The Kid with the Golden Ticket
Angel Falls; the world's tallest waterfall
I've never been on holiday with Willy Wonka. Should it ever happen, I imagine it would be something like what I'm experiencing. Standing on the shore, I watch the clear water break over my bare feet, before it retreats into the maroon-hued lagoon. Behind me the sand glistens pink in the morning sun and to my right, a torrent of raging waterfalls generate a relentless roar. I rub my eyes in bewilderment at the palm trees growing directly out of the lagoon itself, appearing to posses a divine ability to stand upright on the water's surface. A tiny, dark-skinned figure approaches me (although he does not have green hair or speak in song - though neither would seem out of place). "You should take a swim," he suggests. "Laguna de Canaima is the finest skin and hair conditioner in the world!" A world, I muse, of pure imagination.
The holy grail of my quest lies deep in the heart of Venezuela's Gran Sabana, a tropical biosphere stretching from Brazil to Guyana, and is home to Canaima National Park, a 30,000km2 UNESCO World Heritage Site. To put that in perspective, the phenomenon known in Spanish as Salto Angel, hides in an untouched rainforest reserve the size of Belgium. Without a single road going in or out of the park, the only option was to take to the skies.
My journey began in Ciudad Bolivar, the nearest city to Canaima. Having located the airport, I found myself edging gingerly towards a fragile, six-seater Cessna waiting on the tarmac. I strapped myself in, despite the disconcerting notion that I may be asked to get out and push. My fear was soon replaced with wonder as we soared over the majesty of the Gran Sabana. Peering out of my rattling window, there was nothing but jungle as far as the eye could see, save for the occasional tributary of the Orinoco River snaking towards the Atlantic.
An hour or so later we were making our descent. I searched the ground for a landing strip but I could only make out a splinter of red dust. A mere graze on the body of vegetation below, which, it transpired, was our target. Happily back on terra firma, I realised it was barely a bus-stop, let alone an airport. Here I was greeted by my guide, Jojo, who wore nothing but a pair of shorts and a perpetual smile for our entire time together. He was a member the Pemon tribe, who populate the Gran Sabana in their thousands. Jojo took me a short distance to the village offering basic accommodation (bed, electricity and running water) for the night. "Tomorrow we head to the falls," he informed me. "Today, I show you the other sights of Canaima."
He introduced me to my fellow waterfall enthusiasts on the shore of Laguna de Canaima. Jojo quickly defused the magic of the surreal surroundings. The pink sand, it turns out, is due to high levels of quartz and the maroon colour of the water is a result of the unique mineral content carried by the river. "Feel my hair," he demanded. "Nature looks after our bodies." Jojo was right, of course - his hair really did feel like silk.
After a re-energising dip in the lagoon, my group of six were herded into a curiara (a canoe-style boat) and whisked off to El Salto Sapo, a ferocious waterfall where we were told we could walk behind the curtain of water. The mind-boggling volume of water thundering past resonated through the cave like a shuttle launch. Never before had I thought it possible to be in a situation where water was simultaneously travelling in every direction. As it ricocheted off the rocks, it was a challenge simply to keep my eyes open. I was left fumbling blindly for the guide rope. Disorientating yes, but utterly exhilarating.
The following morning I found myself back in the narrow, wooden boat. Jojo slapped the bare plank that would be my seat as we headed against the current of the Carrao River. "Not so comfortable after four hours," he laughed. He continued to explain how this voyage to the Angel Falls is not possible during the dry season (typically December-April), as the river runs so low it's unnavigable even in these small boats. I was further relieved to note that we had an outboard motor, ensuring there was no need for extensive use of the paddle at my feet.
As we chugged serenely upstream, flanked by a vibrant variety of flora, I was struck by the staggering beauty of the Gran Sabana. The horizon was punctured with gargantuan table-mountains, or tepuis in the Pemon tongue. These sandstone behemoths have dominated this landscape for two billion years. We took a sharp bend in the river only to be confronted by another of these giant slabs, proudly surveying the rainforest growing around it. Jojo revealed the meaning of the word tepui: "House of the Gods." A most fitting translation, for I could think of no more worthy a throne for a deity to survey its kingdom.
It's said that Arthur Conan Doyle drew inspiration for The Lost World from Mount Roraima - the highest tepui of the Gran Sabana (and indeed the continent). It occurred to me that if a herd of dinosaurs had come wading through the river, it would not have registered as the least bit peculiar. Even the forest sounded alive. An orchestration of bird song echoed across the river - from melancholic melodies to alarming, shrill chords, sporadically interrupted by the howl of a monkey. There are more bird species in Venezuela than the USA and Europe combined, so I shouldn't have been so surprised.
