Roraima: rewarding, riveting and.... rainy

Trip Start Apr 14, 2010
Trip End Apr 16, 2011

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Flag of Venezuela  , Bolívar,
Wednesday, May 11, 2011

So after leaving Beach Park with noses full of water and feeling cleaner than we had in months after a day gallivanting around in the water we set off on our next semi-epic plane journey. The first step was a late flight from Fortaleza east across the Amazon basin. To the surprise of everyone we had met and explained our route to, a few glances down at the winding, moonlit Amazon basin with its complete lack of lights beneath the plane was close enough for us: we had seen enough jungle and had no desire for further heat, rain, humidity, impenetrable large trees that blocked any views, biting insects and winding brown rivers full of things that eat you.

We then had a two hour stopover at around 2 in the morning in the town of Manaus before hopping on another plane which took us north up across more Jungle and the equator to the town of Boa Vista close to the border with Venezuela. Arriving at the happy and helpful time of 4am we decided to hang out at the airport for a couple of hours before heading to the bus station to wait for the first bus. However, it turned out that both of the fights that land at little Boa Vista airport arrive at about 4am and then the airport basically shuts down and everyone goes home. This resulted in a slight panic as we ran around trying to find a taxi 2 hours later and the slightly comical/ridiculous/annoying situation of nearly missing the only bus each day to the border, despite landing 3 hours before it left and the bus station only being a few kilometres away!

So, 3-4 hours in a hot sweaty bus, one rip-off taxi ride and two border stations later we pulled into the town of Santa Elena de Ularien in northern Venezuela: a place that can only be described as bizarre. It seemed to consist of mainly import shops with people selling stuff imported from Brazil at very high prices. Who is buying this stuff we are not sure. The closest town was Boa Vista (in Brazil) and they clearly didn't want to come into Venezuela to buy expensive Brazilian goods, and the next town in Venezuela was a 12 hour bus way. Bizarre. It also seemed to have a thriving trade in black market currency as we soon found out; if you took money out of a cash machine or paid by credit card the rate you got was 4 bolivars to 1 US dollar. However, if you took dollars, euros or Brazilian reals to the black market guys on the street corner you could get double that. Yes, double. Annoyingly we only found this out once we arrived in Santa Elena having not brought any other currency in to the country.  And so Sarah found herself in a taxi to Brazil to go to the ATM.  Three times.  Not something you can often say! We then had the slightly unnerving experience of being taken off into a backroom by the money changers so they could count out a literally brick-sized wadges of Bolivars that we would then have to carry around on us nervously for the next few weeks, up mountains and all.

Anyway, we digress from our hike up to Roraima; a stunning 3000m high table mountain not far from Santa Elena and the reason we were there. After a very frustrating day trying to pull together basic supplies for a 6 day hike which appeared to be very hard to find in Santa Elena’s profusion of import shops (we are not talking anything complicated here- bin liners, chocolate bars, sun cream, insect repellent, cheap rain ponchos.....) we met the rest of the group going up the mountain which consisted of two Americans Mike and Derek, a Spanish couple Miguel  and Carma and an Australian named Harald and bundled into a jeep for a ride up to the trailhead. We also met our guide, a bubbly little Guaynaian fellow called Frank (at least that’s what we called him) who also seemed very nice and would be guiding us and cooking our food.  And a thoroughly good job he ended up doing of both, between telling us ludicrous stories and giggling a lot. Sarah took a particular liking to him as he kept telling her that she
was “very strong” (although he then slightly ruined that by adding, “I am very
surprised”) and “a happy person”.
2 days earlier and having just left expensive Brazil we had opted to save some money and pay a cheaper rate for the tour which meant that we would not have a porter and therefore would be given 12kg of supplies on top of all our camping gear to carry up the mountain. We started to regret this pretty quickly as we hauled our now 20kg+ backpacks on and set off towards the distant-looking mountain. The first day was a beautiful and not too challenging walk through the savannah surrounding the mountain to the first camp, a beautiful place by a river with awesome views up to the mountain.  We had some initial worries about the food when Frank showed us the termites the villagers were collecting and then pulled of the wings of one and popped it in his mouth, assuring us they were yummy.  For the record they tasted like oily paper.  By the time we got to camp we had had a mostly clear day with the mountain visible all of the time. "Not at all usual", Frank told us ominously. The only downside were the daytime “puri-puris” - sadly not a new type of chicken at Nando’s but tiny little biting bugs that cheekily covered any exposed areas of skin with nasty little bites (after putting a bit of anaesthetic on so you don’t feel them) which developed a particular taste for Sarah.

