Tuesday 3rd April (continued) Paramaribo, Suriname to Guyana
We are now entering Guyana which boasts a remarkably rich ecology, but also has one of South America’s poorest economies. Tropical rainforests – filled with distinctive plants and trees, teeming with exotic birds, insects and mammals – are a big draw for eco-tourists. But political troubles, ethnic tension and economic mismanagement have left the former British colony with serious economic problems.
The only English-speaking country in South America, Guyana (formerly British Guiana) became independent in 1966. It has a population of about 760,000 – a third of its population is descended from African slaves, imported by the Dutch to work on sugar plantations. Around half are the descendants of indentured Indian agricultural workers brought in by the British after slavery was abolished. Persistent tension between these two groups has fuelled political instability and is reflected in hostility between the two main parties, which are ethnically-based.
Until the 1990s more than 80% of Guyana’s industries were state-owned. Mismanagement, falling commodity prices and high fuel costs created serious economic problems and led to a fall in an already-low living standard. Since the late 1990s the government has divested itself of many industries, but it now faces problems which include environmental threats to the coastal strip and rainforest, poverty and violent crime – the latter fuelled by the drugs trade. The sugar industry – a key source of foreign exchange and Guyana’s main employer – has been hit by the loss of preferential access to EU markets and a cut in European sugar subsidies. Many Guyanese seek their fortunes outside the country; the exodus of skilled migrants is among the highest in the region.
A long-running dispute with neighbouring Suriname over the ownership of a potentially oil-rich offshore area was settled in 2007 by a UN tribunal that redrew the maritime boundary and gave both countries a share of the basin. Once again, another country with a lot of potential, but lots of problems.
There are no immigration dramas, and customs inspection is observed in the breach. Outside, we find our connection, holding up a bottle of rum instead of a name placard (Duncan’s suggestion to him when he asked how will recognize each other!) There is a Coaster sized bus waiting, but it isn’t ours. Ours is a Toyota Hi-ace nominal nine seater, but with the driver and his offsider, and all our luggage, it is pretty crowded. We breathe a sigh of relief when we drop off the offsider, and re-arrange ourselves to have more room, but then we turn into the mean streets of Corriverton and stop outside the driver’s house, where his wife and two young children are waiting. It soon becomes obvious that they expect to come with us, much to everyone’s horror, including the wife when she realizes how little space there is for her, but she manages to squeeze into the first row.
The road into Georgetown is pretty-well built-up all the way, with similar housing styles to Suriname – canals, sluice gates, farm machinery parked in the street, commercial streets with all the signwriting in English, which is the official language of the country (which also drives on the same side of the road as Britain (and Australia and Suriname).There is a lot of Indian influence in the businesses and over-the-top architecture. A third-world touch is rice spread out along the tar road being tended by a man with a broom, to keep it in the right place for effective threshing. We are quite close to the sea, and some canals have fleets of fishing boats, with distinctive high bows to handle choppy seas. We stop for a sort-of meal at a kiosk selling Fish-bread – fried fish on a bread bun with some hot mustard to give it some kick. It was surprisingly tasty, probably indicative of our hunger situation. About here we put the camera time back an hour from 13.03. By 12.21 true local time we were in a commercial area where we see a sign on a business that shows that, indeed, times are changing – “Imran and Daughters”.
We are seeing signs of Guyana being less developed than the other Guianas, such as horse-drawn wagons. We cross another big river with one high clearance span, and the rest of the bridge Bailey construction on pontoons. Offshore we can see a large dredge working with an arc of discharged slurry, and some sort of offshore loading platform with a large bulk carrier ship. Later the road crosses a canal with a disused steel truss railway bridge beside the road. As an indicator of local commerce we pass a truck loaded with bulk bags of rice.
Coming into Georgetown, we cross a major canal with a new multi-gate barrage, then there is a major traffic jam caused by work on the construction of a new deep concrete gutter channel as part of an ongoing road-widening exercise.
Our chosen hotel, Rima Guest House, is close to the centre of Georgetown, on Middle Street, near the intersection of Main Street -very English. Our room is on the second floor, another major climb with the bags. The room is quite large, with a fan, a large new aluminium window, with a reflective film-covered window right opposite it in the next building. We can’t see if we are being observed, but the weather is hot, so we leave the window open. There is no ensuite, but there are two loos down the hall, and a bathroom with a scary Brazilian electric shower-head, and we don’t have much of a queuing problem.
In the evening we go in a group to Tocuma, a local indigenous restaurant, just past the Promenade Gardens on our street. Definitely wouldn’t have been our first choice! We have a choice of peper-pot, or possibly some bush-meat, including Labba, a striped, cute relative of the capybara, and peccary, but these were in short supply (luckily), so we settled for the beef peper-pot, and the ubiquitous rice, which was OK, and not particularly peppery. The restaurant runs a karaoke night Wednesday night, and the hostess gave us a demo of her singing talents. She was pretty good, and looked and sounded like Jessica Mauboy.
Wednesday 4th April Georgetown, Guyana
We slip down to Main Street, looking for some breakfast inspiration before the City Tour. Find a pastry shop, but don’t see much of interest, but pass some interesting colonial buildings. We have been told there is a rough area not far from our guest house, so don’t venture too far, and come back to the guest house and wait for the tour to start. It is nominally a walking tour, but we start off in a fairly flash air conditioned van supplied by Wilderness Explorers, who will be supplying most of the Guyana logistics. We like this van, which has plenty of room for luggage, and are hopeful that our transport to the border will be like this.
By 9.10am we are in the van, driving past the light house which has been eclipsed by the higher 5-star hotel right on the water, which has a new light on the top of it. Beside this is the older, and dated, Circular Pegasus Hotel, which was the original 5-star, visited by celebrities in the post-independence era.
