Returned from the ship, we had a few hours before the flight to Buenos Aires, so paid another visit to the Maritime Museum (in the old military jail).
Ushuaia airport is a large hall, like most of its kind, but unusually is built of wood, in the form of huge laminated beams.
The flight back to B.A. was on a similar (if not the same) MD-80 as the outward flight. That plane has definitely seen better days, but the flight went smoothly enough. As before, Patagonia was covered in cloud, so we saw very little.
As before, a hectic taxi ride to the city, & the same hotel (Elevage) as before. On appearances, only 2 traffic rules are obeyed in Argentina: red signals, and traffic cops in person. All others are disregarded wholesale.
Once in the hotel, I took advantage of its free WiFi to upload the Antarctica section of the log to my website.
Today was spent in transit between B.A. and Manaus. At the passport control to leave Argentina, we found a neat stunt. You have to complete an identity form to leave Argentina. However this is not apparent until you have reached the head of the queue, where there is a box of these forms, with no explanation of any kind. So, all innocent, we approach the officer, who demands our form. Absent one, we are sent to complete it, then to the back of the queue. I was given exactly that treatment, while Rik was taken into a back room and questioned.
There is a 1 hour time difference between B.A. and Sao Paolo, and 2 hours (the other way) between Sao Paolo & Manaus. Our Australian-issued travel documents were decidedly unclear about this, but fortunately we ended up erring on the safe side.
The flight to Sao Paulo was dull(!), and Brazilian immigration again looked dubiously at Rik's passport, prodding the electronic ID device. My passport, being older and having no chip, passed without question. Once in, we re-checked our bags for the Manaus flight, & were told to board at Gate 1. After a hike to rival Mao's Long March, we found it, & settled down to wait. Our flight was getting close, still nothing on the gate display. On an “inner hunch”, I went to look at the main departures display. Sure enough, it had been re-assigned to Gate 5, with no announcement. We were fortunate in meeting Silas, an off-duty cargo pilot, who was on our flight, and spoke excellent English. As we were sorting things out, the screen updated again, moving us to Gate 7! It seems the gate is only assigned as the incoming aircraft touches down.
Silas showed us a hilarious video taken by his brother, who runs jungle tours in eastern Brazil. A tree-trunk with a thumb-sized hole, and a woodpecker drilling away industriously. Suddenly a green snake pops its head out of the hole, looks round indignantly, and strikes at the bird, which dodges nimbly away. We are told the snake is not venomous (as well for the bird!) The camera zooms back, to show all this is happening at a considerable height. After a few tries, the bird decides to address the root of its problems, and commences drilling the snake, instead of the tree! The outraged snake seizes the bird, and shakes it vigorously before dropping it. The disoriented bird falls some distance before resuming controlled flight, and rejoining the fray. This goes on for some time, before the bird quits, leaving the snake in possession again.
The flight to Manaus provided headsets with 2-pronged plugs. One of these folds back, to fit the single-pronged sockets in economy class. When Rik folded his pin, the plug fell apart. (¿Rik, why does everything you touch fall to pieces?)
It seems our Perth travel agent's confusion about time zones extended to the hotel booking: there was supposed to be a transfer driver, but he had come for us an hour before. Silas and an airport tour agent named Armstrong (he says he was born the day Neil stepped on the moon!) sorted this for us, with Silas sharing the ride, as he was staying at the same hotel. (Others have reported unhappy experiences with Armstrong, it is only fair to add.)
The Tropical Hotel has 2 wings, the old & the new. The new is a typical multi-storey job, while the old is just that. To note is that floor numbers in the old wing start at 24, presumably where the new wing leaves off. Once out of the lobby, we entered a seemingly endless corridor, with periodic archways & heavy, dark timber doors along each side. I remarked to Rik that this could be a scene from a Gothic movie, or possibly a dreamscape, the more so if the fire extinguishers on the wall were replaced by suits of armour! Walking and walking, one comes to a lobby where 3 such corridors meet, the Gothic effect continues.
The hotel's coffee dispensers were immediately likened (in our Antarctic-acclimatised minds) to chinstrap penguins!
