Flying over Forest Near
Im Thurn's and Perkins' climb
had opened the door to those who would reveal the true extent of
Roraima's secrets; but it was another thirty years before aeroplanes
revolutionised exploration. Suddenly, by air, stretches of forest
that would have taken weeks to cut trails through could now be crossed
in an hour. Places previously pronounced as inaccessible blanks
on the map, and the impregnable summits of Tepuis, protected by
the sheer rock walls that surround them, could now be reached and
examined with ease and in comfort. It was daring but risky; pilots
flew in their simple aircraft on haphazard routes through the mountains
navigating with little more than a compass and a lot of guesswork.
New worlds were discovered: mountains and
rivers not previously known to exist. As recently as 1964, on a
tepui called Sarisarinama, pilot Harry Gibson observed two spectacular
sinkholes. As an expedition found in 1974, the sink holes are 1,000
feet deep and, in a sort of inverted "Lost World", harbour
many unique species in strange, other worldly forest at their bases.
One of the first pilot adventurers who ventured
into this wild frontier terrain was an American called Jimmie Angel,
who came looking for gold, but quite by accident, on 10th November
1933, stumbled upon the world's highest waterfall. He had been flying
around the labyrinth of cliffs and canyons surrounding a huge plateau,
to the west of Roraima, called Auyantepui, or "Devil Mountain".
Through the mist he saw a column of water so high he turned to take
another look. Jimmie Angel estimated the waterfall to be a mile
high; it dwarfed his tiny plane.
Jimmie had been trying to find a remote mountain
top where, some years earlier, he claimed that, in the company of a gold
prospector who knew that part of the country well, he had landed and they
had filled sacks with gold nuggets. It was an attempt to find that mountain
again that had led him on many flights, one of which was to take him into
a dead end canyon in Devil Mountain where he saw the waterfall. Not many
had believed his story of the gold, and not many believed his discovery
of the mile high waterfall, until an expedition was sent by the National
Geographic Society to measure it. The official measurement fell short
of a mile at 3,212 feet, but Angel Falls is the world's highest, and recognised
as one of the world's great natural wonders. It is a peculiar irony, though,
that a waterfall from Devil Mountain should come to bear the name of Angel.
Jimmie Angel became famous for his discovery, although
Venezuelans claim that they found the waterfall before him. This, however,
did not bother Jimmie; he was involved in another project. He had become
convinced that it was on the top of Devil Mountain that he, together with
the prospector, had found the gold. He determined to find a place there
to land his plane.