My trip to the Gran Sabana to climb Roraima, a huge table top mountain in the south of Venezuela near the Brazilian border, had a somewhat less exciting beginning than the flight that started Angel Falls expedition. It began with a 12 hour car transfer from Ciudad Bolivar to Santa Elena de Uairén. My driver only spoke Spanish and my language skills are limited to numbers and los banos (the toilets). Fortunately, we started early and I was tired enough to sleep through some of the journey.
When we finally reached the posada, a bit like a B&B, there was a bit of confusion as everyone around me spoke in Spanish and I stood by looking completely lost. The owner walked me a few doors down the road to the Kamadac office – the tour company that the trek was booked with. A quick briefing from my guide, Marisol, who thankfully spoke good English, and I was heading back to the posada armed with directions for a pharmacy to get more insect repellent in the morning.
Up early, I explored the dusty border-town in search of repellent and failed. I later learned that shampoo could be difficult to come by so perhaps repellent was a bit of a stretch. So I headed off on the six day trek hoping the remainder of my pocket-sized can would be enough.
Finally getting going, we set off in a big Jeep on a track to the start point with anticipation in the air – at this point I wasn’t really sure what I had let myself in for. The group was made up of a young Brazilian couple, a middle-aged Norwegian man (who complained most of the trip so I won’t include him here), myself, our guide and four porters. With a sleeping bag and camping mat tied to my day backpack, to say I was ill-equipped was probably an understatement. Somehow I’d forgotten that I’ve never climbed a mountain before and although I was wearing hiking boots, the most I’d used them for was walking the dog around the park. Was I making a huge mistake signing up for this?
Around 10 minutes in the path we were walking on steepened and we were told this section was called ‘The Proof’. If you can’t do this bit, you won’t be able to climb the mountain. Well, there was a lot of huffing and puffing but I made it to the top okay, although quite slowly in the heat. I was feeling happy with myself and just maybe it wouldn’t be so hard after all…
The first day of walking lasted just four to five hours but felt a lot longer. We were all pretty tired when we arrived at the first camp by the Tek River. Here I found out I would be sharing a tent with our guide which I was a bit nervous about. Scared that I would get more insect bites, I slept in a waterproof coat until I got so hot and decided I was being ridiculous.
The next day was more of the same, packing up my belongings from the tent soon after breakfast, hiking for five or six hours and then stopping for dinner. Here we decided to wash in the river/waterfall despite the bugs. I was quite sure I had more bites but it was hard to tell with so many making me look like I had chicken pox. It was great to be clean though finally – especially after sleeping in a coat and two days of walking in basically the same clothes. By this point we had walked to the Base Camp, it felt like quite an achievement and my body wasn’t feeling too bad – although constantly itchy when I stopped.
The third day was where it got really tough for me – this was Base Camp to the top and what was more a vertical climb than a walk. First we had a difficult walk through the jungle to The Wall – where the mountain goes vertically up. I found this bit really hard and my bag seemed like it was five times heavier with the continual steep incline. I even considered going back and giving up because the group were having to wait for me a lot and I was really struggling. Once we reached The Wall, we turned to climb parallel to it, up a ramp that is very hard to see unless you know it’s there. Here we were going up and downhill, zig-zagging up the ramp and even climbing up a waterfall to reach the very top.
To say this day was hard is another huge understatement. I might have run a marathon but that was when I was fitter and had done loads of training. Here I’d just turned up and said, “I fancy climbing a mountain today”. Well I made it, but only just and if it wasn’t for Marisol and the help of the Brazilian couple, Aline and Wyllyam, I’m pretty sure I’d still be there now trying to get to the top.
The next day we explored the top and although the clouds had set in thick there was still a lot to see. My guidebook had described the top as a ‘moonscape’ so I was expecting craters and dusty rocks. It was far from this and felt more like we were on the bottom of the ocean with lots of rock pools and brightly coloured plants.
We visited the Valley of the Canyons, the Cliff of the Oil Birds, the Crystal Valley (where there was once huge quartz crystals before they were taken by travellers), the Window (Ventana) and what we had been calling, The Car – the highest point on the mountain.
This was my favourite day by far, and wow had we earned it. Without our bags we were free to jump from rock to rock and climb higher and faster than before. We had picked up some techniques from our guide and I was starting to look like I knew what I was doing. The eight or nine hours walking was over quickly and we knew the hard day’s walking tomorrow would be extra tough – stopping only at Base Camp for lunch and walking all the way back to the River Tek (a journey we had done in two days before).
Thankfully I found going down a lot easier than going up, but I seemed to be alone in this. Although I had an exciting James Bond style roll down a steep bit, generally I was okay with the walking. We washed in the River Tek and too long dithering with my clothes meant I was brutally attached by the puri puris and mosquitos.
The final day was only four hours walking in the morning back to the start point but we were all extremely stiff from walking down yesterday and it felt like we were zombies plodding along. I wasn’t sure if I would be driving straight back or staying in Santa Elena for another night – but I spent most of the walk hoping for the latter and desperate for a real shower and wifi.
When we saw the Jeep waiting for us we were so excited; glad the torment was finally over and we were going back to civilisation – using a real toilet instead of a stool in a tent, sleeping in a bed and wearing clean clothes. We were whisked away with our guide to a restaurant for lunch and to say our goodbyes – it turned out I was driving back so no shower or wifi for me!
The Roraima trek might possibly be the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and definitely the hardest physical challenge I’ve completed so far. Would I do it again now, knowing how hard it was? Yes, because of the fun I had with Marisol and the Brazilian couple. They made the hard times, fun and when I should have been crying I was laughing with them instead.
Marisol was a fantastic local guide and she knew all the answers to our questions. She cooked all our meals, guided us across rivers, held our hands and even rubbed my knee when it was sore. We spent hours giggling and chatting in our tent when we were meant to be sleeping and I’ll remember the trek because of her more than the pain or even the natural beauty of the mountain.
Wyllyan and Aline were great too and have said I can visit them in São Paulo in October. They’ve given me a huge list of extra places to go and sights to see in South America – hopefully I can include some of them in my plans.
Next up is Santa Marta, Colombia in few days time after a border crossing at Paraguachón-Maicao. I’ll tell you how that goes soon!