A Land Lost in Time

Discovering the extraordinary Lost World of Venezuela's Mount Roraima, by Roddy Walsh.

When Arthur Conan Doyle wrote his novel ‘The Lost World’ in 1912, little did he realise that it would still be inspiring adventure travellers to retrace the steps of his protagonists over a century later. The eponymous land in the Gran Sabana of south-eastern Venezuela is one of the most distinctive and remarkable regions on earth, its sheer-sided and flat-topped tepui mountains rising majestically from the plains below. The time-spans of the world’s geological features are usually impossible for people to truly comprehend, the difference say between a mountain being one million or ten million years being little more than academic fact. However, when you realise that Venezuela’s tepuis are almost two BILLION years old, close to half the age of the planet itself, then you really appreciate that you’re exploring one of the most ancient regions of earth. The Lost World is one of the great destinations in travel, promising real adventure, otherworldly landscapes and one of the most unique trekking challenges on earth.

The highest of these tepuis at 2,810 metres is Mount Roraima, located in the far south-east of the country near the borders with Brazil and Guyana (the triple point frontier is actually on top of the mountain). Roraima is the most popular of the few tepuis on which trekking is permitted, though popularity here is a relative concept – other than at peak holiday season, you’re likely to encounter only a handful of other hikers on the whole trek. This is partly due to the sheer remoteness of the region - reaching the start point of the trek requires either two long days overland from Caracas or a flight to the small airport at Santa Elena. The standard Roraima trek entails six days that, unusually for such a circuit, includes a full day atop the tepui to allow exploration of spectacular Lost World.

After a two day drive from the capital via the historic town of Ciudad Bolivar, we camped at Kama Wena before the start of the trek the following day. An impressive 55 metre waterfall at the camp, Salto Kama, which might have been one of the natural highlights of any other country, went barely remarked, a mere hors d’oeuvres for what was to come. We made our way by jeep to the even more remote Indian settlement of Paraitepuy (left), the start point of the trek and where we hired the local porters essential for the expedition. The tangible exhaustion of the few trekkers just returning from the hike hinted at the challenge to come.

The trek to the base camp beneath Roraima took two days, an undulating route across the hills and valleys of the Gran Sabana. After an initial, torturous hill climb in the searing sun (“that was the hardest part”, our guide Manuel said – frequently over the next few days!), we settled into our rhythm, grateful for any cloud cover but pleased that the earlier storm clouds over Roraima had receded. Across the Rio Tek, the first camp was at the house of our head porter, Wilson, overlooking a stunning panorama of Roraima and its neighbouring tepui Kukenan. If property is all about location, then this must be one of the most valuable houses in South America! We devoured a barbeque dinner, aware that every calorie would be precious in the coming days, and settled down for an early night. The night sky was magnificent, the glow of the stars above mirrored by the fireflies surrounding us on the ground.

Setting out on the path to Roraima (left), "house with a view" at the first campsite (right)

The route for the second day was broadly similar to the first as we made our way towards base camp, the sheer face of Roraima looming ever larger and more foreboding. We quickly encountered the second river crossing, the Rio Kukenan, and forded its shallow though rapid waters with a little more ease than the previous day’s attempt. Upon reaching the spectacular base camp underneath Roraima (below) several hours later, the challenge of summiting Roraima seemed more difficult than ever. We had now hiked for about 20km but actually gained little in overall altitude. All of the hard metres would have to be made on the following day’s summit.

After an early start, we set off on the five hour hike to Roraima’s summit, the initial route meandering through the forest which circled the base of the tepui. The trail was getting increasingly rocky and demanding and I began to use my arms as much as legs in moving forward, the trees luckily providing cover for what was undoubtedly some undignified scrambling! Reaching the base of the Roraima’s cliff was both encouraging and daunting, in signalling how much altitude we had yet to gain despite being right at the mountain edge. The dramatic four metre high fern plants here were another reminder of the primeval land we were exploring. We continued along the natural ramp on the face of the mountain, the only route to the summit that made scaling Roraima possible. At a final rest stop, the remaining path to the top appeared and revealed very exposed and seemingly near vertical sections of the hike (left). Trusting the reassurances of Manuel over our sensory instincts, we ploughed on and after a mammoth final exertion, emerged into the Lost World and entered a realm like no other.

