Tuesday, December 22, 2009
Angel Falls or Kerepakupai-Meru?
Since coming to power in Venezuela in 1999, President Hugo Chavez has renamed the country, the currency and the mountain that separates the capital city from the Caribbean sea. Now he's turned his attention to the country's most famous landmark Angel Falls, or Salto Angel in Spanish, which at 979 metres (3,212 feet) is the highest waterfall in the world, Venezuela's greatest natural treasure and a top tourism destination.
The falls are currently named after the US aviator and adventurer Jimmie Angel, who first saw the record-breaking natural wonder from the cockpit of his plane in 1933 while searching for a river of gold.
Speaking on his weekly radio and TV programme "Hello, President", Mr Chavez said: "How can we accept this idea that the falls were discovered by a guy who came from the United States in a plane?"
"If we do that, that would be like accepting that nobody was living here," he added, suggesting that from now on Angel Falls should be renamed to show respect to the Pemon Indians who inhabit the remote Gran Sabana region in the south of Venezuela, and who were there centuries before the US bush pilot saw the falls.
The waterfall gushes forth from an enormous heart-shaped mesa mountain, which already has an indigenous Pemon name: Auyan-tepui, or Aiyan-tepuy, which means "Devil Mountain", according to Father Cesareo Armellada's "Diccionario Pemon".
Following his first flypast of the falls in 1933, Jimmie Angel attempted a landing on Auyan-tepui in 1937 but his Flamingo monoplane "El Rio Caroni" sank into soft ground.
The crash left Jimmie, his wife Marie (shown left with Jimmie) and the Venezuelans Gustavo Heny and Miguel Delgado stranded atop the isolated mountain. They had limited supplies and had to trek to safety through unexplored terrain.
It took Angel and his party 11 exhausting days to make their way down to the Pemon village of Kamarata.
As news of their adventure spread across the globe, Jimmie Angel's name became inextricably linked with the waterfall, which was named Angel Falls in honour of his exploits.
The "Rio Caroni" was eventually taken down from the top of Auyan-tepui by the Venezuelan Air Force in the 1970s and now stands outside Ciudad Bolivar airport, where modern-day tourists start their trips to Canaima Camp, the starting point for river trips to Angel Falls and flyovers in small planes.
Angel died aged 57 of injuries sustained in a plane accident in Panama in 1956.
In July 1960, in line with his wishes, Jimmie Angel's ashes were scattered over the falls by his two sons.
President Chavez acknowledged that Angel "was the first one to see it from a plane", but insisted the falls should have an indigenous name.
"That is ours, and was a long time before Angel ever got there... how many millions of indigenous eyes saw it, and prayed to it?" he added.
Referring at first to Churun-Meru, the Pemon name for a smaller waterfall that cascades from the Auyan-tepui mountain, Mr Chavez was subsequently corrected by his daughter Maria, who passed him a note stating the correct Pemon name for the falls is Kerepakupai-Meru, meaning "waterfall of the deepest place".
"Nobody should speak of Angel Falls any more," said the president.
However, there could be a challenge to the new name. While some Pemon refer to the waterfall as Kerepakupai-Meru, it is referred to in older reports as Parekupa-Meru, from the Pemon words kupa meaning "deep water", pare meaning "more", and meru meaning "waterfall".
The Venezuelan president's call for a name change comes at a moment of increasing interest in the world's highest waterfall. It featured as "Paradise Falls" in the Pixar/Disney movie "Up" and has made it into the final 28 candidates of a global internet campaign to find the New Seven Wonders of Nature.
By Russell Maddicks
Report on Jimmie Angel and the "discovery" of Angel Falls
Auyan-tepui, Angel Falls and Pemon myths
Angel Falls competing to be one of the 7 Wonders of Nature
Video clip of Angel Falls from David Attenborough's BBC series "Planet Earth"
Pixar's movie "Up" explores Venezuela's Lost World of Roraima, Angel Falls
Spectacular video clip of oldest base Jumper to leap from the top of Angel Falls
View of the falls from a pool below the "Mirador", where in the dry season visitors can bathe in the waters of Salto Angel. (All photos are the property of Russell Maddicks)