Life on Mars
Now, the first thing to say is that I really don’t like exercise. So – be warned – I will probably moan a lot as this unfolds.
But something has prompted me to act entirely out of character, and that is Mount Roraima, the table mountain whose unearthly summit inspired ‘The Lost World’. It’s so isolated that reaching this unique environment entails a six-day trek, and, improbably, I am here at its starting point in Paratepui. I’m here because someone I met on my travels once told me it was the best thing he had ever done, and I was intrigued enough to briefly forget that I am an utterly, incurably useless trekker.
We are a party of four. There’s me, a Scottish couple called Ali and Louise, and a Belgian named Michel. We hop out of our rundown jeep and are introduced to our guide for the next six days, who is one of the indigenous people of the area, the Pemón. For some reason he is wearing a string vest and an oversized sombrero.
We divide up the supplies that we’ve brought with us from the nearest town of Santa Elena. (I get, amongst other things, a huge jar of olives that eventually end up being eaten by our guide, who doesn’t know what they are but has the whole jar since it turns out none of us like olives.) I’ve never trekked with a full pack before and things get off to an uphill start, but it’s not so hard. When we cross paths with another group on the descent, I’m strangely optimistic that the girl in tears is an anomaly.
After a night’s camping, we cross Rio Tek and Rio Kukenan, two swollen rivers in between us and Roraima. My bag is at least twice as heavy as yesterday, surely. I look inside to check that a small stowaway has not climbed in, then move the bag of flour I’ve been given to carry into a different position, as though this is the secret to sudden backpack weight loss. The weather is hot and sunny but Roraima has disappeared into clouds up ahead.
The path feels like an endless incline, not steep but never flat. I rearrange the flour again. We trek across rolling grassy plains, with a quick stop to look at some giant, fat-bottomed termites before our guide promptly eats them. When we finally get to base camp, I collapse in the small hut there and remain collapsed till dinner, after which I go to bed. At 6.30pm.
Day three: we follow a steep uphill path this time, negotiating forests and craggy rocks as we go. It’s raining hard and almost instantly everything I’m wearing is soaked through.
At last we reach La Rampa, the natural ramp along the sheer edge of Roraima that makes scaling the table mountain possible – even for me, just about. It consists of three long, steep uphill sections with a couple of downhill bits in between, but it feels somehow easier now that there’s only the ascent proper left to do. By the time we reach the last section I’m panting for breath, but manage to move my body robotically forward, and to my surprise I reach the top first, followed by Louise. The guide shakes our hands and says, “tough ladies”. Ahah! I am an excellent trekker. I knew it all along.
I take a moment to recover, then start to take in the otherworldly scenery: top-heavy Martian rocks and strange-looking triffids, enveloped in drifting mist. There are piles of giant crystals just lying on the black ground, seemingly a nod to the Conan-Doylesque sense of stumbling upon a hitherto untrodden environment.
We walk on to our ‘hotel’ – a camping spot overarched by a rock wall, passing tiny black toads and more alien scenery, but everything is cloudy so there’s not much chance of exploration. Suddenly as we huddle by the tents, looking out at pure cloud, the thought occurs to me that we may not get to see whatever lies behind the fog. The summit has been shrouded in solid mist for the last two days, and tomorrow is our only full day here.
We have made the ascent in a quick three hours, and now there’s nothing to do. Our only entertainment is a printed itinerary that Ali and Louise have brought along with them, describing what will be the centrepiece of their travels in South America: an Antarctic cruise. It sounds fantastical and Victorian, with onboard lectures; Ali wonders where he is going to get a tie from for ‘the Captain’s welcome and farewell dinner parties’. I forge a plan to visit Antarctica one day, in evening wear, then am lulled to sleep by the percussion of rain.
When I wake up the next morning, there’s silence, then a tap on canvas.
“Come out!” Ali calls. “Come and see!”
My heart is pounding as I unzip the tent, barely daring to believe that the rain might finally have stopped. Squinting into the sunlight I realise that the summit is completely clear. It’s a surreal moment as the view that last night was unknowable whiteness is revealed to be an utterly bizarre landscape of knobbled limestone. It’s as though we spent the night on the surface of the moon without realising.
Excitedly, we roam the summit. Roraima is gloomy, strange, alien and beautiful. It looks like a skewed version of Earth, with black rocks and black-leafed plants draped with cobwebby strands of moss, and black butterflies fluttering eerily around, as though the whole thing was designed by Tim Burton.
Our guide explains that when the table mountains were formed, they caused a geographical separation of plant and animal species between the plateaus and the lowlands. Creatures evolved in isolation, near-neighbours divided by vertical mountain walls. For this reason, almost everything that lives on Roraima is unique.
We study the anthropomorphic rocks, taking endless pictures. We swim in rock pools. We revel in being lone explorers of an alien planet. When eventually the fog returns we’re simply grateful for the privilege of the morning, and even when our view on the next day's descent is once again masked by mist, we’re buoyed by everything we’ve experienced together, and sad to leave. A last lingering look at the beguiling strangeness of the summit and we’re back on the ramp, heading downhill, our inevitable return to Earth ever closer.
Eventually we arrive at camp and I take off my shoes to discover a comically proportioned blister where my big toe used to be. It takes a night for the knee-shattering journey back down the ramp to do its worst though: the next morning I wake to the unexpected feeling that my entire body has given up on me.
I hobble the last fifteen kilometres in disbelief that the ‘easy’ part of the route could be so arduous on the return leg, nonetheless relieved that my calf muscles are functioning at all given that they have so very obviously been extracted in my sleep, put in a blender and replaced back in my legs. By the time Paratepui appears again in the distance, I’m walking as though I’ve been wandering through the desert without water for days, but then finally, finally, I’m there and I drop to the floor more exhausted than ever before in my life.
Shattered but exhilarated, our intrepid troupe returns to Santa Elena by jeep. In tow I have a wet backpack full of disgusting, damp-smelling clothes (which on arrival I immediately throw at an unsuspecting launderette), a plan to go to Antarctica and exchange witty repartees with the Victorian captain while using all seventeen sets of cutlery in the correct order, a seemingly ruined body, and a strange desire to do it all again.