Iwokrama: Helping The World To Breathe

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August 10th 2007
Published: August 10th 2007
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Up close and personalUp close and personalUp close and personal

Sankar - Iwokrama's 'pet'
"Mr. Williams, Ms. van Eer, my name is Matthew and I am your guide. Please come this way". He, and another Amerindian male, grabbed our bags and placed them in a small-ish metal speedboat. The name 'Takatu' was emblazoned on the side of the boat although the paint had started to peel. The other 40 passengers on the bus watched in envy as the VIPs sped up river sending sprays flying in their direction. We had just been whisked away by Iwokrama's welcoming party from the Kurupukari landing. The other 'peons' were waiting on the slow, lumbering Mekdeci-owned, motorized barge. The mighty Essequibo River had narrowed considerably at this juncture. It only looked like 1000 feet across but you could see the dangerous swirl of a powerful current. INTRASERV's bus would cross on the barge and continue on to Lethem, or somewhere in between, but we would stay at the Iwokrama Resort.

It all started when we were thinking of things to do in Guyana. At first, we flirted with Iwokrama by suggesting thru email that we would volunteer under the terms of the volunteer program outlined on their website. We were still outside of Guyana at that time. It
Check inCheck inCheck in

Dunga's Bar at 8:30 pm
took a while to get a response and when it did come, it lacked some vital information. We shelved the 'volunteer' idea after the last email we sent requesting clarity remained unanswered. However, we did not shelve our interest in Iwokrama and its work. Kathy Fredericks, a kind, helpful professional, was the person we met with at Iwokrama's Georgetown office. She was almost blushing when she quoted us the USD 75 per night per cabin or USD 45 per person per night per hammock camp. To cut a long story short, we told her what we were doing, about our tight budget and about an expanding blog and then pleaded with her for a discount. She told us to send an email outlining what we had told her and that she'd send it above her pay grade with a recommendation. Kathy scored. While in Suriname we received an email saying that we'd get cabins at USD 41 per night. Our minds said five but our budget only allowed us the three nights we finally paid for. Thanks Kathy! 😊

Kathy also told us that INTRASERV operated a scheduled bus service which runs thru Iwokrama and so we headed to
The TransThe TransThe Trans

INTRASERV's bus outside Dunga's Bar
their office next. The level of customer service plummeted.
"Good morning. We'd like to get tickets for the bus to Iwokrama", Vibert said.
"De bus don't go to Iwokrama. It does go to Lethem". The lady didn't even look up. She had just come off the phone from what seemed to be an upsetting call.
"Ok. But we know that it stops there and we'd like to take it. Which day does the next bus leave?"
She told us in a tone that suggested we were harassing her.
"And what time does it leave?", Shanna piped in.
"Ah can't tell you dat until you buy de ticket", was the response.
"But how can we buy a ticket without first knowing the departure time?" Vibert sounded angrier now.
"Well, ah still can't tell you til you buy de ticket. Is company rules".
We had hit an obnoxious brickwall. The nice lady was good enough to give us the name and location of the manager, decline our request for her name and inform us that it was the way it was always done. We left the Charlotte Street office soured and appalled by the unbelievably ridiculous lack of service. 😞To his credit,
looking pretty clean and comfylooking pretty clean and comfylooking pretty clean and comfy

Inside INTRASERV bus
the manager apologized for his subordinate's behaviour and provided a plethora of information. The bus was coach-like with reclining seats, carried two drivers and had plenty of space for luggage. The journey would be long. 'Dunga's Bar' was the departure point and the bus left at 9 pm. Check-in was 7:30 pm and the same, unhelpful lady would be at check-in. The drivers would drive all night stopping at predetermined rest points and arrive at the Kurupukari crossing around 6 am - the time the ferry service began. He said that the road after Linden was all unpaved red earth and very rough in areas and that the persistent rains weren't helping the situation. He said we'd have to be patient and flexible as breakdowns or getting-stuck-in-a-hole or having a piece of road washed away did occur during this season. And he even showed us pictures of the road and washed away sections. We thought we were in for some adventure. Moms and Pops dropped us off at Dunga's - a seedy-looking Brazilian hangout joint and there we met the same lady who was noticeably nicer this time around. The driver sped away on time and soon reached the Linden
The usualThe usualThe usual

As to be expected
Highway. With nothing to see, our eyes closed just after we saw the moon creep up over the trees on a clear night. An hour and a half later we jerked to a stop. Apparently, it was routine for a bus heading this way to stop for passengers to 'declare' themselves (with passports) to the police. In the heavy dew we trudged into a grungy police station only to have an unfriendly officer-of-the-law glance at our passport pictures before sending us back on board.

