Roraima: We emerge from the Amazonian jungle onto vast rolling savannahs, where zebras or lions would not look out of place. Wind back 150 million years, and this part of the world was connected to Africa. This is the Guiana Shield, an ancient piece of pre-Cambrian continental crust that was already almost 2 billion years old at the time of its split from the Old World.
Dominating the horizon are the mysterious tepuis: high, cloud shrouded tabletop mountains that rise from the lush vegetation on vertical cliffs of sandstone hundreds of metres high. There are more than 100 tepuis in this corner of South America, many of which have never been visited by humans.
They stand isolated as islands, each cradling a unique ecosystem that has evolved unmuddied by the genes of its neighbour, an untraversable gulf away. Only the birds (and their droppings) visit these worlds in the sky.
Walter Raleigh was the first outsider to view the tepuis, when he reached the region, inhabited as now by the indigenous Pemón people, in the late-1500s. But it wasn’t until 1884 that a tepuis was climbed, and then it was the highest one, Roraima, in an exploration led by a British naturalist that sparked the imagination of writers and artists back home. One of the inspired, Sherlock Holmes’s creator, Arthur Conan-Doyle, penned a great adventure novel set atop the high plateau featuring dinosaurs and other extinct life, which he called The Lost World.
Like Conan-Doyle, I’m strongly drawn to the strange tepuis world and, against our knees’ better judgement, we decide to undertake our own expedition to climb its 2800-metre-height. We find a local guide, a Guyanese migrant (from the 1960s war with Venezuela) called James, who finds us a porter, an older, overweight, sick-looking fellow-Guyanese called Raphael, and we share the costs with a young Australian (Adrian) and Swiss (Bettina). We buy food and fuel, James assures us he can lend us “excellent” tents, sleeping bags and mats, so off we head, on a 45 km drive from Santa Elena to the small village of Paratepui at the park’s entrance.
After a night spent camping at the gate’s entrance (we arrive there too late to begin hiking), it is obvious that the “excellent” equipment has been rather flatteringly described. Our tent, which is too small for either of us to lie flat inside, breaks its spine. Nick’s mat has an enormous hole in it and his sleeping bag is so thin that you can see through it when you hold it to the light. My inflatable mat has a hole in it so it is replaced by a tiny foam one… Adrian and Bettina fair as badly. Sensible people would turn back.
We make to set off, tying our equipment to our backpacks, at which point we realise that we have nothing to fasten it with. Luckily, Nick has brought rope, so we eventually set off, an hour or so later than planned to trek the 22 kilometres to base camp.
The path is long and arduous under a hot sun. But the rivers are crystal clear and we fill our bottles easily without purification tablets. We are bitten relentlessly by mosquitoes and then tiny sandflies called puri puri, which spit a skin dissolving liquid onto our skin that itches and blisters for weeks afterwards. They lick up our DEET repellent like it’s ice-cream.
It takes us the entire day, climbing steep hills and descending slippery paths, wading across rivers and streams, over grassland and through forest, until, as darkness falls, we reach the camp. It’s a bamboo construction roofed in patches by an assortment of plastic sheets that let enough light in to reveal that the interior is swarming with cockroaches.
We wait an hour and then another hour for Raphael to show up. James goes back for him, his bobbing torchlight soon lost to the clouds of mist. Another hour passes before he returns with the exhausted porter, who promptly falls asleep in the camp. We eat dinner, put up our tents and attempt unsuccessfully to sleep on the hard cold ground.
Next morning, the tepuis Roraima looms impossibly above us. High cliffs of stone disappear up into the clouds and the way seems too steep, too hard. We set off on aching limbs towards a vertical path of rocks so large they must be climbed over on hands and knees. We haul ourselves up one step at a time, entering cloud forest of ferns and dripping, stunted trees. Orchids and butterflies distract us from the upward toil and the pain in our legs. Nick’s knees, never good, become excruciating and every step is torture. It rains down on us, willing us to give up and turn back, but we press on and up.
The higher we climb, the further the mountain seems to recede from us, but eventually, we reach our eerie destination: a strange sculpted landscape unlike anywhere else I’ve seen. This is one of the oldest geological formations on Earth, and the wind and rain have carved great gullies and gorges, peculiarly shaped rocks and caverns. We walk on this ancient rock surface in the footprints of dinosaurs, across the Lost World to a cave with a rock overhang, where we set up camp.
Then we explore. Incredible gardens of unique plants burst out of rocky crevices. There are carnivorous varieties, including pitcher plants and sundew flowers, which trap insects on sticky pads.
We find beaches of brilliant pink sand, lined with valleys of glittering white quartz crystals. Clear waters reflect the sculpted rock shapes and invite us to drink and swim. Huge dragonflies flit past us and we have to watch our step for fear of squashing the many tiny yellow-bellied black frogs that cross our path. Small birds hop close, curious, and fat lizards sunbake on the black rocks.
We fail to spot the odd fox-like mammal with a pointing-up tail that lives up here, neither do we see any dinosaurs or the ‘invisible people’ that James swears live up here.
But we do see glow-in-the dark fungi, glow-beetles and a luminous plant. Three years ago, in the first scientific exploration of Roraima’s 2 billion-year-old caves, unique extremophile microbes were discovered living on the silica walls, producing patterned stalactite formations out of their excreta.
Night is accompanied by ceaseless torrential rain. It rains almost every day here, the pouring waters carving into the landscape and gushing over the edges of the plateau in spectacular waterfalls. Three of the world’s highest waterfalls are from tepuis, including Angel Falls, which falls nearly a kilometre down from Auyan tepui, far across the park from us.
At 5 am, the sky is a cloudless blue and we set off to the edge of our lost world for a view across the tepui islands. On the way, we are distracted by welcoming pools of crystalline water, where we swim and run our hands through piles of quartz.
By the time we reach the edge, the clouds are already rolling in and we see only briefly how very high we are – and how very far we must descend.
We look down across the dense green jungles of Guyana, a pristine rainforest of jaguars and sloths far below.
We decide against the 18 km walk there and back across the plateau to the triple border of Guyana, Venezuela and Brazil, marked by a post. Time is ticking and the path is steep.
With great reluctance, we leave the beautiful Lost World and begin our descent down the precipitous slope. The rain starts as we’re part way down, turning our path into a river that we wade through, slipping fearfully and battling to prevent our sleeping bags from becoming soaked.
It’s a long and tricky path that tests us mentally and physically. It takes us 2 days to return to the village, wading through high rivers and marching slowly through the kind of perpetual drizzle that saps your enthusiasm and makes me long to be snuggled in a deep soft sofa with a good book, a steaming cup of tea and a purring cat to stroke…
We make it back. It took us 3.5 days, rather than the usual 6, we discover later. I have a stinking cold now and neither of us can walk or tackle anything resembling a stair, kerb etc. But we got to glimpse an incredible, unforgettable world. Next time, I’ll take a helicopter up there, like the spoilt crew we’ve met here on an assignment for Discovery Channel!