Exploring the Auyan Tepui in February 1991

Close to Venezuela’s border with Guyana and Brazil lie many table mountains called “tepuis” in the local indigenous language. They are remote, largely unexplored, and inspired Conan Doyle’s “The Lost World.” One of the largest is the Auyan Tepui, whose claim to fame is Angel Falls where water cascades  979m / 3212ft down a vertical cliff, making it the tallest waterfall in the world. The waterfall is named after a bush pilot Jimmie Angel who crash-landed his small plane on the top in 1933 and found a way down off the tepui on its south side. It was Jimmie’s route down that I wanted to go up! With guidance from Hilary Branch who wrote the No Frills Guide to Venezuela, I arranged to meet a German couple Eric and Sonya to attempt this adventure together. Once completed, I shared the story of my adventure with Hilary and my notes were included in her next book, the Bradt Travel Guide to Venezuela.

This map of Venezuela, from the 2003 Fourth Edition of Bradt’s Travel Guide to Venezuela, shows the location of the Auyantepui in relation to Caracas, the Peninsula de Paria, and Merida.
This is the map from the 1993 First Edition of “Venezuela” by Hilary Branch. It shows our hiking route from Kavac to Guayaraca and on to the top of the tepui via Libertador. It also highlights the hand-drawn nature of published maps in the early ’90s, especially when compared to the map in the 2003 fourth edition below.
Using much the same information as above, this map is the modern version from 2003.

The gateway to the land of the tepuis is Canaima. It is primarily a tourist resort in the national park with a small airport. Having secured a permit from the National Park office before leaving Caracas, I could camp on the beach for free! The setting was idyllic, made all the more special by being able to camp on the beach. Other than the amazing views, I have two vivid memories. The first did not immediately become apparent and was a parasitic jigger (not chigger) that burrowed into my toe and laid some eggs. More about that later. The second was an extended conversation in a quiet corner of the hotel bar. I was still trying to get the lay of the land and work out how to travel from Canaima to Kavac. I started chatting to this local guy who was familiar with the area. We spoke in Spanish for about 30 minutes, which impressed me as I could not speak Spanish before coming to Venezuela. After 30 minutes, he said in perfect English “we can switch to English now if you like.” He had been testing me and I had passed the test. He also gave me the honour of being a “non-Gringo” as I was sufficiently blending in! Perhaps most importantly, he explained to me how one could hitch rides on the small airplanes that took tourists and cargo between the local airports, so I was able to get to the start of the trek!

Below is my description of Canaima that was published in Hilary’s book.

I camped on the sand for free, just down the beach from a luxury resort. Sweet.
While the views were idyllic, the tepui was calling me!
This was my introduction to tea-coloured rivers. Tannins from plants cause the colouration.
This is the plane I managed to hitch a ride on to Kavac. It was normally used for day trippers from the Canaima hotel.
On leaving Canaima, I could spot my beach below next to the hotel.
On the way to Kavac, we passed by Angel Falls, and caught this glimpse of it through the clouds.

So, I made it to Kavac, and was very happy to meet up with Eric and Sonya. Kavac is a tourist village for day trippers from Canaima, run by indigenous people of the Penon tribe from Kamarata, a town a couple of hours’ hike away. We needed to get to Kamarata to meet our guide for the hike. There was a daily shuttle that took the workers back and forth, but the remoteness made fuel expensive and hence priced the shuttle beyond our means, so we hiked instead. We met up with our guide Justiniano and made plans for a 10-day hike, and I have two vivid memories of this initial encounter. First, the previously mentioned jigger was causing problems for my toe. Justiniano used the top of a piece of grass as a needle and dug it out. He would have gotten a special antibiotic leaf from a plant, but it was too far away, so he recommended another remedy which worked quickly. I liked the conversations with Justiniano, Eric, and Sonya, because Spanish was everyone’s second language so we could more easily understand one another. My second vivid memory was how Justiniano said goodbye to his family before leaving for 10 days. He shared a simple “see you later,” as if he was going next door for 20 minutes. Going away for an unknown number of days was such a normal part of life for the tribe, and I have always remembered their prioritization of the moment and just getting on with life. Below are my notes from the Bradt guide.

The tourist village of Kavac with traditional huts. Water flowed down the slope behind the village in a black pipe, which heated up in the sun to give us hot showers! The village continues to operate today.

