VENEZUELA 2002: Santa Elena and climbing Roraima


The insistence of the bus that I stay up throughout the night in abject fear did pay one dividend, anyway. It meant that I met Anja, a tall and lanky German-turning-Swiss girl. She was similarly wide-awake, soon inquiring if I was interested in doing some hiking of Roraima ahead. How convenient! We decided to form the basis of a group to do just that.

When we finally got to Santa Elena, some nine hours later, we were immediately hustled off the bus to a hostel, Casa Gladys. It was one of the better-known backpacker places, and obviously one of the more-organized. By coincidence, Marcin turned out to be there when we stopped to check it out - it was good to see him again. Unfortunately for him, a local ATM had just dispensed a receipt without kindly giving him the cash alongside it, so he would be leaving town soon. Meanwhile, Anja knew about a better deal down the road at Hotel Michelle, so we ended up getting rooms there instead.

As for Nicola and Anne, they went about looking for short trips to tour the Gran Sabana - I ended up losing track of them shortly after parting at the bus. So Anja and I took to our task of forming a group to Roraima, speaking mainly with Kamarac Tours about doing the hike. It was troublesome getting more people, though, even after we managed a third hiker in an American, Doug, who soon signed on the same day. Our options of finding other around town were grim, however, which we soon discovered. Apparently this was a mini off-season.

Eventually we gave up on rooting out more participants to our little plan. With a bit of renegotiation, then, we got a trip agreed upon for only three of us at the rate of $250. We were sufficiently satisfied - this was the price usually only for larger groups - as it proved that the other side of the off-season could be that the operators had to take what they could get, too. Not that the haggling was any less of a pain in the butt. A surprisingly bigger pain lay in getting cash for the trip, but finally I was able to get a cash advance from a bank teller - who plainly seemed like she would have rather seen me dead by her attitude. Welcome to service with a smile, Venezuelan style.

Otherwise not much else was going on in small Santa Elena, so we were ecstatic to get going on the trip the next day. In the morning we packed all of our stuff up for the trip, putting our leftover baggage in garbage bags in the operators' office. Then we headed out from town in a 4x4. There would be two guides, Terry and Rawlings (brothers from Guyana), plus Cesar, our required porter per the agreement with the Pemon people to trod on their land. The guides immediately struck us as amiable, even if Cesar couldn't manage a smile for the life of him.

We drove out for about an hour, stopping at the indigenous Pemon town of San Francisco to pick up some last supplies. Given the nationality of our guides, the town actually had an interesting history, soon relayed to us. It had apparently been given by the Venezuelan government to some Guyanese people who had rebelled against corrupt Guyanese police forces. They could never return to their homeland on fear of death. So... San Francisco. Not that it was a prize of town, though.

After leaving San Francisco, we headed up a very eroded jeep trail for an hour and a half to Parapetui. This was where all hiking to Roraima began by law, primarily to allow for control of the tourism. It was also by these very regulations that we were required to use a local porter for at least one day. In our group this would be done with a caveat: Because of previous problems of theft from these very porters, our guides would insist that Cesar be forced to march ahead of us. This way he wouldn't happen to turn around with any of their gear. The rest of us would carry our own stuff.

Standing near the parked jeep under blazing sun we next donned sunscreen, clothes, and bug spray. Then we were off, and all went well for the first day of hiking. But we quickly found the advised long sleeves to be quite hot. Indeed, we had gone with such attire to counter the sun, bugs, and razor grass (which was painful if rubbed the wrong way), but after only this first day we would say to hell with it and go with shorts and tees.

Showing more skin consequentially left us exposed to the puri-puri, a nasty biting bug which we would come to loathe. Exposed skin was its target, and they soon appeared in great numbers whenever we stopped for more than a few minutes, particularly in areas without much wind. Its worst by far would be saved for when going to the bathroom, an extra challenging affair since us humans didn't have tails to swat them away with. This help to redefine the word "rash", by the way.

