CAMP CANAIMA, Venezuela — Only 55 years ago no one knew Angel Falls existed.
Today it is recognized as the highest waterfall in the world. It cascades off Mt. Auyantepuy in southeast Venezuela, and drops 3,280 feet--so far that it sometimes dissolves into mist before reaching the ground.
Angel Falls is 16 times higher than Niagara and more than twice the height of the world's tallest building. Water from the top takes 15 seconds to reach the ground.
The resort spa at Camp Canaima is 20 miles from the falls. Only the outline of the mountain off which it flows is visible from there, but the 11-seater Cessnas, using the same airstrip as the incoming jets, take visitors on fly-past inspections.
"Thank heaven his name wasn't Smith!" exclaimed the woman beside me while flying in one of these single-engine planes.
A Heavenly Sight
We had approached through towering canyons past mist-wreathed spires, then suddenly this heavenly sight had appeared.
The falls was named for the man who discovered it, Angel . . . Jimmy Angel, a humble bush pilot, originally from Missouri who happened on them by chance while prospecting for iron ore in the mountain range.
Hardly able to believe his eyes, he returned a year later for a second look, landing his monoplane on the flat-topped mountain from which the falls flowed. A fatal mistake.
When he tried to take off he discovered that his landing gear was mired. His Flamingo (a borrowed plane) wouldn't budge.
Abandoning it, he climbed down the 5,000-foot, almost sheer face and wandered through the jungle for 11 days. By a miracle he reached home but died shortly afterward from the bite of a snake he had encountered on the way.
"Look, there's his plane," someone cried out, and, sure enough, as we flew over the mountain we saw a Flamingo where Angel's plane had been stuck.
But it was a replica. The original had been lifted off the mountain by a helicopter and placed in a park near the airport for the town of Ciudad Bolivar. The one we saw had been put there in honor of Angel--a mountaintop monument to the man and his discovery.
Gateway to the Falls
Camp Canaima, the resort that serves as the gateway to the falls, is surrounded by forested wilderness. Flat-topped, sheer-sided mountains rise from the jungle. Erosion over the millenniums has carved each into a strange shape. Called tepuis , they resemble huge corks.
Angel Falls cataracts off one of them, and it was down its side that Angel climbed, leaving his immobilized plane on its table-like top.
Though it may not seem so to one facing the predicament of Angel, Canaima is a place of great beauty, a tropical paradise. Two thirds of a century ago Sir Arthur Conan Doyle took time off from writing Sherlock Holmes tales to base a story on it called "The Lost World."
The tourist camp, in the heart of this wilderness, is terraced and overlooks a beautiful lagoon formed at the junction of two rivers and fed by five waterfalls. A sandy, palm-tree-fringed beach provides swimming and boating. Avensa, Venezuela's national airline, built the camp and its airstrip in the mid-1970s for about $5 million, then established daily scheduled air service from Caracas about 200 miles away.
The resort has about 35 fully equipped rustic cabins, a restaurant, bar, several shops and the airstrip about 400 meters from the camp. Avensa's Boeing 727s leave Caracas at 10 a.m. and arrive at Canaima about 11:30 a.m. The plane circles the falls, but they are not always visible because of cloud cover.
There is no way to reach Canaima by road. From Caracas you fly southeast. After you cross the Orinoco River, towns and villages disappear and you look down on a seemingly endless jungle.
Avensa offers one- and two-day excursions from Caracas at bargain prices. The round-trip fare, one night's stay, all meals for two days and boat sightseeing on the lagoon costs $75. Two nights and three days is $97.
The Cessna flights to Angel Falls, referred to earlier, are extra. They take 45 minutes and cost $40. You can book the Angel Falls/Canaima package in Caracas, or before you leave the States, by calling (800) 872-3533.
Safari Trip Available
Camp Canaima is surprisingly comfortable, considering that it is in the middle of the jungle. But those willing to rough it for four days can make a safari trip to the falls, seeing the exotic animal, bird and plant life on the way.
Sabrosa Travel of New York City offers such a trip. You fly to Caracas from either New York or Miami (it doesn't matter which, as far as the price is concerned), overnight in Caracas, then fly to Canaima the next day. The groups are limited to 11. They are met by guides supplied by an outfitter named Rudy Trufino. Ahead of them is a four-day hike and canoe trip to the foot of Angel Falls.