The lush, remote Mysteries of Venezuela continues to fire the imagination of the real explorer.
ExplorePartners and friends from Amazonas was there on this great journey to the summit of Mount Roraima. From the instant we set eyes on those towering sandstone cliffs rising sheer out of the rolling pampas of Venezuela's Gran Sabana - the setting for Conan Doyle's adventure fantasy The Lost World - it was impossible to banish thoughts of imaginary Jurassic inhabitants.
None of our hardy group of trekkers had even read the great man's book. Then again, Conan Doyle never actually saw Mount Roraima. Known locally as a Tepui, Roraima is the highest and most famous of a cluster of table-top mountains that furnish the remote highlands of south-eastern Venezuela on the border with Guyana and Brazil.
Formed by the erosion of sea-bed sediment when Africa and South America drifted apart, they are among the world's oldest geological formations. More to the point, if anywhere on Earth looks like the home of a long-lost line of dinosaurs, then this is it. Loch Ness, eat your heart out.
Reports of the existence of these prehistoric worlds exploded on the Victorian imagination at the same time as the first flush of dinosaur mania. Conan Doyle's epic tale stoked the fires. To this day they still excite the imaginations of even the most experienced travellers. Sir David Attenborough has a painting of Roraima on his living-room wall: "That mountain haunted me for 40 years," he said in 2002, after finally realising his dream and setting foot in the lost world.
Standing at sunset on Roraima's summit, with a view that stretched for nearly 200 miles (322km), it wasn't hard to see why. Just a few feet away, the cliff walls dropped 2,000 feet (610m) beneath us. No lips, no ledges. Straight down. Above us, a full moon shone out of a clear blue sky as a rolling bank of cloud like a giant tongue licked its way through the chasm between Roraima and its neighbour, Kukenan. And as the setting sun performed miracles in the sky, it was easy to imagine a time when Roraima, indeed the world itself, was young.
We were rewarded with this moment of magic after a day spent exploring a small but spell-binding corner of Roraima's summit. When we arrived at the top after a three-day walk in - two days crossing the rolling grasslands followed by the same gruelling route up the cliff face first taken by the explorer Everard Im Thurn in 1884 - the barren, craggy summit seemed something of a disappointment.
Its wonders were soon unveiled. The next day we discovered a weird landscape of gullies and hidden valleys, some as barren as a volcano, others lush with lichen, moss and stunted trees or covered in carpets of white sand. Often we would look up to see Tolkienesque shapes silhouetted against the sky - a winged turtle here, a petrified palace of the winds there. The home of the gods, indeed.
Over the aeons the summits of the tepuis, sometimes dubbed the Galapagos of the Skies, have evolved unique ecosystems. As many as 50 per cent of the species of plant and animal that live here are found nowhere else. Our charismatic Venezuelan guide Roberto, would suddenly stop to point out a rare orchid, a Catherine wheel flower on its spiky stem, a carnivorous pitcher plant or, on one occasion, an ebony-black toad an inch long. Oreophrynella quelchii is older than the dinosaurs and can neither hop nor swim.
We bathed in crystal-clear rivers and washed away the day's grime under waterfalls. On the summit, our favourite whirlpool bath was set in a bed of quartzite crystal. Some of these pools are sinkholes formed by the collapse of underground caves and lead to measureless caverns. In our photographs, the translucent gold water made it look as though we were luxuriating in a Turkish bath. In fact, the temperature was only a few icy degrees above zero.
On that second evening on the summit, we had just emerged from a sortie into one of the underground cave systems as the sun began to set. In the middle distance we could see our starting point, the Indian village of Paraitepui, where we had first met Constantino, our head porter, and his team of Pemón Indians. On paper, the distances covered do not seem that great - a round trip of 35 miles - but the steepness of the terrain (particularly the knee-crunching descent), the remorseless attentions of the puri puri bugs and the tropical heat of the grasslands should not be underestimated.
The tepuis are part of Venezuela's Canaima National Park and environmental protection rules are strictly observed. There are three fixed sites for camping en route to the tepui and all food and drink is carried in. Latrine pits are dug at the camps, but from Roraima itself all waste is taken back out. On the summit, home was a cliff overhang at the entrance to an underground cave system.
Rising with the sun on our last morning, I walked to Roraima's edge for one last glimpse of the incomparable view before we began our reluctant journey back down into the world of mortals. I found one of our Indian porters praying at the cliff edge as he faced Kukenan tepui in the distance.
"Magical words for magical places," Roberto said when he joined me a few minutes later. "Kukenan is sacred to the Pemón. They say it is the home of their ancestors. No one is allowed to climb it without permission from the elders. They call it Matawi tepui, the 'house of the dead'." He pointed to where a shimmering ribbon of silver was clearly visible, plunging from the tepui wall. "Salto Kukenan is the 10th highest waterfall in the world and the source of the river we crossed on the second day." The group is the anvil on which the success or failure of an organised trekking holiday is forged or broken and, in this, as in every other respect, we were lucky. Perhaps it was a fortuitous mixture of personalities, but a taste for Roraima moonshine in the shape of the stock-pile of Venezuelan rum we carried with us must surely have had something to do with it.
It was certainly a welcome reward when, a few days later, we took a light plane to the jungle settlement of Canaima, the base for expeditions up the Carrao and Churun Rivers to the base of Angel Falls. Delayed earlier in the day, we arrived at our jungle camp in the pitch darkness after a challenging six-hour, 50-mile (80km) ride in a Bond-style motorised canoe, a curiara.
With a clear drop of 2,684 feet (818m), Angel Falls is nearly eight times higher than Victoria Falls and 16 times higher than Niagara Falls. And it was on Auyan tepui, from which they plunge, that the Canadian gold-prospector and adventurer Jimmy Angel crash-landed his Flamingo monoplane in 1937, thereby discovering the falls to which he later gave his name.
Next morning, from our jungle camp directly opposite, we watched the cliffs change from red to orange and then pink as the sun rose in the sky and vultures, strangely graceful in flight, soared in front. After our adventures on Roraima, our day trek through the jungle to the base of the falls was a stroll in comparison, but the reward was equally compelling. To bathe in water that has just plunged more than half a mile from a summit is a mind-boggling experience.
But by this time I had become so immersed in the otherworldly atmosphere of the tepuis that scientific explanations for their existence were beginning to pale alongside the powerful local legends and my mind spun back to our adventures in the boat on the previous evening. I had looked up at the surrounding mountains to see, in the rocks, the perfect outline of an Indian's head. For once I had my camera to hand and, snapped a shot. Now as I sat mesmerised by the display above me, I flicked back through the digital display. And there, staring up at the sky from the craggy outline of the cliffs, was the perfect silhouette of an Indian face.
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