We were ready to set off! The first day was hiking around the base of the tepui to Guayaraca camp, where the trail started going upwards. The day’s hiking was filled with changing perspectives of the tepui.

The tepui towered above us all day.
Sometimes the perspective changed.
Sonya marching forward

Once we started heading up the mountain, the landscape gradually changed from savanna to dense forests. As we climbed, the forest gave way to rock formations, each one having a name which Justiniano was happy to demonstrate.

From Guayaraca, we could see our ultimate destination, but there was a lot of forest and climbing in the way.
Eric was ready to go!
One of Eric and Sonya’s photos, highlighting the denseness of the forest.
Justinano and the stone arch. Note his rubber boots!
Another rock formation was known as the horse.
Justiniano used a homemade backpack
We slept that night at the base of a vertical stone wall, which had plenty of new and old graffiti.

The next day was our quest for the top. The terrain got steeper and rougher, and a viable route around the vertical cliffs gradually became apparent. We were blessed with a clear day so the views were fantastic. Having been welcomed on the top by a statue of Venezuela’s liberator Simon Bolivar, we walked a bit further to spend the night under a large rock known as “el oso” (the bear).

Eric contemplating how we will ascend.
Justiniano shows us the way.
Looking back down at the route we had just climbed.
A pause for lunch. We were very remote, so even though it might not look it in this picture, we were careful. Any accident would require self-rescue, including retracing the walk so far for multiple days.
Close to the top, we could see the savanna and other tepuis in the distance.
Simon Bolivar, the liberator of South America from Spanish rule, welcomed us to the top. This bronze bust was placed here by a local university in 1956.
As soon as we were on the top, the landscape dramatically changed. It truly seemed like a “lost world.”
Justiniano and Eric survey the area from on top of a rock called “el oso,” which was also our shelter for the night.

Once on the top, we had a couple of days to explore. There were tremendous varieties of landscape and flora, which very few people had ever visited. Many plant species are found only on the top of these tepuis in their isolated ecosystem. So, we trod carefully as we explored!

One of many orchids. Most I failed to photograph, but I managed to get something in this photograph.
Myself, Sonya, and Justiniano enjoy our lunch.
We had to cross the river Churun. I was amazed to find such a sizeable river on the top of a tepui but had to remind myself that it was the size of a small country.
The river disappeared down a canyon like this in the middle of the tepui.
We walked along this wide, dry riverbed for a while.
The furthest we went was this waterfall, which was further than Justiniano had previously hiked.
The team photo at the furthest point of our hike. This was a tremendously symbolic point for me, because as we turned around to head back, my life was changing from a student to a young professional. It was all the more poignant as we were a multiday hike from the nearest civilization. I travelled nearly continuously from this point (via home) to the Omani desert as the first step in my 30-year career. Looking back, I seemed to feel the weight of this moment.

Our hike back was much faster than our hike in, with one day to cross the top of the tepui and one more to hike down and back to Kavac. On the second day, I hiked ahead as I was hoping to catch a ride on the tourist plane out of Kavac. Being alone gave me plenty of time to reflect. It had been an extra special treat to have experienced the Auyan Tepui. Indeed, my life up to this point had been filled with opportunities and my life has continued to be since. I hope I have made the most of them!

I think I got my money’s worth from my hiking boots!

After making it back to Kavac, I found my way by various means of transportation back to Caracas and onwards to England. After a quick turnaround, I was on a plane to Dubai where I signed my first contract with Schlumberger and was soon living in the Omani desert on the edge of the “rub al khali” or the “empty quarter,” the vast desert region in the Southern Arabian Peninsula.

P.S. James sent me a copy of my original, typed-up notes about Canaima and the Auyantepui trek, which I have attached. Also, Mark and James’s notes about getting to Ciudad Bolivar and Morrocoy.

This page is linked to from my Venezuela home page.

Published by Peter Ireland

I am originally from England, and my wife Janet is from Louisiana. When we started Geocaching in 2002, we needed a name, and the Cajunlimeys were created, and that is the name I use for my blog. Even though Janet has no Cajun blood, her cooking is excellent! “Limeys” comes from the nickname for English sailors, who ate limes to prevent scurvy. We live in Houston, Texas, with Bailey and Samuel. We love adventures and want to share the experiences with others. When planning trips, I have found other people’s sites very useful, so I want to give back and add a different perspective.

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