I get my first glimpse of the falls from the air when the rainforest canopy, which stretches like a carpet of broccoli, breaks to reveal the Potaro River plunging 825ft off a sandstone cliff. After touching down, I wait for the hordes of other tourists (all seven of them) to join us, then set off on foot from the airstrip to the first vantage point, Johnson’s Point.
As I climb up onto the rocky outcrop, twisted vines and succulent leaves part to reveal an uninterrupted view of the steaming falls. From here I hear their distant thunder for the first time, and wonder at the force of the cola-coloured river as it hurtles over the edge, turns into columns of froth, and disappears into a cloud of vapour.
With no safety barriers or information boards in the way, I’m able, for a moment, to imagine I’m Charles Brown Barrington, the first European to discover the falls, in 1870. White-tipped swifts whirl in the mist below like a swarm of flies. At night, they’ll dart through the curtain of the waterfall to roost on the rocks behind. A golden dart-poison frog is perched on the leaf of a tank bromeliad a few metres below me — a comfortable distance, since the secretions on its skin can be fatal to humans.
Waterfall-grading is both complex and competitive, from what I can gather. My guide, Wally, claims, somewhat protectively, that while Kaieteur isn’t the highest waterfall in the world, its combination of height and water volume makes it the world’s largest single-drop. It’s still three times higher than Niagara Falls and twice the height of Africa’s Victoria Falls. I, for one, am impressed.
I carry on to Boy Scout View, from where I can better see the murky river as it snakes away down the gorge, then Rainbow View, where a fuzzy rainbow does indeed stretch up from the mist.
Finally, I come to Falls View itself, a flat, open area where the river tumbles over grassy rocks into the foamy abyss. There is nothing here — no rails, no walkways, no stewards, no souvenirs, no school groups, no visitor centre — just a discrete sign asking you to stay 8ft from the edge. It’s this absence of human intervention, I realise, which makes Kaieteur so special.
I sit on a safe ledge, and stare into the hypnotic, rushing water for 15 undisturbed minutes.
Sure, Niagara might be wider and Iguazu might have greater flow, but I’ll trade size for the privilege of having a waterfall almost entirely to myself, thank you very much.