Story and Photos by Mark Burgess
Shortly after the motor broke it began to rain. Six indigenous Pemon guides fiddled, lifted and watched, with varying degrees of utility, as a fresh Yamaha 48 Enduro was attached to the stern of the curiara—the long, wooden canoe that would ferry me to my final destination, Angel Falls.
It was replaced by the time Charlotte, a French woman, had finished her cigarette on the small, sandy island where we waited and watched, squinting in the sun even as sinister clouds began to gather upriver. Smoke swirls meshed with the new, revving motor’s exhaust before evaporating against the background of towering tepuis, the table-top mountains of Venezuela’s Gran Sabana region. Charlotte stubbed her cigarette out on her shoe, placed the butt in a tin and we were off.
The rain was a bigger deal. As the curiara raced upstream, struggling against rapids and rocks exposed by the “dry” season, tropical drops fell like grenades, assaulting the 10 of us crammed into the canoes. Tense and under siege, leaning forward in a seated fetal position with the subtle, morbid rocking of a shock victim, the final 90 minutes to the Angel Falls base camp wasn’t what I had imagined. Sure, this was meant to be a grittier waterfall experience— one to be earned, without paved trails or fireworks or air-conditioning—but this rain was miserable and distracting.
No “ooohs” and “ahhhhs” came from our chattering lips as we landed at the base camp—a pebbly beach across the river from the falls, with little but a mucky path leading to rows of mosquito-netted hammocks. The rain softened to a drizzle, too late, and the falls misted indifferently out of the clouds surrounding the tepuis’s peak. Surely everyone saw them, through dripping eyelashes, or from below the damp hoods of raincoats that the vigilant had kept on hand. But no one said a word about his or her first glimpse of the world’s highest waterfall; no cameras were urgently snatched from waterproof cases. Our travellers’ instincts were overwhelmed by our soggy predicament.
This isn’t standard decorum for the world of waterfalls, which relies on superlatives and exclamations: tallest, biggest, widest. Waterfalls are symbols of power and eternity, of nature’s brutal force and humbling timelessness, the pawns of romantic poets. Thomas Hardy wrote in his poem “Under the Waterfall:” “The purl of a runlet that never ceases/ In stir of kingdoms, in wars, in peaces; With a hollow boiling voice it speaks/ And has spoken since hills were turfless peaks.”
It’s this power and perpetual quality that draws people from across the world to Niagara, Victoria, Iguazú and, of course, Venezuela’s Angel Falls. But the destination status given to so many of these falls risks transforming them into more than simply natural wonders, where entertainment and accessibility are given priority and nature is reshaped to accommodate man.
Like Angel Falls, Iguazú (South America’s other great waterfall) is protected by a national park system. The site is monumental, a collection of 275 falls cascading across three kilometres. But the park’s paved roads and air-conditioned buses, its sanitized paths and lineups for boat rides, while making a virtue of accessibility, simultaneously tame its natural force.
I was hoping Angel Falls would be different. Canaima National Park, the falls’ home, covers 30,000 square kilometres of Venezuela’s southeast Gran Sabana region, making it roughly the size of Belgium. In 1994, Canaima National Park was named a UNESCO World Heritage site for its tepuis—table-top mountains made from pre-Cambrian sandstone. Tepuis are the remains of a sandstone plateau that eroded 180 million years ago, making them some of the continent’s oldest geological formations.
The mountains’ tops, which range from 1,000 to 3,000 metres in height, are basically ecological islands, completely isolated from the ground forest: a third of their summit vegetation is endemic. The moisture collected atop these humid summits provides the fuel for Angel’s 979-metre drop.
There are no roads leading into the park and up to that spectacle, though, forcinga convoluted journey in small airplanes and long canoes. Unlike Niagara’s towering chain hotels or Iguazú’s recent onsite Sheraton, Angel’s base camp offers only hammocks and a fire-pit. It’s going to be a long, wet night.
The Angel Falls experience begins in Ciudad Bolívar, a nine-hour bus ride from Venezuela’s capital, Caracas.
In addition to being Bolívar State’s capital and the departure spot for many Gran Sabana adventures, Ciudad Bolívar is an important historical city. Venezuela maintains a profound love for Simón Bolívar—native son and continental liberator—and occasionally that love crosses the border with obsession. The country’s proper name is the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela and its currency is the bolívar, or more recently the bolívar fuerte. In Caracas, the Bolívar enthusiast can visit el libertador’s birth house, summer house and pantheon bearing his exhumed remains—each featuring tremendous murals with heavy religious overtones.
Every municipality, by law, must have a Plaza Bolívar bearing the icon’s statue. Ciudad Bolívar has one of the grandest, featuring original colonial buildings as well as another plaza with the only statue of Bolívar on foot (as my taxi driver proudly pointed out).
Originally founded as Angostura, it became Ciudad Bolívar in 1846 to commemorate its revolutionary history: it was here that the Republic of Venezuela was declared in 1818. The city served as the revolutionary government’s headquarters throughout its struggle with Spain.
