Neblina Expedition part 3

From: Fernando Rivadavia Lopes (
Date: Fri Feb 26 1999 - 09:36:53 PST

Date: Fri, 26 Feb 1999 09:36:53 PST
From: "Fernando Rivadavia Lopes" <>
Message-Id: <aabcdefg597$foo@default>
Subject: Neblina Expedition part 3


        We decided to take the following day off to rest and herborize
everything we\222d already collected. We needed to gather our energies
since the following day would be our last up there, the day we would
make the summit attempt, try to reach the 3014m mark on top of Neblina.
Although it was probably only around a 6 or 7km hike, we\222d be climbing
1000 vertical meters along a very steep and difficult trail. In fact, I
believe it was the most challenging mountain trail I\222ve ever done in
nearly 10 years of hiking. Some of us went on short hikes around camp
for photography purposes, but two of the group members who hadn\222t joined
us the previous day, due to illness, hiked over to see H.tatei with
their own eyes, and vainly search for D.meristocaulis again.
        We set out early at 7am the following morning and after about an hour
and a half of nearly horizontal hiking, we were at the base of the peak.
>From there, it was straight up the mountain face, with several very
tricky spots right in the beginning where a bit of rock climbing skills
were necessary. The weather was fortunately rather good and we had some
beautiful views of other surrounding highlands (very interesting BTW...)
as we climbed higher and higher, huffing and puffing.
        About 2/3 up the mountain, there was yet another verticle stretch of
rock., the most difficult part of the trail according to our guide.
Although it was only about 5m high, it was very slippery with water and
there were no good hand and footholds. It took us a long pause of
careful study before finally going for it. I\222m not afraid of heights,
but confess it was hard to avoid it there! Especially because we knew
that this and the other vertical rock faces further down would be even
more difficult on our way down the mountain, since when you\222re going
down, you can\222t see where you\222re putting your feet and it\222s therefore
easier to slip.
        Between noon and 1pm five group members finally reached the summit.
Wow, we\222d actually made it! It was hard to believe we\222d climbed the
highest mountain in Brazil, the one and only Neblina, just about one of
the most isolated and unexplored places you can imagine, a mountain
surrounded in mystery, a longtime dream-come-true!! Unfortunately the
weather was not too clear while we were at the actual top. Most of the
time we were enveloped in clouds and we even got some rain. But a blue
sky was sometimes visible above us, a hole in the clouds. On two
occasions it opened up towards the east, where Neblina drops
dramatically, almost cliff-like, nearly 3000m to the vast
rainforest-covered plains of the Amazon Basin. What an amazing view! I
guess what I most enjoyed about this view was the feeling that I was on
an airplane, looking from the window, with the ground way far below me
and those huge cotton clouds at eye-level.
        We stayed at the top until 2pm, opened a champagne bottle taken up
especially for the occasion, and took tons of pictures. In a small
crevice, protected by a plastic bag tucked inside a tupperware, was a
book for all summit-conquerers to write in. We signed on as the \2231998/99
International Carnivorous Plant Society Expedition\224, I believe, listing
all the 8 group members and dedicating it to those who hadn\222t made it to
the top.
        We saw plenty of H.sp.\224Neblina\224 that day. It was extremely common along
the trail and we saw countless plants in flower. They were present all
the way from the base to the very top of Neblina. And when I say the
very top, I mean it! There was a large clump growing on a rock right
next to the Brazilian flag stuck on the highest rock. But they were all
over the summit, which was not rocky as we imagined, but with plenty of
soil. And then it suddenly hit me that, considering that Neblina is the
highest mountain of the Guyana Highlands (the second is Mt.Roraima at
2875m), then that was surely the highest Heliamphora population in the
world! And that clump on the rock next to the flag represented the only
Helis growing above 3000m in the world! Cool!
        One of the main objectives of our whole Neblina expedition was to find
a very rare plant, known only from a small population at the very top of
Neblina: Saccifolium banderae, sole member of the Saccifoliaceae family
(Gentianales). This mysterious plant was recorded to have leaves with
cupped tips, these inverted, facing downwards. It was suspected that
maybe the inner surface of the pitcher-like leaves might have glands and
that it could thus possibly be a new carnivorous plant. We ended up
finding a single plant growing on rocks just below the summit with
