Mt Roraima sits brooding ahead, all 2810m of it, white clouds billowing around it, foreboding and intimidating. Kukenan, the sacred tepui which the local people fear to climb is Roraima’s eternal brother and sits to Roraima’s left as you look at it. It is towering into the brilliant blue sky. It’s quiet, eerie, mystical. Enchanting. There is an energy drawing us near yet a force trying to drive us away from this, the world’s oldest rock formation. It’s quite a sight to wake up to, and knowing that you need to get to the top and the desire to do so all encompassing. You can’t wait to start the long trail to get there and feel the power of billions of years all around you.
I’m on Parai Tepui, Gran Sabana, Venezuela. It’s 5:30am. I’m ready to begin. After a good breakfast of arepas with cheese and scrambled eggs of course. Here with me are Randall and Daniel from Caracas. A family group from Maracay, a group of college age lads from Caracas, and Frank and Levi, our guide and porter respectively from Guyana, are also part of the group, in addition to one of Frank’s nine sons, along as a general help. It had been a long journey to get here.
I had woken the morning before at a time I would usually be going to bed from a night on the tiles – 4am. I had a small bag, inside which was stuffed a sleeping bag, a mag light torch weighing about 5kg (not recommended – bring a head torch), 3 t-shirts, a pair of swimming shorts, a small towel, a pair of sandals, 5 pairs of socks and boxer shorts and a small bag with medical supplies and toiletries. A sleeping mat was strung underneath the bag. Enough for the 6 day journey.
Randall and Daniel, intrepid explorers themselves (Randall has worked as a tour guide on various expeditions around the world and Daniel has enjoyed a 6-year working stint for the Venezuelan Embassy in Pretoria, South Africa, during which he traveled extensively) picked me up and we drove the short 10 minute journey to the Domestic terminal in Caracas. We wrapped our bags (standard procedure in Venezuela – in fact, queues for the bag wrapping are often as long as queues for check-in), and breezed through immigration quickly. Surprisingly, there was no flight delay, and we arrived at the gateway to adventure, Puerto Ordaz, after a smooth flight of just over an hour. I had no idea what was going on, I hadn’t researched the trip at all, and had, for once, put my hands in the fate of someone else. Fortunately, Randall had all the bases covered. We were met at the airport by a short, portly chap sporting a wispy black / grey moustache called Frank, who greeted us with a beaming smile. Frank quickly introduced himself. He is from Guyana, and a real outdoors man, the type you know you can trust. Frank had managed to persuade another group on the same tour, an extended family of brothers, cousins and their wives and girlfriends, to give him, his brother Levi, me, Randall and Daniel, a ride to Parai Tepui. The family had 3 big trucks between them. I was invited to jump into the back of one, Randall in another, and Daniel in the last one. Frank and Levi jumped in the back of one of the trucks, open to the elements, but they didn’t seem to mind, though it would have irked me – it was an 8 hour drive to Parai Tepui, extended to 12 hours with frequent stops. The drive was nonetheless an exhilarating one – brother vs brother vs cousins, machismo brashly displayed as they overtook each other and raced down the roads and careered round the corners at breakneck speeds. At least there were frequent Pan De Jamon food stops, and I had the opportunity to practice Spanish as the family didn’t speak a word of English. The views of the Gran Sabana as we drove through were beautiful. The trip took so long partly due to the over 2 hour wait we had for petrol. The last petrol station before reaching Brasil was a popular filling spot, and a popular party spot. I took a walk down the length of the queue, and it was like a procession of carnival trucks, each truck blasting out reggaeton from huge speakers in the back, the young well-heeled people dancing in their trucks and on their trucks, drinking beer and rum. A great way to pass the time in a queue. Military were there too, rifles slung over their backs, attempting to control the chaos. It was like a scene from a Mad Max movie. No rules seem to apply over here. There is no functioning government, so to speak. This is anarchy, Venezuelan style, which means the music is cranked up high and the people are drinking and dancing a lot at the same time. With a full tank of 40 litres costing less than a bottle of water, I’d be dancing too.
