In the mysterious setting of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, Kiki Deere explores one of the world’s most unusual landscapes.
The customs procedures take less time than I anticipate as I cross onto Venezuelan soil from Brazil and drive towards what is undoubtedly one of the world’s most incredible natural sights. My shared taxi from Roraima is also, ironically, cheaper than taking a bus – in Venezuela petrol is so cheap (at about US$1 for a full tank, it costs less than water) that scores of Brazilian taxis are eager to cross the border to stock up on discount fuel. We bump our way along a potholed road and soon reach the crumbling border town of Santa Elena de Uairén, where the driver skids to a halt outside my guesthouse, causing a cloud of dust to rise in the air.
I am here to explore the Canaima National Park, home to some awe-inspiring table top mountains that are among the oldest geological formations in the world, dating back over 1.6 billion years. These structures are also known as tepuis, which in Native American Pemón language means “house of the Gods”. The indigenous Pemón people honour the tepuis, believing them to be inhabited by deities.
About 200 million years ago, at the time of the supercontinent Gondwanaland when South America and West Africa were joined, the summits of the tepuis were connected. When the continents eventually drifted apart disruptions broke up a gargantuan massif, forming individual tepuis that over time grew smaller, some crumbling away. It is the remnants of these sandstone plateaus that can be seen today in the Canaima National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that occupies over 30,000 square kilometres and is home to over half of the area’s tepuis.
We traverse the large dry plains of the Gran Sabana, or Great Savannah, where jagged structures jut out of the earth, occasionally stopping for a photographic memento. And suddenly there it is, rising precipitously along the border of Brazil, Venezuela and Guyana: the awe-inspiring Mount Roraima, the highest of the tepui range reaching 2810m and measuring eight kilometres across. This giant tabletop mountain, featuring 400-metre-high sheer cliffs, stands in isolation, its summit often enveloped in clouds of mist.
With heavy rainfall year round, the top of this bleak windswept plateau is one of the wettest places on earth, and, like much of the area, home to extraordinary endemic flora and fauna. Over time, dozens of species of plants have adapted to the semi-sterile soil of Mount Roraima’s plateau by supplementing their diet with the flesh of insects. The pretty red leaves of the carnivorous sundew attract insects that soon become trapped by the plant’s sticky tentacles, which wrap themselves around the little creatures before greedily digesting them.
The rocky terrain of Roraima’s summit is home to endemic animal species that exist nowhere else on earth, including seed-eating and nectar-feeding birds that have adapted to the harsh environment. The most peculiar species here are undoubtedly tiny black pebble toads that are believed to predate dinosaurs. They are closely related to an African species, and were likely trapped here when the continents separated, adapting over time to their new habitat. First discovered in 1895 when early biologists set foot on Mount Roraima, these curious little creatures measure about one inch, and cling onto slippery rocky surfaces. They are unable to swim or hop, and escape predators by wrapping themselves up into tiny balls and bouncing off rocks.
From here I travel northwest to Ciudad Bolívar, where I board a little wobbly plane to Canaima, the jumping off point to the world’s highest waterfall. I peer out of the window at the Canaima National Park that spreads out below: meandering rivers make their way through the verdant jungle, wooden huts occasionally visible along the banks. For centuries, explorers and adventurers had spoken of rivers of gold, luring intrepid travellers to investigate these towering natural skyscrapers that to this day remain shrouded in mystery.
It was one of these explorers – a pilot called Jimmie Angel – who accidentally discovered the world’s highest waterfall here after being stranded on the peak of Auyán Tepui following a heavy plane landing. Unlike most falls the world over, Angel Falls is formed by rainfall and not snowmelt. Large quantities collect in deep pools on the summits of the tepuis, forming vast rivers that cascade over tall cliffs.
I later stand at the base of the fall in awe, as it plunges from a height of over 900m, dropping down the remote plateau of Auyán Tepui. Given the fall’s formidable height, much of the water has evaporated by the time it reaches the pool at the foot of the mountain and is soaked back up into the atmosphere to fall once again as rain over the top of these incredible peaks.
The jumping off point for exploring Mount Roraima is Santa Elena in Venezuela, a small town lying along the Brazilian border. The easiest way to get here is from Boa Vista in Brazil’s northern state of Roraima. Roraima Adventures organises 6 day and 5 night treks to the summit of Mount Roraima, as well as multi-day trips to Angel Falls.