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Angel waterfall - Canaima National park

Canaima national Park
laguna de canaimaCanaima National Park is located in the south-east of Venezuela in Bolívar State close to the borders with Brazil and Guyana. The park protects the north-western section of the Guayana Shield, an ancient geological formation shared with Brazil, the Guianas and Colombia. The park was established in 1962 with an area of 10,000km², but its size was increased to 30,000km² in 1975 in order to safeguard the watershed functions of its river basins. At that time it became the world's largest national park, its area being equivalent to that of Belgium in Europe, or larger than the State of Maryland.

In recognition of its extraordinary scenery and geological and biological values, the park was conceded World Heritage Status in 1994, forming one of a select list of 126 natural and natural-cultural World Heritage Sites worldwide. Canaima actually fulfilled all four of UNESCO's criteria for qualification as a World Heritage property. Ironically, the name of the park, which derives from the novel "Canaima" by Venezuelan author Rómulo Gallegos, means "spirit of evil" in the language of the Pemón, local inhabitants of the park.

Laguna de CanaimaThe best-known feature of Canaima National Park are its characteristic flat-topped mountain formations known as tepuis from the local indigenous name. These mountains were popularised in several novels from the early part of this century, many of them inspired by the 19th Century British botanist Everard Im Turn who lectured throughout Europe on his return. The most widely recognised of these novels is The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes novels, which describes the ascent of a South American plateau inhabited by prehistoric plants and dinosaurs.
The geological history of the area is only superficially understood. There are three main geological formations. The oldest is an underlying igneous-metamorphic basement formed some 1.2-3.6 billion years ago whilst South America was joined to Africa as the supercontinent Gondwanaland. Between 1.6 and 1 billion years ago, this was overlain with a sedimentary cover. The first of these formations is too deeply buried to be visible within the park, but second (known as the Roraima Group) forms the basis of the area's extraordinary topography (Huber 1995). It consists of quartzite and sandstone strata which were probably laid down in shallow seas or large inland lakes (Briceño et al. 1990) during the Pre-Cambrian period. Lastly, during Palaeozoic and Mesozoic times magma repeatedly penetrated the existing sediments forming intrusive rocks which are typically diabases, and to a lesser extent granites.

The tepui formations, not unlike those found in the deserts of northern Arizona, came into being by a process of erosion of the surrounding lands over millions of years. The tepuis are sandstone massifs, and it is thought that what are today mountains once formed harder or less faulted strata which were more resistant to erosion.

There is an impressive array of different soil types. The low mineral content of the parent rocks of the Guayana Shield, the high rates of weathering that occur in tropical climates and the age of the sediments has produced soils which are generally acid and nutrient poor. Only where there are more basic igneous intrusions are the soils capable of supporting luxuriant forests or cultivation.

The traditional inhabitants of the south-east of Venezuela, including Canaima National Park, are the Pemón indigenous people, part of the Carib linguistic group. Their entire population approaches 20,000, with about three quarters of these within the national park.

The date of first occupation of the Gran Sabana is not known, but the Pemón are thought to have immigrated into the region some 200 years ago (Thomas 1980), although there are archeological remains of human settlements which date back 9000 years (Schubert and Huber 1989). Perhaps this 'late colonisation' of the Gran Sabana is a function of its poor soils: there is certainly some evidence to suggest that low productivity is responsible for the relatively low population density of its present day inhabitants in relation to the indigenous inhabitants of, for example, the Amazonian lowlands (Huber and Zent 1995). Despite this short history of settlement, the Pemón have an intimate relationship with their landscape environment. The names of rock formations, waterfalls, rapids, lakes and streams all have their origins described in myth. Some of these names date from the t

ANGEL'S WINGS
Salto angelUp 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.

Angel 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.

In 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.

So 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.

In 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. Three 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.

WHEN TO GO:
You can only travel by dugout up the Río Churún in the rainy season, which runs from April-May to late November. However, trips might be possible on the fringes of these months as well — though you might have to get out of your boat more often! At other times, the only way to see the falls is by plane. These are usually old DC-3s with adapted windows, or else smaller Cessna-type planes.
HOW TO GET TO CANAIMA:
The best flight service to Canaima from Caracas is with Avior (www.avior.com.ve) direct.

Aerotuy ( www.tuy.com ) flies from Porlamar in Margarita, while Rutaca’s (tel: (0285) 632-2195) small planes leave Ciudad Bolívar in the mornings, usually providing flights out in the afternoons. Rutaca’s planes essentially go to wherever there are passengers in the Gran Sabana, and are the best option for getting to Kavak and Kamarata.

ime of the culture heroes; some from other mythological sequences (Thomas 1982).

 

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