SANTA ELENA DE UAIREN | VENEZUELA
IN 1912 SIR ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE PUBLISHED A NOVEL CALLED “THE LOST WORLD”. THE BOOK, FEATURING AN EXPEDITION TO A PRIMEVAL SOUTH AMERICAN JUNGLE POPULATED BY PREHISTORIC CREATURES, WENT ON TO BECOME ONE OF THE MOST INFLUENTIAL STORIES OF ALL TIME. IT INSPIRED THE PULP ADVENTURE GENRE WHICH IN TURN PRODUCED THE LIKES OF INDIANA JONES, AND OF COURSE, JURASSIC PARK. LITTLE DID THE SHERLOCK HOLMES AUTHOR REALISE HE’D ALSO BE INSPIRING A SMALL IRISH BOY TO FOLLOW IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF THE NOVELS IRREPRESSIBLE PROFESSOR CHALLENGER.
(ME. BACK WHEN I WAS A SMALL BOY)
I had eventually crossed the Brazilian border and found myself walking towards the Venezuelan outpost. I’d heard the Venezuelans can be a little weird with visitors, especially in recent times, so it was with a little trepidation that I entered the customs shack.
“Where are you from”? Asked the puzzled guard as he leafed through my passport.
“Irela- Irlanda” I replied
“WOW.REALLY??!” his face exploded into an infectious smile.
“Welcome to Venezuela my friend!” He handed me the passport back, his face cracked into a chesire smile and his hand bobbed up and down in the most exaggerated thumbs up I’d ever seen. He looked across at his colleague. “Can we keep him?”
Well that was easy.
I’d gotten talking to some guys at the border and we decided to hitch a ride together into town. Santa Elena is one of the gateways to Venezuela’s Canaima National Park. This place is world famous for housing some of nature’s oldest and most impressive marvels. It’s a landscape that has inspired everything from Conan Doyle’s adventures to Pixar’s UP. Santa Elena is a south american backpacking mecca, bursting at the seems with bars, hostels, restaurants, and trekking shops. An entirely different universe from Boa Vista the other side of the Brazil border.
In the northern end of the park and accessible from Ciudad Bolivar is the world’s tallest waterfall Angel Falls. Here, at the southern end and accessible from Santa Elena is the plateau that inspired The Lost World – Mount Roraima. My plan was to embark on the six day return trek to the summit and back, something I had pre-booked with my guides. I had booked both the Roraima and Angel Falls trek with the same company, and the prices were excellent. You really get a lot of bang for your buck in Venezuela – especially by using the black market exchange rate, which everybody does. In fact if you were desperate enough to exchange your money officially or – god forbid – try an ATM, you’d be rightly ridiculed and ostracised. There are money changers on practically any street corner here in Santa Elena, so it’s not a problem. As always haggle for the best rate and don’t agree to sleep with anyone’s sister. South America 101. By the way if anyone is interested in the company I hired then send me a message, I’d definitely recommend them.
At the hostel I didn’t get off to a great start seeing as I was given the wrong room by accident, the lock then broke, and we had to break down the door. Hopefully the mountain treats me better. After a day to rest up and get my shit together we were planning to load up and head out.
The jeeps pulled up the next morning to be loaded up with our trekking and camping gear and the excitement was palpable. It had the feeling of the beginning of an epic adventure. Friendships and rivalries were already beginning to form from backpackers as diverse as german, swiss, australian, american, brazilian, and venezuelan. Naturally I had gravitated towards the cool group. Whether they liked it or not. Even when watching adventure movies or documentaries I always get that tingly feeling at the start watching everyone pack and pile into their transport. It’s the promise of adventure and the call of the wild, and once everyone had answered the call of nature we piled into our jeeps and blazed a trail to our starting point – the tiny “village” of Pareitepuy.
We left our jeeps behind in Pareitepuy, and after signing into Canaima N.P. loaded up our packs and made final preparations for the trek. The village is little more than a smattering of huts and a little round National Parks office staffed by a man with a little round face. It’s his job to make sure we come back alive. I don’t think he cared that much.
Depending on the day we’d be doing between four and eight hours of hiking. The first day was pretty easy. It was a relatively fat hike across La Gran Sabana – a wide expanse of savannah like plains which spread out in front of the mountains. Everybody was in high spirits and the banter was lively. Our goal still seemed far off in the distance, but after a few kilometers we felt like we were making progress.
I teamed up with my new american buddy Sami. Sami and I would end up keeping each other sane for the next week or so despite bug bites, sore feet, terrible weather, aches and pains, and body odour.
