Kaieteur, Iwokrama, Rock View
Tour of the interior
We had a couple of lazy days at Hurakabra, washing clothes in the muddy water, attempting to catch rain to fill up the dwindling water supply and generally getting the boat back in order. Gem and Kit arrived on Wednesday evening in their speed boat and invited us up to the house for drinks and nibbles. Kit turned out to be something of a big wheel in Guyana and knew everyone although it is a very small country – only 750,000 population. He knew a lot of the people I had met in Guyana 45 years ago and was able to fill me in on where they were now – all of them in fact living elsewhere.
We were up at dawn the next morning to be transferred to Bartica by speed boat and then to the airstrip where we were to catch a plane to Kaieteur, the longest single drop waterfall in the world. We were taken by taxi out to the airstrip along a dirt road. The road was not in good shape, with large potholes the driver had to negotiate. The road surface finally deteriorated to sand and with great difficulty the driver managed to climb a hill, slipping and sliding all the way, desperate not to let the car stop as we would never have got going again.
Our plane was already waiting for us at the airstrip – as promised a small high winged Cessna, but to our consternation excessively tatty. The pilot too was disconcertingly tatty and very grumpy. He never addressed us directly, preferring to stand with his back half turned and muttering indistinctly out of the corner of his mouth. Maria thought he was cross eyed and said that she would hesitate to get into a taxi that turned up in that state. We had no choice however so we just had to trust in God and fate. The pilot sorted us into weight order, smallest at the back and heaviest at the front, although he put John, the heaviest, in the middle and Tim in the co-pilot seat as he didn’t want John’s legs interfering with the pedals.
Even though we were half an hour earlier than scheduled the pilot wasted no time in taking off and soon we were flying over the dense green rain forest, scarred red in places by the mining activity, legal and illegal. There were a few clouds around, particularly as we approached the falls, so we had a bit of a bumpy ride but landed safely much to our relief. We were now three quarters of an hour earlier than scheduled and the Amerindian warden came out of the visitor centre, pulling on his gum boots, saying how surprised he was we were there – only planes in distress landed this early, and our guide wasn’t due for another half hour at least. The pilot started joining in, saying there was no point in waiting for the guide – this was Guyana and Guyana time meant late or never and he was pushed to get us to our next destination on time. Tim pointed out that we had actually travelled thousands of miles to see this wonder of the world and would like to wait a little bit. The warden helpfully suggested that perhaps he could lead us to the falls even though he wasn’t a trained guide. We asked him how high the falls were and he giggled helplessly and said he didn’t know, the guides knew the answers to questions like that. We decided to wait for the guide. Surprisingly, five minutes later a smartly uniformed Amerindian emerged from the bush. He was a trained guide, although he wasn’t our allotted guide. After examining our tickets and a lot of eye rolling, he agreed to give us a tour.
Not only had we arrived early, but due to a lot of rain the previous night the falls were swathed in mist. They were only a few hundred yards from the landing strip and we could hear the roar of water as they plunged over the abyss, but could see nothing. The guide said that he doubted very much that the mist would clear and there would be no point in taking us to the other view points. Things were not going very well. However, magically a few minutes later, the mist parted briefly and we were able to get a full view of the falls as they plunged spectacularly the 741 feet to the river below. Despite its prominence as a tourist destination, Kaieteur is still a wild place. There are no health and safety signs apart from the obvious ‘do not get too close to the edge’. There are no safety barriers and if you are brave enough you can crawl on your stomach and lean right over the overhang looking down the full drop of the falls. We persuaded our guide that perhaps the mist might clear and that it would be worth trying out the other view points, and indeed the mist did clear and we were rewarded with magnificent views of the falls. He also pointed out to us the little yellow frog, the golden rocket frog, that lives all its life in the bottom of a giant tank bromeliad. We were also rewarded with several sightings of a Cock-of-the-Rock – a bright orange bird with a ridiculous plumed head which is found at only a few sites in Guyana.
Despite a rather shaky start, our trip to the falls turned out to be a great success. We reluctantly got back into our aeroplane transport for the 45 minute journey to our next destination, Iwokrama, an eco- lodge in the rain forest on the banks of the Essequibo River. The pilot, or ‘driver of that flying thing’ as Maria referred to him, remained resolutely taciturn but got us safely to our destination, now over and hour ahead of schedule. We were deposited onto the dirt runway with our bags. ‘They’ll be along soon to pick you up’ our pilot said, and with that, hopped back into the plane, revved the engine and took off downwind without a backward glance. We all looked at each other. There was no sign to say where we were. We moved our bags to a thatched shelter at the side of the runway, observed by silent groups of Amerindians from the nearby village, and sat down to wait. Luckily it wasn’t long before a liveried 4 x 4 appeared. It was our transport to the lodge. They had heard the plane come in and realised it must be us so had come to pick us up.
Iwokrama lodge is set in beautifully manicured grounds overlooking the river. The water is rainwater collected from the roofs of the buildings and the electricity is nearly all solar powered, so there is no need for a noisy generator. We were shown to our own individual cabins – simple timber cabins with a veranda but nicely furnished and very comfortable. Hammocks swung in the veranda, and we were able to relax for an hour before we were shown to lunch in the very grand restaurant, open on all sides to the breeze. The lodge and the nature reserve it is set in appears to be a government initiative, with the aim of leading the way in conservation of the rainforest and research into sustainable forest management. We couldn’t really get to the bottom of how it was all funded. There must have been about 20 staff there, including an intern from Canada, but we were the only guests, there were no scientists and no research being carried out. They are a training centre for the tourist industry, and wherever we went in the interior, our guides said they had received their training at Iwokrama. Our guides and staff at all the lodges were excellent, so they are clearly doing a good job in that department.