The first day's march was quite sunny, promisingly treating us both to views of the table top tepuis we were headed to (in the distance) and the general expanse of the Gran Sabana to the horizon otherwise. Green and more green territory, we also encountered jungle breaks wherever the water plowed through on its way to a sea far away. A lot of hill-and-dale hiking entailed some ad hoc water crossings, but there was only one river sizable enough of note. This was the river Kukenan, which we reached at the end of the first day. That detail of timing turned out to be fortunate, too, since by the second day it would become impassable due to rain.

Reaching camp, we already had gotten a bit of sun exposure. Each of us had the telltale minor burns here or there where we had been careless in our suncream application. We were absolutely beat, meanwhile, but on that score it would turn out that things only would get easier. I'd feel only stronger with each ensuing day, as my legs got used to these sudden demands and kicked in with a better effort.

Food-wise, we found ourselves in for a treat - Terry was learning the ropes to be a Roraima guide and took this side of the business quite seriously. His upcoming role was his reason for being along with us, only one guide being typically the ratio per group. Already something of a cook, he took many camping meal basics and spiced them up heavily with a Guyanese flair. He loved telling stories, too, particularly about the violence in various towns and his beloved motorcycles. Throughout the trek he'd always seem on a happy keel, the perfect foil for any bad moment we might have. Which we didn't.

His brother Rawlings was our official guide. He had done this trip a number of times - about seventy-five in total. He thus proved to be amply knowledgeable, if a bit moody. In him we'd trust the crucial fact that we could drink all the water we would come upon without treatment. But as far as his moodiness went, it mostly seemed to center on Doug, who hiked significantly slower than Anja and I (and weren't having problems keeping up with him). This would get to be a sore point, if a bit unusual for a guide to let on.

Doug, the rounder-outer of our trio, was a lawyer with a warehouse of a mind. It seemed that he had traveled the entire globe after retiring some ten years before. In his forties, we never asked him just how he got so wealthy, but he was consistently sharp and incisive with his questioning to prove his former occupation apropos. Still - somewhere there was a story, us others felt.

This left our porter, Cesar, whose most notable quality was that he was surprisingly anal about his hygiene for an indigenous person. (This stereotype had long established itself for me in South America from experience.) In fact, he was perhaps the first I had noticed in all of the continent that kept himself so particularly clean and attentive to such details. He even took more baths than the rest of us! Very quiet, he was interested in learning both more Spanish and English - making him was a true rarity, sad to say. Bully for him, I thought.

The other tourist, Anja, was 29 and engaged. Very direct in that (also stereotypical) German way, she was also unflappably pleasant. Unsurprisingly, I'd hang out with her the most. She was a chemist who had just quit her job, now going through some soul-searching as to what came next and how structured she really wanted her life to be. Particularly for a German this could be a daunting task, breaking with structure and norms in any serious manner. It would be very interesting to keep up with her on that score.

Back to our story, come the first night we camped along the river Kukenan. As per the usual with camping, shortly after eating and some cleaning up in the river we called it a night as soon as darkness hit. This first night would provide my first chance to us a micro, one-man tent loaned from a friend. Teeny, yet lightweight for backpacking, I couldn't complain about those aspects. But getting in and out of it was another story. Mildly challenging, I found it best to position myself from the outside and just slide into it like a sock. With no desire to exit until morning after such an insertion, it was time to sleep - and there'd be no middle-of-the-night pee breaks, either.

Day Two proved to be much like Day One. Another several hours of hiking up and down, we ultimately arrived at Roraima's "base camp". By then we had long since come to adore any spots with wind we traversed, invariably taking breaks from the heat and puri-puri both. The sun still had baked us, regardless. But base camp now (appropriately enough) put us right at the base of Roraima, allowing for some great views of its massive wall. Our gained elevation possibly was making the bugs slightly fewer as a consequence, too, and on account of having freshly fallen from Roraima's heights, the water was colder as well.

As for fauna, we'd seen little spare a few birds, but the flora would more than handily make up for this oversight. The numerous flowers (orchids, bromelias, etc.) were quite colorful, and they were increasing steadily in number as the hike went on. They were the hallmark of the trek, after all. We nevertheless did manage to see some hummingbirds, plus some very colorful stinkbugs and a super-thin and deadly snake. Ants were always criss-crossing our path carrying large leaves; armadillo holes could be located here and there. Mostly, though, the wildlife seemed to consist of the puri-puri pests during the day and the mosquito death squadrons at night. Despite creams and the like, they duly received their ample share of blood at our scratching expense.