I arrived in Ciudad Bolívar by overnight bus sometime around 8 a.m., about 90 minutes later than scheduled. Worse, I had missed my connecting flight to Canaima. Or so I thought, as I watched the sun rise through the bus window with much grumpy anxiety. I needn’t have worried. This being Venezuela, all time designations are merely suggestions and no one cared when I arrived at the airport, breathless and apologetic, an hour behind schedule.
Ciudad Bolívar’s airport is tiny. Its lone embellishment is the silver El Río Caroní airplane Jimmy Angel crash-landed above the falls that were subsequently named after him. Angel, an American from Missouri, first noticed the falls from the air in 1933 while searching for ore deposits. The falls were unknown outside the indigenous population at the time. In 1937, he returned with his wife and two other passengers, nose-diving into the mud atop Auyantepui, the table-top mountain from which Angel Falls begins its plummet. The four were forced to walk out, 11 days in total, with few supplies. His plane remained above the falls until military helicopters disassembled and relocated it in 1970.
Still dazed from the overnight bus and frazzled from my late arrival, I was ushered onto a five-passenger Cessna for the one-hour flight from Ciudad Bolívar to Canaima. I had never been on a plane that small before. The takeoff was effortless, smooth almost to the point of disappointment— after all, this was supposed to be a difficult journey. But once airborne I noticed that both fuel gauges were on empty.
I wasn’t concerned that their reading was accurate, but I did wonder how the pilot monitored the actual levels. He was busy with his GPS, though, using both hands to tinker with the device, neglecting the steering wheel while presumably flying with only a vague sense of direction for the 15 minutes it took him to sort it out. Fortunately I was too passive to worry.
The clouds, coupled with the dreamy landscape below, were an anesthetic. Cement roads became dirt roads, which became a single dirt road, leading only to the most obstinate outposts. Then there were no roads at all, only the green islands of Lake Guri and then the tepuis, whose sandstone facades rose up from the jungle like walled cities.
Finally there was Canaima—little more than a gathering of huts around a lagoon in the park’s northwestern corner, its airport merely one of these huts at the end of a strikingly short landing strip. After surviving my own descent, I sat in the hut’s shade and watched the wobbly landings of other small Cessnas, delivering my company for the ride upriver to Angel Falls.
I was the group’s lone Anglo. There were three Swedes, young guys on a round-the-world trip with hard-shell safari hats—the kind Tintin would have worn. There were five Germans, a young Argentine couple, two young French women and an older French man whose legs had singlehandedly fed the mosquitoes of the Orinoco Delta the previous week. I was delighted to find that each nationality met its prescribed caricature in at least one facile way.
The Argentines were big on public displays of affection and eschewed coffee for yerba maté, which they had brought from Buenos Aires along with the necessary Thermos and steel-strawed mug. One of the Germans wore a Speedo in the boat and eagerly jumped ship to help the guides push the struggling curiara up the rapids. One of the French women haughtily bashed Americans while smoking a cigarette. One of the Swedes wore Björn Borg-brand underwear.
After cursory introductions, we stole the essentials from our packs, threw the dorky orange life jackets around our necks, and began our journey upriver.
In his book Mediated, NYU anthropology professor Thomas de Zengotita discusses the problem of “contained” or “packaged” nature.
He says we look to nature to be “something that wasn’t put there for us, something indifferent to us, something vast…something incomprehensible.” But he concludes that nature is no longer enough—it is finite and conquered and what remains has beendomesticated in an effort to preserve it. Iguazú, while incomprehensibly beautiful, feels contained and domesticated and not entirely indifferent to its visitors.
There is nothing tame about Canaima National Park though. For starters, the Canaima is the Pemon spirit of death, blamed for all manner of disappearances, mysterious illnesses and accidental deaths. (The Pemon are the region’s indigenous inhabitants, about 10,000 of whom live within the national park.) The Carrao River’s red tint suggests something vaguely savage, and nothing says indifference like ancient rock mountains whose Pemon name means “House of Gods.” According to Pemon mythology, the tepuis are inhabited by the mawari—spirits of the dead—thus making them off-limits to the living.
It was sunny and hot as we boarded the long, red curiaras, prompting us to wear bathing suits and vigorously apply sunscreen. For the trip’s first half, the only risk of getting wet came from splashing upriver through rapids, sometimes nearly tipping. As our guide, Antoní, would tell me later, tours traditionally aren’t possible between January and May, so we were a couple of weeks into the usual dry season. “Climate change is good for us,” he said, stoically referring to the added revenue from a longer tourist season. “Not for the world but good for us.”
Although still navigable, the river was low and the guides had to work a lot harder. When approaching rapids, the driver would get a running start, gaining as much momentum as possible before killing and lifting the motor, and hopefully riding the momentum upstream. It was always a struggle. Antoní sat on the bow, his feet dangling on either side, paddle in hand to dig into the riverbed when drastic steering was required. He would leap out at a moment’s notice and pull the curiara forward, stretching the waning momentum as far as it could go, even as he was sometimes neck-deep in a powerful current.
