When Arthur Conan Doyle wrote about the Lost World, he based his story on Roraima, one of Venezuela’s tallest Tepuy mountains. Perched on the borders of Venezuela, Brazil and Guyana, the majestic flat-topped mountain rises from the horizon. The trek to Roraima was beautiful, difficult, hot, brutal, and in parts, downright terrifying!
Roraima isn’t the most accessible place you will ever go. Located in one of the most dangerous countries in the world, it really is for the most adventurous (read: foolhardy) travellers. I arrived in Santa Elena (on the border of Venezuela and Brazil) after a 9-hour drive from Puerto Ordaz.
On the first day of my trek, our group of 11 left Santa Elena just before 11am, and after a 45 minute 4×4 ride one paved roads, and another 45 on a dirt track, we finally arrived at the entrance of the Canaima National Park. We signed in to enter the park and met our guides, who prepared a light lunch for us. We set off walking at 1.30pm, in the heat of the midday sun. Luckily the clouds soon rolled in, and the relatively flat terrain made for a manageable first day’s hike. I am not a lover of hiking, and having suffered through the trek to Machu Picchu, I admit I hadn’t really thought this through. Once I realised I had the chance to visit Venezuela, I quickly checked out popular destinations, and hastily booked the 6-day trek. It was only when the payment had gone through that it started to dawn on me what this would actually involve.
Unsurprisingly I was at the back of our group, although ahead of the guides, who brought up the rear at a sensible pace, carrying all our camping gear on their backs. Here, there are no mules or emergency horses, we had to carry everything. I had a rucksack that weighed about 8 kilos on my back – not too much, but when you’re trekking for several hours a day that thing starts to feel a hell of a lot heavier! One of my trek mates, Javier, kept a similar pace to me so we chatted along the way. We reached camp just before dark, and the faster ones in our group had already bathed in the river and were waiting for our tents to be set up. The “2 man” tents were tiny, but I had struck gold – as the only female solo traveller in a group of 11, I was the only one to get my own tent, so I had plenty of space! The others cozied up in their tents, no doubt warmer but decidedly more cramped than I was.
After dinner, we settled down for the night; it was around 9pm, but we were to be up at sunrise and after the hike we were all ready for bed. I didn’t sleep well at all; I hate sleeping bags, they are so restrictive. I like to roll over and stick my legs out when I sleep, not lie like a mummy all night. I eventually dozed off after what seemed like hours, but still felt ok in the morning so I must have got some sleep. The sunset wasn’t as spectacular as we’d hoped due to cloud cover, nonetheless, the setting was stunning.
The Gran Sabana stretched out around us, and the tepuys filled the horizon. That day’s hike was also relatively short, a mere 4-5 hours estimated the guides, so I set off in the morning with high spirits, after a filling breakfast of fried bread, omelette and fruit. However, with the sun rising quickly in a cloud-less sky, and the terrain decidedly more uphill than the previous day, my pace slowed dramatically. Yesterday the terrain had been fairly flat, but today it was a near constant climb. Not steep, but constant. My legs, back and hips ached from carrying my backpack, including my sleeping bag, sleeping mat and personal belongings, and I felt the weight with every step.
Javier and I soon fell behind, but were buoyed by a dip in the river – a cold bath revived us briefly, but the heat and exertion soon took its toll again and I fell further behind. Hill after hill we scaled, each step harder than the last. At least this was a lower altitude than the other treks I had done, but the heat and the weight of the pack brought new challenges. I willed my feet to keep going, stopping at every peak to rest and trying to drink enough water to quench my raging thirst. I was glad I had brought my LifeStraw drinking bottle, so I could re-fill it at every stream we crossed without fear of contamination! I was worried about being dehydrated in the heat, so tried to drink as much as I could.
The walk was hard, and I felt like I would never reach camp. I usually kept sight of the guides or Javier ahead of me, but I was walking alone. I concentrated on the simple pleasures around me to distract me from my aching body. A single pink flower blooming in the middle of the dusty path. A butterfly stretching its wings in the sun. A lizard scurrying for cover in the long grass. And that view! Roraima loomed ahead of me, willing me on, yet taunting me, its base unreachable, its sheer cliff face impossible to climb! But reach it I did, finally arriving at base camp in the early afternoon. Some of the group had arrived hours earlier, sacrificing the morning swim in the river to arrive before the sun got too hot. I was glad to have taken my time though, and we had the rest of the afternoon to relax at the camp.
It was a beautiful spot. A stream ran through the camp, and another providing a pool for bathing, and clean water for our bottles. The water was icy cold here, coming straight off the mountain which towered above us – not as pleasant as the swim earlier in the day, but just as refreshing! Clean and dry, we chatted at the camp as the porters set about making lunch and putting up our tents. The view was magnificent; on one side Roraima, its cliff face now revealing the way for tomorrow’s hike to the summit. One the other side, another tepuy mountain stood tall, overlooking the Sabana below us. We could see how far we had walked, and as the sun set on the horizon, I stretched my tired legs. Excited but apprehensive about the following day.
