Guyana: Peering Up at the World’s Highest Waterfall Kaieteur
Penetrating the ‘Land of Many Waters’ to a spectacular Waterfall, Kaieteur
By Edward Placidi
Gliding down the wide South American river in the black of night, a New Moon cast a thin line of sight, revealing the ebony silhouette of the rainforest canopy.
The only sound was the muted whine of the panga’s small outboard motor. Plying unknown waters in the darkness, penetrating the sea of forest far from city lights, we were traveling deeper into the enigma that is Guyana.
A small enclave on the continent’s northeast coast, the country of Guyana is little known to the outside world. With a muddy Caribbean shoreline rather than beautiful white-sand beaches, it attracts few tourists.
But what Guyana possesses in abundance is extraordinary biodiversity, a wealth of flora and fauna, with expansive rainforest, Africa-like savannahs – and one of the great waterfalls of the planet.
741 Feet Straight Down!
Kaieteur is the world’s highest single-drop waterfall, plummeting 741 feet straight down. At its strongest during the May/June rainy season, the flow over the cataract can reach 136,000 gallons per second. Kaieteur is not only often shrouded in mist due to the powerful cascade but also in a primeval aura, as if the Jurassic period remained frozen in time there.
While some visitors come in search of the world’s biggest freshwater fish in the rainforest rivers or a glimpse of a jaguar or giant anteater in the Rupununi district, the vast majority come to see Kaieteur on a quick stopover in Guyana – usually a few days in the capital, Georgetown, with a half-day air tour of the falls.
Every year, however, a handful of intrepid travelers eschew the quick in and out by air and undertake the rough overland trek to Kaieteur offered by several Georgetown-based tour companies. It’s dusty, hot, humid, uncomfortable and trying – but the only way to truly experience the grandeur and majesty of this natural wonder.
Pedal to the Metal
It began with eight hours by mini bus, segueing from the paved roads of the coastal area, where most of the population lives, to a rutted dirt track wending through the rainforest.
Despite the awful condition of the road, it was pedal to the metal all the way: the speeding driver continuously hit the gas, then braked hard as he veered and swerved to avoid deep holes and furrows, and then hit the gas hard again.
Traffic dissolved to an infrequent pickup or Mack truck carrying freshly cut logs; each time a vehicle passed everyone slammed shut their window to hold off the billowing dust cloud.
After a police checkpoint to record everyone entering the wild interior, a lunch at the last roadside diner of the spicy national dish Pepper Pot – with “Wild Cow,’ which turned out to be tapir meat, and delicious – and a ferry crossing of the mighty Essequibo River, we arrived in Mahdia, a ramshackle mining town on a plateau with the best cell phone reception in the country (in fact, the only place I got reception in Guyana).
It had been a long, organ-jarring voyage but it was only the first of three legs that day.
High-Decibel Reggae Music
The Toyota 4 x 4 rocked and rolled down a steep, tortuous track through pools of rainwater turned a bold orange-sienna color by the iron and other minerals in the soil. Forty-five minutes later we arrived at the Potaro River, the source of Kaieteur – to high-decibel Jamaican reggae music, blasting from huge speakers, completely overpowering the forest chatter!
Rasta’s Mining Camps
It turned out that this audial invasion is normality out here: Amid the sea of Guyana’s dense, virtually unpopulated rainforest are occasional miners’ camps, run by Rastafarians, which are nothing more than a few wooden shacks with a generator in a clearing above a river landing spot.
But they are music to the ears of the gold and diamond miners because they are a lifeline for provisions, cold drinks and entertainment.
Darkness had already blanketed the rainforest when we set off upriver under the sliver of the New Moon to another miners’ camp, Amatuk, where we spent the night in a primitive “cabin” constructed of rough-hewn boards. The facilities included rainwater for washing, a crude out-house, and a propane burner to prepare a basic meal.
My savvy guide, Roy, formerly a warden of Kaieteur National Park, toted a “Food Box” of canned and packaged ingredients for the trip. As we ate a miner came by, striking up a conversation and buying us a beer, then insisting we have another (though he had already had one too many). Roy explained there’s a Guyanese adage that says “Man can’t stand on only one leg” – meaning a second drink is always mandatory.
The next day we left the miners’ camps and reggae music behind – and reclaimed the purity of the rainforest – when we entered Kaieteur National Park, where mining is forbidden. The terrain took a dramatic turn with huge, fearsome plateaus and escarpments of sold rock suddenly jutting straight up from the forest floor.
