In 1884, when explorers first crawled onto the summit of Roraima, no one knew for sure what dangers they would encounter…

“Not a bird, my dear Roxton - not a bird.”

“A beast?”

“No;  a reptile - a dinosaur.  Nothing else could have left such a track…”

His words died away into a whisper, and we all stood in motionless amazement…Beyond was an open glade, and in this were five of the most extraordinary creatures that I have ever seen.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, ‘The Lost World’, 1912

In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel, ‘The Lost World’, a team of intrepid scientists venture up onto a high, unexplored plateau in South America and find themselves stranded in a land inhabited by dinosaurs.  Bewildered but exhilarated, they must face a succession of terrifying hazards in order to survive. 

This concept seems familiar to us now, thanks to the movie ‘Jurassic Park’ and its many sequels;  but as long ago as the late 1800s, scientists were transfixed by the possibility of ancient, undiscovered life forms surviving on the plateaux of South America’s distinctive tepuis, or table-top mountains.  Newspapers caught hold of the idea, and imaginations ran wild.  Focusing on the highest of these mountains, The Spectator issued a challenge:  “Will no one explore Roraima and bring back to us the tidings which it has been waiting these thousands of years to give us?”  

The task of exploring Roraima sounded simple, but it was not.  Several daring pioneers had already tried, and failed.  After battling their way through near-impenetrable rainforest for months on end, they found themselves gazing up at vertical rock faces rising hundreds of feet into the sky.  With rations short and morale low, they gave up and went home, giving further momentum to Roraima’s legends of inaccessibility.  According to the Pemon people who lived nearby, the mountain was the ‘mother of all waters’, who swathed herself in mist when approached by intruders.  When the mist cleared, these waters were visible as streams cascading in long veils down every side.

Tepuis of Kukenan (left) and Roraima (right)

Among the first outsiders to set eyes on Roraima were two brothers, Robert and Richard Schomburgk, who were undertaking survey work for the British government.  After his visit in 1838, Robert Schomburgk wrote that the mountain’s walls were “as perpendicular as if erected with a plumb line,” and concluded that “without wings, the intrepid explorer… would not be able to reach its summit.”  In 1883 an ornithologist, Henry Whitely, suggested that it might be possible to ascend Roraima by balloon, or “by forming scaffolding, making use of the timber of the large forests on the slopes, but in this case it would be the work of great time and expense.”

On reading Whitely’s report, the botanist Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker urged his friend, Everard im Thurn, to mount an expedition to the summit of Roraima and solve its mystery once and for all.  Educated at Oxford and Edinburgh, im Thurn was the son of a Swiss businessman;  more importantly, he was a botanist and anthropologist who from the age of 25 had been Curator of the British Guiana Museum in Georgetown, and he had undertaken expeditions into the country’s interior to collect specimens.  He, more than anyone, was the ideal leader of an expedition to a lost world.   

Accompanied by his friend Harry Innes Perkins, British Guiana’s Assistant Crown Surveyor, and supported by 18 native South American porters and guides, im Thurn left Georgetown on 14th October 1884.  Dragging three boats and carrying enough provisions for several months, they hacked and pushed their way through rainforest, clambering over tangled, slimy masses of vegetation and crossing fast-flowing rivers.  At night they tied their hammocks to trees and covered themselves with waterproof sheets.  One of their camps was pitched about 150 yards from the edge of the Kaieteur Falls on the Potaro river.

After about four weeks they emerged into open savannah within sight of Roraima and its neighbouring tepuis.  It took several more weeks of trekking through bitterly cold winds before they reached its base.  Now came the crucial question:  could they see a way up?  Previous explorers had noticed a natural ledge of rock protruding from the southern face and angled just well enough to suggest a possible route.  Although there seemed to be a worryingly large gap caused by a waterfall, it was by scrambling up this ledge that im Thurn and Perkins hoped to reach the summit.

After one false start, when torrential rain forced them back, the party began to ascend.  Im Thurn wrote:  “Seldom if ever did we step on the real ground, but instead we climbed, hands and feet all fully employed, over masses of vegetation dense enough to bear our weight, over high-piled rocks and tree stumps and not seldom under boulders of vast size, up tree trunks and along tree branches, across the beds of many streams so filled with broken rocks that the water heard trickling below was unseen.” 

