Mirage de el Dorado
The Search for Legendary Gold Continues
By Robert Bruce Drynan
A man walked into a bar in Panama in 1921 and approached another, who sat hunched over a beer. “Say, are you the pilot they call Jimmie?”
The somewhat scruffy, downcast drinker in his early twenties, looked up, “Yeah, what of it?”
“You open to a proposition?”
“Sure, but I can’t fly you anywhere, I haven’t got an airplane.”
“Will five thousand dollars fix that?”
The young man brightened and invited his guest, who introduced himself as McCracken, to join him for a beer. Thus began the legend of Jimmie Angel and the River of Gold.
The meeting with McCracken may be apocryphal, but Jimmie Angel’s lifelong obsession with the wilderness of southern Venezuela, the same territory tentatively explored by Sir Walter Raleigh and numerous predecessor Spanish adventurers, began that day or some other such similar moment close to that time.
Jimmie Angel managed to wrap himself in legend, probably a product of his own fertile imagination, far more than any invention by others. It was said that he was an ace in the First World War and that he once flew in China for a local warlord. Nevertheless, he had earned reputation as a gifted pilot and his encounter with McCracken appears to be the most plausible explanation for the beginning of Jimmie’s explorations of the tepuis.
With the money from McCracken Jimmie Angel purchased a single-engine, high-wing monoplane called a Flamingo. Later he would name his aircraft Río Caroní, after the river that drained the Roraima uplands northward into the Orinoco.
Jimmie agreed to fly McCracken to an unstated destination in Venezuela; McCracken would provide compass directions as they flew. They made their way to Ciudad Bolivar (once known as Santo Thomé de Guayana) on the banks of the Orinoco River. From there they took off over the southern savannas and began a search pattern over the Tepuis, some of the Earth’s oldest visible geologic formations and home to flora and fauna unknown anywhere else on the planet.
Using a simple compass, McCracken guided Angel to a landing in a clearing on a sandstone-capped table mountain. Some tales say that McCracken left Angel in the aircraft and later returned with the bags loaded with gold. Some tales argue that Angel accompanied the mysterious man and assisted him to collect gold nuggets from a stream loaded with them. Whatever the truth, most stories agree that Jimmie Angel returned McCracken to civilization and shortly after, the man died, or simply disappeared.
In any case, Jimmie flew back to the region and began a search for the site of his landing with McCracken . . . without luck. He parlayed his tale into investments by several mining consortia and wildcat expeditions, always searching for his El Dorado. Whatever the equivocal details, the event must have had some basis in reality. It sparked a lifelong obsession.
In his flights over the region of the tepuis, Angel found the Auyántepui; in Pemón, the name meant Devil (Auyán) house (Tepui). A large, heart-shaped table mountain, he became convinced that it was the site of his landing with McCracken. While flying through a deep canyon he spotted the towering waterfall that was later to bear his name, Angel Falls. He declared he had seen a waterfall that was a mile high, but those he told disbelieved him. Successive fliers confirmed his find, and in 1949 an American photojournalist, Ruth Robinson, led the first land expedition to the base of the falls. She confirmed that its height measured 3,212 ft., less than a mile high, but still the world’s tallest waterfall. In December of 1939 the government of Venezuela officially named the fall after Jimmie Angel.
In the meantime, Angel was not idle in his quest for McCracken’s gold. In 1937 Angel sent two of his collaborators, Gustavo Heny and Felix Cardona, to scout a land route to the top of the Auyántepui from its southern extremity. They were to survey the landing site Jimmie had selected for the Río Caroní. Blocked by unanticipated geographical features the party turned back, but Jimmie Angel was sure he had found the site of his previous landing. Accompanied by his wife, Marie, Heny and another companion, Miguel Angel Delgado, he attempted a landing on the grassy meadow he had earlier chosen. The landing appeared perfect, but then the craft’s wheels broke through the surface into a muddy spot and tipped forward on its nose.
After two days of a search for the River of Gold, Jimmie left a note on the damaged aircraft and they began the long hike down from the mountain. Following an exceptionally difficult eleven-day journey through unknown terrain, they reached the base camp from which Heny and Cardona had sought to ascend the tepui earlier.
Jimmie returned to Venezuela from the Panama Canal Zone shortly after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, but soon travel to the region from the Canal Zone was severely restricted. He continued his search for the site of McCracken’s gold, but in vain. He left Venezuela in 1943 and with Marie lived and worked for several years in Central America, finally returning to the United States and settling in Oxnard, California.
Apparently, in California the Angels’ marriage came onto rocky times. One might surmise that after a life of adventure, the sedentary life in California was difficult for Jimmie Angel. In 1956, Jimmie flew to visit his father in Texas and then took off from Brownsville, setting course for Panama. Before his departure, he had told his father that he would never return. En route his plane crashed on April 17th. He was not injured seriously, but after being taken to the Gorgas Hospital in the Panama Canal Zone, he suffered a stroke. He remained hospitalized and, after a prolonged internment, he died in December.
He was cremated and his remains were returned to Marie. In July 1960, Marie and their sons, Jimmie and Roland, flew to the Auyántepui where, from the window of their aircraft, his ashes were thrown to drift down over the site of his great obsession. They described that on their arrival at the Auyántepui, the table mountain was obscured by clouds, but as they approached the clouds opened as if welcoming Jimmie Angel home.
*Using large heavy-lift helicopters, the Venezuelan Air Force removed the Río Caroní from its perch on the mountain with the intention to restore and return it to the tepui. It was restored but never returned. It rests on display at the Venezuelan military airbase in Maracay.
For more information about Lake Chapala visit: www.chapala.com