We stop at a large building with a conical thatched roof, built along the lines of a traditional Amerindian communal shelter. This is where important meetings with statesmen and visiting dignitaries are held. It is the second one, the first having been burnt down, as will happen to timber and thatch buildings. This is in the diplomatic quarter, and the large Canadian, and even larger American embassies are nearby. The American embassy was built in the cold-war era to be bigger than the Russian one.
In a roundabout outside is a rather strange hatching turtle monument, symbolising Guyana’s dedication to turtle conservation. We are near the sea wall here, so stop while the history of the sea wall is explained. The canals and sea walls were constructed by the Dutch, acknowledged experts in these matters, under contract to the English, with whom they were periodically at war. The original dyke was earth, or mud, but a concrete core for it was constructed later by the English. There were plantations on the seaward side of the wall extending out a mile, but all these were lost in storm action. The city proper is still below high-tide level, and the sluice gates which drain the canals at low tide are manually operated. A lot of the network of canals which were used for irrigation have been filled in to provide the wide avenues, but some large canals remain as surge storage when heavy rain coincides with high tides. There are also a couple of massive electric pumps at the sea wall to control flooding. There are a few people flying kites. Apparently it is a tradition that everyone flies a kite over the Easter period, but you rarely see them at any other time of the year.
We drive past the massive wooden police barracks and training school, then take in a number of historic colonial wooden buildings over 100 years old, still preserved due to construction from resistant hardwood. One building, the “red building”, has red-painted shingles which are normally red timber, but are better preserved by paint.
We get out of the van to walk one of the main avenues, down the centre of what is a filled-in canal, stopping for a very welcome drinking coconut each. Dianne, the slow drinker, takes most of the tour to finish hers. From here we drive to Church Street, which, naturally enough, has the massive, white-painted wooden Church of England Cathedral. This is a special building, built on a concrete raft, but with built-in timber struts to support the whole building from the perimeter. We dismount for a look at the interior, which is light-filled, with the walls mainly windows, but fairly plain, except for the curved ceiling striped longitudinally with dark and light timber.
From here we drive past the main market, which was prefabricated in steel to serve as the main railway station about the same time as they sold the railway infrastructure to Nigeria. The market is pretty chaotic, runs 24 hours, and not suitable for tours, so we repair to another, smaller market for a walk-through in search of exotic fruits. This market also runs 24 hours, and is quite large, but managable. It is interesting being in a third-world market where all the stall-holders speak English. We buy some bananas to keep us going, sample a variety of fruits, finding them edible, but not worth buying. Sumatoo, the passionfruit equivalent, with grey seeds was ok, if a bit tart, the awarra fruit (orange plums) from the palm tree so waxy they were like chewing lip-balm. The mammea looked like a small cannonball. We bought a husked coconut for later consumption, and ended up with a couple of star apples, a purple fruit looking a bit like mangosteen inside, but pretty ordinary. The red cashew fruit were different, having no nut, but still an acquired taste.
After the market, we went to the Georgetown Cricket Club, at Bourda Ground, where two local teams were playing a spirited match. We talked to a well-dressed, well-spoken local man who used to be a commentator, and were invited to have a look at the memorabilia in the main stand, where there were photos of WWI heroes, test match results, and a group of elderly ladies having a Wednesday afternoon lunch and possibly playing mah-Jong. Age is a great leveller in a multi-racial society, as everyone’s hair was white. We managed to escape the current Cricket controversy, and carried on to the Botanical Gardens, where we saw jacanas, egrets, Victoria Amazonia water lilies, but none of the manatees we had been looking forward to. We were told they were elsewhere and we had to drive and walk to a more extensive canal system at the other end of the gardens. We picked some long, green grass on the way, and after some splashing, were rewarded by the presence of up to seven manatees, which came right up to the wooden walls of the canals, some with a full head and flippers out of the water to feed on the grass. They are surprisingly docile. These are truly strange animals, with nostrils and eyes which can close completely, and a large, horizontal, paddle-shaped tail with only one lobe, which moves up and down when the animal swims. They are different to dugongs, which have tail flukes with pointed projections, like a whale with a slightly concave trailing edge. Definitely seeing them was one of the highlights of the trip, as we’ve never seen them before. We took a lot of photos, some better than others, then returned to the guest house, for a lunch of coconut and bananas, not much, but enough to be able to take our pills.
We have the afternoon free, so later we have the guest house call a taxi to take us to the Zoo, in the Botanical Gardens, where we were dropped off at quarter to five. Pleased to hear that the closing time was 6pm. Paid our money, and found ourselves in a very old-fashioned zoo, with dense wire mesh covering most exhibits. Bird highlights were macaws of various colours, a selection of mainly green parrots, some unidentified ground birds, jabirus, hooded herons, and an incredible harpy eagle who looked like a human dressed in a suit. Animals included Labba (photo of photo only, not the animal itself), giant otter, a puma, spider monkeys, squirrel monkeys, capuchin monkeys, a jaguar, and medium sized Caiman. The photos actually turned out better than the indication we got on site. We were able to get a taxi home from right in the gardens, at a tourist price, but still reasonable.
In the evening we walked to the large Chinese restaurant we have sussed out, stopping for a look at what passes for a noisy, upmarket bar and the local version of Hooters, with some interesting unattached women, and sort-of uniformed hostesses. We were accosted by an American oil rig worker who wanted us to join him in a drink, but we decided we were a bit low on funds for some serious bar crawling, and declined. The Chinese Restaurant was divided into the upmarket first floor area and a takeaway area down below. We were able to get our fallback dish, sweet and sour chicken and rice, plus a complementary yellow fizzy drink within out budget, then went back to the bar across the street from us for a cheap beer and very expensive red wine for well over our budget, listening to some reasonable karaoke. In the bar were a group of middle aged men, and a group of women who looked like a hen’s party, drinking cocktails. By the time we were ready to go, they hadn’t got around to singing, so we called it a night. Later, in the guest house, we could hear some pretty terrible singing coming from the bar.