In the afternoon, we went on a short ‘jungle walk’. We made the mistake of saying that we were interested in birds, so our guide just took us on a walk down the main track into the lodge, where we were likely to see more birds. We kept on passing intriguingly named jungle trails, but unfortunately were not led down them. There were birds, but not very many – our bird experience was yet to come, so that was slightly disappointing. Apparently there are still lots of wild cats in the forest and there are numerous sightings of jaguar and puma, often just along the ‘pan american highway’ – the dirt road that runs from North to South of the country, crossing the Brazilian border at Lethem. We had to be content with the stories and the possibility of a sighting.
The most interesting part of the walk was talking to our Amerindian guide. Nearly everyone in the Rupununi is of Amerindian descent. There are still 9 distinct Amerindian tribes or nations in Guyana, living in well defined geographical areas. Around Iwokrama they are mainly Makushi. Our guide at Kaieteur had been a Patamuna, a tribe that lives in the Pakaraima mountains. Alex, our present guide was in fact mixed Makushi and Wapishiana, which he said was not common and would certainly not have happened in previous generations. Our guides were all excellent. They spoke good English and were very self-assured, knowledgeable and passionate about telling visitors about their environment. This was in contrast to the situation that I found 45 years ago when I was last in Guyana. Then, the Amerindians were all poorly dressed, spoke very little English and were extremely reserved. Somehow they seem to be maintaining a sense of their identity while adapting to the modern world as it inevitably encroaches. Alex said that he spoke Makushi at home but with his friends he spoke Creole and only spoke English at school or in more formal environments. He said that he felt that the next generation would no longer speak Makushi. We were told however that the schools are working hard to make sure that the languages and traditions are not lost and educating all the children in the importance of their natural environment and their key role in helping to preserve it.
Better from a wildlife point of view was the evening river trip, looking for caiman. When a torch is shone into a caiman’s eyes, they glow red and so are easy to spot. A bonus was finding a green snake draped in the branches of a tree – the only snake we saw in our whole time in Guyana.
The following morning we were driven to the Atta Rainforest Lodge where there is a canopy walkway. We were led by Jerry, another very engaging and enthusiastic guide passionate about the rain forest and in particular passionate about birds. He guided us down a forest trail, pointing out trees and plants of interest and telling us about their particular properties and the practical uses they were put to – this tree was good for making bows, this tree was good for making arrows, this one for boats, this one for furniture and so on.
The walkway itself is spectacular, a series of suspension bridges linked to viewing platforms 100 feet above the forest floor.
Regarding birds we had two great sightings. One was of a screaming piha, a small black bird that makes the most extraordinary screaming noise. They are very difficult to see, even when they sound as if they are next to you. Jerry however was able to guide us to where the noise was coming from and there it was, a little black bird, puffing itself up, opening its orange beak wide and letting loose this extraordinary sound. We were transfixed. A little further down the trail, Jerry pointed to a tall tree with a hole high up in its trunk. He said that a scarlet macaw lived there and banged on the trunk with a stick. Sure enough, out of the hole squeezed this enormous brilliant red bird, blinking in the sunlight and shuffling around a bit grumpily we thought a having been disturbed in this way – it must happen several times a day.
A little further down the path Jerry pointed out another tree with large buttress roots. He said that it was a signal tree, and demonstrated by picking up a big stick and hitting the root hard. We all leapt backwards in alarm, startled by the colossal noise that rang out across the forest. A very effective signal indeed.
We said goodbye to Jerry and continued on our journey to Rock View Lodge where we were to have lunch. The Rupununi is an area of savannah that lies to the south of the rain forest. The transition from forest to savannah is very abrupt. Within the space of a mile the tall trees become scrub and then suddenly you are in rolling grassland. Rock View is a property in the savannah owned by and Englishman Colin Edwards, who bought the rundown ranch in the 70’s and has transformed it into a beautiful working ranch and lodge, planting flowering shrubs and fruit bushes, making it into a green oasis in the savannah. Colin unfortunately was not there but yet again we were shown round by a charming Amerindian girl and taken to the rock that the gives the ranch its name and affords wonderful views over the savannah, looking towards the blue Pakaraima mountains in the distance. The ranch serves as a local post office, there is a small shop selling essentials and the Dakota bar, frequented by local villagers. We met Colin’s two sons who are being groomed to take over the running of the ranch. There has been a lot of investment in supporting the local villages, many of whom are employed and trained in some capacity to work in the growing tourist trade that is developing in the Rupununi. The swimming pool was unfortunately out of action, so we just relaxed in the bar until we were served and excellent lunch. This included honey that had been gathered from wild bees which was absolutely delicious.
We had to leave straight after lunch for our next destination Karanambu Lodge, as we were to get there by boat. The river was low making the journey slower than usual and they were anxious that we should get there before dark, so straight after lunch we were driven by Colin’s younger son to Genip Landing on the Rupununi River, stopping on the way at a warehouse cum general store in the middle of nowhere that sold anything you could conceivably need when living up in the savannah from rolls of barbed wire to childrens, toys. Karanambu needed some supplies, including two trays of eggs which we had to transport carefully with us.