TOUCH THE ANGEL'S
Some paragraphs extracted
from the Traveler's Venezuela Companion © The
Globe Pequot Press. Reproduced
Map of Auyan
Tepuy area -- Gran Sabana
TO ANGEL FALLS VIDEO
Up the forest path we
pant. Up and down and over and round, slowly climbing
as the hill grows steeper. In the dim light, everything
remains indistinct, merging into an amorphous mass which
connives to trip me up. I can't climb quickly enough.
Twenty minutes ago I was still slung in my hammock, dreaming
of four-posters, and breakfast in bed brought to my door.
A toucan "eeowooo"
stops us in our tracks. It's very close. We wait for its
mate to reply. "Eeowoooo, eeowoooo." The metallic
cry echoes through the forest, its possible sources seeming
to multiply as we listen. We stand there, peering into
the forest canopy, our chests heaving, hoping to catch
sight of one of the nose-heavy birds. Then my guide Yesé
grabs my arm. "Mira," he says, "Look".
I turn towards the mountain,
still shielded by the obstinate forest. Through the trees
and leaves, a band of ochre stretches across it. As the
sun rises over the eastern hills, its first rays bathe
the entire vertical flanks of Auyan Tepuy, the Mountain
of Evil, in pure golden light.
There's no time to lose now.
We hop, skip, jump and scrabble up the rocks along the
path, like two over-excited schoolboys. I want to look
up to make sure the light's still there, but every time
I try, I trip or my ankle feigns a twist. At last we come
out into the open, to a rock ledge at the foot of the
mountain. There, in full view, glowing like the first
gold-leaf letter of a medieval manuscript, the tallest
waterfall in the world vaults from the top of the mountain's
gothic cathedral façade. We've made it.
Angel Falls is the Eighth Wonder
of World. It's Venezuela's most touted tourist attraction,
and rightly so. The falls plunge for a near free-fall
kilometre, some twenty Niagaras piled atop one another.
Millions of dancing droplets swirl as you gaze upon it
from the lookout. After the hot walk up, it feels like
an angel's wing caressing your face.
The falls cascade from a
canyon which prises open the heart-shaped Auyan mountain.
Auyan, the largest of the unique mesas of the ancient
Guayana Shield, rises 2,510 metres (8,233 ft) at the north-eastern
edge of Canaima National Park, the jewel in Venezuela's
already shining crown of national parks.
Perhaps it would be more
poetic if the name Angel Falls derived from a miraculous
saintly figure who once appeared to an Indian, or echoed
the shape of their 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.
In 1921, the dour geologist and explorer,
J.R. McCracken contracted a maverick bush pilot called
Jimmie Angel, a Canadian Air Force pilot of the First
World War with a penchant for red-heads, to fly down to
the Venezuelan outback. McCracken never showed Jimmie
a map, and simply told him where to go. Jimmie did as
he was told, eventually landing his plane on top of one
of the 'tepuys' ('mountains' in the local Pemon Indian
tongue). McCracken then 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 in the fast-fading
light. As they nosed off the mountain, the plane plunged
thousands of feet before Angel managed to level out. They
returned to Caracas, and McCracken paid Jimmie the other
half of the money he had promised him: $3,000, a tidy
sum back then.
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 into Venezuela's
Gran Sabana in search of 'his' mountain. He never found
But in 1933, Angel returned
to his favourite bar in Caracas, the American Club, very
excited. This time it wasn't the river, the gold, the
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. His altimeter read around 6,000
ft. "A waterfall a mile high" he claimed. Tell
us another tall story, retorted the other regulars at
the bar. As B. Traven puts it in The Treasure of the Sierra
Madre, "It was the usual gold-digger's story: true,
no doubt, and yet sounding like a fairy story."
On a flight in 1937, Angel
attempted to land on the surface of Auyan Tepuy, a mountain
the size of Menorca. His small Flamingo plane, the Río
Caroní, stuck in a bog. He and his party, which included
his wife and the Venezuelan Gustavo Heny who, fortunately,
had explored the area in previous years were forced
to find a way down off the mountain. They eventually made
it to the mission of Kamarata, southeast of Auyan, 11
days later, somewhat slimmer. This time though, they had
all got a good look at the falls, and Jimmie's story didn't
look so tall after all.
1949, the gutsy American journalist Ruth Robertson, all
five-foot of her, organised and led an overland expedition
to measure the falls. No-one, certainly no white person,
had ever been up the Churún canyon to the foot of the
falls. The local Pemon Indians were in awe of the angular-shouldered
mountain that rose sheer above the emerald forests of
their lands. The tepuys are the home of their marawiton
spirits. To approach them is to incur their wrath.
Failing to persuade National
Geographic to fund the expedition (although they later
published her article), Robertson fell back on various
sponsors, including the bush pilots whom she'd befriended
while living in Venezuela. Robertson, however, was fortunate
to recruit the Latvian-born Alexander Laime to her cause.
Laime was one of the few white men trusted by the Pemon.
He knew the region, if not the area, well. He would later
become known as "the hermit", living out his
days on a remote island in the shadow of Auyan and occasionally
spending days roaming its summit in search of dinosaurs.
Following various setbacks,
the group's over-laden dugout set out from near Kamarata.
They skirted the east of Auyan along the Acanan and the
Carrao rivers, until they reached the mouth of the Churún.