Day two, and things began to intensify. Two rivers demanded to be crossed, the wider of the two, called Kukenan, looked like it could pose a problem. Guide ropes were strung across to help us, but the rocks looked slippery as all hell. My sense of balance is non existent at the best of times, here it would actively do it’s best to plant me face down in the drink. Our guides fussed about ferrying our backpacks across the swift flowing water. The trick, we learned, is to take off your boots and use your socks. Wet socks can cling to slippy rocks like Jean Claude Van Damme clings to celebrity. After a few heart raising moments I found myself on the other side swapping my soaking wet life savers for a dry pair. It’s always nice to be safe and sound on the other side and shout patronising words of encouragement to others, secretly hoping they’ll fall in.
In the evening we began to climb. That night we would find ourselves at Roraima base camp. Due to the elevation we had an amazing view out over the Gran Sabana. At our backs rose the imposing rock wall of Roraima, and across a cloud filled gap, it’s sister tepuy Kukenan. The unique table top mountains here are called tepuy in the local pemon language. Aside from jaw dropping splendour they are some of the oldest geological formations on Earth, dating back almost to the formation of the planet. Our porters and guides here were pemon indians, and the speed in which they hurried about camp preparing food and lugging baggage betrayed just how used to this landscape they were. Because the next day would be the toughest there was a nervous excitement about camp. Bottles of various drinks of various strengths were passed around as we watched the sun go down and illuminate the sheer 1,300 foot cliffs behind us. There is a valley that seperates the plateaus of Roraima and Kukenan. Cloud is squeezed through and billows out the other end at an amazing speed, almost like someone smoking a giant cigarette. My mum, as far as I know, was safely back in Ireland. So that ruled that out.
They weren’t kidding when they said the next day was tough. Roraima, as I’ve said before, is a table top plateau. It rises vertically from the thick jungle surrounding it’s base. From it’s disovery in the 1500’s by Sir Walter Raleigh it was deemed to be un-climeable. That notion persisted until 1884 with the discovery of La Rampa. Like the name suggests this is a steep ramp-like platform which extends from the forest and hugs the cliff face until it reaches the top. The morning began with a vertical ascent up a rock face. We found ourselves in a long line of people nervously putting hand over foot, trying desperately not to be the ones to slip and kill everyone below us.
Miracously we all made it up onto a flater ledge. The jungle encroached around us, becoming thicker and wetter the more we climbed. Cloud and fog hugged the mountainside in the early morning, and it wasn’t long until we were all drenched. A lot of it was probably due to sweat too. In total the climb is only around 90 minutes total walking, but because of the conditions and elevation, it takes up most of the day. There are many vertical climbing sections which are made difficult due to the amount of luggage you’re carrying. As well as my 10 kg backpack, I had also strapped on my sleeping bag and mat. It was heavy and awkward, and as I swang from side to side up the slippery mud slicked rocks I was praying it wouldn’t kill me.
Then it nearly did.
Near the top there is a dangerous section which cuts right underneath a waterfall. Slick rocks are one hazard, but when a 1000 foot sheer drop is a few feet away it becomes proper what-the-fuck-I’m-I-doing scary. I’ve been in a lot of dicey places and situations – especially when traveling – but I struggle to think of a time I was in genuine danger of actually dying. Until then. I didn’t even feel elated when I got past it, just mentally and physically numb. Things got even worse, when, at the next vertical section, the strap on my backpack broke, sending me swinging across the cliff face holding on to dear life with one hand. Gingerly, I climbed down to the ledge below me and tried to salvage what I could. After another “screw it” moment I decided to just tie the strap in a knot. I couldn’t adjust it anymore, but at least it will stay on my back. Hopefully.
There’d better be some frickin’ dinosaurs up here.
It was quite a trek to our camp site once we had finally scraped onto the summit. We were camping on a cliff face, in a small overhang known as “The Hotel”. We quickly set up our tents and equipment and soon the shakes began to subside after a few mugs of hot chocolate. Despite the failing light I began to take in my surroundings. Before me was an alien looking lanscape. The precambrian rocks had knarled and twisted into a bizarre maze of black stone. In the distance, over the edge, the cloud would part momentarily to offer glimpses of Venezuela’s Gran Sabana as it stretched to the horizon. On the other side of the divide, and separated by a constant river of cloud, stood the sister plateau of Kukenan.
