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7 Forgotten Natural Wonders of the World -> Angel Falls

Angel Falls

"Where is the highest waterfall in the World?"

Hidden in a wilderness region, called the Gran Sabana, in Venezuela


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They tumble 1000 meters off the edge of an escarpment of the mysterious Auyan Tepuy, a sandstone mesa of 700 sq kms. The Angel Falls were discovered by accident in 1935 by Jimmy Angel (1899-1956), an American adventurer and bush pilot who operated in Central and South America.

Discovery
Last summer I made an excursion to view the Falls and learned of the exciting history of their discovery. Jimmy Angel owned a Fokker monoplane of 1930's vintage, capable of carrying 3 passengers and freight. He became a legendary figure in Venezuela, in his quest for gold and daredevil flying. While flying up the Devil's Canyon sector of Auyan Tepuy he spotted amongst the clouds an impressive waterfall that hurtled into space to spray the jungle below.


In 1937 he tried to land his plane on top of the flat-topped mountain close to the Falls, but ended up in a bog. He and his passengers had to abandon the plane and proceed on foot. A near vertical kilometer of cliff was descended to reach the jungle below. After 11 days of bushwhacking they reached an Indian village on a river that lead to civilization.

Jimmy Angel's plane, "El Rio Caroni", remained on the summit until 1970, when it was airlifted out and put on display at Cuidad Bolivar airport. It is in an excellent state of preservation, looking more robust than the little Cessna I flew in to Canaima. Near midnight I booked into the Hotel Italia on the waterfront of the Orinoco River at Cuidad Bolivar, after a long, air-conditioned bus ride from Caracas. Carlos, the manager, greeted me. "Want to join a tour group to see the Angel Falls?" he asks, "Come and see me in the morning." That's service for you!

The Tour
The tourist entry point is the isolated village of Canaima located at a beautiful spot on the Rio Carrao where a series of cataracts plunge into an extensive lagoon. This is Canaima National Park of 3 million hectares and there is no road access. The airstrip perimeter is a clutter of light planes of amazing variety. Twice a day a jet from Caracas disgorges tourists who are shuttled off to up market, air-conditioned accommodation.

My tour group consisted of 6 Europeans, German speaking, and a Venezuelan guide who spoke English. We boarded a motorized dugout canoe and sped across the lagoon in front of the cataracts. On the far side we hiked above Salto El Sapo, where another canoe laden with provisions was waiting to take us into the jungle.


Canoe access to the Angel Falls is restricted to the rainy season, June to November. Thanks to El Niño, the rains had continued and the river was negotiable at the end of November, but only just. Alternatively, weather permitting and with absence of cloud, you can fly by the Falls, but blink and you've missed them.

The Rio Carrao is up to 200 meters wide and leads straight to Auyan Tepuy. We donned lifejackets and huddled under canvas drapes to shelter from the spray as we roared up several scary rapids. Towards dusk we pulled into the bank at Camp Orquidea - a jungle camp beneath towering rocky bluffs.

The shelter was open-sided with a thatch roof. Sandstone floor paving stones show ancient ripple marks. Other tour groups used the camp. About 50 hammocks complete with mosquito nets awaited our tired bodies. Soon the kitchen was a hive of activity and we enjoyed spaghetti bolognaise by candle light, joined by a group of 20 Italians who raged into the night.

Next morning our canoe headed up the tributary Rio Churan to take us deep within the mountains. Rapids were more frequent and frightening. Huge sandstone blocks stud the river bed.
Finally we reached Rat Island opposite Devil's Canyon and our first glimpse of Angel Falls, an awesome plume falling from the clouds that shroud the mountain tops.

Our guide explained that an hour's hike up through the jungle will bring us to the Mirador, a rocky outcrop from where we would see the Falls in their entirety. Up, and jungle, are the operative words - a tangle of lianas, fallen branches, mossy rocks and mosquitoes made progress miserable but it was worth the struggle. The cloud cleared from the tops.

A river took off into space high above. What a sight! A tremendous amphitheatre at the base of the Falls was a swirling mass of spray. A DC3 tourist aircraft flew by, in and out of the cloud - Wow, I thought, I'm glad to be on tierra firma and not dodging mountains!

We clambered down the rocks to the stream and bathed in the first substantial pool below the Falls. The cool mountain waters cleansed us of sweat and grime and left us invigorated for the hike back and a welcome lunch at the boat landing.

The return journey next day by canoe down the Rio Carrao was a delight. Above the rapids, we were put ashore to hike for a few kilometers while the boteros took the boat down unladen for the water level had dropped considerably. The afternoon flight to Cuidad Bolivar by Cessna taxi gave us a bird's eye view of neighbouring mesas poking up from the jungle. Carlos, at the Hotel Italia, welcomed me back. "You must join tomorrow's tour of the Gran Sabana by minibus." he implores.

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