The road deteriorated into the bumpy, red-brick trail we were promised but it wouldn't stop us from drifting off again. And it really wasn't as bad as we expected it to be. The next stop was 'Ruth and Peter' - a rest/food/hygiene place 58 miles from Linden. Most everybody piled out to stretch cramped legs. It was about 2:00 a.m and we had already racked up 5 hours on board. The dark outline of trees told us that we were already in the jungle and a tinge of excitement and fear ran down our spines. There was nothing of the next 4½ hours we could remember but when the bus stopped again we were only
58 miles58 miles58 miles

Fifty eight miles after Linden
a few minutes before the Kurupukari crossing. The air was clean and crisp when we exited at the crossing. The sun was beginning to burn away the morning fog and a chilly, steady wind blew. The view was spectacular and calming. The black-water Essequibo formed the foreground for a thick forest. Songbirds soared overhead and scared lizards scampered in the underbrush. Other passengers disembarked all bleary-eyed. Some smoked and then, to our disgust, tossed their cigarette butts into the river. Most men headed for nearby trees and showered their roots. Everyone was waiting on the slow, lumbering Mekdeci-owned, motorized barge to ferry them to the other side. A rooster's tail sprayed out from the propeller as we sped towards the buildings in the distance. An island forced the river into two channels. We went left. And it turned out to be 'right' as a half-submerged 'Iwokrama Field Station' sign welcomed us. Shaundell was already walking down to the waterside to welcome us. We had arrived!!

Iwokrama: Helping The World To Breathe

Note: Some information was extracted from www.iwokrama.org. Feel free to visit for greater insight.

'Pristine' is defined in Miriam Webster's Online Dictionary as "not spoiled, corrupted or polluted; pure". The Iwokrama International Centre for Rainforest Conservation and Development controls one million acres (371,000 hectares) of 'pristine' rainforest. The forest was set aside for preservation, conservation and study by Guyana's government in 1996. Numerous creatures and the indigenous Makushi Amerindian tribe depend on the forest for their very existence. The protected area and the nearby Rupununi Wetlands is home to a staggering variety of birds (over 475 different species), fishes (over 400) and bats (over 90). These are the highest recorded numbers for these creatures in the world when compared to any area of similar size. Countless streams, rivers and creeks lattice the forest and provide the perfect recluse for black caimans (the world's largest), arapaimas (the world's largest freshwater fish), giant river otters and river turtles. It also remains one of just a few places with a thriving population of Jaguars (South American's largest cat) and the largest and most powerful of eagles - the Harpy eagle.

The Iwokrama Forest has been described as a 'living laboratory' and a model for the world where the '...ecological, social and economic nature and potential of tropical rainforests could be studied and tested in a hands-on way". Under the distinguished patronage of His Royal Highness Prince Charles, this massive, noble initiative is managed by a board of Trustees whose names read like a 'Who's Who' list. The majority of the fifteen trustees are handpicked by the President of Guyana and the Commonwealth Secretary-General. Understanding the absolute importance of enjoining the locals in any conservation effort, Iwokrama works closely with the villagers who are the only ones allowed to hunt the forests and fish the rivers.

On terra firma, we surveyed the surroundings. Five inviting, thatch-roofed cottages were off to the right with excellent views on the river. Even closer to the river were three space-age looking 'hammock pods' - funky, lower-end accommodations. Behind these was a large open field with a few fruit trees. Screaming Pihas - noisy, curious, social birds swooped in and out of the leaves in droves. Inside the cabin was deluxe. The colors were warm, the room exceptionally clean as were the self-contained toilet and bath and the lacquered hardwood floor glistened. One irresistible hammock was strung up on the balcony. Matthew, sensing that there would be conflict over the single hammock, quickly offered to string another😊. The Fred Allicock building was an interesting circular structure and the largest building in the field station. The first floor was an impressive open hall where meals were served from the small kitchen to the rear. The situation of the building and the complimentary binoculars allowed panorama views on the river, the forest and howler monkeys swinging in the nearby trees. The roof was also thatched with an atrium of sorts in the center which allowed sunlight to filter right down to the display greenhouse on the ground floor. The ground floor also housed the administrative offices and the monitoring station. Matthew was giving us the orientation tour.
"So 'two4deroad" is finally here. Welcome", a woman's voice said with a laugh.
We turned around to find a lady who introduced herself as 'Joan McDonald' - she was the Hospitality Coordinator. We felt like celebrities - our 'fame' preceding us and all. Joan would become our main contact for information on the administration and non-tourism activities of Iwokrama. The orientation continued and soon we entered an exhibit room. There were skulls of tapirs and caimans, skeletons of birds and insects and many 'jungle fruits'. But the exhibit we placed special attention on was the jar with the long-dead and preserved Bushmaster snake - acknowledged as highly aggressive and deadly. It was the same colors as the leaves we would meet trekking through the jungle trails and somehow suddenly we weren't so gung-ho to hike 'Bushmaster Trail' after all. And, like answer to prayers, Matthew told us that the trails were flooded due to the extremely high waters of the Essequibo, and that we could not hike on this trip. Bummers! (Not).

