Day 7 on the Essequibo
So day 7 began as the previous days did a small breakfast and clearing camp I brought up the previous night and how I reacted. Campbell laughed and said good you did it could have been thieves. So breakfast finished and more paddling to begin we checked the boats nothing was missing maybe they were curious people and wondering why boats were so far out here. As we got in the boats we, seen some freshwater rays speed off as we approached, being told you do not want to get stung by one of them very painful. I agreed and took it on board we were off open fast flowing deep water was a change in the last few days but how will it continue.
We were paddling as we did last few days genuinely enjoying the sights and what will be around the next corner. Again the giant otter would pop his curious head out of the water and have a look trying to figure us out. We had seen claimed signs on the trees international organisation illegally making a claim to the area which would have been placed there sometime back, 5+ years ago. Termites had claimed every inch available there was a number of termite species nearly as numerous as ants. The one species I was hoping to see were Neocapritermes taracua This species is the only species of termite. There are ant species in Asia to do this form of altruistic behaviour known as autothysis which is a highly evolved method of defending the colony at the expense f one’s life. Unluckily I did not come across the suicidal termite. With the next couple of days, we will be coming to the Iwokrama reserve. The reserve was created or founded in 1996 of a space of around 371.000 hectares which is manned by a team of 70 people. With a mission to create a source of sustainable income for the region based purely on conservation. So with the excitement of dense forest. And known jaguar population as well as known harpy eagles, it was an exciting upcoming day ahead. We continued to travel through the water and the environment seemed different here huge width of the river going at a snail pace the water we seemed to be making a good time. The weather today was baking hot at least 30℃ Direct sunlight although we tried to avoid it by getting close to the banks it was just not working out, and we would do extra distance, so I doused myself in thick dollops of sun cream. Which had a temporary relieving effect but I could literally feel the sun working its way through again temporary relief, would come with slapping water on my exposed skin which was much less effective than the cream. As we battled on we would check the GPS device as I had previously marked the reserve on so now we were in iwokrama a dream location for biologist all over the world. Now ossiah explained he had been this far once before through a conservation job as a tree spotter. Where he would follow teams of labourers and ID the species of trees they would harvest there was a strict regime in Guyana for the tree a person could legally fell and sell with the correct permits in place of course.
Ossiah said he would find a green heart or purple heart trees they were called this as when the wood got wet, through rain the wood, changed to a deep purple or a deep green sounded like something out of a fairytale. As we were in the Iwokrama reserve we could have spent the evening in Iwokrama but as a team, we wanted to make up some lost time from the previous day’s rapids. So we decided against it and continued on to get as much distance as possible. The day felt physically easier than the others personally we all began talking about conservation what could be done if more could be by the president granger currently. From levels of corruption to lack of support for the indigenous. For example, the only means of income for Campbell and Ossiah was a form of ecotourism adventure fishing from a small island known as King Williams adventure. Where people from all parts of the world who enjoyed fishing would come there and fish for sport a good income for the family. At this time there was talk in government to abandon this all together as it was seasonal as it currently stands it would be a huge hit to the Amerindian eco-tourism of the Essequibo basin and the rupunnunni.