With each rock-face we passed, I noticed a waterfall and would eagerly point and yell "Angel Falls!" Jojo would just laugh as he tackled the river rapids and wink back at me; "Not yet. Not yet."
Continuing on to the Churun River, we disembarked at a shallow meander. Our camp lay just a few yards in from the bank. Now Jojo was the one pointing. "Salto Angel," he grinned. There in the distance, shrouded in mist and evening shadow, was the world's tallest waterfall. A wave of excitement shot through me as I tingled with anticipation. All I wanted to do was get closer to fully appreciate its splendour. Jojo told me to relax, "Tomorrow you will see her close up." The rest of our party followed Jojo to camp, but I was happy paddling in the presence of grandeur a while longer.
We camped that night in hammocks strung up below sheets of corrugated tin. The whole group was thrilled to find one final mod-con - a gas burner, for dinner. Our only guest that evening was the invisible insect life, whose buzzes and clicks slowly replaced the birdsong as the sun sank into the distant trees. We feasted on a one-pot dish of chicken and mixed bean stew, chatting away in the humid jungle night. Finally, I collapsed in my hammock and fell asleep to a lullaby of raindrops on the tin roof.
Angel Falls is east-facing, so I was happy with the early rise if it meant seeing her bathed in the brilliant morning sunlight. The trek through the rainforest was a good two-hour jaunt, but nothing too taxing. For an area so rich in biodiversity, it was surprisingly difficult to actually spot any wildlife. Blindly following Jojo, we emerged to a clearing of flat rocks - Mirador Laime (named after the Latvian explorer). In layman's terms, this was the money shot.
Towering over us was the giant Auyan tepui, and there, cascading down before me, was Salto Angel. I gazed up to just shy of a vertical kilometre (979m to be precise), to where the Kerep River flows into nothing but gravity. The water plummets for hundreds of metres before discretely vaporising into mist. Only a fraction of the liquid makes it into the plunge pool at the foot of Auyan tepui. The effect had me mesmerised. The roar didn't come from the pool, but resonated from the concave cylinder that had been eroded into the sandstone mountain against which it falls. I stood transfixed, becoming increasingly soaked by the ghostly, swirling moisture in the air.
The key to this breathtaking sight is the staggering view that surrounds it. Bronze tepuis rise out over the undulating, green canopies, like the plates down a stegosaurus' spine. I felt sure that if you teleported me back to this spot 100 million years ago, nothing would look different. There are no gift shops here, no Starbucks or McDonalds. It's virgin territory. Nature unspoilt by man. The fact that the falls were only discovered in the 1930s illustrates the remoteness of this spot on Earth.
It's somewhat serendipitous that they were discovered by a man named Jimmy Angel. The naming had little to do with our celestial, cherubic friends. Yet the romantic connotations are most apt (for this reason alone, I am relieved that Robert Burke chose to explore Australia and not South America). Despite President Chavez's efforts to rename them in the Pemon language - Kerepakupai Meru ("waterfall from the deepest place") - people are understandably attached to the more poetic original.
As the group reluctantly re-traced its steps to Canaima village, I took one last look back. Mother Nature seized the opportunity to show that she is still the ultimate illusionist. Before my very eyes in broad daylight, a hazy cloud engulfed the falls and, within seconds, it had vanished. Gone but not forgotten. Floating with the current back down the river, it dawned on me how truly privileged I was. Not just because I had seen a waterfall that is 2½ times the height of the Empire State Building, but because I had been honoured with a glimpse of our planet's history.
After one last night back in a most appreciated bed, my adventure had drawn to a close. Perhaps now though I understand why Jojo is always smiling. Even my overly casual Cessna pilot could not faze me. Despite having clearly taken Han Solo's maxim to "fly casual" a little too literally (his right arm dangled out of the cockpit window for the entire flight), I remained calm, running my hand through my newly-softened hair.
Was it all worth it? I felt like the kid with the golden ticket...
About the Author: Ed Chaplin
They say to write about what you love. For this reason alone, I struggle writing about myself almost as much as I enjoy writing about traveling. But here goes. I am in awe of our planet. I believe we are blessed with such an overwhelmingly diverse home, it would be folly not to try and see as much of it as possibly in our brief time on Earth. I have dedicated my twenties to working just long enough to be able to go exploring again; and so far I have made it around six of our seven continents.
Global travel is easier now than it has ever been. All it takes is the motivation to wake up one day and go for it. All I hope for is that my words might inspire just a few people to go and see some of this amazing world for themselves.
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