Thursday 5th April Georgetown-Kaieteur Falls-Georgetown
One of the optional activities is a flight to Kaieteur Falls for A$525 for the two of us, and all the group is going. Access to them IS possible by 4WD and a very steep climb, but it is a major expedition, and most fly in. Kaieteur Falls is the world’s largest single drop waterfall by the volume of water flowing over it. Located on the Potaro River in the Kaieteur National Park , it sits in a section of the Amazon rainforest included in the Potaro-Siparuni region of Guyana. It is 226 metres (741 ft) high when measured from its plunge over a sandstone and conglomerate cliff to the first break. It then flows over a series of steep cascades that, when included in the measurements, bring the total height to 251 metres (822 ft). While many falls have greater height, few have the combination of height and water volume, and Kaieteur is among the most powerful waterfalls in the world with an average flow rate of 663 cubic metres per second. It is about four times higher than Niagara Falls, and about twice the height of Victoria Falls.
We walk Main Street in the morning looking for suitable material for our packed lunch, walking down the centre of the avenue. Talk to a local couple about possible food sources, and settle for the pastry shop we rejected yesterday, and buy a packet of hamburger buns to have with our remaining can of tuna.
We were picked up at 11am, and driven a fair way to the general aviation airport. Did a group check-in, and were in the air by1pm, sitting in the double seat on the starboard side, right behind Charlene in the co-pilot seat. We had a pass over the town and port before crossing the river and flying parallel to it. There are satellite cities laid out in grid fashion on either side of the river, accounting for the low population of the city proper, and the traffic jams into and out of the city.
The sky is pretty hazy, but we can see the massive areas of land dedicated to rice and other irrigated crops, and there are canals in regular grid patterns. From the far side of the river we can get an idea of the size of the river, and the complexity of the channels and islands.
Away from the river we can see pretty well continuous rain forest with occasional clearings for villages, mining exploration, or mining operations. We climb through tropical clouds with associated up and down draughts, topping out at about 9500 feet. There is quite a pleasant temperature in the cabin. Below us we start to see the scars of past and current mining, with whole river systems marked by the white sand which follows mining. It looks like the historic mining method has been dredging and gravity separation, with little in the way of earthworks away from the rivers, except for one massive mining complex which is currently operating, with a large open cut, processing plant and accommodation complex.
We pass over a major road which shows up as red gravel, with white sand on the verges, and no asphalt topping. This could be the road, or one like it, that we will be taking to get to Brazil. Getting near the waterfall, we can see distant mountains and an escarpment below us, all covered in forest. We see the falls directly ahead through the windscreen and get a blurry photo. We are not sure if this is a scenic flight, or just a delivery, so take photos when we can. It turns out to be a scenic flight, with passes to allow views for both sides of the plane. As we get closer, we get better photos through the windscreen, then real photos through the side windows of the falls, the river below them, and the surrounding highlands.
Landing is a bit exciting, with the plane under brakes right to the end of the runway. There is another Cessna Caravan on the ground from an opposition company, and an army sky-van, a newer version of the flying boxcar. We take airport sign photos at 2pm, and are walking the gravel path toward the falls viewing area by 2.23pm. The path crosses fairly bare gravel and flat exposed rock before entering the forest and narrow paths with concrete bridges to cross narrow but deep ravines through the conglomerate rock, with passages through other ravines and concrete steps. The track emerges onto a sloping rock platform, with no safety rail, and enough large rocks protruding from the conglomerate to make tripping a definite hazard.
We now have sunshine on the falls and they are truly spectacular, with a stretch of smooth river above suddenly plunging 741 feet into the cloud of spray and pool below. We are a fair distance away, so there isn’t a lot of noise from the falls, and the height is difficult to judge, but the time taken for the water to fall is a good indicator that this is a major waterfall. We take a lot of photos of the falls and surroundings, including more photos of the 12-segmented rubber plant seed pods we’ve seen before, this time quite fresh and fleshy, with a bright red outer skin. On the edge of the platform there is one of the bromeliads which collect water as a habitat for the small, yellow poison frog. A photo taken down the leaf of the plant reveals the small, yellow blob near the edge of the water which is the frog, but only a careful analysis of the photo can confirm this. Because the frog is skittish, you can’t get too close for a photo.
We walk closer to the falls for another look at the Boy Scouts View Point, which has a larger rock shelf and views of the falls and down the river. Walking back toward the plane, we do a detour into thick scrub and locate a couple of Cock-of-the-Rock birds, well back from the trail, in a thicket of spindly trees. Being among the last to arrive, Murray only gets partial views of the birds, but still gets photos of their spectacular orange colouring with black markings. Trying to get photos after the crowd leaves, we are late to find the track, and walk the wrong way until pulled up by a guide.
Back at the reception centre, we are given water and a very dry cheese sandwich with some sort of spicy garnish. We load up in the same seats, so get a different view going home. We are surprised when the pilot does a circuit and comes in low over the airstrip like he might land, but just buzzes the strip, and drops over the edge of the gorge to give us some last passes by the falls. On the return journey, we follow the river gorge a long way, fairly low, and it is untouched for many kilometres before mining starts in a big way. There are some signs of mining rehabilitation, but most of the sites are still pretty raw. Like most mining sites, it looks worse from the air than on the ground, and while it occupies a lot of the river bed, the fraction of the available jungle is pretty low. Further on, the complete river bed has been worked, but we can see no sign of active dredging or earthmoving. We pass over the same major open cut mine and follow the same path back to the city, getting better photos in the low afternoon sun, and having a lot smoother flight as most of the tropical clouds are dissipating.