As night fell we turned onto a dirt track, and drove another 30 minutes, climbing up and up, fireflies igniting the fields to the left and right. We reached Parai tepui, home to a few pink coloured Posadas set underneath the most beautiful display of stars I’ve ever seen. They seemed so close you could touch them, and they were so numerous it was overwhelming. It was a fantastic introduction to the adventure that lay ahead.
Now I’m taking in the morning view from the same Tepui. I’m ready for the incredible journey that lies ahead. We check out and head to the park ranger’s headquarters. Neither Randall nor I have our bags, we’ve paid a porter to take them. It’s cheating a bit, but, what the hell. Everybody entering the national park has to register here, and is subjected to a very thorough bag search. No alcohol is allowed, much to the dismay of some people. Nothing that can start fires is allowed. For some reason, marijuana seems acceptable – most of the college kids seem to enjoy a good smoke.
We’re the first to set off. It’s a 4-5 hour walk to the lunch spot, and it looks like it’s going to be a beautiful day.
The trail to the first lunch spot was fairly straight forward, and full of impressive viewpoints. Randal, Daniel and I bonded well on the trail, and we were in high spirits, wishing everyone we passed a hearty ‘Feliz Ano!’ We met another group of young lads in their mid 20s from Caracas, who all spoke good English and were very welcoming. They were aiming to walk to the top of Roraima in 2 days instead of 3. Having had absolutely no training, I didn’t fancy it, despite Randall’s early insistence that we could do it. It was clear later that we would have found it very difficult. We met a small group who had spent NYE on Roraima, a Korean girl, a Russian girl and a Japanese guy, who had met the others whilst on a Spanish language course in Guatemala. They were also with a large group of Brazilians. It seems Roraima has become more popular of late with people of other nationalities, despite the difficulty getting here. The overwhelming majority of trekkers, however, were Venezuelan.
After lunch at the first stop (a sufficient ham, cheese and cucumber sandwich with thousand island dressing), the three of us headed off to the first camp. We needed to cross 2 rivers to get there – the second one, Rio Kukenan, the widest and fastest flowing. It was here that I learned a new trick from Daniel –the first of many pearls of wisdom from the man we re-christened ‘Master Yoda.’ Socks. Simple socks. Wearing a pair of socks to cross rivers stops you slipping on those hazardous and slippery rocks. It works a treat.
We came to the first base camp after crossing the river. It was around 3pm. Hot and tired, we headed straight to the swimming pool – the river. A guy already in there kindly threw us his bar of biodegradable soap for a wash. The water was deliciously cool and refreshing, and Kukenan loomed at the end of the river, with Roraima to it’s right partly covered by the trees.
We filled out water bottles up from a source higher up the river, as it’s safer. Our bags had arrived and our tents had been put up. The tents were tiny, barely big enough for one, yet Daniel and I would need to cram in together. Darkness came and the rest of the evening was conducted in torchlight. Frank and the team prepared a delicious spaghetti bolognese meal with parmesan cheese. Frank and Levi came and sat with us as we ate. He told us to be wary of rattlesnakes, as they often come into this camp. He also told us a few stories about the mountain, and of injuries people had sustained up there. He told us the story of an English guy who refused to come down from the top, saying he wanted to die up there. He was traveling with his uncle. There was no more food, so Frank had to leave them with another guide. The guy died of a heart attack up there on Roraima. A helicopter had to bring him down. Apart from that, Frank was in a buoyant mood, although he was slightly stressed due to the size of the group – 17 of us. Not easy cooking for that many people.
The amber sunset earlier on had been glorious, casting its final shadow over the immense rocks in front. I carried that with me as I lay in the tiny tent listening to the sound of insects buzzing all around. It was warm enough in the tent to sleep on top of my sleeping bag instead of inside it. I had to leave the tent at one point to visit the toilet. Fortunately I didn’t see any rattlesnakes.
It was a glorious morning when we began walking purposefully towards Roraima, heartened by the pleasant weather and also the bread and scrambled egg breakfast. Roraima was beckoning us now, it was an awe-inspiring sight that grew larger and larger as the day went on. It was a tough, mainly uphill 4 hours to the base camp. The sun was beating down and we needed to stop occasionally to find a stream to fill our bottles from – some of the sources were hidden so well only Frank knew where to find them. We needed to drink a lot of water, the sun was ever more burning.
