Date of Trip: January 2015
My brother and I were all set for our December 24, 2014 flight from JFK-New York to celebrate Christmas with family in Georgetown, Guyana. We planned to depart from there for Santa Elena, Venezuela on Sunday, the 28th, and spend the New Year on Mount Roraima as our 6-day trek spanned December 29-January 3. The unpredictability of transportation in South America proved itself, however, when our flight on the 24th was cancelled and we scrambled to book with another carrier. We departed JFK on the 27th and arrived in Georgetown around 2am on the 28th. Not much sleep was promised as our flight to Lethem, Guyana was scheduled to depart at 8:30am. Although I had packed a suitcase with my trekking gear, I had not done a dry run and realized I have to either leave some items behind or carry them myself as my brother and I had agreed to share a porter with a weight limit of 15kg. Our packs weighed more than the agreed 16 pounds each so we decided to get some sleep and to finalize packing later that morning.
After breakfast, we headed to Ogle Airport to take the Trans Guyana Airways flight to Lethem (US$250 each R/T). The ride in 13-seater Cessna was smooth enough as we watched the landscape change from town and fields to the broccoli-looking tops of trees and then savannahs. The plane made a brief stop in Annai to board passengers. We had visited Annai before and had stayed at Colin Edward’s Rock View Lodge which was a good vantage point for exploring this part of Guyana’s interior. The plane took off again for the small town of Lethem with its rusty-red laterite roads. We arrived around 10am and hailed one of the taxis waiting opposite the TGA office to take us a few minutes across the border to Bonfim, Brazil, at a cost of US$15 (G$3000). I thought that was a bit high, but we proceeded on. The driver waited as we went through Guyana’s immigration and customs and then dropped us off at Brazil’s Policia Federal which was close to the Takutu River Bridge.
The immigration and customs process at Bonfim was painless enough. We had our yellow fever vaccine certificates but they weren’t requested. We negotiated with the driver of a por puesto (shared taxi for five) waiting outside to take us to Boa Vista. He understood just enough English and we decided not to share the taxi so we paid US$80 (R$200) for all five seats and asked the driver to take us to a por puesto headed to Santa Elena. After about an hour’s drive to Boa Vista, I became concerned when the driver turned off the main road, but he took us to a depot for taxis headed to the Pacaraima region. The sole driver there wanted to charge us R$300 to take us to the Venezuelan border; my brother declined. It was Sunday, quiet, and no one there spoke English. Other drivers began to arrive. I had signed up for international data roaming service, but I couldn’t access the internet or my translator app to ask more detailed questions. After an hour of trying to communicate and negotiate, my brother felt confident about an older driver. I resorted to the ancient language of stick figures, symbols and letters on paper to ask about his fare to Santa Elena. We agreed to US$100 (R$200) for a private ride. I thought it polite to ask the driver if we could eat in his vehicle before we delved into the curry chicken wrapped in a dahlpuri family had prepared for us. We settled into the ride that would take about three hours. Our driver waited for us as we went through immigration to exit Brazil; I had to produce the stamped form which was provided to me in Bonfim and which I had carelessly stuffed in my purse. We then went through immigration for Venezuela which was in an air-conditioned trailer close by. The information we received beforehand that US citizens did not need a visa was accurate. Our passports were stamped, our driver asked for directions and to our surprise, he drove us directly to the hotel in Santa Elena. A nice chap he was indeed.