We decide to go up Middle Road to the pizza restaurant for the evening meal, leaving enough to have for breakfast in the morning, as we have an early start. While we are waiting for our large, but not family size supreme, without anchovies because the girl serving had never heard of them, the male members of our group arrive to do likewise. We headed back on our own to have pizza in the room and get ready for an early morning start.
Friday 6th April Georgetown, Guyana to Atta Eco Lodge, Iwokrama, Guyana
We are up at 4.30am, and down loading the van before 5am. It turns out being one of the normal public minibuses doing the Georgetown to Lethem run, which has been charted for us. It is definitely not as flash as the one which took us around town, but it has a snorkel for deep floodwater, and a roof rack for our luggage and a row of yellow plastic fuel cans. We later find that one has a leak in it, which explains the petrol smell in the van. They manage to stuff the luggage behind the back seat and under the other seats, but it leaves the interior pretty cramped for day packs etc.
It is 6am before it is light enough to take photos, and this finds us well out of Georgetown, on the paved Linden Highway, having made a left turn away from the river and heading into an area of sand hills thinly covered with topsoil. On the way we pass major mining operations which look like sand mining, and hamlets tucked into the workings. There is little to see on the road apart from occasional rude homesteads and inactive roadside stalls.
We stop at a frontier style roadhouse in Linden, with a view of a major sand hill, then progress into the town, which is a lot larger than our first impression, with a major minerals processing plant, power station, and residential areas scattered around the workings. We cross a bridge over a major river, with storage silos and conveyor loading facilities for ships. We still don’t know what product they are shipping, but suspect it is glass-making quality sand.
After climbing up through the town on the far side of the river, the road becomes very badly damaged asphalt, with major potholes, forcing the van to slow to a walking pace. The asphalt road ceases at the edge of town and the road actually improves enough to get up some speed, in between major braking efforts which cause the front wheels to skid as we come up to large holes and ruts in the road. Murray is sitting in the seat behind the driver and manages photos out the side and along the road by holding the camera out the window. The road is very red clay and gravel, laid on top of the natural white sand base, and very deep ruts cut through to the sand. To drain the road, the roadside gutters are led into cuts at right angles to the road which leads to deep excavated holes in the sand, which is porous enough to absorb the water.
Our next stop is at a roadhouse at the “58 Mile”, which has fuel and food services, and a chained up monkey and caged macaw. Dianne buys some of the peanut brittle we have tried before, and a bar of chocolate. The roadhouse is in a clearing in the rainforest with a village scattered around it, very much a frontier settlement. It reminds Murray of his childhood village in the bush, with a timber jinker parked on the main road with a load of very long logs. The prime mover looks like an ex-US Army truck, with a long bonnet and a canvas roof on the cabin, like the trucks used in Australia in the 1940’s. There is an incident where the van takes off with a rush, with some of the passengers inside, but the door open, to go from the shop to the fuel pumps, but no injuries resulted.
The road continues on with red gravel, washouts, occasional very large puddles, one of which almost stops the van. At 9.30am we are stopped at a check point for passport inspection, which isn’t all bad as local women are selling wedges of good cut pineapple for a reasonable price. The checkpoint is a real frontier operation, and nearby is a very large log storage yard, with a lot of logs, but not to the scale of Suriname.
At 12.30 we have to wait at a pontoon ferry over a large river of clear water, with rapids upstream and a lot of rock outcrops downstream.There is a kiosk at the top of the bank, and a pay toilet. Dianne buys a bottle of Coke and gets to use the loo free. Murray uses the nearby garbage pit, but is concerned about rustling in the garbage heap. At the top of the bank is a large billboard which celebrates mining as an economic boon to Guyana, but warns against muddying the water or using mercury to recover gold without using a proper retort.
When lunch time is over, the operator comes down to the ferry to interrupt a man giving fancy haircuts on the pontoon. Our van is the only customer, and backs onto the ferry, as there is only a front ramp. The ferry had a diesel driven propulsion system, and operates without wires. It is assembled from a number of rectangular pontoons, pinned together like a typical middle-sized dredge, and has a high-set control room at the stern for the operator.
In the middle of the river is a dredge and a sandbank, and we have to turn upstream to find deep water above the sandbank. The crossing is uneventful, and a good break to stretch cramped legs. On the far side of the river, the Iwokrama Forestry and conservation area starts, and our destination is only 20 km further down the road. The forest is already looking more promising, and we turn off the main road at a sign to Canopy Walkway, Atta Lodge, and drive in 1.6 km through dense rainforest and tall straight trees to the lodge, which is set in a clearing in the tall rainforest trees, arriving at 2.30pm, after 9 ½ hours travelling. Glad we weren’t travelling on the Dragoman truck, which we were told takes at least 12 hours.
We can’t believe how nice the complex is, set in the middle of the jungle, in the middle of nowhere. Our room is in a long brick building with a steeply pitched shingle roof, with about 4 separate rooms, each with an attached semi-outdoor bathroom and toilet. There is no AC, and the windows are timber grillwork shutters which can be swung wide open, giving more ventilation at the expense of privacy. The bed is a large and comfortable king-size, with a cloth topped rectangular mosquito net suspended on three tight cords across the room. The clearing is carpeted in green grass, with flowering shrubs and has a common dining, bar and kitchen area nearby.
We have a late lunch, and rest up for our canopy walk, starting at 4pm. The walk is on a well-made path through open forest under the canopy. Our first stop is for a wood pecker, then some specialised rainforest trees, before climbing about 150 relatively small steps on wire mesh covered timber up to the covered platform at the start of the canopy walkway.
