Kaieteur dreaming

With their 741-foot drop over a sandstone plateau, the majestic Kaieteur Falls are an icon of Guyana, and a must-see for adventure travellers. But while most visitors hop down on an airborne day-trip, a lucky few get to experience this natural wonder the old-fashioned way, travelling by boat up the Potaro River. Nicholas Laughlin recounts the journey, and the falls’ magnetic attraction

The 741-foot drop of Kaieteur was formed by the Potaro River’s gradual erosion of a soft sandstone plateau. Photograph by Philippe KokTravelling up the Potaro River. Photograph by Nikhil RamkarranAmatuk Falls, downriver from Kaieteur. Photograph by Nicholas LaughlinHiking up the near-vertical side of the Potaro gorge. Photograph by Nikhil RamkarranStone Creek Falls. Photograph by Nicholas LaughlinAt a bend in the river, the first glimpse of Kaieteur appears in the distance. Photograph by Nikhil RamkarranFew travellers approach this close to the foot of Guyana’s Kaieteur Falls. Photograph by Stuart DunnThe view from the top of Kaieteur down the Potaro gorge. Photograph by Micheal Lam

After we unload our bags from the Land Cruiser, I check our location on my map. If I draw an imaginary straight line, Pamela Landing — this small clearing of red earth beside a wide, placid river — is a mere 120 miles from Georgetown, no vast distance. But it’s taken a hard day’s travel to get here: via a busy highway, as far as Linden with its bauxite works, and since then on unpaved roads, deeply rutted, cutting through thick forest. Mid-afternoon, we crossed the Essequibo River on a slow, clanking ferry, and the last signs of human settlement were in the neat mining village of Mahdia.

After long hours being bumped around inside a 4×4, it’s a relief to switch to a smoother mode of transport. A small boat is waiting at the edge of the landing, and we clamber in, eager to be off. As we turn to the south-west, heading upstream, the sun has already dipped below the faraway wall of the Pakaraima Mountains.

This stretch of the Potaro River is as unwrinkled as a mirror, and each bank is lined with a perfect reflection of the tall forest canopy. Finally out on the water, it feels like our journey has really begun. Georgetown might as well be a thousand miles behind us. And three days ahead is our destination: Kaieteur Falls.

For adventure travellers in Guyana — and even for casual tourists — Kaieteur is practically obligatory. For good reason: though not the world’s tallest or most remote or most celebrated waterfall, Kaieteur’s 741-foot plunge over a sandstone ledge into the narrow Potaro gorge is a more spectacular natural sight than most will ever see. A landing strip on the nearby plateau means visitors can come on a half-day trip — the flight on a small plane from Ogle, Georgetown’s domestic airport, takes about an hour. Every year, thousands thrill to the view of the falls from above.

But my companions and I are making a different kind of trip. Years before, I’d read the account by Charles Barrington Brown — a British surveyor, and the first European to see Kaieteur, in 1870 — of his first glimpse of the falls, travelling by boat up the Potaro. I’d resolved at once to visit Kaieteur the same way. Several tour operators in Georgetown offer to arrange the trip, which is considerably less onerous than in Barrington Brown’s day — but still requires some honest roughing it.

Except our boat ride to the first campsite is anything but rough. As we glide upriver, I stretch out my car-cramped legs and keep an eye out for Amatuk, the small waterfall beside which we’ll spend the night. Dusk sets in quickly, and as we approach the falls — twenty or thirty feet high, big enough to require portage — we hear the muffled roar of angry water churning over rocks, and see only a faint glimmer in the moonlight.

Below Amatuk is a small island of white river sand, with a few trees and an open-sided wooden shelter, with posts and hooks to sling hammocks. The Potaro is cola-black and refrigerator-cold when we stroll down to a sheltered beach to bathe, and afterwards a pre-dinner nip of rum seems sensible, to ward off the chill.

My companions and I are being escorted up the river by a squad of four guides, who variously act as boat-captains, cooks, porters, and walking encyclopaedias. We meet them over dinner, and they regale us with stories of gold-mining and malaria. At bedtime I climb into my hammock and the lime-green cocoon of a mosquito net. I’m not an enthusiastic hammock-sleeper, and at first I have a faint sense of sea-sickness, imparted by the pendulum effect. But I soon drift off to the familiar-but-strange rainforest soundtrack of roaring water, stirring trees, and the chorus of singing insects.

