Mt Roraima: House of the Gods

Nicholas Laughlin retraces his steps to the summit of the mystical Mt Roraima

Brian on the trail to Roraima, with Kukenen to the left. Photograph by Nicholas LaughlinDelicate plants clustered around pools of water look almost like Japanese water gardens. Photograph by Nicholas LaughlinLooking back from the summit of Roraima through the `gate`. Photograph by Nicholas LaughlinNicholas at `Hotel Basilio`. Photograph by Nicholas LaughlinOlivia climbing the last stretch of the Roraima ‘ramp’, towards the ‘gate’. Photograph by Nicholas LaughlinOutside Mystic Tours, Calle Urdaneta, Santa Elena de Uairén, Estado Bolivar, Venezuela. Photograph by Nicholas LaughlinThis group of wind-carved rocks is called `The Cradle of Jesus`. Photograph by Nicholas LaughlinThis little waterfall and pool served as our`shower` at `Hotel Basilio`. Photograph by Nicholas LaughlinView of Kukenan and Roraima from the second mirador on the trail from Paraitepui, Canaima National Park, Estado Bolivar, Venezuela.  Photograph by Nicholas Laughlin

It was a late-March Friday afternoon when I toiled up the trail under the weight of my rucksack and found my companions already sprawled out at the campsite.

The Roraima base camp is on the mountain’s western side, where the savannah rises to meet a forested slope below the sheer sandstone wall. To our west, the Gran Sabana rolled away. Dark green patches showed where rivers cut through the brown grasslands. The shadows of clouds drifted past, and a smudge of smoke was all we could see of Paraitepui, the village where we’d begun our hike. Three miles to our north were the great cliffs of Kukenan-tepui, Roraima’s companion. From a cleft in the mountain’s parapet a torrent of white water plunged to the forest, where it became the swift-running Rio Kukenan.

And to the east, towering above and stretching far south, was the object of our expedition: Roraima-tepui, the tallest mountain of the Guiana Shield, inspiration for generations of explorers. For two days, as we hiked across the savannah, we’d kept our eyes on Roraima’s mysterious wall as it grew before us. From forest to sky, a kilometre of pink sandstone stained with black lichens and patches of green vegetation.

Seeing it up close, I could understand why Roraima was long considered unclimbable. But I could also see the geological feature that made our expedition possible: La Rampa, the ramp, a natural ledge climbing across the high wall to a notch at the top.

The Guiana Shield is a region of Precambrian rock, two billion years old, anchoring the north-east shoulder of South America. At its heart are the sandstone tepuis of the Guiana Highlands, straddling the borders between Guyana, Venezuela, and Brazil.

Tepui is a Pemon word, meaning “house of the gods,” and it’s not hard to understand why the indigenous people of the Gran Sabana would give such a name to these table mountains. Unimaginably long ago, the receding of prehistoric seas left a vast sandstone plateau in the triangle now bounded by the Amazon, the Orinoco, and the Atlantic. Over aeons, this plateau was eroded, exposing the granite beneath the sandstone, but in some places isolated fragments of the plateau remain. These are the tepuis.

More than a hundred tepuis have been mapped in the Guiana Highlands, and some have never been climbed. Their table-tops can be many square kilometres in area, ending in sheer cliffs plunging down as far as 1,000 metres. Icy waterfalls roar, and clouds seem to boil from the mountains’ hearts.
Walter Raleigh may never have seen a tepui, but he heard about them; in his Discovery of Guiana he described a “mountain of crystal” that “appeared like a white church-tower of an exceeding height.” To the German explorer Robert Schomburgk, who climbed the lower slopes of Roraima in 1838, it seemed like “a dark wall,” and the gap between Roraima and nearby Kukenan was “a large portal, through which clouds…issued without interruption.” Depending on the light and the weather, the sandstone wall might also seem rosy red, or take on the bluish-greenish tinge for which the mountain is named: in Pemon, Roraima means “blue-green.”

The first recorded ascent took place in 1884, when Everard im Thurn, a British colonial officer of Swiss extraction, accompanied by his friend Harry Perkins, succeeded in finding the ramp. Climbing it “with comparative ease,” the intrepid pair finally laid eyes on “what had never been seen since the world began”: the summit of the highest of the tepuis.

Im Thurn’s action-filled account of the ascent was a wild success in that era of imperial adventurism and Darwinian discovery. And the idea of a mysterious mountain harbouring secrets in deepest South America hung around for nearly 30 years in the imagination of Arthur Conan Doyle. In 1912 he began serialising his novel The Lost World, the tale of a band of explorers who visit a Roraima-like mountain and discover a place that time forgot, inhabited by dinosaurs and ape-men.

 

Over the last 40 years, Roraima has come to seem less remote. At least a dozen tour operators now organise Roraima expeditions during the hiking season—the dry season, from November to May. At peak periods, several groups may set out on the trek each day, so the park rangers impose a daily limit of 50 people starting on the trail.

We landed, in a rickety six-seater plane, in Santa Elena de Uairén, the staging point for most expeditions to Mt Roraima. Signing up for a trek is as easy as strolling past and reading the boards outside the tour offices, chalked with the dates of the next trip. This is how almost all travellers see Roraima: in a party of six to 12 people, with a guide and several porters, all equipment provided and meals arranged.