Day Three primarily consisted of the big, four hour ascent of Roraima's wall. That would bring us to its table-like top, even if that reality only held true at a distance. Similarly its inaccessibility would be belied by the green slash in the face of its wall which would serve as our ramp to the top. Without it the monolith was unclimbable, as were the vast majority of the 700 or so tepuis. Most had never been stepped upon by man, amazingly enough.

The climb up proved sufficiently strenuous to make it an achievement, often requiring both hands and feet to keep heading up. One could see why these beasts were let alone if only for practical aspects. There were some nice viewpoints along the way as compensation, however, including a waterfall spewing straight out of the rock and a much larger one called the bridal veil - which we had to cross through. All the while the flora was nothing short of stupendous throughout, with different flowers abounded primarily in shades of red, yellow and purple.

Doug was by now having a really hard time keeping up with us, perhaps an odd equalization to how I led the way on this day with a great deal of energy. Scrambling was always my kind of climbing, after all. We spent the entire day headed in the direction of the big waterfall on the opposing tepui (named Kukenan as well), always ascending beneath Roraima's highest point. (When we finally got there, we found that this point was called the Ford Maverick (which I guess it sort of looked like). This was even true on maps, I'd later find out.)

Overall it was easy to follow the trail up, completely based on the impossibility for another trail to lead off falsely elsewhere. Still, much of it was loose rocks and, with the work involved, and the beating sun, I seriously plunged through my water supply to keep hydrated. When we finally topping out, we were treated to a landscape of black rock that was would best be described as having a lunar quality: Our view was littered were innumerable balanced rocks and rock-shelf formations in a sea of black, lavalike rock. We'd meanwhile continue to take in ever more types of flowers, now accompanied by ever-shifting mists, random quartz deposits and running water.

The biggest thing we saw by then, however, was an end to the day's climb. So, after resting and gathering ourselves together again, we happily walked across the somewhat level top for another half-hour to arrive at the so-called "hotel", an overhang of rock under which we could pitch tents. This we did as mists constantly rolled and roiled in and out of the top area, especially in the valley separating the Kukenan and Roraima tepuis. On short order I'd come to think of this mist as the dragon's breath, so thick and quick was its motion. Eerie, cool stuff.

We quickly set up camp, eating while watching the cool misty air work its way further in to our campsite. Before long it had ultimately killed off all views beyond twenty meters, requiring that we take it easy on account of such poor visibility at night. Roaming the ragged top in such dark would be pretty dangerous. I'd nevertheless at least manage to take a splash bath in a nearby pool of freezing water, literally so cold that I felt balmy standing nekkid atop the tepui afterward. Those shocking moments aside, it felt soooo good to get the sweat and creams off. This glorious feeling would fade soon enough, though, as I didn't sleep well into the night: A slanted tent spot had me sliding down and around in the tent all night.

The next day, fortune shone upon us - for the most part. We hiked for about eight hours altogether, roaming across the top. The few viewpoints at the tepui's edges we hiked to were mostly clouded in, but finally we did get commanding views of the Gran Sabana from the highest point, the Ford Maverick. In between these destinations we admired flowers and formations; The cool breezes that came through at times were lovely. Constantly chased by mists, we felt like we had great luck in avoiding rain as of yet. One particularly interesting area was a deep, narrow canyon which some oilbirds called home. They only came out at night, otherwise making quite a roaring sound during the day that echoed throughout their small canyon. Taken altogether, we had nothing less than a surreal and tiring day on the supposedly "level" top.

For the night, Rawlings made caipirinhas for us that would shake anyone's boots off. Doug and I had a hard time even stomaching ours, but Anja was good for four. So much for gender stereotypes. By then she really had become quite the happy babbler; It was funny watching her plod exactly in my footsteps to find her tent that night. Yet again the evening mists rolled in with light rain as - despite my changing the tent's position - I had a night of slip-sliding sleep. Bathing yet again in one of the nearby pools called "the jacuzzi" was no compensation for that, either. Cccccold!!!.