 

Next morning we’re up at sunrise, and there’s time to explore our little island before breakfast. Tidemarks in the sand show that at full flood the river rises at least ten feet higher. A great curtain of spray spreads out from Amatuk falls, and the surface of the river swirls with a pattern of foam.

When it’s time to set off, we hike up past the falls to a beach where another boat awaits us. Heading upriver, forest-covered cliffs rise on either side as we enter the Potaro gorge. Soon we pull in to the north bank of the river. Today we get some proper exercise: our bags and gear will go ahead to the next campsite by boat, while we continue on foot, exploring the forest.

There’s no trail, but the river to our left is the only signpost we need. Birds call high above in the forest canopy and insects buzz and chirr in every direction, but we don’t encounter much terrestrial wildlife — most of the mammals here are nocturnal, sleeping soundly as we hack through the undergrowth. Every ten or fifteen minutes we come to a creek, ten or twenty feet deep, with a trickle of water below. We cross in the time-honoured fashion, via a tacouba — a natural bridge formed by a fallen tree — requiring a minor feat of balance. The forest looks untouched, but the occasional gold-mining claim notice — a painted metal plate, nailed to a tree — tells us that this wild-seeming land has been surveyed and registered and recorded in thick ledgers back in Georgetown.

Our guides keep us entertained and informed, with a cheerful flow of anecdotes and forest lore. Here is the best kind of sapling to make a walking stick. Here are tapir tracks from last night. Here is a tree laden with unpromising-looking brown pods, which break open to reveal sweet pulp around black seeds. They call it “whitey”, and I’m not sure I agree it tastes like vanilla ice cream.

The afternoon sun is high and hot when we arrive at Waratuk, our next campsite. Another set of falls are little more than rapids, with jagged clusters of black rock protruding above the river. The protected Kaieteur National Park begins here, and two forest rangers live in a trim wooden house on stilts. After lunch we climb down to the river for what the guides call a “fresh” — a welcome bath. There’s no beach, and the current is swift and strong, but above the falls a series of crevices in the rocks offer sheltered spots for ducking in the water.

Afterwards, sitting in the upstairs verandah of the rangers’ house with my book, I realise the building is small enough that it wobbles dramatically if someone goes up or down the stairs with sufficient urgency.

 

Day three: once again, we start by boat, before hiking for a few hours on the bank of the Potaro. At a bend in the river, heading for our landing point, a thrilling sight appears, still miles ahead of us: a brief glimpse of Kaieteur, just a corner of its massive curtain of falling water, white against the green of trees and dull pink of sandstone. It disappears again as we go round another meander, but the thrill lingers. The great waterfall is within reach. And we could, with some exertion, reach it today — but this is a holiday, and a lazier pace means another day to enjoy the tranquillity of the river and the camaraderie of the journey.

Besides, there’s another cataract to explore on our way. Stone Creek empties into the Potaro near our next campsite. We detour up the streambed, strewn with boulders, and soon reach the wall of the gorge, and Stone Creek Falls — a mere hundred feet high, with a small pool at its base. The cascading water is too cold to linger under for long, and soon we’re all sunning like lizards on the smooth boulders.

We spend our last evening and night in the forest at Tukeit, the final falls of the Potaro below Kaieteur. The gorge has narrowed gradually all day, and now the hills on either side loom over us. A daylight moon rises above the ridge of Mt Yaki, and the late afternoon is intensely hot. On the opposite bank, we see a wide beach of white sand. The current is too vigorous to swim, but the youngest of our guides is happy to take us over by boat. My companions doze on the sand and I chat with our guide while he pokes around the nearby rocks, digging up handfuls of gravel — looking, optimistically, for a stray diamond.

We have dinner as soon as the sun sets. Our rum supply is running low. I’m consoled by the thought of a shop in the village above Kaieteur, where we can find such essential supplies. It’s stiflingly hot as I climb into my hammock, but the temperature seems to drops suddenly at four in the morning, and I’m glad for my sleeping bag.

I go down to the river before breakfast and see at once that the level of the water is four or five inches higher than yesterday. It means rain far up in the Pakaraimas, and a chance to see Kaieteur in strong spate. In the distance I hear howler monkeys making their unearthly whine, and a flock of macaws cross the river, shrieking like an alarm clock.

