Exploring the Guyanan Amazon

Exploring the Guyanan Amazon
View of the Potaro river from Kaieteur falls

A cursory search of the internet will tell you, over 80% of the country is covered in rainforest, much of it pristine. Guyana is home to an astounding diversity of species, it has been relatively unexplored, etc, etc… But what’s it actually like living there? I plan on spending roughly the next 4+ months photographing and touring the mostly unexplored rainforests of Guyana and hopefully have some interesting experiences to share.

Let me preface this post, this journal really by saying I am the unluckiest person I know, if you meet me, do not sit next to me as you will probably come to some kind of bodily harm.

August 21st

Getting the last of my affairs in order before I leave for Guyana. This involved waiting on some solar panels to charge my batteries, buying some military jungle boots and getting a jungle hammock. Well, the solar panels which I’d bought on eBay several weeks beforehand were caught up in customs, MEC an outdoor store retailer was sold out of the hammocks, and the jungle boots I wanted came only in size 12.

Okay then…I arrived in Georgetown, reportedly one of the most dangerous cities in South America at around 10pm. It seems that my flights always arrive into dangerous places at dangerous times. I had the intention of overnighting in the Cheddi Jagan international airport. However, it was mostly open, with no proper seats or benches and not conducive to waiting around. So after being pressured by a taxi driver (nb. I hate taxi drivers, I was robbed of all my earthly possessions by one at gunpoint in Ecuador and have since had an aversion to the point where I will walk 10 km out of the way not to take a taxi, which incidentally has also gotten me into trouble in the past but that’s a story for another time). I took a taxi to Rima guesthouse, a pleasant family run place and besides charging me roughly 6 times the going rate of the fare, he was a pleasant enough fellow.

The next couple of days were spent ‘getting the lay of the land’. What this really meant was I ran about taking care of all the things I should have already have done before I left but was too disorganized to do. Hey, that’s the way I roll. So, this involved getting topographical maps of the regions I was visiting, getting some supplies, buying a hammock and figuring out where in the country I want to visit first. Yes, I am THAT disorganized that I travel to a place first and then decide what to do. Contact with my family indicated that the day I arrived in Guyana was the day that my solar panels arrived. Having them sent express post, nearly $300. This is where that whole unlucky thing comes in. Well, my original plan to go to Iwokrama reserve for a month was put on hold without the solar panels, battery charging would be a real pain/not feasible so I needed a place with at least intermittent power, and to come back into Georgetown in roughly 2 weeks, the time it would take to get the package sent to me. That combined with the fact that the roads were absolutely atrocious. Apparently a bridge had washed away on the only route I wanted to do. One had to get off at one or more points, slog a few miles through the mud with all of one’s belongings and then catch another transport vehicle. See here:

http://www.kaieteurnewsonline.com/2010/08/18/heavy-rains-continue-to-hinder-efforts-in-lethem/

http://www.stabroeknews.com/2010/news/stories/07/28/parts-of-lethem-road-impassable-after-heavy-rain/

So, I decided on an overland trek to Kaieteur falls.

Prior to leaving I had told an entomologist that I would collect some samples for him, so I bought some 70% alcohol and retrofitted a mosquito net into a butterfly net, and I was good to go. Somehow walking bushwhacking through trail-less jungle with a backpack weighing about 60lbs didn’t figure too prominently into my calculations.

My inventory list goes something like this:

-5D mark ii camera, 7D camera, twin light flash, 580 EX flash, 24 AA’s, 1 15min quick charger, 1 120W li-ion battery, 1 AC/DC inverter, 1 3 person tent, 5 pounds of food, titanium soloist cookset, Katadyn water filter, Primus Omnifuel Himalaya stove, Apple laptop, 4 16GB CF cards, and clothes. I also brought along War and Peace since I’d been planning on reading it for a while but had never gotten around to it (More on this one later).

The following day I caught a minibus to Mahdia, from where an overland trek begins. I chose to do this independently for several reasons. 1) I trust guides about as much as I do Taxi drivers 2) I can do a trip by myself at roughly 1/3 the cost of an organized tour 3) I’m a misanthrope 4) I don’t want to have on my conscience the death of any fellow passengers that will likely come to harm as a result of being in my general vicinity.

