Escaping Roraima

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Travel  |  House: Booksie Classic
An adventure to summit the mysterious Mount Roraima in a remote corner of Venezuela takes a dangerous turn.

Submitted: August 06, 2017

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Submitted: August 06, 2017

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The Gran Sabana, Venezuela

I stumbled blindly through the darkness away from Mount Roraima, my blistered feet struggling to keep the quick pace set by the four Pemon Indians down the trail. I cursed myself for accepting the decision of the lead porter hours before. I didn’t care how many times he’d been up the mountain; it wasn’t a good idea to have left from Base Camp so late in the afternoon.

The Southern Cross burned bright in the sky above me, but did little to illuminate the trail traversing the open savannah. Shadows of boulders and deep crevasses blended into the path, playing tricks on my mind. It was easier to hike with my eyes closed, denying any chance for this visual trickery.

My trekking pole was extended in front of me like an antenna, probing for obstacles as I jogged along. I’d donated my headlamp to one of the Pemons at the front of our convoy when dusk fell. At the time, it certainly seemed like he needed it more than me. Now I questioned that decision as well.

The Indians were in a great rush because they, like me, knew that crossing two rivers in the black of night would be no easy endeavor. The presence of storm clouds to the east further complicated this foolish night’s journey, as the rivers would rise and become impassable in the event of heavy rainfall.

Hours before, we’d secured my girlfriend to the stretcher with a belt, my spare boot laces, and electrical tape. It wasn’t ideal, but was certainly better than having her roll off the cliff as she was carried down by the four Pemons. She occasionally cried out, upsetting the Indians as local superstitions claim that loud noises disturb the tranquility of the mountain and would cause storms.

Our convoy cautiously approached the steep descent into the Kukenan River valley – one of several treacherous obstacles we would face that night. Even in darkness, the valley’s deep bottom was identifiable by a shadowy abyss of rainforest and thick jungle. At the entrance to the valley, the Indians wasted no time in rushing down with Des, though I stopped to catch my breath. My hesitation was counter-productive however, as it allowed the terrible sounds from the jungle to become much more audible. The swift current of the mighty Kukenan surged a hundred feet below, its raging rapids smashing violently against the rocky shoreline. This same river would claim a life only three days later.

The Kukenan River had been a challenge to cross in broad daylight four days before, requiring incredible concentration and the assistance of a team of porters and local guides. To replicate this feat in darkness while carrying an injured person on a stretcher was unthinkable.

Fearing the jungle and river below, I looked back in the direction of the nearly six miles of open savannah we had just blazed across. Somewhere, high in the darkness, Mt. Roraima loomed, keeping a watchful eye over the Gran Sabana and its occupants. The mountain had allowed us to summit her three days before, though it now seemed as if her patience for us was fading. As impossible as it had previously seemed, my mind slowly registered that the initial descent and open savannah had in fact been the easy part, and now that my knees shook, my feet bled, and my twisted ankle pulsated with every breath, I realized that the most difficult part of the journey was still ahead.

Her scream pierced through the night. I turned and saw that one of the porters had slipped on the wet clay and taken a nasty fall. The back of the stretcher plummeted and her head dipped sharply toward the rocks.

Before I had a chance to react, thunder erupted in the east and the first heavy sprinkles of rain streaked down my bearded face.

Roraima’s tolerance had just expired.

  ***

One week before, we had arrived in the sleepy frontier town of Santa Elena de Uairen in southern Venezuela, just a stone’s throw from the Brazilian border. The purpose: to summit Mt. Roraima, the world’s highest tepui, or plateau, which straddles the border of three countries but is only accessible from the Venezuelan side. The sheer cliffs up to the summit of Roraima were considered inaccessible until 1884, when British explorer and botanist Everard Im Thurn discovered a steep jungle ramp leading to the top, the same trail used by climbers today.

Our route to Venezuela, which the US State Department warned me as being “quite adventurous”, led us from Trinidad through Guyana, and then to Boa Vista, Brazil, where there is one long, somewhat-paved road running northward straight to El Dorado.

