Published: November 29th 2006November 24th 2006
Our Plane in Lethem
Well, this was really all we got to see of Lethem
Guyana - To The Interior
After what seemed like ages of trying to find a way into the interior of Guyana, we finally gave up planning and just found an aeroplane going vaguely in our direction and jumped on it. Just before we left we emailed our potential host, at a place called Caiman House, who confirmed she had space for us, and so off we went. We hit the local (interior flights) airport, called Ogle. After being weighed (you know you’re going on a small plane when each kg counts) we were sent to immigration. Immigration was staffed by five people whose job description seemed to be “sit around, watch bad local soaps on TV, look menacing and get tourists to write their name in the book after scrutinising their passports”. After duly writing our names in the book we went back to the waiting lounge, and eventually were called to board the plane. This was proceeded by a large jolly man asking us if we had anything to declare, and warning us that if we didn’t declare things they might get taken off us at the other end. After the little old lady behind us told him she
Jane makes friends using fish
Semi-tame giant otter Sapho comes out of the river for lunch
had only her self to declare, this dissolved into good-humoured laughter and was officially declared a charade - a long way from the 3 hours of security clearance we endured at Gatwick… The plane had about 12 seats, and we even got free biscuits and a drink before getting on! We flew to Lethem first, which is a kind of cowboy Wild West town, complete with an annual rodeo. That’s all we know of Lethem, because we took off shortly after landing and taking on a couple more people. The next stop was our destination, Karanambu. This was a tiny dirt airstrip in the middle of nowhere, and given that there was only one Landrover parked at the end and no habitation in sight (from air or land) we hoped that it was for us! Felt a bit nervous as there was an elderly Swiss couple on the plane who seemed to be hoping for a lift as well (and they had probably arranged something).
Otters and more
Luckily the Landrover was there for everyone. We were introduced to a great bloke called Ashley, who had as confusing a past as me (having had his English mother move him
Back in to the water to crunch the fishy offering
around between Guyana and South Africa, he now considers himself Guyanese, but supports the Proteas when they play the Windies). We visited Karanambu lodge, and met a woman called Diane McTurk, who has dedicated her life to saving the Giant Otters who live in the Rupununi river. She was very old school English in her mannerisms, putting me in mind of a public school headmistress or similar. We hit it extra lucky because the evening before we arrived they had been sent three baby otter’s that had been intercepted being smuggled out from Lethem to Brazil. No photo’s of them as they were pretty camera shy, but Jane got to cuddle them and feed them bits of fish, while I got to watch one eat my toes… Really just like puppies except they have to eat near water apparently.
After playing with the babies, we got to meet Sapho, who is an adult Otter who has been reared by the staff at the lodge since she was found abandoned as a baby. She now lives in the river outside the ranch, and regularly visits for lunch, which again Jane got to provide.
Then we got to take a
View from the Boat
Sunset on the Rupununi river
stunning riverboat (aluminium boat with 15hp outboard) ride to our destination for the next week. Ashley proved an awesome guide, pointing out loads of bird life and the numerous Caiman (crocodile equivalents) sunning themselves in the afternoon light. The landscape was amazing - the Savannah is weird because it mostly floods during the wet season. It was a completely different atmosphere from Georgetown and the coast, having a population density of effectively zero. It was very reminiscent of the Australian outback in its feeling of isolation.
We spent the next week at Caiman house, which was a decidedly mixed experience, but incredibly interesting. Caiman house is built in the small village of Yukupari, which has a population of about 500-700 people, depending on who you ask and what they count as the village. The house was the home of an American couple that moved into the area so that the man of the couple could have a base for his research into the local Black Caiman population. His wife and son had moved out with him, and his wife had involved herself extensively in local affairs and politics. This seemed to bemuse the locals, who were a
Here's the boat, now if only we could find the paddle
Our walk was to involve using this boat to get across the river, but we weren't specific enough in asking the boats owner where the paddle was - he simply responded "up against a tree" and there were a few of those, so eventually we gave up and turned around
bit at a loss with how to respond to a self confessed pushy American woman entering their lives and bringing with her the internet, and grand plans for development. The house also brought a lot of money into the community, as well, and is without a doubt the biggest employer in the village, which meant few people were keen to object to their presence.
We got drafted into service seeing whoever wanted to see a doctor, which meant mostly that I saw a large number of congenial old men with arthritis or other chronic aches and pains resulting from a lifetime of hard physical labour, and probably complicated by gout resulting from overindulgence from time to time. The men were not keen to see Jane, thinking she must be the nurse, and they were somewhat concerned when I regularly consulted her for a second (and far more useful for them) opinion. Having no equipment or medications, most of these consultations ended in us both smiling and agreeing they were going to have to live with the problem. Jane got to see a large number of the women who wanted nothing whatsoever to do with me, for a range of
The intrepid Telford snares a Caiman
After a fight, the eletrical tape is about to go on...
problems which included a bit too much gynaecology for her own happiness.
