The largest of the distinctive tabletop mountains of the Gran Sabana is Auyán-Tepui. From its 700-square-kilometre top springs the world’s highest waterfall. The Angel Falls, 979 m high – its longest single drop is 807 m, are best reached seen from the air though trips by boat upriver to the falls operate May-January, depending on the level of the water in the rivers. The Falls are named after Jimmie Angel, the US airman who first reported their existence in 1935. Two years later he returned and crash landed his plane, the RioCaroni, on top of Auyan Tepuy. The site is marked with a plaque.
It all began in Panama City in 1921, and a chance meeting with a gold prospector who spoke of a river of gold in the Guayana Highlands and asked Jimmy to fly him there. On 12 May they flew out of Panama for Cartagena in Colombia, and from there onto Maracaibo, Caracas, San Fernando de Apure, south up the Rio Caroni then westwards along the Rio Carrao. They had no instruments and no map but eventually made it to the promised river, somewhere near Auyan-Tepui. The pair successfully panned the river for gold, limited only by the weight they could safely take on board.
For years afterwards, Jimmy Angel flew over the area, trying to relocate the ‘river of gold’. Early in 1935, he set out on yet another expedition, this time with the backing of a New York company. On 25 March 1935, he piloted his single-engined Cessna up a narrow canyon near Auyán-Tepui and saw for the first time the monumental cascade of water that would later bear his name.
Angel’s accounts of this historic sighting were dismissed as wild exaggeration back in Caracas, but he found the falls again two years later, this time crash-landing his plane, on the summit of Auyán-Tepui. The entire party, including his wife, Marie, had to walk for 12 days through the forest, finally arriving at the mission settlement of Kamarata.
However, it was not until 1949 that an overland expedition, led by the US journalist, Ruth Robertson, reached the base of the falls and established scientifically what Jimmy Angel had claimed all along – that he had discovered the highest waterfall in the world, 979 metres from summit to base.
The actual plane that Jimmy Angel crash-landed on top of Auyán-Tepui is proudly on display outside the terminal at Ciudad Bolívar airport.