The main concern with camping is that you need to get creative when placing the toilet. On this undulating terrain we decided to place the toilet further up the cliff face, requiring a climb up slippy rocks. This actually wasn’t such a huge hindrance until a gallon of hot chocolate wakes your bowels up in the middle of the night and it’s pissing rain. Because the tepuys are such a unique and fragile ecosystem all waste, including human waste, needs to be bagged up and taken back with us. Thankfully this was something the porters handled. I’m always conflicted about the use of porters. I realise you’re paying them, and that they rely on it for a job, but the very nature of it just makes me feel like the great white victorian explorer who makes racist jokes about his servants over bourbon and mustaches. These guys are amazing. While I was panting and wheezing and wishing for a quick death, they were zipping up and down the mountain carrying fives times as much as me on their backs. In fact they probably could have carried me on their backs and they would have been fine. If ever tips were earned it was here, even if they weren’t the friendliest at times. Then again we weren’t paying them to talk. Except for the guide.
We were looking forward to some spectacular views the next day as we made a hiking circuit over a section of the summit. Being a plateau the summit is huge, covering an area of 31 square kilometers. The weather didn’t co-operate, and my love/hate relationship with mountains continued. Mount Roraima forms the border between Venezuela, Brazil, and Guyana. The mountain can be climbed from the Brazilian side, but only by experienced rock climbers due to the sheer rise of the cliff walls. The triple border point was a few hours hike away, but only in good weather. The top of the tepuy is a labyrintine maze of small cayons, gulleys and streams, moulded into mind bending shapes by billions of years of erosion. It’s slippy and dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing. So we decided to walk to the edge instead. In the fog. Darwinism at work.
Along the way Roraima’s unique floral ecosystem really stands out. A lot of these strange looking plants are endemic to the tepuys, and many of them, such as the pitcher plants, are carnivorous. It’s easy to see how this place inspired so many authors and filmakers, even if the summit isn’t quite as lush and tropical as it was portrayed at times in UP. At roughly 9,500 feet the thick jungle vegetation populates the base instead. It was believed that the environment up here is so unique because of it’s isolation. The cliffs of the plateau are simply too steep for fauna and flora to invade. Probably why it’s so important to take your poop back down with you. A few potted plants and some wall vines would really brighten the place up.
The next morning and the clouds had dissolved in the early morning heat. The views were just as spectacular as we were promised. Today we began our descent all the way back to our first camp, after a rest at base camp. In the clear, drier conditions, crossing under the waterfalls was a breeze, and we made good progress.
Somehow along the way I managed to twist my knee and it was becoming increasingly painful. I began to lean heavier on my other foot to take the weight off it, but eventually that lead to that foot getting sore too. It didn’t help that I later found out I’d ripped one of my toe nails off. In fact climbing down the cragged rocks had basically disintegrated my hiking boots which were already on their last legs. The amazing views and verdant jungle spurned me on, along with the promise of more hot chocolate, it was the ultimate carrot-on-a-stick.
I eventually hobbled back to camp just as the sun was setting, a good three hours behind most of the crew. It would take a while for my knee and feet to recover from the ordeal, but for now I was content to still be roughly in one piece. Stories were passed around the campfire about people requiring airlifts from the mountainside after accidental trips and falls, and I can see how it can easily happen. There are definitely tough sections. While it is mostly a strenuous hike, there are a couple of proper climbing sections you need to pull yourself up. A misplaced hand or foot on the slick rocks or vines and you’re in for a tumble.
It would be one more day of hiking back to Pareitepuy where our jeeps were ready to whisk us the three hours back to Santa Elena. I’ve never been so happy to see a hot shower and a pizza. My cravings for hot chocolate and coffee never really went away though.
My knee was creaking like a rusty gate, and my foot felt like it had been split in two. I could have taken the balloons up, but I wouldn’t have missed the hike for the world. Venezuela had done it’s best to kill me, but like a bad smell, I was still here. Still, it would have another chance. I was taking the bus the following evening to Cuidad Bolivar, and from there taking a small prop plane further into the Canaima rainforest towards Angel Falls. It was a teary goodbye to some of my hiking buddies. Like in any good action film worth it’s salt we were a rag tag bunch who had really bonded through a shared trauma. Some of my hostel mates were taking the bus with me but were then splitting up to embark on separate adventures. I had my sights set on the world’s highest waterfall, named after the guy who discovered it by crash landing his plane there. Here’s hoping my flight was less dramatic.
Oh by the way where were the dinosaurs I was promised? No one likes a liar Venezuela.
Next time: Living on a Bond villain’s compound. Folding myself into a ball for four hours on a boat. A really tall waterfall, and meeting the Most Interesting Man in the World.