Postcard From the Rupununi, Guyana

Photographer Abigail Hadeed explores the Rupununi savannahs of Guyana and finds rodeos, jaguars, otters, petroglyphs and ranch-style holidays

A vaquero goes through his paces at the Amerindian Rodeo. Photograph by Abigail HadeedAt the Amerindian Rodeo in Lethem Guyana. Photograph by Abigail HadeedAt the Amerindian Rodeo in Lethem Guyana. Photograph by Abigail HadeedAt the Amerindian Rodeo in Lethem. Photograph by Abigail HadeedDiane Mc Turk’s helper frolics with an otter named Tugger. Photograph by Abigail HadeedHammock weaving. Photograph by Abigail HadeedMaking farine at one of the outstations. Photograph by Abigail HadeedRodeo hopefuls. Photograph by Abigail HadeedThe guest house at Dadanawa. Photograph by Abigail HadeedThe legendary Diana McTurk at Karanambo. Photograph Abigail HadeedThe legendary Diane McTurk at Karanambo. Photograph by Abigail HadeedVictoria lilies on the river at Karanambo. Photograph by Abigail Hadeed

After the Caribbean islands, Guyana seems huge about size of Britain, with only 700,000 people. This is where the Caribbean invades South America, between Surinam and Venezuela, stretching all the way down to Brazil in the south. From here you can head for Boa Vista or Manaus, or link up with the Amazonian Highway.

I started out from Georgetown, the capital, with its colonial architecture, its famous wooden cathedral, St George’s, and its many market places full of Guyanese and Amerindian craft.

The Rupununi is like the last open frontier. It’s a rugged land of cattle trails and open savannahs, where the vaqueros, like American cowboys, ride hard on the open range rounding up cattle and driving them to the corrals.

There are two ways into the Rupununi. The first is by small plane – the flight takes about an hour. The pioneering way is to travel across land by truck to Lethem along the old cattle trail. This took me four days and three nights in a truck with Amerindians and other Guyanese who make the trip all the time to trade in flour, rice, sugar and diesel, the most basic requirements for daily survival for the people of the Rupununi.

Every year the Amerindian Rodeo takes place in Lethem, way down in the south-west. The preparations begin at least two weeks in advance – making and repairing saddles, leggings and whips. The rodeo takes place on Easter Saturday and Sunday, and it is the event of the year for the Amerindians – descendants of Guyana’s original settlers. The villagers come from all the surrounding regions of the Rupununi to watch and enjoy themselves; it’s a bit like Trinidad’s Carnival – letting go after months of hard work in the fields, walking miles to plant cassava.

The success of this rodeo has encouraged another village called Annai to hold their own rodeo for the first time.

Dadanawa is the largest ranch in the Rupununi. It’s a great base for a wild west adventure – horseback riding, mountain climbing, bird watching, or just sitting on the corral watching the vaqueros work the cattle. Its gracious hosts, Sandy and Duane de Freitas, can accommodate up to eight visitors in their two houses, with meals cooked on a big old wood stove.

At Dadanawa you come face to face with some really exciting adventures. Imagine coming back from a visit to the outstations – seeing farine and cassava bread being made, a woman weaving a hammock for her daughter’s wedding, and preparations for the rodeo – to find the vaqueros in a frenzy. The jaguar has returned! So, off you go into the bush to help track the beast.

Karanambo ranch, in the north of the Rupununi, is owned by Diane McTurk, who’s a legend in her own right. There, the naturalist can enjoy nature walks, trips up the river for bird watching and cayman gazing, or just swinging in a hammock and gazing at a blanket of stars with the soft Rupununi breezes blowing through your hair.

One of the most interesting things about Diane is her love for the wild otters, many of whom have found refuge and a home with her till they are big enough to venture back up the river. You might be having dinner under the stars when one of Diane’s rehabilitated “refugees” comes to pay a visit.

A holiday in the Rupununi is a real adventure, one which you’ll remember the rest of your life. It’s unusual, exciting – but it’s a far cry from lazy beach holidays in a luxury resort. These vacations are recommended only “for groups small enough to fit in a Land Rover, tough enough to push it out of a swamp in a rainstorm, and involved enough to feel aggravated if it breaks down.” If you’re a free-spirited person, it’s just a wonderful experience.

To find out more about these locations (and prices), contact Wendella Jackson, 360 New Garden Street, Georgetown (tel. 592-2-53750).

An alternative to the ranches is the Rock View Eco-Tourism Resort in Annai, run by Colin Edwards (you can contact him at 197 Oronoque and Almond Streets, Queenstown, Georgetown – tel. 592-2-66366 or 57271). And I can’t finish without mentioning my first contacts in the Rupununi – Shirley and Don Melville, who run a dry goods store in Lethem. Don is a descendent of one of the first pioneers of the area, and their warm welcome made me look forward to the people I was going to meet and the places I was going to see.

By the way, If you come down here to join me – remember that visitors need a permit, and must check in with the police in Lethem when they arrive.