My brother and I had arranged the Roraima trek with Backpacker-Tours and we were going to stay a night at their hotel, Posada Los Pinos, before and after the trek, with meals included. I didn’t venture into the pool which a family seemed to be enjoying. The hotel had an indigenous Indian motif and provided enough comfort to suffice. We were informed that we could leave any extra items with the posada or tour company and we readied ourselves for the morning. I am a novice at trekking and tend to over pack. I didn’t want to wash underwear, socks or tops, which wasn’t always feasible given that rain, humidity and heavy dew may prevent items from drying. When possible, my high-tech clothing had these features: lightweight, quick-drying, dri-release, odor resistant, and UPF protection. Below is a list of items we found helpful:
+Waterproof sandals for camp
+Socks (5 pairs) – merino wool allows feet to breathe, reduces blistering
+Tops (4): long-sleeves (3); short-sleeves (1)
+Pants (2): shorts (1); sturdy/stretchable long pants with zip-out bottoms (1)
+Base layers (T&B) – for sleepwear/warmth, dri-release merino blend didn’t itch
+Waterproof/re-sealable plastic bags – to sort items, keep clothes dry
+Backpack cover – to protect from rain/waterfalls
+Rain jacket with hood – waterproof, breathable
+Gloves – to scramble over rocks/pull up
+Hats (2): to cover face and nape from sun/with air vents at head; for warmth at night
+Bandanas (2): to cover nose and mouth; to wear wet around neck in sun/heat
+Bottle for water – ours had a filter
+Energy snacks for trek
+Headlamp and batteries
+Insect repellant – 100% DEET
+Anti-itch ointment – for insect bites
+OTC pain relief pills
+Lip balm with sun protection
+Adhesive bandages – various sizes to cover sore areas of feet or blisters
+Anti-chafe balm or healing ointment – to protect/soothe sore areas of feet
+Towel – lightweight
+Swimwear – to bathe
+Toothpaste – allowed
+Multi-purpose biodegradable liquid soap (small bar of soap was provided)
+Separate toiletries bag with: individual packs of flushable moist wipes; personal pack toilet seat covers; small roll toilet paper; hand sanitizer
The next day, we departed for the office at 9am to connect with other trekkers who would form our group of 17. Our tour guide, Marco, showed us a brochure of what the trek would entail and he handed us the sleeping bags and mats we had rented. We were told we would need 50 bolivars (US$1 each) for admission to Canaima National Park. Staff loaded our gear onto 4x4s jeeps and we headed out of town for the two-hour drive to the Pemon village of Paraitepuy where we would start the trek. As we neared this location, I enjoyed the scenic rolling hills and we began to see the two tepuis that sit next to each other, Roraima and Kukenan. A tepui that was closer seemed like an old Gothic cathedral. My heart began to beat a bit faster. When we arrived at Paraitepuy, we retrieved our backpacks and met and gave most of our gear to our porter, Neville. We registered our passports and other information with the park authority, and after lunch began the trek to Roraima.
Day 1: I carried my backpack with a few items I’d need on the way. I wore a long-sleeved, high-tech running top to protect me given I burn easily in the sun. I also had a wide-brimmed hat, a wet bandana with hydrating crystals around my neck, and had put on sunscreen lotion and bug repellant. I welcomed the cool breeze as we walked across the open savannah in the sun. As a woman in my mid-50s, I knew I had to manage my cardio and respiratory rates and try not to overheat. My brother and I had increased our workout routines to prepare for the trek. He was in his early 60s and was concerned about arthritic knees and leg cramps. We went up and down some small hills, traveling over red or grey dirt and cobblestone-looking paths and through knee-high grass with somewhat stiff blades. I had shorts on but the grass was not doing much damage to my lower legs. We filled our water bottles when we came to certain streams which Neville pointed out. Although we were told the water was drinkable, my brother and I took added precaution and brought bottles with filters. The water was sweet and refreshing. We rested for a few minutes when needed and about four hours later arrived before sunset at First Camp at Rio Tek. There were other trekkers at camp. We realized that the joyous and exuberant group had already been to the top and were returning to the village. We were told not to leave any gear outside the tent or it would disappear, and we could fill our bottles upstream and bathe downstream in the river. The porters set up our tents and we had dinner and went to bed before 9pm after tiring of light by headlamps. Day 1 was a nice, manageable warm-up.
Day 2: We awoke with the morning light, had breakfast and by 6am, were on our way to Base Camp. Half an hour later, we crossed Rio Kukenan in our socks. The river was a bit high and the current was strong enough to push our feet when we attempted to step on the rocks so the porters helped everyone to cross. With hiking boots back on, we continued. Halfway into the trek I realized that although we were walking across the savannah which looked flat, we were always ascending with increasing altitude. The terrain began to be a challenge and had more rocks. I didn’t have a bandana to cover my nose and mouth and became more congested from dust and allergens as the days passed. My hiking pole was helpful now. More breaks were needed. There seem to be no cool breeze. Hills were seemingly steeper. Neville kept encouraging me and my brother, telling us that we were doing well and breaking down the distance and the time it would take to cover it. Towards the end, we had to cross three more hills before we would get to Base Camp which is in a forested area near the foot of Roraima. We were exhausted when we made it to camp, about five hours after leaving Rio Tek. Our group was there ahead of us but not by much. They were in their 30s and 40s Some of us agreed that today’s hike was more difficult than yesterday’s. Our tent was pitched and the two of us crawled in. Lunch was served and we were able to relax. Whenever I stepped out of the tent, I’d look at the yellowish trail that loomed ahead in the forest. We’d have to travel this path in the morning. From camp, the trail looked steep, almost vertical. I kept wondering how we’d climb it. Perhaps it just looked steep from our angle but it may not be so as we climb, I mused. The night brought strong gusts of wind and rain after dinner so we stayed in our tent until morning.
