WALKING ON THE MOON
Journey to The Lost World
Ever since Walter Raleigh
described a mountain of crystal on his deluded expedition
up the Orinoco to find Lake Manoa and El Dorado, the sandstone
plateaux of the Guayana Shield have attracted curiosity and
conjecture, botanists and explorers, missionaries and fortune
Roraima is the highest of
the extraordinary mesa mountains that puncture the plains of the
ancient shield. Its flanks rise sheer above the surrounding forests
and savannahs, reaching 2,800 meters. Its surface spans some 40
square kilometres, over six times the size of Gibraltar. In the
nineteenth century, reports given at the Royal Geographic Society
from this far-flung corner of the Empire convinced many members
that life on the summit of Roraima, isolated from the world, could
have been suspended in its evolutionary development.
the height of the great evolutionary debates in England, reached
fever pitch. In April 1877, only six years after the publication
of Descent of Man, an editorial in The Spectator pleaded "Will
no one explore Roraima and bring us back the tidings which
it has been waiting these thousands of years to give us?"
Various frustrated expeditions answered the call, but it took
until 1884 for the incongruous-sounding pair of Everard Im
Thurn and Harry Perkins, sponsored by the Royal Geographical
Society, the Royal Society and the British Association, to
bring back finally descriptions of its mysterious summit.
Im Thurn's account of his Jack and the Beanstalk adventure,
brimming with breathless conjunctions, is pure Boy's Own:
"Up this part of
the slope we made our way with comparative ease till we reached
a point where one step more would bring our eyes on a level with
the top - and we should see what had never been seen since the world
began [...] should see that of which all the few, white men or red,
whose eyes have ever rested on the mountain had declared would never
be seen while the world lasts - should learn what is on top of Roraima."
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle drew
on these vivid accounts to pen his classic, if somewhat far-fetched
The Lost World, published in 1912, wherein the intrepid Professor
Challenger encounters pterodactyls and prehistoric cavemen running
amok atop the mountain. Two Hollywood films later, scientists are
still finding new species across the reach of these islands in time.
The Pemon Indians that live
in Roraima's shadow regard the 'tepuy' ('mountain' in their tongue)
as the Source of All Waters, home of the Goddess Kuín, grandmother
of all Men. Its name means 'large blue-green mountain.' The Pemon
cherish and revere Roraima. Richard Schomburgk, in his early Victorian
expeditions with his brother, noted "All their festive songs
have Roraima for subject matter, and when we told them of the beauties
of Pirara [...] their comment was and remained: 'It cannot be nice
in that place: there is no Roraima there.' " In 1915, Mrs Cecil
Clementi, wife of a diplomat posted in Guiana, became the first
woman to ascend the mountain. She, like all visitors before or since,
was spellbound. "We felt smitten with awe and fear. We seemed
so minute and presumptuous to venture unbidden into the presence
of these towering monsters in a land that knew us not... Well may
the Indians feel that the place is holy ground!"
Even though Julio, my sexagenarian
Pemon guide, has climbed Roraima more times than he has grandchildren
(no less than twenty), he still gets emotional about the mountain.
"Look," he'd say, pointing to the mountain with
no more than his protruding lips, then pause, "beautiful."
Julio first climbed Roraima in 1952, "when I was a youngster
still," he chuckles. He guided the first expedition up
the mountain's twin, Kukenan. He spent three weeks looking
for a way up.
"Was he ever scared?"
I ask him.
"Maybe the first time,"
he answers, "but then I would whisper some taren (magical invocations),
and always brought my machete with me."
Julio's present machete looks
like it dates from another British expedition, this time in 1964.
On its blade, the words "Stainless Steel" are still legible,
but below them, only the upper letters of "Birmingham"
have survived decades of diligent sharpening.
We spent our first night
camped by the River Kukenan, close to the villages where was villagers
welcomed and fed Im Thurn. The settlements have long since been
abandoned, although one can still make out the flattened earth circles
where thatched huts once stood. From this point, Roraima and Kukenan
loomed over the evening sky to the east and north-east, their sides
etched with white-line waterfalls.
Roraima's south-western flank
runs at a near right angle to Kukenan's wall, forming an amphitheatre
of rock into which unsuspecting clouds drifted and dissipated.
Only rarely do these "sermons in stone" deign to
reveal themselves fully. The rest of the time they play hide
and seek, skulking behind banks of vapour. From here, Schomburgk
"gazed in dumb amazement at the mass of mountain with
its sparkling bands of water spreading itself out before me,
until it became suddenly enveloped in an envious veil of mist."
Im Thurn's Indians never tired of telling him that Roraima
cloaked itself "whenever approached by white men."