As soon as it was safe, the driver would lower and rev the motor, discharging a toxic cloud and testing the Yamaha’s worth as he attempted to regain forward motion. It wasn’t always possible. More than once we were sent back downriver, Antoní flailing his way back into the bow like a frustrated river merman. It was surprising that only one motor was lost.
The rain dampened our enthusiasm for these trials. It started very quickly. The Swedes retreated under their hard-shell safari hats, suddenly the envy of the group. The French girls put on rain jackets they were wise enough to have kept on hand. The German, Klaus, displayed an indomitable spirit, staying active and jumping out alongside the guides to help with the boat upstream. Most of us cowered, clenched and shivering. Even Antoní abandoned his perch when it was safe to do so and huddled in the stern.
When we arrived at the camp at Angel Falls’ base, when the reward for the last miserable hour and a half was within sight, all anyone cared about were dry clothes. Quivering guides removed the tarps that had miraculously protected our packs and we scurried up to the camp to get warm.
Even at its base, Angel Falls emits no roar. At Iguazú or Niagara you can hear the water before you can see it. But there’s nothing powerful about Angel Falls—the strong, silent tepuis provides the only foreshadowing. It’s serendipitous that a man named Angel gave the falls a name befitting the elegant, even dainty, flow. Angel Falls is neither awesome nor intimidating, its beauty slow and methodical. It looks more like a Toulouse-Lautrec painting of a woman in a white evening gown than a formidable force of nature.
The Base of Angel FallsIn fresh clothes, I joined Antoní and the French trio on a short walk across Isla Raton, or Mouse Island, to a rival camp that offered a better view. Isla Raton is surrounded by the V-shaped, 700-squarekilometre Auyantepui—Pemon for “Devil’s Mountain”—the park’s largest tepui. Antoní told us the Pemon word for the falls is Kerepakupai merú, which means something like “fall from the highest point.” Its drop begins at 979 metres, falling undisturbed for 807, then catching its breath in a steep talus before cascading another 30 metres. This makes it almost 20 times higher than Niagara.
The next morning I was up just after dawn, roused from my surprisingly profound hammock sleep by the sounds of breakfast preparation. We had Venezuelan arepas, an English muffin-type bread made from corn, stuffed with ham and cheese. After coffee and a quick glide across the river to Auyantepui’s foot, we were on our way to Angel Falls.
The trek up was a humid slog through rich green foliage, the path a web of damp roots ripe for toe-stubbing. Antoní adopted a refreshingly laissez-faire leadership approach, encouraging us to reach the lookout at our own pace. This made all the difference. The lookout was a large boulder with a steep drop down into Angel’s stream. There were no ropes or uniformed park attendants advocating prudence.
From the lookout, we descended to a pool at the base of a second cascade, about 30 metres high, with slippery rocks and tremendous views of the falls above and the dense jungle across the river. Everyone swam and showered and sprawled like sea lions as the sun broke through. This was our reward. Klaus scampered around and across the slimy boulders in his Speedo, unsuccessfully trying to scale the rocks beside the falls. Bernard, the French man, waded waist deep, cooling the red bites that dotted his legs like chicken pox, while the Swedes stood beneath the falls, using them as nature’s massage parlour.
The misty tail of Angel’s principal drop sprinkled down from a hundred metres above, its spray blending with the fog, obscuring the tepuis’s top. The previous day’s rain turned out to be something of a blessing. In the dry season, the accumulation at the top of Auyantepui is insufficient to feed the falls and they can dissolve into a vague mist. But when they’re at their peak volume, the falls are often obscured by rain clouds. This complicates choosing a time to visit, particularly for those viewing the falls only by airplane. We were lucky. The same rain responsible for yesterday’s calamitous boat ride had rejuvenated Angel’s flow in time for today’s viewing pleasure.
We lunched at our Isla Raton camp, a midday feast of chicken cooked on blackened sticks over an open fire, and packed up for the ride back to Canaima. The sun was at full strength and would shine for the rest of the day, mocking my belated caution in keeping a rain jacket handy. The return was a frivolous joy ride compared to the hardship on the way there. We raced through the rapids, Antoní employing his paddle more economically but also with greater urgency to steer the bow clear of boulders. We ducked overhanging branches more frantically, taking care to not leave any eyes upriver, and ended up nearly as wet as the day before just from crashing into rooster tails at full speed.
The following afternoon, I boarded a little Cessna with the Swedes. As we were settling in, the plane’s tail collapsed under our collective weight and slammed onto the concrete runway. The pilot exhaled a flurry of curses and an attendant came over to prop up the rear while the pilot ignited the propeller, levelling us out. There were nervous giggles as the plane unsteadily lifted off and we were treated to a jittery view of the huts, the falls and the tepuis below. But the ride soon smoothed out and I once again fell victim to the landscape and the clouds’ halcyon effect.
“Many a calm river begins as a turbulent waterfall,” the Russian poet Mikhail Lermontov wrote, “yet none hurtles and foams all the way to the sea.”