Rediscover El Dorado: Destination Guyana

Mark Lyndersay explores the mountains, savannahs and rivers of Guyana

A rare little golden frog. Photograph by Jonathan OrensteinDiane McTurk and friend at KaranamboGeorgetown’s Stabroek Market. Photograph by Mark LyndersayPhotograph by Jonathan OrensteinQueen Victoria still stands outside the High Court buildings in Georgetown. Photograph by Mark LyndersaySt. George’s Cathedral in St. Georgetown, one of the world’s largest wooden buildings. Photograph by Mark LyndersayThe great ranches of the Rupununi could be mistaken for the American West. Photograph by Mark LyndersayUp-country comforts at Shanklands. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay

Glance out of the window of any of the light planes that will take you through Guyana, and you will see just how enormous the place is. The Guyana most people think of is just the thin coastal strip where most of the people live; but that sliver of land is only a tiny part of the real Guyana.

This vaguely pear-shaped country, 83,000 square miles of South America but generally regarded as part of the Caribbean, is almost as big as Britain but with barely a hundredth of its population. It divides naturally into four great areas. There’s the densely populated coastal region, where the capital, Georgetown, is found. There’s the rain forest, which begins just 50 miles inland and covers almost the entire northern half of the country, ending at the ancient Pakaraima mountain range. The Rupununi, in the south, is a series of great rolling plains studded with mountains where ranching is the primary occupation. And there are the rivers, the thousands of streams and mighty waterways which make up the arteries of transportation in the more inaccessible regions.

The whole north-eastern shoulder of South America, collectively known as Guiana, was ignored by the region’s Spanish settlers as too inhospitable to merit their attention. The Dutch, English and French, anxious for a foothold, weren’t that fussy. The Dutch settled first, but fought with the English until 1831 when an area bordered by Venezuela, Brazil and Suriname was ceded to Britain as British Guiana. Today’s population is mainly descended from India and Africa, with smaller communities of European and Chinese descent and, in the interior, original Amerindian settlers. Indo-Guyanese form over half the total, and some parts of Guyana, like Berbice, the easternmost county, have a strong Indian flavour.

The early European settlers tried to create farming communities in the rain forest; their capital, Kyk-over-al, was on a small island far inland at the confluence of the Mazaruni and Cuyuni rivers. Over time, these pioneers retreated to the coastal plain where the land was more easily cultivated. But their fingerprints are everywhere, from the canals of the capital to the Dutch names like Vlissengen and Beterverwagting. Wharves and jet-ties are still called stellings (there’s a lovely example at Parika, from where the ferry chugs up the Essequibo River for four hours to reach Bartica). Many other Guyanese place names are Amerindian — Kwakwani, Kaieteur, Towakaima, Yupukari.

Vast distances and difficult terrain are still the chief deterrents to Guyana’s growth — and its most valuable resource. Even today, large areas of the country have only been seen by a handful of people; its forests and plains are largely untouched.

This is still pioneering country. It was here that Sir Waiter Raleigh came in search of El Dorado, the lost city of gold, and where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was inspired to write The Lost World.

Georgetown

Almost a quarter of Guyana’s people live in Georgetown, the capital. Originally an English settlement, it was named Stabroek during the Dutch occupation, then renamed Georgetown in 1812. This is a city full of character, famous for its airy white-painted wooden houses and broad tree-lined avenues and canals.

St. George’s Cathedral near the centre of the city was rebuilt three times, the last in 1892. Over the altar there is an enormous chandelier given by Queen Victoria. This is the largest free-standing wooden structure in the world — the top of the spire is 147 feet above the ground. A statue of the daunting Victoria stands outside the Law Courts nearby, her marble nose broken and looking all the more grim for it. City Hall (1887), the Public Buildings (where Parliament sits) and State House on Main Street, are some of the other major buildings to look out for.

In the famous Stabroek Market you can find anything from shark to chiffon: walk far enough inside and you will cross from land to water, eventually ending up on a wharf where fresh fish and vegetables are offloaded.

