The roaring sounds like a distant interstate highway, trucks raging lonely through the night. But as I lie sweating on top of my sheet, I know that in this steamy South American rainforest, that kind of traffic is thousands of miles away. At 4 a.m. it's 90 degrees, but it isn't the heat that keeps me awake, nor the thought of the lurking jaguar that someone spotted by the river last night. It's the roaring—just one roar at first, an eerie rhythmic howling of something surely in pain, a last dying gasp crying out to the world, but soon other howls begin echoing back until the whole jungle is a haunt of howling roaring trees.
I know these are the red howler monkeys, but how can something so unearthly come from a monkey? The night has taken on the dimensions of a dream, yet beneath my mosquito net, I feel more awake than ever. I revel in the first slight breeze I've felt on my skin in days, and listen for whatever else might be outside my hut's window in the jungled interior of Guyana.
"Do you think we'll see the jaguar today?" I ask our Amerindian guide Egbert the next morning as myself and five others in our group start our hike up Turtle Mountain in the Iwokrama Rainforest in central Guyana.
"Probably not. But he'll see you," says Egbert, as he whacks a vine with his machete.
Egbert is a Makushi Amerindian and he's built like a small refrigerator, his muscled compact stature perfect for negotiating a dense rugged forest. The Iwokrama Rainforest is the homeland of the Makushi people, who've lived here for thousands of years. For the few travelers who make it to Guyana, the journey into the country's tropical canopied interior usually begins at the Iwokrama River Lodge, an international conservation center run mainly by the Makushi. The surrounding rainforest, all one million intact pristine acres of it, is a living laboratory, proving that tropical forests can be conserved and used sustainably to provide ecological, social and economic benefits.
After three hours of hiking we reach the mountaintop above the canopy, where we look out at nothing but trees in more shades of green than I knew existed and as far as the curvature of the Earth allows us to see. In some tree tops, what at first look like wiry black branches turn out to be limbs of spider monkeys. Above, a flock of macaws rainbows the sky while giant blue morpho butterflies flutter by like electric-blue tissues in a breeze. What amazes me most are the sounds rising up from the jungle, a near-deafening cacophony of bird calls, cricket whines and screeching mammals all going about their daily business—asserting their territory or searching for mates, food or friends.
Although 90% of the Guyanese population live on its narrow coastal strip, travel inland and you find nothing but untouched jungle in an area the size of Britain. Scientists have only recently discovered how pristine this rainforest north of the Amazon actually is—one of only four such rainforests left on Earth. By studying the forest's astounding biodiversity, ecologists have been trying to prove that the country's rainforest is worth more alive than it could be razed to the ground in favor of agriculture and timber.
Guyana's president, Bharrat Jagdeo, wants Guyana—the poorest country in South America—to become an example for sustainable, low-carbon development and is hoping for carbon credits in exchange for not logging Guyana's rainforest. Eco-tourism and research stations such as this are part of Guyana's emerging green wave. Although the term "eco-tourism" gets thrown around a lot these days, often misleadingly so, in Guyana it's for real. Impressed with Iwokrama, I wanted to see how else the country was keeping itself green.
"Most people think we're in Africa," says Archer, our Amerindian guide at the Atta Rainforest Lodge south of the Iwokrama field station. "They confuse Guyana for Ghana. Once, someone in the U.S. was supposed to send us a box of binoculars. The binoculars wound up in Africa. Our problem is nobody knows where we are. The few tourists we get are birders from Britain. North Americans don't know us."
Except for that unfortunate Kool-Aid incident, I think, as we hike toward the Canopy Walkway, where, on the way, Archer points out vines that collect pure water to drink, bark that relieves fevers, leaves to treat diabetes, tree sap to cure coughs, a root that's a natural contraceptive, and the capadula tree, the bark of which is a natural Viagra.
"Watch out for the bullet ants on the path," says Archer. "Their bite is so strong that we use them to test our manhood when we turn 15. We sit on them and try not to scream."
When we reach the canopy walk, we traverse a series of swinging footbridges 100 feet high that connect to tree platforms. Within seconds of arriving at the first platform, Asaph, our Amerindian bird guide, points out a red-necked woodpecker flying just below us, almost close enough to touch. The birders in our group are over the top with excitement. I myself feel a little queasy.
Cock-of-the-rock and Edible Grubs
The next day we're happily bumping along the main dirt road with a breeze on our faces in an open safari truck. We're on our way to a certain stop along the road, where, if we hike up a mountain, we might spot a cock-of-the-rock that's known to nest on a cave ceiling. A cock-of-the-rock, the birders tell me, is a huge brilliant-orange bird with a massive crest. At least, the male is orange. The female is muddy brown. I wonder if the whole affair is worth a hike up a mountain in a climate where even standing still makes you sweat. In fact, it's so hot here that cicadas start screeching at 6 a.m.
About 30 minutes into the hike our guide shushes us to stop chatting. We tiptoe through a refreshingly cool cave, and, when we exit on the cave's other side, we see what we've come for.
I hadn't expected this. I hear the breath rush sharply into my lungs. Hopping along a tree branch, and completely oblivious to the group of nearby gawkers, is an extraordinarily flamboyant fluorescent-orange creature—the male cock-of-the-rock—so hidden in the depths of the jungle, so far removed from civilization, that it feels as if we've crossed over into a paradise where no humans have ever been, a paradise where the magnificent animals around us have no idea humans even exist. I no longer mind the heat. In fact, up here, the forest feels like a caressing sauna filled with the sweet aroma of orchids. I could just melt right in.
But there's more to see of other-worldly Guyana. We spend the night in another Makushi village further south, where the rainforest meets the savannah, at Surama Ecolodge. Our local Indian guide points out giant coconut grubs eating the inside of an old coconut. He asks if we want to try one and we eye each other warily, shaking our heads. Clearly, we're all wimps. He shrugs, plucks out the fattest grub, and plops it in his mouth. "Yum," he says, smiling. "Tastes just like coconut. And it hardly moves around in my mouth at all."
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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