2 minibus drivers vie for my attention, each one calling the other a tout and pusher and that I should take their bus. I decide on the one that has the driver with the least scars, gold teeth and facial piercings, hoping that he might be less likely to rob me. He assures me that he will wait on me until I have gotten my bag from my hostel before he leaves. So I run to my hostel grab my bag and breathlessly get back to find a half empty minibus that takes another several hours to fill up. They like to cram these things FULL of stuff, this means both people and stuff. We had a couple diesel engines which were leaking fuel, bags of heavy foodstuffs and I had the peace of mind of sitting on a large container of oil, insuring a painful death should we get into any kind of an accident. Several hours pass and finally we take off. But before we can leave for our destination, of course we need to run the errands around the city that everyone was too damn lazy to do while they were loitering around the minibus waiting for it to leave! So we go to a bakery to pick up some bread, we go to a supermarket, buy some eggs, magazines fruit, refreshments, etc…Half a dozen places later and we are heading out of town. The driver makes up for lost time by driving at 150km/hr down a winding, potholed road, overtaking vehicles around blind corners, trusting that a cursory honk will protect us all from the impact and twisted metal of his negligence. We make it to Linden, a mining town 2hrs south of Georgetown where we register our names at a checkpoint. From here, the paved road gives way to a clay one, and the potholes increase in size to swallow and regurgitate the vehicle in a nauseous, motion-sickness inducing ride. 15 minutes in and surprise, we get a flat tire. This is neither uncommon, nor particularly surprising and it’s fixed in short order. We travel another 2 hours before everyone is jarred by the entire tire flying off. We go swerving and careering around the clay road at 60km/hr, jumping in and out of potholes until we jutter to a halt. The children are screaming, everyone is doused in diesel leaked from the engines…this is Guyana folks.

The driver goes back along the road and finds the tire and hubcap and with the help of his companions begins beating the shit out of the rim with a hammer in the hopes of getting it round enough again to fit the tire back onto. Meanwhile the rest of us wait. It is literally a stretch of clay road cut in a swathe of jungle. The occasional mining vehicle stops by to enquire about our problems but are ultimately unable to help. Kind of expecting this kind of thing, I ask one of the other passengers, “so, I guess this kind of thing happens pretty often along these roads, eh?” He answers, “I’ve been taking this route every 2 weeks for the last 10 years and this is the first time this has ever happened to me”. I couldn’t help but feel slightly short-changed. So the time is marked by the steady tattoo of a beat of the hammer on the rim, the sun slides a little further over the horizon and everyone’s patience is being tried. In the 30+ heat and humidity everyone is in sore need of water, but there aren’t any streams, creeks or readily available water sources. However, I grab my water filter and confidently walk several hundred meters away to a filthy puddle on the side of the road. A couple of the passengers follow me, curious as to what I’m up to. I start pumping water from the puddle into my cup and take a sip. They marvel at me like I’m from the moon or something. I try and explain that the silver impregnated filter kills protists and bacteria and that the 0.2nm filter will remove most particulates, pretty much all but viruses. But all they’re interested in is “can they have some”. So the water makes its rounds and I am successful at ingratiating myself to the Guyanese. Dusk slips into night and there are grumblings that we may have to sleep the night in the jungle. Frankly, I’m not especially concerned, in fact I was already scouting the roadside for a good place to set up my tent. I had my portable stove for dinner, my laptop and batteries for entertainment. I was really quite set. As the last of the light faded, the driver didn’t think he could work on the tire any more and so was going to retire to the disappointment of all around. Fortunately I took out my flashlight (My one piece of kit that I am inseparable with, a military grade Fenix L2D, that I fell in love with ever since my old crappy Malaysian flashlight gave out on me when I was 2km into a spelunking cave and had to find my way out in the dark). With the light, they were able to fix the tire after another hour, though since all the bolts had been lost, they had to take 2 from each of the other tires, weakening all of them. So, the last few hours of the trip were loooooooooong, as we stopped every few hundred meters to tighten the bolts on all the tires. But everyone seemed quite thankful that I was on the bus. So, we arrived into the water border crossing after 12 hrs, a journey which was supposed to take 4.

Around midnight, the driver drops us off and says that he won’t take us any further (the town of Mahdia is an additional 3hrs downroad) because he needs to look after his vehicle. This doesn’t stop him from collecting the full fare though, and everyone rightly feels angry and cheated. So I had the option of pitching my tent and staying at the ferry landing the night, or as some other locals were doing, make a midnight crossing and hope for transportation on the other side. I opted for the latter, and loaded my gear into a canoe which we paddled across the Essequibo river, the red gleam of caiman eyes drifting in and out of the flashlight.

