An accidental adventure. Serendipitous and rewarding. However many times during the ascent, on the peak and the descent I would have given anything to be anywhere other than on that mongrel mountain in the southeast of Venezuela.
Mount Roraima is a tepui, or table mountain, that rises to an imposing 2,810 metres above sea level, nestled in the southeastern corner of Venezuela close to the borders with Brazil and Guyana.
I was sitting in an internet cafe in the small Venezuelan town of Santa Elena de Uairen having arrived the day before from Brazil. The border lies just 15km away. I arrived with very little remaining Brazilian reales and limited US dollars. No problem, I thought. I’ll go to an ATM to withdraw bolivares but while that is entirely feasible it is certainly not wise. The black market for currency exchange is thriving in Venezuela. Withdrawing cash from an ATM yields the official rate whereas a street exchange, be it the much sought after greenback or Brazilan real yields a much better rate. At the time, almost double. So, withdrawing cash from an ATM makes everything almost twice as expensive. I sat searching for a solution to my fix – little hard cash in any currency to change.
Scaling Roraima had not crossed my mind. It was, however, the focus of the guy next to me. Soon enough this affable Austrian asked me whether I would be interested in joining he and his girlfriend in climbing Roraima independently; that is, not in a travel company group that hires local porters to shoulder the burden of carrying food, cooking equipment and tents that inevitably weigh the pack down. Climbing independently, Katzi eagerly explained, we could save a considerable amount of bolivares. With scarcely a bolivar to my name the idea of saving money was appealing. After looking at some images of the spectacular mountain I was sold. Conditionally. First I had to remedy my cash flow.
I spent the next day travelling back and forth from Venezuela to Brazil. I hitchhiked the 15km back to the Brazilan border town of Pacaraima to try and withdraw money from an ATM at the Bank of Brazil branch. The machine didn’t accept my card. Dejected, I hitched the 15km back to Santa Elena with a young Brazilian guy who was heading into Venezuela to fill up his car with the dirt cheap state subsidised petrol. Plan A aborted. I resigned to withdrawing cash from an ATM in Santa Elena and settling with the lower exchange.
Plan B was born chatting to the Chinese owner of the lodge where I was staying. I was told there was a supermarket back on the Brazilian side of the border that will do cash advances, albeit with a hefty commission, that would leave me with an exchange rate roughly half way between the official and black market rate. In the circumstances it was my best option so again I returned to Brazil. Plan B succeeded but reentering Venezuela I aroused the suspicion of the heavily armed Venezuelan army border officials and was bundled off to be interviewed and searched. My lucky day.
At 6am the next day we took off from Santa Elena for Paraitepui, a small indigenous village that serves as the gateway to the trek to the peak of Mount Roraima. Finally we were ready, ostensibly, to scale the mountain. The three of us set of accompanied by our guide Antonio, a proud new father of a one day old son. My pack was heavy but felt good and I tackled the first stretch of the path with optimism and vigour. The most challenging aspect of the day was undoubtedly the second river crossing. While the water was only waist high, the current coupled with the heavy pack upset my balance to make it a difficult proposition. I was happy to negotiate the crossing without too much trouble. The surroundings were scenic, the path generally of a fairly gentle gradient and my mind was strong. We arrived at our camp for the night knowing that the next day would be the true test.
Early on day 2 we set off and after a few hours arrived at the Roraima base camp where the path changed dramatically. In the midst of jungle we climbed on a narrow, steep and rocky path. In some particularly steep parts of the trail I began to question what I had got myself into and wondered how we were going to be able to return this same way. Luckily the weather was clear, rain would only make the path even more treacherous. As we took a lunch break on the narrow trail I mentioned this fortune but of course I had spoken too soon. Torrential rain began within the minute and my half eaten tuna sandwich suddenly turned to soggy mush.
The next part of the ascent was the most testing of the entire trek. The path demands that you follow beside the flow of a running creek that winds its way down the steep side of the mountain, crossing under sheer drop waterfalls. With the constant threat of large rocks hurtling down this section of the trek it is certainly not for the faint of heart. Drenched to the bone and with the weight of the pack increased by absorbed water the journey to the summit of Roraima was converted into a test of mental and physical fortitude. Determined, I pushed on, focused on conquering the high table. I was on my own, no one around to offer support or advice. Just the mountain and I.
Finally arriving at the peak of Roraima in one piece was euphoric. The rain hadn’t ceased so we took shelter under a boulder offering some protection from the inclemency. Later we made it to our camp place to pitch our tents and settle in to our new home. The incessant rains and visibility reducing mist prevented any possibility of exploring the peak of the mountain to reap the fruits of reward for our hard toiling labour to reach this ‘lost world’. Instead, after hanging out a variety of soaked clothing articles to hopefully dry, I retired to my tent.
The following day the weather hadn’t improved. A thick fog blanketed the peak of Roraima. Despite this we set out to explore the moon-like landscapes. Antonio, our guide, who didn’t seem particularly interested in guiding during the first couple of days and was indeed largely superfluous to our needs suddenly was of much value as he guided us to various points of interest on the intriguing tabletop of Roraima. Narrow canyons, unique flora and fauna including unique endemic lizards, birds, frogs and carnivorous plants added to the mysticism. However our exploration was cut short when heavy rain once again reared and we scurried back to the safety of camp.
The highlight of the entire trek came early the next morning. We awoke to, unprecedented in our journey, completely clear skies and set off shortly after sunrise to ‘la ventana’, the window, to experience the most spectacular of views across the thickly forested valleys surrounding Roraima. It is extremely difficult to do justice to the supreme and sheer beauty of the vistas that surrounded us as we stood perched on the edge of the ‘lost world’ of Roraima peering over the edge.
After the highlight of visiting ‘la ventana’ in clear weather we made our way back to camp to pack up and to begin the descent. En route we couldn’t miss the chance of refreshing ourselves in the freezing natural springs on top of the mountain. I hoped it would give me the required vigour to successfully negotiate the descent. The way down proved to be as challenging as I had thought. I was more than ready to get back to civilisation but just as the ascent is a two day affair so is the descent. Antonio decided to forge ahead of us at a cracking pace in order to get to a camp where he can also eat as he had run out of food. Seemingly he also knew something that he didn’t inform us of. After the heavy rain of the past couple of days the more challenging of the river crosses was impassable. We had no choice other than to camp on the far side of the river and hope that we will be able to cross the next morning.
Luckily the river subsided enough to enable our passage the following morning. We’d made it to the final day of the trek but still had quite a distance to cover before making it back to the starting point. The path was even slipperier than the previous days and I found myself spending quite a lot of time on the ground. At one point I foundnd myself in hysterics, the only reaction that I could muster to my repeated slides. My ankles had swollen to Christmas turkey plumpness and I sang to pass the time and dreamt of arriving back. Finally, after hours of soul searching and coaxing of my own will I arrived. A large group of trekkers had arrived earlier and were eating a hot meal provided by their tour company on return. They looked utterly exhausted and they only had to carry their personal effects and not their food and sleeping equipment. I earned their instant respect upon telling them that I had completed the journey unassisted in this way. A kindly German woman offered me the remainder of her hot meal which she said she could not finish. I leant back, eating. In bliss.