Lunch was served to us by Camilla - a jovial Amerindian girl. She would personally attend to us for the remainder of our stay. Camilla was a professional. She carefully detailed for us each day - three times a day - how our meals were comprised and always invited us to use the "...hot water...if (we'd) like coffee, tea or milo". She did this routine flawlessly and unfailingly even when we had already started drinking the tea. Fish was scarce. The high water had driven them deeper into the creeks and away from the strong tide. Somehow, the cooks almost always managed to rustle up fish for us since we had indicated beforehand that we did not eat other meat. Every meal was delicious and
Mini pontoonMini pontoonMini pontoon

At the Kurupukari crossing
nutritious and the service was outstanding.

Our three-night stay also included a complimentary tour with our guide each day. We headed out in the late afternoon for a nature walk with Matthew and two trainee guides, Anthony and Verlene. Although it was not in a trail but along the roadway, it was a wonderful experience. We learned about (and was most interested in) the plants and herbs and their medicinal properties and how the Amerindians used them for centuries. We identified birds by sight and sound and gazed at 200-foot mora trees while listening to the distant, distinctive screams of howlers. Matthew and his charges were storehouses of information and we marvelled at their abilities and at how much the 'civilized world' didn't know or appreciate. Later, with the doors of the cabin open and the bug screen shut, we fell into the deepest sleep fanned by cool breezes and the soothing sounds of the Essequibo.

The birds woke us. We felt alive as we stepped out on to the patio and inhaled deeply. The air was the purest and freshest. It was good to be alive. Camilla fed us well and then, a little later, introduced us to Sankar. He had a perpetual smile that was part friendly, part sinister. Since his childhood, he had been nurtured and fed by Iwokrama's staff. Their 'pet' they called him. Oh, lest we forget to mention, 'Sankar' was an 11-foot, adolescent Black Caiman and only 10 feet of ground separated us. It was a chilling stare-down into his cold, unblinking eyes. His mouth opened to reveal large, menacing teeth as he snapped at the meat which was used to lure him to the shore. His left front leg was slightly deformed probably a bad mend from a fight for survival. They spoke about him in loving tones telling us how 'gentle' he was and that he was never really far away. We were not comforted by that thought as we watched him slide away as silent as a floating log. So instead of taking a dip in the cool river we chose to stay close to shore and fish. Vibert's hook snagged on a tree root a little way out and he waded out, with great trepidation, into Sankar's territory and the plunged behind the waters to wrestle the hook free. We continued fishing and after about two hours or
Whizzing awayWhizzing awayWhizzing away

In the 'Takatu'
so, Shanna caught a tree �nd Vibert caught a small piranha. Hmmmm, piranhas and caimans in our swimming area? Fishy! Dry-fried, seasoned piranha went down good for lunch and we lazed the rest of the day in our hammocks reading National Geographics from the small library.

Early the following morning we headed out to circle Indian House island and spot wildlife. If it were low tide, we would have seen snakes and tapirs and other creepy crawlies at the water's edge. What we got instead was a treat to numerous different birds piercing the stillness of the morning with their cries and howler monkeys howling. We cut the engine and drifted silently upriver with the strong current listening intently to nature's concert. The rest of the day was more of the same: lazing, fishing (we caught nothing this time), reading, sleeping and eating. Our bodies were truly tired from the long, tough overland journeys to Suriname and now the Iwokrama. We relished the rest. Iwokrama's easy, peaceful ambiance afforded that kind of rest. Here, in the heart of nature and all things pure, we recharged for the journeys ahead.