Stroll down Brickdam and look at some of the colonial houses: handsome facades, delicate fretwork, slatted wooden windows (which open with ‘window-sticks’) and slated roofs. The Georgetown Club, on Camp Street, opposite the Plaza (one of the great old cinemas), is the best kept of this kind. Brickdam is also famous for its huge concrete cathedral, which looms above its neighbours (including the Presbytery opposite).

At the western edge of Brickdam, opposite the Parliament buildings, is St Andrew’s Kirk, recently restored; it is said to be the oldest church in the capital, dating from the early 18th century. Round the comer are the Magistrates’ Courts and the High Court, with their lofty orange roofs and yellow walls, studded with large many-paned windows.

On Main Street is the Prime Minister’s Residence (formerly the British High Commissioner’s), the Park Hotel and the old railway line, complete with canal and shaded avenue. Regent Street bustles with every store available, as well as Bourda Market. Carifesta Avenue is lined with cricket grounds and the National Park where the locals walk off their cares daily. Take a stroll in the Botanic Gardens, whose many acres of beautifully manicured landscape are home to nesting egrets and playful manatees, and the mausoleum of the former president, Forbes Burnham. In the evening listen for the chirrup of the six o’clock beetle: it’s one of the most soothing sounds you will ever hear in a city.

Georgetown and much of the coast is below sea level. The land is protected by an enormous sea wall built by the Dutch in the early 180Os, which defends 270 miles of coast from the assault of the Atlantic. An elaborate system of kokers, sluice gates manned by watchmen, allows the rivers to empty at low tide. On Sundays, the sea wall is alive with Guyanese enjoying the strong sea breeze, and with hundreds of bicycles. At Easter, it is host to a cloud of brilliantly coloured kites.

There is some lively nightlife ill the city, particularly on Sheriff Street and at Palm Court, where on a Friday night you can find a large cross-section of Guyana’s middle class partying hard to reggae and calypso music.

Upriver

There are two kinds of maps of Guyana. Simple ones show the main rivers and tourist highlights; the detailed ones are thickly veined with the hundreds of creeks and streams that striate the land, almost 6,000 km of navigable waterways. Many of these rivers rise in the Pakaraima mountain range and flow into one of the three main rivers of Guyana, the Berbice, the Demerara and the Essequibo. They provide transport through the forest, and are travelled by six-seater boats called ballahoos or tiny canoes for three or four called corials.

Far upstream, some of the rivers flow clear and white, but almost all Guyana’s rivers are blackwater, stained by tannin from the vegetation to a rich brown hue. Some of the creeks (sometimes pronounced cricks — vowels are fugitive here) are narrow, maybe only six feet across, like the languid upper reaches of the Madewini; others rush across tricky rapids like those on the final stretch of the Mazaruni. Still others are wide, ancient surfaces, 30 or 40 feet across and slick as black glass. On your travels you cut a spray of tea travelling down these dark highways.

Most of the settlements in the rain forest are within a mile or two of a navigable river. People fish the streams and hunt in the forest, some rarely going further in their corial than the nearest large settlement.

An accomplished bushman can take the intrepid explorer along nearly invisible trails, including the spectacular overland trek to the renowned Kaieteur Falls. The less adventurous can reach Kaieteur by air on a 50-minute flight from Timehri or Ogle Airports. No matter how you get there, this is the jewel of the interior and one of those rare wonders which has to be seen to be believed.

At 741 feet, Kaieteur Falls is nearly five times the height of Niagara Falls and twice the height of Victoria Falls in Africa. The water falls so far down that you can hardly even hear the crash it makes on the rocks below: it looks like a great white curtain with dancing patterns of foam. On the left bank of the Potaro River, on the crest of the falls, you can walk (or as in my case, crawl) to the edge of the rocks jutting out into space. The river plunges over the lip, a murky green descent so steep and sharply inclined that the tons of water seem to be falling into a dark hole.