The problem with driving from Brazil to Venezuela is gas. That is, taxi drivers in this part of Brazil (where gas is priced around $1.35 per liter) attempt to make it all the way on an empty tank to Venezuela (where gas is 5 cents per liter). Once across the border, they can then fill their tank with the cheap stuff, as well as their back seats, trunks, under the hood, etc., thereby turning an incredible profit. A recent news report claimed that some of Santa Elena’s citizens, including teachers, were quitting their jobs to become gasoline brokers.

One story tells of a pickup truck which was involved in an accident near the border several years ago. The vehicle, which of course was loaded to the brim with gas to be smuggled into Brazil, exploded on impact, leaving a huge crater and sending a tremor which was lively enough to disrupt even the quiet serenity of the good people of Santa Elena.

Our stout Brazilian driver, Francesco, was one of these local entrepreneurs who certainly seemed amiable to risking the detonation of his car in the interests of profit. We were in his company for a five-hour trek across the lonely stretch of highway through the northern Amazon swamps to the border, during which the gas indicator needle never rose anywhere near the ‘empty’ mark. So it was no surprise when an hour into our voyage, the car sputtered to a halt on the side of the road, earning a curse from Francesco who got out and inspected the underside of the vehicle.  I respectfully mentioned in my broken Spanish (which passes for even worse Portuguese) that perhaps we were out of gas. Francesco completely denied this allegation and insisted that the problem rested with an air filter malfunction or engine trouble.

He eventually flagged down a southbound car, from whom he bought a shot-glass worth of gas which carried us for another 30 minutes through the swamps. At the slightest hint of yet another sputtering stop, Francesco began swerving the car maniacally from side-to-side, giving us all whiplash, but causing the remaining drops of gas to be repositioned in the tank and propelling us an extra few hundred feet.

As he flagged down yet another car, Des and I made small-talk with Francesco’s companion, an eager 19-year old Brazilian kid who was either a nurse or a tattoo artist – I never figured out which. Des came away with the understanding that he worked at a mortuary, draining blood from cadavers. Clearly, communicating in Brazil was not our strong-point.

And it was in this manner that we continued our long, sputtering trek to the border, knowing that we would arrive far too late at night to pass customs and immigration into Venezuela. We finally pulled into the border outpost locally known as La Linea, which appears to have started as a bus stop and bar and then expanded from there. Here, Francesco was good enough to guide us to a seedy hotel and a bite to eat, even helping facilitate a decent exchange rate from US dollars to Brazilian reals.

The following morning, we awoke early and negotiated a new cab to the border checkpoint of Venezuela. Having no problems clearing customs, we crossed the border to the blaring sounds of Madonna and some type of Dutch techno music, courtesy of our driver’s compilation CD.

The border crossing was like entering a police state, with lots of Venezuelan military activity and checkpoints searching incoming and outgoing cars for drugs and gas. Eighteen year-old kids in camouflage fatigues with machine guns stopped every vehicle, including ours. One large, unhappy, red-headed Venezuelan soldier questioned our driver, pointing to the car’s dashboard. “Es full? Es full?” he asked inexplicably in hybrid English, demanding to know the amount of gas in the car.

We indeed had a full tank and were allowed to pass, though as we exited Venezuela nine days later, I watched this same red-headed soldier insert a long rubber cable into an incoming car’s gas tank, presumably to check the actual amount of gas, in case the driver had tampered with the dashboard’s indicator needle.

Twenty more minutes of Madonna and military checkpoints led us to Santa Elena where we found a cozy little hostel , or posada, on the town’s main road. We were welcomed by the place’s keeper, Marco, who tossed us the keys to a modest room and then stuffed us full of scrambled eggs and good, good Venezuelan coffee. Feeling rejuvenated, we explored the sleepy town and eventually returned to the lazy tables outside the posada where we enjoyed Marco’s capairinas.

Santa Elena was a surprise for me. After the constant military presence between the border and the outskirts, discovering that there exists a safe, quiet place where everyone knows everyone and that people leave their doors unlocked at night was somewhat of a shock.

