Our trip to Kaiteur begins at 5a.m. Certainly we are looking unkempt and bedraggled (especially B who returned from two weeks in the wilds of Waiwai country the previous afternoon), but directing us with one dismissive wave to the cargo department seems a little harsh. This turns out to be where the scheduled service goes from. The other three passengers are all going to Mahdia for work. One of the mechanics calls us tourists, which startles me for a second with its aptness. We see so many crazy sights that I forget I’m out of the swing of formal sightseeing. It’s comic and peculiar and refreshing to be a tourist sometimes in a place where you feel at home. As we pass through security I fill in a “Transportation of Offensive Items Form” for my penknife, which puts me in an even better mood. We board only fifteen minutes late, but as we are taxiing two Chinooks arrive to whisk away the President, who cruises past us in two blue sedans. So we are decamped back to the lounge, and make it out half an hour later after an impressive lack of pomp and kerfuffle.
The first falling away is the tarmac. I watch Ogle airstrip’s plate-welded asphalt sink away in disreputable irregularity. It is raining grey and sloppy; perfect weather to be gaining height from.
The second falling away is the capital city. I love flying over Georgetown: it’s so compact and gridded. From up here, it is tropical toytown gorgeous. The sugarcane looks feathery as thistledown, the palm fronds delicate and homely-glamorous. We cross the immensely fat brown Demerara and head for the even fatter and browner Essequibo with its enormous inhabited islands.
The third falling away is Mahdia, the mining community where the little shuttle plane sets down first. This time the runway is crumble-topping, grey under-shoe chewing gum, bubbly at the edges, and seamed like an old man’s face. It falls away as the foothills swell and scarp and promise unspecified drama after hundreds of miles of flat rainforest.
Kaiteur is Guyana’s only national park. What I didn’t expect was that it really does feel like a park; good, well-kept paths, a lovely basic wooden guesthouse almost exactly the same age as me (and showing signs of wear just as I am), and guides who not only know the area and its wildlife but also pick up rubbish and take pride in the place. It’s only about ten minutes walk from the airstrip to the guesthouse, and then another five to the Falls. The sound insinuates itself gradually into your ears as you walk down the hill. You notice it as a realisation that the noise was already there, inside your head.
The fourth and biggest falling away for me (and I suspect for most people) comes when you lie over the edge and follow the eager water into the gorge below. What falls away probably varies a lot, but it’s likely to be the disproportions of your daily life. This waterfall is elemental just as we are. It thunders regardless of everything that matters and everything that doesn’t. It isn’t ABOUT anything- it is what it is, magnificently. The lure to join the water is very, very strong. You wouldn’t need to be suicidal or even sad to take a running jump. The water abandons itself with such freedom over this edge. In the plunge pool below, two layers are visible: a churning bomb explosion smacking up to the surface in almost geometric webbing, with a billowing smoke of thick rich vapour pluming white above it. Spray is driven with a powerful logic- nothing drifts here. Everywhere around the huge bite from the plateau, morpho butterflies rush for the edge. They give the impression of fluttering but their strength is enormous. Like the water, they seem to hurl themselves above Kaiteur Falls because it is the inevitable response; the only right thing to do.
Lie down a good way back. Inch forward over the skin-grating rough rock until your nose is over- far enough over that reaching for the butterflies is clearly unwise. Now turn your face into the sun, into the spray, into the feast of colours in the water. Notice the textures across the water curtain; old man’s combed beard on the east side, long and straggled and grey-white. Then the giant’s huge thick hurl of the body of the Falls, churned like porridge but the colour of iced tea with rum. There is no foam- too much power. To the western side, the beautiful plumed white water, taffeta sheen with globs of chunky gleeful eager water thrown diagonally, outshone by a shower of diamonds separating themselves off and out, catching the sunshine, not falling but leaping. Fill your eyes with all of this, and the hazy rainbows shifting with the spray. Fill your ears with the boom that has no beginning nor end (an ‘ooooooommmmm’), thunder that forgot to stop and has lost the power to, a bomb going off forever. Fill your stomach with the reverberation of rock determined not to be eroded, water like the beat of blood rather than the beat of drums. For days or weeks afterwards, when you close your eyes these will still be there. They wait for pauses in the conversation. They claim your attention with their distant ongoing presence. Some part of your subconscious mind will remain aware of their continuance as long as you exist.