Mount Roraima in South America – A Seven Day Hike to a Natural Wonder

Mount Roraima in South America – A Seven Day Hike to a Natural Wonder

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It rises like a fortress, with cliffs hundreds of metres high, guarding an otherworldly landscape. Roraima is the tallest of South America's ancient flat-top mountains in the Canaima National Park. Three countries – Venezuela, Guyana and Brazil – lay claim to parts of this immense formation. Only the most dedicated hikers make the 7-day trek here.

Drawn by a desire to see its unique natural treasures. The journey reveals the story of a struggle against a race for riches, and the people trying to preserve what remains. Let me show you the wonders hidden at the top of Mount Roraima.

My journey to Roraima starts more than 1,000 kilometers away, in the Venezuelan capital Caracas. It's the night before my trip to Roraima. And as usual I have left it to the last minute to pack.

We'll be carrying everything on our backs, including our tents. These are my essentials, including the all-important Uno cards. I think I'm going to have to repack. I'm joining a group, driving across the country with all our supplies. My new friends are all Venezuelans, some of whom have returned from abroad to take the hike. Roraima! On the road, we quickly encounter one of Venezuela's most frequent problems – finding fuel, even though the country produces oil.

These cars aren't parked. They're waiting in a queue to get subsidized gasoline. Some people wait overnight to fill up. Our drivers are bringing their own supply for our two day roadtrip.

Just when we get going, a roadblock slows us down. The Guardia Nacional normally just check IDs. These ones check everything, slowly. While getting their weekly haircut. For 4 hours.

Finally they let us go. Venezuela's extractive industries are up and firing. Oil refineries flare their gas and smoke the sky. The next day, we pass through the Orinoco Mining Arc, a territory rich in mineral resources. There are parts of Venezuela where you can shop with pure gold. We're driving now through the east of Venezuela, and from the side of the road you can see gold mines. Some of them have permits but many are illegal.

Last night I met a man who works in one of the mines. And he told me that he knows of 8 people who have died in the last 2 years in his mine alone from the sand and the mud collapsing on top of them. Workers here are often paid in pure gold. And they use it to shop. This man is paying at a restaurant with half a gram. Businesses here have scales to weigh the gold.

But such riches attract trouble. These towns are ruled by gangs. We pass through as quickly as we can. The thirst for gold also threatens mountains such as Roraima, as we'll see when we get to the top. Kumarakapay is the town closest to Roraima.

It sits on the Gran Sabana, an expanse of plains which stretch along Venezuela's south-east. Jhonattan Delgado will guide us from here to the mountaintop. He's got something to fire us up for our hike – a spicy sauce made with insects.

At this time of year, they use termites. It takes a whole day to collect enough termites for one jar. Our group tries it on our typical Venezuelan breakfast of scrambled eggs and arepas. The termites don't add spice – the aji chilli peppers bring that. But they do add an unusual sweet-sour flavour and extra crunch. Roraima draws us nearer.

We leave the vehicles, and prepare for the big walk. We're carrying our own clothes and tents. But all our food is being carried by hard-working porters. Señora Rosa is also to be our cook.

She's from the Pemon community, the indigenous people of the area. Only Pemon people are allowed to take visitors to Roraima. Though it feels like we've already seen so much, our real adventure is only just beginning.

We'll be hiking more than 60 km over 7 days, there and back. The Pemon people named the mountain for its hazy colour. Roraima, or Ru-rai-muu - means bluish green.

These flat top mountains are called tepuys. Some of those cliffs are more than 1.000 meters high. We arrive tired, but our first campsite offers reasons to stay up late and get up early. Jhonattan's right. This campsite offers an incredible view of the mountain next to Roraima. It s called Kukenán. Though it looks spectacular, few people climb it, for reasons Jhonattan will explain later in our trip.

Before we set off for our second day, our guides give us a job to do. Roraima is cleaner than most other parts of Venezuela. And we're charged with making sure it stays that way. The second day's hike is harder than the first, with moderate elevation the whole way.

Today's walk is going to take us right up to the base of Roraima. But first we have to cross a few rivers. Here's a tip from our guides: the best way to avoid slipping on river rocks, is to wear your socks.

Though some of us still take a tumble. Another reason to keep your clothes and valuables wrapped in plastic. Another tip: Cover up. Long trousers and shirts defend against the glaring sun. And for those suffering from cramps, Señora Rosa has a remedy.

With every step, the great cliffs of Roraima loom larger and seem to grow higher. We set up our tents at the basecamp, and load up on carbs. Our camp food is simple and meaty. I m normally vegetarian, but not this week unfortunately. Dinner gives us a chance to inspect the detail in the sandstone. The top of the cliffs overhang the base – the giant walls lean forward as if peering down on us.

The only way up is this narrow green ramp of vegetation. The nearby mountain of Kukenán also looms large. Few people climb Kukenán. The Pemon people say it's cursed because of an ancient feud.

At sunset, Jhonattan shares their story. The evil shaman chased the good shaman out of the village. He escaped to the top of Kukenán. But the bad shaman's hunters found him there and cornered him on a clifftop. My wish is simple – I just want to get to the top. Today's hike is 4 kilometers, but it's going to take us 4 hours because of the inclination.

There is another way up on the Brazilian side of Roraima. But it is straight up the rockface. And even experienced rock climbers take 5 days to complete it. So this is the easy way up. It starts with a scramble up through the last fringes of the forest, until we're right at the rockface.

This last phase is the hardest up a steep ramp called the Paso de las Lagrimas – the passage of tears. In the rainy season it can be inundated by waterfalls. Some people don't get any further. He's now done it 88 times. The long slow climb gives plenty of time to contemplate the enormity and antiquity of Roraima.

