2004-2005 OUCC / SVE Expedition: Roraima
'Can you grab hold of my foot?' Tony's voice echoed down to me, sounding stressed. I flailed my arm above my head as best I could in the tight sandstone rift.
'Err...' Think calm thoughts, think calm thoughts...
'Hang on a sec, I'll see if I can get down any lower... are you wedged in OK?'
Being wedged in was not the problem - I felt like I was trapped between two pieces of sandpaper. Although I couldn't move my head, I knew that the walls of the rift belled out beneath me and narrowed above, forming the tightest part of the rift. Going down had been easy, but with no handholds or footholds, coming up was proving to be much harder than I'd expected. I knew that in such a remote location there was no prospect of rescue - I had to get out. I exhaled slowly and made another attempt to grab Tony's foot.
A couple of months before, coming to South America had seemed like a good idea. Our aim was to explore and map an intricate system of caves that had been partially investigated by Venezuelan, Czech and Japanese teams.
In the middle of a dreary October, Keith Hyams, a philosophy student at Oxford, began telling us tales of an exotic landscape on the far side of the world. Marking the tri-partite border between Guyana, Venezuela and Brazil, Mount Roraima is what is more properly called a 'tepui' - a flat topped table mountain with sheer cliffs.
The mountain rose up from the surrounding jungle, result of erosion of a massive plateau several million years ago, creating a distinct climatic difference between the plateau and the savannah below. This means that Roraima's ecosystem has developed in isolation from its surroundings resulting in some unique plants and animals.
It was this unique ecosystem that led Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to write The Lost World, where he describes a group of adventurers who explore just such a mountain and discover ancient dinosaurs. He was inspired by botanists Evarard Im Thurn and Harry Perkins, who were the first Europeans to reach the summit of Roraima in 1884. We planned to follow the same rocky ledge up the western cliff face, the only way that the plateau can be reached.
The caves themselves would be very different to the normal limestone caves we were used to exploring in Europe. Mount Roraima is composed of a beautiful red sandstone, which geologists believe was formed at least 1.8 billion years ago - amongst the oldest sandstone on the planet. It seemed extremely likely that any caves found on Roraima would be the oldest caves on the planet.
We knew that almost 6 kilometres of horizontal cave passage had been discovered on top of Roraima. Further, there was always the tantalising potential of finding a way down through 400m of sandstone to pop out at the bottom of the cliffs, as achieved by Professor Challenger and the team in The Lost World.
Drawn by the thought of unusual and challenging caving, and, I have to admit, warmer weather, the seven of us from the UK made a slightly odd group. From Oxford, there was Keith and his girlfriend Arry, a researcher for Oxfam who spoke amazingly good Spanish and seemed to have a knack for dealing with difficult officialdom. From Cardiff we had Martin, a BT engineer, and his wife Lenik, originally from a tribe of Malaysian ex-headhunters.
Tony, a gruff Outdoor Education Centre manager from Lancashire, surprised us all when he pulled 'Eighteenth Century Poetry' and 'Vanity Fair' out of his rucksack on top of the mountain. Dave had somehow managed to get leave from his important job with Tesco to travel the world for three years, and I'm normally a chemist working at Sizewell B power station in Suffolk.
November and December passed in a flurry of vaccinations, medical and caving kit preparations and general organisational chaos. I ended up at Heathrow airport just after Christmas feeling dazed and slightly hungover, with that horrible, nagging feeling that I'd forgotten something vital.
Fifteen hours later, we arrived at Caracas airport where we were welcomed with open arms by the Venezuelan Speleological Society. They apologised profusely because Francisco and Raphael, the two cavers who would be joining us on the expedition, were unable to meet us as they were still busy obtaining our caving permits from the national park authorities.
Arriving at Parapetui, the closest village to Mount Roraima, on New Year's Eve, we had some good luck and some bad. In our favour, the nice young man who'd been left to guard the national park was reasonably happy with our intention to go caving. Unfortunately, there were only two porters in the village who could help us carry our equipment to the top of the mountain.
The food we'd bought, while jet-lagged, in the fifteen minutes before the last supermarket in Caracas closed, did not contain the most practical items for ten days up a mountain. In a desperate attempt to reduce the weight of our rucksacks, we set aside as much of the heavy, low calorie items as we could. Our diet would be restricted to minimal amounts of soup, pasta and rice, although Keith insisted on taking the courgettes 'for flavour'.
The journey to the top of the mountain took three days of trekking through gorgeous, sweeping, midge-infested savannah. We were drenched by rainstorms, burnt by the strong equatorial sunshine and Lenik nearly got swept down one of the rivers. We finally reached the top of the mountain on the second of January - tired, hungry, and ready to finally go caving.
