Blending Science and Adventure in Remote Guyana

Seemingly every modern expedition claims to be raising awareness about climate change or collecting data for science, but these claims are usually just narrative hooks to satisfy sponsors. Real scientific exploration tends to fly under the radar.

Mateusz Wrazidlo is one such explorer. A PhD researcher from Poland, Wrazidlo has been a horticulturist for 16 years, specializing in carnivorous plants. Since 2008, Wrazidlo has focused his attention on the tepui tabletop mountains of the Guiana Highlands.

The prow of Mount Roraima. Photo: Mateusz Wrazidlo

Gaze at the sheer walls of rock that rise out of the jungle to flat sandstone plateaus, and it is hard to believe that the tepuis are real and not the work of some Hollywood visual effects artist. The tepuis tower up to 1,000m above the surrounding jungle and are remnants of what was once a large sandstone plateau that has eroded until only these vestige blocks remain.

There are hundreds of tepuis (meaning “sprouting rocks” in the local indigenous language) scattered across Guyana, Brazil and Venezuela. Though some have become tourist attractions over the years (most famously, Auyun-Tepui, site of Angel Falls), many remain relatively untouched. “The most obscure tepuis are the massifs scattered around the Venezuelan Amazonas state, although there are some smaller, less known tepuis around the Venezuela-Guyana border still waiting to be explored,” Wrazidlo says.

The southwestern wall of Ptari tepui in Venezuela. Photo: Mateusz Wrazidlo

Wrazidlo has been coming to the tepuis since 2017. His most recent studies have centered on the tepuis around the Guyana-Venezuela border. He organizes his own expeditions, with support from indigenous communities and scientific colleagues such as Darrell Carpenay. Carpenay specializes in documenting Guyana’s hinterlands, an underexplored area that he estimates retains 80 percent of its original rainforest. Together, the pair have conducted three recent expeditions, most notably to the Waukauyengtipu plateau in early 2019, and then to Mount Roraima (recently climbed by Leo Houlding) in September 2019.

Mateusz Wrazidlo (right) and Darrell Carpenay (left). Photo: Maciej Moskwa

Local support is essential. The tepuis can be several days on foot from the nearest village, and the villages themselves lie deep in the interior, with limited transportation and communication. “The first thing we do is try to establish a direct connection with the Indigenous communities,” Wrazidlo explains. “But [that] takes months.” One recent expedition took over a year of planning.

Ackley, a local guide, carves a path through the jungle. Photo: Darrell Carpenay

Their goal is to collect data for Wrazidlo’s research, focusing on the Pantepui montane biotas, upland and montane habitats above 1,500m. There is some truth in popular depictions of the tepuis as “lost worlds.” The summits “host unique, ancient, and fragile species which have adapted to very peculiar environmental conditions,” says Wrazidlo.

His favourite encounters are with a genus of pitcher plant called Heliamphora. Native to the Guiana Highlands and mostly restricted to isolated, relic habitats on the summits, they feature some of the largest known species of carnivorous pitcher plants. Pitcher plants use their leaves to create pitfall traps for unwary insects. The largest species are even capable of capturing and digesting big prey like reptiles and rodents.

Heliamphora pulchella on Akopan tepui, Venezuela. Photo: Mateusz Wrazidlo

Studying these remote plants carries an element of danger, particularly in the event of a bite or sting from the region’s snakes, scorpions or spiders. Should you be bitten by one of the most venomous inhabitants of the rainforest, such as a bushmaster or a fer-de-lance snake, your only hope is to call for a helicopter rescue with a satphone. Even then, timely pick-up is by no means guaranteed.

More challenges mean more expenses and, as in all adventure, funding is an issue. While mountaineers and polar skiers might be lucky enough to pick up a big brand partnership, botanical expeditions don’t have quite the same pizzazz. Wrazidlo and Carpenay instead must make do with occasional research grants. On this shoestring budget, simplicity is key: a small team of three or four, working with three of four indigenous guides and short, two-week expeditions.

Wrazidlo and Carpenay keep expeditions simple, working with local guides and carrying everything they need with them. Photo: Darrell Carpenay

Yet there are some advantages to financial self-reliance. No scheduled social media posts, no need to please sponsors by claiming a dubious first and no trailing camera crew. Unlike adventures aiming to “raise awareness”, Wrazidlo and Carpenay do actual research. There are plenty of obscure tepuis to scale, wildlife to document and perhaps even new species to describe.

Kaieteur Falls in Guyana. Photo: Mateusz Wrazidlo

Asked if he has noticed an increase in interest in the region, particularly in light of Leo Houlding’s recent climb, Carpenay concedes that there has been some increased interest. “But remote regions remain,” he adds. “You have to be determined to go into the unknown. People would much rather go somewhere already charted.”

You can find out more about their work below:

Mateusz Wrazidlo

Darrell Carpenay