A trekking adventure in West Papua, formerly known as Irian Jaya, a place where some people still hunt their food with bows and arrows, challenges preconceptions and produces unexpected insights for intrepid traveler Barbara Brown Allen.
words and photos by Don Mankin
CLIMBING AUYAN TEPUI
The wet, slanted face of the boulder looks treacherous. To make matters worse, the bottom edge hangs over a precipitous drop-off with nothing below but air. I’m not sure how I am going to work my way up its slippery surface. As Alejandro reaches his hand out to help me, my boots slip and I slide out of sight. For what seems like an eternity, I am in free fall, not sure how far I will fall or what I will land on when I hit bottom.
Photo Slide Show by Don Mankin
It was the third day of an 8 day trek up, on and down Auyan Tepui, the largest of the table top mountains of Venezuela (tepui means “house of the gods” in the language of the indigenous Pemon people). There are over 100 tepuis in SE Venezuela, ancient sandstone mesas that jut thousands of feet straight up from the jungle and savannahs below. The most famous tepui is Mt. Roraima, supposedly the inspiration for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Lost World,” as well as for the hit animated movie, “Up.” Auyan Tepui is larger, more difficult to climb and receives far fewer visitors. It is also the source of Angel Falls (“Paradise Falls” in the movie, “Up”), the world’s highest waterfall at over 3000 feet. Since the tepuis are very old, the flora and fauna that have evolved on the tops of the tepuis are very different than those in the jungles and savannahs below. In fact, the tepuis are like islands in the sky, so each one has plants and animals unique to itself. One of the things they all have in common, though, is that there are no dinosaurs despite the fanciful speculations of Sir Arthur.
My wife Katherine and I were invited here by the owners of Venezuela Elite – a tour company offering trekking, mountain biking, yoga and other trips in the region – to “show Americans that there is more to Venezuela than Hugo Chavez and Miss World” (www.venezuelaelite.com). We only visited one region in our 16 day trip, Canaima National Park, and only Auyan Tepui (the focus of this story), the Gran Sabana and Angel Falls, but from what we saw in those 16 days, their claim is well justified.