Guyana Rupununi Savanah and Essaquibo River

Andy Gibb
Thu 24 Mar 2011 22:07
We are at 06:45.68N 58:31.10W anchored near the mouth of the Essaquibo just south of Fort Island from where the Dutch built a fort and administration centre. Tomorrow we set off for Tobago. We hhave just spent 2 nights anchored off Baganara, the elegant resort just south of Bartica which started as a family and company retreat, then was commecialised in the 1990's as a profit making concern. There were only 3 guests when we arrived (and none the next day) but a kid's birthday party was lively, an a small plane carrying cash to the mines and gold back form them dropped in at the airstrip.
We had entered Guyana 3 weeks before in the evening up the Essaquibo River with no buoys or accurate charts, just shifting sandbanks and fine seine nets strung between poles across the main channel seemed in retrospect easy. We had been warned about attempted collisions by shrimp trawlers, but the 12 shrimp trawlers off Georgetown changed direction every time I looked at them, so in the end I squeezed past less than 50 metres away avoiding their trawl, then caught the perfect tide going up river, and finally anchored off Fort Island, original bastion of the Dutch who ruled Guyana before the British with cunning diplomacy grabbed it. We were 50 metres from tug and barge loads carrying stone for Trinidad, but they knew their route, and we were rocked to sleep by the sound of birds.

The Essaquibo is the 3rd widest river in the world, (22 miles) so its no baby, the obstacles are rocks not sand, the current is 3 knots, our only charts were sketch maps, and Intrepid stretches 1.8 metres below the water so we were in a state of some tension when the water depth reduced to .er .1.8 metres, and the rocks closed in. But whether by luck or good judgement (probably luck) we made it 25 miles up to Bartica, the rough mining town and prison for the interior of Guyana, where the Essuaquibo, Massouri and Cuyoni Rivers converge, all gold and diamond territory, full of energy ambition and dreams. We cleared in, drank at the Cool Breeze Bar with Gypsy, who introduced us to the town, then next day anchored outside Kit and Gem Nasciento's elegant house - he was a Government Minister and is leading a drive to get more yachts to come to Guyana.

Lal and Shanty keep house, a lovely couple. There are not many guests at the house/resort, and Shanty had never been on a yacht before, so we invited them over and they became a fixture, Shanty adored lounging in the cockpit, Lal provided more fish than we could ever eat, and ferried us to Bartica, so we alternated between the rough and the smooth of Guyana just 2 miles from each other.

Two swallows appreciated Intrepid too, and built a nest inside our boom in spite of Nicky's best efforts to dissuade them. They buzzed her as she extracted mounds of nest material - they clearly thought they had found the ideal mobile home that would take them to Britain in the summer without the need to fly.

Victoria, Niagara, Iguassu...Kaitour Falls in Guyana is the tallest single drop waterfall in the world, a massive river that drops sheer 800 feet over a precipice into a gorge, smoke, thunder, and this being Guyana you walk right up to it, no guard rail, nothing but you and an overhanging rock and a river rushing past inches away then thundering vertically down. (It has been a very wet 'dry season' due to El Niño). Other waterfalls you usually see from a distance, this was so close it was staggering - though we did our best to remain vertical. Kaitour is only accessible by plane or a 5 day hike - we went by Air Guyana in a Cessna single engine that brushed past the waterfall only metres away.

Guyana has no paved road beyond 40 miles from Georgetown the capital, (which is 7 feet below high water, and floods regularly). The current road is mud, we booked an interserve bus to go the 200 miles from Annai to Linden where the black top road begins, scheduled time 7 hours, but found the actual time is 14 hours or more, and passengers have to push the bus at times. We flew instead. For a country with major exports from the interior of bauxite, gold, diamonds, sugar and rice, plus ecotourism ambitions this is strange. I think there are 4 main reasons: 1. Just after independence from Britain in 1960's, the cattle farmers of the interior savannahs together with their Amerindian Vaqueros staged an insurrection supported by Venezuela (which still claims half Guyana) in protest at high taxes and little investment; the Guyanese Government attacked with the army and the leaders fled to Brazil and Venezuela, but ever since the Government has been suspicious of the interior and invests little if at all there; 2. The only road is to Lethem on the Brazilian border, and a better road would mean even more Brazilians entering Guyana; 3. The 6 or so airlines flying to the interior and the boats have no wish to have a paved road take away their business. 4. Money left after corrupt politicians have taken their share is used for the 90% of the electorate that lives on the coast.