We reached the base camp at noon – it was a large camp, full of people waiting to go up and people resting on the way back down. We found a place to bathe, down a slippery, muddy path. The water here was the coldest I’ve ever been in, my body tingled after a few minutes, but I felt cleaner and more refreshed than ever. Then it was time to relax. There wasn’t a lot to do but mill around, chat with people, and wait for the most exciting part of the day – meal time. Lunch was not memorable. It started raining, and with the rain came the clouds, and suddenly it got very cold indeed. Later, the sun came out, and we were rewarded with the most impressive views of the trip so far. Roraima was teasing us with fleeting glimpses of the top, but then the wispy clouds would drift quickly up and deny us the view. Kukenan revealed itself far more than Roraima ever did. The mountains were bathed in the warm yellow colour of a surrendering sun, and they slowly grew darker and darker as the sun sank behind the mountains.
A dinner of chicken curry and rice followed washed down with water – not Frank’s best, but it was nice enough. The night again finished early – after a chat with Randal and Daniel sitting on our favoured rocks in front of our tents witnessing the spectacle of the stars, we were in the tents by 7pm. It was colder this time, but not uncomfortably so. Tomorrow was the dreaded ‘Day 3’, and the nasal warnings of the Japanese guy we met on Day 2 that “Day 3 is the hard one. …Really hard” were ringing around my head. But I couldn’t wait to get going.
I awoke with a slight stomach upset. Most people had it worse than me, however. Some had been sick in the night. Daniel had had a fever. Sleeping with his head facing down the slope so that that all the blood had rushed to his head and his food wasn’t able to be digested properly probably didn’t help. It was the water we had had with dinner. Daniel and I ate some charcoal tablets, which set me straight almost immediately. We had a delicious breakfast of arepas with grated cheese inside washed down with chamomile tea. Chamomile tea has been one of the discoveries of the trip. Taken with breakfast, it gives you a much nicer start to the day, is easy on the stomach, and helps digestion. We packed up and got ready to go, eventually heading off at 7:30am for the steep climb up to the mountain wall. Poor Daniel was struggling with his dodgy stomach, he was weak and feeling sick. He walked with some of the other college guys who were suffering the same problems, and Randall and I pushed on ahead, leaving base camp far below and behind.
The climb up was through dense foliage, over tree roots designed to trip you up, over rocks and through mountain streams, and was very steep. Eventually we hit the wall of Roraima. Randall and I kissed it, a kiss of respect, like kissing your great great x 1million grandmother. This rock had stood here for billions of years, and deserved the utmost respect.
After hitting the wall we turned left, passing streams and waterfalls including the ‘wall of tears.’ Our water bottles refilled with energy giving tears, we headed up the most dangerous part of the journey – a steep track of loose stones underneath a waterfall, the water gushing down the rocks. It was raining heavily now, to make it worse, and it was even easier to lose your footing. From here, the top of Roraima loomed ever closer, yet it was still shrouded in mist. The rocks were big here, and required some hauling up to get over. The last scramble over, just a few rocks left – and we’d made it! We were now stood on Roraima. I’d climbed Roraima, I’d done it! It felt amazing. I looked around me. The mist whirled around and whistled through the stones, old ponds and weird rock formations were scattered across the dark, other-worldly mountain top. There was a line of huge rocks of what resembled faces of animals – I could see a lion, a rhino and a snake. Further away was ‘La Tortuga’ a turtle-shaped rock perched on a thin pedestal that looked like it could fall over if you pushed it hard enough. With these huge rocks everywhere, Roraima was like some kind of prehistoric playground, and people began trying to climb the rocks.