The next day was spent tearing through the monstrously-vast Gran Sabana in a Toyota Landcruiser, finding waterfalls, dense jungle, and most importantly, having just a brief glance of what awaited us the following week. At some point in the afternoon, a faint portion of Mt. Roraima’s cliff-face exposed itself to us, providing only an intimidating hint of the plateau’s incredible height, towering over the surrounding rain forest and savannah. Its summit, at 9,100ft, remained hidden high in the clouds.

Roraima, and its smaller brother, Mt. Kukenan, are large, free-standing plateaus and some of the oldest geological formations on Earth. This unspoiled region of South America also represents some of the least-explored terrain in the world. We considered ourselves lucky to see even just a portion of the massive plateau through the mist. As the local saying goes, “if you can see Roraima, it’s going to rain; if you can’t see Roraima, it’s already raining.”

That night, on the eve of the expedition, we succeeded in trimming down our rucksacks to less than 10 kilos each. This of course meant that we wouldn’t always have the pleasure of clean socks, underwear, or a fresh change of clothes, but when we found ourselves in trouble a few days later, we certainly didn’t miss having the extra weight on our backs.

***

The next morning, we loaded our gear into a Landcruiser and drove off-road for a couple of hours to reach the Pemon Indian village of Paratepui. Here, we met some of the other climbers, a mixed, though friendly lot of Spaniards, Danes, Venezuelans, and French. We made final adjustments to our equipment, met our porters, and hit the trailhead around midday.

The Gran Sabana stretches indefinitely in all directions. By the time we reached our first camp on the shores of the Tek River, we had hiked approximately eight miles of rattlesnake-infested open savannah in the pouring rain, up and down various types of crevasse-filled, though moderately easy terrain. I decided quickly that I would rather face a single rattlesnake than the millions of vicious flea-like insects locally known as puri-puri. These beasts, whose bite is worse than the mosquito, leave nothing but bloody holes on any exposed skin, and seem to be drunkenly empowered by insect repellant. A French girl who’d stripped to her bikini to take a dip in a local stream later counted upwards of 150 bloody puri-puri bites on her left leg alone.

The following day was much the same, covering six and a half miles of gradually-inclining terrain up to Base Camp, with the notable features being the hazardous crossings of the Tek and Kukenan Rivers. It was this day that Des’ knee began to ache, first hurt in a sports injury years before.

We were both reasonably prepared for the hardships we would face on the trek. I’d spent a decent amount of time in recent years traipsing about the Appalachians of East Tennessee and North Carolina, and she had previously logged in her share of backpacking throughout Europe. All of our specially-outfitted gear was sealed in plastic bags, wrapped in trash bags, and then stuffed into waterproof sacks. Not that it mattered. If there are indeed certainties in this life, one is that nothing stays dry for long on Roraima.

Our first morning at Base Camp, the clouds had yet to descend, and like a lion baring its fangs, the mountain revealed the entirety of her massive cliff-face to us. At nine miles wide and over 9,000ft at its highest point, the plateau formed an ominous profile against the approaching mist. Waterfalls rushing off the edge were so high that they seemed to move in dramatic slow motion. Also clearly visible was Im Thurn’s steep jungle ramp which would be our access to the summit. Bits of trail could faintly be seen through bare spots in the dense jungle canopy.  Our entire camp stared in silent awe for some time at the imposing sight before us. Eventually, the clouds came and Roraima ceded into the mist as if it had all been some incredible hallucination.

From Base Camp, we pushed hard through the dense, steamy jungle, with visibility occasionally reduced to only 10 or 12 feet. Eventually the trail deteriorated into nothing more than an inclining chute of jagged boulders. The ramp climbed nearly vertical in some places, and we used both hands and feet to pull ourselves up on vines and exposed roots. I could only imagine how much more difficult this route was a century ago, following months of trail-blazing through disease-infested jungle on foot and in canoe, in the company of nervous Indians weary of upsetting the mountain’s evil spirits.

Nearing the upper trail to the summit, we were stopped in our tracks by the thundering rush of a waterfall which ripped across our trail and plummeted thousands of sheer feet to the rainforest below. It was sightings of this same waterfall which caused 19th century explorers, spotting it after heavy rain with field glasses from camp below, to claim that the jungle ramp could not possibly be used as a successful ascent route. After storms, similar waterfalls plunge over 3,000ft from neighboring Mt. Kukenan, rivaling even the height of nearby Angel Falls – the world’s highest waterfall.