Over coffee, we held a long discussion regarding the next stage of the journey. Eventually, we decided to move out of Manaus, which seems rather expensive, and make for Boa Vista as soon as possible. We have decided to go in one direction by air, for convenience, and the other by road (probably 7hrs by bus) to see the forest, and hopefully the road marker at the equator. So to the travel agent office at the hotel. We leaned on the edge of his desk, which duly fell off! (¿Rik & Dave, why does everything you touch fall to pieces?) Enquiry quickly revealed there were 2 flights to Boa Vista, one in 2 hours' time, the other late that night. So we set about booking for the early flight. Much difficulty as our cashcards couldn't be used over the counter, they only work electronically. So back to the hotel to change traveller's cheques.
I had not offered our driver triple fare to go like the very devil, but he did so anyway. He blazed down a 40km/h limited section, the speedo never dropping below 100km/h. At one point the signs clearly warned of a radar-enforced speed check, he carefully slowed down to 40, then roared away as soon as he was past it, driving half across 2 lanes, at top speed. We just caught the flight.
Arrived at Boa Vista, we attempted to use our cash-cards in the airport banking machines, this time with better success. The airport information desk provided the name of a hotel, and a short taxi ride brought us there.
Boa Vista is somewhat reminiscent of a large Australian country town, but more green. Like Manaus, it is only 90m above sea level, despite the distance inland.
Arrived in our room, Rik sat heavily on my bed, which promptly collapsed. (¿Rik, why does everything you touch fall to pieces?) Fortunately nothing was broken, the bed-base does not properly fit the frame, & can drop out very easily. A cautionary note for restless sleepers.
As next day was Sunday, and Rik's foot was still giving trouble, we decided to stay here an extra day, before heading north on Monday. We started on a brief exploratory walk, but Rik found the going too uncomfortable, so we returned.
We decided to order some food, and settled on a “snack” from the hotel menu. This required careful explanation of my vegetarian needs: with a waiter who spoke no English, putting us on a mobile phone to the cook, whose English was excellent. In Portuguese, I am a rigorosamente vegetariano: if I am only a vegetariano, they will happily serve fish, etc. The “snack” duly arrived: a huge plate of cheese salad & chips. We decided to share it & call it dinner. A real “dinner” here is a major undertaking, running well into the night. We shall probably content ourselves with snacks.
The shower was equipped with a head sporting an instantaneous electric heater, having a plug-in connection. I looked closely at the earth connection, before stepping in. The control had 3 positions, labeled Verão, Desliga and Inverno. This looked slightly menacing, but Babelfish resolved the matter: Summer, Disconnect and Winter. Inverno produced a murderous heat for Rik, but a pleasant tepid warmth for me (we later found that the heat input is constant, you set the temperature by adjusting the flow rate.)
We remarked that we had seen no advertisements for either tobacco or alcohol products: excellent!
After a late breakfast, we went for a walk, to test Rik's foot, and to locate the “Mount Roraima Tourist” office. This is indicated on the Google Map of Boa Vista, and looks worth a visit tomorrow. We discovered the business district to be between the government centre area & the Rio Branco.
On return, well sweated up, I sat down, & the bed promptly collapsed again. (¿Dave, why does everything you touch fall to pieces?)
My attempts to order a cheese & salad sandwich produced a cheeseburger, with meat. So not much I could eat.
Since the hotel serves a good (complimentary) buffet breakfast, where we can actually see what we are getting, this has become our main meal.
Directly after breakfast, we set off for the “Mount Roraima Tourist” office. Being a tour office, we had hopes of someone speaking English. That there was not, but the agent understood what we wanted, & led us to another office, “Roraima Adventures”, in an alley we would never otherwise have found. The director, Magno, quoted us for an all-inclusive trip ex Boa Vista, however the cost was well over our budget. This being because the trip would be arranged as a special for the two of us, so we would have to bear all the costs. A usual trip party is larger, and the costs are spread accordingly. He gave us the name of a tour operator in Santa Elena (interestingly, the same one Rik had been emailing 9 months ago.) The preferred way to Santa Elena is to take a taxi to the border, about 200km. One would expect a prohibitive cost, but this is not so.