The fictionalised versions of the Lost World – from the early speculations of Conan Doyle to the well-researched Hollywood animation ‘Up’ - are quite different from the reality. But, while you won’t encounter dinosaurs or hostile ape-men, talking dogs or huge colourful birds called Kevin, the real Roraima is just as remarkable, albeit in a more understated manner. The sandstone rock has mostly been covered in black algae, lending an eerie feel to the mountain-top. This is exacerbated by instantly changing weather conditions – one moment you’re bathed in glorious sunshine, the next Roraima is immersed in a thick fog that reduces visibility to a few metres. Subject to millions of years of erosion, the sandstone rocks have formed bizarre and oddly familiar shapes, some almost impossibly balanced on each other, and act like the world’s largest and most extravagant Rorschach test. Walking through the Lost World amongst the huge boulders and pools of rainwater reveals some beautiful and subtle colours – from the pink sand and occasionally exposed rock to the green leaves and bright flowers of the hardy plant life that survives here, including orchids, carnivorous plants and the ubiquitous bright yellow bromeliads. The limited fauna on Roraima is less distinct – adopting melanism to protect themselves from sun’s powerful ultraviolet radiation mean the spiders, insects, butterflies and tiny, non-jumping frogs are all coloured dark black and largely hidden. Birds are more prominent however, with hummingbirds often hovering fearlessly around our heads. But Roraima is at its most breathtaking along the mountain edges, where you can marvel at the sheer vertical cliffs leading down to the savannah below and appreciate just how isolated and lost this world is.

From our central “hotel” (an overhanging ledge that provided some shelter!), we spent a day and a half exploring this extraordinary environment. We were blessed with uncharacteristically good weather – apart from a short shower just after arrival, it didn’t rain for the rest of our stay, an apparently rare occurrence on Roraima. A sandy, pick “beach” with concentrations of crystals (much of the quartz here is now unfortunately gone thanks to some irresponsible tourism) led to a secluded waterfall, a spiritually important site for the local Indians, as well as the bizarrely sculpted “Jacuzzis” – bathing in the freezing rainwater that filled these was certainly refreshing! Unfortunately the classic view from La Ventana, or The Window, across the forested valley to Kukenan tepui was shrouded in thick cloud. The afternoon hike took us along and across an enormous canyon, Guacharos Crevice (left), that cuts right into Roraima from its south-west face, before detouring to the mountain’s edge for more stunning vistas down the savannah and across towards the edge of Kukenan in the setting sun. Every minute spent atop Roraima was wonderful, one of the most remote and unique landscapes on the planet.

Ubiquitous bromeliads


Tortoise Rock

On the fifth morning of the trek, we reluctantly bade farewell to the mountain and began the descent of Roraima. As with most mountain treks, descending was quicker and less strenuous than the ascent, though agonising on the knees and legs. After lunch at base camp, we continued on back to Wilson’s house, though with frequent furtive glances back at the spectacular tepui left behind. Arriving in the late afternoon, there was time for a much needed dip in the Kukenan river to soothe tired limbs and joints. Watching the setting sun cast a beautiful light on the twin tepuis in the distance, we reminisced about the extraordinary lost world we had found and one of the most distinctive and unforgettable travel destinations each of us had experienced.

I travelled to Venezuela on Explore's 15 day The Lost World tour, which in addition to the six-day Roraima trek, includes a four-day boat trip from Kamarata to Angel Falls and onto Canaima.

The tourism infrastructure in Venezuela is not very well developed, which makes independent travel that includes a Roraima trek quite difficult to organise. Group tours to the Lost World and Angel Falls offer very well organised trips that allow you to make the most of this spectacular region in a limited time. To browse the available tours from the world's leading adventure travel companies, see our Lost World listings.

For more information on travel to Venezuela including details of other travel highlights, guidebooks, currency, etc. see our country guide.

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