Monday, March 18, 2013

Lost World

The name Roraima may not be familiar to most people, yet nevertheless it is a place that is famous throughout the world. It is one of the largest and tallest of the hundred or so tepui that are found in southeastern Venezuela, spilling over into neighbouring Brazil and Guyana. Tepui are geological formations unique to the area (known as the Guyana Shield): large, sandstone mesas that rise many hundreds of metres, vertically, out of the surrounding countryside. When they were first 'discovered' by European explorers in the mid 19th century they fired the Victorian imagination. The remoteness and inaccessibility of these 'islands' in the jungle, along with the exciting new theory of evolution, led to fevered speculation as to what may live on their summits. The most famous example is Arthur Conan Doyle's book The Lost World where a group of explorers finds a surviving population of dinosaurs (or a more recent incarnation in the animated film Up). When real life explorers finally did make it to the top of some of these tepui they may not have found any dinosaurs, but what they did discover was no less incredible...

Roraima (to the right) and Kukenan (to the left). Still quite a long way to walk to get there.

These days an expedition to Roraima is not the perilous undertaking it once was and over 30,000 visitors make the ascent every year thanks to a natural 'ramp' that allows an untechnical scaling of the rock wall (other tepui are not so easy and require a good deal of technical expertise). So I turned up in Santa Elena de Uairen, the main access town to Roraima, and asked around until I found a group of people embarking on a tour the next day. I was in luck as they were a young Colombian couple, Juan and Diana, who had decided to do a bare bones, DIY tour, paying just for the local, Pemon guide and arranging everything else themselves. That suited me just fine as it cost half the price of a standard tour.

The trailhead for the trek was a small village from which Roraima, and its sister tepui Kukenan just to the west, could easily be seen looming on the horizon, seemingly so close. Yet it's a good day's walk before you reach the base. I have been dreaming of visiting Roraima for many years now, but I had always imagined having to slash my way through impenetrable rainforest and perhaps swing from the odd creeper or two until, suddenly, the tepui would loom up right in front of me. Instead I was greeted by a vast, rolling grassland - the Gran Sabana. The sandy ground is too acidic and lacking in nutrients to sustain anything more substantial. At least it affords grand, uninterrupted views, although on the flipside there is no shade to protect you from the merciless sun. As you approach the ground grows gradually ever steeper until you're hauling yourself up by tree roots as you reach the vertical wall that characterises the tepui. Then it's 400m straight up.

The bizarre, otherworldly landscape that greets you on the summit of Roraima.

I can imagine how the first explorers to reach the summit must have felt. As you ascend the vegetation follows standard altitude succession that you would expect to see anywhere else in the tropics and then all of a sudden you round the crest and feel as if you've stepped through a wormhole to some other planet. The black rock, sculpted by millions of years of wind and water looks organic, rounded, soft, forming corridors, dips, rises, fluted columns, turrets, humps, tussocks. It seems as if it had been created by some living force that has long since departed leaving only this fossilised, lifeless, soundless (the quiet up there is almost oppressive) landscape as proof of its passing. Perhaps those first explorers were disappointed not to find any marauding T-rexes (and probably silently relieved as well), but that does not mean the tepui are lacking in living wonders. The bare rock and accumulations of ground sand are most inpropitious to life: nutrients, minerals and water don't remain and leach away quickly. To survive in what is one of the world's harshest environments living organisms have had to specially adapt leading to high levels of endemism with some animals limited to individual tepui and many probably not yet known to science. The most abundant forms of life are the most inoccuous yet simultaneously the most visible: the cyanobacteria and lichen that give the rocks their characteristic black colouration and initiate the colonisation process, slowly breaking down the obdurate stone to sand to allow higher plants to gain a foothold. The latter are no pansies though, often sharp and spiny with numerous species of carnivorous plants such as sundews, pitcher plants and fly-traps. Larger animal life is much harder to come across. Only three mammals (a couple of mice and a coati) make their home on the summit. Instead the most famous denizen is the pebble toad who is something of an evolutionary laggard, not even being able to hop, and who evades predators by playing dead and tumbling off stones. Needless to say the biologist in me was enchanted by every little thing.

The cute little pebble toad.

For those not content to simply look at rocks and critters the main attraction is to visit the Triple Point where the borders of Venezuela, Brazil and Guyana meet.A somewhat contentious tourist attraction for Venezuela as it disputes the decision that awarded the western half of Guyana to the British Empire back in 1899 and claim it as their own (not without good reason either as it seems more than likely that the British bribed the Russian presiding judge). But given that it brings in the punters they don't make a huge fuss about it. The point is marked by a white, triangular monument with plaques on its three sides (although the Guyanese one was removed by a nationalist Venezuelan some years back and the Guyanese authorities don't seem to have gotten round to replacing it, or no-one's told them). Rather nondescript really. Though it will be very memorable for me as Juan chose it as the spot to propose to Diana who, luckily for Juan, accepted.

Juan gets down on his knee but Diana can't help but laugh. Aww, the romance!

The next day, after visiting a few more spots on the summit it was time to head back to civilisation and let the next set of tourists up. Visiting Roraima is neither a great physical challenge nor an obscure, lost world. Nevertheless it is a magical, unique place. Big enough to absorb the visitors without feeling crowded or spoilt and, most importantly, admirably well looked after by the authorities and Pemon guides who evidently work hard to maintain the ecological integrity of the site (something that is not that common in developing countries that often lack the resources, and the people the education, to look after such places properly). The guides and wardens ensure that all rubbish is taken out, no 'souvenirs' are taken from the summit and that no shit is left there, literally - human excrement has to be bagged up and carried back down (perhaps one of the reason why many people opt for the all-inclusive packages where they don't have to haul their own crap). A model of sustainability and community inclusion that many would do well to emulate.

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