several compact clumps of light-green leaves and white flowers. The
general aspect actually reminded me of a young Cephalotus in tissue
culture. It was truly a curious plant, but we could see no signs of
glands on the leaves. Oh well, I guess NOT a CP! But what was the
fuction of those cupped leaves? The only thing we could come up with was
that maybe they served to help accumulate soil and nutrients around the
plant, since the constant heavy rains up on Neblina must have a strong
leaching and eroding effect on the mountainside.
        As for real CPs, U.campbelliana was found all along the trail to the
very top of Neblina. While at lower altitudes this species grew as an
epiphyte on moss-covered tree trunks, towards the top of Neblina its
habitat suffered a transition until it was found exclusively on
moss-covered rocks. U.quelchii slowly fased out at around halfway up the
mountain. Mysteriously, U.humboldtii and the two Drosera species
disappeared right at the beginning of the trail, except for a small
population of D.sp.\224Neblina\224 further up. I was hoping that the enormous
altitude differences on that trail would result in a wide variation of
habitats and maybe flush out some new CPs for us, but we saw nothing
new. Once again, no D.meristocaulis.
        As we\222d dreaded, the trek down Neblina was much worse than the hike up.
And to make things worse, it began raining. We knew from our previous
days there that the whole face of the mountain became covered in
waterfalls when it rained and we were now sure that the trail was one of
them! We spent maybe 20min at that difficult 5m rock face, before we
could all get down. We even had to tie a rope to first get our backpacks
down, and then ourselves. Quite scary! Also a bit embarrassing to be
helped by our guide Deko, older than any of us (between 35 and 40yrs
old), who was easily scampering up and down the rock in his cheap rubber
boots as he helped us down.
        On the way up Neblina, I noticed what could be intertesting habitats
for D.meristocaulis, way down in the valley. Could it be growing there?
This possibility began nagging me badly while hiking down later that
day, especially because I hadn\222t found D.meristocaulis anywhere on the
way to the top. Since we were leaving the following day, the climb up
Neblina had been my last hope of finding D.meristocaulis. The thought
that maybe I\222d missed a good D.meristocaulis habitat kept going through
my mind, torturing me, and I finally decided that I would just never
forgive myself if I left Neblina without exploring this new spot. I\222d be
haunted for the rest of my life with the thought that I\222d gone through
all that trouble and wasted all that money to climb that distant
mountain, only to barely miss D.meristocaulis because I\222d been too lazy
to explore the site after climbing down from Neblina\222s summit.
        Time was short, but maybe I could get there in time to have about an
hour of sunlight to search for it. I asked Gert to lend me his
flashlight, since I knew I\222d have to return to camp in the dark. I guess
out of solidarity for my color blindness handicap, he was actually crazy
enough to offer to join me, although he was also deadly exausted. From
the base of the trail, we hiked towards the places I\222d seen, arriving
there maybe half an hour later, at around 5:30pm. For about an hour we
trudged wearily and silently through the mud and high grasses,
zig-zagging from side to side, but in the end it was all for naught. We
didn\222t find any D.meristocaulis. And we still had the long hike to camp
with only a single flashlight for the two of us.
        We only arrived back at camp close to 9pm, after nearly 14h of endless
hiking that day. What stress! We had to be extremely careful in the
darkness, inching along ever so slowly in the flashlight\222s dim light,
using our feet like some blind cave insect\222s long antennae, \223feeling\224
our way along the trail. Furthermore, it doesn\222t help when you\222re
depressed and in a bad mood, like I was, from having missed possibly my
last chance ever to find D.meristocaulis. All I know is that I entered a
semi-coma that night, from exaustion, and for the first time didn\222t even
feel the hard ground beneath my sleeping bag. It was sure hard getting
out of bed the next morning and packing up to begin the long hike down
the mountain \226 two more whole days of never ending forest.
        Looking at my notes and shifting through my memories, these are the
approximate altitudes for each species we saw on Neblina: D.roraimae =
1900-2100m; D.sp.\224Neblina\224= 1950-2400m; H.tatei var.neblinae = 1900m;
H.sp.\224Neblina\224 = 1900-3010m; U.alpina = 1650-1750m; U.campbelliana =
1850-3000m; U.humboldtii = 1800-2200m; and U.quelchii = 1900-2600m. We
also saw U.subulata and purplish U.amesthystina at around 1900-2000m.


Fernando Rivadavia
Sao Paulo, Brazil

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