MT. RORAIMA, VENEZUELA — Ever since my wife saw the Disney/Pixar movie "Up," she's been calling me Mr. Fredricksen. He's the 78-year-old man who dreamed all his life about going to the Lost World and finally makes the trip.
"It's you," she says, "including the impatience."
But, really, I've been pretty patient when you consider that I've wanted to come here since I heard a radio play on this very topic when I was 10 years old.
That was 70 years ago. I dreamed even longer than Mr. Fredricksen had.
The real name of the place is Mt. Roraima, and it's where Arthur Conan Doyle, when he wasn't writing about Sherlock Holmes, placed his 1912 story "The Lost World," about scientists attacked by dinosaurs and ape men in a land cut off from the rest of the world.
This flat-topped mountain, 9,200 feet tall, is encircled by cliffs that shoot straight up 1,300 feet or more. In Doyle's book, nothing can climb to the top, and nothing can climb down.
The result of all that isolation: an abundance of plants and animals found nowhere else in the world, including a tiny black frog so primitive that it hasn't yet learned to hop but, when threatened, baffles its enemies by turning itself into a ball and rolling off the rocks. And there are flowers that can't get enough nourishment from the thin soil so they entice insects to sip their nectar, then trap and devour them.
Last year, an invitation to give a speech in Caracas gave me the chance to see Mt. Roraima for myself.
I found a six-day trek that provided guides and porters to carry food, tents and cooking equipment. The one I chose was Backpacker Tours, only because, as I searched online, it sounded reliable -- and it was.
My only other preparation was hiking an hour a day in the Angeles National Forest.
A remote spot
Getting here, of course, is infinitely easier than it was in Doyle's day. I flew from L.A. to Caracas, then took an hour-long flight to Puerto Ordaz and a 10-hour overnight bus ride on an almost deserted road to Santa Elena de Uairen in the remote southeastern corner of the country. (There are other routes from Caracas, depending on the company you use.)
From then on, however, the challenge hasn't changed much in 100, or even a few thousand, years: a two-day trek across the savanna, interrupted by a couple of river crossings that are fun in the December-to-April dry season but can be impassable without warning at other times, and then gradually but inexorably up, a gain of 2,700 feet, to the base camp, where grassland gives way to jungle beneath that monstrous vertical rock wall -- as tall as the Empire State Building -- the top of which often disappears into the clouds.
For once, the word "awesome" is no cliche.
From the base camp to the summit, it was another 2,700 feet, a scramble up a seemingly endless series of rocky staircases and gullies of bare earth, using tree roots or branches or faith to haul myself up. Higher and higher I went, puffing and sliding, with occasional glimpses between my feet of treetops far below. After rounding each corner, I was relieved that I didn't meet an ape man.
Then a steep rock-strewn track forces its way between the jungle and the wall, the one gap in the impregnable castle. So, yes, there is a route that doesn't require technical climbing skills, and in my party of a dozen steady hikers from around the world, including a plucky girl of 13, we all did it without undue problems.
A strange world
Friendships soon sprang up, yielding, as always, surprising information. If I hadn't chatted on the way up with two of the group, who turned out to be leading members of the Swedish Orchid Society, I would never have imagined that the high-altitude flowers I saw, cringing from rain and wind, were cousins of the pampered hothouse orchids I associate with banquets at the Ritz.
On top, the reward was immediate: a strange, misshapen, eerie world. I was struck by how much blackness there was -- black earth, black bogs, a few black butterflies soaking up all the solar heat they could, an occasional tarantula blending into the background. There was even a black hole -- of silence.
It was a climate of extremes, an unremitting struggle between the blazing sun and the wet northeastern trade winds that filled the two-mile gap to the next mountain with dense cloud. A view stretching to the horizon changed in the blink of an eye to impenetrable fog. Although nearly on the Equator, this place can be bitterly cold at night, even in March when I was there.
Parched soil alternates with rock pools deep enough to bathe in and waterfalls to shower under. I was conscious of living close to the edge. A tent blown down, a lost compass, even a sprained ankle, could be serious up here.