TOUCH THE ANGEL'S WINGS

Some paragraphs extracted from the Traveler's Venezuela Companion © The Globe Pequot Press. Reproduced with permission.

Map of Auyan Tepuy area -- Gran Sabana

NEW! "Journey to Angel Falls" video

In the montane forest at the foot of Auyan TepuyUp 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 that connives to trip me up. I’m still half asleep and I can't climb quickly enough; just 20 minutes ago I was still slung in my hammock, dreaming of four-poster beds and a huge hot breakfast brought to me in bed on a tray.

A toucan’s distinctive ‘eeowooo’ brings me out of my daydream and stops us dead 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.

The Eighth Wonder of the WorldThere's no time to lose now. Like two over-excited schoolboys, we hop, skip, jump and scrabble up the rocks along the path. I want to look up to make sure the light is 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 truly is the Eighth Wonder of World. It's Venezuela's most touted tourist attraction, and rightly so. The falls plunge in free-fall for close to a kilometre amassing to some 20 Niagaras piled atop one another. Millions of dancing droplets swirl as you gaze upon it from the lookout. After the hot and sweaty 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 a staggering 2,510 metres (8,233 ft) at the north-western edge of Canaima National Park, the jewel in Venezuela's already shining crown of national parks.

What’s in a name?
Perhaps it would be more poetic if the falls’ name 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. Jimmie Angel

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. But he never found it.

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 on foot. 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.

TALL STORIES

In 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.

Ruth Robertson (second from left) in front of Angel Falls with Alexander Laime to her right

Following various setbacks, the group's over-laden dugout set out from near the remote mission of Kamarata. They skirted the east of Auyan along the Akanan and the Karrao 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 10 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) — undeniably the tallest waterfall in the world.

Or 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.

Their true name, given by the Pemon, who probably knew of their existence all along, is Kerepaküpai Merú. Kerepaküpai means 'the deepest place', while merú '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 wasn't Smith.


For more photos of Canaima, Angel Falls, Kavak and Uruyen, go here.

HOW 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 camp’s 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 and Angel Eco-Tours.



Kamadac can organise the trek up Auyan Tepuy, all the way to the top of Angel Falls, which takes a minimum of ten days from Kavak. A trip to remember, and one I intend to do soon!

 

 

Of the local Canaima- or Orinoco-based 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 Ordaz: (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.

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. These are usually old DC-3s with adapted windows, or else smaller Cessna-type planes.

A 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 haven’t 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.

WHERE TO STAY IN CANAIMA:

Most lodging is notably cheaper if you come independently and reserve directly with the owners. Prices are high due to Canaima’s remote location, where absolutely everything has to be flown in, and er, greed.

Views from Wakü Lodge — dawn, afternoon and dusk

Expensive:
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 Rudy’s) tel/fax: (022) 693-0618 or (0286) 622359 website:
www.ucaima.com.

Medium price option:

Parakaupa tel/fax: (0286) 614963 email: parakaupa@etheron.net website: www.canaima.com
It has good views, a nice garden, decent food and fans.

Cheap options:

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, named after its owner, Simon ( who was the village 'captain' when I last visited in late 2002).
Many of the villagers will rent hammocks and space to sling them, among them Nasario Rosi of Iwana Meru.

HOW TO GET TO CANAIMA:
The best flight service to Canaima from Caracas is with Avior (www.avior.com.ve) direct. However, it's about $200 return.

Aerotuy (
www.tuy.com) flies from Porlamar in Margarita.

Rutaca’s (tel: (0285) 632-2195) small planes leave Ciudad Bolívar in the early mornings, usually providing flights out in the afternoons. Rutaca’s planes essentially go to wherever there are passengers in the Gran Sabana, and are the best option for getting to Kavak and Kamarata, or on to Santa Elena.

The Hacha Falls of Canaima at dawn, with Kusari Tepuy behind... cocktail anyone?

Don't miss the "Journey to Angel Falls" video!

FURTHER INFORMATION:
Online:
The Gran Sabana, Canaima, Roraima, and more, see

Offline:

Robertson, 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 maps).
Huber and Febres (eds.): Guía Ecológica de la Gran Sabana.
More books.

 
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