The 2nd day got harder as the path turned uphill and Gordon began to regret his purchase of new walking boots in Brazil as they began to create massive, egg sized blisters on both heels. By lunchtime we reached the 2nd camp, a muddy patch of land spectacularly set at the base of the 500m sheer rock cliff ahead. We had the afternoon to relax and we spent a lot of time staring up at the cliffs above us wondering how on earth you actually got up there! That evening the weather took a turn for the worse and some massive heavy rain set in for a good couple of hours. Luckily our trusty tent once again proved itself mostly waterproof and we were able to hunker down in it and keep mostly dry and warm. We had noticed when we arrived at the campsite that there was clear evidence of a river running through the middle of it and had, thankfully chosen a spot where two channels ran on either side of it. It was quite amusing to watch out of the little window as a veritable river developed on either side of the tent. One little channel went right through our porch!

The next morning the weather was a little better and we set off up “La Rampa”, a very slight forested protrusion sticking out from the rock face that is just wide enough for a path. It was a tough climb up scrambling over rocks, roots and mud, scrambling over streams, clambering past waterfalls and, at one point towards the end, literally climbing up through a waterfall over massive great rocks. All the time, of course, there were precipitous drops on our left although near the top we couldn’t really tell as we hit the clouds that had gathered during our climb and which were to stay with us for the rest of the trip. Nevertheless, because it was fun climbing and with scrambling on all fours at many points it was actually less tiring (and less hard on the blisters) than the endless plodding uphill on a steep, hard track of the previous day. By lunchtime we were at the top marvelling at the weird, other-worldly landscape of swirling black rock formations, pink sandy puddles, rocky ravines and dwarfish flowers and carnivorous plants. Until relatively recently no humans had even been to the top and as a result the plants and animals on the mountain top evolved completely differently from the surrounding savannah.  It really did feel like another world and we were looking forward to the next day and a half exploring the summit.  All of the rocks were black, covered in algae and really slippery (as we discovered to our discomfort whilst waiting for Frank to arrive at the top and went wandering a little bit) and the “paths” were essentially just a faint trail of pink where visitors had gradually worn away the algae to expose the colour of the rock beneath.

The weather was by now pretty terrible and we set off across this incredible bleak and foggy landscape along one of these “paths” heading for our lodging for the next two nights called, amusingly, the Hotel San Francisco.  'Hotel’ on Roraima meant a small cave (aka the kitchen) and a flat sandy area with a nice big overhanging rock above that kept the worst of the weather off (aka the campsite). And thank goodness for the Hotel San Francisco because the weather for the 2 days we spent up there was unrelenting: cloud, fog and drizzle were only replaced by huge rainstorms that came rolling in every now and again. The Hotel San Francisco even had a waterfall by the kitchen cave that gave us drinking water and doubled up as an open air shower.  Sadly there was no hot water or any other mod cons or distractions and so there was not much to do after dark other than eat Frank’s fantastic food. However, we had a really fun group and kept ourselves entertained- at least until the customary bedtime- about 7.30pm! Our first night we played some Arsehole (the card game, don’t worry) and some poker (that we Dyces lost spectacularly) but by the second evening we went a bit stir crazy and decided to have a fancy dress party. The only ‘costumes’ we had were sheets but Harald had recently been in Morocco and so showed us how to make a desert headdress so we all got dressed up for Moroccan night. It was another WTF moment: sitting in a cave in Venezuela at 2,800m on the top of a table mountain looking out over the rainy, foggy moonscape wearing desert headgear. And it helped to fill a good hour or so.

