Mount Roraima

The ancient world of South America tepuis

By Ephemera documentary

Angelo Chiacchio

Tepui table-top mountains (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

The table-top mountains of the Pakaraima range, running between Venezuela, Brazil and Guyana, are a sedimentary plateau that borders the Amazon basin. They are some of the oldest geological formations on Earth, with their “tepuis” estimated at over 2 billion years old. The highest tepui plateau, Mount Roraima, is famous for its prehistoric ecology, which sustains plants and animals found nowhere else in the world. 

A burgeoning tourism industry has exposed this ancient environment to unfamiliar elements.  Access to the Monte Roraima National Park has historically been regulated by local indigenous Taurepan communities. But an influx of wealthy tourists, some of whom ascend Monte Roraima by helicopter, is creating tensions and harming the local environment.  

Welcome to Waykapuru (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

In September 2018, photographer Angelo Chiacchio - in his journey to the world's most fragile places and cultures - followed a group of hikers to the top of Mount Roraima. 

Camping on the way to Roraima (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

A group of hikers settles in for the night in Venezuela’s Canaima National Park near the borders of Brazil and Guyana.

Pacaraima plateaus at dawn (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

The early morning fog gradually lifts, revealing their final destination - the tepuis of the Pakaraima mountain range.

Taurepan guides making breakfast (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

The guides prepare breakfast. Access to this area is forbidden unless you have permission and assistance from native Taurepan.

Taurepan porter (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

Taurepan guides carry most of the equipment necessary for a six-day trek within their traditional woven backpacks, known as “guayare.” Despite the weight on their backs, they walk briskly to the camp, where they will prepare for dinner and the night ahead.

Aerial view of Mt Roraima (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

Roroi in the Taurepan language means blue-green and ma means great. With its 400m high walls, Mount Roraima is one of the least accessible places on the planet. It was climbed for the first time in 1884 by Sir Everard im Thurn.

Going to Mt Roraima (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

Thurn found a ramp in the forest on the Venezuelan side of the tepui. It remains the only viable route to the top of the tepui without climbing the high walls. Even so, you will still have to pass through rivers and waterfalls. 

Landscape of Roraima (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

At the top, at 2800m, an unusual world awaits. The summit is mostly bare sandstone. Only a few endemic plants and algae can be found amongst the exposed rocks.

Landscape of Roraima (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

Taurepans insist that you walk in silence.  You must step only on rocks that have already been used by previous hikers. 

Cascadas de la Catedral (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

Water of Roraima
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Cascading torrents of the world’s purest water wash away most of the soil's nutrients.  Canaima National Park is home to many of the highest and beautiful waterfalls in the world, like Cascadas de la Catedral.

"Jacuzzi" pools (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

The sheer force of water flowing over thousands of years has carved natural pools into the stone.  

Quartz on Mt Roraima (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

There is an abundance of quartz. Unfortunately, visitors to the area in the times before it was declared a National Park prospected for quartz without regard to the impact on the local environment. 

Frog from Mt Roraima (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

Many of the animal and plant species that live on Mount Roraima cannot be found anywhere else in the world. Most are uniquely adapted to life in the tepui plateaus. The tiny Roraima Bush Toad, for example, evades danger by rolling off of rocks rather than jumping.

But the toad’s peculiar characteristics make it a tourist attraction, exposing it to potentially harmful contact with humans. 

Landscape of Roraima (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

Taurepans have held a deep respect for Mount Roraima for centuries. Before the appearance of European explorers, the plateau had long served as a symbol for many of the Taurepan cultural and spiritual beliefs. 

Portrait of Taurepan man (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

According to the folklore of the indigenous people of the Gran Sabana, Mount Roraima is the stump of a legendary tree that once held all the fruits and vegetables of the world. 

To them, the Mount “... is the Mother of everything, the Home of the spirits, who give us life with its infinite source of water.” 

The indigenous battle (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

In previous decades, the indigenous community successfully repelled the mining industry’s attempt to encroach on the cherished Mount.  Today, they are committed to protecting it from mass tourism.  

Roraima at night (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

For now, the rocky surface of Mount Roraima under the night sky looks the same as it has for billions of years.   

Sunrise on Mt Roraima (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

Conclusion

Mount Roraima is one of the most well-preserved prehistoric natural sites in the world. However, the growth of the region’s tourism industry is at odds with the efforts of indigenous people to revere and protect this natural wonder. As more visitors travel to the region to experience the ancient beauty of Mount Roraima, the local Taurepans intend to ensure that modernization is not a ramp that leads to a permanently changed mountain top.



Terra by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

Partnership by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

This story was created with the support of Art Works for Change, a nonprofit organization that creates contemporary art exhibitions and storytelling projects to address critical social and environmental issues.

Credits: Story

Written, shot and produced by Angelo Chiacchio
Copy editing: Al Grumet, Rajesh Fotedar

With the support of: Google Arts & Culture, Art Works for Change

Thanks to: Cruz de Bolivar, Eloy Rodriguez Cruz, Gustavo Hernandez and all the Buena Vibra team. 

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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