I slept better that night, but woke feeling worse. I had set my alarm for 5.30am to see the sunrise but dozed until 6am. When I finally crawled out of bed, I realised that the sun had risen hidden behind the mountain, so I was glad I hadn’t missed anything!
After breakfast, we began our 3rd and final day of climbing Roraima. The arepas I had just eaten for breakfast had no time to settle before we tackled the steep path. Scrambling up the near vertical ‘path’ wasn’t easy; especially with my 10kg backpack. I was thankful it wasn’t raining, and we were shaded from the sun by the clouds which surrounded the mountain. We were also climbing into forest, the landscape had changed – it was no longer sabana grassland, instead lush greenery enveloped the path – ferns, mosses and bromeliads showed how the microclimate affected life on the mountain. The rocks and trees I used to steady my balance as I clambered up were cool to the touch, perennially hidden from the prying rays of the sun. Although the climb was tough, somehow it was easier than the previous day’s hike in the full sun. We continued to climb, heading to the sheer rock face known as the ‘wall’. Stopping to fill up my water bottle at a stream, I paused and wondered why on earth I had done this to myself again! Nonetheless, onwards and upwards I plodded, again, the last of my group. After a couple of hours, I reached the wall, and began the second part of the ascent, along the side of the cliff face.
Another hour or so later I reached the final hurdle. An almost sheer climb up a waterfall. Thankfully, without rain there was just a trickle of water so clambering on all fours wasn’t too difficult. I was still terrified of falling off though, scared that the weight of my pack would pull me backwards and I would topple back down the mountain. However, step by step the summit grew closer. After what seemed like a lifetime, I scaled the last rocky outcrop and breathed a sigh of relief. I had made it!
The terrain on top of the mountain really was another world. I could see how Conan Doyle imagined there were dinosaurs here; it felt completely untouched. Now all we had to do was find our camp. On closer inspection, there was a path visible across the rocks; a slightly worn, paler path led the way. That didn’t stop one of our group from taking a wrong turn and getting lost for an hour! Around us the mist rolled in, it was still the middle of the day but we were in the clouds, and the wind was cold. Our tents were pitched on the rock face; some were sheltered by a rock face, that too was where the guides were preparing the food. My tent though was perched on a rocky precipice, over-looking the alien landscape. We bathed in a nearby pool, and explored around our site. At night, the temperature dropped, and on the hard rock floor I struggled to sleep.
The following day, most of the group headed out to the triple border point – where Roraima straddles the borders of Brazil, Venezuela and Guyana. I, however, was feeling broken and really not up for another 5 or 6-hour hike. Instead, a small group of us stayed behind, and explored closer to camp.
Our guide led us across the eerie surface to The Window; a gap in the rock that plunged through the clouds to the earth below. Here we gazed out at the clouds, wondering what was hidden beneath. Despite the tough hike to get there, here, above the clouds I felt a sense of peace.
Someone in another group had brought some balloons, so we practised our best ‘Up’ moments; the Disney film was also based on the top of Roraima. Watching the film again I could recognise the shapes of the mountains, but here still felt a million miles away from the Disney world.
We walked on to the crystal field; a magical place where crystals formed on the surface of the rock. There were strange flowers here too, only found here atop the mountain, the unique ecosystem creating endemic species that could have lived here undisturbed for millennia.
On the fourth day, we set off to descend the mountain. If I thought the ascent was tough, descending the waterfall was terrifying. I’m not the steadiest on my feet, and the pack on my back felt imbalanced – I was worried I would fall & break a leg miles away from the nearest hospital. I finally made it to the bottom of the waterfall, and the stress and panic finally surfaced & I began to cry. I really don’t know how I manage to get myself so worked up, especially after I survived the worst part! But tiredness and fear beat me, and the floodgates opened.
The rest of my group passed by (I had set off early, knowing I am the slowest to not fall too far behind) and asked what was wrong, and one of them, James, whipped up my backpack before I could protest. “I’ll just take it to the bottom of this section” he told me, but when I got down it wasn’t there, nor at the next rest point. When I finally arrived at the camp, he had carried my bag half way down the mountain – with his too! I will forever be in his debt, the hero who rescued a blubbering mess on the mountain. He loves climbing mountains, and scaled Kilimanjaro later in the year. I doubt I’ll ever make that, but it made me realise yet again how not cut out I am for trekking and mountain climbing! I still keep doing it, although I’m not sure why. For the challenge? Doubtful. Just to say I’ve done it? Not really. For the views? Most likely!
Please note: I loved my time in Venezuela, made possible by a Venezuelan friend of mine. However, this was last January, and the safety in Venezuela has deteriorated since then, especially in the capital, Caracas. This trip MAY be possible coming north from Brazil, however I do not recommend flying into Caracas. Before you travel get as much advice as you can from people there, join Couchsurfing groups to meet locals, and ask other travellers about their experiences. I want to share how magical Venezuela is, but at the same time I can’t recommend going there at the moment. I can only hope that the situation improves for the people of Venezuela soon, and this amazing country becomes a safer place for everyone.
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