Our first destination was a 40 minute flight to the Kaieteur Falls. 95% of Guyana is impenetrable rainforest and looking down from 5000 feet as we flew over endless tree tops it looked for all the world like we were flying over an enormous broccoli. The pilot pointed down and said “If you crash into that, all you can hope for is that the plane bursts into flames – that’s the only way they’ll find you. And if they don’t, the Jaguars will” The DS’s knuckles went white. But amazingly we arrived at the airstrip at Kaieteur Falls.
Now not many people know this but the Kaieteur Falls in Guyana is, at 700 feet, the highest single drop waterfall in the world. And not that many people get to see it. We nearly didn’t see the falls either. Low cloud swirled around the airstrip. The caretaker of the reception lodge rushed out. “What’s the matter?” he asked. “Nothing’s the matter” we replied, “We’ve come to see the falls.” “Oh” he said, sounding disappointed, “the only time a plane comes in this early is when it’s in trouble”. We told him that we were supposed to be met by a guide, but the caretaker said that the guide hadn’t turned up. “Anyway” he said “there’s no point in going to the falls. They’ll be covered in mist in these conditions. You won’t see a thing”.
The pilots face brightened for the first time. “OK” he said “we might as well leave now and go on to Iwokrama”. “Hold on a sec” said Linda, who had organised the entire tour through Gem, at some considerable cost “We’ve sailed half way round the world to visit the Kaieteur Falls and we’re not going to give up that easily”. Out into the clearing walked Leroy, a National Park Ranger. He somewhat reluctantly agreed to stand in for the absent guide and take us to the falls himself, so off we trecked through the jungle. Our “driver” was not best pleased and was left by his plane sulking.
Leroy soon thawed and started pointing out interesting plants, animals and birds. He showed us an enormous Giant Tank bromeliad, in the base of the bowl of which was a small pool of water. Inside was a minute bright yellow green frog, the very rare and endangered Golden frog, that spends its entire 8-year lifespan amongst the leaves of the same plant. We also saw a flash of orange and could see perched in a tree, a Cock-of-the-rock bird (Rupicola rupicola) with its extraordinary crested head. As we ducked and dived through the jungle we started to hear a deep roar which got louder and louder until we reached a rocky plateau by a wide river (the Essequibo) and there, completely obliterated from view by a wall of mist, we assumed to be the Kaieteur Falls. Leroy said that this fog was very unusual. There was no realistic chance of it clearing and we might as well now return to the reception lodge. Linda was not to be dissuaded. So we hung around in the swirling mist until, magically, it parted to reveal the most fantastic sight. The whole width of the river fell over a cliff and plummeted 700 feet into a pool below where it collected itself and resumed its journey, past Mina2 lying to her anchor at Hurakabra, and into the sea. It was awesome, not least because this isn’t a tourist trap with hundreds of people and souvenir shops. It is one of the Wonders of the World in a completely unspoilt jungle setting. We were the only people there.
We returned to the airstrip where our disgruntled driver shoe-horned us back into the dilapidated Cessna for the next flight 80 miles further south to the eco-resort of Iwokrama. We bumped to a halt on the grass airstrip. Out we got. The driver dumped our luggage onto the grass beside the plane and, without even giving us time to hand him a generous tip, said “Someone will come and collect you”, climbed back into the plane, gunned the engine and roared off into the sky. We looked around. We were completely alone. We didn’t even know if this was indeed the Iwokrama airstrip. But before too long a truck arrived and we were greeted warmly by two of the Iwokrama staff who said they heard the plane flying over and assumed it was us.
Iwokrama is an eco-resort built in the middle of the jungle to accommodate scientists and tourists alike. We arrived at the complex and were shown to our very smart and immaculately clean, albeit quite basic, bungalows surrounded by manicured lawns leading down to the banks of the Essequibo. Before lunch I walked round the grounds and down to the river bank where there was a sign “SWIMMING PROHIBITED”. We went to lunch in the main complex and were greeted by a Canadian PhD student who had just started an internship sponsored by his university. There were lots of people sitting eating at one end of the complex. “Are they the scientists?” John asked. “No” said the intern, “they’re the staff. I’m the only scientist here at the moment. They ran out of funding”. They weren’t getting much income from tourists either. In the two days we were there, we were the only guests they had.
I asked one of the staff why swimming in the river was prohibited. “There are caimans (alligators) in the river and there is one that patrols along the beach here. It’s a big one, about 15 feet long, and has three legs”. “What happened to its fourth leg?” I asked. “The piranhas got it.” “Oh” I said sarcastically “so you’ve only got caimans and piranhas to worry about” No” he replied, “If they don’t get you, then the anacondas, electric eels and sting rays will”. Swimming was definitely off the agenda. After lunch we were taken on a guided walk to spot birds, not through the surrounding jungle itself but along a road where they were much more visible flying across the gap in the foliage.
In the evening, after dark, we were taken out on the river in a small open boat with a couple of guides. As we glided down the river, one of the guides played a powerful torch around. In the beam you could see pairs of brilliant crimson red lights. “They’re the caimans’ eyes” we were told. We approached a few of them as they lay in the water with just their nostrils and eyes protruding above the surface. We then nosed in to the shore and the guide started playing his torch into the mangrove trees hanging close overhead. “What are you looking for now?” Maria asked. “Snakes” said the guide. “Ah” he said “there’s one!”. Immediately above us was a green snake hanging from a bow. This is, indeed, a wild place.
The following morning, and we were up early to be taken to Iwokrama’s canopy walkway where a series of swaying suspension bridges have been strung 100 feet up in the canopy of tree tops. From here you get a different perspective of the jungle being able to observe different plants growing from the trunks of the large trees, and different birds. But it was the walk to and from the canopy walkway which was the most instructive. We had with us Gerry, a young Amerindian who knew everything about all the birds and trees and was enthusiastic in sharing his knowledge with us, describing the various plants and what they were traditionally used for, whether for medicines, making weapons, or for construction of houses, boats and furniture. Wherever you go in the jungle you hear the piercing call of the Screaming Piah but you rarely see the bird. Jerry pointed one out. It looked a completely nondescript brown bird until it threw its head back, opened its beak wide to expose an orange coloured throat and belted out its ear-shattering call. Gerry also noticed a hole pecked high up into the trunk of a tall tree. “That’s where a Scarlet Macaw lives”. He hit the trunk of the tree with a large stick and, sure enough, out of the hole came a large and magnificently plumed scarlet, green and blue parrot.
Further down the trail, Jerry said that we should advise the camp that we were heading back for lunch. He picked up a stick lying by a large tree and gave the trunk a mighty wallop. An incredibly loud “boing” resonated from the tree across the jungle. It was a Messenger tree which the Amerindians used to communicate with each other over long distances. Sure enough, as we walked into the camp clearing, lunch was ready and laid out for us.