Los trinitarios had decided against a package tour. We had our own tents, sleeping bags, stove; were willing to do our own cooking; didn’t want to join a random group of tourists; and above all wanted the satisfaction of knowing we’d made it up the mountain carrying our own loads. But we needed a guide.

It was the busiest time of the year, almost all the good guides were engaged, and we’d made no prior arrangements. Then we got lucky, and met Andreas Hauer, the proprietor of Kamadac Tours.

Maybe Andreas approved of our ambition to make this expedition on our own. Maybe he just took pity on these four naïve foreigners. He took us to his restaurant-cum-office, and got on his radio phone. Sending a message to the village of San Ignacio, he found us our guide—English-speaking, no less. He helped us calculate how much food to buy: “for a trip like this, one kilo per person per day,” plus an extra day’s rations. He insisted we take lots of chocolate, and a small tin of olive oil: “your body needs the fat.” He gave us gasoline for our portable stove. And all this help was gratis. “Just come to my restaurant after the trip. You’ll be so hungry, you’ll eat a big pizza each.”

Denny Benson, our guide, was our second stroke of great luck. Short, muscular, with a handlebar moustache and a slight squint, he had visited Roraima’s summit 62 times, and though he was 20 years senior to the oldest of us, he spent much of the trek waiting for los trinitarios to catch up.

 

An hour’s hike out of Paraitepui, I thought seriously about abandoning the trek. I was halfway up a killer slope, with another 100 feet before I reached the ridge. I was nowhere near as fit as I thought, and my rucksack was topplingly heavy. Would I even make it to Roraima’s base? Only my pride kept me going.

“We call this the test hill,” Denny said. “If you make it up this hill, you make it all the way.”The view from the top of the ridge decided me. Drenched with sweat, bandaging my blistering toes, I looked ahead at Roraima and Kukenan hovering in their blue mist and realised mountain fever had taken hold of me.

That night, by starlight, Denny told us stories of the tepuis and the eerie goings-on reported by climbers. Voices from within the rock. Mysteriousfigures materialising from the mist. And people who were not respectful of the tepuis and their animating spirits could come to horrible ends. Ten years before, a teenage boy camping on Kukenan with his brother had disappeared. The Venezuelan army flew every available guide to the summit and they searched for 23 days. Finally they flew in a group of Pemon shamans, who concluded that the boy had been taken by the spirit of Kukenan, and was trapped inside the mountain forever.

“That is why you must be respectful on the mountain. Don’t shout and make loud noises. And that’s why when we leave the mountain we thank the spirit.”

The climb up La Rampa is supposed to be the hardest part of the Roraima trek. From the base camp you ascend a muddy trail through wet forest until suddenly the pink sandstone wall is right before you. From here you scramble up jagged boulders and loose scree, then under a waterfall, before you reach the final “staircase.”

We could see the “gate” clearly now, an opening in Roraima’s parapet through which mist was oozing. The last 50 feet, the aches in my legs disappeared, then I climbed over the last boulder—and there I was.

Some describe Roraima as a “moonscape,” but I always think of the surface of the moon as a flat, grey field, and Roraima’s summit is far more interesting. Erosion has cut gullies into the sandstone, so what from a distance seems a flat surface turns out to be a series of miniature mountains and valleys. And everywhere, water: descending from the sky in tongues of mist, dripping, collecting in pools, running in streams and over ledges in waterfalls, water in continuous motion.

In every sheltered place there are patches of vegetation: pitcher plants and insectivorous sundews with tiny, sticky blood-red leaves; starflowers with spiky orange bulbs; plants with thick, bladed leaves and delicate flowers. At first they reminded me of desert flora, and I soon realised the comparison was not far off. For the summit of Roraima, despite the overwhelming presence of water, is a desert of sorts. There is rock, sand, but little soil to speak of. Deprived of nutrients, no plant can grow above waist height, and the best-adapted trap insects for their food. The meadows of stunted flora look like Japanese rock gardens.

It’s easy to get utterly lost in the labyrinthine topography, where thousands of rock pillars look exactly the same. As we picked our way from the “gate” to our campsite, we were more glad than ever that Denny was with us—he strode confidently along the faint trail, a suggestion of pink where footsteps had worn away the lichens. He led us into what seemed like our private valley, with a clear pool draining into a wide ravine. There, beneath an overhanging cliff, he showed us the sandy ledge that would be our home for three nights.

“The guides call these places ‘hotels.’ This one is the Hotel Basilio,” he told us.

The ledge was at most ten feet wide, but the cliff kept off the rain. The pool provided our drinking water—“Ten minutes ago, that was cloud,” one of us said—and a small waterfall was our outdoor shower. (The toilet was a more complicated arrangement. No soil means it’s impossible to dig a pit latrine, and park rules say everything taken up the mountain must come down. We wished we had brought more strong plastic bags.)

That night, we cooked a celebrational feast. For dessert we supplemented our chocolate with a bottle of Venezuelan rum. To keep the chill off, of course.

