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Boletín de la Sociedad Venezolana de Espeleología

Print version ISSN 0583-7731

Bol. Soc. Venezolana Espel. vol.38 no.38 Caracas Dec. 2004



Keith Hyams

Oxford University Cave Club, 13 Bevington Road, Oxford,UK

Recibido en mayo de 2005

One thing we did manage to solve was the mystery concerning the drainage of the plateau. Even though on the previous day we had seen lots of streams on the summit, none seemed to go towards the edge of the tableland. It was during the afternoon of the last full day that we came to the edge of a deep fissure with a stream tumbling into it at one end. We found quite a lot of these clefts later, and some of them looked quite deep.

«Maybe some day a potholing expedition will explore these places,» I said.

«It would be very dangerous,» added John. «You would have to divert the streams or else the sudden rainstorms would flood you out.»

«Perhaps that's where the diamonds are, down there in the heart of the mountain,» mused Adrian.

«Well, it's a thought for some future expedition, not us,» pronounced John.

Such an undertaking would be dangerous even for a fully experienced party, but perhaps one day an expedition will go to Roraima with the intention of investigating the shafts on the summit. As Adrian pointed out, the diamonds the Indians talked about might be at the heart of the mountain, and it might just be possible that the potholes went a long way down into the rock.

«Journey to the Lost World» by Stanley Jeeves, 1965

It was over two years since I'd first visited Roraima and hatched a plan to go back with a group of cavers to explore the many caves I'd seen on its wild summit. One of those ideas which probably should have vanished soon after getting back to England, but which had somehow managed to linger on in my mind until, finally, here we were, a team of seven bleary eyed cavers meeting at some ungodly hour in the bus station at Heathrow airport Pip, Tony, Martin, Lenik, Dave, Arry and myself.

A few hours later and we were in Caracas, met by a group of incredibly friendly Venezuelan cavers with whom we'd planned this joint expedition. We were all knackered after not having slept for two days, so the mad dash to buy food before the last of the supermarkets closed proved a little more than our weary brains could cope with, and we ended up with a random assortment of foodstuffs which we eventually managed to supplement with a slightly less random assortment of foodstuffs over the next couple of days.

The next morning the seven of us, plus the two cavers of the Venezuelan Speleological Society who would be joining us on Roraima, Francisco and Rafael, were up before dawn (again) to join our bus down to the Gran Sabana region of Venezuela. There had been no tickets left on the regular buses when the Venezuelans had tried to book our places, so they'd found us places on a tourist bus instead, which leisurely wound its way down towards Roraima, seemingly stopping at every village, church, bridge, waterfall, rock and tree for a photo session along the way. The comfort-phillic Venezuelan tourists on the bus had already decided that we were mad, just at the mere mention of our plan to go caving. But when, in the middle of the night, we were unceremoniously dumped by the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, in the midst of a tropical downpour, they decided that we really must be completely off our rockers. `Suerte', they said, as we left the bus, their baffled faces belying a secret relief that these nutcases had finally left them alone to marvel at the beauty of the Gran Sabana from the safe confines of an air-conditioned tour bus.

It was a tough but enjoyable three day hike to the top of Roraima, each of us carrying about 20 kg of gear and food on our backs. We spent New Year's Eve cowering from the rain in a small shelter, passing round a bottle of rum and singing Auld Lang Syne at 8 pm to celebrate the British New Year as none of us had the energy to stay awake to see in the Venezuelan New Year. Two river crossings, a lot of hard sun, heavy rain, sweat, laughter and fantastic views later, we arrived at the original base camp, at the foot of the soaring Roraima wall, ready for our final ascent up the ramp the next day.

When we finally reached the top after the long slog up the ramp, we were all struck by the magnificent weirdness of the place, even myself and Arry, who'd been up Roraima before. Weird rock formations, unique plants, huge bogs, valleys of crystals truly the Lost World of Conan-Doyle (minus the dinosaurs). Once we'd established camp in the entrance to a cave it was time to go caving.

I was pleased to see that the entrance to the cave of interest, the only known cave on Roraima of any size, was the very same entrance which had looked particularly promising to me on my visit two years ago. Roraima Sur cave was already known to be 6 km long, and we hoped to extend that. Being formed in sandstone the cave had a very different appearance and feel (much more crumbly!) to normal limestone caves. The walls glowed a warm, welcoming pink, and there were amazing wave impressions on the rock, formed when the rock was originally laid down on the sea-bed, like sand at the beach as the tide recedes. A lovely cave.

We spent our first day exploring and surveying some small side passages and left a good lead in the north of the cave for a future trip. Rafael managed to amuse me greatly by insisting on going through a squeeze which was pretty tight for him because, he said, `I can't leave Francisco, he's my buddy!' To his credit, he didn't give up, and after about half an hour of grunting, groaning, pushing and pulling from both ends, and a bit of demolition of the crumbly sandstone walls, Rafael eventually popped out the other side, swearing profusely in Spanish.

