A few hours after dawn, I stood on a dusty road beside a rundown Venezuelan bus wearing nothing but boxers.
The mostly rural and indigenous passengers look on with emotions I couldn’t quite read: disgust, sympathy, embarrassment? We were on the final stretch of a bumpy overnight ride to Santa Elena de Uairén when we reached a military checkpoint, and a young guard who saw my U.S. passport pulled me and only me off the bus. As the passengers patiently waited, the guard proceeded to search every corner of my bag and make me strip to my underwear as he hunted for the stack of U.S. bills he knew I had. In Venezuela, street exchanges are double the government-mandated rate, so crisp greenbacks are essential for budget travel. My youthful days of hiding cannabis came in handy, and the guard finally freed me without scoring a single Jackson, Grant or Benji.
I was on my way to conquer the most mysterious mountain of the Americas, and this military strip search was unfortunately not the worst thing that happened to me.
Buried deep in the Gran Sabana grassland where the outer edges of Venezuela, Brazil and Guyana meet, Mount Roraima is a mystical tabletop mountain that seemingly floats in the clouds like an otherworldly island. With a rectangular stone-box shape, the mountain is nine miles long and five miles wide with sheer vertical cliffs on all sides. In 2004, National Geographic wrote that the mountain is “ancient even by geological-time standards,” suggesting the Precambrian sandstone might date back more than 1.6 billion years. The indigenous Pemón describe Roraima and the other box-shaped mountains as tepui, or “house of the gods,” after the strange creatures they believe roamed the plateau summits. They are among the earth’s old formations, and in terms of evolutionary activity, some suggest the underexplored tepuis are more impressive than Galápagos.
The first-known explorer to reach Roraima’s peak did so 132 years ago, and the full journey to the mountain and up its slopes took a malaria-filled three and a half months. Our ragtag band of backpackers would make the round-trip trek in six days, most of which involved crossing through Canaima National Park to the remote tepui.
The team of guides and porters included indigenous locals and a charming Guyanese teen on his first tourist excursion, and the trekkers included a thirty-something Argentine couple, a Dutch man whose wife stayed in town, an attractive Venezuelan couple from Margarita Island, an atypically friendly Frenchman, a Brazilian from São Paulo state and an affable German I previously met on a three-day journey to Angel Falls. On day one, the Argentine couple in particular stood out.
“This is his idea,” said the woman, pointing to her boyfriend, with a slightly bitter chuckle. “He made me do this. I’m more a Paris girl. I like to shop.”
She probably meant Paris, France, though a Paris Hilton reference is not outside the realm of possibility. Her emotional breakdown would come on the fourth day after squatting behind one too many rocks, and an assistant guide had to take the couple back to camp midday. Still, I was the hiker who ultimately caused the biggest headache.
In the late afternoon on day two, we reached a shared campground that included returning hikers who just descended the summit. I headed to a ravine about 300 feet from camp to refill my water bottle, and as I walked along ledge to a trail that descended to the stream, the cliff crumbled. I fell backwards approximately six feet down to the rock-strewn water. Instant flashes of cracking my skull raced through my frontal lobe, but it was my right arm that took the blunt of the damage. Though no bones broke, the arm experienced a bloody tear that stretched from my elbow to a few inches below my wrist. Half a dozen people arrived within moments to help.
In an unusual circumstance for a Gen Xer, I arrived to camp before most of my much younger travel mates, but a guide from the descending trek immediately took charge. He used water from his bottle to clean the wound and then dried it. A hiker from his group brought a medium-sized bottle of Listerine, which was used to disinfect the wound. It stung like hell. The guide expertly wrapped my arm, and the hiker graciously donated the rest of his Listerine. When my guide arrived and learned about the injury, he laid all the cards on the table.
“You have two options,” he declared in a matter-of-fact tone. “First, you can head back to town with the group that just descended the mountain. I spoke with the guide, and he is happy to take you.”
“And option two?”
“You continue on the trek, but if an infection develops, it will be a problem. Vehicles cannot make it out here or go up the mountain. You would have to pay more than $7,000 for a helicopter evacuation, and that could take a week or more.”
I came this far… it had to be option two. At dinner, I explained the situation to my fellow travelers. My back hurt worse than the arm, but I fortunately had several hydrocodone pills that I recently bought over-the-counter in Antigua, Guatemala. What I really needed, though, were antibiotics, and none were to be found among my trekking group. The following morning came the ascent.
Geologists believe the tepuis were a contiguous landform when the African and American continents made up the single Pangaea landmass, but the continental drift broke up the rock formations into the Pakaraima Mountain Range. Some tepui summits are only a few square miles in size, but Roraima is the tallest surpassing 9,000 feet at its apex, Maverick Rock, on the south side of the plateau. With sheer cliff face on all sides, the mountain summits are extremely isolated, and the evolutionary impact produced exotic plants and animals whose closet relatives are found on neighboring tepuis.
