Oxfordshire Mind’s Physical Activity Team are offering a weekly ‘virtual walk’, this week the team are visiting Angel Falls in Venezuela, the tallest waterfall on earth.
Imagine the scene. You are a pilot, flying your little propeller plane over the dense South American jungle. It is the 1930s, and like most explorers in this time, you are hoping to get rich. You have heard fabulous rumours of gold ore in this remote part of southern Venezuela, and you have taken this flight to check it out. All of a sudden, an enormous pink cliff looms up out of the sea of emerald green. Cascading down it is a ribbon of water nearly 1000 metres long, taller and grander than any waterfall you have seen in your life. You have unknowingly stumbled across a natural wonder that few other human beings have been privileged to encounter. Does the sight of such heartstopping beauty momentarily jolt you out of your greed for gold? Or have you simply found a different kind of treasure to claim for your own?
This is the story of how Angel Falls, the tallest waterfall in the world, got its name. Although it had been known to local people for years and visited by Spanish conquistadors, it came to international prominence when bush pilot Jimmy Angel crash-landed his plane at the top of the falls in 1937. After accidentally stumbling across it on a gold-finding mission, he returned several years later, hoping to make a name for himself by being the first person to land on top of it. Instead his plane became swamped in the mud, forcing him and his passengers to hike for eleven days to make it back to human habitation. Despite this, he still succeeded in getting the falls named in his honour. There have been suggestions that it should be renamed with the indigenous term Kerapakupai Merú, meaning ‘waterfall of the deepest place’, although this has yet to come to pass. Whatever you call it, visiting this spectacular place is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I hope you’ll enjoy journeying there with me today.
Just getting to Angel Falls is an adventure all of itself. It is located in the Canaima national park, an area of untamed wilderness the size of Belgium. This region, with its distinctive table-top mountains, known as tepuis, and its high plateaus littered with natural columns of sandstone, has inspired all sorts of adventure stories. Most recently a fictionalised version was featured in the movie Up. There are no roads here; you have to fly, boat and hike if you want to get to the falls. We paddle slowly up the river to the start of the hiking trail, peering around curiously at the jungle on either side. Jaguars prowl that dark green tangle of trees; boa constrictors slither along the forest floor; brightly coloured birds flit from branch to branch. Even from here we can hear the growl of the howler monkeys as they set up their morning chorus.
The canoe comes to a halt on the riverbank and we set out through the forest, along the short walk to the base of the falls. The warm, dark dampness of the forest closes in on us as we begin to hike. It’s not such a long walk, really, but it feels like longer, thanks to the stuffy atmosphere and the fact that we’re always walking uphill. The plants with their huge, strange-shaped leaves cast bizarre shadows, so you’re never quite sure whether there’s some sort of creature waiting for you just around the corner.
Finally the forest clears, and we come out to a spectacular view. In front of us looms Auyán-tepui, the mountain which holds the falls. The wall of rock climbs up to a dizzying height, disappearing into a thick veil of cloud hundreds of metres above our heads. Angel’s plane rested up there for over thirty years before being removed to a museum. Imagine it rusting up there all that time, being overgrown by vines and carpeted with moss, slowly being reclaimed by the natural world it tried to conquer.
The water falls in a steady stream down this cliff face. The falls are so high that it dissolves into mist long before it hits the ground, drifting slowly downwards like a gentle rain. Hundreds of miniature rainbows are formed as the sun strikes the water vapour. Then the water hits the rocks at the base of the falls and trickles down the mountainside until it reaches the pool that we’re standing in front of right now.
There’s nothing like the sound of rushing water to ease a troubled mind. Whether it’s the slow trickle of a mountain stream, the roar of a set of white-water rapids, or the long inhale and exhale of the ocean, it never fails to soothe. As we stand here, our ears are filled by the rushing of hundreds of gallons of water, drowning out all other sounds. It’s as if it’s telling us not to focus on any of the stuff that we might have left behind in the outside world; but just be here, right now, in this present moment. Instinctively, we let out a long, slow exhale.
“There’s nothing like the sound of rushing water to ease a troubled mind… Instinctively, we let out a long, slow exhale.”
It’s possible to swim in this pool- a party of tourists who have got here before us have already dived in. I don’t know if you’ve brought your swimming costume with you or not- but let’s at least take off our shoes, roll up our trousers, and dip our feet into the water. Fresh from the mountains, the water is surprisingly cold, but still feels like heaven on our tired feet after our long hike.
After all the effort to get here, there’s no rush to leave. We’ll eat our lunch here, and hike back to our camp later in the afternoon. Enjoy spending time in this beautiful, secret place – and see you next week for another walk!