When they reached the waterfall they found that the ledge was still passable, even though they were drenched by the spray.  New botanical treasures were discovered at almost every step, so that, according to Perkins, they had reached the summit almost before they knew it.  Then a whole new landscape met their astonished eyes:  “On all sides were grouped rocks of shapes unimaginable - weird, strange, and fantastic - first a row of huge oblong stones that looked like rude cannon placed there to guard the approach;  further on, another rock like a giant’s umbrella… and others like miniature castles and ruins of old churches, leaning so much that had they not been solidly connected portions of the enormous sandstone bed, they would have fallen.”

Kaieteur Falls 

Taking their first steps in this alien environment, the scientists noticed shallow pools in the bare rock, fringed with grasses, ferns and orchids.  Although there were patches of bushes, im Thurn observed that nothing grew above about 40 inches in height.  The party had only a few minutes in which to enjoy the jaw-dropping views before the mist descended and reduced visibility to a few yards.  They collected plant specimens and took altitude readings, calculating the height to be 8,600 feet (it is in fact 9,220), before descending via the same route, unhampered by velociraptors or pterodactyls.  

Roraima Summit Rocks

Despite the magnitude of this first ascent, and the frenzy of speculation that had gone before, im Thurn and Perkins made light of their achievements on their return to Britain.  With a pronounced lack of flamboyance, im Thurn insisted that they had reached the plateau “without any difficulty greater than might be overcome by a very ordinary degree of endurance.”  However, when his botanical specimens were examined at Kew, three new genera and 53 new species were identified. 

In his paper ‘The Botany of the Roraima Expedition of 1884’, presented to the Linnean Society, im Thurn observed that “the number of species collected would probably have been greater but for the extreme difficulty of drying plants in so excessively damp a climate as that of Roraima, and also for the fact that the other very serious labours inseparable from the direction of such an expedition greatly curtailed the time I was able to devote to the preparation of botanical specimens.”

For im Thurn, botany was his first passion, and the “other very serious labours” which interrupted it must have encompassed everything from navigating fast-flowing rivers to fending off venomous snakes and scorpions.  He was a long way from Conan Doyle’s irascible Professor Challenger in ‘The Lost World’, but there is still the suspicion that a rampaging tyrannosaurus would have had to mind itself quickly out of the way if it was threatening to crush a rare orchid with its clumsy feet.

In his letters to the Directors of Kew Gardens, im Thurn revealed his love for British Guiana, his concerns about its unexplored interior, and his fears that its native people might soon vanish.  He confided in Kew’s Director, Sir William Thiselton-Dyer:  “I walked home tonight through Piccadilly and had my attention called by my companion to the shops – but I was quite homesick for my bush paths and longed for the chance of meeting either a crapaud [South American frog] or a jaguar or something interesting.”

Sir Everard im Thurn went on to accept a succession of prestigious diplomatic postings, including British Government agent in British Guiana, Lieutenant-Governor of Ceylon, and Governor of Fiji.  A long-standing member of RSGS, he was Chairman of Council between 1927 and 1930 and Vice-President from 1930 until his death, aged 80, in 1932.  From 1919 his home was Cockenzie House in East Lothian.


Footnotes:  In 1966 British Guiana became the independent nation of Guyana.  Although no living dinosaurs were found on Roraima, it does support specialities such as the Roraima bush toad (Oreophrynella quelchii) and the Tepui brush-finch (Atlapetes personatus).


Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, ‘The Lost World’, 1912

Everard F im Thurn (1885) Roraima, Scottish Geographical Magazine, 1:11

H I Perkins, Notes on a Journey to Mount Roraima, British Guiana, Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society, Aug 1885

Everard F im Thurn, The Botany of the Roraima Expedition 1884, Linnean Society, 1886

Obituary of Sir Everard F im Thurn, Scottish Geographical Magazine, 48:6

Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Everard im Thurn and the Lost World,

Gazetteer for Scotland (Cockenzie House):