Adventures in Guyana

Ravinder at Kaietur Falls

1. Waratuk

One of the most beautiful sites I have ever been to.  I bathe in the Potaro River near the rapids, and lay on the sandy beach.  I watch the mist over the cliffs opposite me, and see a river otter swim by.  I hear a big bird – the black currasow – behind me, and see the turkey-like creature disappear into the forest.  I sleep in my little tent near the beach, and hear the frogs, insects and other forest sounds in the night. Three nights here is not enough, and I could easily stay much longer. This is a remote location: no people here, no boats, no signs of humanity.  This is isolated rainforest nature. Our Patomona-speaking Amerindian guide knows this region well, and suggested this idyllic spot for our work with the local birds. I swim to the opposite bank and view the tall tree-covered mountains behind the camp, where we are catching the small songbirds with mist nets.  Some woodcreepers and antbirds, plus colorful hummingbirds.  This is a pristine forest, but the serene trees are not huge due to the sandy soil. In the evenings, we make some simple camp food. We hear a caiman slip into the water at night, and a long, skinny, tiny-mouthed snake huddles under our tarp during a big downpour.  The fireflies flash with the intensity of the Christmas lights that were still decorating the airport when I left Stockholm not too long ago. This place is far from cities and internet, phones and cars. It is very hard to leave when nature is so splendid. I have a dry place to sleep, plus good food and company. This is Guyana.

  1. River boats.

Our boat is very full, with all our gear for one week in the forest. I have my huge 95-liter backpack with my tent, clothes, and light sleeping bag. At this point, I know what I need to be comfortable and happy for extended periods in isolated rainforests. Plus, I have all the supplies for catching and taking blood samples from birds.  We have a lot of food and cooking supplies. Our boatman, an elder Amerindian, who was the leader of Chenapau Village for many years steers us near the banks. The forest is thick and green.  But we also see dredges mining the silt for gold, and abandoned gold mines along the way. Then at Amatuk, after a night of camping plus work with birds, we have to carry everything past the turbulent rushing rapids, including the metal boat. It is simply too heavy for us.  There is no way that three wimpy professors plus the boatman and our guide can carry this metal monster.   We manage to lift it up the first hill, but there is no way that I can go further. We get somewhat desperate, and we seek out anyone who can assist. Finally, we find three goldminers who lift the boat and carry it for nearly a kilometer, along a path through the rainforest. They walk without shoes, almost waltzing the boat with their goldmining muscles. We get past the rapids so we can continue our journey. They each get about $25, quite a lot of money, for them a short effortless walk.  We continue on our journey.

  1. Co-pilot Ravinder

Flying from Georgetown to Mahdia, the plane is supposed to leave at 8:30, so we get to the airport at 7. Each person is weighed, and we have to pay for our excess luggage. Finally, at 10, we board the old propeller plane for the 55 minute flight to the small mining town. I sit next to the pilot in the co-pilot’s seat. My legs are too long, so the co-pilot’s steering wheel keeps bumping me, and he scolds me. We fly over vast forests, green and rich. But also over large mines, with the big companies searching for gold and bauxite. The view from the cockpit scares me when I don’t see the runway in Mahdia until we are nearly on the ground.

  1. Kaietur Falls

We hiked with our backpacks through the dense jungle to again reach the boat at Waratuk. No trail, but the forest here is not full of thorns – it seems friendly. Our boatman has hunted a large mammal and it lies on the floor near my feet. Then we meet a couple of his relatives in a dugout canoe along the way. We stop and exchange pink cassava drink while floating in the river. The river is a perfect black mirror reflecting the green of the forest. Next, we reach Tukeit, another set of rapids, and disembark with all of our gear, for the hike up to the Kaietur Falls. We didn’t know what we were getting into!  It seems basically like 4 hours of Stairmaster, while wearing a 40-pound backpack. This is not an easy hike. Stones are slippery and wet, and the roots of trees are not gripping my rubber boots. My legs start aching after about 2 hours. This is called the “Oh my god” hike: it’s hard.  Flowers, bright red mushrooms, screaming piha, and the cock of the rock (birds) greet us along the way. After a lot of vertical ascent, we reach a flat area and I can start to hear the rumble of the falls, or is it the howler monkeys? Then I definitely exclaim oh-my-god when I see the Kaietur Falls. Dropping 226 meters (741 feet) into an immense gorge, this is extreme beauty and the word awesome is appropriate. No one is here: this is a wonder of the world with few visitors. I bathe naked in the river just a few meters from the falls, and a rainbow colors the sky before my eyes. I walk to the falls in the night and the crashing of the water right next to me where I stand, alone, powerful. The small guest house is clean and comfortable, and I manage to see the golden frog and more bright-red male cock of the rocks. The swifts fly behind the falls in swarms. An exhilarating hike to one of the most spectacular waterfalls on the planet.

HIke up to Kaietur Falls
Kaietur Falls, 741 feet drop, largest single drop falls in the world
Cock of the Rock
Ravinder at the “Boy Scout View” at Kaietur Falls

5. Patomona Amerindian Villages

A doll-like 3-year old girl stands closely to some pink flowers and admires them carefully. Meanwhile the people of Mykobie village sit on hammocks and around a table chatting and laughing. They drink the cassava juice and eat some meat stew laden with orange hot peppers. Cassava bread has a cardboardy texture and taste, but becomes soft in the stew. What impresses me is the sense of community. The lack of television and telephones binds people to each other instead of the electronics. The multigenerational family sitting and enjoying their meal and stories seems natural. We as humans evolved this way, in small communities. The villagers know everyone and have tight connections. In modern cities, we have become isolated to the point where we don’t even know our neighbors who live in the same buildings. The Facebooks of the world have taken advantage of this fundamental need, and built wireless communities and used capitalism to sell them for a profit. In my mind, this makes us even more isolated. I warn my Patomona friend to be vigilant. The need for educating girls, so they can obtain economic and reproductive independence seems of paramount importance. I voice my opinions about mobile phones, televisions and computers. They will inevitably invade and scar the community. They must plan ahead so that they can retain their language, and allow their culture to thrive. At another village, in the evening, the little community store becomes a bar, with flashing lights, beer, and a television playing a violent French action film. The kids, between 4-8 are glued to it, while the actors kill each other with assault rifles. One of the villagers was already drunk.  I see the evolution of this village, and I see the struggles they face.

We are three professors from San Francisco State University and the title of our project is “Impacts of Land Use Change on Wildlife Disease Transmission and Landscape Dynamics”. Our goal is to study how gold mining affects the spread of pathogens. We believe that the exploitation of the land allows for rapid changes in mosquito communities that facilitates the spread of malaria, both in birds and in humans. As we fly over Guyana, the forest is still pristine and immense, but there are patches of white; the big mines. The Amerindians do artisanal mining to make some money, and have dredges in the rivers that sift through the silt for the sparkle of gold. The world is changing so quickly, and Guyana, with its immense forests, and natural resources is ripe for exploitation. But here there is still time to make changes and preserve the environment, because the population is still low, and the forests are still rich.  Adventures in Guyana.

4 thoughts on “Adventures in Guyana”

  1. Thank you Ravinder. I feel like I have maybe experienced a hint of what it must have been like for you there. And just gazing at that waterfall picture is so moving.

  2. Thank you Ravinder. I feel like I have maybe experienced a hint of what it must have been like for you there. And just gazing at that waterfall is so moving.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *