Updated: Jun 7, 2019
A black frog the size of my thumbnail hopped onto my boot; it exists only at the summit of this single mountain.
Roraima Tepui has stood isolated for two billion years, a slab of standstone rock protruding for nearly 10,000ft from sea level and over 7,000ft from the savannah below. Like all the tabletop mountains in this area - known as tepuis - it is an ecological island, so much of the flora and fauna on its summit exist only in each niche microclimate.
Dominating the landscape, Roraima is so large that it creates its own weather system; the summit is almost always shrouded in cloud, it rains nearly every day of the year and the thunderstorms are frequent.
From Base Camp
The ‘path’ I had been following for the final few hours before the summit through the dense cloud forest was not well-trodden, there was little of the white packed earth of the grassland slopes from the previous few days to get to this point. Instead, there was weathered, damp boulder after boulder deep in primary jungle, creating steps at a near-vertical incline, more conducive to rock climbing than hiking. The tree trunks and branches had been petrified by the constant moisture, turning as black and solid as the rocks they clung to.
I had decided against hiring a porter, wanting to be able to carry all my own kit for the six-day trip. My kit was embarrassingly inadequate; my sleeping bag was inherited from the 1980s, so did not retain heat and was well over four kilos. I had decided against taking full-length trousers and a proper jacket to save on weight. This was all well and good for the climb up to base camp and onwards during the day, but temperatures plunged to near-freezing the moment the sun disappeared behind the mountain. I spent several nights shivering myself to sleep.
Just below the summit, it was well over 30 degrees and the humidity was near 100 per cent, so much so that the sweat dripped over the tops of my eyelashes, making smudged rivulets through the dust and dirt on my cheeks. I counted over 15 insect bites on my face alone, and the mixture of bad sunburn and a heavy pack had caused my shoulders to blister, burst and then turn a rather violent shade of red.
Due to the tepui’s inaccessibility and the challenging ascent, its 34 sq/km summit is something few see, especially given the current toxic political situation in Venezuela. I passed only three other foreign tourists in nearly a week of trekking at one of the country’s major tourist attractions. But the reward is spectacular. And otherworldly.
At midday on day four, after a five hour hike up a vertical kilometre, I clambered over the near-right angle cliff edge, collapsed on the black rock and shut my eyes to try and rid the feeling of exercise-induced nausea.
After a few minutes, the lump in my throat went back down to where it belonged and I opened my eyes to look, not at the view of the cloud forest and sprawling savannah below, but at the mythical, alien world of the summit’s landscape.
The piles of black volcanic-esque rock going up another 30, 40, 50m overlay the solid ground, making it impossible to do anything other than slowly scramble and hop. What space there is in between the rock is covered with pale pink sand and littered with veins of cloudy quartz crystals the size of fists; nearly all soil has been washed away.
Bizarre-looking endemic carnivorous plant species grow from the cracks in the stone, trapping and devouring the few insects that can survive here. The lack of insects and soil means there are few birds, giving an eerie silence to an area you would otherwise expect to be chittering away. Laying heavy on the silence is the mist, a damp so constant that permanent ripples have been carved into the rocks.
The reddy-green pitcher plant, Heliamphora nutans, lures insects into its tubular trap with the smell of nectar. The pitcher is lined with fine, white, downward facing hairs, trapping insects in the inch of rainwater which sits at the bottom. Drosera roraima looked like a delicate red heather, wet with dew. The droplets, though, were sticky and trap insects, slowly dissolving them.
The weather changes rapidly, with dense cloud rolling over in a matter of minutes, shrouding you in a fog so thick that visibility drops from out to the horizon, to five metres ahead. It is easy to see how hikers have become disorientated, lost and unable to find their way back to camp. There are decades-old rumours of falls off the cliff edge and missing bodies.
This is the place of inspiration for Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel, The Lost World - a land of prehistoric creatures, based on the lectures of the first explorer to reach the summit in 1884, Everard Im Thurn. It is easy to see how the mysticism which surrounds of Roraima and other tepuis forged the way for this.
Zoomed in on base camp far below
My guide was a member of the local indigenous community, Pémon, and he often spoke of shamanism and mountain spirits, telling stories of creation. Later, there were tales of warring tribes forcing the losers in battle to climb a tepui and commit suicide by jumping off the top. He pointed out plants so rare that they had no name, apparently unrecorded in science, and talked through the medicinal properties of others.
My little frog had been named though - Oreophrynella quelchii. Oreo, for short.
Roraima was a taste of true adventure, wilderness beyond the safety of easy back-up plans. This was a demanding hike in a dangerous country; I loved it, every single painful minute.
Travellers should read the FCO advice for Venezuela before deciding to visit, due to ongoing instability. Official travel advice has changed since my visit, to ‘advise against all but essential travel’ with some areas of ‘advise against all travel’.