The walkway was installed by Canadians about ten years ago, and has a combination of wires, nets and ropes supporting the aluminium grating floored walkways. The multi-segmented aluminium platforms are supported by wire ropes wrapped in a two direction long-pitched helix around the trunks of the supporting trees. The trunks were protected by rubber matting, but the wires were starting to compress the tree bark. The platforms were located by aluminium fingers almost touching the tree bark. The condition of the structure looked adequate, although the use of transmission line wrapped splices was “interesting”.
In spite of being up in the canopy, there wasn’t a lot to see up close. All of the bird sightings were at binocular or telephoto distance. The guide was carrying a high power spotting monocular on a tripod, and this helped locate birds for the photographers, and gave those with phone cameras a chance to get some good bird photos. We managed to see toucans, green and red macaws, but all at extreme distance. We walked back just on dark with Duncan, using phone and head torches, and have a good meal and cold beer.
Saturday 7th April Atta Eco Lodge, Iwokrama, Guyana
Up 5.30am for the 6am early morning walk to the canopy walkway. See a black vulture, red and green macaws, some fruit and flowers on the rain forest trees, a red howler monkey, and that’s about all. Canopy walk is definitely more for the jungle than the wildlife. On the way back to the Lodge, we saw the wood pecker in the same tree, and we take photos of a more colourful rubber tree seed pod,
After breakfast we look at a sloth hanging in a high tree on the way to the canopy, then set out on our 9.30am jungle walk, in the opposite direction, seeing a lot of tall trees, brilliant blue butterflies too hard to photograph, some large, blue-grey ground birds in the scrub, red and green macaws, a small, brown wood pecker, and a red-headed wood pecker.
Later in the afternoon we go for a walk out to the main road, where there are tall trees on either side of the road, and start walking further along the road. We get results fairly quickly, with red and blue macaws, still a long way off, but very visible, and a good toucan, then red, yellow and blue macaws.
At the bridge over a fair sized stream, we see king birds on the bridge sign, a tiger heron down by the water, more macaws and a blue and red kingfisher with a white collar, which stays visible for a long while, but is very difficult to focus on. Definitely a more rewarding walk than the one to the Canopy walkway.
After dinner Dianne has a long talk to another guest, Priya, a very interesting 30-something freelance female journalist from Northern India, who is doing the Guyana government’s tourist website, and is being taken to the tourist spots all over the country. She recommends a good book about Guyana, called “The Sly Company of People Who Care” by Rahul Bhattacharya.
Sunday 8th April Atta Lodge, Iwokrama to Surama Lodge, Rupununi Village
Up for 5.30am breakfast and 6am walk. Most of the group do another canopy walk, but we opt to do another main road walk, with Priya and her guide, getting good views of a red and blue macaw pair possibly mating, a hawk, toucan, paradise something with a long, sharp beak and long tail feathers, up to three white collared kingfishers, two males difficult to photograph, and a more sedentary female, still difficult to focus on.We see a juvenile tiger heron, a large white and grey heron, and a small caiman at the creek, but unfortunately a rare car comes along, moving us off the bridge and scaring the caiman. We see a medium black bird with a yellow tail, and a distant agouti on the road, and a blue headed parrot, a pretty good yield for a morning walk.
After, we pack up, and are ready to go when our next van turns up at 9.50am. This van also has a roof rack, which they use for our luggage this time, but it is pretty old and worn out. A rope from the roof rack to the bumper and a Coke bottle wedge is used to keep the back hatch closed. It is about time for us to take a back seat, and this short hop seemed an ideal time to take it. Unfortunately the jury-rigged back door wasn’t tightly closed, and we were gassed with exhaust fumes and red dust all the way to the village.
Our departure was delayed while the driver disassembled the glove compartment to cure a squeaking noise, which turned out to be not mechanical, but coming from a baby agouti they had rescued, and had escaped from its box to hide under the dashboard. They run an animal rescue program in the village. We are welcomed in the camp with ice-cold wet towels for the face, and hair, turning the white towels a shade of brown from the dust leaked into the van through the back hatch.
The original plan was to accommodate Dragoman at a hammock pavilion down by the river, some three miles away from the main camp, but because someone (us and Michael), wanted a bed, and because of other logistic complications, enough accommodation was found in the main camp for all of us, some on octagonal, semi-traditional timber huts with conical thatched roofs, others in a barracks with single rooms. The attached bathroom was semi-alfresco, with the thatch roof extending over it. The whole setup was quite attractive, with a double and a single bed in our hut, fitted with mosquito nets supported from tight cords, a varnished wood floor with gaps between the boards, and white-painted interior.The main drawback with being authentic was the wildlife in the roof, including a roosting bird plainly visible in our bathroom, and possibly bats in the thatch which left black pellets on the floor in the morning. The mosquito nets kept us and the bed free of fallout.
The common area was a large circular two-storey building in the same style, with a bar and hammock area on the top floor, and dining room below. Next to the common area was a large, bushy tree with dozens of weaver birds’nests, and dozens of noisy and very active weaver birds. These were a lot more strongly marked, with a lot of very bright yellow and pitch black.
The excursions which have been booked as part of the kitty are a walk to the river followed by a boat trip, and a visit to the village. There are a number of options, which all cost extra, and we settle for the booked options, plus a walk to a view point on the nearby mountain. Due to weather considerations we plan to do the river today, and the mountain tomorrow. We find that there was an option to see a cock-of-the-rock nest (which we passed quite close to earlier in the day, but weren’t told about), for at least A$30 each, and about the same price to see a Harpy eagle nest, but no-one is interested at those prices.
After lunch, we put on our anti-mosquito and start off walking across the cleared land between the camp and the rainforest along the river. This is called savannah, and some of the smaller trees here are from other places, having been brought here in the dung of cattle which were brought through this way on the local version of a travelling stock route. In one small tree, our guide points out, perched on a branch of almost identical colour and texture, a grey and black night jar, looking exactly like a broken branch. It is hard to get a straight story on how long the area has been free of rainforest, as it suddenly starts for no obvious reason.