We were making a good time on the flat dark waters of the Essequibo taking it in turn to paddle. There were a number of bubble coming from the bottom of the river and i would presume each time arapaima Ossiah explained no that is catfish the bubbles over there is arapaima. Ossiah explained the subtle difference from time to positioning to the speed on how he would differentiate between the two species of fish he said look this one is arapaima it is coming up I pretended to understand the explanation I was given, then a huge arapaima broke the surface and said see I told you, Dan. I laughed and agreed with a grinning face. Ossiah and Campbell began to fish on the water as we were paddling, in light of the coming evening and its meals with ever less fareen which seemed to alarm the guys. I was still feeling the effects of my sunburn which was now evident under my hairline my beard and my sleeveless arms by this time it was too late to only wear long sleeve would seem to only irritate me more. So water and after sun was and other creams were the only relief. The river again began to channel off we kept to the left as the GPS seemed to signify more camping places. So we were keeping an eye out for the next camping spot a number of rock islands and then the distant forest i noticed a small sandbar. As we got closer the reccy of the island began and ossiah noticed a symbol on a piece of wood propped in the middle with a small makeshift hut where he point blank refused and said “no it is kanaima island” I asked why as we were all tired around 5 in the evening all hungry as no mid-day stop today due to good distance being made and having eaten pineapple on route. He said that is a kanaima hut and baby footprints are in the sand. I myself never noticed the footprints but Ossiah and Campbell were a lot more in tune, to the local environment. So we continued without second guessing him. campbell was also looking out for a spot he shouted the island there in the middle we headed to it. It was exposed rock island were a few fishing stands hand once been about half a mile from baby footprint island. Which was far enough way for nerves to be settled. We disembarked and again a small reccy of the island was shown to have not one tree unless we crossed the river again which we didn’t want to. So equipment and canoe arranged and secured food equipment taken off and fire began Ossiah and Campbell decided on a spot. Campbell found a few tree trunks and erected a fork shelter where he could hang his hammock and tarp. Myself I was in two minds and a possible trade-off with Campbell but I was a stone heavier than Campbell at least even with my lack of food this past week. I settled on the floor where my sleeping bag was heated by the sun-baked rocks for what felt like a constant heater throughout the night. But before we ate and rested up for the evening Campbell said ‘we made a good time today and distance we will set off extra early and try to get somewhere for Daniels birthday’. I laughed at the sheer optimism of his feat 80km or more left to go today on our fastest, we did around 30km. I thanked him tucked into our meals looked at the night sky and dozed off, again to the familiar sound of the rainforest chorus.
Day 8 on the Essequibo
So as we woke, it didn’t feel as if we had slept the same chorus still going the night pitch black, stars filled the sky, satellites swooped past it was a scene straight out of the movies. Ossiah began prepping the fire. And Campbell started fishing I checked the time with my GPS it was 0330, Campbell said we will catch a fish and then set off. The water still as I have ever seen almost appearing as if you could walk on it, fog swept across the surface and the bats were giving way to the birds for prime fishing spots. So a huge wolf fish caught and a number of small fish fareen at its lowest almost gone, my tinned tuna and porridge running low. We had a small chat amongst our selves I asked why do they prefer the islands to camp on or sleep. They both replied in unison “No kanaima”. I agreed and said of course. So we had eaten a small breakfast stored our freshly caught fish began setting of cleared camp and removed anything we had taken there And off we were yet again in the pitch black I tried not to switch my head torch on as wanted to try and get used to this genuine darkness were you would struggle to see your hand in front of your face when there was no moonlight. So as we were paddling and adjusting to the new way of travelling doing best to adapt there were splashes in all directions as well as sounds, from roars to howls to chirps. I struggled to begin with well the first half an hour and then ossiah stopped paddling he said look, papa old higue I was asking was what are you looking at. He says there in the bush there was a faint orange glow behind us the rising sun, and to our left is were Ossiah was looking. There were fire eyes he kept saying look dan can you see “I tell you it is kanaima”. I asked again what it was called he says old higue I said what does he or it do he replied: “she”. Old higue will attack young men and sometimes children to stay young she is an old ugly crippled lady who did bad once to someone and was forever cursed is the best I could get as a definition of old higue from Ossiah. Campbell then eagerly told me of a story his mother once told him A young lady in a village cursed a man and his children out of jealousy the children once cursed were forever lost and a two young girls went missing in the forest for years like animals he explained hunting and sleeping in the forest with no shelter no help after a number of years they were found by gold miners. Who took them to a local village they had sharp teeth and claws was full of fleas and would have ended up dead or became a kanaima. As this story continued in more detail the sun rose and Campbell began singing a song called goodbye my friend and here is the best recording of it.
The sun eventually allowed us to become a bit more at ease, warm bright morning brought the nighttime chorus to a standstill, which gave way to the more familiar sounds. So the river was still huge in width which made the water flow very slow but no wind and we were doing good time again I was asking about our next destination what is it like. It will be Chaney landing a small community where they mine and log. Certain resources only, which is strictly controlled by government officials. As Guyana is one of a few nations in the world to accept that the natural resources and eco-tourism could go hand in hand. It was getting to around mid-day and we were eating and collecting pineapple and coconuts on the move to energise us as much as possible. When we would be on the river we would be as close to the banks as possible which helped if one was to fall out as well as a bit of shield from the relentless sun. It would be the best place to spot wildlife as well. Where you get the occasional scampering off, of a mammal. We would catch the back of most commonly the agouti but sometimes, be a large green iguana or basilisk lizard, then we would look at the centre of the river and the giant river turtles would breach as if it was a marine mammal and a spray of water would plume and a shimmer of a rainbow would briefly show. Where I would always miss this as a photo opportunity, as well as small darting fishes avoiding huge predatory fish below the water would skip across the surface of the river. Again another picture that always passed me by.
