South America: Peeps at Many Lands - Edith A. Browne

The Kaieteur Fall

In the Kaieteur Fall of the Potaro River, British Guiana has a wonder-work of Nature, which, when it becomes better known, will probably be given rank as the finest waterfall in the world. The proportions of this Fall contribute much to its general splendour; it has a perpendicular drop of 741 feet—which is to say, a height nearly five times that of Niagara—and a width of from 250 to 350 feet.

At present, the two most famous waterfalls are Niagara, in North America, and Victoria, in Africa. But very few people have seen the Kaieteur Fall; excluding aboriginal Indians, the total is, I believe, still well under fifty. Among the fortunate travellers who have visited both Kaieteur and Niagara—I am one of those lucky wanderers—there is an enthusiastic preference for Kaieteur. Further, I went up to Kaieteur with a man who has seen the Victoria Falls; so far, he is the only person qualified to compare the great water-display of the Zambesi River with that of the Potaro River, and, on his authority, Kaieteur is the finer spectacle.

Georgetown, the capital of British Guiana, is easily accessible from the West Indian Islands, which, being favourite tourist-resorts, are well served by numerous lines of passenger steamers. We go from Colon to Port of Spain, Trinidad, whence we cross to Georgetown by the Royal Mail.

The garden city of Georgetown, situated at the mouth of the Demerara River, is one of the prettiest and most attractive of South American capitals. It has many beauties peculiar to a flat situation, together with individual charm.

More than once I have arrived home from a wander tour months later than I had intended, having been unable to tear myself away from British Guiana. As I am bound to get you home to time, I have taken the precaution of writing to ask that everything may be in readiness for us to leave for Kaieteur directly we land in Georgetown, so that the capital and the neighbouring sugar-plantations may have no chance of using their fascination to provide us with innumerable excuses for extending our holiday.

Paisano's hut on the Chilian frontier.


All our arrangements for the trip to the interior have been made by the firm of Sprostons, Ltd., to whose enterprise British Guiana owes most of the travelling facilities with which the interior of the colony has been provided, including the opening up of a route to Kaieteur.

We start off under very civilized conditions, going by steamer down the Demerara River to Wismar, whence a train takes us across the forest to Rockstone; here, on the shores of the Essequibo River, we spend the night in a comfortable hotel.

Next morning, after we have enjoyed the luxury of a shower-bath, an excellent breakfast is set before us in the verandah of the pretty little Bush hotel. As we survey our virgin-forest surroundings and listen to the howling of monkeys, we tell ourselves that we must surely have reached the edge of civilization. But when we go down to the stelling to embark for the second stage of our journey, we find a trim and commodious house-boat awaiting us; and specially selected servants, negroes and Indians, come forward in numbers sufficient for each of us to make choice of a "boy "as our own particular attendant. Our smart little craft is lashed to the public service launch, and thus we are towed in state to Tumatumari, situated on the Potaro tributary of the Essequibo. Sprostons' Hotel, over-looking the Tumatumari Falls, vies with its parent hostelry at Rockstone in providing us with good cheer.

We continue our journey next morning by launch to Potaro Landing. Here we are met by a Boviander man, of mixed Indian and white descent, who is to act as our guide and captain. Van, the champion shooter of rapids and falls, is accompanied by several Indians, who, like the boys who have come with us from Rockstone, are experienced boatmen and carriers.

Our luggage—camp kit, provisions, and a change of clothes—is taken a short distance along a corduroy track by mule carts. Then our crew share the baggage, cut ropes from the trees, make their packs secure, shoulder their burdens, but transfer the weight thereof to their heads by putting the handle "rope across their foreheads, and set off for the night's halting-place at Kangaruma. A few minutes later we strike the trail and follow our guide through a dense forest. Van says we have walked well when, two hours later, we arrive at the Kangaruma rest-house. But it is easy to see that the boys have given us a good beating; although they had but a very short start, they have arrived long enough before us to unpack, put up the cots, chop wood, lay tea, sling over one blaze in the open a kettle that is now boiling ready for the teapot, and over another a pot that promises us a savoury dinner.

