|Canaima national Park
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.
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
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
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
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
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
|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).