 

Next morning I huddled inside a wool sweater, wool cap, and scarf as the thermometer announced the temperature was 14 degrees C.

As the mist cleared, we decided we’d hike to the Triple Point, to find the boundary marker—four hours there and four back, and even then we wouldn’t have covered the full length of Roraima’s L-shaped summit.

Half an hour later the sky opened, and it rained—and rained—and rained; all the way to the Triple Point. At times we could barely see a few metres ahead. It was too wet to take photos—none of us had brought an underwater camera—and stopping to rest only meant the wind had a stationary target. When we reached the Triple Point, I walked around the three-sided pyramid of white concrete, passing briefly through Brazil and Guyana before returning to Venezuela and the shelter of a small cave. We ate soaking wet sandwiches for lunch.

“You know what today is?” someone said. “April 1st.”

We returned to Hotel Basilio by a different route, to take in more sights. Over the years, the guides and their visitors have named some of Roraima’s more prominent features. “The Cradle of Jesus” is a cluster of rock pedestals supposed to resemble a nativity scene. Other formations are meant to look like various animals. Inevitably, there is a Simón Bolívar rock. “El Foso” is a deep sinkhole into which a small river vanishes. “El Abismo” is a spot on the edge of the summit where flat rock suddenly gives way to the void. Peering over the edge, you see a kilometre down to the forest. In the “Valley of Crystals,” millions of quartz crystals stud the rocks and collect in glittering heaps. (So many visitors have tried to them away that the rangers now sometimes search their bags on the way down.)

But it was the strange silence of Roraima’s lost world that was most striking. The wilderness is often as loud as a city: animals cry out in the night, insects buzz and frogs sing. But among the black rocks of Roraima, nothing makes a sound except for the whisper of flowing water. Banks of cloud roll mutely, and at night you can’t even see the stars.

A sense of glorious isolation is one of the attractions of trekking and camping. But the special isolation of Roraima—the knowledge that this is a place still largely alien to humans, where you visit only on uncertain sufferance—gets under your skin more certainly than the cold.

Maybe I’d listened too carefully to Denny’s stories about spirits and ghosts.

We returned to Paraitepui muddy, thirsty, hungry. At our last rest stop, we’d devoured what was left of our food—a few biscuits, a bag of peanuts. And a finger of olive oil left in the tin Andreas had insisted we take. I drank it in two gulps. It gave me the strength to slither down the “test hill,” through ankle-deep mud.

We were back in Santa Elena in time for Semana Santa—Holy Week. The hotels were overflowing, convoys of holidaymakers passed through in SUVs, and music blared long into the night.

I was looking for books about Roraima, maybe a map. After half a dozen shopkeepers shook their heads, one woman told me to ask for the señor at a tour office on Calle Urdaneta. He had written a book about the Gran Sabana, and he might have copies to sell.

The moon-faced señor could only give me the address of the publisher in Caracas. As he wrote it in my notebook, I glanced at a pink and purple map on the wall. All the tepuis were there, the rivers, the towns. But what were those odd shapes—rings, saucers, things like squiggly balloons?

The map was captioned “Ovnis en la Gran Sabana.”

Cuáles son ovnis?” I asked.

“UFOs. That is a map of UFO sightings in the Gran Sabana. Did you know this part of the world is a UFO hotspot? There are mystical energies here. People come from everywhere to experience it.

“Roraima is one of the best places to see flying saucers. The whole Gran Sabana is an intergalactic spaceport.”

CLIMBING RORAIMA

Hundreds of visitors make the Roraima trek each year, and any good guidebook to Venezuela will list the major tour operators. Andreas Hauer at Kamadac Tours is highly recommended: andreashauer@cantv.net,
+58 (0)289-9951408.

Go during the dry season, November to early May, but avoid Holy Week (the week before Easter), when hundreds of Venezuelans tackle the mountain.

The tour company will provide tents, sleeping bags and pads, and food, plus porters to carry all the above. You can hire a porter to carry your personal bag at extra cost. Vegetarians and vegans should enquire about meals; more likely than not, they’ll find themselves going hungry.

It’s possible to arrange a customised tour, which might include extra nights on the summit, or hiking elsewhere in the savannah. Very lazy (and wealthy) tourists can hire a helicopter to whisk them directly from Santa Elena to the top of Roraima for a short walkabout.

If you have your own camping equipment—tent, sleeping bag, small fuel stove—and don’t mind buying and cooking your food, you can try to hire a guide directly, and perhaps a porter.

WHAT YOU’LL NEED

  • sturdy hiking boots and extra socks
  • waterproof jackethat to keep off the sun
  • sweater and cap for cold nights on the summit
  • headlamp and extra batteries
  • many waterproof pouches (Ziploc bags are fine; pack all your clothes in these inside your rucksack
  • waterproof covering for your sleeping bagwater purification tablets (water collected on the summit is pure, but best to treat water from streams in the savannah)
  • first aid kit including painkillers (for inevitable muscle aches) and padding for blisters
  • strong twine
  • penknife
  • biodegradable soap (to minimise pollution of pristine waterways)
  • insect repellant.