Lying here staring into this abyss, the legend of Chief Kai, who went over the falls in his corial to join Makonaima and save his village, finally sinks in. No barrels and stunts are to be found here. To slide along these rushing waters, past the waving grasses and over the edge, is to die, plain and simple. Halfway down even your screams would disappear.

The path from the tiny airstrip is dotted with insectivorous mosses and hardy grasses; where it can, the rain forest takes hold. The rare Little Golden Frog lives in the huge tank bromeliads which are found everywhere; fluorescent yellow and about the size of a human thumbnail, it lives its entire life in a puddle of water trapped by the leaves.

To the west, on the border with Brazil, is Mt. Roraima (9,129 feet), part of the Guyana Shield and one of the oldest parts of the earth’s crust. From the air, it is a desolate rocky plateau strewn with enormous boulders; it is higher than the cloud cover, which hangs like a cotton wreath on the cliff faces. The much higher Andes, far to the west, are mere geological upstarts compared with ancient Roraima.

The Rupununi

The lands to the south of the Pakaraimas are collectively called the Rupununi, a vast plain dotted with mountains rising up sharply and suddenly. This is ranchland, but the grazing is so thin that a single head of cattle will feed across one and two hundred acres of land in the course of a year. As a result, the lands are wide open and largely uninhabited.

The ranching system was imported by a Dutchman who came to Guyana from Brazil deathly ill and searching for gold. When he believed that his time had come to die, he drank an entire bottle of poison. One capful would have killed him, but the entire bottle plunged him into a coma from which he recovered completely. So the story goes.

Believing the land to be the source of his salvation, he chose to make his home at the place called Macaw Hill or Dadanawa in 1906; from these beginnings came the entire ranching industry of the Rupununi. Dadanawa is still the largest and most isolated ranch, with some 5,000 head of cattle — though in the days when it was one of the largest ranches in the world, it had ten times as many.

The Rupununi is the homeland of some of Guyana’s Amerindian people, descendants of the original settlers and by far the largest community in the Caribbean: Macushi in the North, Wapishana on the plains, Wai Wai in the deep south.

The most famous ranch in the Rupununi today is Karanambo, literally “Carib’s Fall”, the southernmost point reached by the Amerindian Caribs when they invaded Guyana. It is here that Diane McTurk daily renews the Legacy of her father Tiny, who founded the ranch in 1926, and balances the realities of ranching with the needs of an ecological reserve. A sensible and eminently civilised woman, she carries with her the memories of a far grander Rupununi.

“The vaqueros were woken at five o’clock with a hot cup of strong Brazilian coffee,” Diane recalls. “You would prepare your mount and ride off to find the herd. Silently, in the Amerindian way. The only sounds would be the creak of leather and the thick patter of hooves. You would only just be able to see your horse’s ears against the sky.”

One evening I found myself in the middle of a corral at Quemata, with dozens of cattle on either side of me, lasso in hand. The noose of the lasso is usually opened to three quarters of the vaquero’s height, even wider for the more accomplished. You move your grip down, seizing additional lasso, until the metal ring is halfway to the ground and you have about two feet of loose rope and the noose in your hand. Then you add two more loops of rope, and in your other hand, another two loops. You whirl the handful of rawhide over your head, whooping and advancing on the intended target. I was steered towards an enormous five-foot bull with horns like foot-long corkscrews, yelling, “No! No! The heifer! The calf! The little one!”

Cattle can move at surprising speed. They know what’s going on and have no intention of making it easy for you. After the toss you need to be facing in the direction of the animal’s run, crouching and digging your heels in..After three tries, I am pleased to say I actually hit the fleeing creature on the flanks with my noose.

There’s something they never get around to telling you about in westerns though, and it wasn’t until I was in the middle of the corral that I realised I was ankle deep in cow dung. The lasso, which twirls so romantically through the air, whipping snakelike and kicking up tufts of dust, is green with the stuff.