We donned our rain gear and tread cautiously through the falls, uncomfortably close to the cliff’s edge. The pounding of the water on our shoulders and heads was deafening and made communication impossible. We had no choice but to move slowly, knowing that one wrong step on the slippery rock could mean being swept by the current into the waterfall and thrown off the cliff. After a few nervous minutes, we succeeded in crossing under the worst of the falls and emerged safely on the other side to continue our summit push.

We later learned that two other climbers in our group had reached this point in the trail, and faced with the seemingly impossible crossing of the waterfall, refused to believe that they had come the right way. They suffered a tearful breakdown of sorts until noticing a man-made rock pile which signaled that they were indeed on the correct trail. Luckily, everyone in our small group survived this dangerous crossing unscathed.

From here, all that remained was a couple hours of steep climb over large black boulders straight to the lip of the summit. By this time, Des’ knee had really started to bother her, and Riley, our chief porter and guide, had stayed back to lend a hand if needed.

At last, the summit was ours. Sprawled before us was a barren and desolate landscape of slippery, black algae-covered sandstone, arranged in mysterious formations. Stacks of curiously-shaped rocks formed strange likenesses of a variety of creatures, faces, arches, and spires. A thick gray mist lingered over everything, cloaking the summit in an ethereal darkness which made visibility difficult. The windswept surface of the plateau is extremely inhospitable for all forms of life, and only a few carnivorous plants and tiny black crawling frogs have evolved here. Much like an inland-Galapagos, approximately one third of the plant life on the summit of Roraima is endemic, and found nowhere else in the world.

We reached our camp an hour later; tiny ledges of protected rock beneath overhanging cliffs which the Indians humorlessly refer to as ‘hotels’. Predictably, the temperatures on the summit plummet much lower than anywhere else on the trek, and at night it was necessary to empty our rucksacks and don every dry layer available. Since we had trimmed away all excess weight in our packs days before, we quickly innovated by wearing socks for mittens and wrapping dry t-shirts around our heads to conserve heat.  At least we were well above the reach of the vicious puri-puris.

From our summit camp, guarded from the constant bombardment of wind and rain, we spent two days launching excursions on the surface of the plateau. We trekked to the Kukenan Window, a cliff edge which, during moments of clear sky, allows magnificent views of the endless Gran Sabana, and of course, of the neighboring tepui which gives the window its namesake. We visited the Valley of the Crystals, containing fields of thousands of white and pink quartz gems. The summit also holds the Punto Tres, the triple point where the borders of Venezuela, Guyana, and Brazil meet.

The surface of the plateau was something purely from another world; a strange and isolated place, forgotten by time. It was easy to see why Victorian explorers theorized that Roraima’s summit could contain prehistoric life; a concept which helped inspire Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1912 novel, The Lost World.

As we began our descent the following day our problems began. The secret to walking on the summit of Roraima is to not step on the slippery black rock, and to instead stay on the pink trail where the algae has been worn away by years of foot traffic. Fifteen minutes into our estimated seven-hour descent to Rio Tek Camp, Des veered off the pink trail by a few inches and her boot slipped on the black sandstone. With the full weight of her pack, she came crashing down off a rock ledge and landed squarely on her injured knee.

After taking a while to recover herself, she managed to limp slowly across the summit to reach the beginning of the upper trail. Each step became a monumental effort for her, and it was after much pain and tribulation that we climbed down from the summit and again successfully passed through the waterfall near the edge of the cliff.

The jungle trail descending the ramp was even worse on her injured knee, though she was determined to make the most of the arduous journey. We paused to photograph hummingbirds darting in and out of exotic flowers, and she took a small, polished rock from the trail to keep as a souvenir.

At our new pace, it took us nearly six hours just to reach Base Camp, twice as long as estimated, and not even half the distance to Rio Tek Camp, our original destination. Descending a muddy bank, her remaining good leg finally gave out from overuse and she slipped again, crashing onto her other knee. An hour later, her boot was wedged into a crevasse and her ankle was twisted, virtually immobilizing her. Determined to go as far as we could toward Rio Tek Camp before nightfall, we crawled down the trail for another hour, eventually spilling into the upper savannah where we found Riley.

