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.