News: The UD Travel Blog

Posted: 25 May 2011

1 May

Guyana is not the easiest place to get to, it has to be said. Yesterday saw me flying via Barbados and Trinidad to this little visited corner of South America, the planes getting smaller on each leg. But today’s plane is the smallest of all. Having left our gorgeous old colonial style hotel – apparently the location for much intrigue in Guyana in years gone by – we are now at Ogle Airfield boarding a tiny 13 seater which will take us into the country’s remote interior. The safety briefing takes an unusual turn when the pilot mentions the jungle survival kit under our kits, and we all look at each other with bemused expressions. Taking off from Georgetown we fly over vast fields of sugar which then suddenly disappear, replaced by an endless carpet of green broccoli – the mighty forests of the Guiana shield, one of only four pristine rainforests left on earth, looking moody and impenetrable. After half an hour we land on a small strip of grass next to one of Guyana’s natural wonders, Kaieteur Falls. The surrounding area is filled with forests of bromeliads, ancient plants that shared the earth with the dinosaurs, and today harbour tiny golden frogs in the reservoirs of water trapped between their leaves. We search in vain for one of South America’s most sought after birds, the Guianan cock-of-the rock, a bright orange bird which apparently can frequently be found here, but alas not today. The thunder of the falls can be heard long before we see them – they are the largest single drop waterfall in the world, five times the height of Niagara, with 30,000 litres of water a second pouring from their rim when in full flow. We walk to a number of different viewpoints, getting closer each time, all the while surrounded by swifts circling overhead. They make their nests behind the falls, flying through the water to get there – the ultimate deterrent for intruders. The final viewpoint is right at the tip of the falls, a rock precipice which offers superb views of the gorge below for those brave enough to get close. In any other place this would no doubt be full of tourists, refreshment stalls and the like, but we are alone here. I’ve been told that Guyana receives only around 2,500 genuine tourists – those who aren’t here for business or visiting friends and family – each year, less than Machu Picchu receives in a day.

From the falls we reboard the plane and take a short flight to Iwokrama, a rainforest conservation centre in the middle of the jungle. The centre consists of a few huts in a clearing, surrounded by some of the tallest trees you can imagine, a small breathing space in a million acres or so of rainforest, on the banks of a wide river. Birds call and howler monkeys on the opposite bank make their presence known, sounding for all the world like some unearthly demon. In short, it is quite idyllic. Our first stop that afternoon is a butterfly farm, a recent project established to make sustainable use of the forest’s resources. Rather unfortunately, all the butterflies have been released to escape from a disease that has infested their ‘house’, but a friendly ranger guides us through the various collections of pupae and caterpillars, one of which rather interestingly emits a foul smell when it is gently prodded. All around is the sound of the forest denizens; screaming pihas whistle and capuchinbirds moo like cows, and I receive the first of many bites when I inadvertently stand on an ants’ nest. Later we walk through the Amerindian village of Fairview where a football game is taking place and no-one gives us a second glance – you can tell that tourism is still in its initial stages here. As darkness falls we climb into small boats and search for caiman by spotlight, spotting a few poking their heads above the water, as well as a couple of tree boas draped over branches. Our first full day in Guyana ends with me flopping into bed, still jetlagged but excited by what is still ahead.

2 May

The first of many early starts today as we rise before the sun and travel in boats to nearby Turtle Mountain, cruising through narrow creeks choked with vegetation. Even at 5.30 the humidity is intense, the jungle making its presence known. We hike up the mountain along rough trails, stopping for our local Amerindian guides to point out the various traditional uses of the trees and plants around us. At one point we walk over a wasps’ nest, hidden in a log across the path – alerted by intruders, they rise en masse and attack and several of us are stung by them. Their tiny size bears no relation to their sting, which takes hours to subside, but is borne by all in good spirits and just one of the many hazards of the rainforest. At the top of the mountain we are rewarded with spectacular views of a sea of green, the jungle stretching far into the horizon. Macaws fly between the tree tops (and we are all puzzled why the ‘red and green macaw’ is plainly actually red and blue!) and a pair of hawks become agitated by our presence and mock attack us, rearing up at the last moment as they near.