Frank came up with some of the others in the group after an hour, including Daniel, who emerged from the mist like a war hero. More than anyone, Daniel had a right to be proud of himself, for he had climbed up with a 15kg backpack, food poisoning, and an empty stomach. Frank gave us a pep talk before we headed off to our hotel – no walking on black or green parts of the stones, stick to white and pink. Black and green parts are incredibly slippery. And so we were off, walking on the lunar-like landscape, hopping from white part of the rock to white part of the rock to our hotel. The ‘hotel’ was actually a tiny campsite on the rocks underneath jutting rocks which shielded us from the elements. They also call them ‘caves.’ Our ‘hotel’ was called ‘Hotel Sucre.’ This walk took half an hour, and we’d barely seen anything yet. Roraima is huge. 44km squared. There were weird rock formations everywhere – it was an eerie, cold place. The rocks were in such strange positions balanced on top of each other or smashed into smaller pieces that it was as though they’d been hurled down from the sky.
At the campsite, we chose some slightly taller tents, and pitched next to the college kids – a real set of characters. We stood around chatting and had some heartening soup, as the day had grown spitefully cold. I listened a lot, unable to actively contribute to the discussions, which were in the Spanish of young men, full of slang and colloquialisms and delivered at 1,000 miles an hour. Topics changed fast too….I couldn’t follow everything. I was glad then, when we set off on a long walk to the highest point of Roraima – Maverick Rock. I could just walk and sing Eddie Veddor songs to myself. The weather had improved, and Frank led the way at an impressive pace, as we all hopped along behind from stone to stone like constipated mountain goats.
The climb up was hazardous, the views well worth it. The mist was crawling over from the South side, the alien world of Roraima, grotesquely beautiful, spread out to the East, Kukenan to the north, the Gran Sabana to the West, though the mist stubbornly refused to move to show us it. It was awe-inspiring. Some people were having a ‘spiritual moment’ which usually involves sitting cross-legged, eyes closed, breathing slowly in and out through the nose, and trying to ‘connect’ with your inner self. Being on a mountain top with a load of Venezuelan college kids gabbering away meant there was no such moment for me, but I still felt on top of the moon. The landscape spread out forming all kinds of shapes, looking as it had for 2 billion years.
Frank sat down and told us some of the history of the place, and we gathered around his feet like children listening to a teacher telling a story. The mist then rose and enveloped the view we were enjoying, so we headed down and towards camp as darkness began to fall. Before it did, we managed to find a suitable rock pool to wash in, and the water was again freezing cold but oh so refreshing.
Dinner was carbonara with ham – warming and delicious. I avoided the water offered, and felt the better for it the next morning. We were probably in our tents at 7:30pm. Sleep was hard. The snoring of an unnamed traveler in a nearby tent sounded like an angry bull about to give birth. It rocked the caves and I was afraid the whole place would collapse. Others joined the snorer, and those in the snoring club slept well, while the non-members suffered another largely sleepless night out here in the wilderness of our 2 billion year old host.
Pancakes with jam and sugar washed down with tea ensured an excellent start to the day after a terrible night in the tent. It was a lousy day though, misty and cold. Very cold. Miserable. But then, Roraima is very prone to moody changes of weather. The next big event of the day was lunch. A warming soup cheered us a little, and the weather improved enough for Frank to lead us all on a walk to a place he called ‘The Jacuzzi.’ The Jacuzzi is a place full of crater holes filled with deliciously cold water. I was first in….bloody freezing. It started raining. Frank told us he would take us on another walk – a dangerous, difficult one. He left the Maracay family group with another guide, as this was not a journey for them, and so off we went again, Frank seemingly gliding over the rocks at the pace of a man less than half of his 52 years. Randall, Daniel, the 6 college kids, and I followed. It was a memorable, fascinating walk. We saw lagoons, the weirdest rock formations I’d ever seen, crystal fields, waterfalls, carnivorous plants, swamps that looked like a scene from Star Wars or Prometheus….all in the driving rain over very difficult to traverse terrain. It was a walk not afforded to everyone, and we were lucky to see it. It was also a long walk, and we got back to camp tired and soaking wet and cold, but having seen things that left a deep, warm glow of satisfaction.
Frank, like a mountain superman, went straight off to have a wash and then began preparing hot chocolate for us. We huddled in our tents, chatted, and enjoyed hot chocolate and arepas with cheese, served to us by Levi with that broad smile that Frank also had, a smile that creased every part of the weathered face, a smile that was as genuine as Roraima itself.
