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Angel Falls - the world's biggest waterfall

Updated on June 6, 2011

Angel Falls - history and info

Great waterfalls, hidden behind rainbows or leaping from spectacular and inaccessible terrain, are among the world's most beautiful natural wonders.

What is the appeal of waterfalls? Something sexual, perhaps? Are they a metaphor for passion, like waves thundering over jagged rocks, only more potent? Waterfalls are nature at its most dramatic so it would be natural to associate them with our own surges of desire. Certainly, they are the stuff of legend.

Though Sir Walter Raleigh never laid eyes on the Angel Falls in Venezuela, the great explorer was ready to believe a description of them as a "mountaine of Christall" that shone from afar as though with "diamonds and other precious stones".

But whatever waterfalls may be to the imagination, the reality is something else.

The dilemma is that everything depends on when you see them - too little water and they shrink to a trickle, too much and they may disappear behind clouds of spray and mist. I have been to Victoria Falls four times. On two occasions, I could see hardly anything because of the seething waters thrown back up from Baroka Gorge.

That proviso firmly in place, here's a guide to some of the world's finest falls - those that rank among the widest, the deepest, the biggest and, of course, the most beautiful.

Despite Raleigh's mention of them in the 16th century, the Angel Falls, the world's highest waterfall, did not become a fixture on South American maps until 1935, when they were encountered by the American pilot Jimmy Angel, after whom they are named

To get in the mood for a visit to Angel Falls, read L. R. Dennison's marvellous book Devil Mountain, which fully documents a tale of modern-day adventure akin to a movie plot. Down on his luck during the Great Depression, Jimmy Angel was offered $5,000 to fly a mysterious man (he booked the flight under a false name) to a remote area of mesa mountains and rainforest in southern Venezuela. The unlikely duo camped next to a stream and, over three days, panned 34 kilograms of gold.

A short while later Angel returned to the area alone, hoping to find again the Venezuelan El Dorado, but he crash-landed on top of the 2,700-metre mesa, Auyan Tepui. Two weeks later, he staggered out of the wilderness that is now Canaima National Park - Venezuela's largest - with a secret even more precious than the yellow metal: the exact whereabouts of the natural wonder known to the local Pemon Indians as Churun-Meru, the jewel of Venezuela's Gran Sabana (Grand Savannah).

Angel Falls spring from a rose-coloured sandstone cliff in two slim cascades that plunge downwards for close to a kilometre, a cataract 15 times higher than Niagara, located 720 kilometres south-east of Caracas, in the state of Bolivar. Like Mount Kilimanjaro, Angel Falls are either "in" or "out" of the clouds. You need at least three days for a visit. The best time for a "full flow" spectacle is July to October.

Angel Falls - Getting there

Virtually all tourism to Angel Falls is international - 90 per cent of Venezuelans live on the Caribbean coast and rarely venture into the interior. That said, there's no hacking your way through virgin bush to reach the falls. Book a seat on one of Avensa Airlines' Boeing 727s from Caracas to Canaima - two hours; $US157 ($235) return. The airline owns Canaima Camp, 45 kilometres from the falls, a wilderness lodge costing $US330 ($495) a night for two. Or book into Vei-tupui, a small hotel in the Pemon Indian village behind Canaima Camp, for $US40 ($60) a night.

From Canaima, Avensa's commuter airline subsidiary, Servivensa, operates a converted DC3 to and over Angel Falls. For overnighters, several companies in Canaima operate two-day and three-day day boating and camping trips to Orchid Island in the Cerrao River and Angel Falls. The area around Angel Falls is so remote that it is one of a handful of landscapes in the world where all the plant species are native.


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