The border crossing apparently has no name, everyone just says “the border”, or “Venezuela”.
Back at the hotel, we found an English-speaking manager on duty, who clarified things further. The strategy is to take an ordinary city taxi to the long-distance taxis' base, then transfer. The city taxis will make the run, but cost much more. This is tomorrow's program.
The new manager procured a good green-salad lunch for us, so I was able to eat today!
Once again, I sat on that **** bed, and it fell apart. (¿Dave, why does everything you touch fall to pieces?)
Note: Venezuela is half an hour behind Brazil (Roraima province)
1300 On the Brazil/Venezuela border. We got up (comparatively) early, to set off for Santa Elena de Uairen (Venezuela). The hotel charges were very modest, and after considerable misunderstanding, we learned that the taxis plying to the border are not allowed in Boa Vista city. So we took a city taxi to the long-distance depot, on the outskirts (as had been explained yesterday.) The hotel manager had told us to pay BRL60 for the long trip, so this was offered at hiring, but the driver refused anything then. We got in, & were treated to a 1-hour mystery tour around northern Boa Vista, as he picked up & dropped off various other passengers. At one point we were alarmed to see a road sign “Manaus”. But eventually we set off on the Venezuela road, with the driver, his girlfriend, Rik & I, another man & a mother and baby all packed in (it being a small car). Our driver set off, blazing away at an (indicated) 120km/h once we were clear of Boa Vista. The road north (BR174) runs through increasingly dry pasture, with occasional scrubby trees. In places, this reminded us of Australia. Not at all the tropical jungle we had expected. A number of large tree plantations were seen, but we couldn't identify the trees, which seemed thin & scrubby. Some cattle & horses were seen in the better-watered grasslands.
The road gradually gains height, with a truck-stop where we took a rest, about half way. After this, the road continues to rise, and small rounded hills appear. A number of large eagles (or similar birds) were seen along here. At several places, the dry grass was burned out, and smoke was rising from one site. We speculated whether these fires had a natural or artificial cause. Later we saw one actively burning (and unattended), a spreading ring centred on an electricity pylon, which offers one theory as to its origin.
Hereabouts, we entered the Sao Marco indigenous reservation, with signs warning that the land was so reserved. The road here became much worse (I assume the indigenes are not responsible for its upkeep!), being riddled with nasty potholes, so that the drive took on elements of a slalom. When our driver finally fastened his seatbelt, I assumed things were about to get serious. We fetched up following a filthy diesel truck, which was itself slaloming around the potholes. Our driver took increasing chances, until finally he was able to pass it.
In this area, the open grass gives way to temperate forest, very little cleared.
Eventually we reached the border, and were again confounded by our inability in Portuguese. The driver indicated a Venezuelan taxi nearly, & indicated we should transfer to it. This was what we had expected, but he was also making some incomprehensible references to the time. Eventually we paid him off, being duly gratified when he asked for not 60 but BRL40. The new taxi took us and the mother & baby, and headed off, through the Brazilian checkpoint (where he did not stop), over the border proper, and then stopped at the Venezuelan checkpoint the other side. Here we understood to go into the office & present out passports. So we did, with the Spanish-speaking passport officer indicating that we needed exit stamps from Brazil before we could be admitted. The taxi driver would not go back, so we walked our bags back (about 500m: I was glad I replaced that old bag in Sydney!) to the Brazilian checkpoint, to find it is closed until 1400 for the siesta. Now the driver's reference to time was clear: he was saying there was no point in taking another taxi before that time. So here we sit, until 1400. At least there is shade, under the passport-office awning.
Once the office reopened, our Brazilian exit was promptly processed. Walking back to the Venezuelan office, we stopped to take a picture of the border itself, with the two flags. The Venezuelan officer was equally efficient, and we went to use the ATM for some Venezuelan currency. As usual, my card worked, Rik's did not. This done, we went outside, & I caught the eye of a passing taxi driver, who stopped to take us as extra fares, into Santa Elena de Uairen. His driving was even worse than the first (this seems characteristic of Venezuela), disregarding double lines wholesale. We tried to ask for the “Backpackers” hotel, but he didn't seem to know of it, & dropped us instead at the Hotel Garibaldi. It isn't much, but will do for a first night.