But Guyana's Rupununi Savanah has some of the oldest rocks in the world, and a greater diversity of species than anywhere else. Travel in small planes and 4x4's needs a minimum of 4 people so we teamed up with environmental scientists Nicole (whose family is from Guyana but is now Canadian) and Josh who both work in California, and flew to Karanamba Ranch which used to have 1000 cattle until foot and mouth and the insurrection wrecked the ranch, and Diane McTurk turned it into an eco lodge with her giant river otters as one attraction. Diane is 80 now, still tall, slim and eccentric, she adopts orphaned giant river otters (a significantly endangered species), and swims with them in spite of the frequent nips and bites. One was attacked by a 10 foot caiman (fresh water crocodile) and was being rolled under until a helper hit the caiman with a paddle, and it released the otter. We later saw the caiman swimming only a few yards away and he looked enormous.

The Ranch has 100 cattle now, all they can afford, the grassland remaining is now the haunt of giant ant eaters, which are 4 feet high and 6 feet long, and look a bit like the heffalump in Winnie the Pooh. Nicky was desperate to see one, Salvador the Manager arranges 2 hour safari drives starting at 6am when the anteaters start looking for a nest for the day. Well, they saw anteaters before us, and no doubt after us, but in spite of ever-lengthening drives, we didn't , so had to be content with magnificent jaguar photos taken by camera trap, and the seductive family atmosphere the Ranch maintains (there are only 8 guests at a time). We also went by boat in the evenings to see monkeys, many birds, and metre diameter water lilies, which opened for us in real time, 20 minutes from bud to fully open.

Karanamba is the queen of the Rupununi Savanah, but the hills and rain-forests are starting ecotourism. We travelled 2 hours by boat down the Rupununi River to Annai, then a 2 hour drive at 15mph to Surama, an Amerindian settlement in a clearing in the rainforest, where the cattle used to rest 100 years ago on their long journey from savannah to coast. Surama now has an eco-lodge, built a few years ago. Mark our bright Amerinidan guide took us on tours of the village, the jungle at night, and to see the brilliant red cock of the rock bird, and the harpy eagle chick.

We are suspicious of anything calling itself ecotourism - all too often the benefits seem to accrue to the owner of the company or consortium and not to the community which they showcase. And high end eco-tourism is not yet price sensitive - prices are about £600 for 2 nights for 2 people, including in fairness all food and tours, but not travel to and from which adds £300 or so. All this for accommodation in some fairly basic rooms, although the 4 huts at Karanamba were large and had river water showers en suite. But Karanamba employs 20 staff for 8 guests, the Landover we used was 30 years old, and Salvador was keen to find someone who could renovate it on site as there is insufficient capital to buy a new one.

And there are benefits - Surama community have agreed a no hunting area, and receive a small amount/tourist, as well as the trickle down from some employment. The Mukushi in Karanamba are by now expert bird spotters, (with MP3 players to record bird calls) and are coming to terms with not hunting the jaguars which attack dogs and cattle. But, a large oil exploration rig looms above the horizon 5 miles from Karanamba, and I saw detailed gold and mineral exploration surveys in Annai. The small oil exploration company seems to have no environmental sense or policy at all, (they say the Government isn't concerned), and I have a nasty feeling that if they do find oil, there will be desecration of one of the treasures of the world.

As always its corruption, the contracts with the oil company are secret, and probably include a fat payback to various Government ministers. Everyone we met in Guyana complained about corruption from the gifts we routinely saw given to the police by our drivers, to vast over spending on small projects, the balance going to someone's pocket, to building plots secretly sold to the president and ministers well below market price. Politics in Guyana are complex, the PNC African based party ruled until 1992, then a Jimmy Carter supervised election voted in the PPP which is Indian led but with an African PM, Sam Hines. There were major race riots in 2001, and the Government stresses the need for racial harmony, but what the country really needs is development without corruption - Guyanese, especially the educated ones, leave in droves. Many of the tourists are Guyanese coming back to see their country, and without exception they say it is worse than before. You need a fair dose of common sense to walk around Georgetown, (and never at night), Bartica had a massacre 4 years ago when 10 people were gunned down in a single night, then the gang were themselves gunned down by the police (who take no prisoners). Car crashes are frequent, 24 deaths in just 2 months.

Guyana is a frustrating and ambiguous country, part South American, part British Caribbean (many of the best West Indies cricketers come from Guyana), rich yet poor, promoting green policies yet horribly polluting, African/Indian/Amerindian. It's good to have visited, but like the Guyanese who leave, it may be some time before we return.

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