We arrived at our campsite at lunch-time. It had taken us six hours to get upstream for a journey that usually only took three to four hours at most at any other time of year when there was more water in the river. We had a vote on whether to continue up to see Angel Falls or have lunch first and go to see them after lunch. The weather promised to hold for the afternoon and as some of us were wet and tired and we were all hungry, it was an easy and a nearly unanimous decision to stop and have lunch first.
The downside was that it would take a couple of hours to light the fire, cook the food, serve it, eat it and then get onto the track and head off to see the highest waterfall in the world. Whilst our guides cooked, we had some spare time to look around the camp and the surrounding forest.
There was a small shed with one side open to the jungle that served as the kitchen. Next door to it were a few sheets of corrugated iron on poles that served as a roof over the open fire. Our chicken for lunch had been skewered onto some sticks which had been pushed into the ground and were sizzling away next to the fire. Lunch was cooked over the open fire, but our evening meal was to be cooked over gas brought up the river by canoe. Wood from the forest is free and bottled gas, although cheap locally, is heavy and bulky, hence the two cooking options chosen.
The main building was a two-storey affair built from rough-sawn timber and poles cut from the forest. The ground floor had three open sides with a table running down the middle. Behind the fourth side, running parallel to it, was a corridor with toilets on one side and shower cubicles on the other.
There was no running water, but a large dustbin which was filled with water from the river and you dipped a bucket into the dustbin to flush the toilet or to pour over yourself for a shower. One drawback for the shy was that some of the cubicles had poorly fitting or torn plastic curtains or none at all, so everyone had to be open-minded about what they might see or accidentally flash. Some of us had been travelling together for so long that this wasn’t an issue. It was just part of the whole overlanding experience.
Up an external staircase, where the handrail had long since rotted away, was a large empty space with a timber wall along one side. There were several beams crossing the ceiling from which short lengths of rope hung. This was the dormitory where we would be hanging our hammocks.
Some of us knew the drill regarding how to tie a hammock, the best knot for both strength and ease of untying, the optimal amount of dip, and, importantly, the best height above the floor. If it was too low, it was easy to get into but would be a large curve and uncomfortable to sleep in. Too high, and it would be a shallow curve and comfortable to sleep in but difficult to get into and out of.
From the camp there was a marvellous view of Angel Falls. A few trees had been cut down to give an uninterrupted view of the water falling from the top of the cliff and disappearing into mist as it fell.
The waterfall was named after Jimmie Angel (1899–1956). He was born James Crawford Angel, named after his uncle James Edward Angel, but known by the family as Crawford to avoid confusion within the family. He adopted his name Jimmie in his twenties. He was a US aviator and was the first person to fly over the falls in 1933 whilst prospecting for valuable ores to mine. It is the world’s highest uninterrupted waterfall, with a height of nine hundred and seventy-nine metres and a plunge of eight hundred and seven metres.
He returned to the tepui in 1937, flying a Flamingo monoplane and accompanied by his second wife Marie, Gustavo Heny, and Miguel Delgado, Heny’s gardener. He attempted a landing, but despite a successful touchdown, his aircraft, named El Rio Caroní, nose-dived when it hit soft ground at the end of its landing run and the wheels sank in the mud, making a take-off impossible.
Although the ground on top of the tepui looked firm, it was too soft and he couldn’t turn the airplane around or take off again. It took him and his party eleven days to walk down from where he landed to the nearest village. The waterfall was named after him shortly afterwards, but his plane was left there until 1970, when it was airlifted down to the airport in Cuidad Bolívar. It was renovated and reassembled in the Aeronautics Museum in Maracay and returned to Cuidad Bolívar, where it was displayed at the entrance to the airport.
In 1956, Angel suffered a head injury whilst landing his plane at David, Chiriquí, in Panama. His medical condition deteriorated over the next few months, including a heart attack and pneumonia, and he died in December 1956 in hospital in Panama. His cremated remains were first interred at the Portal of the Folded Wings Shrine to Aviation in Burbank, California, but in keeping with his wishes, his wife, his two sons and two of his friends scattered his ashes over Angel Falls on 2nd July 1960.
After lunch, we packed our day bag ready to set off to see Angel Falls. We set off, walking through the jungle, and it was dark under the thick canopy of leaves above us. Gabriella led the way and Jorge was at the back and the rest of the group was spread out between our two guides. We walked at different speeds and soon it was just Karen and myself out in front, following the path and ahead of Gabriella. There was only one track with no junctions so it was impossible to get lost, so Gabriella was content for us to go ahead unescorted. It was flat at first and then a gentle incline. Then the path began to climb upwards and we knew that we had crossed the half-way mark.
The path climbed diagonally up the steep valley slope beside a river. A break in the foliage revealed a stunning sight of water plunging from the top of Angel Falls. The drop is so long that the flow dissipates into mist as it falls through the air. The wind at those levels pushes the mist this way and that and little actual water fell directly into the plunge pool at the base of the waterfall.
Eventually, the mist hits the bottom of the waterfall and drains back into a river to flow over more rocks which we could see from our vantage point. From our position we could see the edge of the tepui as it spread away in both directions. However, it is a table-top mountain and from below all that you can see is sky beyond the place where the water falls over the edge of the cliff face. It gives the appearance that the river really is just falling from the sky.
The path continues and dips down to the base of the waterfall. We had an opportunity to swim in the plunge pool below the falls, soak up some rays and pose for pictures.
Heather was conscious that she was a slow walker and wanted to be sure to get back before dark so left fairly soon after she arrived, with Gabriella to guide her back to the camp. We had spent nearly an hour swimming and at five p.m. we reluctantly got out of the water, dried ourselves off and changed into our day clothes to head back down the path to follow Gabriella.
Karen and I were walking back down the path and soon overtook Gabriella and Heather. We were chatting and walking down the path when Karen stopped and pointed out a large brown tarantula. We stopped and looked at it for a while and then took photos from above and some sideway shots. When Gabriella and Heather caught us up, they, too, stopped for photos, with the spider obligingly still not moving. We stuck a stick into the ground in front of it as a marker to make sure that people following us didn’t accidentally step on the spider in case it didn’t move, and we set off again.
We were crossing the last river by using some wet stones as stepping stones to avoid getting our feet wet when it happened. I had carefully carried my camera in a plastic bag all the way up the river in the canoe. However, just here, I slipped on a wet stone and fell forward, putting out my hands to instinctively stop my fall.
The camera was in its plastic bag in my hand, but it was the first thing that hit a rock as I fell forward into the waters of the river. I struggled to get up, but the damage had been done and unfortunately there was water in my camera. It was under water for just a few seconds, but the water had found its way into the mechanism.
I dried the outside as best I could and left it in the setting sun to warm up and hopefully to dry the insides. The card was okay, the battery worked, but the graphics on the back of the camera to show you what picture you were taking was just a series of colourful lines, almost artistic, but useless in showing what your final photo might look like. The camera still took photos so the optics were working, but the display was useless. It is devastating when you rely on a camera to record your trip but it fails to work as it should do.
We had coffee and tea waiting for us in Thermos flasks filled up earlier. I lit a fire for comfort and atmosphere, but the evening meal was to be cooked by Gabriella and Jorge, so we had to wait for them both to get back before supper could be started to be cooked. At least the fire would be hot as soon as they were ready to start cooking should they want the wood-fire option instead of the gas-fired option. It was dark by the time we had dinner, a fish stew with mashed potatoes followed by fresh fruit. It had been a long day and we soon went upstairs to the open upper level and climbed into our hammocks.