The last night would prove eventful. We set out after dark, about 7:30 pm, on the river. It was seven of us. Matthew, Verlene and Anthony, Shanna and Vibert and the captain and his assistant. The mission: nocturnal spotting of wildlife. The assistant pushed the boat off the bank and jumped unto the bow. Matthew had a bright spotlight with an impressive long-range beam hooked up to a car battery. He swung the torch over to the left and two red pearls appeared in the darkness. The blood red eyes belonged to Sankar. He was never really far from camp after all. Not one for the spotlight, he slipped below the waterline. The captain gunned the engine and we tore down the river. Apparently, he would see where he was going. We wouldn't see a thing. "Oh, there is a frog", We craned our necks and strained our eyeballs but all we saw were leaves. The captain piloted the boat closer to the leaves and sure enough, we saw too little frogs making out and making house. The looked stunned in the bright light and we didn't want to disturb them any longer. Besides, being this close to trees in the night was beginning to creep us out. A little further downriver we spotted another part of red eyes. We knew these were caiman eyes but a different pair. The were smaller and closer together indicating a smaller reptile. The spotting continued with more frogs and a few birds including a sleeping 'night jar' that we grabbed from a leaf. "Oh, and there's another snake", said Matthew. We had seen another but it was higher up and well camouflaged. His beam was focused on a tree far in the distance but again we couldn't spot a snake or anything the looked like a snake. Following Matthew's signal, the captain eased the boat close to the foliage. We tensed up. Soon we were under the trees. Vibert saw the snake as Matthew was telling us that it was a tree boa. Shanna didn't see it yet. "Where's the snake? Where's the snake?" You could hear the fear in her voice as each question grew louder and louder. The 6-foot tree boa was only about 2 feet above her when she spot it. Shanna let rip with a series of "WAAAAAAAS" each progressively louder than the preceding. The man on the bow poked the snake with the paddle and the snake

Iwokrama Field Station
threatened to topple into the boat. Shanna's final "WAA" was an ear-piercing scream and she leaned against Verlene who in turn leaned against Matthew almost forcing him overboard. The pilot slammed in the reverse and the light, aluminium vessel responded. We were clear of the trees and safe. Rounding the final corner, we started the return. The skies opened sending cool, persistent droplets downwards pock marking the water. And like a scene from some scary movie, the rain whistled in the trees and lightning cut a jagged path in the pitch-black sky.

Camilla served us breakfast at 5:30 am on the last morning. Joan came to see us off as we trudged sadly to 'Takatu'. In the distance we could see the bus on the barge already halfway across the river. With a final glance and goodbye waves, we powered to the landing site and caught the bus which would take us on the next adventure to Lethem.

In retrospect, we did not do as much as we thought we would do at Iwokrama. It was for a combination of reasons. For one, the trails were flooded. And then the USD 75 transportation fee to the Rainforest Canopy
Our CabinOur CabinOur Cabin

Deluxe accommodation
(a walkway 30 meters/90 feet in the trees) and USD 20 per person entrance fee was just a little too rich for us. So what we ended up doing was a whole lot of nothing and a whole lot of nothing was precisely what our bodies needed. Iwokrama was a magical place set along the bank of a legendary river and in a beautiful forest of stunning diversity. We sense change coming though. What do we mean? Well, quite recently 'sustainable timber harvesting' has been introduced as a revenue earner for Iwokrama. The other main income drivers are sustainable tourism, training and services and intellectual property. The logging, however, has the potential to easily become the largest income stream. While 'sustainable timber harvesting' is not clearly defined, we do know that there is no reforestation plan. However, we were assured and we trust that the overall effect on the flora and fauna will be minimal. After all, the whole idea is to project a model to the world of sustainable forest management. The second concern relates to what will be a definite increase in human and vehicular traffic thru the jungle when the bridge linking Guyana and Brazil is finished. This link should be opened sometime in 2008. Unfortunately, a section of the road from the Guyana/Brazil border to Guyana's capital runs directly thru the protected forest. And humans do have the tendency to pollute, hunt and otherwise damage 'pristine' environments😞. We perceive an increased number of forest rangers and this may help a little but, at a minimum, the noise, carbon monoxide and activity is sure to drive the birds and other wildlife deeper into the forest. But these are all challenges that Iwokrama's management team is aware of and are actively addressing. Only time will tell but we'd love for the Guiana Shield to remain one of the 'pristine' rainforests of the world.

We'd give Iwokrama an award if we had awards to give. Publicity of the initiative and an unhesitating recommendation to you, our readers, to visit are our offerings. Our 'thanks' are extended to:

😊 Kathy
😊 Joan
😊 Camilla
😊 Matthew, Verlene and Anthony
😊 The rest of Iwokrama's staff especially the cooks

Additional photos below
Photos: 74, Displayed: 36


15th August 2007

Iwokrama nicccceeee1
I like the smile on sankar's face. I know that you had a good rest there and I hope that some day you will walk on the canopy.
21st August 2007

i wonder what would happen if they don't feed Sankar. nice big teeth he has :).

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