We make it to the other side, and I’m dropped off, most of the other locals are traveling further upriver, so I’m left with one disreputable looking rastaman (read dreadlocked, reggae/caribbean style, pot smoking Guyanese) and his ‘cousin’ who had also been on the bus with me. We talked a little, he asked where I was from, what I was doing, and if I’d like to hitchhike to Mahdia (Nb. Bradt’s guide to Guyana says “you would be crazy to hitchhike here”). I tell him I think I’ll wait until morning and then catch a bus. However, against all probability there arrives a taxi. Now you know how I feel about taxis, especially in the middle of the night, especially in the jungle, especially being driven by another pot smoking rastaman. However, the rastaman who introduces himself as Pepsi says that we will share the fare, and it will all be good. With some serious trepidation I get in and we take off. The music blares, a suffocating mixture of incense, weed and jungle humidity overwhelms the AC, and the rastamen prattle on about politics and the corrupt state of Guyana, while I simply pray that they don’t rape and rob me. I keep one hand on the door handle to make a quick exit the entire way there. Meanwhile Pepsi and company are sharing ominous sounding stories. He says, “oh you’re a photographer”, “yes I reply, I photograph, observe and study insects and jungle wildlife”. From which he infers that I am a scientist and therefore he will do me the great privilege of being my field assistant. I l laugh and take it as a joke, tell him I don’t have much money and make up a story that the funding is through the University and there is a long paper trail to hire additional help. He looks at me seriously, all humour gone from his face, “Then how are you going to pay me?”. My grip tightens on the door handle, I smile, and say you can be paid out of the profits of the venture. He considers this a moment, nods, pulls a long drag on his weed and then says, “I don’t really like money, I like to use a different currency. Like I help you like now, by letting you be in my vehicle, and you help me out later on”. By this time I’m wondering what the hell I’ve gotten myself into. I nod, and try to carry out as neutral a conversation as possible. “Guyana is the most corrupt nation in the world”, he says, “uh-huh”, I agree starting to actually agree with him. “More than Asia or even Africa, you see they have deeper corruption but we have more, it’s more widespread, it influences every aspect from our lives to the police, to taking a taxi on the street”. “You have got to be kidding me”, I am thinking to myself. 2 hours down the road, the whole while I feel like puking, my gut twisted like a gordian knot we arrive in the mining town of Mahdia. It is riotous, even 2 o’clock in the morning, with music pumping from a discotheque. Pepsi gets out with the girl and I get out to, but he puts a hand on my shoulder and says, “my friend, you stay in the car, this area isn’t safe, my friend the taxi driver will take care of you, it’s just a little further, stay in the car”. I object, “no, no thank you I…this is fine, really”. “I suggest you stay in the car”, he says again more seriously. I step back into the car, wondering at how the events of this awful day had finally culminated into this. The taxi driver drives a little further, past the busy streets, into a darkened park and stops the car. “This is it”, he says, “the end of the line”…

“Okay, so you have the police station to your right, bathrooms on your left, and me and Pepsi thought that this park would be a good place for you to pitch your tent. You’ve really got everything that you could want”. That will be 3000G$, I balk, but remember that this is equivalent to about $15US, and so with a hand trembling with relief I pay him the money.  And then, just to be certain I walk down the road another 40 minutes toward Pamela’s landing, the jumping off point to get a boat to Amatuk falls, the next leg of the journey. By flashlight I set up my tent in the jungle, I filter myself several litres of water, and breathe freely for the first time in what felt like ages.

6 Responses to Exploring the Guyanan Amazon

  1. rhoskyns says:

    Great blog, sounds exactly what I want to do with my life!

    Not much on it yet but please have a look at mine and maybe follow if you like it:

    https://kalahariblog.wordpress.com/

    thanks!

    • pbertner says:

      Thanks for dropping by and glad that enjoy the blog…it’s in a bit of a transition period now as I haven’t updated in a very long time. Sounds exciting, look forward to seeing some new pics of the African outback. Hopefully you can include a section/info on the Kalahari bushmen, they are always a fascinating topic of exploration.

      Best wishes,
      Paul

  2. emily says:

    you are living an amazing life! I hope you get to keep going for as long and as far as your heart desires!

    • pbertner says:

      Hi Emily,

      Thank you very much for the kind words! I definitely plan to keep on going along this track for another few years, there is just so much out there that it is difficult to settle down once you get up and see for yourself some natural wonders.

      Best wishes,
      Paul

  3. Joe says:

    This was riveting, looking forward now to reading your whole blog.

    • pbertner says:

      Thanks Joe, glad that you found it entertaining. Definitely a mixed blessing this lifestyle, afterwards the stories are great, though I feel like I’ve prematurely aged 50 years, and frightened a few years off my life.

      Enjoy the rest of the blog,
      Cheers,
      Paul

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