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Hunting for carnivorous plants on Mount Roraima

  • Written by  Mateusz Wrazidlo
  • Published in Explorers
The expedition team in the ‘Mudville’ camp, with Mount Roraima in the background The expedition team in the ‘Mudville’ camp, with Mount Roraima in the background Maciej Moskwa/TESTIGO
26 Nov
2021
Carnivorous-plant expert Mateusz Wrazidlo set out to fulfil his dearest ambition by ascending South America’s remote Mount Roraima

The dull thud of machetes marking wet trees grows into a peculiar, trance-inducing melody as we splash through mud up the Waruma River valley. The forest is hot and dark in the last days of August 2019 as we begin our long, strenuous trek, inching towards the northern slopes of a mountain that has haunted my dreams for years. 

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Mount Roraima is a gigantic sandstone plateau rising above a sea of pristine rainforest and sun-scorched savannah – a sacred mountain that once fuelled the imaginations of an entire generation of Victorian explorers. Along the way, we’ll locate extraordinary carnivorous plants – the main reason for my presence in this hotspot of South American biodiversity.

I had dreamed of exploring the tepuis (the table-top mountains in the Guiana Highlands of Venezuela and western Guyana) for more than a decade before I got my first chance to visit in January 2017. It was an unorthodox dream. I grew up far from anything that would suggest a deep connection with the natural world. My childhood was spent in Poland’s industrial region of Upper Silesia, among landscapes marked by mining shaft headframes and slag heaps, within a family with long engineering traditions. Yet the moment I learned about the existence of a carnivorous sundew plant, Drosera rotundifolia, as a nine-year-old, I was captivated. I’m not alone in this fascination. It was Charles Darwin himself who, while researching the plant, said, ‘...at the present, I care more about Drosera than the origin of all the species in the world’. 

MOSKWA 18
Mateusz Wrazidlo observing epiphytic bromeliads growing high on the tree trunks in the rainforests under Mount Roraima [Maciej Moskwa/TESTIGO]

My childhood passion turned into a lifelong obsession on the day I first saw a picture of a botanical tepui jewel – Heliamphora glabra – an endemic pitcher plant that grows out of Mount Roraima’s cliffs, high above the clouds along the border of Brazil, Venezuela and Guyana. Ever since that moment, I haven’t spent a single day not thinking about this island in the sky. It would take me nearly 15 years of studying cultivated specimens, obtained from botanists and plant nurseries, in my handmade indoor conservatory before I finally got the chance to see and document the plants first-hand.

MW 6A cultivated specimen of the carnivorous pitcher plant Heliamphora parva from the massif of Cerro Neblina grown in the author’s conservatory [Mateusz Wrazidlo/EXPLORITY]

When the German botanist Richard Schomburgk published the memoirs of his travels in British Guiana in the first half of the 19th century, he called the upper slopes of Mount Roraima ‘a botanical El Dorado’. He was referring to what we today call the Pantepui – a unique biogeographical province situated 1,500 metres above sea level and covering an area of about 6,000 square kilometres. Due to its montane isolation, this environment has been a true theatre of evolutionary processes whose inhabitants have had to adapt to unsupportive, rugged conditions characterised by a lack of nutrients. Despite, and indeed in some ways because of, these challenges, it has proven to be a perfect habitat for carnivorous plants of all sorts; they are exceptionally plentiful in both the lowland savannah that surrounds the gigantic massifs as well as on their arid, rocky summits. Unfortunately, adaptation to such peculiar conditions comes at a price. Research shows that close to 80 per cent of the Pantepui flora, nearly 1,700 species (about 400 of which are endemic), are threatened with extinction due to the warming climate.

Almost 140 years have passed since the explorer and colonial administrator Everard Im Thurn first ascended Mount Roraima and today the mesa is one of Venezuela’s tourist hotspots. Its remote northern section, situated within the territory of Guyana, on the other hand, remains little explored. 