And so it was. 6pm. We had nothing to do. We stayed in our tents until 5am, and the night was sleepless again due to incessant rain, the gurgling of the water running down the cave walls, the snoring and ceaseless shuffling of others around the tent….it was a terrible night and if I got 1 hour of sleep I was lucky.
A simple breakfast of porridge and tea to kick start the difficult day descent. For some reason, I felt full of energy, despite only sleeping around 5 hours in total in the last 3 nights. Levi led the way to the mouth of Roraima. We saw Kukenan one last time before heading down, the mist around Roraima had cleared just enough to allow us a glimpse. Then we started on down the treacherous walk down. The waterfall part was again the hardest, the loose stones making it easy to slip and the water sweeping over and drenching us. It was steep, and easy to fall. We walked on down through dense jungle trails, knotted branches tripping us, through rushing streams and thick, sticky mud. We passed people heading up, and I felt glad I was going down, and a growing sense of achievement.
We made it to base camp after nearly 3 hours. After a short 5 minute rest, we walked to the Kukenan river camp and washed in the river. We waded across the river in socks and continued on to the next camp where we assumed Frank would meet us. The college kids were there. They wanted to walk all the way to Parai Tepui where their trucks were parked and then set off early for Puerto Ordaz the next morning, rather than camp here and have a long walk plus a long drive the next day. We needed to go with them as Randall had managed to get them to agree on giving us a ride to Puerto Ordaz. We needed to wait for our bags here, and speak with Frank and tell him of our plans. We hung around gazing at Kukenan, which had revealed itself fully, while Roraima had the seemingly eternal mist wrapped around the top of it. We ate arepas with carne and queso. We passed the time by chatting about everything under the sun. We met a slightly unhinged guy in a Brazil shirt who had the habit of intruding into other people’s conversations, and when that failed to get attention, of putting his hand into termite nests and chasing people around. Another group were also here and would be doing the sensible thing and camping the night. They were enjoying well-earned beers. We waited and waited and waited. Stories filtered down from the mountain. One of the guys from the group of mid-20s kids had broken his leg that morning, and needed to be taken down by helicopter. A Russian guy had gone for a walk alone and Roraima’s mist had come down and he got lost and spent the whole night alone singing to keep himself awake. Roraima is a mountain to be respected.
Finally, as the sun was setting, like a wounded war hero, Levi was spotted staggering down the mountain out of the mist, on his back at least 30kilos of bags. He was exhausted, and had badly twisted his ankle on the way, for conditions underfoot were hard today. He was surrounded immediately by the group and they gave him a hard time for being so late – unfair, I thought. Then Frank arrived, and the group turned their attention to him to air their grievances. There had been a misunderstanding. Frank had had lunch with the Maracay people at base camp, and hadn’t realized we wanted to continue all the way to Parai Tepui (not surprising as nobody had told him). As a result, everybody was blaming everyone else, and nobody wanted to back down. It was a very Latin show of machismo, with lots of flailing hands, but fortunately Daniel, the Foreign Office worker, showed the diplomacy, respect and patience needed to deal with the situation. It was dark now. Everyone calmed down and said thank you to Frank and Levi, which made me feel a bit better – they’d done a lot of hard work for us, told us stories, cooked for us, shown us around…they were proud Guyanese guides who deserved more respect. Randall paid another local to be our guide and to carry his bag, and I carried my own. We set off into the night.
We marched for 4 hours in the darkness, but it was a great experience. It was a cool night, the stars and moon shone brightly, and fireflies glowed all around. We kept up a phenomenal pace, and it was mostly uphill. It was a beautiful but physically very demanding walk. We arrived at Parai Tepui absolutely exhausted – we had walked 27km in just one day from the top of the mountain to this point – and it was certainly not a flat nor easy 27km. We arrived hungry, thirsty, exhausted. Fortunately, they had rooms available. The woman in charge made us a heartening stew with rice, with some kind of barley juice to wash it down. It all tasted like 5-star cuisine to us. I had never been so thankful for food or a place to rest. A bed. What an incredible end to an incredible adventure. The next morning we travelled back to Puerto Ordaz, full of experiences and feeling ready for the New Year.