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Rattled Up Roraima


I am struggling to keep my footing as I make my way across Rio Kukenan, chest deep in fast swirling water. Elio is holding on to me tightly, steering me across. “Be careful” I hear him shout over his shoulder, a note of panic in his voice, and I turn round to see Emily being swept off her feet. She is dragged for a while down river over a few medium sized rapids before she manages to grab on to a rock and clamber out of the water. “I’m alright” she asserts rather too quickly, pink faced, and obviously trying to reassure herself as much as anyone else. Elio, relieved, keeps hold of me, and once I am firmly on dry land, he goes back to collect Emily from her perch mid-river and marches her firmly and safely to shore.

We are now on the second day of a 6 day trip to Roraima. Guayana, the entire region to the south of the Orinoco River in Venezuela, is characterised by tepuys, flat table mountains, and Roraima, at 2,810 metres, is the tallest of these tepuys. It is also one of the easiest to ascend, making the hike to the summit an extremely popular trip among Venezuelan and foreign tourists alike. Situated in the Gran Sabana, Roraima straddles the borders with both Brazil and Guyana – there is a point on top where the three countries meet.

We set off by jeep yesterday from the town of Santa Elena, to the Pemon Indian village of Paraitepuy which consists of a few adobe and thatch houses. From there, we donned our rucksacks and started out walking, led by our twenty year old guide Elio. Elio is an Arakun Indian from Guyana. He made the two day walk from his village to Santa Elena five months ago in search of work, and has since then been making his living taking tourists up Roraima. Coming from British Guyana, he speaks excellent English as well as his Arakun dialect, and his Spanish that he only started learning when he arrived in Venezuela five months ago, is also almost fluent.

Now, having got to the other side of Rio Kukenan in more or less one piece, Elio gives Emily and me each a congratulatory hug. This little guy, who is amazingly muscular from his weekly trips up Roraima carrying over 30 kilos worth of supplies on his back, is extremely affectionate and touchy feely. He also has a sarcastic teasing sense of humour, and loves to laugh. When he laughs, his face completely crinkles up, his eyes flicker between open and shut, and his whole body bobs up and down, while barely a sound escapes from him. As Emily and I joke about her trip down the rapids, and laugh at our innate clumsiness and ineptitude, Elio silently goes into resonance.

We walk another 4 hours across open savannah, and despite our tiredness, there is a growing sense of excitement and feeling that we are “getting somewhere” as the Roraima and Kukenan tepuys get bigger and closer, the sun throwing deep shadows off their rumpled foundations. Today’s destination is Campamento Base. The jungle coated 500 metre high slope of Roraima ascends steeply from the other side of a small river. And perched on top of this base, is a 500 metre vertical wall. We eat as the sun goes down, and the tepuy which before was looming dauntingly in front of us is now completely shrouded in mist, allowing us to temporarily forget the scale of our task for tomorrow.

* * *

It rains a bit in the night, but by morning, the sun is out again. We start making our way up the slope, using our arms to hoist ourselves over rocks, and grabbing on to tree trunks to pull ourselves up the steep gradient. Walking through beautiful lush green jungle, the trees cloaked in vines and mosses, we frequently stop to ‘admire our surroundings’ as an excuse to rest our leg muscles and give our hearts a chance to return to more normal rates of beating. Eventually we come to a gap in the trees, and look up to see the golden sandstone wall rising straight up in front of us. From here, a steep forested ledge clings to the cliff and provides a route to the top. We clamber over wet and slippery rocks, getting ever higher, and then emerge from the trees, to find ourselves walking under the waterfall that we had seen from base camp as a thin line cascading down the wall. Now soaking wet, we have another 40 minutes of hard exhausting climbing to the top, and the terrain has changed from one covered in thick vegetation to an almost vertical harsh black rocky incline.

With a few final steps, we are on top, filled with pride at our achievement, and awe at the sight that spreads out in front of us. The landscape on top of Roraima is unlike any landscape I have ever seen. It is described in clichéd terms in guidebooks as like another planet, and the cliché is hard to dispute. Also, mentioned in all the guidebooks without fail, is that it provided the inspiration for Arthur Conan Doyle’s Lost World, and, looking around, it is certainly easy to imagine prehistoric creatures emerging from behind the strange rock formations.

From a distance, the top of Roraima is flat. From up close, there is nothing flat about it. The sandstone, the surface of which is black, has been intricately carved by weather and erosion. Small mounds, columns and very sizeable magical castles rise out of the ground. Large boulders sit precariously on spindly bases that have been whittled away to needle points at their tops. There are canyons and crevices, the rock rippled and bubbled. And the directions of the very prominent strata show the frequency with which large pieces of rock have been churned around and turned on their sides by time and geological movements. Creeks and little lakes are everywhere, and crystal pools have formed in smooth cavernous holes in the rock. The blackness is regularly interrupted by areas of fine pink sand and glittering deposits of quartz crystals – and by the unique plant life that flourishes on this ecological island that has been separated from the surrounding land for two billion years. There are grey-blue spiky plants, bright red flowers, spiky yellow flowers, plants with fat juicy little leaves, and abundant lush green ferns. Colourful little birds flit about, breaking the silence with their cheerful chatter.

