“Karanambo was twice accursed”

Diane McTurk, doyenne of Guyana’s Rupununi Savannah, on the founding of her family’s ranch, the old balata industry, and the legends of Karanambo

Diane McTurk. Photograph by Abigail Hadeed

My great-great-grandfather Sir Michael McTurk came to British Guiana in the early 19th century — he was a medical officer. He was the first white man to survey the Rupununi. His son married into a Liverpool shipping family, and his grandson — my grandfather — also named Michael McTurk — ran away on one of the ships when he was seventeen. He came to Guiana, because he’d heard so many stories from the first Michael.

My grandfather eventually became Protector of the Indians for the whole Essequibo. And my father [Edward “Tiny” McTurk] was actually born in the interior, in Bartica. He joined the Royal Flying Corps in the 1914–18 war, and he came back pretty disillusioned about the marvels of civilisation. When he wanted to get married, he decided that he had to have serious employment, rather than go looking for gold and diamonds — his fortune. So he got a job with the balata company. That’s what Karanambo was founded on — balata [a natural latex similar to rubber]. Balata is very resistant to marine degradation. So therefore the laying of the trans-Atlantic cable was the heyday of the balata industry. The cables were sheathed in this stuff. Then after that it was factory belts — then golf balls. Superior golf balls still have balata centres.

Remember that the empire used to be administered by nineteen-year-olds straight out of public school, filled with ideas about the white man’s burden and integrity and honour and all of these useless things that are no good in the modern world at all — it really doesn’t work that way.

They can bleed the trees only in the wet season — because with rainfall sap rises. They actually had a system whereby the contractors had to visit the camps in order to check that the trees in the area were not being bled more often than every seven years. And they didn’t cut them down — it’s illegal — there are two trees in Guyana you can’t cut down: balata and the ité palm, which produces leaves for thatching houses.

My father was told to find a place for a headquarters midway between the confluence of the Essequibo and the Rupununi River at Apoteri, and Wichibai, the southern station — and by chance he went in the wet season, so there were very few places along the river that were above water, because the flooding was so extensive. That was in 1927, when my mother came out. My father was fortunate in getting to Karanambo, which actually was not recommended to him — nobody would live here, because it was twice accursed, according to myth and according to legend.

The myth had it that the black rocks which were along the river were the Kanaima’s rocks — the Kanaima being the spirit of retribution. And in the myth, Makonaima, the Great Spirit, was sorry for the people, because they were working only in bone and wood. He thought he would give them the gift of working in stone, so he called the leader of the people to him at the bend of the Rupununi River where it flows past the black rocks, and instructed him in the arts of working in stone.

But when he was giving the leader of the people the demonstration rock, he casually broke it from the Kanaima’s rocks, and in doing so he released bloodshed into the land, which had been a beautiful, pastoral, idyllic place to live in before that.

So it was unlucky to see the rocks. If there was a chance that you might catch a glimpse of them, you had to squeeze pepper on your boat paddles and allow the peppery water to run down into your eyes.

When my parents settled here, they didn’t know this, to begin with. In the wet season it was OK, because the rocks were covered with water. And in the dry season my parents would be standing there, you know, boat paddling down the river and they’re calling out: “Letters! Letters to go down to Apoteri! Pass them to the next village!” And the people are looking in the opposite direction, paddling as hard as they can. My parents could only get one blind man to work for them.

I think the only other bad luck would have been something my father again took as a matter of superstition. He was told that he must not cut the ité leaves for the roof—in the dark of the moon? No he had to cut them in the dark of the moon — I’ve got to get this right — but, however, he wanted the roof on fast, and this happened to be the wrong time of the moon.

So he said, “But why not?” “O, because terrible things will happen, terrible things!” “What? Why?” “Just terrible things — you cannot do it, it’s forbidden.”

So therefore he said, “Well, never mind the terrible things, let’s go cut leaves!” And he cut the leaves — and he roofed the house, and all was well, and everybody sat back and admired it. But some days later, plop! A worm drops down. Plop! plop! plop!

There’s a moth that lays in a lunar cycle, so you don’t want to have the leaves on your roof at the time when they’re going to be shredded into filigree by the grubs. So my father’s experiment revealed why you should not cut leaves . . .

In the 50s I went off to drama school in Oxford. Then a new girl arrived — Maggie Smith — and I quickly realised I had no talent whatsoever. I ended up working for the Savoy in public relations. Then in 1977 I came back to the Rupununi, intending to go through my father’s papers and write the history of the pioneer ranching families. What with one thing and another, I still haven’t started.

Karanambo, run by Diane McTurk and her nephew Edward, is still a working cattle ranch, but its main income now comes from hosting visitors at the main compound. McTurk has also become famous for her work rehabilitating orphaned giant river otters and returning them to the wild.