A session in an internet cafe (the hotel doesn't offer WiFi) located the Backpackers. We went to their restaurant, whose menu featured a vegetarian pizza. This proved good & inexpensive, it will serve as a regular staple, if required. Tomorrow we will check out alternative hotels & Roraima trips.
This morning, we moved to the Backpackers Hostel. It is cheaper, has WiFi, & is co-located (on Calle Urdaneta) with Backpackers Tours, with whom we plan to visit Mt Roraima. At this point, Rik opined that his foot was not up to the climb, so we have agreed that I will do the 5-day ascent, while he remains in Santa Elena, & will choose something less strenuous for himself.
Rik was having some difficulty explaining what we wanted at the tour office, when he had the idea to run Babelfish on the office's computer (there being no WiFi accessible). Instantly all was clear, and I am booked on tomorrow's tour.
So tomorrow, I will depart alone for Mt Roraima.
The tour group assembled, & started off, an hour late, heading north up the main highway from Sta. Elena. Both GPS sets had failed to lock, so they were left behind.
Bex, David, Edumilis, Erik, Kenyer, Marielvis, Matt, Pamela
Second army checkpoint. We were each given an information pack about the national parks, & rules of behaviour therein.
San Francisco de Yuruani. We stopped at a roadside chicken stall, & were invited to buy. No-one did.
Our first sight of the tepuis.
Now heading back south: after 1km we turn off eastward, on a gravel road, and were charged a Bf10 access fee.
A lookout point on the road. We stopped for photos of the tepuis & of each other.
The “track” is gravel, with patches of very narrow, deep water channels. Steady climbing in 4WD. The driver is clearly experienced in this kind of driving.
Terrain changed grass – forest – grass.
Reached Paratepui, the Indian village. [Indigenous people are called "Indians" here.]
This is the end of the motor route: it's walking from here.
Paused at a local summit, east from Paratepui. After 2 hours' walking, we had gained significant height, followed by a deep dip into a stream crossing. Pamela setting the pace. Some of the porters use mountain bikes: they carry these (besides their regular loads) in the difficult places, then ride ahead when the going improves. They will reach the campsite ahead of us, and get everything set up ready.
Wildlife is noticeable by it's absence, I saw just one small skink, & a few birds. 6/10 cloud cover, the sun obscured most of the time. The temperature being about 25ºC at the start, less as we ascend.
Ahead of us, Roraima greets us with the same primordial challenge as it did the dinosaurs!
As we started, the tops of the tepuis were hidden in cloud: as we approach, they start to appear.
Roraima, getting larger. The approach is now seen to be broken up by gullies. The track undulates up & down, crossing 2 streams on pole “bridges”. The surface is broken into natural “cobblestones”, formed as the mud dries.
We reach “Camp 1” (aka the Tek River site), a camping area just before the Rio Tek. These campsites are very basic, there is a flattish area, and a permanent shelter where the porters set up their kitchens. Roraima now rears as a huge wall in front of us. Tomorrow we cross the Rio Tek & Rio Kukénan.
Once the tents were up, the cooks confirmed my vegetarian status.
Some birds were heard at sunset, a musical trilling. But we never saw them. As dark fell, the clouds cleared, leaving a clear sky. Once the dark was complete, insects & frogs were heard. There was a magnificent display of stars in the cloudless sky. Orion visible in the east, over Roraima. The Milky Way showed clearly.
Elio assigned us to tents, 2 to each, putting the 2 “oldies” (ie me & Pamela) together.
I slept well, with a foam-rubber pad over the ground. The sun rose about 05:30. There was a heavy dew. Cloud cover was about 2/10, with a heavy “tablecloth” over Roraima & Kukénan.
Dawn brought a clear sky, which presages a hot day. The Rio Tek is shallow at the crossing, but the underwater rocks are slippery. The terrain is rolling hills, covered with upland grass. I estimate our altitude as 1800m.
