Published: October 4th 2010October 3rd 2010
The route from the border to Georgetown consists of almost continuous housing, constructed upon wooden stilts to keep the properties from flooding. The housing is intermittent with mosques and other places of religion, which typifies the ethnic mix in this country. This mix originates from the abolition of slavery in 1834, when Africans refused to work on the plantations for wages, and many established their own villages in the bush. Plantations closed or consolodated because of the labour shortage. A British company, Booker Bros, resurrected the sugar industry by importing indentured labour from India, drastically transforming the nation´s demographic and laying the groundwork for fractious racial politics that continues to be a problem today.
Georgetown still bears the scars of the elections of 2001 when entire blocks of Georgetown were set ablaze. The capial still has some noteworthy buildings but as a whole, it is not the most welcoming of places. It definitely has an ´edge´to it and you are all too aware that you (and my German travel companion) are the only white people as far as the eye can see. We are greeted with the ´up yours´fingers from passing motorists and hearing ¨Hey, what´s up niggers!¨when walking through the markets. It´s not worth enquiring whether they are speaking in jest or not as there are far too many criminals in Georgeotwn to not stand still for more then a few seconds. Hence, our time in Georgetown is spent walking around in daylight and imprisoning ourselves in the YWCA at night! It seems that nobody in Georgetown has ever heard of the YWCA, which seems apparent as we are the only guests. But its cheap, safe and comfortable (and we didn´t have to wear dresses to get in!)
After seeing some photographs, we expend ourselves on a flight to Kaieteur Falls. First here some brief history. The name has its origins in Amerindian legend which describes how Kaie, one of the great old Patamona Chiefs, committed self-sacrifice by paddling his canoe over the falls to appease Makonaima, the Great Spirit, in order to save his tribe from the savagist Caribe tribe. Up until the 1800s Kaieteur was only known to the Amerindians. The first European to see Kaieteur Falls was a geologist, Barrington Browne, in 1870 and whose recount of his travels and discovery paved the way for many subsequent visits by early Europeans and the area being set aside fr protection. In 1929, The British Colonial Administration designated an area of the Potaro River, including Kaieteur Falls, as a National Park. The Park, covering a 45 square mile area was established principally for the preservation of the natural scenery, and the flora and fauna of the area at that time, was one of the first protected areas established in South America. Today the National Park covers an area of 224 square miles, approximately 62,700 hectares.
We had not heard of the falls before and probably neither have you but it definitely derserves its place alongside Victoria, Angel, Iguazu and Niagra as one of the most impressive falls in the world. We had pondered the 5 day overland journey but it turns out to be very expensive but fortunately come across a cheap fight for the next day - one hour to the falls, 2 hours wandering around and one hour return. Even the flight itself is impressive, encamped in a tiny plane flying across pristine jungle criss-crossed with meandering rivers with not a blot of human intrusion on the landscape....well, exept for the landing strip! There are no roads to the site and there are perhaps only 3 other wooden buildings - a welcome building at the landing strip, the guides house and a guesthouse (basically a shelter where you can sling up a hammock). And that is it. There are no formal paths, handrails, toilets etc. Kaieteur has managed to maintain its natural beauty , unnaffected thus far by the arrival of visitors. The falls are impressive (up to 30,000 gallons per second over a 250m cliff) but the surrounds create an almost perfect scene. Our arrival on the plane allows a birds eye view when we circle around the site watching the water fall into a huge chasm within untouched jungle. Our guide advises that the BBC were to visit the following day to shoot a documentary, including abseiling down the falls and gaining access to the rear which apparently nobody has ever accessed, so they´re not sure what they will find or where it will go to. Anyway, check out my photographs on facebook or google Kaieteur Falls - unfortauntely, photographs don´t capture the enormity of the site or the movement of water but at least it´ll give you a flavour.
On our return from Kaieteur, we opt not to spend any more nights in Georgetown and so head south on the only bus which heads that direction. Before hitting the road we have to stock up on cash as there are no cash machines until we reach Brazil. This creates its own problems as Georgetown has only one working ATM (it´s the capital city!) and so have to queue for an age before realising that we can only withdraw 30,000 Guyanese dollars at each visit. That sound a lot but they are dispensed in 1,000 dollar notes which are the highest denomonation and equates to around three pound! Hence, we feel like walking targets on the streets of Georgetown with enough cash to fill a wheelbarrow!