Early next morning we start off in a tent-boat. In peaceful stretches of water the crew sing native love ditties and comic folk-songs, beating and keeping time with their paddles; Van encourages the performance of chanties, for the singing helps to make the boat travel, besides amusing us. But Van and his boys have a still stronger hold on our interest when they are fighting with turbulent waters for our lives and their own. In shooting rapids and running falls they perform feats which win for them our highest admiration and respect; their skill gives us such confidence in them that experiences which we expected to find fearsome prove most exhilaratingly exciting. On this fourth night of our trip we camp at a rest-house which stands on the brink of the unnavigable Amatuk Falls.

The following morning all our kit has to be carried over a portage to the far side of the falls, where a second tent-boat is awaiting us. On this fifth day we voyage through beautifully mountainous country. By the middle of the day another unnavigable fall is reached; we picnic on shore whilst the crew transfer the baggage to a third tent-boat. Before sunset we are comfortably installed in the Tukeit rest-house, at the foot of the Kaieteur Plateau.

Have you not by this time become so accustomed to not seeing anyone but the members of our own party, that the appearance of any other human being would seem to you more of an event than the Lord Mayor's Show or a Royal Procession at home?

By sunrise we have struck camp, for every moment of the cool morning is particularly precious to-day. It is an 800 feet climb up to the Kaieteur Plateau. After we have been mountaineering for about a couple of hours Van calls a halt; he tells us we are more than half-way. As we are far from feeling at our last gasp, we are inclined to pat ourselves on the back. Suddenly we realize why we have been invited to rest awhile—we are at the base of a practically perpendicular cliff; the fear of disgracing ourselves by not being able to negotiate the ascent ahead of us turns pride into dogged determination. When we see the heavily-laden boys walking up that cliff as easily and unconcernedly as we should walk through Hyde Park, we feel still more strongly that we must make a good show or perish in the attempt. The ascent proves much less difficult than it looks, for where the rocks do not provide natural steps there are roots in which we can get a foothold, and trees for banisters.

The gloriously fresh air on the top of the Plateau is so stimulating that we take to our heels and race to camp. The boys run to meet us, and present us with bouquets of mountain flowers, which they have picked to bid us welcome.

After breakfast Van takes us across to the Fall, which is close by the rest-house. He is an ideal guide, for in silence he leads us from vantage-point to vantage-point, in silence he stands, kneels, or lies beside us as we watch a peacefully-flowing river suddenly and ceaselessly taking a dive from a precipice platform, dropping majestically over the mouth of a cavern to form a massive curtain that is veiled with the finest of lacework, disappearing amidst clouds of spray in the depths of a rainbow-spanned ravine, and reappearing in a valley of rocks as a turbulent torrent fighting furiously for a passage to the restful level of a distant plain.

The commonplace remarks of a parrot-trained guide, or any idle chatter of admiration, would sound blasphemous in such surroundings.

The grandeur of the Kaieteur Fall is enhanced by its forest setting far from the haunts of civilized man, and by the natural rockworks, reminiscent of Greek mythology and Cyclopean architecture, over and between which it plunges.

Downhill and downstream we hasten back to Georgetown, catch the Mail, and arrive home to time by the skin of our teeth. Is it not good to be back again in our native land after a long spell of travelling? And after revelling in greeting and being greeted by relations and friends who have journeyed to the quay to meet us, do we not still feel so excited that we want to shake hands with the porters? And yet I, for one, know that it will not be long before the call of South America will be haunting me again, luring me one minute with the vast possibilities of helping in the further development of the great continent, and the next with the promise of a holiday to the end of my days in the forests where the only earthly necessities for a blissful life are a hammock, bow-and-arrows, and a canoe. To one and all of us South America offers a choice between the two most adventurous and fascinating paths to a career—the high road to fortune-making and the trail to the simple life.