Map of Auyan Tepuy area -- Gran Sabana

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 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.

The Eighth Wonder of the WorldAngel 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.

Jimmie Angel's friendly faceIn 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.

The River of Gold?  No, the tannin-stained Rio Carrao on the way to Angel FallsSo 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 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. 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.

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

Auyan Tepuy in the evening light on the Carrao, close to the ChurunThree 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.

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 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 wasn't Smith.


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Travels in the Lost World -- © Dominic Hamilton 2002-7