I woke up to an exotic and beautiful dawn chorus of shrieking tropical birds, followed by the more menacing sound of dogs barking and snarling in the streets. The mix of beauty and the beasts was appropriate. I was in Georgetown, Guyana, a country the size of the UK but so little-visited that there are no guidebooks to it. It was 6am local time, 10am UK time, and time for an adventure.
We took off in a small plane that headed out over the Atlantic. Guyana is at that point on the north coast of South America where the Caribbean Sea turns into the Atlantic Ocean, though the country itself is as Caribbean as any island, with its loud music, spicy cooking and people who are both laid-back and argumentative, and whose skins are the colour of coffee, from ebony black to milky through a hundred shades of brown.
Down below us the water was a dirty brown, with splashes of white which were the graceful sails of fishing boats shaped like African dhows. They raced along like windsurfers, as we banked and turned back inland, across the Demerera River and over the plantations of the sugar that borrowed its name. There were rice fields too, before we reached the rainforest proper, something that doesn’t take long no matter where you are in Guyana, as rainforest covers 75% of the country.
‘I’ve just realised what it looks like,’ my neighbour said to me. ‘Broccoli. Isn’t it just like masses and masses of heads of broccoli?’
It seemed a brilliantly original observation, till we discovered over the next few days that anyone who has ever flown over Guyana refers to the rainforest as ‘the broccoli’. Even Prince Charles, when he visited the country, apparently made the same observation. Between the broccoli were occasional rivers, slinking through the green landscape like silver snakes, glinting in the sun. Here and there were gaps in the trees: a gold mine, a diamond mine, a cattle ranch. We were headed over these looking for another gap in the trees, marking the airstrip for the country’s number one tourist attraction, the Kaieteur Falls, where you might get as many as a hundred visitors on a busy weekend.
Our guide, Sohan Bramdo, greets us off the plane and leads us towards the falls through a patch of initial devastation. ‘It’s terrible,’ he apologises, ‘but when Prince Charles came to visit these falls someone decided it would be a good idea to chop down lots of trees and tidy the jungle up a bit.’ Thankfully only a bit of the jungle got tidied for the royal visit, and soon we’re in among the trees picking our way along a rough track.
‘There are jaguars around here,’ Sohan tells us, ‘but they usually only come out at night when the last visitors have gone.’ He stops by a large spiky plant, in the centre of which a little pool of water has collected. ‘Look,’ he says, pointing at something that is the size of a thumbnail and gold as a nugget. ‘That is the golden frog. It lives all its life in these plants, which are called tank bromeliads, the largest bromeliads in the world. The frog is poisonous and has a toxin that can knock people out for 2-3 days. It slows down the whole metabolic system and puts people into a kind of trance. It’s used in Haiti by voodoo practitioners, who put people into a zombie-like trance with it and then use their ‘magic’ to bring the person round when the toxin is wearing off.’
We emerge from the trees onto a rock that’s level with the top of the falls, which are a few hundred feet away. It’s an awesome sight, the more so for being so sudden and so unspoilt, with no safety barriers or fences, just a few signs warning you to keep eight feet from the edge, which everyone completely ignores.
The drop at Kaieteur is 822 feet, or five times the height of Niagara, and though the Angel Falls in the neighbouring country of Venezuela also claim to have the longest single drop in the world, they can’t match Kaieteur for the sheer volume of water that plunges over and thunders down into a wooded gorge where the river continues its journey way below us. Caves behind the falls are home to hundreds of thousands of swifts, and great flocks of them are screeching and flying below us, in front of the falls. As we walk round towards the top of the falls, the noise of the water increases like an approaching train thundering down a tunnel.
Everyone edges close to the top to look over and watch the water as it tumbles slowly down through space with a slow and powerful grace. Sitting a hundred feet or so upstream from the lip of the falls is a young man, who says his name is Rudolph. His skin is black as coal, his voice a quiet whisper with a lovely Caribbean lilt to it. He lives nearby, in a village. ‘I come to sit here because it’s beautiful,’ he tells us. ‘It’s peaceful. I come to look at the sky and the water.’
By sky and water is how most people have to get about in Guyana, as roads are few apart from one which pushes south through the jungles all the way to Brazil. We fly out of Kaieteur then drive this road for a few hours, before taking a boat to Iwokrama. The Iwokrama Centre for Rain Forest Conservation and Development is the place where Prince Charles was made an honorary chief, where he donned his head-dress of eagle feathers and attempted to dance with the native Amerindians, thus ensuring he appeared on every front page and every news bulletin in the country, although very few of these ‘news reports’ actually bothered to say what Iwokrama was and why the Prince of Wales was there.
Iwokrama is a unique experiment and a generous gesture by the Guyanese government, who have given almost a million acres of pristine rainforest to the world. Anyone can apply to visit, whether to study the rainforest or simply to see its beauty. In 1993 the United Nations gave $3 million to get the project off the ground and assist with the building of a field station, with simple accommodation for scientists and the few tourists alike.
The scientists are studying the forest, and seeing how it can be used but sustained. The local Amerindians are trained as rangers, and one of these, Daniel, leads us on a walk one morning to the top of Turtle Mountain, on a path that he himself cut out one day in 1994. It’s about a mile and a half long, and climbs up above the canopy to a viewpoint that shows us the Essequibo River cutting a swathe through the broccoli below. Over the greenery but way below us, a light grey figure soars. A king vulture, says Daniel. Iwokrama is also home to the harpy eagle, the world’s largest bird of prey that stands some 3.5 feet high.
Here too are snakes and caymans, and animals like the agouti and the tapir, the puma and the jaguar (pronounced emphatically ‘jag-WAH’.) In a 1999 survey there were 114 species of reptiles and amphibians found in Iwokrama, eleven of them new to science. Four hundred and twenty fish species were recorded in this spot in the middle of Guyana, when only 700 freshwater species exist in the whole of North America. There are 83 species of bats, the highest concentration in South America. On a night-time boat ride we see the red eyes of caymans floating by the riverbank, a tree boa draped over a branch, and the eery sight of ghost bats skimming round us like specters in the night.
Prince Charles Talks About Iwokrama
Beers and rums and cokes mount up on the table, and when Bob Marley comes on the sound system a guy named Panto sees me swaying and drags me onto the dance floor. ‘In Guyana we all dance together,’ he tells me, his eyes a rum-filled glaze. He pulls up a local girl and we sway to ‘One Love’, though any romantic thoughts on this hot tropical reggae night are done away with when she starts picking her nose. Panto is swaying too, though more to the rum than the music. He leans into one of my friends: ‘You want intercourse with my woman?’ My friend assures him that, although she is very nice, it’s not quite what he has in mind. No offence. More rum comes.
When Bob Marley’s Greatest Hits has been round twice and is replaced by Bob Marley singing the same songs live, we wobble our torchlit way down to the jetty, only to find our boatman has been and gone. A couple of guys sitting down by the water tell us he’s gone home to get some sleep. ‘They’ll be OK,’ he said, ‘they having their fun.’ So we turned and climbed back up to the bar till he decided to come back again, and proved scientifically that one thing that’s not sustainable in the rainforest is the stock of rum on Captain’s Island. Next day we learned from our driver that we’d drunk them dry. And they hoped we’d be back.