We came across a group of circling vultures there would have been 10 to 15 in the air as we approached we expected to see a corpse of some sort a leftover or half-eaten carcass from the many apex predators of the region from huge black caiman to puma or jaguar. As we got closer there was another flock of vultures scampering about on and of the fallen tree and in and out of the undergrowth. We scared them off and large numbers flew off back into the air lucky for some as they would have gotten their fill. We pulled over to investigate we were looking inside the fallen tree it had been there a number of years completely hollowed out. We went into as far as we could without needing a machete and we could only smell evidence of a dead carcass it was a putrid pungent smell where myself could only last around 10 minutes at any one time. Ossiah was in the forest where we could just about see him for a good 30 minutes without getting any idea of what animal was making the smell. I was convinced it was in the bottom of the dead tree part submerged in the water but never 100%. As no luck, we gave in our search and continued on the sun was relentless this late in the afternoon but clouds seemed to be gathering and animals making a racket which was a sign of rain according to Campbell. We checked the GPS device and we were coming up to a faint road an old logging road according to the device so we continuer on the river opened out even more almost resembling a lake. But in the far distance, there was 3 huts houses or dwellings but to our immediate left a small boat flooded with an even smaller deck rotting and crumbling wood which looked to be old as I was. We headed for it and jumped out and a small house which looked abandoned was surrounded by papaya trees and coconut trees with firewood piled in the one corner slightly behind the house. With a huge rubber drum which I had seen previously used to collect rainwater. We left our equipment on the boat to head to the modest house and to my surprise an old lady was just sat there on her hammock swinging side to side laughing to herself. Campbell approached and said a number of words to her in what I presumed and now know was wapishanna. I inherently stayed in the background Campbell introduced myself and Campbell to the lady she shouted excitedly “I know I know you come from far I had a dream that people from far would come and visit me today so”. I laughed it off she began to explain her dream she was underwater and people from a far place would come visit today. I did not know if it was far in the sense of what we had done the previous days or in a sense some crazy Englishman from across the Atlantic ocean would come by and I never found out. The lady was pleasant and began giving us a tour of her home, from her hammock. Water there washroom there pointing to the river and bathroom there pointing to a hole in the floor. We then explained where we had come from what we had achieved and what left we had to do.
She laughed “far bwoy all the way to bartica”. She then burst into laughter she said her new man is in bartica now getting things to help build the house and repair a few thing. She then explained he was from Germany but born in Guyana the lady seemed to be mad or ill but she had come down here from the south of Guyana built a home on her own and worked in the logging fields over the river on her own. As she explained to Campbell in wapishana my self and ossiah headed over to the small logging settlement around half a mile in a straight line across the river. We arrived stowed the canoe and began asking 3 young boys where the shop is. The music was blasting and a genuine sign of city life again. The music was the typical Carribean sounds dancehall and soca one or 2 of the guys were dancing to it and singing along. The atmosphere seemed a bit apprehensive or intrigued of 2 guys a white guy and an Amerindian on a traditional canoe with no motor they asked what we were doing and where we had come from we told them and our response was you are mad boys. We laughed at it this time try to get a beer, no luck and we bought crisps, crackers, tinned fruit, more water and fizzy pop. Fizzy pop was an interesting one I never drank it at home or on a regular basis anywhere. This time there seemed to be a drive to get some maybe the lack of sugar from fish, fareen, turtle eggs and starchy crackers were all too much and I gave in and got us all a bottle. We sat with not so talkative local workers there were 4 of them altogether seem to spend most of there time to play pool and dancing to soca music. When they got even less talkative we said our farewells and of we went back to the old ladies place stocked up on as many sugary items as we could.