But what really gives Roraima its magical eerie quality are the clouds that congregate in dense clusters over the tepuy. The features of the landscape, amazing enough in themselves, appear and disappear with incredible frequency in the mist. The scene is constantly changing. One minute, the sky is blue, and a vast expanse of jutting rock formations is glowing in the sun in front of us. The next minute only a few vague outlines are visible in a swirling mist. Then whole enormous edifices are completely blotted out by thick white clouds which leave no sign of their existence. Sometimes the savannah is visible from the edge, and at other times a sea of cloud masks the 1000 metre drop in front of us and leaves us staring into a grey oblivion, possibly interrupted by the top of the neighbouring Kukenan tepuy appearing as an island in the sea.

Our camp site, or “hotel” as the guides refer to the few areas on top of Roraima that are suitable for camping, is sheltered under an overhanging rock ledge. This rock is riddled with holes and pockets, some small and others large enough to sit in. The little caverns broken up by naturally sculpted pillars, provide a perfect cooking and eating area, and also an ideal spot to sit and watch the sun sink below the jagged horizon. As we stay here looking up, the sky turns black and fills with stars, and we are lucky enough to see a couple of shooting stars before the clouds come in for the night and the lightning show starts.

Near to our campsite is a shallow black-bottomed pool warmed by the sun’s rays. At the end of the second day spent exploring this wonderland, we wander off down to it to soak our tired muscles and wash our sweaty bodies. I am quite relishing the idea of stripping off in this beautiful setting, and soaking in a natural hot pool. But my smugness turns to hysterics when I step in and sink into a swamp which emits sulphurous odours as the black “bottom” opens up to engulf my leg. Emily laughs at me standing there naked with black slime coating my lower legs, ending in a neat line half way up my calves. She then proceeds to follow my fashion statement, stepping into another area that deceptively appears to have a more solid bottom. We give up on the idea of washing.

With the smell of sulphur still lingering on our feet, we start down from Roraima the next morning, picking our way slowly and carefully down the steep rocky path. Often my bag and sleeping mat get me caught between rocks, and I have to carefully hoist myself over them, taking care not to launch myself headfirst down the mountain. Despite the caution that is required to avoid sprained and twisted ankles, coming down is a hundred times less tiring than going up, and we feel extremely bouncy when we pass people making the ascent. As the path keeps going down and down and down, I get more and more amazed and impressed that we ever managed to climb all that way up.

We make it down to base camp in 2 hours, and after a food break, we continue walking in the burning midday sun across the savannah. It hasn’t rained for the last few days, and when we arrive at what should have been the raging Rio Kukenan, we cross it without even getting our feet wet. The water level has dropped so low, that we just hop across stones to the other side. By the time we get back to the camp beside Rio Tek where we stayed the first night, luminescent ping-pong ball sized blisters have mushroomed on the bottoms of our big toes. We wash in the river, where the dreaded puri puri (little black flies) congregate to feast on our blood, leaving behind their hallmark red pinpricks on our skin. But none of these small annoyances can detract from our good moods – For, we have climbed Roraima.

The next morning, I open the tent door, and lie in my sleeping bag for a while looking at the tepuys. Elio comes over bringing coffee and breakfast. Then, it is time to get going. At the end of three and a half very tiring hours, Paraitepuy is visible just over the hill. By this stage, we barely have the energy to place one foot in front of the other. And then, as Elio teasingly tries to overtake us on the very last leg, despite our giggly determined protests that we want to get into the village first, a strange competitive animal psychology forces our bodies to create from nothing final trickles of adrenaline that allow us to break into a run for the last 20 metres, and arrive before Elio. We fall into the jeep that is waiting to take us back to Santa Elena, exhausted but feeling great. We will be back at our hotel in under two hours, and then we can lie down on a bed and sleep for the rest of the day, knowing that we deserve the rest.

By Tanya Abramsky Email: tanyaabramsky@yahoo.com

Fact File:

The walk up Roraima, while not technically difficult, is very strenuous and the trip requires at least five days. You will need to take with you a warm sleeping bag, tent, enough food to last you the whole trip, and a camping stove. Waterproof gear, sun cream, a hat and strong insect repellent are also essential.

The trail starts from the village of Paraitepui, and tourists are not allowed to set out from here without a guide as it is easy to get lost on the summit. Guides and jeep transportation to Paraitepui can be arranged in the villages of San Francisco de Yuruani and Santa Elena de Uairen.

In Santa Elena there are a number of tour companies that arrange all inclusive tours to Roraima. I recommend Tayukasen Expeditions. This company arranges a 6 day trip which includes jeep transportation to and from Paraitepui, a guide for the six days, food and cooking equipment, and the hire of tent and sleeping bag, and it costs between $200 and $300 depending on the number of people in the group. Porters can also be hired to carry the food. Tours can be organised upon arrival in Santa Elena or in advance by contacting:

TAYUKASEN EXPEDITION LEADER Calle Urdaneta Santa Elena de Uairen Gran Sabana Venezuela Email: tayukasen@hotmail.co

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