We are mostly packed & ready. From here, Kukénan is much more photogenic than Roraima, which is mostly hidden by an intervening hill, and its top is clouded, while Kukénan is clear.
A pair of small hawks appeared, but no other birds. The trilling song heard again.
Breakfast for me being rolls, cheese & jam. For the others, scrambled egg.
We cross the second river (Rio Kukénan). I decide to abandon efforts to keep my feet dry, & just wade it. Others used the stepping stones, but I didn't like them. Once across, we took an extended break, some went swimming.
There is a bridge, but it is some way out of our route, & only used when the river is in spate.
Matt walked with a drying towel hung down his back, the surreal design made me think of a mediaeval knight's emblazoned surcoat.Away to the left, stripped trunks of old trees stand like telegraph poles. I learned much later that this area used to be forested, until a huge wildfire in 1925 destroyed it all. Only the grass has managed to regenerate.
Roraima is invisible from the river valley, but Kukénan is visible upstream, looking as though extruded from the earth by some unimaginable force (they were not: the surrounding material eroded away.) Tepuis being the earth's sandstone “teeth,” set in green forest “gums.”
Now starting to enter the cloud-base, frequent showers. Our guardian clouds ward off the sun's heat.
There are less photos from this period, the cloud hides much, & I am definitely out of puff!
As we climb, the grass changes to ferns, then back to grass. Some small annoying flies appear, but not many. Roraima & Kukénan are shrouded in mist.
Lunch nearly ready. Roraima completely hidden in cloud. The track is often divided by a water-cut gully down the middle. At some points, this gully is over 2m deep!
We start off again, after lunch. I can walk on the level almost indefinitely, but steep climbs tire me quickly. We continue gaining height, I start to be short of breath, taking frequent stops to hyperventilate.
I had picked up a stick to carry, this proved very useful on rough ground (what other kind is there out here?)
We come to a ridge-line traverse, much harder than the one at Deception Is. This probably would have stopped Rik.
I had fallen back in the line, largely due to stops to take photos. Now finding myself at a spot where the track wasn't clear, & no-one else in sight. So I waited for the kitchen porters, & followed them. Shortly after, found I was within 100m of the camp!
“Base Camp” at the foot of Roraima. Some of us went to swim in the river, reporting it was very cold. I didn't swim, having earned my laurels at Deception Is. :-)
The river runs along the foot of Roraima, with at least 4 waterfalls to feed it . As we approach, the open grassland gives way to thick forest, which continues on accessible faces of Roraima itself. Predominant is a new (to me) species of tree, with odd, fleshy leaves.
The “ramp” is clearly visible, as is its access to the top. It starts at the top of the forest (ie tree line), trees continue on the ramp, where they have holding. From what I can see, the path goes straight up through the forest, at one point at least [next day revealed several near-vertical sections]. Erik's altimeter reads 1850m.
There is another group sharing the campsite: there's regular traffic here!
It is now quite dark, with a new moon pointing vertically down to the sun, below the horizon.
Up early, deep in the cloud, a white-out around the camp. A heavy dew fell last night.
The porters set off early, leaving us to follow after breakfast. They leave bags of garbage hanging on trees, for collection on their return. This seems in emulation of the normal practice in towns: rubbish bins are in effect metal baskets set about 1m off the ground, out of reach of animals.
Roraima could well be named “Frowning Walls”, as is Nan Madol in Micronesia (but those walls are man-made).
Off early, with Heber & Pamela, whose pace is slower than mine, so I get rest stops. (with hindsight, I should have gone all the way at Pamela's pace.) Into the cloud forest, where the forest cover makes it very dark, even in daylight.. We got a chance to wash at a river crossing, followed by a very steep ascent.
The climb is a series of sections or "pitches", made up of large boulders jammed together. If there is rain, it torrents down these.
The descriptions don't do justice to this: it's called a "scramble", I would call it a moderate-level climb. Several spots I would have wanted climbing ropes, if I were organising it. [There's a little catch there: if they had used ropes, it would have cancelled most travel insurance, which doesn't cover climbing with technical aids.] This is written from the perspective of a 62-year old: younger climbers might disagree ☺
River crossing in the cloud forest.