When we got back Campbell had set up most of the hammocks and collected some papaya and began preparing the evening meal we were all sat down looking and thinking about all kinds of things I myself was watching the ants walk off with my cracker crumb by crumb. The food was almost prepared the lady was still talking to herself and a group of about 10 guys arrived all young in the 20s. Again preparing for the worst due to stories I had heard from uninformed and inexperienced people here in the UK. The first thing they did was ask for permission to join us and asked the lady whose property it was the same. We had no idea where they come from but all had stock loads of fish so a successful fishing trip. I cleared my sleeping place expecting them to camp on the same trees as myself. One or two did the rest did what Ossiah did and slept on the floor with a tarpaulin. Food was being prepared by three or four groups and all different fish different spices nit just fareen rice vegetables and countless fruit. That evening we ate until we could no longer eat. Everyone got talking about the route we will need to take in the coming days what to expect briefly he said it is ok but there are loads of islands small rocky outcrops and of course the dreaded dredges were in force further down the river most illegal gold mining operations, Campbell we can deal with that tomorrow let us enjoy the night.
Word seemed to spread from these young guys they, of course, new young girls in the area within the hour I was arranged to have kids with two girls simply for being white. id like to presume more but who will know. The two young girls aged in the teens one had a child she was 18 and her young sister 14. We began talking out of curiosity through Campbell and the old lady never directly to each other. I was offered to become a father to her current 1year old boy I asked where the father was, I was told in creole “He is just some bug man who works on the dredges down river“ I was confused, bug man meaning what I asked Campbell what she meant. And it meant an Amerindian man who seemingly ain’t no good for her. She point blank said I want a white man you don’t even need to stay here just give me a child. I laughed and said I cannot do that. Campbell in turn laughed and said see you don’t need to go bartica you have a family and a child here now. The night went on like this groups of people sharing food fishing stories and dreams the night was so dark the stars were the clearest I had ever seen them. The nighttime chorus was being shared tonight by kind-hearted people surrounding each other. Which was a welcome change. As I was in limbo between being asleep and awake Campbell called me in a whispered voice dan, dan I rolled out of the hammock in a panic he said to come see this I said what he then said a snake. So our first snake of the entire trip I love snakes and have yet to see one in Guyana I came out to the edge of the boardwalk to get a fleeting glimpse of it and into the water, I fell. Luckily no camera on me of any sort just my damaged ego, for now, I wriggled out with Campbell’s assistance, Campbell whispering not to wake anyone up presumably me falling in woke the entire group up. Campbell shouted its ok just fell into the water looking at a snake the whole place burst into laughter. I laughed it of stripped naked and went back to sleep to tick another part of the trip of a snake which was the Amazon tree boa. A harmless species to me and you but a nightmare for roosting birds. Back to sleep, I went giggling to myself.
Day 9 on the Essequibo
We thanked our host by cooking her breakfast, in turn, she offered us a means to fill our water supply up with fresh rainwater. We filled 2 bottles up each, and we were off as we got further down maybe 50 metres or so there was another small dock where Campbell said he had a surprise. We tied the canoe up and climbed a steep hill with makeshift mud steps into the ground. Another small house with fruit trees all over but this house had a roof of plastic sheeting. To protect it from the rain Guyana regularly got. We walked up and it was the young girl’s house from the night before with the mother we had a conversation they re-enforced their ideas of last night. the mother was also on board and she said I could stay tonight I thanked them but I explained we had to finish the expedition. We were so close to the end could be no more than 3 days left 80km left or so from the latest GPS measurement. As Campbell said he thought it was a good idea to marry a Guyanese girl and not return back to the UK or take her with me. He laughed at the idea and said ‘what do you think Dan’. I explained let us finish the trip and my return to Guyana I will follow through with the idea they seem to settle for this statement and conversation drifted to there home what they do for money. The mother explained she had built it her self-many years ago. Before being pregnant with the children as she lived in that house as she pointed to a small hut on the far side of the river very overgrown. They expressed to many kanaima so we moved. Here Campbell said no man Ossiah laughed she said: “No man is no good they have children and disappear”. We asked if we could take some papaya for a fee the girls all said no at the same time, you have a long way to go take some. Plus what can we buy up here that we cannot get. ‘Food from the river bath in the river and fruit on the trees and we can breathe’.