Day Five started out overcast for our descent, but it heated up in a hurry. Anja and I stuck tightly together for almost the entire day, trying to be helpful while looking out for each other in the dangerous spots. Some of the descent was downright slippery, so we did a lot of handshaking to get down. Her camera had broken somewhere in the process, too, so I now was also doing a lot of the photo documentary as well. I never had taken so many pictures of flowers! (These for the most part wouldn't properly develop - the camera allowed pictures to be taken that were too close for the focal range. I should have selected MACRO.). Moreover, with Anja as my photogenic, teutonic goddess model, how was I to refuse?

For such an extended descent, my knees took a pretty good hit on this day, but I got used to it. The feet were another story, though, as I soon received a couple of nasty blisters on my "ring" toes. Upon finally arriving at base camp, I felt compelled to lance them with a cauterized needle, leaving a thread inside to continue draining the blister. This was a technique Rawlings showed me. Indeed there were interesting, new things every day on this hike of all kinds!

Also on this day Doug took a long time in arriving at camp, keeping Rawlings nervous about his safety as darkness approached and there was still no sign of him. By the time he did, we were all busily engaged in making a campfire from twigs Anja and I had scrounged up. I burned my underwear and socks from the hike, now past any final moments of further use. Standards had been officially lowered.

By then the weather started getting a little bit more sketchy, too, so Anja and I were both hit with rains when later bathing in the river. Our old friends the puri-puri chose that time to return with a vengeance, literally out for blood. Yet we weren't that bad off: We'd meet a couple of Czechs also at this last camp, coming in with almost no supplies - not even a tent! They made for good campfire company, however cold they'd later be.

Day Six found us hiking out in double-time. We were back in the hot and razor grass again. But, before finally getting back to Parapetui, Anja and I decided on a final pause to prolong what had been a slightly otherworldly trek. We passed a good while at the final lookout, tempting and then receiving a surprise shower that came in quick. Perhaps it really WAS time to get back - the gods were no longer pleased.

All was nevertheless good when we got back to the village, what with a cold beer awaiting us. With that in hand we soon jolted our way back down to the highway, then sped way too quickly all the way back to Santa Elena. Pleading with the driver ultimately to take it easy was futile. Back for an evening, then, in "civilization", Anja and I joined Terry, Rawlings, and Rawlings's family for a dinner and shopping across the border in Brazil. Like my other sneaky trip over the border into Brazil from Argentina's Iguazu, I was more than ready for some variety to my Venezuelan menu - this was perfect! Again I never even showed my passport, let alone the necessary visa. I instead had to show my yellow fever shot! Priorities, priorities.

Later that night I'd meet Marianne, a Danish girl. An artist, we quickly hit it off talking about music, cinema, art, travel, and politics. Indeed, as she said when bidding me adieu for the night: "What haven't we talked about?" I was quite surprised such a knowledgeable and level girl could be only twenty-one, to be fair. But I'd as equally not be shocked to find out later she had a boyfriend - especially with such beautiful looks for her long blonde hair to tress down from.

This Scandanavian princess hung out quite a bit with me over the next few days, Anja immediately departed back to Caracas and home beyond. We continued chatting about everything and nothing, eventually doing a tour of the various Gran Sabana waterfalls nearby together. These were all quite nice: One "allowed" you to walk behind it, another was like a mirror image - albeit considerably smaller - of Snoqualmie Falls outside of Seattle. A number of others ran shimmeringly over red and yellow rocks. Yet another could be used as a slide ride.

After this Gran Sabana tour, which required almost no walking, I realized that the time really had come to take it easy. My blisters from Roraima were still significantly impairing my ability to walk. The calves were still sore, too, but it was the blisters that caused the only real problem. I thus turned to my usual stand-bys: playing a lot of trumpet, also finishing a book I had started in Ciudad Bolivar.

Finally both Marianne and I decided to move on from Santa Elena. She was on to Caracas and home; I'd be going back to Ciudad Bolivar, likely ready to leave yet again ASAP to check out Angel Falls. Another hellish night bus thus awaited me, but I'd eventually get back to the friendly faces I knew in Posada Amor Patrio. Sounded good.

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