This is a vanishing world. The vaqueros, barefoot cowboys of the Rupununi, face rustlers who are paid more for cattle in Brazil than Georgetown can hope to offer; there are endless transport problems, fewer and fewer ranches are operating, and those that remain rear ever smaller herds. The famous Easter Rodeo is a high point, where the vaqueros can show off their considerable skills; but more and more of the people of the Rupununi are seeking their fortunes in Brazil.

The border here is largely a fiction. Many of the Amerindians are trilingual, speaking their tribal language, English and Portuguese; there is a whole category of people known as GuyBras, who live in both Brazil and Guyana. Lethem, the small town near the western border of Brazil, is the furthest outpost of the Guyanese government; but the unofficial capital of the Rupununi is Boa Vista, a much larger and wealthier Brazilian town 120 miles further west.

The wildlife in the Rupununi is truly wild. The jaguars of the rain forest wander into plain view here, leaving cover to track the cattle. The Jabiru, a heron-like bird, swoops by overhead, sailing on its six-foot wingspan. At Sumoni Pond, the fishing is so rich that a small fish leapt right out of the water into my lap; at Crane Point, hundreds of ibis, heron, egret and anhinga come to roost. In the mighty Rupununi river you can find the arapaima and its cousin, the protected warapaima, growing to more than six feet.

And finally

There are no quick trips around Guyana. It takes at least two weeks even to rush through the highlights of this magnificent and largely untamed country. To savour the beauty and grandeur of the land, you have to walk through it, or at least travel by land and water. Light aircraft offer quick access to most of the key areas; you can take the Georgetown tour and catch a plane to Kaieteur — the tour often includes a trip to Orinduik, where stairstep falls cascade over solid jasper rock. But you miss so much flying over the thick rain forest and endless plains.

I only drove the last 20 miles into Karanambo, but it was the most exhilarating and unnerving two hours I have ever spent behind a steering wheel. At one point we stopped the Land Rover, to put in the four-wheel drive to navigate swampland. Miles of grassy plain stretched away in every direction; and I stood there acutely aware of vastness and emptiness.

If you really want to feel what Guyana is all about, set aside two or three weeks, get yourself in tip-top physical shape and – to quote my driver Vic Ram on the way to the airport — “Bear your passion, set your lip line a’trimble and stay easy.”

Arts and sports

Remember that Guyana, like the rest of the English-speaking Caribbean, is passionate about cricket, and has produced more than its fair share of great players, including Lance Gibbs, Clive Lloyd, Rohan Kanhai, Alvin Kallicharran, Roy Fredericks, Carl Hooper, Roger Harper, Colin Croft, Shivnarine Chanderpaul. Look out for the work of Guyana’s outstanding artists too: the novels of Wilson Harris and Edgar Mittelholzer, the poetry of Martin Carter, the painting of Aubrey Williams and Stanley Greaves, the sculpture of Philip Moore.

Precautions

Guyana is a malaria zone, though not all areas are a risk: check with your tour operator to see if malaria medication is required in the areas you want to visit.

Don’t drink the water unless someone trustworthy tells you it is safe. In Georgetown the water is pretty much pumped from the river to your tap under pressure. You can boil and drink it, but it has a unique taste. Try the various local brands of bottled water; most hotels stock a sealed bottle or two in the rooms for guests.

Carry insect repellent, and choose solutions which have concentrations in excess of 5% diethyltoluamide, the only chemical the insects seem to respect. Mine was a 50% solution which still had to be renewed every two hours in difficult areas. If you have any doubts, bring a good mosquito net– it can mean a good night’s sleep in some areas. All the major tourism sites provide nets with their beds.

Don’t go swimming in the rivers with an open wound; the pirai, a foot-long relative of the piranha, while normally harmless, becomes inflamed by the scent of blood. In the bush, follow your guide’s footsteps and his every request. If you choose to drive off the road, follow the freshest tracks you can find — at least someone has travelled this way before.