The road through the rainforest is deeply rutted, a bit of a battle for a van, or even a Dragoman truck, but not too hard for the farm tractor they use to access the pavilion. Having walked rainforest tracks every day, there is not much that is new, but it is pleasant enough, and cool in the shade. The pavilion is in a clearing right next to the river, with a long-drop toilet a hundred metres away, a bit exciting at night in jaguar country. The guide points out a pile of weathered jaguar dung at the base of a nearby tree, some of it recent, and this promotes a change in mind of some of the team, who are badly wanting to see a jaguar.
There are dugout canoes and an aluminium long boat on the high bank, and some moored below, but we take a bunch of paddles and head off walking downstream for half a kilometre to a tributary which has a moored aluminium longboat. We climb aboard, two to a seat, with one guide in the bow, another in the stern, and paddles are issued to volunteers (not us). We paddle upstream against a mild current, and negotiate narrow passages between granite boulders before emerging into a stream ten to twenty metres wide, with banks on the high side up to six metres. Near where we start are groves of large bamboo, some of which is broken and extends down to the water. Monkeys have been known to climb down these to get a drink, but not today.
There is not a lot of wildlife visible from the water, but fish are breaking the water, and swallows are chasing insects. We briefly see a humming bird, get photos of a crested heron in a tree,swallows on a log, a red rumpled toucan, and a lot of rainforest, looking good in the afternoon sunshine after a brief, but fairly heavy, rain shower. We see a large, black, fowl-like bird with a long skinny neck and a small head, perched in a tree.
On the walk back to the camp, we pass a spot on the track where falling blossoms from a “Jacaranda” tree have carpeted the ground in purple. Because we are going slow, back with the guide, and it is starting to get dark, the others miss a performance of two spider monkeys. Our guide calls out to them, and they respond, later throwing branches down towards us to discourage us. We get a lot of photos, even some showing the monkeys’ red faces, but they are a long way up, in the last of the afternoon sunshine.
Back at the common room, we relax with beers and Coke before another good meal, cooked in the small kitchen beside the dining room. When we get back to the room, the big bed mosquito net has been deployed. We take a cold shower after our dust bath in the van, but go easy on the hair washing, turning their nice, white towels a fine shade of pink.
We get to bed about 10pm, but Dianne wakes about 1am, for a couple of hours. In the night, our bathroom bird keeps a low profile, sleeping through our trips to the bathroom, but the roof fauna are pretty active, which doesn’t help when trying to go back to sleep.
Monday 9th April Surama Eco Lodge, Rupununi Village, Guyana
In the previous evening, the keen jaguar watchers have organised a very early morning walk back to the river to try and see the jaguar, and they are gone when we are woken by the alarm for our 5.30 breakfast. We are soon on the road with Andrew and Sarah, and an experienced local guide, who looks a lot older than his 57 years. The initial walk to the base of the mountain takes us through the village of widely spaced conventional houses, a lot of dogs, some of which bark at us, but don’t look threatening. The panga our guide is carrying might be discouraging them. We pass a house where a large farm tractor has been divided into two parts, waiting for a new clutch or some transmission parts. We walk the length of the substantial gravel runway of the airstrip, which is used for charter flights and occasional stop-offs of the regular plane from Lethem to Georgetown.
We pass the very strange official building we saw on the way in. It is a square two-storey building, with the ground floor very tall, and has two identical multi-flight timber staircases mirror-imaged at the front, and some sort of ethnic painting on the large, peaked roof. In front of it is a ventilated brick circular wall, and a NW American style totem pole in the centre.
We come to the edge of the savannah at the base of the mountain after an hour’s walk, and the rainforest begins almost immediately. The track changes to a single file path through backpack-sized broken volcanic rocks, along a dry water course, past what will be a waterfall in the wet season, then starts to climb in earnest, still on broken rock, quite risky for Dianne’s almost better, damaged ankle, and not much better for Murray’s compromised knee joints. Our guide uses his panga to clear vines from the track, and also to cut some walking sticks for us. This helps, particularly on the way down. We manage some rainforest and blurry electric blue butterfly shots on the way up, but are too busy climbing to take photos.
At one point a tree has fallen straight down the track, and we have to do a tricky detour over fallen branches. Toward the top, we are stopped by the guide to observe a vine-snake across the path. It is so much like the brown, smooth vines we see hanging from the trees it is hard to see and photograph at first, until it is gently moved along.
The final pinch to the viewpoint is pretty exposed, with a drop off the side enough for serious injury, but we manage it, and by 8am we emerge onto a solid rock shelf, with views over the trees toward the village, airport, lodge and the river, with a range of mountains beyond. The guide tells us we are only about halfway up the mountain, but there is no view from the top, as they don’t want to cut trees down. It is certainly high enough for us, and we rest and talk for an hour, looking out over the view. While we are there we see a fair few birds, including red and blue macaws flying below us, looking good, but hard to photograph. There are spider monkeys in the area, and our guide whistles to attract, or annoy them, and a number of groups respond, one group getting the others going. They are too far away to see or photograph, but it is an interesting interaction between guides and animals.
It is quite misty below for good photos, but we take them anyway, and through binoculars and the telephoto, we can see a group of villagers waiting for the tractor-bus, and our second group, fresh, or not-so-fresh from their jaguar hunt, approaching along the wheel-tracks to the foot of the mountain. Notable on the landscape at present are trees with masses of large, bright yellow flowers, and they are useful landmarks, visible for miles.
The descent from the mountain isn’t helped by a brief shower of rain making the rocks slippery, but with the help of our sticks and well-placed smooth-barked saplings, we make it down, being careful to avoid some of the palm trees with vicious spikes on their trunks.