Day 3: After breakfast, we filled our water bottles and bravely headed for what I would later call the “Yellow Rock Trail.” It wasn’t a simple walk up. We had to climb and scramble over the rocky area, sometimes using tree roots to stretch and pull up. The trail was almost always steep and rarely horizontal. I was wearing my sturdy long pants and a long-sleeved shirt and now carried a light daypack. The hiking pole was really helpful as were gloves. Care was needed to not have our feet slip on loose pebbles or rocks. We then hit the wall of Roraima. Wow!! Some people touched it and took photos. Shortly afterward we came to a small fall where the water was touted as being the best to drink on the whole trek. It was! Then it was up, up we went. We trekked through jungle terrain and because it had rained the night before, we passed under small waterfalls. The wetness was chilly for some, but I secretly enjoyed it as it cooled me down. Also, it reminded me of my August 2010 overland trek in Guyana’s jungle up to Kaieteur Falls. We then went under heavier falls and quickly took refuge on a ledge with an overhang. Already wet, I put on my waterproof and breathable jacket which kept me warm and actually allowed my shirt underneath to dry. We continued to take small breaks along the way, remembering to take in the worthwhile scenic views of Roraima’s vertical wall, the trail we had trekked across the Gran Sabana, and the plants around us. I saw what I called “an alien plant” which was translucent and jelly-like with a curled top; I later learned it was a baby fern. I regret not taking a picture of it, but I had secured my camera in my pack to prevent damage from rocks and wet areas. I’d look down at the trail through which we had traveled, happy we had reached the point where we were resting. It was a natural rock staircase. It just wasn’t “built” to code.
My brother and I observed that some trekkers from South America seemed adept at climbing the mountain as did their in betweeners who bounced off the rocks with ease. We were glad that we had taken this trek seriously and wondered if we could’ve improved our training. I concluded that to make the arduous trek up Roraima easier you’d have to climb Roraima more often. The last two hours took us over larger rocks and boulders which we had to climb up and over. We took a final look at the gorgeous scenery before we reached “the Door,” the entrance to the top of the tepui. We started to see the unusually shaped rock formations; we were greeted by a sea turtle that was gliding through the air. I saw people sitting around nearby and though we had reached camp. No, we hadn’t! I groaned inwardly. We had to travel several more minutes to our campsite. The area was sporadically dotted with colored tents, some in high rocky areas around us. This was high season and there was a good number of trekkers. Neville responded in the affirmative when I asked if the fog we were walking through was a passing cloud. I thought it would make me damp, but it was dry. We continued navigating on top of rocks since pools of water covered the pink sand and low rocky surface. The rocks and the summit were black from algae which became slippery when wet. From quick glimpses I could see that the plants and grasses were different, having an almost harsh appearance. We finally made it to camp which was in a cave that would protect us from the elements. It had taken most in our group five plus hours to reach the top; we did it in six. We had arrived safely. We were all weary and hungry. There was no discussion of how difficult the hike was today. It just was… for everyone! We settled into camp and as it was New Year’s Eve, some celebrated with a toast.
Day 4: At night and early morning, the air was cool but not freezing. The plan today was to start out early to explore the summit closer to camp rather than hike to Triple Point where Guyana, Brazil and Venezuela meet. As we headed to the scenic point, Marco identified indigenous plants and he walked us through an area where small quartz crystals lined the path. He also introduced us to a baby black toad he had spotted in one of the plants. Along the way, we greeted other trekkers with “Feliz Ano Nuevo.” It was New Year’s Day and we were all upbeat. As I walked I forgot what it took to get to this point and it came over me that this was a unique and very special experience—there’s probably nowhere else on earth like this! I knew that the camera could not capture what the eye and other senses were reading, nor would this written attempt. At times I found myself silently breaking out into spontaneous praises to God with thanksgiving. My brother and I had made it after four years of contemplation. I wondered if the experience would result in building character and perseverance. As we neared, we saw a glimpse of the view that promised beauty. It was indeed! The clouds had not yet risen to the top of the mountain. Opposite to where we stood and all around us were scenes I imagined may have inspired those who created the animated film, “Up.” I sighed. We looked out of what is called the Window, the view between Roraima and Kukenan and we could see below the broccoli-like tops of trees that was Guyana’s rainforest. It was just beautiful, breathtaking and exciting! The clouds were rising but still beneath us as we enjoyed breakfast. We then headed to other scenic locations before turning to the area called the Jacuzzis with its refreshing (i.e., very cold), crystal-clear pools of water where we were able to bathe and frolic before heading back to camp. After lunch, some in the group headed to the high point that is shaped like a car, Maverick Rock, which offers a more expansive view of Gran Sabana. Others just wanted to rest and prepare for the descent in the morning.