We come to a turn in the track, marked by a mouldy leather boot, perched on a rock. Elio said that a few months ago, a German tourist tried the ascent alone, with no guide. That boot was all they ever found of him! (Of course, this may be just a tale. However we were later told that this forest harbours at least 2 venomous snake species, an unnamed one you die in 40 minutes, and the fer-de-lance or bushmaster it will hunt you down).
We reach the foot of the wall, Heard a bird call like rising notes on a scale. This is said to be a ghost which haunts bars, preying on drunks!
The start of the ramp proper. The path comes, for the first time, in contact with the wall. There is a “dreamtime” tale about this spot, that a bruxo (shaman) once opened a door into the rock, revealing a staircase to the top. Of course, no-one has found it since. A further tale holds that some 15 years ago, some tourists succeeded in opening the door, & found inside a case of liquor, which they carried away. (For myself, I suspect the alcohol preceded the tale!)
We stop for lunch. Here we can look across a deep gully at the route ahead, an extended scree field with minimal shelter from the precipice. Hereto, we have had a solid belt of vegetation between us & the drop. The gully represents a major loss of our hard-won height, which must later be climbed again. The climbers' groans on seeing this are the reason for the name: El Paso de Lachrymas – The Pass of Tears.
By now we have gained a lot of height, so the air is thinner: there's less oxygen. This affects us in several ways, all making the job harder. Erik estimates the height at 1800m. With 900m to go, & my increasing difficulties with the thin air, I asked Elio to let me go back. But Elio says it is farther to go back than to go on. The others offer strong encouragement, Elio offers to carry my 6kg pack (in addition to his own). The ability of these Pemon “Indian” guides is amazing: he just lashes my pack to the back of his own, jams his thumbs in the straps in default of a chest strap, and goes at it, having lost the ready use of his hands. Remember, this is steep climbing, not just walking.
The scree climb was easier than I expected (though definitely not “easy”) without the pack. The others offer more encouragement, help with my staff, etc.
End of the (main) climb. We are on top of Roraima, but not the very top (which we probably won't bother with). The landscape is indeed eerie, with areas of strange plants. The path winds through a maze of truck-sized boulders, making it easy to get lost.
The tepuis are made of ancient sandstone (some of the oldest rocks on Earth), which are weathered horizontally by the wind, and vertically by water. The interplay of these forces results in the strange shapes.
I eventually reach "Hotel India", our assigned camping place, to cries of "Bravo David! El conquistador de Roraima." (David, conqueror of Roraima) from those who got there first. There was nothing sarcastic in this, they were delighted to see me finish. I didn't feel like a conqueror: Roraima permitted me to ascend. The Pemons say there are mischievous spirits on the tepui-tops: it certainly feels that way.
We make camp at “Hotel India”, Erik estimates the height at 2755m. These “hotels” are nothing but shallow caves or rock shelters, providing only cover from rain & dew. My gear is wet through: I am drying one shirt while wearing the other under the windproof jacket.
As we neared the top, we heard a helicopter. Apparently this is how Japanese tourists “do” Roraima: an airlift in & walk out.
The “hotel” is a narrow ledge with a rock shelter able to accommodate a row of 3 tents. Above is a “second storey” used by the staff for cooking, etc. Probably some 100m above the “valley floor” level at which the climb ends, and gives over to a strange panorama of lakes & vegetation.
Sound carries well up here, we can hear people on the lower “plain” quite clearly.
The porters arrive with Pamela's second pack. She is coming.
Pamela arrives! However, Elio is firmly of the opinion that she is not fit to make the climb down, & sets about organising a helicopter to lift her out. He also feels I should go out on that helicopter.
It has rained steadily all night, and still is. The sound of water being punctuated by that of rocks falling as the water dislodges them. One rock has tumbled just by the camp, making it just that bit more tricky to get around. The rain was much heavier during the night, being now a heavy drizzle.