At this point, I sat on a broken tree stump and just looked the simplest form of life is here, in the hardest to reach places on earth. There are no roads no airstrips for miles around and yet they all chose to stay. when they can go down river to Bartica or Georgetown for the so-called normal life. I looked at a plastic yellow water drum as the sun rose over the trees it shone on that with a huge silhouette of a scorpion as clear as if was on my hand I was in awe at it told the rest to look they looked, laughed and carried on chatting about papaya. I then realised it was amazing to me it was common them and as amazing as me crossing the road back home. It was a daily occurrence. I sat back and giggled to myself again Campbell said “come we go” We were off again I waved bye to the potential in-laws and the little child. They waved and the young lady blew a kiss I continued to wave. They watched us until completely out of sight. As I write this I think I wonder what they are up to I may never find out. So we got back in the canoe reassessing what the man of last night said about the upcoming river it was not too bad he said a small boat like ours should be fine. There was another community coming up he said were people lived on their boats or converted dredges but the dredges would be an upcoming issue the water would not be as clean as upriver, therefore, wildlife maybe less prevalent. I and Campbell were talking about the conversation in wapishanna he spoke to the lady in last night. He said it made him upset as his kids cannot talk it very good. So he began a small programme with local indigenous villages back up in apoteri and the rupununi region. Himself and other older members of the communities would go in and teach kids who only spoke either Portuguese or English as he said he also speaks Portuguese as he spent time with his mother in Brazil and educate them in the stories he has happily shared with me but it would be translated in wapishanna as they were told to him in his younger days as child. Campbell was an intelligent man he knew almost any answer to any wildlife question or Guyanese politics. For a man that had little access to books or TV in his teens was full of knowledge.
The canoe and paddle were now truly on its way out an almost relentless and constant knock on boulders under the service of the water had begun to take its toll water was getting in from holes you could see through. So a constant water bailer was needed that job was given to me I was sat at the front and with a small plastic cutout tub, I was constantly throwing water. As if it got to ankle depth we would have been in Trouble With the weight we were already carrying. With the sound of the jungle from all insects birds and amphibians and howler monkeys we heard a huge roar not knowing where it came from as the river was bending and turning in and around small islands and sandbars, it did not sand like an animal at all. Ossiah sighed and said it was our first gold miner Illegal of course we got around the corner and it was a small boat-shaped vehicle with a few pipes and tubes and huge generator on the back. Spewing out the scent of petrol with a film of oil extending a few metres away from the craft. He was shocked to see us as we got closer he was there with 2 small children. We stopped to have a chat and ask the condition of the water further down. He replied it was good a bit shallow but ok we asked if he did this year round he said “No I do it 2 or 4 months at a time then go back to Bartica to sell it”. Which he said supports his family throughout the year he was upset that he had to do it as he loves the forest and understands the importance of it throughout the world. But if his government managed eco-tourism and increased employment or improved the education system as Guyana had a lot to learn. and use the resources without having an effect on the environment the hundreds of people would not do it. Campbell agreed I did not but I was ignorant of his situation in Georgetown or Bartica plus I have not had to support a small family. We continued onwards dark and the river opened up after the meandering shallow channels to when they all converged. And again resembling a lake small boat houses scattered on the river with a small crossing from side to side with a barge where we had to be careful of as it would have crushed us without knowing. When we got closer we saw more gold dredges a huge one who called us to them we were apprehensive to begin but we went over to them they asked us what we were doing on a canoe. a crew of around 12 men to describe them all would have been to say. All extremely healthy looking men muscles for days between them you would have not mistaken them in the GuyaneseOlympicc wrestling team if Guyana had a team of wrestlers in the Olympics. The one who didn’t speak just sat down with a dog that barked constantly, which almost sounded like a howl. He was covered in thick gold chains from bracelet to rings and necklaces, thickest gold chains I have ever seen until now. We told them what we were doing and we wanted to find a shop they laughed and said kaniama not get you yet. They pointed at a boathouse said they will sell you a chicken. We sat there and said chicken we set off thanked the gold miners and waved them off the most unsavoury bunch I was happy to get away from them.