Thus far on this trip, we’ve hardly exerted ourselves. Today we must scale the wall of the Potaro gorge, about eight hundred feet high, carrying all our gear on our backs. We start with some huffing and puffing, but our muscles are soon warmed up, and the exercise is a delight. In what seems like no time — though my watch says it’s two and a half hours — we’re at the top of the plateau, where the terrain levels off.

We emerge from the forest into a landscape of pink sandstone, giant bromeliads, trees and shrubs with tiny pink and yellow blossoms, and bright orange starflowers like the ones I’ve seen before on the summit of Mt Roraima. I spot an orange cock-of-the-rock nearby, then another, then three or four more. Peering into a bromeliad, I find a small reservoir of water and a minute golden frog pertly swimming. Then we draw near to the edge of the gorge, and our guides smile, anticipating our reaction to what we see next: Kaieteur in its full glory, still a mile or so away, but already unimaginably immense.

The best view comes from Johnson’s Point. We duck under vegetation and squeeze through narrow gaps in the rock to reach a great bare boulder, where the earth falls away before us. The whole gorge unfolds below: we can see all the way from the beach where we basked the day before to the billows of Kaieteur itself. An unfathomable immensity of water plunges down, with no object to give a true sense of scale. The pool at the foot of the falls is invisible in a cloud of spray. I see the edge of the deep, dark cave behind the falls, and Kaieteur swifts sport in the air above, swooping and diving after invisible insects.

 

The best counterpoint to the sublime is a touch of the domestic, and that’s what we find at the Kaieteur guesthouse, about a quarter mile from the top of the falls. We’re met by fruit trees, flagpoles, a wide verandah, two bedrooms, and a large front room complete with table laid out with our lunch. After three days of camp cuisine, this is a feast: cookup rice and black-eyed peas, a salad of carrots and cucumbers, pitchers of juice and a thermos of tea. The guides slip away for the usual “fresh” in the river, but I indulge in an indoor shower — even if the water is the same temperature as the Potaro’s.

The adventure of getting here is one thing, but the other advantage of our upriver itinerary is the chance to linger here at the top of Kaieteur, and spend many more hours contemplating our surroundings than are allowed to day-trippers. I pass the late afternoon at the edge of the falls, mesmerised by the gigantic flow.

The sheer force and quantity of falling water defy comprehension, or description. I can’t help miniaturising the scene in my head as I watch. The most terrifying view is from a ledge of rock cantilevered over the gorge, just beside the lip of the falls. Behind me, the upper Potaro flows silently and gently, barely a ripple on its surface. Twenty feet from the brink, the water becomes agitated, as though drawing back — then abruptly it comes to the edge of the sandstone plateau it has eroded for aeons, and the river collapses downwards, a plunge the height of four Niagaras.

I lie on my belly on the rock edge, peering over. One of our guides lies beside me. You can feel the mountain moving below you, he says, and I do. I find I can’t lie here for more than a minute — it seems like an eternity, and I feel a vertiginous attraction to the falling water. I rationalise it, drawing on my O-level physics: such a mass of water accelerating so fast must generate a discernable gravitational force.

I linger nearby, gazing down the gorge and to the eastern horizon, until dusk, and the final spectacle I’ve waited to see. As the light fades, thousands of Kaieteur swifts return from their daytime hunt across the sky, and prepare to return to their nighttime roost behind the falls. They swirl and spiral in thickening numbers, their high-pitched cries growing louder and louder. The air is full of them, and then at a signal the vast flock swerves downwards and around the curtain of foaming water. The falls themselves are their security barrier, and their refuge is inaccessible to any creature without wings.

I can still hear the swifts chattering in their cave long after sunset — shouldn’t they be asleep? — their high notes carrying past the roar of Kaieteur. Orion and Taurus above me are bright in a moon-washed sky. Great night clouds sail past. This is the proper moment to toast our arrival, but our rum rations have run out, and our reprovisioning visit to Menzies Landing, the village thirty minutes’ walk away, has been called off. The generator is down, all the lights are off, and “Menzies is closed up,” the guesthouse cook cheerfully informs us. “Nothing in Menzies tonight.”

I make a mental note to double the rum ration on my next jungle trip, and throw myself gratefully into my guesthouse bed. I fall asleep at once, thinking of Kaieteur so close by, and dream strange dreams of rivers and mountains and heights. I dream them for years to come.

 

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