Retrospective of Guyanan Adventure – part 2

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.


Tim Barker is a sailor and occasional adventurer. Since 2004, Mina2, his Oyster 485 yacht, and he (with the Downstairs Skipper and a wonderful bunch of friends) have sailed from the Arctic to the Antarctic and many places in between. Come join their adventures and read Tim's award winning blogs and journals from the comfort of your own computer screen.

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