Scientists estimate it is around 1.8 billion years old. That makes it one of the oldest intact geological formations on the planet. By comparison, Mount Everest is only an estimated 50 or 60 million years old.

It makes a mockery of our fleeting existence and our meager achievements. And the thing that I feel the most, being on top here, is in fact insignificance. I have suddenly realized my tiny place in the universe against this backdrop of this incredible rock. Imposing stone figures known as the guardians observe us as we enter the bizarre terrain atop Roraima. The imagination moulds stone into strange shapes. These fantastical formations have been carved by billions of years of erosion.

Within these layered cliffs, we find our shelter. These caves are called the hotels. Anyone expecting beds and showers will be disappointed. What it lacks in comfort, it makes up for with mesmerising views.

Roraima is sometimes described as a lost world. And that's because of a book that is supposedly based on the mountain. 'The Lost World' by Arthur Conan Doyle. I read this book before coming here,

and I don't recommend it to anybody. It's a terrible trashy piece of fiction which is full of clichés about natives and cannibals. It describes a mountain very similar to Roraima, in which a British adventurer visits and discovers a lush paradise guarded by its high cliffs.

And on top it's populated by dinosaurs. Of course the reality couldn't be any more different. There are no dinosaurs here, and there's no tropical paradise either. There's hardly any vegetation at all. And what is here is clinging to the rocks for dear life. Almost cut off from the world below, a fascinating ecosystem has developed above. Some of the flora and fauna here aren't found anywhere else on the planet. This enchanting flower is a trap, luring insects to a sticky end inside the pitcher plant.

The edge of the plateau appears, and suddenly we are standing on the top of a cliff several hundred metres high. My heart is racing, and I'm almost breathless. I really wasn't prepared for the shock of being on the edge of a cliff this immense. This spot is called La Ventana, the window.

Across the sea of clouds lies the plateau of Kukenán, the cursed mountain. I thought I wasn't afraid of heights, but this cliff is really testing my limits. My Venezuelan tour-mates are overcome with pride.

This mountain is a national icon. Coming here is a pilgrimage for many. Whatever problems exist below, up here, Venezuelans are reminded that their country is more than its politics and economics. Jhonattan tells us we re lucky with the weather. Some groups see nothing at all. Our view is half cloudy, so I guess we have half decent energy. Jhonattan has a solution for that – a swim in rockpools with special properties.

These crystal-lined pools are called the jacuzzis, although just like the hotels, they're deceptively named. Because they're freezing cold. The Wim Hof fans in our group get show off their stamina.

I stay in for as long as I can. But I'm too skeptical to believe in the power of the crystals, no matter what Jhonattan says. The jacuzzis are just one of many places on Roraima rich with crystals. The white and pink quartz stones crunch underfoot as we enter the valley of crystals. Though they seem plentiful, Jhonattan says a large portion of them have been pilfered by tourists – which is considered bad luck, and illegal.

We've been told not to take these beautiful formations with us. The park guards have been known to inspect people's bags to make sure they aren't carrying any with them. You can only enjoy them while you're here. But the greatest of Roraima's treasures are hidden deep inside its caves.

The rooftop shines like a starry sky – flecked with gold. Such riches are why three countries have struggled over the ownership of Roraima, as we find out the next day. Today we're walking to the very edge of Venezuela. This vast plateau stretches for more than 30,000 square kilometres – about half the size of Manhattan in New York City. We pass some of the strangest rock formations yet, like something out of Salvador Dali's imagination.

Today's destination is the one of the few permanent man-made objects on the entire mountaintop. Here we are on the border between 3 countries. We start in Venezuela, which occupies the majority of the mountain of Roraima.

But just a few steps this way, and we are in Brazil. Now Brazil only owns 5 percent of the mountain of Roraima. But it really has a very special place for many Brazilians. In fact, Brazilians think of the mountain as their own, even if they only have 5 percent.

Keep on coming around the corner. And we are in the country of Guyana, which is a former British colony. And this part is the most controversial because Venezuela claims this part and much of Guyana as its own.

And you can see here, while all the other countries have plaques and names, Guyana doesn’t have anything at all. That’s because the plaque that was once here, marking Guyana’s spot has been taken away by Venezuelans. It seems like Venezuela has claimed most of the best bits of Roraima. Including La Fosa, or the Pit.

To get in, you have to go down through a network of caves, formed by the erosion of water. Ice cold water. It's a real challenge to dive in. Up here, we've seen relatively few other climbers. Only 100 people are allowed to ascend Roraima each day, though that number is sometimes exceeded around public holidays. There's one coming up, and far below, we can already see

a large group waiting at the basecamp. One last sunset from Roraima's tallest outcrop at more than 2,800 metres. This is a rare view. Most visitors only see Roraima covered in clouds.

One of my tourmates, Carlos Juhan, has climbed Roraima three times, and seen it in all its seasons. After 3 unforgettable nights, we begin our descent, carrying all our waste to try to offset our impact. Tourism is also helping to protect Roraima. There are other tepuys in Venezuela being mined for their gold and minerals. The Pemon community here sees tourism as a way of defending against mining, as Jhonattan tells me at our next camp. The sun is punishing for our last day of hiking. My legs and back ache. But I spare a thought for our porters.

Some of them will reach the village and then turn right back around and go up the mountain carrying 15 kilograms or more. But for us, the trek ends here. Seven days, six nights, and every day hiking if not far, then hard. But the payoff are those unforgettable views. Standing on clifftops and looking down at the clouds below.

Just seeing the savannah stretch away into the distance. Roraima is just one of several impressive mountains here, few of which are climbed. Jhonattan is exploring a new hiking route to another mountain with special significance for the Pemon people. He hopes his tours will help create opportunities, preserve the Pemon heritage and defend their environment. Which are all good reasons for me to want to come back.

2023-06-28 13:08

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