A river slowly meanders through a valley, the water splashing playfully off the rocks. Gradually it sweeps faster in its path, chasing logs and leaves along in its wake.
Rushing, boulder-strewn cataracts churn and thunder, heralding a distant roar that speeds ever closer.
The river suddenly disappears into blue sky, the foaming lip of an ever-breaking wave curving the water from horizontal to vertical. A free fall of thousands of feet to a canyon floor below ends violently on once-jagged stones rubbed smooth by a trillion drops of water.
The river regroups and rests in the eddies before again flowing off toward the sea.
A waterfall is one of nature's great dramas, a picture of grace, power and fury that has enthralled humans for centuries.
"Cataracts flying down a thousand fathoms roll up a raging billow," wrote the modern Chinese poet Liu Ya-tzu.
Around the world, travelers seek out the greatest waterfalls -- Niagara and Angel, Victoria and Bridalveil, Iguazu and Trummelbach.
Thrills and enchantments
They are only the biggest, tallest and most famous of thousands of beautiful falls -- long, slow ribbons or furious, rushing walls of white water. The beauty of falling water can also be found in countless corners of the world where small falls enchant the eye. The Falling Water House outside Pittsburgh or the Elves Chasm in Grand Canyon National Park are just two of these bijoux.
South America has perhaps the world's greatest collection of falls. Angel Falls in Venezuela is the world's longest, with a drop of 3,212 feet. South America also has the 1,600-foot King George VI falls in Guyana.
But it is the massive Iguazu Falls -- more than 20 cataracts where Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay meet -- that has fired the imagination of generations of artists and poets.
Europe's colder mountain precincts have a number of famed falls. Ostre Mardalsfossen in southern Norway is Europe's longest, at 2,149 feet. Asia has the Jog Falls of India, and the South Pacific boasts Sutherland Falls in New Zealand.
Americans have had a long romance with waterfalls. Niagara Falls was the nation's first long-distance tourist attraction, bringing honeymooners from throughout the East Coast to its watery horseshoe. They were followed later by daredevils who rode over the falls in capsules -- luckily, most survived.
Yosemite National Park, a tiny box canyon in north-central California surrounded by granite cliffs, is home to a half-dozen great waterfalls -- including Vernal, Bridalveil and Yosemite falls.
Here the waterfalls are thin ribbons falling thousands of feet. They're also highly seasonal -- by late fall, the falls have often dried to a trickle.
Whether they are large or small, famous or unknown, we love to find, in the words of the English poet John Clare, "cataract, whirling to the precipice."
Pub Date: 9/28/97