Deemed “inaccessible” by explorers until the late 19th century, Mount Roraima’s mystical nature and endemic wildlife continues to fascinate scientists and hikers alike.
There turned out to be no dinosaurs on top of Mount Roraima. But when the first expedition to climb the 2,734-metre-tall mountain returned in 1884, with tales of unearthly rock formations, strange, unknown animals and samples of 53 undiscovered plants, speculation of what other undiscovered species might exist on the mystical plateau could well be forgiven.
128 years on, the mountain still intrigues. A growing number of hikers each year visit its characteristic heart-shaped summit, which is protected by 500-metre cliffs covered in a thick drifting layer of clouds. What is more, its location in south-east Venezuela’s UNESCO-listed Canaima National Park (the mountain also crosses the borders of Guyana and Brazil) is among the world’s most unexplored areas. Here it rages above 100 other so-called table top mountains – known locally as ‘tepuis’. With an age of nearly two billion years, they are among the oldest rock formations on earth.
But its mystical appearance only partly explains why ideas of pre-historic species were formed. The mountain’s cliffs – which led early explorers to deem it “inaccessible” – leaves animals unable to ascend or descend it. Consequently, two different ecosystems have developed, leading to the evolvement of species endemic to the plateau – that is, they exist nowhere else on earth. Back then, nobody knew what they were.
Inevitably, when British explorer Everard im Thurn and companion Harry Perkins returned on 18 December 1884, having discovered the only accessible path up the summit, only to investigate small parts of it, theories were formed. Scientists talked of an ‘island in time’, forgotten by humans. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of Sherlock Holmes, were among those fascinated, and wrote his famous 1912 science fiction novel The Lost World where an expedition climbs a fictional Mount Roraima to discover dinosaurs and ape-men.
While that tale turned out to be little more than fantasy, the concept of a ‘lost world’ still carries validity. To this day, unknown species continue to be uncovered. About 30 per cent of the mountain’s plants are found nowhere else. Many are carnivorous, feeding off insects by attracting them with their colours and sticky tentacles. Another common sight is the diminutive black toad that curls into a ball once picked up.
The summit’s somewhat bizarre habitat also fascinates. Across its 31-square-mile surface, strangely formed rocks and plants assemble a terrain more akin to the moon than anywhere on earth. The wet climate – it rains almost every day of the year – has shaped Jacuzzi-formed rock pools, as well as a 10-diametre sinkhole, named ‘El Foso’, that leads into shallow rock caves. Elsewhere there is a valley of pure crystals and an unorthodox-looking rock called the ‘Maverick Stone’ – the mountain’s peak.
Visitors still climb the summit via the path discovered by im Thurn and Perkins in 1884. The surrounding nature remains unspoilt, graced with intact rainforests, green savannahs and heavenly waterfalls (the world’s tallest waterfall, the 979-metre high Angel Falls, is located nearby). It is a historical window to how the planet once functioned.
The hiking route, like 80 per cent of the actual mountain, is located on the Venezuelan side. A short but muddy, unpaved road leads to the Indian village of Paraitepui, based south-west of Mount Roraima, from where the hiking path starts. Most groups spend two days to climb the mountain – one to reach the summit, another for the final ascent – with one day reserved to explore the top.
A local guide from a nearby village is recommended. These are members of the Pemón tribe that settled here 300 years ago, and which traditionally believe that gods reside on top of the tepuis. They follow in the footsteps of other Amerindian tribes, which have occupied the area for 10,000 years. Today, it is tourists who are advised to follow in their footsteps, as many hikers get lost on the large surfaces leading to the summit despite well-marked trails.
Although the path is the only one that does not require vast rock climbing experience, there are still obstacles. Several rivers must be crossed – without bridges – which can be tricky due to constant rain filling their banks. Although the mountain is climbable all year, the ‘dry’ season between December and March is understandably recommended. Yet even this period is wet, particularly on the summit, which Perkins in 1884 described as “bitterly cold”.
The final climb up those majestic cliffs goes via a gradual rise on the south-western side of the mountain, known locally as ‘La Rampa’ – the ramp. Eventually, after hot tropic forest walks and cold shadeless climbs, an approximate two days’ hiking is richly rewarded with one of South America’s most stunning views, witnessed from a truly lost world.
Photos: Harald Toepfer, Vladim Petrakov [both via Shutterstock.com].