After lunch back at the lodge we transfer by road to Atta Rainforest Camp, the rough unsealed track the only land connection between Guyana and neighbouring Brazil. Along the way our eyes are peeled for jaguar – this is apparently one of the best places to see them, but it is by now a little late in the day. A two hour journey takes us to Atta, a simple lodge hemmed in by the forest on all sides. You really feel as if you are part of the jungle here, with monkeys cavorting on branches above and toucans jumping between trees. Atta is home to the Iwokrama Canopy Walkway, and after settling in we tramp through the forest and up a slope, where the walkway begins, a series of platforms and interconnecting bridges high up in the treetops. A totally different view of the forest unfolds – no longer are we in the shade of the floor but from here can see at a bird’s eye level, unobtrusive yet ever on the look out for jungle wildlife. As the day lengthens, our local guide brings round cold beers which he had surreptitiously brought up here, and we drink to the sunset, 30 metres above the ground and thankfully with the protection of strong railings to – ever more necessary after the second beer. We return to the camp as night falls, and as if on cue the skies open sending down torrents of rain. Later in the open air dining room, frogs hop in and out, and the cook treats us to a pitcher of purple potato juice – interesting but perhaps not something I’d try again. That night the rain pounds our thatch roof while we fall asleep to the sounds of the forest.

3 May

We continue on the same road south, making a couple of stops to venture into the foreboding vegetation that lines its sides. The first is to look for the elusive cock-of-the-rock – being bright orange it shouldn’t be too hard to spot in a landscape entirely made up of greens and browns, but the trees are thick and it is difficult to see for more than about 20 metres in front. We find the nest, stuck like a swallow’s onto the side of a rock, where a rather dull female sits on eggs, and then the male appears, vivid orange and eyeing us curiously before retreating, coming back for another look, then departing again. Even for the non-birders among us it is a thrill to see such a stunning species, and well worth the sweaty hike. A half hour down the road and we stop again, heading into the trees to see the nest of a harpy eagle, the largest bird of prey found in the Americas. After about 20 minutes of watching an empty nest it seems as if our mission to see the chick is futile, but it then returns to the nest – harpy eagle chicks stay in the nest long after they can fly. A magnificent bird, the harpy eagle feeds on monkeys, giving one an idea of just how large it is when fully grown. It watches us suspiciously for a while, hopping around the branches high above our heads, confident in the knowledge that nothing can prey on it now.

We head further south and the jungle starts to thin on the approach to Surama, an Amerindian village that has set itself up as an eco-tourism centre. Over the last ten years or so, Surama has become a bit of a feature on the Guyana ‘circuit’ with a low key lodge and guides offering forest walks and canoe trips in the surrounding area, creating job opportunities for people who might otherwise have drifted towards the towns and cities, leaving their culture behind. The village is widely spread out – we stop at a school where a young Peace Corps volunteer teaches children in brightly coloured uniforms, with another class playing sports on the neat field nearby. Our lodge is sited a little away from the village itself, with great views of the nearby mountains. Vultures circle overhead, and we while away a few hours in hammocks in the communal dining room, gazing at dramatic cloud formations passing by. On our afternoon walk the local Makushi guides regale us with stories of hunting peccaries and their traditional customs, and what strikes me is the way that they seem to have seamlessly blended the modern world with their heritage; hunting and gathering foods from the forest is still very much a part of life here, yet this is a community that has engaged with modern Guyana as well, marketing itself to international tourists and taking advantage of technology. It is rare that a community effectively straddles both worlds – usually something has to give – but here in Surama it feels like the balance is right.

4 May

We rise as dawn is breaking and walk through the forest, the ground littered with enormous seeds from the gigantic mora tree, some as big as a child’s hand. Our guides take us in small boats on the Burro Burro river – as we board I see a small colony of bats asleep on the side of a boulder jutting out of the waters. Hummingbirds hover above, their wings beating so fast that all you can see is a blur, and herons take off awkwardly from their branches as we approach. The excitement of the morning is provided when a giant otter is spotted, watching us from the river, only his head showing. After lunch we drive again on the only road, and the jungle abruptly stops, opening up into wide savannah as far as the eye can see – a contrast from the jungle, where visibility is limited to a few metres. In an hour or so of travelling, we pass only two lorries. Guyana is thinly populated – a country roughly the size of the UK with only 750,000 inhabitants, and down here your nearest neighbour could be fifty miles away.