When we arrived at the boathouse around a 5-minute paddling away against the current which was draining amongst getting rid of water as well we shouted to the people on the boat asked if we could buy chicken she said yes come up. We went up to the deck of the boat after a small climb. We began talking what we had done why and where we are heading to. She laughed offered up a chicken and rice for around 5 Guyanese dollars Campbell paid we were excited and made sure we had all we needed, to cook it tonight. The lady duly offered to cook it on a gas stove we discussed it and with the time we had made today we agreed. So the first piece of meat in space of 14 days as it was an arduous trip the chicken was warmly welcomed. I and Campbell got talking about things one thing led to another until we got talking about malaria and how he would cure it and how we would in England I said where I live we don’t worry about malaria it doesn’t exist we only worry about kids spending to much time on video games well a majority of the population anyways. He said he did not know that malaria is only in tropical countries and there are different strains of the disease. He got onto tell me another story of a family member when he was young had been suffering from malaria which turned out to be a kanaimas doing. How he cured it, there was a specific ant species the name I cant remember. “From the description of small aggressive stinging ants, I would say azteca ant species”. They lay a person in a hammock and collect a nest of these ants or strap the hammock to a tree already occupied by them. They then douse thousands of stinging ants on the patient who would then be stung countless times all over through the adrenaline he would be cured in a few days. The story sounded strange to me but these people have an innate knowledge of the forest and what does what. From woods that float to ants that cure malaria and they have existed for millennia until western nations came and abused their land and are only now realising the importance of knowledge of indigenous communities throughout the world.
The chicken was cooked by our new host and we were told to help ourselves there was a foot gap in between the decking and the kitchen we would need to hop over each time. We cued up politely and all got a fair helping the lady joined us with a plate of food and we began talking how long she had lived here she said her whole life but was on the bank in the past though again she moved due to kanaima numbers being too many as they disliked water she was safe. And her family was also as we mentioned family her husband climbed up the side of the boat after a day hunting he was not very talkative he said hello, welcomed us on his boat and offered us anything from the small shop he stocked on the boat we said no thank you we will before we leave though. As we continued eating we heard a number of shots in the forest she said not to worry Campbell said hunters yes she agreed. They all hunt around here for food mainly so agouti was a good meal for a family. And saved money, in the long run, i asked about the wildlife here she says plenty piranha look. As she threw a half-eaten chicken bone into the water something automatically as if it was expecting a meal took it, it kept bobbing back to the surface until there was nothing left. The meal was as filling as the night before we were all full up on 2 days in a row this was not what we were expecting. But it was better to be full and not thirsty in this environment than not. So the warmness and kind hospitality of this stranger again in Guyana was humbling but was coming to a swift end as we prepared to set off again on the canoe.
We thanked her she bagged the remaining chicken and rice up in a large container. I told her to give some to her partner she thanked me but said no, no need and pointed out her shop and the fish he caught, and the skinned chicken hanging over her cooker. We laughed and said our goodbyes. Feeling stuffed we were groggy and needed rest it was late afternoon we began contemplating a camping spot but we disliked this area as the gunshots! deterred us. Also, a lot people around here. So we said in one hour we will consider a place to camp as we all preferred people not knowing where we were. So a laborious hour long paddling which felt like 2 or 3 with full bellies. We came up across thick forest yet again not as many dredges as we expected as the river took a normal geography straight fast-flowing waters, not as wide as previously there was sheer cliffs on each side it was getting darker by the minute head torches were taken out. The hour had more than passed and we all settled for a small climb up the bank it was now pitch black I made sure my boots were on as I didn’t want any close encounters with a spider or bullet ants and of course the countless snakes around here. We got up and it was surprisingly level ground a lot of leaf litter I prepared my hammock Campbell prepared his and Ossiah to settle for the forest floor after kicking a few leaves away as not to sleep on a snake. Although he did have a huge centipede on his leg he asked me what I would call this I said a centipede but people call them scolopendra Campbell agreed with my identification. We decided for no food tonight and save the chicken for in the morning we all agreed settled for a pint of water. I arranged my kit for the morning slept in just a cotton liner this evening made sure my tarp was up as the rain was well overdue. I went into my hammock left Campbell and Ossiah to have a father and son chat. I tried to write in my daily diary but was too tired and sticky to attempt anything more than the date. I fell asleep within minutes.
“The 2 final days on the essequibo will be published soon”
“There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.”
— Robert louis stevenson —