With up to four metres of rainfall a year in the area, the
fabulous mountain lies, more often than not, in the eye of
A Marlborough and Oxford
man, Im Thurn began his sojourn in British Guiana as a magistrate
in the Pomeroon district in 1882. There he lived for the next eight
years on a low hill, some 30 acres in extent, isolated from any
other dry ground by a great riverside swamp. Little wonder this
"quiet, unassuming chap" - as one Oxford contemporary
described him - would jump at the chance of attempting the ascent
of fabled Roraima. It took Im Thurn and Perkins, a Crown surveyor,
seven long weeks by foot and dugout to reach their camp on the Kukenan
The next day dawned
cloudy and misty - no bad thing for the tramp across the savannah
towards our shrouded goal. We climbed gently along the path,
occasionally negotiating sticky bogs imprinted, like a mud
logbook, with hundreds of trekking footsteps. Only occasionally
did the ledge that cuts across Roraima's flank and up which
we would have to climb, appear, caught in brief snatches of
sunshine. Until Henry Whitely, an enthusiastic ornithologist
and orchid collector, first proposed this route as a means
of ascent, all previous expeditions had concluded that Roraima
was inaccessible. Barrington-Brown - the discoverer of Guyana's
Kaietur waterfalls - declared that a hot air balloon was required.
In 1878, Boddam-Wetham professed exasperated, "nothing
less than a winged Pegasus could expect to attain the summit
of the bare red wall that raised itself for hundreds and hundreds
of feet." As we reached the base camp at midday, the
rock fortress seemed all the more impregnable.
The savannah around the base
camp is rich in grasses, shrubs, bracken and heath-like plants,
but also numerous orchids, including the yellows, whites and roses
of Epidendrum on long spindly stems. Here too, the pitcher plant
Heliamphora thrives, capturing insects in its sticky-bottomed tubular
mouth. The Schomburgk brothers were so impressed with the vegetation
they dubbed the skirts of Roraima a "botanical El Dorado."
In the forest above, dwarf compared to its low-lying counterparts,
the stunted trees and palms become thickly matted by swathes of
bamboo. As one climbs higher, green mosses wrap and muffle everything
- rock, trunk and branch - and all feels damp, soggy and slippery.
The climb is as
spectacular as it is capricious, clambering up tripping roots,
wood and smoothed stone, round rocks and boulders, across
boggy mulch, between weaves of trunks, until emerging by a
small brook at the base of the cliff. Catching your breath,
you look up through a gap in the canopy. The vertical wall
of rock thunders up into the heavens, shooting down waterdrop
arrows which explode all around. Boddam-Whetham reached this
point, but found the way to the ledge blocked by insurmountable
boulders. Im Thurn wondered if he too would be forced to abandon
the ascent, his doubts exacerbated by the broken-up ledge,
and, more importantly, by the waterfall which vaulted down
from the summit at the far end of the ledge.
Having spent the best part
of a week cutting a trail through the matted, soaked undergrowth,
on December 18th he finally struck out with his posse of Pomeroon
and Pemon Arekuna porters. Even now, after so many people
have Grand-Old-Duke-of-York'd up this mountain, it's hard
going. But it's difficult to imagine what unforgiving work
slashing this trail for the first time must have been like.
In an expedition to the Guyanese north face of Roraima in
1971, Adrian Warren's party cut a trail along the mountain's
upper slopes. They progressed only two miles in six days.
An assiduous amateur botanist, Im Thurn was also collecting
plant specimens as he went.
As we climbed higher, sweeps
of cloud would reduce visibility to a few yards. As quickly as they
closed in, they disappeared. When we finally emerged from the forest,
the prospect below resembled a conjured chessboard of forest and
plain, sun and rain - the Enchanter Light pondering his next move.
From here, we made our way down and round a giant boulder, before
climbing again towards the roar in the distance. The waterfall was
in full flow. Donning waterproofs for the first time, we hugged
the edge of the cliff and scurried as best we could over slimy stone
shingles under pounding waves of water.
Beyond the waterfall, the
slope rises more steeply, effectively becoming a gully between
Roraima's dark, menacing ramparts. Picking our way between
hundreds of boulders, islands of numerous ferns, Befaria heather
and Heliamphora struggled, gradually diminishing in size and
number. Soon we'd come level with the mythical summit of the
mountain, enter, as Im Thurn put it "some strange country
of nightmares for which an appropriate and wildly fantastic
landscape had been formed, some dreadful and stormy day, when,
in their mid career, the broken and chaotic clouds had been
stiffened, in a single instant, into stone."
