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Hiking over Cherikayen Tepui

We had hoped to do a 3 day hike over Christmas, and had even lined up a guide when the original plans fell through. The goal was to hike over cherikayen (phoenetic spelling, probably wrong, pronounced cherry-kay-yen) and back to Santa Elena. Cherikayn is a small Tepui - the flat topped mountains for which the Gran Savana is semi-famous. We needed a number of things to get this trek to occur; we needed petrol for Manfred to drive us to Cherikayen, not a problem of $$ by any means, but a problem of time, we needed a tent, and we needed a porter/guide. Giorgio (our host) offered to lend an old tent - not overly waterproof, but at least a tent. We called, by radio to the village of Cherikayen, twice to leave a message for Victorina, the chief guide, saying we'd be arriving Friday and please find a guide, stressing that it was urgent that this message be passed along (radio is the only communication to the village). And finally, the petrol issue.

I think I mentioned already that Venezuela has really cheap petrol. A problem unique to Santa Elena is the large number of Brazilians hopping the border to buy cheap petrol (it's a more normal price in Brazil), and the number of Venezuelans who fill up a big old car with a big tank, drive into Brazil and sell petrol cheap. The results of this are that

  1. obtaining petrol requires a 1-3 hour (or more) wait in line (even though lines are segregated Brasilian and Venezuelan)
  2. The gas stations frequently just plain run out.
Fortunately we had a powerful weapon on our side: a 20 year old male who was just itching to drive, and quite willing to wait in line if it meant a chance to drive the big old Toyota Land Rover. So we dispatched Heiko on Thursday to get Petrol while the rest of us went to the Christmas thinger in Sampay.

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The venerable Toyota Land Rovers are the vehicles of choice in this area. The older the better in fact - easier to fix, easier to get parts. Manfred had a 1982 vintage with power windows, which hadn't worked in quite some time. Georgio y Cladia had a couple older versions, which required some frequent tinkering to keep on ticking, but very simple engines and systems are key in such an environment.

Haiko had a 1.5 hour wait, after which time he paid about 6600 VB for 78L of petrol. To put that in US terms; about $3 for about 18 gallons, for a cost of about 17 cents/gallon. told you petrol is cheap here.

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So Friday morning, all things seemed to have come together. We packed what I thought was an excess of food, including a bag of dark brown rolls from the bakery, and headed for Cherikayen. Enroute we were treated to sights of great beauty of the rain forrest, interspersed with mining scars and active slash-and-burn agriculture. And finally,a few km short of the village, at the top of a hill, an Indian was waving for us to stop - warning of the tree newly fallen across the road actually. We were tool-less, but no matter, he set about hacking through the trunk (10in /25cm thick or so) with just a machete, which really didn't take him all that long, and then on to the village where we promptly found Victorina (good) who hadn't recieved either radio message (bad). He wandered off in search of a guide and thinks looked bleak for a bit, but eventually found a man who's family wasn't around for the holiday and who managed to pack for the 3 day trip on 5 minutes notice. His name was Arlindo, the pronunciation of which is actually quite difficult when you juxapose a strongly rolled rrrrrr with an l. try it and see.

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The first afternoon we hiked just a couple hours across Savanah. Bugs and heat were both out of control, so not a lot of fun. But after 2 hours we reached a good size river, which was to be camp, and spent the rest of the day swimming, avoiding bugs, and trying to guess whether the downpour in the distance would hit us or not. Dinner was just fine,even if spaghetti with curry powder isn't typical of Christmas Eve. But we had brought Kerosene with the MSR Dragonfly - which works, yes, but is really damn messy. The flame was always yellow, smokey, huge amounts of soot all over the place, and of course the smell. But on the brighter side, it kept the bugs down a bit. I had wondered if we would see other parties, so asked the guide how often people hiked this Tepui. He said we were the third group since August. So while it is certainly not the most spectacular Tepui around, we at least had it all to ourselves. He also told us (on several) occasions that the route to the top would be steep, and a tourist had fallen, broken things, and had to be taken out by Helicopter last year.

