Waterfalls are popular places. There’s something about them that makes people gush with torrents of praise and wonder. You have honeymooners’ Niagara, of course, and then Africa’s Victoria Falls, and the likes of Iguazu on the Brazil-Argentina border.
But although these are worthy of praise, the falls which tower above them all is the loftily-titled Angel Falls, in deepest darkest Venezuela.
Angel Falls is massive. It’s so tall its waters separate into a million dancing droplets by the time they reach the forest canopy below, where rainbows arc at its feet. It’s the height of sixteen Niagaras piled atop one another: A near-kilometre of free falling water.
The falls vault from a canyon that prises open the vertical cliffs Auyan Tepuy, or Auyan mountain. Auyan, the largest of the unique mesa mountain tepuys of the ancient Guyana Shield, rises 2,510 metres (8,233 ft) in southeastern Venezuela. The entire region is protected by the jewel in Venezuela’s already shining crown of national parks, Canaima National Park -- one of the world’s largest.
Arthur Conan Doyle based his adventure yarn, The Lost World, on reports by Victorian explorers to the region. It was widely believed that life on top of the mesa mountains, isolated from the world, could have been suspended in its evolutionary development. The possibility of dinosaurs still existing on the mountains has fired the imagination of every visitor since then.
Although no dinosaurs have been found to date, the summits of the mountains do harbour some fascinating creatures, most of them found on one mountain, and nowhere else.
Our “modern” age has been no less susceptible to the magic and mystique of this remote region. Rumours of UFO activity abound, and the indigenous Pemon Indians still maintain the mountains are home to mischievous spirits.
Perhaps it would be more poetic if the name Angel Falls derived from a miraculous saintly figure that once appeared to an Indian, or echoed the shape of its white plume cascading down from the heavens.
The truth, however, is far more entertaining, and, in a land rich in gold and diamonds, far more appropriate.
It’s named after a maverick bush pilot called Jimmie Angel, a Canadian Air Force pilot of the First World War with a penchant for red-heads, and a passion for gold.
In 1921, Jimmie was contracted to fly to one of the Guyana Shield’s mountains, called tepuys by the Pemon. He landed his plane atop one of them, where his contractor proceeded to pan a river, and fill a sack, so the story goes, full of gold nuggets. So many, in fact, Angel feared they wouldn’t be able to take off again with the extra weight.As they nosed off the mountain, the plane plunged thousands of feet before Angel managed to level out.
So began Angel’s obsession with the River of Gold, taking his place in the long line of adventurers who have raked the region in search of El Dorado. Over the following years, he persuaded various backers to fund his trips in search of “his” mountain. He never found it. But in 1933, Angel returned from a trip very excited. This time it wasn’t a river, gold, a tepuy or even a red-head that had caught his imagination, but a waterfall. He claimed to have sighted surely the tallest in the world.
“A waterfall a mile high,” he claimed.
Tell us another tall story, retorted the other regulars at the bar.
On a flight in 1937, Angel attempted to land on the surface of the Auyan mountain. His small plane stuck in a bog. He and his party, which included his wife, were forced to find a way down. They eventually made it to a nearby mission 11 days later — somewhat slimmer. This time though, they all got a good look at the falls, and Jimmie’s story didn’t look so tall after all.
Today, you can see Jimmie Angel’s rescued plane at the airport in Ciudad Bolívar, a city on the banks of the Orinoco. And you can follow Angel’s flight path in a small Cessna right past the falls as it cascades off the intimidating Auyan mountain. But the best way to truly appreciate the grandeur of the falls is to take a boat trip to its base. River-depth permitting, motorized dugout canoes piloted by local Pemon make the trip up from the idyllic shores of Canaima Lagoon.
You can do the trip in a day, but the most rewarding way to visit is to stay overnight slung in a hammock, and climb to the lookout beneath the falls at the crack of dawn. Then, as the sun’s rays rise from the east, they slowly edge their way down the mountain’s cathedral façade, bathing the falls in pure golden light. It’s just as well Jimmie’s surname wasn’t Smith.
Drawing on nature
The new Disney 3-D animated film, Up, which is to be released on Friday, is about the journey of a lifetime (via a house tied to thousands of balloons) to Venezuela’s mystical formations known as tepuys, and to a fictional waterfall called Paradise Falls, which is based on Angel Falls. A Disney production team actually made the arduous journey to the tepuys in order to capture the prehistoric and otherwordly ambience of the area.
Good to know
Getting to Angel Falls
• The village of Canaima, gateway to Angel Falls, is at the north-western edge of Canaima National Park, north-west of Auyan Tepuy. Canaima may be touristy by many standards, and the original Horturvensa camp’s architecture somewhat disappointing, but the overall effect is magical.
• The alternative is to begin your trip in either Kavak (visiting the mysterious canyon) or Kamarata. From the latter, you take a dugout, passing Angel Falls and ending in Canaima.
When to go
• You can only travel by dugout up the Río Churún in the rainy season, which runs from April-May to late November. However, trips might be possible on the fringes of these months as well — though you might have to get out of your boat more often! At other times, the only way to see the falls is by plane.
- PHOTOS: Filipino devotees nailed to crosses to re-enact crucifixion4 Pictures
- PHOTOS: Memorial spotlights the man behind Nipsey Hussle rap persona14 Pictures