Posted by: Rob Viens | June 9, 2012

Climbing the Topsail

Today, June 9th, Darwin took a trek to Pedra da Gávea – the “rock of the topsail” or “Topsail Rock”. This rocky spire is located to the west of Botafogo Bay, and at 842 m, it claims to be the “world’s largest monolith on a coastline”.  (It is more than twice the height of the more recognizable landmark Sugarloaf Mountain.) In any case, it is not an easy climb up the steep granite and gneiss slopes of the “rock”, but from the sound of the descriptions the beautiful views make it all worthwhile. Online photos suggest it is also a popular place to go hang gliding.

Photo of Pedra da Gávea (from Wikipedia Commons):

Pedra da Gávea

View from the top, looking east along the shoreline towards Sugarloaf Mountain (from

View from Pedra da Gávea

Darwin would have had to travel about 10 km (6 miles) to get to Pedra da Gávea  (and the same distance back home at the end of the day).  And even today, sites claim it takes 2 to 4 hours to get to the top. So this would have been a very long day for Darwin and his friend (and former crew mate) Alexander Derbyshire. Here is his description of the adventure:

“Started at ½ after six with Derbyshire for a very long walk to the Gavia.— This mountain stands near the sea, & is recognised at a great distance by its most singular form.— Like the generality of the hills, it is a precipitous rounded cone, but on the summit is a flat angular mass, whence it takes the name of “table” or topsail mountain.— The narrow path wound round its Southern base; the morning was delightful; & the air most fragrant & cool.— I have no where seen liliaceous plants & those with large leaves in such luxuriant plenty; growing on the border of the clear shaded rivulets & as yet glittering with drops of dew, they invited the traveller to rest.— The ocean, blue from the reflected sky, was seen in glimpses through the forest.— Islands crowned with palms varied our horizon.— As we passed along, we were amused by watching the humming birds.— I counted four species—the smallest at but a short distance precisely resembles in its habits & appearance a Sphinx.— The wings moved so rapidly, that they were scarcely visible, & so remaining stationary the little bird darted its beak into the wild flowers.— making an extraordinary buzzing noise at the same time, with its wings.— Those that I have met with, frequent shaded & retired forests & may there be seen chasing away the rival butterfly. In vain we attempted to find any path to ascend the Gavia; this steep hill subtends to the coast at an angle of 42°.— We returned home; at our furthest point we had a good view of the coast for many miles.— It was skirted by a band of thick brushwood: behind which was a wide plane of marshes & lakes; which in places were so green, that they looked like meadows.” (June 9)

Even in the 21st century the last leg of the trek to the top of the mountain involves some basic rock climbing.  Unfortunately, it looks like Darwin did not find the route, so didn’t quite make it to the summit. From experience, I know how frustrating that can be.

My favorite event from today’s entry, however, is Darwin’s encounters with hummingbirds. But as it is a busy weekend, I’ll come back to that tomorrow. (RJV)


  1. […] in one day. Some examples of Darwin’s “peak bagging” include Corcovado and Pedra da Gávea in Brazil, the Mount of Montevideo, an unnamed peak in Tierra del Fuego, and the the Cerro de las […]

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