By late afternoon, as Des began to feel the pain of each step in her lower spine, her dark hair matted to her face with sweat and tears, I asked Riley about the possibility of a helicopter descent back to Santa Elena. He agreed that, considering her pain, this was the best option, and he climbed to a high rock on the savannah to radio a helicopter. To our dismay, the weather in Santa Elena had deteriorated, and a helicopter flight would prove impossible for that evening.

After a brief discussion with Riley, we agreed that Des and I would strenuously climb for over an hour back up to Base Camp, where a helicopter would be sent for us on the following morning. Riley, however, would continue alone down the trail and rejoin the other climbers in our group at Rio Tek Camp.

Darkness fell quickly as we began our lonely climb back to Base Camp; her in tearful agony with every footfall. Halfway there, black clouds raced across the cliffs above us and we were soon enveloped in a monstrous thunderstorm that sent us ducking behind rock formations for temporary shelter. In the thick mist and pouring rain, the trail was rendered invisible, and it was only with the use of our headlamps and the intense flash of lightning strikes all around us that we once again found the faint outline of the muddy path leading through the upper savannah.

We limped through the storm and eventually burst into the thatched-roof hut of Base Camp after dark, just as a clean, dry group of teenage British schoolgirls were having their dinner on the eve of their summit attempt. Given the condition of Des and me – mud-covered, bleeding, and with torn clothing – I could only imagine what terrifying thoughts went through those girls’ minds as their innocent eyes witnessed victims of Roraima’s harsh elements firsthand.

 

 

***

That night at Base Camp, we met Alex, Riley’s cousin and the chief porter for another group who was making their summit push the following day. When Alex heard of our misfortunes, he generously offered us dinner from his stores and the shelter of the thatch hut, since our tent had been carried by porters to Rio Tek Camp. We gladly accepted, and after the rest of the camp retired to their tents, we sat in the dark hut with a warm meal and listened to Alex’s stories of Indian legends by the dim light of my headlamp.

Roraima is seen by the Pemons as the good mountain, the mother of all waters, since water from its summit flows into not only the Amazon in Brazil, but also the Orinoco River in Venezuela, and the Essequibo in Guyana. A few days later, as our tiny propeller plane descended into Georgetown, Guyana over the Essequibo, I wondered how much of our blood, sweat, and tears had found their way into that muddy river.

Alex mentioned that a portion of Roraima remains unexplored, and he believes that there must exist a jungle ledge leading to the summit somewhere along the eastern Guyanese face, similar to our summit ramp on the Venezuelan side. In his subtle way, he voiced his hope that one day he would be part of an expedition to discover this hidden route.

I asked about the foreboding tales of Roraima’s smaller brother, Mt. Kukenan, first climbed by an expedition only in 1963. Given its position just to the northwest of Roraima, it had also been a constant and ominous presence throughout the days of our trek. Alex grew somber and somewhat uncomfortable when discussing Kukenan, and spoke quietly as if the mountain would somehow overhear him.

“Three men came from Caracas to climb Kukenan,” Alex began. “After a hard climb up the tepui’s cliffs, they finally reached the summit. Celebrating, the men screamed with joy from the top.” His face grew solemn in the dim light. “This is disrespectful to the mountain. Making loud noises, screaming, taking things from the mountain; this disturbs the tepuis. Brings on storms.

“They started across the summit of Kukenan to make a camp, but one man stopped at a stream to fill his water bottle. A storm came, and the man was separated from the others. The other men looked for their lost friend, but the weather grew worse, forcing them into camp.

“In the morning, they searched the summit for him again, but they only found what was left: a piece of his boot and his ripped jacket.” Alex sipped his soup and stared blankly across the hut. “His body has never been found.”

“When did this happen?” I asked.

“Seven years ago.”

Alex made a spiraling motion with his finger. “Kukenan took him away.”

Because of this incident, and others like it, climbing Mt. Kukenan has been officially banned by the Venezuelan government. However, many daring or foolish climbers make their attempts regardless, thus earning their own place in Pemon lore, for better or for worse.

