M G Martin travelled with a group from Young Pioneer Tours to explore an often overlooked wonder of the world.
It’s one of those classic Trivial Pursuits questions: “What’s the tallest waterfall in the world?” On hearing this, at least half the players will start bouncing up and down in their chairs, shouting: “Niagara! Niagara!”. Meanwhile, wiser souls will look on with amused sympathy, whispering: “Just you wait, they’re wrong. Of course, it’s the Victoria Falls/Ramnefjellsfossen/Iguazu Falls”. But the actual answer — as I’m sure you’ve already guessed — is Venezuela’s Angel Falls, which fall uninterrupted for nearly 1,000 metres.
While not the most dramatic cascade in the world — it’s just a single stream like a running tap or a pissing horse — it’s actually at least 15 times higher than Niagara.
I assumed there would be some romantic reason for the name — the falling water sounds like a choir of angels, or the mist conjures images of cherubic wings — but no, it’s because an American bloke called Jimmy Angel spotted it while fannying about in a biplane in 1933. So it’s just pure good fortune he wasn’t called something like Gaylord or B’stard.
The height of the falls is down to the remarkable geology of the Cainama National Park. Here huge table-like plateaus rise vertically from the lush jungle beneath. Scrabble players may be interested to know that they’re known as tepuis (24 points with a triple-word score). In the local Pemon language, this means “houses of the gods’. The Angel Falls descend from the largest of these surreal outcrops, which is known as Auyantepui, or “The House of the God of Evil”.
I guess the falls aren’t so well known because they’re difficult to get to.
First you need to get to Caracas, which I think is Venezuela’s only international airport. From here it’s an eight-hour drive to Cuidad Bolivar. There are some lovely places to stay in this little colonial gem, but not many places to eat or drink. Thankfully, the historic townhouses that offer accommodation have thought of this, and are well stocked with food and booze. I can particularly recommend the Posada Don Carlos, which operates a trust-based beer bar. (Help yourself, but keep the bottle tops so you can calculate your bill the next morning.)
From here it’s a one-hour flight in a six-seater plane from the town’s tiny airport. As you approach, you’ll notice a small aeroplane parked out the front — yes, it’s Jimmy’s. He crashed it on top of Auyantepui during a return trip in 1937. It took him and his wife 11 days to walk back to civilisation, and a further 33 years before the plane could be recovered.
This short flight must be among the most stunning aviation experiences in the world. The landscape is awe-inspiring from any angle, but from above it’s simply breathtaking. Added to this are the thermal currents that rush up the granite sides of the tepees and buffet the tiny planes, tossing them about like paper kites. Nervous fliers might find this a terrifying prospect, but I can promise that the views below are so distracting that the rolling and rocking hardly registers.
The plane’s destination is the settlement of Cainama, a backwater of a place in a jungle clearing. The airstrip terminal is an open-sided thatched hut with a few souvenir sellers and a lady selling coffee. There are usually a few armed soldiers lounging around, but I think they’re just bored. They showed no particular interest in our passports or luggage, but were keen to offer friendly greetings to the female members of our group.
It’s also at the airport where you’ll be met by your local guides, who from that moment will take care of your every need — from cooking your food to buying you rum in the dead of night. Nothing is too much trouble for these guys.
They’ll also take you out on local excursions, such as to some smaller waterfalls on the Isla Anatoly, just outside town. Although these are positively miniature compared to the main event, they’re worth a visit as it’s possible to walk behind the sheet of water and gaze out over a prehistoric landscape bedecked with rainbows.
The next stage of the journey starts to get a lot more primitive. First there’s half an hour bumping over dirt roads in the back of a truck to the River Churun, which is part of the Orinoco river basin that has its source at the falls.
Here you meet your next mode of transport, long dug-out canoes called ‘curiara’. The design of these boats has remained unchanged since time immemorial, except these days they’re fitted with hard wooden seats for tourists and outboard motors. The steering is still done with leaf shaped carved wooden paddles, which the guides use with astonishing accuracy.