We take another boat on the Rupununi River, a vast waterway that has given its name to all of southern Guyana. The sun is hot and I am glad of a hat as we start the 50 mile journey to Rewa, an isolated village further up the river. Swallows skim the surface of the waters, and various species of kingfishers perch on branches, staring into the depths below. Our best sighting however is an osprey, swooping gracefully above our heads on the look out for fish. Apart from us, there is no trace of man or the modern world in the whole two hour journey.

The accommodation at Rewa is simple but charming – wooden cabins centred around a clearing where egrets peck at the ground and look at us disinterestedly. Situated on the banks of the river, the forest surrounds us once more. Later in the afternoon we take a boat ride to some sandbanks a little further on where I try to revive long lost fishing skills, casting a line into the waters, but to no avail. A caiman watches us from a distance, and we find evidence of giant river turtles, their tracks leading up the sand to their buried nests. The river here is home to arapaima, one of the world’s largest freshwater fish reaching up to 8 feet in length, but I don’t even catch a tiddler. We head back as the sun starts to dip below the horizon, our dinner awaiting us back at the lodge.

5 May

Another day at Rewa – our first and only two night stay of the trip. It rained heavily in the night and the roof leaked, thankfully missing me but leading to much consternation when my roommate Markus awoke this morning to tell me his bed was all wet. It also seems that a large spider has taken residence in our room; I’m not sure if it’s poisonous but err on the side of caution and ask one of the local staff to remove it, which they do by whacking it repeatedly – not quite what I had in mind. The grass outside is sodden and it’s still raining, which earns us a couple of extra hours in bed, gratefully received after the last few pre-dawn starts.

By mid-morning the rain has eased enough to allow us to head out. We take a boat to nearby Awarmie Mountain, not a mountain in the Himalayan sense of the word but presenting enough of an opportunity for a good hike. We scramble through the forest up wet rocks with spider monkeys in the trees above us, marvelling at the weird and wonderful insects that have been brought out by the rain. At the top the trees open to give us wide views over the jungle, and vultures soar nearby at eye level. One of our local Makushi guides tells us a rather intriguing story about a band of ‘wild Indians’ reputed to live in the surrounding area, uncontacted by the outside world and only seldom glimpsed by local villagers, but he tells the story in such a way that we are unsure whether it is fact or myth. On the way back down a gigantic frog hops across the path, and at the bottom we discover that one of our boats has drifted to the other side of the river – luckily we travelled in two and so a couple of guys are sent off to retrieve it.

In the afternoon we take a short boat ride to a nearby oxbow lake, mooring at the side of the river and then tramping through the damp rainforest to get there. The rain has turned large parts of the land into shallow pools, which come up to the top of my new boots but thankfully prove that they are indeed waterproof as claimed. At the lake giant waterlilies cover parts of the surface and jacanas hop across them – an idyllic scene marred only by the giant clouds looming overhead once more. We decide not to risk being stuck out here when the heavens open, and head back to the lodge.

6 May

A day of long, but pleasant, boat journeys. We return by boat along the way we came, all the way to Kwatamang, where a sturdy truck waits to take us further through the savannah. At Rock View we stop for a quick look around the lodge that Englishman Colin Edwards has built in the heart of the Rupununi, a hub for tourists passing through here and for the local villages also, boasting a small shop, a post office and a bar where a few Amerindians drink beer and talk loudly amongst themselves. With a packed lunch (which I promptly spill all over my clean T-shirt) we start the next part of our journey, a further two hour boat trip to Karanambu. Along the way we spot caiman lurking by the river’s edge and anhinga – a sort of cross between a heron and a cormorant – fly away at our approach, as do the black and white swallows that perch on dead branches in the river. We arrive at Karanambu just as the heat starts to become oppressive.

