Exploring Guyana - Paddling in Raleigh's raft strokes
I’m balancing on a log in the middle of a river. Our heavy wooden canoe has somehow beached itself, and three wiry Amerindians are putting their muscle into hauling it across the log on which I stand. Unfortunately this has the side effect of making the log wobble precariously, and I’m thanking God that those tap dancing classes have helped with my inner balance, otherwise I’m in for a dunking.
This isn’t exactly how I expected my trip to Guyana to begin when I planned an initial recce of my brand new ‘Backwaters of Guyana’ trip. The itinerary is pure adventure; an expeditionary canoeing trip in the Guyanese jungle, paddling in wooden dugout canoes for approximately 150km over 7 days through the Burro Burro River, and camping out in the rainforest, sleeping in hammocks. Explorers such as Walter Raleigh and the taxidermist Charles Waterton made this journey hundreds of years ago to access the depths of the Amazon from Guyana’s Atlantic coast, and if feels like no one has really made the journey since then.
The canoeing, as I’ve found out, is quite leisurely. The flow is downstream and often I find myself stowing the paddle to watch the varieties of colourful macaws or beautiful kingfishers flying overhead. Our local guide, Gary, is constantly pointing things out with increasingly bizarre names (the squirrel cuckoo does actually move like a squirrel, complete with bushy tail). We end up joking that every bird is ‘rufous-something’… The Rufescent Tiger Heron is one of my favourites. In fact, although I’ve never shown much of an interest in birds, Gary’s enthusiasm for his native environment is infectious and by the end of the trip I’ve spotted about 40 species. Not to mention the bigger guys – it doesn’t get much better than seeing a family of otters swimming past our canoe. One is chomping a fish head so vigorously that the cracking bones echo around the forest.
Anyway, back to the log… part of the reason for this recce was to check out some of the more ‘challenging’ aspects of the trip, and make sure that the itinerary will work with a group of Explore travellers. The Burro Burro River is relatively narrow, and during the rainy season treefall is common, usually completely blocking the river from one side to the other. Part of the fun is limboing under these huge logs and seeing Gary and the crew at work with their machetes, cutting down the dead wood. The log that I am balancing on is too big to machete… I make a mental note; ‘must bring chainsaw’. Probably the first time that’s ever appeared in a report.
Gary and his crew are very aware of the lack of equipment, and they are lamenting the fact that the community chainsaw is broken. They are all from Surama, a tiny Amerindian village in Guyana’s interior. Visiting this place was one of the most fascinating parts of the trip, and drove home to me how eco-tourism can work in practice. The village has its own tourist accommodation, a series of thatched huts that house 16 people in total. All members of the village work within tourism, whether they are customer facing guides, or in the background as chefs, cleaners, servers or even farming crops. They all work 1 month on and have 1 month off to tend their own farm and look after the family. What a life! The money from tourism has allowed them to create a pension fund for their elders and send some of the youngsters off to university.
Interestingly this ethos is driven completely by the community rather than government policy, and they all buy into the idea of sharing the profits so that everyone benefits. The village chief, Tony, tells us an amusing tale of their first guests, a group of environmental research students. Not knowing how or what to charge them, Tony advises the group’s leader to pay what they think it’s worth. Shortly afterwards the village committee are staring at the biggest pile of money they’ve ever seen, thinking that the group will soon realise they’ve made an error with the local currency. Of course that doesn’t happen – and so the community tourism idea was born.
Although tourism is now keeping their village economy going, they haven’t lost their old traditions. The most amazing thing about my trip was their insane knowledge of how to survive in the jungle. Within 3 days I’d eaten freshly caught piranha stew (aptly named Boily Boily!) and bush rodent, seen fires lit in no time, watched the guides whittle down sticks to create cooking frames, tables and seats, vines used as tarp support for our tents and kitchen utensils woven from stripped branches. I was in the presence of supermen. As Tony told me, it’s ‘kill or be killed’ here in the jungle. Unfortunately he told me this just as it was getting dark and we’d seen a tarantula heading through our camp. Needless to say I didn’t get much sleep that night…
The supermen eventually got me off the log with no soggy clothes. After 3 days I came back to reality a little dirtier and sweatier, but ready to cope with anything. The change in mentality from this remote, uncomplicated jungle life was difficult to compute when I regained access to my phone and the bombardment of emails. Take me back to Guyana any day!"