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Angel Falls, the World's Highest Waterfall: Vaulting in Venezuela on the Looney Front, Part 1

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Not only did American aviator Jimmie Angel not fear to tread here, he actually crashed his plane right on top. Or rather its wheels got stuck into the marshy ground - and ever since his name has stuck to the world's tallest waterfall, 3,212 feet (979 metres) up in the Venezuelan jungle, with the longest uninterrupted drop, 2,648 feet (807 metres).


Angel wasn't even the first person to boldly go where no man has gone before. He'd flown over it four years earlier, in 1933, after being told about it by Spaniard Felix Cardona. Cardona got there in 1927, the first Westerner credited to have done so, though others believe early Spanish explorers probably nosed him out by a few hundred years.


Ages before that, the indigenous Pemón were well aware of the magnificent cataract, calling it Kerepakupai Meru (Waterfall of the Deepest Place), or Parakupá Vená (Fall from the Highest Point). It was the Venezuelans who named it Angel Falls in 1939, and in an act of cultural justice for the UNESCO World Heritage Site President Hugo Chavez in 2009 proposed reverting to the original.

In much the same way newcomers have confiscated the cultural heritage of others around the world - the United States confiscating Alaska's Mt. Denali as Mt. McKinley, fortunately now restoring the original, and Livingstone rechristening age-old Mosi-oa-Tunya (The Smoke That Thunders) Victoria Falls in honour of 'We Are Not Amused.'

Mt. Denali


But Chavez did not decree his reversion, merely saying he was defending indigenous usage in honour of indigenous property. So it's old plane crasher Jimmie whose name still sticks. He and his wife spent 11 days clambering back down in 1937, and his ashes were scattered over the falls in 1960. His plane was lifted off by helicopter in 1970 and now sits outside the airport of Ciudad Bolívar.

It's not the sort of place you just walk round the corner to. In fact there are no roads anywhere nearby. You journey for hours up jungle rivers from Canaima, itself reachable only by small plane or a long overland trek.


Canaima's where the fun starts. As you sail up the moderately placid Carrao River in a narrow, open wooden boat with an outboard motor, all's fine. The scenery's magnificent - richly jungle-clad banks and rounded perpendicularly walled table-top mountains or mesas, here called by the Pemón word tepuy.



It's once you turn into the narrower, fast-rushing Churun that the fun really starts. You have to rise 650 feet and, as anybody can tell you, rivers are not smoothly climbing escalators. It's one continually rabid rapid after another.





The captain revs the engine as a paddle-armed pilot in front tries to push us off and past the rocks. Two other crewmen - they're all Pemón - jump overboard to push and pull us clear and up the boulder strewn torrent. Twice we're torn backwards, three times at each go.





We twist between massive rounded buttresses of tepuys and craggy mountain ramparts, crenelated battlements and phallus-like monoliths. Scores of waterfalls cascade down the sheer rock face, cotton wool clouds graze half way down, and all is reflected in mirror patches of placid water near the banks.






The Churun, like the Carrao, is a black water river, which means it's reddish thanks to tannin from nearby plants. Another type of Amazonian river is white water, which means they're blue as they reflect the sky. Go figure.




Thus is it, after several hours, that Angel Falls itself comes into view way in the distance, a tumbling, spraying cloud crashing thousands of feet down a vertical fold in the grey and orange-brown rock face into the jungle.



Pulling closer, you get similar views from basic bluff-top camps on the narrow river's far side, but again not the full length.



For this you have to hike through the jungle to the mirador, the view point.

Now this is where the fun really, truly starts. Having already careened through the starting gate of my 9th decade, let's just say the years are beginning to tell, and I'm not being aided by a huge infected toe blister. I start off like a pilgrim with a staff in my right hand, struggling over the giant spiders webs of jungle roots that wait to trip you up at every step. But at least it's level here.


It's when you come to the climb that things really become interesting. The pole no longer suffices. The guide takes my hand as if I'm a bloody blushing debutante. It's hot and incredibly humid as he hauls me the 650 feet up the steep track, over boulders, crags, and tree roots. I only fall once.

At last, the break in the dense vegetation, the narrow open ridge and, above the rushing foam of a lower multi-tiered waterfall, the thousands of feet of cascading veils tumbling down the sheer cliff face beneath a crown of clouds.




The clouds part. The crown lifts. The whole 3,212 feet are revealed in all their magnificent glory, from the very spout-like notch where the water channels off the table top battlements of Auyán Tepuy.




On the debit side, a world convention of mosquitoes is being held right here. Let's see if my so-called 12-hour time release insect repellent protection really time-releases, repels and protects for 12 hours.

On the plus side, I dream up a business scheme for extreme adventure tourism. What about bungee jumping Angel Falls for those who've already scaled Mt. Everest?

OK, I've seen it from the ground up, now it's time for an angel's eye view from the heavens down. I'm sitting in the co-pilot's seat of a tiny twin-engined eight-seater, with a group of Japanese tourists behind me.


Ooh, with all the levers, switches and dials in front of me I can do a lot of damage. Time for some traffic problems at the Amazon equivalent of Fort Lee, folks. And that's not to mention the second, spare joystick seducing my itching fingers.


But my better nature prevails and I forbear to start twiddling with them, remembering my Dad's oft repeated warnings to me of 'idle hands!' On the other hand, the second spare joystick shows no such restraint and keeps hitting me in the crotch. Thus do we take to the air.


The views are spectacular. The weather is perfect and the rounded table-top buttresses, massive cliff walls and jagged battlement monoliths stand out above the dark jungle green of the plunging valleys and gorges, the network of reddish rivers sparkling brightly below. The lighter emerald of the lower savanna flashes back in response.












Suddenly the table top gives way to a plunging chasm, and the Falls appear in all their earthly glory, the torrential channel exiting a groove atop the boulder-strewn plateau to plummet vertiginously down the grey and orange-brown cliff face.





We circle round four times, giving everybody on both sides ample chance to ooh and aah and take as many photos as we want. Even I react quickly enough to take the actual falls and not a set of finger prints.







[Upcoming blog next Sunday: The Birds, Lagoons and Cataracts of Venezuela's Canaima National Park]

By the same author: Bussing The Amazon: On The Road With The Accidental Journalist, available with free excerpts on Kindle and in print version on Amazon.

Swimming With Fidel: The Toils Of An Accidental Journalist, available on Kindle, with free excerpts here, and in print version on Amazon in the U.S here.