Day 5: I kept telling myself that the way down would be easier as it was less strenuous on the heart; we’d just have to watch how we placed our feet on the rocks and boulders. The smaller loose pebbles were to be avoided since they could cause one to slip and slide down. Again, the hiking pole and gloves were very helpful and many times I scooted down on my bum as it felt safer. While the descent could be hard on the knees of some, it was my quadriceps that were beginning to yell at me. I didn’t need to be reminded to take my time. After all, I hadn’t come this far along to have an injury now and I kept reminding myself of this. While I found it difficult to take pictures during the ascent into the unknown, I took the camera out and began snapping shots of things I had missed on the way up. I didn’t see again the excellent specimen of the alien plant; it was drier now. It took my brother and I five hours to reach Base Camp where we had lunch before continuing another four hours to First Camp. After eight plus hours of hiking, I eagerly awaited crossing Rio Kukenan where I could soothe and revive my aching feet. Marco hugged me when we arrived at camp; we had made it through the most difficult parts of the trek and the whole group did so without injury. Now it was our turn to be the joyous ones and some celebrated with beer. A bath in the Rio Tek was welcoming before dinner and we readied ourselves for the last segment of the trek back to Paraitepuy in the morning. The sky rewarded us with beautiful views of the tepuis in the setting sun and with the moon and stars. From time to time while trekking, Neville would look at my brother and me a bit oddly and tell us that we were enjoying really good weather. We told him that it was answer to prayer each morning, for God’s compassion upon us on the trek, that all will be well.
Day 6: Sunrise was just as picturesque, probably because we were now taking time to observe the sun as it rose over camp. My brother and I started out on the trail at 5:30am. This should be a piece of cake, I thought to myself. As we headed back, I strained to remember if I had really covered some parts of the trail. Since I didn’t have my hiking pole, I had to scoot down on my rear on some of the steeper descents because I felt I’d go tumbling forward if I didn’t; others chose to run down. It took us just over three hours to make it to Paraitepuy. Those already there cheered us as we came in. We checked back in with the park authority and then we were driven to San Francisco de Yuruani to have a delicious lunch of chicken asado that was grilled over an open fire pit. Although it’s not part of Venezuelan culture, when I asked staff present for tipping guidelines, based on the scale of economy there, I was advised that I could give US$20 to the tour guide for him and the nine porters and I could add US10 for our personal porter. My brother and I decided to tip our porter separately to thank him for his kindness to us. We returned to the posada where we welcomed a warm shower and were happy that there was no more nature bathroom.
On Sunday, January 4, we checked out of the posada before 7am as Elys from Backpacker-Tours came by and informed us that the gasoline lines were long as were the lines at both the Venezuelan and Brazilian immigration offices; it was the Brazilians holidays. With her assistance, we made it through both security checkpoints in time to get back to the Federal at Bonfim, which was closed between 12:30-2pm. I wasn’t sure what time it was given that Guyana and Brazil were an hour, and Venezuela was half hour, ahead of the U.S. Thankfully, we just had to wait 15 minutes for the Federal to re-open and then we continued to Guyana’s security checkpoint. Also, we were now familiar with the taxi service: Santa Elena border to Boa Vista (US$100); Boa Vista to Bonfim (US$70). The Bonfim driver connected us to a Guyanese taxi driver (US$10) who asked if we had TGA tickets for the 3pm flight—we had—because no seats were available and others had to wait until Wednesday to fly. Talk about cutting it close. We were at the TGA office at 2:20pm, 40 minutes before the last flight of the day to Georgetown.
Roraima, Roraima, you are a special one! You have a warm place in my heart. I easily forgot the struggle and more so remember the achievement, your alluring beauty, and the secrets you reveal to those who climb to your summit. I liked that your terrain is varied; it stretched and challenged me. Notable on the trek were: Neville who stayed with my brother and me and guided and encouraged us along the way. I was touched by the spirit of the unknown South Americans who trekked alongside us on the mountain; they were lively and gay and I found this uplifting. I am also thankful for the congeniality and care of the 15 other trekkers from India, Japan and South America who made this a memorable adventure to the Lost World of Mount Roraima. Blessings to you all!