The path from the back of the camp to the water source has also been washed clean, from the muddy slope it was before. The camp faces roughly west, so we should see Kukénan, but it is lost in the mist.
The local wildlife seems confined to birds & insects. [We were later told there is also a coati & 2 species of mice.] Elio confirms there are no leeches.
A pair of small birds, dark brown with orange on the backs of their necks, were seen darting about the camp.
The rain is less, but we are still clouded in. We saw another party heading across the other side of the “canyon” in front of the camp.
Pamela feels all-in; she will rest today, & they will arrange a helicopter this evening, at estimated cost USD1500.
We plan to give the weather another hour, before heading off to the crystal pools & “Jacuzzis”. Estimated trip time = 4-7hrs, depending on weather & time stopped at the attractions.
Still waiting on the weather, which has not improved. Rags of cloud blowing through the “canyon” between Roraima & Kukénan. The only sound (apart from us) being waterfalls & occasional bird calls. The 2 small birds are still here. No insects seen (did the plants eat them all?)
Still weathered in. Sometimes a complete whiteout. This could become a survival situation. We estimate the temperature about 10ºC (ie same as the top Antarctic figure). Erik's compass confirms the Hotel India ledge faces west.
Still weathered in. We went as far as the “Jacuzzi”, some dived in! On return, Pamela, an experienced walker, expressed concern for my condition, fearing exposure. Her rule being Cold + Damp = Death. She put me into all available clothes. I recovered OK.
The guides advised me to share Pamela's airlift, which I accepted. The cost now being split 2 ways.
A violent, stormy night, with me wearing much of Pamela's borrowed spare clothing. We had some worry that our tent (& the ground under it) was unstable, & about to slip away. The tent zips gave a lot of trouble.
Pamela's alarm woke us. Temperature measured = 11ºC, nearly the same as the Antarctic, less that 600km from the Equator!
Elio said Pamela should not attempt the descent, & I was strongly advised not to. So Pamela, Heber & I remained on top. The guides have mobile phones (to my surprise, they work here. Rik later confirmed there is line of sight from the base tower), & he was assured the helicopter would fly that day. With that assurance, Elio took away all the tents, food, cooking equipment etc.
We had been told to expect the helicopter at 06:00, so we get up, pack, & set off to the landing site. This is still rather rough ground, but the best there is. Swapped goodbyes, addresses, photos, etc.
The descent party leave.
No helicopter arrives. Pamela, Heber & I are still on the mountain. We take an inventory of usable survival rations, in case they are needed. They have left Heber without a cellphone.
No helicopter. We start making survival plans, Pamela in effect takes the lead. We hear a hail from somewhere out of sight. Heber takes off, running very fast over these rocks, to find the caller. If they have a phone, we can call for help.
We relocate to “Hotel Basilio”, where there is another group with some food. No helicopter. Their guide (who has a phone) says there is a helicopter – the earlier message being incorrect - but the pilot is on holiday!
A fly was seen here: the first.
Basilio looks a much safer position than India.
Still waiting for the helicopter.
Several more of the little birds were seen.
A message received that the helicopter will fly at 16:00 today, else at first light tomorrow.
No helicopter yet. The porters brought up food, & we have made plans for a bivouac in the open at Basilio.
Last night we shared food with another group, before sleeping under the stars at Basilio. This “hotel” is similar to India, but has a gentle slope in front, rather than a steep drop-off. Therefore soil can lie, and a thick plant growth provides a natural safety net if one should slip over the edge.
During the night I heard 2 avalanches, the first preceded by a sharp crack as a rock broke away. I thought of the rocks overhanging us.
We will share breakfast with the others. The helicopter is promised for this morning, but not at first light, as they must do preflight checks, etc.
Waiting for the helicopter. Breakfast with the other group, who are mostly Canadians. Just as well we don't have a fixed schedule here. This evening (assuming the helicopter comes) is when the ground party will return, so Rik will expect me then.
Still waiting for the helicopter – or for Godot!
Back to Basilio, to find a third group setting up. We explained what had happened, they offered to rearrange themselves to free up a tent for us. We declined, still hoping for that helicopter. It later transpired they were an ad hoc amalgam of several groups, so two more didn't change much.