Ducking past a waterfall and behind a boulder, we entered into Roraima Sur - the main cave on the plateau. It was unlike any cave I've seen before. Instead of the cold, hard greyness of limestone, these walls were soft and rounded, reflecting back the light from our LED headsets in pink and golden tones. It was gorgeous! Hopping nimbly down a waterfall, we hurried on into a maze of cave passages.
Francisco was hoping to resurvey some of the more complex areas of the cave and check that everything had been thoroughly explored. We split into teams to try and cover more ground. Martin, Tony and I were soon feeling hopelessly lost - we weren't sure which passages had been explored, or which was the way on. At every junction we came to, we turned left in the hope that we'd eventually get back to somewhere we recognised. Popping out of a muddy, body-sized tube, we finally heard the sound of voices in the distance. Catching up with the others, we decided to call it a day and head back to our camp under the rocky overhang known as 'Hotel Guacharo'. It would take some careful planning and organisation to decide how best to continue the exploration of Roraima Sur.
The next day, Francisco and Rafael took pity on us. 'There is a new cave that we discovered right at the end of our last trip up here. You must abseil down forty metres to the bottom of a deep ravine where small passages filled with cold water lead through to the next ravine. There may be a way on, but it will be very tight and wet. At least you won't get lost.' I shuddered. Surveying tends to be quite a slow, methodical occupation. Being up to my neck in cold water whilst trying to get readings from a temperamental compass and clinometer sounded deeply unpleasant.
Grabbing our kit, Tony, Dave and I headed across the plateau and down into the enormous, gaping crack of 'New Cave'. Surveying quickly and trying to avoid bumping into the large, black crustacean-like things, we got through to the bottom of the second crack. A cold breeze was blowing in from a dark hole at the far end of the rift. Dumping the surveying equipment, we ran ahead to explore - Francisco hadn't said anything about a continuation of the passage in this direction. Could we have discovered something big? We squeezed over a pile of precariously perched boulders and dropped into beautiful stream passage. We couldn't believe our luck! Dave pushed me to the front because he hated walking into the spiderwebs, so I ran on down the passage, ducking to avoid the strange, contorted, black stalactites and stopping every now and again to shake the spiders out of my hair. The passage was opening out, getting larger and larger, and in the distance I could hear the sound of a waterfall. It took all my will power not to keep running on to see what was round the next corner. When the others caught up with me, I was bouncing up and down and squeaking with excitement. 'Let's go survey!'
We mapped over 500m of passage that afternoon, and hurried back to camp with tales of large chambers, deep pools and side passages going off all over the place. It was all hands to the deck to continue the survey. A day later, and we'd pushed past a boulder choke into another big chamber with a waterfall from the ceiling at the far end. Dropping down through the water, the passage became much lower and the walls appeared to glow faintly. Could it be...? Light! We'd popped out somewhere on the Roraima cliffs! Clinging tightly to the ledge, we tried to figure out where we were. The mist had rolled in, so we couldn't see far, but we could hear a waterfall crashing a long way below us.
Francisco and Rafael were thrilled at our discoveries - between them, they had visited the plateau on over twenty occasions and had spent years dreaming about finding a way out onto the cliffs. After a short period of celebration with the remaining emergency rum, we realised that our Venezuelan cavers would have to leave the mountain in order to be back at work by Monday. Waving them goodbye, it felt like we were coming to the end of a successful expedition.
With only a couple of days of food left, we explored as much as we could of the newly named 'Cliff Cave'. Roaming further across the plateau, we checked out some of the potential leads for future expeditions to the area, including one tight chasm that I got to know rather well...
'Got it!' I caught hold of Tony's foot, but my triumph was shortlived as my bum slid further down the rift. Pulling myself up with one arm, I inched my way towards Tony with frantic bursts of energy, trying desperately to overcome the friction against the rocks. After what felt like hours of struggling, I felt a large hand reach down and grab hold of the back of my oversuit.
'That's it - you're through the tightest section now,' Tony hauled me up to safety on a ledge where I huddled into a ball, exhausted. 'Promise me you'll never try anything like that again without a safety rope?'
Finishing off our last bits of surveying, we packed up our kit and prepared for the long walk back to civilisation. After ten days of squalor, I really needed to get into a hot bath and rinse the mud and sand out of my hair. It had been an amazing expedition - far more successful than any of us had dared to hope. We had discovered and mapped well over a kilometre of uniquely beautiful sandstone passage in just a few days. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would have been proud of us!