Here, the Pemon painted their faces and bodies with red
vegetable dye, and nervously recited their magical invocations,
taren. Having set off at the end of the dry season,
the boats soon ran aground in the shallow Churún. They
unloaded and set off through the forest, sharing the weight
of their photographic and radio equipment, movie cameras,
theodolite, generators and camping gear with their ten
Pemon porters. Three days of slashing and one near-mutiny
later, the expedition emerged at a spot where the falls
were clearly visible. Angel's altimeter was off by a few
thousand feet, but the falls still weighed in at a colossal
979 m (3,211 ft), with an uninterrupted drop of 807 m
(2,647 ft) without doubt the tallest waterfall
in the world.
at least that's one version - the most colourful one to
be sure - of the Angel Falls story. Another one suggests
the existence of the tremendous waterfall was first reported
as early as 1910 by a Venezuelan naval officer, and later
gold prospector, Ernesto Sánchez La Cruz. La Cruz's claims,
however, don't stand up to inspection.
true name, given by the Pemon, who probably knew of their
existence all along, is Kerepaküpai Merú. Kerepaküpai
means 'the deepest place', while merú means 'falls'. After
Jimmie's death in 1956, his ashes were scattered over
the falls, and in 1970, the Venezuelan Air Force rescued
the rusting Río Caroní from the top of Auyan. After
restoration, it was ceremoniously placed in front of the
airport in Ciudad Bolívar on the banks of the Orinoco,
where you can see it today. It's just as well his surname
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. These are usually old DC-3s
with adapted windows, or else smaller Cessna-type planes.
TO GET TO THE FALLS:
The village of Canaima, gateway to Angel Falls, enjoys an idyllic
setting at the north-western edge of Canaima National
Park, north-west of Auyan Tepuy. Canaima may be touristy
by many standards the souvenir shops certainly
are and the original Horturvensa camps architecture
somewhat disappointing, but the overall effect is magical,
even to the well-travelled eye. The alternative, which
I recommend, is to begin your trip in either Kavak (to
visit the canyon) or Kamarata. From the latter, you take
a dugout from three days, passing Angel Falls, and ending
in Canaima. This tour can be arranged through Cacao Travel
Eco-tours. These operators can also organise the trek
Auyan Tepuy, which takes a minimum of ten days
dozen operators and campamentos in Canaima make it their
business to organise the trip by large dugout curiara
boats with outboard engines up to the falls, and 90% of
visitors to the falls pass through the village. At the
'airport', most operators have desks or wait around for
arriving planes. If you havent arranged a boat trip
before arriving in Canaima, do so there. As well as the
one, two or three-day river trips up to the falls, the
operators also tout fly-bys and excursions to other closer
falls. In the dry season, the latter become the operators
bread and butter.
the operators, the most expensive is Canaima Tours
tel: (0286) 962-5560 www.canaimatours.com,
the agents for the Horturvensa camp. Tiuna Tours tel:
at Ciudad Bolívar airport (0285) 28697, and Kamarakoto
Tours tel/fax in Puerto Ordatel: (0286) 27680 make
up the other larger operators. As well as these, local
Pemon families run smaller operations.
Also worth mentioning is Bernal Tours tel/fax: (086) 620443 or (014) 884-0965 , run by the
family of Tomás Bernal, a veteran of the Sabana who died
tragically in 1998.
STAY IN CANAIMA:
Most lodging is notably cheaper if you come independently
and reserve directly with the owners. Prices are high
due to Canaimas remote location, where absolutely
everything has to be flown in, and er, greed.
The best new development in Canaima is run by
Canaima Tours (see above). It's called Wakü
Lodge, and is located on the western shores of
the lagoon. It's by far the most attractive of the camps
on the lagoon, and only has 15 rooms in all.
The largest development is the Horturvensa (Hoteles y
Turismo Avensa) Campamento Canaima, run by the
airline Avensa/Servivensa, tel: (022) 907-8130 (022) 907-8054
fax: (022) 907-8053. But I don't rate it that highly compared
to the other option, with far more character, charm and
jungle-feel: Campamento Ucaima (also known as Jungle
Rudys) tel/fax: (022) 693-0618 or (0286) 622359
Medium price option:
Parakaupa tel/fax: (0286) 614963 email: email@example.com
The camp built by Tomás Bernal: Possibly
the best location of all the lodging in Canaima. Its isolated
spot, just up from the pink-tinted beach, makes for a
wonderful hide-away. You sleep in hammocks and the family
prepare meals with advance warning, tel/fax: (0286) 620443
or tel: (0414) 884-0965 website: www.worldwander.com/bernal/default.htm
Posada Churun tel: (0414) 8840511 has 5 simple rooms,
and some hammock-slinging space. They have a large restaurant
next-door, called 'Simon'.
Many of the villagers will rent hammocks and space to
sling them, among them Nasario Rosi of Iwana Meru.
HOW TO GET TO
The best flight service to Canaima from Caracas is with
Aerotuy ( www.tuy.com ) flies from Porlamar in Margarita, while Rutacas (tel:
(0285) 632-2195) small planes leave Ciudad Bolívar in
the mornings, usually providing flights out in the afternoons.
Rutacas planes essentially go to wherever there
are passengers in the Gran Sabana, and are the best option
for getting to Kavak and Kamarata.
TO ANGEL FALLS VIDEO
Ruth: Churun Vena, The Tallest Angel.
Conan Doyle, Arthur : The Lost World.
George, Uwe: Venezuela's Islands in Time, National
Graphical Magazine. May 1989: 526-561.
Marrero, Roberto: Guide to the Gran Sabana (also publishes
Huber and Febres (eds.): Guía Ecológica de la Gran Sabana.
more photos of Canaima, Angel Falls, Kavak and Uruyen,