Adventurer and naturalist Steve Backshall embarks on one of the most dramatic and dangerous expeditions ever filmed by a BBC crew. His mission: to explore Venezuela’s tepuis – ancient, sheer-sided mountains, lost worlds cut off from the jungle below.
With an elite team of rock climbers, Steve attempts the first ascent of a remote, unclimbed tepui, to search for wildlife on the summit. But nobody could have predicted what would happen – nor the kinds of decisions they’d be forced to make.
A white-knuckle ride from the start, the team encounter river rapids and hazardous wildlife – and survive a close-shave with a rickety biplane.
Yet nothing can prepare them for their climb to the island in the sky.
2×60′ for BBC2, filmed in Canaima National Park, Venezuela in May & June 2015.
The Wandering spider
Sam Wollaston’s episode 1 review in The Guardian
Steve Backshall should have been around about 150 years ago, when posh chaps went to godforsaken places to hack their way through jungles, conquer mountains and catch insects in their nets. The planet is smaller now, it’s been explored, caught and climbed.
Except that there is a land that time forgot, the Canaima national park in Venezuela. Massive, sheer, prehistoric lumps of rock called tepuis rise from the jungle. Steve has targeted one called Amaurai to attempt, and, if successful, find out what the hell lives up there. Maybe it really will turn out to be The Lost World or Jurassic Park. For now it’s Steve Backshall’s Extreme Mountain Challenge (BBC2, Sunday).
First, he and his team of climbers and filmers have to get there. Which means terrifying ancient aeroplanes, the world’s nuttiest pilot, dugout canoes, even scarier wildlife – such as a spider whose bite will give you a screamingly painful 72-hour erection, after which you’ll never have one again. (No mention about what it does to women, but there aren’t any on Steve’s adventure; this is the olden days, don’t forget.) Steve manages not to get bitten, happily. But he does get stung, and then again, by a tarantula hawk wasp, the world’s biggest wasp and a creature so evil (it lays its egg in a spider, which is then eaten slowly alive from the inside out by the resulting maggot) that it led Charles Darwin to question the existence of God. Richard Dawkins once got stung on the arse by one – it’s why he’s so cross.
Anyway, the journey there is literally a walk in the (national) park compared with what happens when they get to the foot of the cliff. It rises vertically, overhanging; not lovely hot, dry granite, but dripping, slimy, crumbling, dangerous. They just about make it up to a ledge, which they share, overnight, with scorpions.
It is beautiful to watch climber John Arran picking his way up (you wouldn’t think rock-climbing was a spectator sport) but even he starts to struggle. The cliff gives way, John slips, rocks fall, lightning bolts strike, wind buffets and rains lashes. What they were hoping would be a mountain has turned out to be a never-ending, howling, slippery, crumbly, creep-crawly, stinging, electric waterfall, which really doesn’t want to be conquered. Maybe that three-day priapism was the better option. “We’ve got to get off this thing, someone’s going to die,” says Steve, and I don’t think he’s playing it up for the camera. They retreat, to scorpion ledge.
Down, but not out – there is another episode next week, and I’ll definitely be watching (from my warm, dry, scorpion-free sofa). It might be from another time, but it’s also incredibly exciting, and beautiful. And reassuring – that there are still places like this.