On the second day we split into two teams with Pip, Tony and Dave going off to explore another entrance a short walk from camp and not too far from the edge of the tepui, a 20 m deep open crack in the ground which Francisco and Rafael had previously entered but not fully explored. They described it as `low and full of deep water'. The other team, Francisco, Rafael and myself, went back down Roraima Sur to look at the far northern limit of the cave which we hadn't had a chance to look at yesterday. We grovelled around in low wet passages which went nowhere for a couple of hours until Francisco had a mini-epic getting lost in a bedding plane and we decided to call it a day and head back to camp rather than continue on to push yesterday's lead, which would have to wait.

Back at camp the other group had already returned and were huddled around the pasta slop which we had become accustomed to referring to as dinner. `How was your trip?' they asked.

`Oh, O.K.', we replied. `Yours?'

`Yeah, O.K.', said Pip. But the poorly concealed smirks on their faces said it all… the other cave had gone big! Team lucky had spent the day romping down a huge streamway passage in a big new cave at least as large as Roraima Sur. They'd already surveyed over 500m of passage and explored another 250m beyond that, and the cave was still going! Wahey!

The next day we all piled into the new cave to continue the exploration and survey. The main streamway which lay beyond was impressive, to say the least. Picking up from where they'd finished surveying the day before, Tony, Pip and I continued pushing the main passage whilst Francisco, Rafael and Dave explored the side passages. After a few hundred metres more we met a huge boulder choke which, after a certain amount of precarious persuasion, we managed to negotiate a way through. The passage continued beyond the choke until eventually the roof lowered suddenly and we were forced to duck under a low section to continue. And then… light, coming from a large cavity on the left! Could it be? Yes! It was! We'd popped out, like the characters in The Lost World, in the middle of Roraima's mighty walls! On the down side this meant that we'd reached the end of the cave (the remainder of the cave must have dropped off millions of years ago when the rock between the remaining tepuis fell away), but none of us minded much, as the hole we'd found was truly one of the most spectacular places any of us had ever been. The cloud was in as we stood in awe, perched above hundreds of metres of nothingness, the great cliffs towering above us and dropping away below. An immensely atmospheric window into the abyss. Fantastic!

We started out of the cave and explored one of the larger inlets on the way out. After surveying the passage we were about to head out when I felt a breeze coming out of the wall on my left. Looking underneath the wall we found a choke and forced our way through to find a second, smaller window in the cliffs. The cloud had now rolled back and the sun had just set, so we were afforded a fantastic view across the savannah. We headed out, glowing with satisfaction at our finds in the cave which Francisco now named La Cueva de la Pared (The Cave of the Wall). Almost certainly the best trip of my caving career so far!

With only a couple of days of the expedition left to go, we explored another surface lead which looked quite promising a waterfall plunging into a long slot in the ground, where Pip managed to get herself thoroughly wedged for quite a while. We also returned to the lead we'd found in Roraima Sur on the first day, where we found a maze of passages heading off, and added a new entrance and a couple of hundred metres more onto the length of Roraima Sur.

Returning to camp after the last day's caving, relieved that our poor broken bodies could finally have a break, we realised that we still hadn't been down the cave Guacharo Cave in the entrance to which we'd been camped for the past week. Since we were still in our caving gear we decided to go for a quick jolly to see the cave, but I promised myself that I'd turn back as soon as I had to get down on my knees, which were completely buggered by now. Twenty metres in and the roof lowered… `Oh sod it!' I thought, `I can't turn back this early, we can still see the camp!'. An hour later and we reached what was supposed to be the end of the cave, where, to our surprise, we could carry on caving. A flat out crawl and a squeeze over a rock bridge led into a short stretch of virgin passage until, a few metres further on, we saw signs that we back in known passage again. But where could this be? It didn't seem to fit the survey of Guacharo Cave, so maybe we'd found another connection through to Roraima Sur (one connection had already been established between Guacharo Cave and Roraima Sur by the Venezuelans)? We followed the passage a bit further to try and work out where on earth we were, until eventually we reached a large crack open to the surface. There were lots of cracks in the area and several of them led to Roraima Sur, so we still weren't quite sure where we were. Then suddenly, ahead of me I heard a loud laugh from Tony, `This tree was our first survey station!'… we'd found a connection through to the bottom of the entrance pitch into the new cave, La Cueva de la Pared! What had supposed to be a brief bimble had ended up making one of the most significant discoveries of the trip, a connection which linked the new cave to Guacharo Cave and Roraima Sur, thereby linking all three of Roraima's caves together and creating one large system, Sistema Roraima Sur, with a total length of over 10.8 km, the longest sandstone cave in the world and the second longest cave in any rock in Venezuela.

The next day it was time to return to the world below. We'd had a fantastic time and had been very lucky with our finds. But we'd run out of food, energy and time. And none of us could face another morning dose of porridge slop (Arry had already given up eating breakfast a couple of days ago!), so it was time to go home. We hobbled back down in two days with the assistance of several sticks and double strength ibuprofen, or `pink smarties' as we called them, then got the bus back to Caracas to sleep, eat and be merry.

Jeeves, Stanley. 1965. Journey to the lost world. London University Press. 95 pp.