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Next day we wandered in and out of rain forrest on our way to the south end of the the Tepui. It was an amazing contrast. The forrest was *alive* with sounds, and all manner of life. The dirt was soft under foot, the air humid, rich smelling, and life everywhere. The Savanah, within 50 ft of leaving the forrest was nearly dead. Soil so hard it could be rock, only tufts of grass, no birds, no animals, no sounds. Only the intense swarms of puri-puri and some mosquitos. And yet, the forrest could reclaim this land, slowly, but surely, if only it weren't re-burned so often. Why is it re-burned? I never got a good answer. You can never plant it again after the first planting, so it's not a crop preparation, the grass eventually grows back, but the burning keeps the forrest from ever coming back.

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The heat was intense as we climbed the ridge, but at least the bugs started to diminish. And it did get quite steep as we neared the top, nothing extreme, but a fall would result in a long tumble and broken body parts, so we climbed carefully. And then we were on top, a broad, reasonably flat expanse, and pleasantly cooler. Looking out, there was a broad expanse of Savanah in all directions, interspersed with remaining forrest. We considered what we had seen yesterday, and understood that this grassland was man man, from the rain forrest, acre by acre, trees felled by machete, garden plot by garden plot, man had turned the forrest into barren prairie. Not the typical "Indians live in harmony with the land" myth one lives in grade school.

There was a small spring for water in the middle of the mountain, near which we made camp before exploring. The plateau was quite rocky with special plants which had adapted to the local climate. The most interesting had a root-bulb anchored to the rock, and thick, curved leaves which formed a vertical tube which could then fill with water for storage when it rained since there was little or no soil to store water over the rock.

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In truth, Cherikayen is only really half a tepui, with an abrupt 400m drop on the west edge, but a gradual slope off the east edge. We wandered the sharp edge for some time, which included the steel skeleton of a building for a while back, originally for telecommunications (which didn't happen), and then considered as a tourism spot (which also didn't happen). Just as well, it's a fragile environment, not a place for a house.

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Dinner was to be arepas (local speciality, basically corn cakes) which Heiko was cooking on the fire, while I took care of the beans over the stove. Earlier some nasty looking weather had just missed us and wandered off to the northwest, followed by clearing skies from the south, raising hopes for good star gazing on this Christmas night. But the weather is full of tricks, and as we were in the middle of cooking dinner, a good sized thunderstorm came bearing down from the *north*. So here we are, on top of a large, flat topped mountain, the highest object being Heiko, and the lightening is getting closer. What to do? keep making dinner seemed to be the best option, and we all dove into the tent when the rain hit. Soggy arepas, and eventually some beans, but heck, it's food. Although the food supply was dwindling at remarkable speed. It had looked like a fantastic amount of food, but I haven't hung out with a 20 year old male lately.

And those sweet, dark rolls from the bakery? They turned out to be gingerbread! Lebe Kuchen said Heiko, or Catalina said the guide. Darn tasty we said. Later in the evening we could *hear*, from 15km away, the thump-thump of the bass beat from celebrations in Santa Elena. Glad we weren't any closer. We read aloud Dylan Thomas' "A Child's Christmas in Wales" - a tradition for the two of us, but Heiko understandable had some trouble with the English.

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The third day we basically just hiked out across the Savanah to Santa Elena again. For just over 6 hours we hiked across rolling hills and saw one other trail, one house, and zero people. But there were 3 newly burned patches and one fire in the process.

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It took us about 9 hours total to get back home, with a short stop at the ice cream shop in Santa Elena, which was earily quiet. Fortunately, the ice cream shop was one of two stores open in the entire town (the other was a liquor store), but we felt bad for Arlindo, who had been fantasizing about chicken for the last 2 days straight. We had shared food with him since he only had time to grab some casabah bread on the way out the door, but he really just wanted his chicken. hope he found something before finding a ride home.

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