While searching for the golden city of El Dorado in the late-16th century, Sir Walter Raleigh became the first European explorer to set eyes on the “mountain of crystal.” Nearly three centuries later in 1884, Everard Im Thurn and Harry Perks became the first Europeans to reach the summit climbing a ramp-like slope that tour groups still use today. “We shall behold that which has never been observed since the beginning of the world,” wrote Thurn shortly before reaching the summit, a feat that inspired a landmark literary work a few decades later.
Taking a break from penning Sherlock Holmes adventures, British writer Arthur Conan Doyle authored what is arguably the first novel about dinosaurs. Inspired by Thurn’s account of Roraima, Doyle wrote the 1912 classic The Lost World about explorers ascending a South American tepui overrun with dinosaurs and ape-men. Film adaptations followed in 1925, 1960, 1992, 1998 and 2001, plus several radio and television series. Likewise, the novel clearly influenced Jurassic Park and its sequel, The Lost World. Our backpacking group did not encounter any pterodactyls, but many other amazing sights crossed our path.
The mountain ascent took several grueling hours that, at points, involved waterfall drizzle soaking our clothes and shoes. Shortly after reaching the summit and setting up camp near a sheltering rock wall, the group set off on its first adventure. The guide took us across warped black terrain, under naturally sculptured archways and through surreal stone forests with stacks of saucer-shaped rocks resembling pine-tree silhouettes. Millions of years of erosion turned rock formations into works of art seemingly forged in a Salvador Dali hallucination. Some have names like the Car and the Window that reflect familiar shapes. Equally trippy, the flora and fauna ranged from gumball-sized black toads to carnivorous plants, and the visual and emotional surge sparked a visceral sense of celestial travel. In fact, a Roraima trek reported in The New York Times in 2004 titled the story “A Trip to the Moon.”
We eventually reached a stunning vantage point at Roraima’s edge where gorgeous narrow waterfalls dropped in straight vertical lines. The savannah stretched its wings beneath us with other tepuis dotting the landscape. As is apt to happen on the plateau, a Halloween-worthy fog eerily rolled in obstructing our views, so a handful of us would return early on our final day for one last panoramic glimpse, which was well worth the effort. The following morning on day four, the guide discussed the Triple Point (Punto Triple) where Guyana, Brazil and Venezuela converge on the summit, but he said it was a several-hour trek each way that he did not recommend. Instead, with only one full day atop Roraima, he took us to several dreamlike spots closer to camp. Two in particular stood out.
The first spot, commonly referred to as the Valley of Crystals (Bahia de Cristal), sparkled with thousands of quartz crystals adorning the ground and protruding rock formations. Taking crystals home is forbidden, and any guide who allows it will permanently lose his tour license, but simply standing amidst the glittery terrain must be New Age nirvana for mystics. Next, the group headed to a series of radiant rock pools with surface water as crystal clear as spotless glass. At this elevation, the water temperature was in the low 40s, Fahrenheit, so I was one of the few trekkers to soak in the green- and gold-colored pools. Already wet, I repeated the feat an hour later when we reached another rock pool deep inside a mountaintop cave system. This time, I was only the only taker.
Despite my injuries, I surprisingly managed better than expected, though it required substantial more work for our guide. Several times per day, he had to clean my wound, disinfect it with Listerine and rewrap my arm with a new bandage. It was during just such a wrapping on the fifth morning before the descent that I got hit with the trip’s biggest surprise.
The boyfriend of “Paris Girl” walked by during the wound dressing, and I jokingly asked, “Any chance you are a doctor?”
“Yes, we both are,” he said coolly.
“Yes, my girlfriend and I are both doctors, but we are on vacation,” he replied.
“And you have antibiotics?”
“Not enough to share,” he said with a slightly apologetic tone.
As we descended the mountain, word of the “vacationing doctors” spread like church gossip at a potluck, but the real irony happened at camp that night. We shared the grounds with trekkers just starting out, and the good doctors held court at a table describing their adventures—minus the teary-eyed breakdown, of course—to the group set to ascend the next morning.
A girl at the table called me over to ask what happened to my arm, and after I told the story, she exclaimed, “Wow! You were so lucky to have two doctors in your group!”
After a beat of silence, I replied, “I was very lucky. They took care of me the entire trip.”
As the second-day trekkers patted the couple on the back like altruistic heroes, the doctors’ facial expressions turned several shades of shame. The next morning, Paris Girl brought me medicine as we headed out on our final stretch back to civilization.
Better late than never.