A message received, that the helicopter was 5 minutes away. This seems unlikely, given about 100km from Sta. Elena to Roraima. We were later advised that it was circling, looking for a gap in the weather, which now closed in, with full fog. Naturally, we don't expect him to land in this. (We learned later that the helicopter made 2 unsuccessful attempts to reach us this afternoon, being blocked by the fog.)
So, back to Basilio to take up the new group's offer. They provided a pot & stove, & we cooked 2 of my instant noodle packs.
A brief gap opened in the weather, but no helicopter. We didn't expect him, after the earlier whiteout. Presumably Elio and/or Rik are asking questions back in Sta. Elena, by now.
The weather still solid cloud & fog. We are preparing to overnight here. We noted the weather is often clear at first light, offering a small flight window.
Mañana – these people invented the word! The helicopter is definitely promised for 06:00 tomorrow.
No rain last night. The new group at Basilio let us use one of their tents.
No helicopter yet. We have told Heber that we each will run out of medications tomorrow, by way of applying some pressure. (It is true, the extra pills are in Sta. Elena.)
The helicopter arrives!
Back to the hostel. It's still unclear whether we have to pay for the helicopter (USD800 each), I have already filed notice of an insurance claim, just in case.
I get up, to walk with Rik to see the dawn from the Heroes' Memorial (which commemorates 10 leaders of the 19th century revolt against Spanish rule.) Suddenly, I was struck by a “tummy bug” - back down in a hurry! The doctor was called, & put in a drip for dehydration, plus a broad-spectrum antibiotic (ciprofloxacine). The others agree that my condition was actually much worse that I thought myself.
Dr. Nelson Requena is one of the Cuban-trained doctors who are doing such good work all over S. America. They are trained to work with much less in the way of technical gadgets than their Western equivalents. A picture came down off the wall in the hotel room, & it's nail provided an improvised IV stand. Rik was instructed on changing the IV bags when needed.
We did check that all the IV kit was sterile, single use items. So it was.
Drip taken out: waiting for dinner. Rik & Pamela have gone shopping.
We re-hung the picture sideways, to see if anyone noticed. No-one did!
Christmas Day: scratch meals in the hotel room, as everywhere was closed.
A hot day, we spent most of the time asleep!
I spent today recovering. Too many hoons charging around with over-loud boom-boxes in their cars.
We tried the restaurant opposite our hostel. Not a success: the only vegetarian choice was a pizza, & not a very good one.
I can now face short walks!
Another group returned from Roraima, with all their kit wet, to find everywhere shut, today being Sunday (some hostel facilities did open later).
The boom-box noise drove us away from the hostel to seek a more amenable dinner venue. We landed at a hamburger joint in the food court, which did a most excellent burger, & quite understood the meaning of “double cheese: no meat”. Alas he did not do fries on the side: that would have been perfection.
Pamela & I again visited the bus terminal, & discovered that no buses run until Jan 2nd. We are advised to take a taxi to the border, go through the border formalities, then catch the bus in Brazil.
Erik (owner of Backpackers) returned from his Christmas holiday in Florida. He was helpful to the extreme: everything was immediately sorted out: we pay for the helicopter, & he ensured all the paperwork was properly prepared for Pamela's & my insurers.
A trip to the border (again organised by Erik) to change money. Erik's driver was an education in hard-driving a Land Cruiser: I mentioned such annoying trivia as double white lines: he quoted the tourism slogan “in Venezuela, you can do anything!”
Finally, Erik drove us himself to the border, & helped us through the formalities . So we left Venezuela, & shared a taxi to Boa Vista, back in Brazil.
So, what lessons would I draw form the experience:
For me, to go at a slower pace initially. In that group, to stay with Pamela, rather than exhausting myself keeping up with the main party, who were less than half my age.
For the organisers: never leave a party on the mountain without:
An experienced leader, with a cellphone
Sufficient food, tents, etc., with provision for mishaps
A cooking stove: hot food is a great morale booster
Note: Brazil (Roraima province) is half an hour ahead of Venezuela