Karanambu

Back Across the Pond - Summer 2017
John Andrews
Sun 27 Jan 2013 15:22

Karanambu

The river journey to Karanambu turned out to be the best part of our whole trip. It should have been a 2 hour journey, but because the river was so low it took over three hours as we had to weave our way between sandbanks, touching bottom occasionally. We had with us two Amerindian boatmen and guides plus another Gerry, a Guyanese from South London who had to come to the Rupununi with his family when he was 17 and had stayed ever since. He was a great bird spotter and we spotted nearly 40 different species of bird on the trip up, including huge jabiru storks and numerous ospreys. We saw countless Caimans sunning themselves on the banks of the river, including an uncommon spectacled caiman that showed itself off on a light rise on the shore. Daylight began to fade and we became concerned that we wouldn’t arrive before nightfall, so sadly we did not get to see the giant Victoria Amazonica lilies that flower in the evening and in the early morning. We arrived at the landing place where there a strange low cliffs of dark rock, just as dusk was beginning to fall. The Amerindians believe that this is a holy place and that the rocks are the preserved bodies of the defeated Carib Indians. We walked the few hundred yards a long a path through the bush before arriving at a clearing and there in front of us was Karanambu Lodge.

This was quite emotional for me. I had visited the place 45 years earlier at the age of 18 and had been entranced by the place. The ranch was built by Tiny McTurk in the 1930’s when he was setting up a balata collecting station, a rubber substitute used in the war when rubber was in short supply. The main house is a traditional Amerindian building, with low walls and a steep thatched roof built separately, leaving the roof space open to cooling winds but also open to bats, lizards and flying insects of varying sizes. The main living space is open to the elements on two sides, apart from a low dwarf wall and with its tall palm thatched roof blended peftectly with its surroundings. My previous visit was not planned. I was staying at another ranch, Manari Lodge, a bit further south. We were out on a drive around the Savannah and had set out early to avoid the heat of the day. At about 11.00 a.m. the engine started spluttering and then finally stopped completely. We were out of fuel! There was nothing for it but to walk through the heat of the midday sun to the nearest place where we could get fuel. This happened to be Karanambu Lodge. It took us a good two hours walking before we walked into this same clearing and were greeted by Tiny McTurk’s wife, Constance, an elderly birdlike woman in a floral print dress. She was completely unruffled by the sudden appearance of 8 people and calmly served us all tea and cakes on a fine china tea service. It was all so English and all so bizarre. The living area was marvellously eccentric, full of all kinds of paraphernalia collected over the years from the Amerindian tribes and a book case running from floor to ceiling along the back wall, filled with books, many rather the worse for wear from the depradations of ants, termites and mildew. I remember a shortwave radio dominating one corner of the room, their only means of communication with the outside world. The living area is much tidier now although still recognisable. On the wall behind the big dining table, build specially to Constance’s specification, hang a collection of clubs, gathered by the McTurk family over the 3 or 4 generations they have lived in Guyana, used by Amerindian tribes in more violent times to club each other to death. Sadly Diane McTurk, Tiny and Constance’s daughter who still lives at Karanambu, was not there as I would have loved to have spoken to her. She returned from London in the 1970’s where among other things she had been a model and worked at the Savoy to take over the running of Karanambu. The ranch became famous for the wild otters that she cared for, saving them from almost certain extinction by indiscriminate hunting. The otters are no longer there but are now thriving in the wild.

The ranch is now run by a trust and managed by Salvador, a lively Guyanese of Portuguese descent and his wife and Andrea a full on New Yorker. They had given up life on the fast track in New York, having fallen in love with the place and with Diane on an extended trip to Karanambu and were now living permanently at the ranch. Salavador knew all the people I had met on my trip 45 years earlier and was able to tell me where they now were and what they were doing.

We had a good night’s sleep in our own lodge, open to the bats and insects but protected by a mosquito net. We were up before first light to go on a trip looking for giant ant eaters. We were taken first to the nesting site of a pair of Jabiru storks. They had built a huge nest of twigs high up in the trees and we were able to get really close to see the three chicks sitting in the nest waiting patiently for their next meal. We drove on for half an hour or so, winding our way through the low, sandy scrub when suddenly there was a shout from our Amerindian guides who had spotted a giant ant eater in the distance. We strained our eyes to see it and suddenly there it was, a large,long, furry creature, galumphing along at speed. The two guides jumped off the back of the truck and raced off into the bush, trying to get behind the anteater and manoeuvre it towards us. Unfortunately the anteater was smarter than them on this occasion, and we didn’t see it again.

It was back to the lodge for breakfast and then a walk to some ponds to see the water lilies, some of which were in flower despite being after dawn. The pond was heaving with caimans, some of which were resting their heads on the water lilies, using them as rafts. Lunch was delicious, fried lukanani, a fresh water bass caught at the nearby Rewa Lodge. Sport fishing is being developed there, another source of income for the area, but being managed carefully to protect the fish stock.

Such is the personal service that we were receiving on this tour, that the pilot of the plane that was to take us to Georgetown that afternoon contacted Gem after he had taken off to let her know when he would be arriving at the airstrip. Would we like him to pick us up on the way up to Lethem so that we could see the town from the air, and see the new bridge that had been built across the river to Brazil?. Of course, we said yes. We were driven to the landing strip in time to see a rather larger plane this time circle the runway and land in front of us. Out stepped a much smarter pilot in pressed white shirt and navy trousers. We squeezed our way in to take our seats amongst the passengers from Georgetown who were all Brazilian and set off for the short hop to Lethem. We circled over the river, passing into Brazilian airspace in order to land on the Guyana side. We looked down on the bridge which is unique in its design. In Brazil they drive on the right and in Guyana on the left and the bridge is constructed in such a way that the two lanes cross over so that you start in Guyana driving in the left hand lane and end up in Brazil driving on the right. I can’t think of anywhere else in the world where this would be necessary. We stopped briefly in Lethem and might just as well have been in Brazil. Signs were all in Portuguese and the shops were stocked with Brazilian imports.

John managed to secure the co-pilots seat on the trip back to Georgetown. This pilot was much chattier and appeared to be teaching John how to fly the plane; we were more than a little concerned! Again, all the passengers were Brazilian. Flying North to Georgetown we were able to see how much of Guyana is covered with rain forest. It is an endless blanket of green ‘broccoli’, almost to the capital itself, where the forest gives way to land that had been cleared for sugar cane, but is now being used for growing rice and for housing developments. We landed at Ogle airport, just outside the city, and there was Gem, ready to give us a quick tour of my old haunts in Georgetown and then to our hotel.