We meet the other group at the start of the climb proper, including Michael, who is just having a look at the start of the climb, and will join us for the village tour. The guide had seen the eyes of the jaguar on the way to the pavilion, and they’d heard it, but none of our group had seen it, though they all took turns looking out for it at the pavilion.
We have been promised a vehicle for the village tour, and it is waiting at the edge of the rain forest. It is a ute with two padded benches across the tray, and is comfortable enough, providing you hold on. The village tour is a bit of a non-event, but we are shown where the Eco resort used to be before friction with the tourists over the rowdy behavior of the villagers partying made a more remote location desirable. We drove past the two-staircase building without explanation, looked closer at the totem pole, passed the sports ground, with soccer goals and a cricket pitch, and ended up at the school, which was a very pleasant surprise. There are separate middle-schools and kindy schools, and the secondary students travel half an hour to a central school. Considering the number of visible houses in the valley, there seem to be a lot of kids. They are well-turned-out, the kindy boys in shorts and checked shirts, the older boys in white shirts and dark trousers, the girls in white shirts and bright yellow tunics. All of them are really clean and tidy.
The classrooms are neat and tidy, with lots of educational posters, notice boards, black boards with very neat chalkboard printing. Most of the fiction books seem to be hand-me-downs. The girls profess an interest in reading, the boys less so, but were interested in demonstrating for Murray the experiments they had set up with batteries, switches and LED’s. The school seems to be a special case, possibly because of the tourist publicity and donations it gets, but it is very encouraging, even though it is hard to see how it can help in a local context. The education system doesn’t seem to have helped with the birth rate, with 8 to 10 being not uncommon, even though the guides had one to two.
After the school visit we returned to camp for lunch and a lazy afternoon, being buzzed on the first floor verandah by an angry swallow, which also buzzed the vulture sitting on a pole beside the building. Before a fairly good sunset we were entertained by one of the other guests who had a very high performance drone operating around the camp. We have another early start tomorrow as we have to make it to Lethem over bad roads in time for Michael and Dean to catch their flight to Georgetown, and for us to make it to the Brazilian border before they go off for their long lunch.
Tuesday 10th April Surama Eco Lodge, Rupununi, Guyana to Boa Vista, Brazil
We have an early start to get Dean and Michael to Lethem in time for their flight to Georgetown, but this does not deter the keen jaguar spotters from having another look, where they find tracks and a different faeces drop site, presumably from a different jaguar, but no actual siting. The next Dragoman tour has to stay at the pavilion as the lodge is fully booked. We’re quite glad it’s not us, as we’re not keen to run into a wild jaguar when going to the long-drop toilet in the middle of the night.
The would-be jaguar spotters return, we finish breakfast and settle our bar and guide bills, and are away by 8 AM in our new van, a newer Toyota Hi-Ace than the previous, with a serviceable back hatch, turns up on time, and the driver and his helper/load the baggage for Boa Vista on top , and the Lethem baggage inside, covering the top with a tarpaulin, as it is raining lightly, and more is expected..
We make good time through the village and the open savannah before entering the rainforest as the road is good as far as the highway.The highway has potholes, corrugations, and narrow bridges, but we make pretty good time, with no threat of holdups due to washouts or extreme road conditions. By 8.40am we have entered a drier area, with open savannah and fairly bare mountains, with the hopefully named RockView EcoLodge, but no sign of serious rocks.
We stop at a fairly well organised fuel and food place, The Oasis, for a comfort stop, and later at a more basic service station for fuel. The sand of the rainforest and coastal strip had been replaced with a deep red soil, which later figures heavily in our laundry. To the east and south a savannah stretches as far as the horizon. To the west is a dry mountain range with vegetation almost to the cactus stage. There are occasional dry watercourses and occasional rivers with water in them. Small birds are plentiful.
Further on the mountains recede to the west, and the road is built up over what will become a kilometres-wide wetland in the wet season. This is where Duncan was previously held up for a couple of days, camped at the Oasis, waiting for the road to dry out. Murray calls for a loo stop in the middle of nowhere, after hanging on as long as possible to not be the one who delays our arrival, only to find all the men ready for the same. While we are stopped, we are passed by another Lenthen bus, similarly loaded, and we have a race for the rest of the trip to be the lead, dust-free vehicle.
We get closer to the Brazil border well short of Lenthen, see a major farm complex without a name on the map. Although the road is wide and firm, the corrugations are horrendous, and a lot of side-roads develop, which are not as straight, but a lot smoother. This makes for more passing opportunities, but also increases the chance of coming together where the separate tracks converge. We have a couple of near-misses before we gain the lead permanently. The driver and his passenger seem to know the road pretty well, and we manage not to break anything on the vehicle, even though we bottom-out a few times.
There is a large watercourse to the left, and we cross a medium sized river well out of Lethem, which has an ambitious publicity sign 20kms from the town. The mountains to the west are becoming clearer, but our route passes to the north of them.
We are welcomed into Lethem by a sign reminding drivers that Brazil drives on the other side of the road. The town is a classic desert outpost, its only raisin d’etre being the border and duty free shopping from Brazil. The town has wide red dirt streets, fewer houses than city blocks, some farming service industries, and a number of duty free supermarkets.
Us and our baggage are dropped at what at first sight seems to be a substantial hotel, but closer inspection reveals it as a work in progress, with the ground floor and landscaping complete, but the upper two floors just framework, and a large metal roof above supported by dodgy-looking timber trusses.