Late that night, we covered with our single dry sleeping bag on the mud floor of the hut and watched mice dart under the door in search of scraps. Des took out the polished souvenir rock she had removed from the mountain earlier that day and rolled it between her fingers. I watched her carefully place it on the ground beside our heads, exactly where it remained when we left Base Camp the next day.  

***

We awoke early for breakfast and bid farewell to Alex and his group of nervous summit hopefuls. Our helicopter was scheduled to land near Base Camp that morning, and I would need to direct the pilot to a suitable landing site in the upper savannah. However, just before nine o’clock, a young Pemon handed me a radio handset and uttered a single word, “Riley.”

Riley had overnighted at Rio Tek Camp and had just learned that there would be no helicopters available for the next three days. Two were occupied in the Amazonas region, and the third was grounded for maintenance. With great remorse, I broke the news to Des, and it now appeared that the only way for her to descend Roraima would be to limp down, one step at a time, which was no easy task given her condition and the severity of the pain she could feel in her lower spine. Even worse, I calculated that at our agonizingly slow pace, it would take us 14 grueling hours of walking between Base Camp and Paratepui village where we would finally rendezvous with our Landcruiser.  

I climbed to a high point with the radio and told Riley that Des was incapable of walking, which he acknowledged. I later learned that some of these radio transmissions, including Riley’s transmissions to Santa Elena requesting a helicopter, had been grossly misinterpreted by porters monitoring the radios who spoke little English. These misinterpretations eventually developed into rumors which circulated among climbers that Des had fallen on the summit and broken both her legs.

Riley mentioned a third option: he could radio for a team of Pemon Indians from the village to meet us at Base Camp with a makeshift stretcher and attempt to carry her down the rocky path.

It was an option no one wanted to accept, particularly Des, but given her great pain, and the fact that there was no chance for a helicopter, there was clearly no choice. I agreed, and at some point that day, four of the strongest, fastest Pemons were dispatched from Paratepui to meet us at Base Camp with a stretcher.

We were first told that the porters would arrive at one o’clock, and then at three. By four o’clock there was still no sign of them, and I openly questioned Riley’s judgment about starting on the trail to Rio Tek Camp so late in the day, as this would ensure that we would have much of the savannah to hike at night, not to mention the dangerous crossings of the Kukenan and Tek rivers.

To minimize the distance between the approaching porters and us, we started down the trail one painful, arduous step at a time. Riley had spent the day hiking back up to our position to carry her rucksack.  

At about five o’clock, distant specks on the horizon materialized into four Pemon Indians sprinting up the trail toward us. They carried with them two wooden poles connected by a layer of canvas. With barely a word, Des was loaded onto this makeshift stretcher and tied down using my spare boot laces and a roll of electrical tape. A foam sleeping pad was shoved under her head as a pillow.

The leader of these porters, and the largest Pemon I’d ever seen, tied a red, yellow, and blue Venezuelan flag around his head as a bandana. He motioned to one of his much smaller companions and tried speaking to us in broken English. “He is just a baby. One day, I will make him strong like me.

“But don’t worry,” he tried to console Des, still looking at his small friend. “He will be strong enough.”

With this, the four Indians each took a corner of the stretcher, hoisted Des to shoulder height, and set off across the descending savannah at a reckless pace. Though few words were spoken, I could tell by their rush that the prospects of traversing the rocky, crevasse-riddled savannah after dark with an injured person was not favored by them, nor would be the hazardous crossings of the Kukenen and Tek rivers in pitch blackness.

***

Four hours later, I stood in the darkness at the entrance of the Kukenan River Valley feeling the storm’s initial raindrops sprinkle across my face. The small Indian porter had slipped on the wet clay while descending the valley, tipping the stretcher at a dangerous angle. Amazingly, his first instinct had not been to catch himself on the jagged rocks, as would have been most men’s, however he extended his arms as he fell, in a selfless effort to keep the stretcher on an even keel. The result was that she was not spilled onto the rocks, and was securely held until the porter regained his footing. The Indians continued down the steep valley, albeit much more cautiously.