The solitary road heading south is unmade which makes for an uncomfortable overnight journey. This combined with a bus designed for discomfort makes for a sleepless night which is only enlightended by the sight of a boarding young womens football team! Our point of departure (and we are the only ones) is Iwokrama. This is an almost unique eco tourism project which we had arranged to visit from their office in Georgetown. We are met at a river crossing by an Amerindian guy in a boat who takes us the short journey to the accommodation; a beautfully sited place located aside a river set amongst thick jungle. The lodges are expensive but as usual we opt for the cheapest form of accommodation - slinging our hammocks in an open shelter with only mosquitos, ants, bats etc to keep us company (plus a crazy Candain photographer who seemed to have been at the site forever and now closely resembled one of the neighbouring trees rather than one of us!)
The protected area of Iwokrama is set amidst 371,000 hectares of virgin rainforest and is home to the highest number of fish and bat species in the world, South America´s largest cat (the jaguar), the largest scaled fresh water fish (the arapaima), and the world´s largest otters, river turtles, anteaters, snakes, rodetns, eagles and caimans. Our site is staffed entirely by Amerindians who clearly take pride in their accommodation. Unlike a national park, Iwokrama is not funded by the government but undertakes selective tree logging; the profits from the timber are used to help finance the organisations endeavours in eco tourism and biological research. We only stay two nights (to coincide with the bus which heads further south) but could have stayed more. On the first day, we borrow one of the sites canoes and head upstream where one of the guides brothers has a property on an island. Afer some heavy work we finally make it to the island and soak away some beers with the Amerindian owners whilst watching he boats go by. The return journey is much easier downstream although our route is not so direct owing to the beers! On the second day we use a guide to access the top of turtle mountain (so called because it looks like a giant turtle sat on the forest). The guide is very welcoming and appears more keen than us to view wildlife. However, such is the thickness of the forest that we hear more than we can see and, therefore, sightings are resricted to birds and the one sighting of a pair of spider monkeys. The view from the top of turtle mountain makes the trek very worthwhile allowing a wide view across a flat plain of the forest. The guide also advises us how Iwokrama gained its name - the guide is from the Makushi tribe (the tribe still inhabits the majority of the Iwokrama region) who were subject to canibalistic raids from the Carib tribe many years ago. The Makushis fled to the mountains to escape the raids into an area known as ´land of refuge´ i.e. Iwokrama, which was then used as a very apt name for the protected Iwokrama forest.
From Iwokrama, we catch the bus further south to Annai - this being a town but being bereft of any features which you would associate with a town. It basically consists of a large ranch, a small airstrip and a cafe / service centre for passing traffic. We had intended to stay in hammocks but realise that we would have nothing to do so enquire at the ranch who kindly arrange transport (albeit at some cost - the hiring of one of their 4x4s) and access into the Amerindian village of Surama. The owner of the 4x4 immediatly regrets driving us to Surama as en route one of the front wheels snaps into a 90 degree angle on one of the isloated dirt roads. Fortunately we only have another 1km to walk to the village with our backpacks and later note the owner still trying to fix the wheel three hours later against impending rainstorms and darkness! Surama was ecouraged into allowing access to tourists by Iwokrama and has basic accommodation available. As always we ask for the cheapest accommodation (an open hammock) but the lady allows us a twin room for the same price as the coming thunderstorms might be dangerous for us (we later realise this when I swear our hut was going to be blown away in the night!) We manage to talk our way into accompanying the BBC crew who are having a tour of the village for a future documentary and oberve the very basic conditions the Amerindians inhabitat but appear to be very happy in their surroundings. Perhaps the most memorable part of the tour - for the wrong reasons - is one Amerindian commenting that he quit his job with Iwokrama as he disagreed with the extent of logging activities and considers the ´sustaianable logging´ tag as being a smokescreen to commercial logging. I hope he´s wrong.
We catch a ride from Surama to the nearest junction of the dirt road heading south. It´s unpredictable at what time the only bus will arrive as it neds to negotiate uneven dirt roads (made worse by the nights thunderstorms) and had left Georgetown a mere 14 hours ago! We consider the advise in our guide book: ´hitchiking in Guyan is not recommended - the threat of robbery and/or physical danger is very real´. So, we decide to hitchike and almost immediately are offered a lift to the Brazilian boundary by two Brazilian guys (the driver being a Fabio Capello look-a-like!). The bus would take around 5 hours to reach the border but we manage it in three owing to drivers intent to test the suspension of his 4x 4 to the limits. They had offered to drive us all the way to the Boa Vista in Brazil but the Brazilian Police showed their usual efficiency by closing their office for two hours over lunch just as we arrived. Being foreigners we need to obtain our entry stamps so say a fond farewell to the Brazilians at the boundary and sit for two hours at the border awaiting the return of the overweight officers. Next it´s onward to Venezuela via Boa Vista in Brail. Read my next blog for more.