I’ve now found time to write about our wonderful trip to Guyana which I am posting in several digestible parts. This is Part 1:
When Linda was 19 she spent nine months in Guyana on her gap year. Our cruise into Guyana was not just a great adventure for all of us, but a particularly emotional trip down memory lane for her.
The capital, Georgetown, is at the head of the Demerara (of sugar fame) River, but 10 miles to the west is the delta of the mighty Essequibo River and it was here that we were bound. En route from Suriname, the strong westerly current that I had bargained on deserted us and we were running out of time. The last 12 hours we were motoring flat out, and to ensure we made the entrance and a safe anchorage before nightfall, I decided to cut the corner into the river to save a critical half hour. As we approached the entrance from the side, we found our way cut off by hundreds of poles sticking out of the water with fishing nets strung between them. They ran for miles, seemingly blocking our path. Seeing what might have been a gap, we nosed our way through at a snail’s pace and were mighty relieved to find ourselves on the far side of the obstacle without having got a net wrapped round our propeller. We eventually put the anchor down in the river as the last rays of light were falling, and to await the following dawn when we would resume our passage upstream. The Essequibo is the third longest river in South America after the Amazon and the Orinoco, and our destination was the small town of Bartica, some 50 miles upriver. The river is wide, but the navigable channel is narrow as you wend your way between the mud banks that lurk just below the surface. There is very little pilotage information available and what there is is as unreliable as the charts, so we were lucky enough to find a small freighter making its way up river and following it made our passage a lot less stressful.
We eventually arrived at Bartica and anchored off the dilapidated quay, opposite the town power station that was noisily belching out thick acrid smoke from its chimney. It turned out that it wasn’t just the quay that was dilapidated but the entire town. In the hinterland of Guyana, a lot of gold mining takes place, some of it legal and some not so legal and Bartica is the mining town where the prospectors come to resupply with fuel and food. We had accumulated some rubbish that we took ashore with us to ecologically dispose of, only to find the entire town was a rubbish dump. We could have put our garbage anywhere (in fact we had to do just that as there wasn’t a garbage bin to be found). The streets were absolutely littered with cans, broken rum bottles, plastic water bottles and rotting vegetables. Packs of stray dogs roamed the streets, entertaining themselves by chasing the many cows that were also, inexplicably, ambling along the roads. When the British left Guyana, one of the things they left behind was their entire fleet of British Army Bedford 4-ton trucks which are now pressed into service ferrying enormous barrels of kerosene and supplies to the mining camps. The town was full of them, half in working order, thundering up and down the main street, the other half in bits, with men under them with large spanners and surrounded by the component parts of differentials and drive shafts. We noticed that the streets were full of men and almost no women. It was like the Wild West.
We got our passports stamped at the heavily barricaded police station (only a few years earlier, a bunch of gangsters stormed the police station, killing several officers before stealing their weapons and then rampaging through the streets indiscriminately killing anyone who got in their way). We lingered at the police station for as short a time as possible, not for fear of another gangland assault, but because of the overpowering stench of raw sewage from the filthy gutter just outside.
Amazingly, for a country that has far less tourism than it deserves, there is a Bradt’s Guide in which we noted that a good meal could be had at the Platinum Hotel. Over the entrance door was a sign that said “NO alcohol. NO weapons. NO men under the age of 18”. We all strode into the reception which we found to be dimly lit with blue lights, with the smell of sweat unsuccessfully disguised by the smell of cheap perfume. I think (although I am no expert in these matters) that the Platinum Hotel is now a brothel and, judging by the startled look on the face of the blousy receptionist, food is the one commodity they don’t provide.
Having failed to find dinner we returned to the boat and the following morning we made our way a mile downriver and anchored off Hurakabra, the delightful riverside home of Kit and Gem Nascimento. Their property doubles as a resort for visiting tourists and the garden, surrounded by jungle, was a haven for monkeys and parrots. Kit and Gem were in Georgetown, so we were greeted by their supervisor, Mike, who showed us around, accompanied by his dogs (which have to be locked up at night or they would be eaten by the Jaguars that roam in the surrounding jungle). At one time a cabinet minister, the urbane Kit has been doing all he can to develop Guyana and the Essequibo as a destination for cruising yachts, and prior to the cruise, I had been in touch with him for information. We had told Kit that we wanted to leave the boat for a few days and take an excursion to see the interior of Guyana. Gem had put together a tailor-made four-day itinerary for us and Mike, who in a previous life had been a ship’s captain, was to keep an eye on Mina2 at anchor in front of the house. That evening, Kit and Gem returned from Georgetown and invited us over for drinks.
We were picked up from the boat at first light the following morning by Mike who took us to Bartica in the small Hurakabra launch where a taxi was waiting to take us to the airstrip about five miles out of town. The journey, along a hopelessly pot-holed mud track, took 40 minutes. At times we thought we were going to have to get out and push. On the grass airstrip stood a very old and very small Cessna single prop aircraft. Standing by it was a scruffy man wearing torn checked trousers and a T-shirt. We assumed he was the mechanic. And he was the mechanic – but he was also the pilot. He opened the door to reveal an interior that was completely falling apart. What was left of the seats had tufts of horse hair sticking out, and all the plastic trim that remained was falling off. Maria, a nervous flyer at the best of times, picked up a seat belt which came away in her hand. John is 6’8” in his stockinged feet. Getting him comfortably into a Range Rover is a challenge. Getting him into the Cessna was a near impossibility, but eventually we were all shoe-horned in and the pilot managed after a struggle to close the passenger door by leaning out of his window, lifting it on its hinges and slamming it hard. We were off.