It Won’t Bite Me! apologies to the late Steve Irwin for misuse of a fabulous catch phrase
We went Caiman catching on the river one night with the research team, which was very exciting (the Caiman are pretty huge, and although everyone from the research house were telling us how they were not very aggressive, all the locals had some story of a Caiman attack in the past affecting a relative). After spotting the Caiman in the dark with the aid of a large spotlight, the person in the bow of the boat gets to casually slip a noose around the neck of any Caiman stupid enough not to dive at our approach. After this, depending on the size of the Caiman, they drive it up and down the river for up to half an hour (sometimes more) to wear it out. This can be quite dramatic, as the Caiman often has a few chomps at the boat. Then the bowman has the job of slipping another noose around the jaw and then using electrical tape to further keep the jaw shut. After this the unlucky Caiman
One on the beach
Having been marked, weighed and tagged this guy is about to undergo the most personal invasion of all...
is landed on the first sandbank and processed for data - their general condition is documented, and then they are weighed and a microchip is inserted under their (thick!) skin, and they also have a bit of their tail cut out to aid identification when they are seen again. Then the Caiman is rolled over, and (South Park and Steve Irwin fans will love this bit) then the boss sticks his finger into the cloaca (not simply to piss it off, but rather to determine gender he insists). After this the Caiman is aimed at the water, and the various ropes etc removed as everyone backs off further and further awaiting the time when the animal realises it is free and makes a break for it. Jas was seen to brown his pants quite effectively when the twelve foot caimen took a wrong turn on release and headed straight towards him... mate if only the camera had been charged up! We saw a couple of large Caiman being caught and processed, and Jas had the honour of micro-chipping and chopping bits off the tail of one. While it was undoubtedly exhilarating, I am not entirely sure that it was all
Thankfully, Telford's still holding the pole
Otherwise this cheesy touristy shot would be a lot more scary
completely necessary, and we were left with the lingering doubt that it was all a bit of excitement for the lads loosely in the name of science. Whatever the ethics, after a night of Caiman catching we both stopped swimming in the river in the evenings!
Raiders of the lost nest!
We also got to go out nest raiding with our host. This involved finding the Black Caiman nests (mostly found around a huge pond covered in giant water lilies) and then opening them up and removing the eggs so they could be counted, weighed and measured, before returning them and trying to put the nest back together again. Amazingly during all this (one-two hours per nest) the mother could be seen in the water circling around and keeping a worried / weary eye on us, but never (at least not yet) attacking. Kind of nerve wracking I must admit. The pond was awesome, but getting there tramping through the mosquito filled rainforest was hot sweaty work and I must admit I would not choose nest raiding as a career.
Jas also got to observe the process of brick making in action, involving stomping down river
bank clay and then placing it into a mould, before setting the bricks out in the sun to dry, and finally firing them by building them into a tunnel and setting a large fire in the middle. Hard work - I made a total of two bricks, which will almost certainly be misshapen rejects…
Fishing with Telford!
I think the highlight for both of us was going fishing on the river with a wonderful Amerindian bloke called Telford (who was also the noose man on our Caimaning night). He fished using just a hand line, but was able to cast it a good 20-30 meters just by whirling the hook around his head, and releasing with such accuracy he could get straight to the spots where the fish were jumping. After about ten minutes of fishing without any bait, just using a lure, he had caught 2 large catfish. He continued to catch fish and process them into bait faster than we could feed the bait to the remaining fish through our incompetence. Eventually we all managed to catch a few (Jas got the smallest and stupidest fish in the river award for something about 5 inches long which
That's not a Knife
Jas gets to perform cosmetic surgery on his biggest patient yet.
was caught not by the mouth but by the fin). After a breathtakingly beautiful trip back down the river at sunset, we ate fish for dinner (yes, even Jason) with some degree of pride. This after the benefit of a lesson in comparative anatomy which was administered while gutting the fish, by a professor of Biology from Tampa University who was also staying at Caiman house! (He was a fascinating bloke who we both really enjoyed the company of).
Watch out for the American Great White Shark in the Jungle!
At the end of a week of staying at Caiman house, Jane and I got stung with a bill for US$1000 by our hosts, who had charged us twice what we were expecting. I wouldn’t have minded if the quality of the accommodation was up to it, but it simply wasn’t anywhere near up to that kind of price. The room we had was infested with cockroaches, and had no privacy being simply a partitioned part of the main building. The food was whatever our host cooked for the night, which was fairly unimaginative (fried anything and everything!). We were expected to help with the cooking and washing up.
Pasty white guy makes bricks real badly
And manages to amuse the professionals no end!
Water and power were intermittent - we could live with that being the reality, but don’t expect to pay so much for it! Worst of all was the fact that we were constantly dodging the puddles of pee and piles of crap left by the puppy they had, as well as fighting off the parasite infested older dogs and cats who populated all areas of the house (as well as sharing all the food preparation surfaces). The other problem with staying there is that in the eyes of the locals you are associated with the owners of the house, and therefore share their agenda and politics. This was particularly concerning as our landlady was trying to push through a request for a grant for money for a water supply, which to both of us seemed hopelessly over-ambitious and non-sustainable, as it involved pumping river water (not safe for drinking) up to the village square using a petrol powered pump which no one locally had the expertise to maintain. Her proposal was that the ongoing cost of the petrol was to be met by either taxing all the village households equally, or by taxing the farmers who were going to benefit
Thanks to Mike who took this great picture.
by using the water for irrigation. Personally, this really annoyed us as without a doubt the biggest consumer of the water will be Caiman house, where it will be used in the washing machine and the showers for the guests.
After a week in Yukupari, I (Jason) was left with the following impressions; Firstly - The Amerindian people are truly the nicest people I have met anywhere in the world. They are unassuming, extremely friendly, very honest, and they would give you the shirt off their backs. Secondly - bringing them western culture and ideals needs to be done very gently, by people who are good at understanding different values. Sadly I don’t count our hosts in this category - offering internet based gaming and showing American movies twice a week on a big screen simply indoctrinates the local kids into American culture, without necessarily educating them. I hope that the incredibly good natured locals don’t end up getting stuffed in the development process, but at the moment I’m worried that will be the case. Finally, I felt that this was a truly unique and beautiful part of the world. Overall, the week here (while expensive!) was definitely worth it, if slightly unsettling.