I visited the falls shortly before the wet season, when the river was low;, often little more than a small stream meandering between exposed rocks. For this reason all of us passengers had to do our bit by jumping out the curiara on command, and helping to push the craft against the flow of the water, its hull scraping and groaning against the rocks below.
I’m told that during the rainy season the journey up river takes just two hours. For us it took more than six — but there was the advantage that we were the only tourists making the trip at the time and it gave us more opportunity to admire the stunning landscapes.
For the first few hours I was wondering why there was such little evidence of life. I saw a couple of ibises, something like a kingfisher and a ragged-winged vulture, but precious little else. It was odd, as the jungle was absolutely pristine and without any sign of human interference. Just as I was wondering about this lack of animal activity, I noticed a movement on a small rocky island in the distance. As we got closer I could see it was a plump little creature about the size of a rabbit.
I pointed it out and asked the crew what it was. Without answering, they gave a cry and set course for the island, the outboard motor screaming at full power. The animal, which I could now see was like a cross between a giant hamster and a piglet (some sort of tapir, I think) noticed the commotion and took to the water to reach the safety of the jungle. But it was too late, one of the local lads leapt from the canoe and, picking up a rock, cornered the animal in a tangle of roots on the riverbank. I don’t think he needed to use the rock, as when he waded back towards the boat the creature was wide awake and looked almost relaxed cradled in his arms.
“Ah ha,” I thought. “He’s just caught it for us to have a look at.” But how wrong I was. He took it to the back of the canoe and cut its throat with a quick whizz of the propeller. I did feel a bit guilty for having sealed its fate, but it provided the boatmen with a meal, which meant more chicken for us. It also put up a good fight, biting the bloke’s hand so deeply that the blood ran down to his elbow. One of his mates went to him with a bottle of rum, which I thought was to sterilise the wound. But no, he glugged it down to numb the pain, and then rubbed coffee grounds into the gash.
But it wasn’t just them who were thinking of food during the journey. When the river was running deep it was as dark and lustrous as Marmite or Guinness. As it got shallower the colour moved through stages of pickled beetroot, quince jelly, caramel, Assam tea, butterscotch, whisky, toffee and Seville orange marmalade. I’m not sure what causes the distinct hue of the water, leading theories include tannin from fallen leaves and iron oxide. Whatever the reason, I couldn’t look at the water without thinking of something delicious.
As we got closer to the river’s source, the boat was more manhandled than propelled, and I felt an ever-increasing admiration for the crew. Their handing of the craft was just phenomenal, and sometimes little short of miraculous. It was like being in the belly of a salmon as they steered the curiara up through rolling white-tipped rapids with expert flicks of their paddles.
It was dark when we arrived at the jungle camp, with fireflies blinking in the undergrowth as if in welcome. The lads immediately got to work, and in no time at all we were sitting before steaming plates of spaghetti bolognese, served with dishes of parmesan cheese and chilli sauce. Pudding was strawberry jelly. There was even a tablecloth and napkins.
After dinner we got to work on the rum we’d brought with us, before collapsing into the hammocks that were strung in a line under a thatched canopy.
The next morning we were up at six for the final stage of the journey — an hour’s jungle hike to the base of the falls. We followed a rough path clogged with sinuous roots and jagged rocks. It was a quite a tough trek, but all was forgotten when we arrived at the basin-like pool, which was so perfect for swimming you could almost imagine it being a man-made feature of a Vegas hotel.
After returning to base camp for lunch (chicken for us, tapir for the lads) we were back in the boat for the four-hour return journey. Being downstream, this was obviously a lot easier, with very little manhandling. Taking inch-perfect lines, the crew guided the boat down through the rapids, communicating with each other using a complex form of sign language.
Just as we were approaching journey’s end in Cainama, the rainy season suddenly began. Our guides seemed delighted, and raised their arms above their heads in welcome, allowing the fat raindrops to run down their upturned faces. It’s easy to understand why they were so happy — with the rains come large groups of tourists, who can be whizzed up the river in two-hours without any pulling or shoving. But for me at least, such a quick and comfortable journey to the Angel Falls would feel like cheating now.