No outsider can hope to travel in such a place without the guidance and help of the region’s Indigenous people. We meet our hosts and guides on a hot afternoon on 27 August, having flown into the village of Kamarang and then taken a short boat trip up the Mazaruni River to the Indigenous Akawaio community of Kako. Next morning, we set off, a group made up of myself, my Guyanese friends Darrell Carpenay and Orson Hinds, Polish photographer Maciej Moskwa and our guides, Kelly Phillip, his son Ackley and Hondel Hunter. We’re also accompanied by Byron Krammer and Frank Esteen, who will navigate us up the river and take care of the boat while we explore the dense rainforest.

MOSKWA 2The northern cliff, known as the ‘Prow’ of Roraima. The summit of the gigantic sandstone plateau is often hidden behind a thick layer of clouds [Maciej Moskwa/TESTIGO]

I quickly realise how helpless we are without the knowledge and experience of our Akawaio friends. During the second evening of our trek, we hear a distant thunderstorm rumbling in the south and all of a sudden the river rises dangerously close to our campsite, gaining a few metres in a matter of minutes. While we rush to salvage our supplies and equipment from the raging current, I look at Kelly, only to see him sitting in his hammock, calmly observing the water. And sure enough, after a while, the river slowly starts to recede. ‘My father spent most of his life in those forests. He knows them through and through,’ says Ackley in response to the look of amazement on my face.

It takes a few days for us to struggle through the claustrophobic entanglement of the lowland rainforest, but eventually the scenery begins to change. We’ve finally begun to climb into the foothills of Mount Roraima and the higher we get, the more otherworldly the place seems. Trees become shorter, their trunks covered by moss and the slimy material that drips from plants belonging to the family Rapateaceae. Above our heads, epiphytic orchids and bromeliads strive to catch a glimpse of sunlight from their shady habitats. 

Mud, slime and moisture permeate our clothes, making every step sheer misery. I begin to feel as though we’re unwelcome guests in the domain of some jealous deity shielding its riches from us with a veil of eerie haze. But while my body is exhausted, excitement at the sight of countless carnivorous plants keeps me going. 

MOSKWA 3Ackley Phillip - one of the Indigenous Akawaio guides posing under the ‘prow’ of Mount Roraima in the upper cloudforest camp Maciej Moskwa/TESTIGO

I’m like a child wandering around a candy store. Here’s a bunch of D. kaieteurensis growing by the side of a stream, luring its victims with sticky, tentacle-like glands that sparkle in the dim sunlight. Over there sits a colony of Utricularia quelchii, with its bladder-like traps burrowed underneath a thin layer of moss. High on the tree branches is a carnivorous bromeliad, Catopsis berteroniana, its leaves covered by a peculiar white powder known to attract prey thanks to its UV-reflective properties. 

Before we set up camp, I decide to spend some time exploring the surroundings by myself while the rest of the team enjoy a nearby waterfall. But Ackley approaches me, his father’s shotgun in his hand. ‘I can’t leave you here alone, Matt,’ he says. ‘The spirits of the bush people are around – can you hear them? They don’t like being disturbed. You should stick with me.’ News of supernatural inhabitants goes against my scientific mindset and at first sounds like an impossibility – but in this place that’s so alien to me, it’s enough to send a chill down my spine. In the upper cloud forest, the medley of tropical sounds becomes bizarrely muted and warped, as if some mischievous being really is playing tricks on your senses. I decide to stick with Ackley. 

MOSKWA 12When flying over the Roraima-Ilu tepui chain, it’s easy to notice a difference in the landscapes on the Venezuelan and the Guyanese side. The Guyanese side is covered by rainforests, whereas the Venezuelan one is more elevated and comprised mostly of huge savannas known as La Gran Sabana [Maciej Moskwa/TESTIGO]

When we awake the next morning, the atmosphere is far from festive. Our list of regular anxieties, triggered by damp clothes and a constant feeling of isolation, is complemented by a wound on Ackley’s knee – the result of an unfortunate machete accident the previous night. But Ackley’s enthusiasm hasn’t dwindled a bit, so we decide it’s time to crack on and, after a few hours of toil through a slimy labyrinth of roots and branches, we find ourselves looking up at an enormous slope of rock debris. 