Karanambu is one of those places that makes you feel at home as soon as you arrive. Cabins are centred around a large building which serves as a dining room, bar, library and the owner Diane McTurk’s home, a high ceiling affair with a roof made from dried palm leaves where bats rustle and squeak. Karanambu has a long tradition of providing hospitality, having played host to such characters as David Attenborough and Gerald Durrell, whose book about Guyana – Three Singles to Adventure – I am reading at the moment. We are warmly welcomed by Diane and her team, a husband and wife couple called Andrea and Salvador, and firmly instructed to make ourselves at home, as well as being warned about the semi-tame raccoon that may invade our cabins in the night – apparently with a fondness for toothpaste.

After settling in and handing some by now rather fetid clothes to the girls to wash, we head out on boats through narrow creeks, eventually reaching a large pond almost completely covered with giant lilies. I have seen a photograph of a small baby lying on one of the leaves, and our guide tells us that it was his son, at just twelve days old. As dusk begins to fall the flowers of the lilies start to open, ever so slowly with the onset of the darkness. Night hawks and bats fly around us, hunting moths and other insects, and we watch large beetles enter the flowers, pollinating them as they search for food.

We travel back in near darkness, our guide shining his powerful spotlight at the river banks, pointing out tree boas curled around branches. Suddenly he stops, excited, and focuses the light on some bushes, and as we stare, a jaguar reveals itself us, staring back at us and seemingly unperturbed by our presence. By this stage of the trip we had given up hope of seeing South America’s largest cat, searches at Iwokrama, Atta and Rewa being fruitless. The other boats are still some way behind, and for some time we have the jaguar to ourselves, watching as it prowls along the bag, sniffing the air, disappearing behind trees then re-emerging. We watch it for about five minutes before it gracefully slinks off into the undergrowth. Without a doubt this is the wildlife highlight of the trip so far and we can’t stop talking about it on the way back to the ranch. Over dinner that night Diane tells us she had been here 27 years before she saw her first jaguar – we have been here a matter of hours and feel incredibly lucky.

7 May

Up early again as we gather in the dining room for coffee, ready to head out onto the savannah in jeeps to see what we can find. No sign of the raccoon in anyone’s cabin last night. We drive through grassland, interspersed with the odd collection of trees here and there, eyes peeled on the horizon. At a lake waterbirds like spoonbill and egret gather, sifting through the shallow water in search of food. Suddenly the vehicle in front pulls to a halt and two of the Amerindian guides jump out, urging us to follow. Cameras ready, we dismount and just over the rise, invisible to us but spotted by the keen eyes of our guides, ambles a giant anteater, carrying a half sized baby upon its back. One of the strangest animals I’ve ever seen, the anteater probes the grass with its long nose, hoovering up ants while the baby clings on. It notices us but doesn’t seem too bothered, slowly walking off as we cautiously follow for a while, trying not to scare it. Karanambu has so far outshone all of the other places we’ve visited in terms of wildlife sightings – anteater and jaguar!

After a leisurely breakfast, and a forest walk which unfortunately yields nothing more than insect bites, we travel overland to Caiman House, a research centre a little way from here. As razor vines dangle from the trees overhead and threaten to slice us, the Amerindian guy in the back of the jeep with us takes his machete from his sheath and expertly fends them off, earning him a few cheers from the group. The savannah stretches on forever, looking for all the world like the plains of East Africa.

At Caiman House a group of young American researchers tell us about their plight to record data on the black caiman, a species about which little is known. We had been scheduled to go out on the river tonight to watch them catch some, and help them record data, but recent rains mean the river is too high and has covered the sandbanks, the only places where the caiman can easily be brought to land. So we while away the time in hammocks with a few glasses of rum, watching hummingbirds gather nectar from the flowers in the garden, while villagers from nearby Yupukari pop in and out. That evening a couple of the researchers take us out on the river anyway, and we spot huge iguanas in the trees, and numerous caiman in the water. As I go to take a shower that evening, I find a stray bat in our bathroom which promptly attaches itself to my T-shirt, climbing up towards my neck before flying away when I walk outside.

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