One small step onto
a tepuy's surface is one giant leap onto another planet. It's
the Earth, but not as we know it. Stygian amphitheatres of
rock surround you, carved over millennia by relentless rains
and winds. Faces and profiles, animals and hideous creatures,
"apparent caricatures of umbrellas, tortoises, churches,
cannons and of innumerable other incongruous and unexpected
objects" emerge in their strange, other-worldly shapes.
The topography dances in a funereal carnival of invention.
Faint paths of rubbed-away lighter rock provide the only bearings
among the ghostly, striated rock. Vegetation is sparse, reduced
to weird and wonderful plants, lichens and mosses. Water is
everywhere, running in rivulets, coursing through crags, gathering
in crystal-bottomed pools, faithfully seeking the mountain's
edge from which to hurl itself lemming-like.
valleys of crystals, dark chasms and inky sinkholes that disappear
in the depths punctuate Roraima's moonscape surface. Star-shaped,
Catherine wheel flowers on long spiny stems, carpets of fluorescent
green moss, spiky yellow-orb flowers and carnivorous pitcher
plants cling to nooks and crannies, sparkling in the rare
moments of blinding sun. Stunted Bonnetia trees with wide
boughs and spindly leaves recall Japanese Zen gardens, the
primeval soup landscape washed over by Hokusai waves of brush-stroke
clouds. The odd bird flits and chatters, but otherwise, the
silence is deafening. Unerring. You lose all sense of scale,
any track of time. The land is old - these were once the valleys
of Gondwana and Pangea, brimming with gold and diamonds, charged
with Life's current for over two billion years. The landscape
is in constant motion. Fluid. Yet completely static - like
a giant cog in the wheel of time, slowly clunking the gears
of evolution, it has witnessed every wonder of Nature, and
every folly of Man.
To the north of
its surface, the borders of Venezuela, Guyana and Brazil meet.
Roraima divides their respective watersheds: the Orinoco,
Essequibo and Amazon. Roraima is more than a mountain. In
few parts of the planet are the elements more present. The
Guayana Shield's water cycle, from tepuy to forest to sea
and back again, resembles "Chapter 2: Hydrology"
in a 14-year old's Geography textbook.
Venezuela's Canaima National
Park, the world's sixth largest park which protects Roraima, fulfilled
all five criteria for inclusion as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The waterfalls which spring from the tepuys - including the world's
tallest, Angel Falls - weave together to form the fishhook arc of
the River Caroní, which in turn disgorges into the mighty Orinoco.
Where the two rivers meet, the Guri Dam furnishes some 70% of the
country's electricity. As much as 40% of the tepuys' species are
entirely endemic, their evolution isolated for millennia. Of the
park's five frogs in the Oreophrynella order, each claims its very
own tepuy. Although creatures little larger than thumbs are hardly
the stuff of science fiction yarns, regional expert and guide Roberto
Marrero recently published a map detailing UFO phenomena across
the national park. The tepuy's profile make the most Spielbergesque
landing site you could possibly encounter.
I ask Julio about
his experiences, eager for stories of strange beasts. The
only animals he's spotted, in turns out, are the foxes and
dogs that come to scavenge the visitors' food. Roraima makes
an inhospitable host. The summit is cold and damp, clothes
never dry, and you never shake the feeling you shouldn't be
present in this reanimated Dürer engraving at all. The rock's
eerie, Wagnerian forms begin to seep under your skin. After
three nights, you're ready to come down.
As soon as we began our descent,
banks of clouds drew in around us, and Roraima's drawbridge clanked
shut. Nearing the Kukenan river on our way back, the mountains slowly
began to emerge. We struggled across the river, its hungry waters
lapping at our waists and rucksacks. On the far bank, Julio called
me, nodding his head back towards Roraima. I turned to see the mountain's
walls glowing blood red, serene in the still evening air. "Parting
looks," says the old Welsh proverb, "are magnifiers of
A paragon of modesty, Im
Thurn insisted the conquering of Roraima amounted to no more than
"a long walk ending in a successful scramble" according
to R.R. Marrett. I think he was being bashful. Climbing Roraima,
then and now, is a journey to a unique lost world.
the many tour operators who organise tours of the Gran Sabana and
Roraima, among the best is Ivan Artal of Ruta Salvaje Tours in
Santa Elena de Uairén, by the bus terminal. Tel/Fax: (088) 951-134;
Cel: (014) 886-3833;
They also rent camping equipment, and are the Sabana's only rafting
operator. Ivan's father, Pablo, a talented artist and architect,
runs their campamento up on a hill above the town. They have two
comfortable and innovative cabins for rent.
You can also contact the highly-experienced Natoura Adventure Tours, who can combine Roraima with trips to the Llanos, the Andes and many other parts of Venezuela.