Our convoy reached the bottom of the valley and was greeted at the river’s edge by several more porters holding lanterns and speaking quickly in their native Pemon tongue. To everyone’s great relief, Riley had apparently radioed ahead and arranged the services of an Indian captain and his tiny raft which was capable of taking one passenger at a time across the roaring Kukenan.

Since Des would need help landing on the opposite shore, I was nominated to go first, and I jumped into the tiny raft with the Indian. To navigate the rough current, a rope had been secured on either shore, which the captain used to pull us across, hand-over-hand. Amid the flash of a brilliant lightning storm that lit up the dark jungle walls of the valley, our party crossed the Kukenan River. Fearing the prospects of heavy rain, the four porters, being excellent swimmers and of infinite energy, dove headfirst into the river and successfully battled the strong currents all the way across.

Once we were all safely delivered to the rocks on the far shore, and after paying the raft captain 20,000 Bolivars (approximately $9) for his trouble, she was refitted onto the stretcher and rushed through the jungle up the opposite side of the valley. The climb here was essentially a vertical mudslide, forcing the two lead porters to hold the stretcher at knee level, while the rear couple labored with arms extended well above their heads. Des, nervous from the earlier fall, shrieked with every footstep. The storm still lingered; thunder rumbled in the east and lightning streaked the skies. The Indians seemed nervous that we wouldn’t make it across the second river, the Rio Tek, before the heavy rain came and flooded the valley.

I’ve never been incredibly superstitious. I know very little about local beliefs or native legends, but what is for certain, is that night it rained everywhere across the Gran Sabana except in the Rio Tek Valley. I don’t know what kind of Pemon prayer those Indians offered to Roraima, the mother of all waters, but for whatever reason, our group was granted a temporary reprieve from the rain.

In another half-hour we descended into the valley of the Tek River. Smaller than the Kukenan and of weaker current, the fortunate absence of rain had made it possible to cross by stepping on river stones all the way across. In a feat of nearly-biblical appearance, the porters rocketed across with Des hoisted onto their shoulders and safely reached the other shore.

Minutes later, our convoy erupted into the Rio Tek camp site where yet another group of unsoiled faces crawled out of their dry tents to watch the rescue operation with confused horror. Des and the stretcher were carefully rested in the center of camp by lantern light, and the four muddy porters simultaneously fell in exhaustion to all sides, panting heavily. Des was the first to be offered water by a camp porter, which she at once passed to the fatigued Indians.

A Pemon friend I’d met days before joined me at the camp and saw my look of admiration for his Indian brothers. Standing over the exhausted porters, he subtly summed up my sentiments in a single phrase, “They each have five hearts.”

With the hardest part of our night’s journey now behind us, the porters once again hoisted Des and set off for a half-hour hike over relatively smooth trail to the rendezvous point with our Landcruiser, which would take us off-road for three hours back to the posada in Santa Elena. There, in the care of Marco, Des would start on her road to a full recovery, and I would pen the initial notes of this tale.

In five hours, our tiny group traversed approximately seven miles over rough savannah and dense jungle. More than half of this distance, including the crossing of the Kukenan and Tek rivers, was covered in complete darkness. The hazards of our trek were placed into greater context after the tragic news we heard the following week. The day after we left Santa Elena, a porter drowned in the Kukenan River. Allegedly, a group of climbers had ignored the advice of their Pemon guide after a heavy rain and insisted to cross the river. The porter drowned in the high water while taking their equipment across.

I walked in the moonlight alongside my Pemon friend up the last stretch of the trail to the awaiting Landcruiser. With a lifetime of worries removed from my mind, our last minutes together were spent discussing Roraima, the impact of tourism, and Chavez’s policies from an indigenous person’s standpoint. A young Pemon boy rushed up from behind and took my rucksack from me, offering in its place a cold can of Polar Ice beer.

I watched as the four Indians carefully loaded Des into the Landcruiser. Other than the outward signs of mud and sweat, they seemed completely unfazed by the nerve-wrecking torment we had all suffered over the last few hours.

Taking a long swig of beer, I said something to my Pemon friend about them being heroes.

As Roraima, mother of all waters, finally allowed her rain to pour over us, washing clean streaks down my dirty face, he merely shrugged his shoulders indifferently. “They’ve done this before.”


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