WALKING ON THE MOON
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 hunters.
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.
Speculation, at 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 the imagination.
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 from Georgetown.
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.
Pagoda labyrinths, 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 beauty."
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.
Of 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;