The treeless swath of rubble, which looks like a battlefield after heavy shelling, is the result of a sandstone cliff partly collapsing. As I scramble up a pile of mud and rocks, a sudden glimpse above my head makes my heart skip a beat. Standing at the top of the slope, I drink in the sight that has haunted my dreams for most of my life – the gargantuan cliff of Mount Roraima, towering above the surrounding forests like the prow of a colossal shipwreck. A layer of cloud quickly rolls over the mountain, guarding it from our sight, so we set up the last camp – dubbed ‘Mudville’ – and start planning for a morning push towards the cliff.

MW 2The camp on the lower slopes of the mountain [Maciej Moskwa/TESTIGO]

The rockfall proves to be a blessing when we begin our ascent. In just an hour, we manage to cross a distance that would have taken us a full day or more to traverse in the rainforest. I feel a sudden rush of excitement when I notice the iridescent, saber-like leaves of Stegolepis guianensis and Bonnetia roraimae shrubs hanging from the edge of the cliff – a clear indication that Heliamphora populations must be nearby. But then we encounter a series of vertical rock slabs and are halted abruptly, a couple of dozen metres from reaching our goal – the top of the balcony-like ‘foot’ of Mount Roraima. ‘So close, yet so far…’ says Orson when I check my GPS for the final elevation reading – 1,630 metres. 

MW 1Drosera roraimae – one of many species of carnivorous sundews native to the Guiana Highlands [Mateusz Wrazidlo/EXPLORITY]

Roraima only allowed us to touch the folds of her emerald gown – but isn’t that enough of a reward? In times such as these, we’re privileged to witness some of the last pristine frontiers of the natural world. ‘So close, yet so far…’ I repeat to myself without regret, knowing that I will do everything I can to return.

Flying back to Georgetown a few days later, admiring the ancient landscapes from the cockpit of a Cessna 206, everything shifts into a new perspective. What immediately draws my attention are the gold mining operations – some professional, some basic and temporary, growing like tumors on pristine land. When the riverbeds here are torn apart in search of the precious metal, the distinctive dark waters quickly turn into cream-coloured currents, poisoned by mining waste. It’s a reminder that natural resources that at first seem to be a blessing can, over time, turn against their wardens. Hundreds of local inhabitants are now forced to make a hard choice between protecting their ancestral lands and putting food on their tables. 

MOSKWA 15The tepuis and their surroundings are one of South America’s biodiversity hotspots. A dreamland for all sorts of nature aficionados, but not for the faint of heart [Maciej Moskwa/TESTIGO]

When Everard Im Thurn completed the first ascent of Mount Roraima in 1884, he called its landscapes ‘some strange country of nightmares’. Little did he know that the real nightmare was yet to come, largely caused by human hands. But there is hope. A new generation has begun to learn that the true treasure of this land isn’t the gold beneath the ground, but the plants, animals and landscapes, seamlessly combined with the cultural heritage of the local Indigenous people. And although it’s obvious that we’re no longer able to stop climate change and the extinction of certain species, we do possess the means to save at least some of them. As I know from my own work, if a plant is facing the threat of extinction, it can still be cultivated in artificially recreated conditions. 

Our expedition concludes one warm September evening on the sea wall in Georgetown as we celebrate our safe return with a bottle of 15-year-old El Dorado rum. With every sip of the amber liquid, we rejoice, thinking of the privilege we were given and the friendships that came with it. Before the bottle has been emptied, we’re already making plans for our next adventure in the Lost Worlds.

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