The image of powerful, cascading waves falling against the rocky plains evokes a sense of looming mystery. Kaieteur, one of Guyana’s most prized, untainted natural attractions is a destination that is among every adventurer’s raison d’être for their Guyana experience. Comfortably nestled within rainforests of the Potaro-Siparuni region, Kaieteur is one of the most impressive single-drop waterfalls in the world. Falling a stunning 781 feet, the natural Precambrian rock formation coupled with the beautiful rush of the deep coffee coloured water emanates pure magic so the fascination among residents and visitors alike is understandable.
The flora and fauna that populate this area are also apart of the magic. Uniquely abundant life is seen below the falls where a curious mist has been present for thousands of years. This rainforest contains numerous species that thrive perfectly in the moist climate. Thick carpet of mosses, lichens, orchids and giant bromeliads which house the tiny but striking golden frogs cover the forested gorge above and below the falls.
You will spot vibrant cock-of-the-rocks and if you stay overnight, thousands of Kaieteur swifts, also known as Makonaima Birds, coming to their evening roost behind the falls. During their flight, you can see them dive directly through the powerful waterfall. Beyond the natural attraction, Kaieteur embodies a deep, unwavering spiritual belief of the Patamona people, especially those of Chenapou – the closest village within the Kaieteur National Park, nestled just 36 miles up the Potaro River.
The Patamona People of Chenapou
Proudly taken from the “Chenau”, or the mountain chickens (giant frogs) that are found in abundance in May and June, “Chenapou” translates to “Mountain Chicken Pond”. But these frogs aren’t the only thing that the people of Chenapou are proud of. The mountainous region also features several 100-300-foot waterfalls, an ancient rainforest prime for day hikes and trekking, and a striking diversity of flora and fauna. The giant river otter, electric blue tarantula (reputedly there are green and white ones too) all contribute to the magical feeling of this extraordinary place.
The culture of the Patamona People is an intriguing one. Their intense spirituality and traditional beliefs are unwavering. As the self-proclaimed guardians of the Kaieteur Falls, and the neighbouring sacred lands, they embody the true essence of what Guyana’s conservation tourism represents – communities preserving their cultural heritage and ancestral lands by starting community-owned and operated tourism enterprises to provide a sustainable alternative to mining and other extractive businesses.
A Story of Sacrifice
Kaieteur Falls is steeped in rich history, filled with folklore that invites curiosity. These Patamona legends and stories have been passed on verbally from generation to generation. As a result, there are now several versions of the story. The Patamona peoples of Chenapou do not share their version with outsiders, as it is sacred. There is, however, a popular version of the tale that is well known. It suggests that the name “Kaieteur” or “Kàyik Tùwùk” (Big Man Falls or Old Man Falls) in Patamona was given in honour and memory of Old Kai, the mentor and wise old chief of the people. The tale embodies lore and heroism of greatness and selfless sacrifice.
In this legend, the people were constantly tormented and raided by an enemy tribe. Old Kai took it upon himself to find a solution for their troubles. He consulted with the Great Spirit, Makonaima, who informed him that the solution would require a sacrifice. This resulted in Kai sailing his canoe over the waterfall. This selfless act of heroism and courage saved his people. As a result, they dedicated the falls to his memory.
This tale has inspired various adaptations. AJ Seymour, Guyanese poet and cultural enthusiast, is famous for his epic poem, “The Legend of Kaieteur”, which should be on everyone’s reading list. Seymour’s striking use of language and imagery perfectly captures the mysticism of this tale and further promotes the preservation and respect for the history of the Patamona people of Guyana.
A Story of Betrayal
Another version of this tale invites just as much curiosity as it does humor. Instead of glorifying a chief, it is centred onthe betrayal of an old man. In his youth, Kai was very useful among his tribe, as he grew older, however, he became an exceedingly feeble old man who, according to legend, felt as though villagers were indebted to him. His feet, infested with chigoe fleas became an immense burden among his friends and family who had trouble ridding him of them each and every morning. So, in an act of desperation, they devised a plan to get rid of the old man. They allegedly placed him in a woodskin canoe just above the edge of the fall and pushed him over.
No matter what version of the story resonates, legend suggests that if you look hard enough, you can see a cliff formation near the falls in the shape of a man in the boat – Old Kai and his canoe were immortalized by nature.
Getting to Chenapou
The legends of Kaieteur are just one of the many facets of the history of the Patamona people and Chenapou Village. If you’re interested in learning more, you’ll have to wait a little longer to visit the village, which is currently in the process of developing day tours.