Late morning we arrived at Warduk where we had to carry the boat around the rapids to continue our journey – but not before swimming in refreshing neon-orange river water and relaxing on rocks above the white water.
The final leg on the river teased us with fleeting glimpses of Kaieteur, the first distant and then each progressively closer. At Tukeit, river travel came to halt, blocked by boulders and more rapids. The remainder of the journey would be on foot.
We slept at Tukeit Guest House, a small but well-equipped structure completed in 2014 with financing from the German government in exchange for two of Guyana’s manatees. “Watch where you walk,” warned Roy, “we often see snakes here and particularly deadly labarria (fer-de-lance).” But we were spared serpentine fangs, and for that matter any other natural nuisance – we never even saw or heard a mosquito.
Located in a clearing by the Potaro, isolated and unstaffed, Tukeit guest house only sees a trickle of visitors – howler monkeys, park wardens on their regular rounds, and of course travelers on the overland trek to Kaieteur. The quiet spot was the lull before the storm: The next day would be pure adrenalin.
On a morning hike to another dramatic cataract here – Stonecreek Falls – we negotiated a gnarly path strangled with vines and massive tree roots through the densest rainforest, quick-stepping fallen trees over creeks, and then ascended a maze of huge, slippery boulders to the foot of the falls.
Along the way, we encountered radiant neon Blue Morpho butterflies, South America’s largest, towering hardwood trees that formed the forest canopy, and displays of huge, intricately patterned mushrooms.
The Sun Beetle’s non-stop metallic rhythms that sound like a lathe in operation were punctuated by the high-pitched calls of the Screech Hawk. At Stonecreek, we indulged in the ultimate full-body massage by standing under the powerful stream of water crashing more than 100 feet down a sheer rock wall.
“Oh My God” Climb
After lunch, we set off from Tukeit to conquer the “Oh My God” climb – a breath-robbing, energy-sapping, incredibly steep path to the top of the plateau from which Kaieteur plummets.
The trudge up the rocky, mossy trail with a nexus of roots underfoot became a virtual swim when about half way, the sky uncorked heavy rains that didn’t stop until we reached the summit.
Two-grueling hours later came a heart-stopping moment – the first view of Kaieteur Falls. It shouted the power of nature with a thunderous roar generated by the magnitude of liquid pouring over the rock lip to the mist-shrouded pool below.
The Face Submerged
An entire major river was dropping off the edge of the world, while a rainbow danced across the face of the cascade. It was not just spectacular but untouched – not even a railing or other barrier at the view spots to prevent an accidental plunge to an untimely end.
We slept in hammocks in the dilapidated but cozy guest house built in 1974 for the visit of Canada’s Prime Minister, walked forest trails with “snake sticks” in case of an encounter with a venomous slitherer, combed the huge flowering bromeliads that grow in abundance for the tiny and luminous Golden Frog, and searched in vain for the illustrious Cock of the Rock, a flaming-orange denizen of the region with a Mohawk-like crest.
Nature’s Performance Art
At dusk, we sat on rocks near the edge of the cascade taking in one of nature’s great theatrical performances: hundreds of swifts gather in the sky, then suddenly dive at harrowing speed like kamikaze pilots, but rather than crash into the rocks they deftly swoop around the sheet of falling water to their roosts behind Kaieteur.
This is repeated over and over until the thousands of avians are all home for the night.
The swifts survive the plunge into the cascade, but according to legend Chief Kai of the local Patimona tribe was not so lucky. “He paddled a canoe loaded with his possessions over the falls as a sacrifice to the Great Spirit to help his people cope with the threat of the warlike Caribs,” explained Roy.
The Patimona have endured to this day while he lives on forever in the memory of his people – because Kaieteur means “Kai’s Falls.”
On departure day the pilot of the small Cessna made several passovers for spectacular views of Kaieteur from above. Flying back to Georgetown, panoramas spread before us of numerous rivers crossing the endless green forest. Guyana means “Land of Many Waters” in Amerindian, and among its liquid treasures, Kaieteur stands tallest.
Useful links for Visiting Guyana
Tour operator offering overland trips to Kaieteur Falls:
Lodging in Georgetown:
Freelance travel writer/photographer Edward Placidi has lived and traveled in 90 countries and penned articles for numerous newspapers, magazines and websites. When not traveling he is whipping up delicious dishes inspired by his Tuscan grandmother who taught him to cook. A passionate Italophile and supporter of the Azzurri (Italian national soccer team), he lives in Los Angeles with his wife Marian.