After a dinner of cassava, sweet potato soup, and honey-fried plantain with peanut butter, I have a slight case of heatstroke—I'm a redhead and wilt readily. The upside of my dizziness is that I'm forced to lie on my back outside and gaze up at the night sky. It's a night sky like I've never seen. We're close to the equator so the constellations are different from what I'm used to—I spot the Southern Cross near the horizon—but it's the brilliance of the stars that staggers me. Surrounded to the south and west by the Amazon rainforests, and the Guyana rainforest to the north and east, the closest city with any significant light is Caracas, over 1000 kilometers away. That means practically zero light pollution. And it means a zillion stars are raining down on me and the surrounding savannah, stars like cut glass just out of reach of my fingertips.
The Otter Lady
In the morning we switch modes of transportation and motorboat south along the Rupununi River through the Rupununi savannah, a vast golden plain bordering Brazil and teeming with rare and eccentric wildlife, such as the Jabiru stork, which, with his massive white pounding wings, looks like something from the world's dawn, and the alien-like giant anteater with its long tubular head. When I see my first capybara standing on the riverbank, I think, part hippo, part Snuffleupagus.
As in the rainforest to the north, Amerindian villages dot the Rupununi, but this time, we'll be staying on a ranch. And not just any ranch, but the Karanambu Eco-Lodge Ranch, owned by the renowned Otter Lady, Diane McTurk. Rather like Jane Goodall is to chimps, Diane McTurk is to giant river otters.
Imagine debarking from a boat on a remote South American river full of black caimans and being greeted by Katherine Hepburn. This is how it feels to meet Diane McTurk, the graceful, tall, erudite, 83-year-old who was born and raised on the Rupununi. With movie-star elegance and clear blue eyes shining out of a deeply-etched tanned face, the first order of business for the McTurk is to offer visitors her famous rum punch, which I can attest, has you flopped out on a hammock in her dining shack within minutes. Her second order of business is to answer your questions about how she has spent the last 30 years rescuing orphaned giant river otters. McTurk, along with helping to develop a trust to preserve the Rupununi ecosystem and its indigenous culture, is credited with being a leading figure in restoring the giant river otter population when the species was almost wiped out.
"The 80s were a gruesome time for Guyana and the Amerindians were forced to hunt otters for their pelts for the Brazil market. I told them if they hear baby orphans crying for their parents to bring them to me. So they did. I'd teach the orphans how to survive, then send them back into the wild. But the otters often come back to visit," says Diane, smiling. "Now that poaching is illegal, I still get runts given to me. And many of those former poachers are nature guides here at Karanambu."
As she speaks, we suddenly hear Buddy—a blind baby otter she recently rescued—making noises in his bath house. Diane rushes off with a gaggle of local kids trailing her to take Buddy down to the river to play.
I knock back another rum punch and along comes Pat, and it isn't just the name which makes me question Pat's gender. Pat is a 68-year-old self-proclaimed "escapee from the Midwest," a gruff-spoken, chain-smoking, tough old gal wearing men's clothing and huge 80s glasses. She likes to say she came to the Rupununi years ago to find herself, then adds, "and I'm still lookin'!"
Pat, who is something of a manager at Karanambu's Eco-Lodge, shows my roommate and me our rustic room—two single beds under mosquito nets in a thatched shack—and off-handedly tells us to watch out for snakes. "They seem to like the floor of this room. And of course check for scorpions tonight. Oh, and you'll find out about the bats in a minute." She points to the ceiling. "There's one now." We duck as a bat swoops in and out of the room.
That night in our room, after a boat ride with Diane down the river to see giant caimans, giant Amazon lilies and giant river otters ('giant' the prevailing theme here) my roommate and I hear a commotion outside. We soon learn that Edwin, here on his honeymoon from San Francisco, has found a scorpion under his pillow. An hour later, we hear a scream from another direction. This time, a cockroach has run across the face of an English woman birder who'd been trying to sleep.
The next morning, as Pat serves breakfast, I gaze around the thatched open dining shack. A couple of people are lying on hammocks, reading nature guides in preparation for their day's wildlife sightings. Beside me is a bookcase full of paperbacks left by other travelers. When I ask Pat why all the book bindings are missing she tells me the goat that hangs around wandered in one night and ate them all. "And our raccoon eats the toilet paper. Can't keep these critters out of here. Did you hear Diane and me whacking that foot-long centipede with a broom last night in a lady's room? Took a lot of whacking that one did."
I look toward the river trail and see Buddy the Blind Otter following some English birdwatchers setting off on a hike, just as the raccoon moseys by. Pat shouts at some local kids to leave the wild hogs alone and the 83-year-old Diane appears with a toolbox to fix the generator which caught on fire last night. Edwin—of the scorpion-pillow incident—is telling someone this isn't exactly a honeymoon capital but he likes it here anyway and I think, yes! Karanambu has to be the most far-flung and eccentric place I've ever been. For an addicted adventure seeker, this is the highest order of praise.
The world has so few truly wild secret corners left. With Guyana's new green initiatives, let's hope it can keep its wild heart intact.
Lauded by Time magazine as "one of the new generation of intrepid female travel writers," Laurie Gough is author of Island of the Human Heart, Kiss the Sunset Pig, and Kite Strings of the Southern Cross, shortlisted for the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award, and silver medal winner of ForeWord Magazine's Travel Book of the Year in the US. See more at www.lauriegough.com
Photos by the author except where indicated.
Sedona: Is the Whole Town Built on a Hoax? by Laurie Gough
The Metamorphosis: Carefree World Traveler, then Mother by Laurie Gough
Apocalypse Soon: On the Lemanak River of Sarawak by Graham Reid
Secret Men's Monkey Business by Peter Moore
Other South America travel stories from the archives
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