We bid farewell to Dean and Michael here, and wait for our transport, expecting to transfer to a Brazilian vehicle, but load up a new Guyanian van with our gear and proceed to Guyana customs and immigration, where we pass through without hassle, then take our baggage out to load it into a Fiat crew-cab ute, with four of us on board, and the others in a sedan car for the run to the Brazil border post, which involves an ingenious tunnel and bridge arrangement to put us on the right (and right) side of the road before crossing the river into Brazil. Luckily we make good time in no man’s land, as the Brazil border officials knock off for lunch at 12.30 and don’t come back till 2PM. We make it with 15 minutes to spare, but the young man processing our application seems to be unsure what he should do with our paper Brazilian visa, but when his mate stamps another passport without really looking at it, our guy does the same. There is a lot of information on the walls about sex tourism, and the prospect of getting locked up, but our baggage gets no attention at all.
We stop in the border town of Bonfim for our driver to call into home and change his shirt. This side of the border is more like a proper town, with tarred streets, and even trees. We stop at the bus station where we think our driver has to drop off a list showing his passengers, and proceed in convoy all the way to Boa Vista, through wide fields of some sort of crops, and isolated areas with dense scrub and roads through it. This may be a crop, possibly rubber, or may be the original scrub before land clearing. The road is pretty good, and there is a lot of work going on improving it.
We come into Boa Vista on the undeveloped eastern side of the river, with an area of disturbed ground, with lots of shacks on it, which we’re told is brick-making, and could be sand mining as well. We cross the river on a long, low-level bridge, seeing dredges on the river to the left, which could be gold dredges, as there are extensive sandbanks, so no sand dredging should be required. The bridge rail is just at the wrong level, so photos from the bridge are pretty ordinary.
Across the bridge, we turn upstream on wide streets through a major city which doesn’t seem familiar at all, although it was 20 years ago when we were here. We were deposited at our Euzebio’s Hotel for a quick check-in, and an exit looking for food. By now it is really hot outside, and we cross a multi-lane, one-way street to what is an alfresco food hall. It is already late for lunch, and what looks like a buffet is just finishing up. There is one food kiosk still open, and they have a limited selection, some of it a bit strange, but we settle for fried steak and chips. It comes with a variety of side dishes, most of which are OK, and the steak is tough but tasty.
Back at the hotel, we take it easy. Dianne goes for a swim, and we wait for 8pm to venture out en-masse for an evening meal. It is too hot to do any exploring, and the distances too great for us to find anything familiar.
At 8pm, Duncan tells us he has sussed out the possibilities, and the best bet is down by the river which is over a km away. There is, apparently, no danger if we go together, so Andrew, Dianne, Sarah, Dutchie and Duncan make the trek, down the wide road past a park, and past a Rodo, in the mean streets, guided by Duncan’s maps.me. We arrived without incident, finding a large eating area on a terrace above the water, with several kiosks, one of which offers pastels, a local fried pouch of meat and/or cheese. Dianne orders chips, the pick of the night, plus a capiroska, the others pastels, plus capiroskas and/or beer. The pastels took forever to arrive, and they buggered up Andrew’s order, as he can’t handle cheese, so the night wasn’t a great success. As Andrew was catching a night plane he got his eventual pastel as a take away.
Duncan and Dutchie decided to kick on, and were last seen heading upstream on the promenade, leaving us to find our way home in the dark without a map. Fortunately some of us remembered different landmarks and we arrived without any wrong turns. Andrew gave us his tips for the staff, and we bid him farewell, leaving him having a smoke out in the street.
The night wasn’t a great success, as too hot for no AC, too cold with it. Dianne had some consternation as Latam had advised us by email when we were in the jungle that our flight on the 15th had been put back to the 17th, but they couldn’t confirm the change as their computer was down, and she struggled with poor internet to sort it out. We didn’t need to set an alarm as we had a late flight to Manaus tomorrow afternoon.
Summary of our Thoughts on the 3 Guianas and Dragoman trip
We knew very little about the three countries, so weren’t expecting them to be anything special- we were just interested in seeing them. We found the history really interesting, and we saw some interesting birds, and sloths and manatees, and a great waterfall, and some good colonial buildings, but overall the trip was what we expected – we didn’t see anything that was really special, with the possible exception of Kaieteur Falls. The three countries are definitely worth visiting, but there are plenty of other highlights in South America that I’d see first e.g. Perito Morino Glacier, the walks at El Chalten (especially the Fitz Roy massif) in Glacier National Park, and Torres del Paine, in Argentina; the Bolivian salt lakes and Antiplano; the Galapagos in Ecuador; South Georgia and Antarctica; Cusco, Machu Picchu and Lake Titicaca in Peru; Jericoacoara, Porto Galinhas, Bonito, the Pantanal out of Cuiaba, and Salvador, in Brazil.
We chose the Dragoman tour because of its itinerary, and the fact that it had much less camping and cooking than a lot of its other tours, so the fact that their overland vehicle couldn’t enter the country was a plus for us, especially on the long trips on rough roads as their vehicles have to go very slowly on these roads, whereas the vehicles we used were much quicker, and had a much smoother ride. This also meant we didn’t have to camp at all. As we have done a 6-week trip from Istanbul to Tashkent; three weeks from Kathmandu to Assam via Bhutan; and 8-weeks Cape Town to Uganda finishing in Nairobi; all in similar overland vehicles, we’ve had plenty of experience of their deficiencies.
We knew this was the first time the company had done this trip, and were warned there could be some unforeseen problems. Having to return to Cayenne to get our visa was one of these, but it was handled well by Duncan, our leader (helped by the fact that he as a New Zealander also needed a visa), and Dragoman paid for the extra hotel expenses.
We were also very lucky with the crew. Duncan and Dutchie were both very responsible, as well as being good company. We only had seven passengers on the trip. All were good travel companions, but with the exception of one, were all in the 30-40 age range, and we were the only couple, with the result that we had no real kindred spirits, which detracts a bit from the overall experience. Most couples in our age group are going a bit more upmarket.
In summary, an interesting trip worth doing when you are looking for what to do after having seen the highlights of South America.