Guyana’s River Road

The mighty Essequibo is one of the biggest rivers in South America. Desiree McEachrane took the plunge

Hot and Cold Lake is one of the larger lakes fed by the Essequibo. The lake is known for its allegedly therapeutic properties and is called ‘Hot and Cold’ because of its alternating temperatures. Photograph by Desiree McEachraneOur maiden voyage on the Essequibo began on this boat. Photograph by Desiree McEachraneThe guesthouse on White Water Island. Photograph by Desiree McEachraneThe Pomeroon River, a tributary of the Essequibo. Photograph by Desiree McEachrane

The Essequibo intimidates most visitors to Guyana. It fascinated me when I first saw it at 12, clutching my Guyanese mother’s hand. The river has that power: it’s one of South America’s largest (eclipsed only by the Orinoco and Amazon) and cradles 365 islands in its huge flow.

As I stood under a rickety wooden shed in Parika, the transportation hub from the mainland onto the Essequibo, it looked deceptively calm, all brown composure, with only a few suspicious ripples. But I was determined to get to know it. That meant taking a trip down Guyana’s river road.

The fastest and most efficient mode of transportation on the river is the motorised speedboats, known as “small boats”. The ferry takes several hours where the small boat takes only 20 – 30 minutes, so we took our chances with possibly unsound hulls and reckless river driving.

Fortunately, the boat was pretty stable and the captain took care to steer into calm water. The small boats present challenges, though. You have to be agile. I felt lucky just to keep my balance and my Nikon, never mind looking graceful. A backpack would have been more manageable. I realised early on that I should have dressed more carefully for the trip. I live in slippers, but they are a definite no-no; try very sturdy, flat shoes or sneakers. Once we were wedged onto benches and the boat whirled onto the open river, I clamped my hand onto my head to prevent my hat from blowing off.

Each boat’s captain must carry a supply of lifejackets. I appreciated the sentiment. However, every time I wore one I was painfully aware that not only was it worn and sometimes damaged, but most were originally intended, apparently, for a 90-pound child. Navigating a river is fundamentally no different from navigating the ocean, especially a river as massive as the Essequibo. The boat swerves, dips and dances with the current. Occasionally, you’re dashed with a light spray. But the bracing wind that swept away any attempt to talk also blew away any seasickness. We sped past abandoned boatyards, splintery old jetties, tiny islands and settlements of Amerindians, with canoes made of hollowed-out logs tethered to the docks.

Unfortunately, rain cut short my river-hungry gaze. But while the boatmen ignore the showers themselves, they have an appealing way of keeping customers dry. Each row gets a large sheet of leatherette to pull over their heads. Ample enough to cover three or four people, waterproof and heavy enough so that the pelting rain didn’t sting, the leatherette did the job.

We were determined to arrange our own river tour, so my friend Keisha arranged with another captain (pointed out by the dock monitor) to take us to the Mazaruni Prison, Fort Island (also know as Kyk Over Al) and the White Water Falls. He told us he’d be leaving when his other passengers arrived, so we walked around the town to kill time.

Half an hour later we were back – and he’d left, a young dockhand obligingly said. But he was even more helpful, immediately arranging the same tour for us with another captain, for the same Guy$17,000 (US$8.25). We leapt onto his boat, with the helpful dockhand, and we were off – three young women sailing out on unfamiliar water with two men we’d just met. Too late I remembered we hadn’t asked anyone on the dock about these guys.

Still, we chatted breezily as we pulled up to the Mazaruni Prison, our first stop.

“It look small,” Keisha said doubtfully.

“There are other buildings at the back yuh cyar see,” said the captain. “The prisons have many different parts.”

“How you know so much ‘bout it?” she asked.

“He went there, spend three months,” the dockhand piped up.

“Him too,” shot back the captain. Smiling mysteriously, they refused to tell us what their crimes were.

We forced levity all through the rest of the trip, taking photos of what was left of the old Dutch Fort and the rustic, comfy bed-and-breakfast place at White Water. But when I refused to take a supposedly short trek through thick forest to see the White Water Falls with our obliging boatmen, they saw through our strained high spirits. We travelled back to Bartica in near silence, paid, and counted our blessings.

To get to Supernaam, a small town near the mouth of the Essequibo, where it meets the Atlantic, the boat has to pilot downriver, then swing around the inelegantly named Hog Island. We were advised to leave early, before rising tides made the river rough, so by minutes to 9 am, we’d arrived at Supernaam. Soon we were on our way to visit the three main lakes fed by the Essequibo: Hot and Cold, Capoey and Mainstay.

The lakes are the deep burgundy of red wine, dyed by rotting vegetation in the water. I found this unsettling, as an islander accustomed to crystal-clear water with my white sand. But our host, Tattoo, assured me the water was clean: Amerindians living along the lakes use it to bathe, cook and drink.

Capoey Lake had a small dock, and an enterprising young woman who ferried people across from the Amerindian mission on the far side to where we stood, where all the schools and shops were. Hot and Cold was at the bottom of a sloping hill; white sand, palm trees and a deserted, weatherbeaten camping ground sat sadly by the calm water.

We visited Mainstay Lake last, my mother and I, Tattoo and his wife Beddoe. The entrance is surrounded by forest, inhabited by reserved Amerindian peoples. The Lake Mainstay Resort was also deserted, but their friendly staff told us all about the regatta the resort hosts around August and allowed us to tour the cosy facilities: changing rooms and thatched huts for what we Trinis call “river lime” camping. We carried fruits galore, which Guyana has in abundance: sapodilla, mangoes, pommerac (Malay or otaheite apple) and bananas, as well as delicious fried cassava balls and a tasty pepper sauce made of “sourie” fruit (bilimbi or tree sorrel).

As we munched, an almost Edenic peace fell around us. Eventually, I slipped into the lake’s gently lapping, warm water as the sun slid down the sky, highlighting the water’s reddish glow with shades of orange and pink. I felt a part of it all; the brilliant sky merged with the water that cradled me. That alone was worth the trip.