Still, we didn’t hunker in the cave the whole time and we did manage a couple of jaunts around the mountaintop.  On the morning of our second day on the summit the sky above cleared slightly for a couple of hours and we headed out to “El Abysmo” and “La Ventana” [‘the Abyss” and “the Window”] both of which had supposedly spectacular views across the valley to the next tepui and down into the jungles of Brazil and Guayana. We couldn’t tell you as on both our visits the “Ventana” was firmly shut and the “Abysmo” was hiding its giddy depths from us. In another patch of non-rain (we couldn’t say it was sunny) we managed to climb up onto the big rock formation our hotel was sheltered under, scramble over some rocks, leap over some rather large cracks with big drops and gaze out at the unending views of barren rock and water.  The top of the mountain is a mind boggling flat area of 44km2 and wandering around it felt never ending – until you got right to the edge and realised you were at the top of a 500m cliff.

The afternoon of our 2nd day on the top the weather was so bad that there was nothing for it but to head off on a walk wearing flip-flops, swimshorts and a rainjacket to some beautiful clear pools & waterfalls nearby known as “the Jacuzzis”.  Again, sadly no hot water but by then we were so wet already it didn’t really matter.  The last evening the rain upped a couple of notches further and Frank started getting worried about how much water would be flowing down the mountain into the various waterfalls, streams and rivers we crossed on the way up.

Sure enough, as we set off on the way down the next day there was water everywhere. The waterfall we had climbed past on the way up was now a raging torrent that we had to walk directly through with all our stuff. This was a quite breathtaking experience as the massive torrent smashed down on our heads for the full 30 seconds it took to get through. In many places the steep and rocky path (still with that massive precipice on one side) had become a knee deep fast river we had to wade through. It was all rather exhilarating if tiring and wet and we were all absolutely drenched through by the time we slipped and slid into the base camp we had stayed at two nights before and paused for some lunch.

Sitting in our wet clothes under a soggy tarpaulin at base camp we all started talking longing of hot showers and warm beds when Frank mentioned that there was a hotel at the village at the trailhead.  We all looked round at one another thinking the same thing; can we make it there tonight?  The thought of not having to set up the tent again, of sleeping in a warm, flat dry bed and, perhaps the clincher, drinking as much cold beer as we could and not having to get up and put wet clothes on was very tempting.  And besides the last section back to the trailhead was pretty flat wasn’t it? We were sold. At least, the two of us and Mike and Derek were.

It turned out to be a bad decision. We made good time back to the river camp we had spent the first night but the rain was pouring down hard. We then had to cross two rivers which we had come through three days ago.  At the time that had merely been a question of taking of your boots and wading through shin high water. Now both rivers were up to our chests and doing their very best to take our feet out from under us.  Several times it was only the painful nylon rope strung across the river that kept us, and our backpacks, from being swept down the river. Despite this we still bit the bullet and set off on the final section to the village which we had remembered as a pleasant, mostly flat stroll across the savannah for a couple of hours. Three and a half hours later, after several strenuous ups and downs and having passed through several more massive rain showers, with sores on our backs and broken bodies we rolled into the village in the pitch dark by torchlight.  We have literally never been more wet, exhausted or in pain for the whole trip.

Having located the posada it was soon obvious that they don’t get many walk-ins as they looked very surprised to see us and not in the slightest bit interested in renting us a room. Not the warm welcome we had looked forward to. Eventually we convinced them to provide us with a couple of rooms and coaxed a hot meal out of them, and we then located the fridge full of beer and soon were feeling a lot better. In all, we walked for about 11 hours that day from the top of the mountain at 2,800m to the village at about 1000m and 20km away - and that was as the crow flies. We went to bed feeling pretty chuffed with what we had done and perhaps a little bit drunk. It was a shame that we were, literally, too physically tired to sleep well!

Of course next morning we did our best to look nonchalant and smug when the others rolled into town and we set back off on the trip to Santa Elena for many more congratulatory beers.  We may have ended up more than a little broken but Roraima was amazing, and given the weather the company definitely made it so.  Mike & Derek – see you in the US, Harald – see you in Columbia and Frank – you’re a legend!
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