and moss-covered rocks replaced the grasses of the savannah. The trail was no longer open but had become hemmed in and surrounded by the entangled undergrowth of the forest, which greedily drank from the waters of Roraima. There was a smell of damp earth and musty, decaying vegetation.
After an hour and a half of trudging steadily upwards with the occasional glimpse through the trees of the plains far below, we eventually emerged onto the summit. We found ourselves in a surreal landscape of weird rock formations weathered by wind and rain over millennia. This island in the sky – Roraima is thirty-four square kilometres in area – is one of the last frontiers, an exotic botanical paradise in which fragile plants thrive in the harsh environment.
We pitched our tents on a clifftop under one of the many overhangs. It was a magical spot. From our eyrie in the sky, bathed in the late afternoon sun, it was heavenly to watch the ever-changing weather patterns roll in before our very eyes. In the morning it was glorious and uplifting to peer out of the tent at the splendour of Kukenan and to watch the clouds pouring off its bleak surface onto the plains below.
The next day, we set off for triple point, so-called as it is the meeting of three countries: Venezuela, Guyana and Brazil. Each step provided a different angle in which every rock and formation seemed to come alive in the shape of a bizarre caricature. A pig with floppy ears a few steps later becomes a frog and in a few more a hippopotamus. This is nothing to do with rarefied air – we are just below three thousand metres – but solely to do with how the surface has been shaped by the elements. Photographs, well mine at least, cannot really do justice to this ethereal summit.
Life on the summit is fragile. The poor soil quality – any nutrients in the soil are quickly leached out by rainwater and eroded by flash floods – has meant that the plant life has had to adapt. Most have had to evolve strategies for combating water loss and supplementing their diet, which has led to some becoming carnivorous by trapping and digesting small insects. Another problem is anchoring themselves on the rocky surface; thus in crevices and clefts plants cling precariously to life whilst in more exposed areas tight little cushions of plants huddle together like miniature Japanese gardens.
In this world of fog and rain, little or no insect activity is discernible, but given a moment’s sunshine, black butterflies start to flutter around and black dragonflies hawk back and forth through gullies in search of prey. Black is the colour of Roraima. Many of the animals are melanistic – dark brown to black in colour – giving them protection from the ultraviolet radiation and giving them camouflage against the dark rock surface.
One animal, the black frog, is an ancient species that has retained many of its primitive traits as the environment of the tepuis has not forced it to evolve radically. It can neither hop nor swim and but instead has unique toes to help it cling to the rock surface better. It is more like an African species than any other frog on South America, suggesting that its origins date back to Gondwanaland, which began to break up over 150 million years ago. Of Conan Doyle and his ‘Lost World’.
Back in the late afternoon of the twenty-first century, we set off to bathe in the romantically described ‘jacuzzi’. The reality is more prosaic. No bubbles, no hot water but a series of ‘jacuzzi-shaped’ pools that were refreshing and a godsend to weary feet.
We returned to or campsite as the sun was setting tingeing the clouds with gold. The clouds rolled ominously in, darkening the skies overhead and casting the rocks in an eerie silhouette. Black and sinister the starkness of our position on the roof of the world was revealed.
On our final morning, we walked to the north-western corner of Roraima to what is poetically called ‘The Window’. It is no ordinary view that confronts one, but befitting of Roraima it is breathtaking. The sides of Roraima dropped vertiginously into the jungle which swept away into the distance. The precipitous drop was dizzying and I did not dare go too near the edge – there are no signs warning you of such a drop, no protective barriers. This is Venezuela and tourism is raw and nascent and I would advise you to go before it grows up.
As a postscript, Roraima is unrecognisable from Conan Doyle’s Lost World. It is no longer the preserve of intrepid explorers but now firmly on the tourist trail. Yet it remains enigmatic and enticing. Part of the alluring appeal of Roraima and the surrounding tepuis must be their dramatic geography: the sheer towering faces and the abrupt flatness of their summits which seem to defy the more subtle and gentle lines of Nature.