As our little Cessna Caravan navigates a corridor of puffy clouds, Guyana’s Atlantic coast is exchanged for an infinite sea of green. Along with seven others, I am high above this one-time British colony, heading deep into its vast interior. Below, varicose rivers channel brown water through the jungle. There are no roads, no towns and no farms, the only hint of human impact being occasional ugly gouges along riverbanks, the remnants of gold mines. Thankfully, those manmade scars are a miniscule part of this colossal, riotous whole.
We are heading to Rewa, one of Guyana’s most remote villages, close to the western border with Brazil. From a dusty airstrip, we transfer to motorised canoes, then continue down the Essequibo River to the Rewa Eco Lodge. Only a few hours since leaving our hotel in the capital, Georgetown, the modern world soon feels very far away.
Built in 2005 and run entirely by a local Amerindian community, the accommodation is rustic but comfortable – over two days here, I find four frogs hiding in my toilet and three lizards on the walls. One of the other guests is joined in his cabin by a pink-toed tarantula and, as much as I love wildlife, I’d understand if he kept one eye open at night. I have no such problems, the distant, dread calls of howler monkeys making a curious lullaby.
For those living this remotely, the Rewa and Essequibo rivers are a vital transportation networks, essential highways through the untamed jungle. For we foreigners, they are our primary routes for excursions into the wild.
The following day we head downriver for around an hour, powerful engines shooting us across the smooth surface at an electric clip. These boats have revolutionised travel for this community, allowing them to transport goods and people with far greater efficiency than their old dug-out canoes. That’s not to say they are perfect – after a bug hits me on the shoulder with the force of a paintball, I spend the rest of my journey with my mouth closed and sunglasses on.
We travel at such speed that ringed kingfishers and white-tipped swallows seem to match our pace, following us like jets accompanying a jumbo. Meanwhile, we spot yellow-billed terns and – look! – scarlet macaws. Time seems to slow when the massive wings of a startled cocoi heron gradually carry it aloft. Later, high in the canopy we will see the great potoo, which sounds like a tribal leader but is actually a small, nocturnal bird not unlike an owl.
This is the sort of environment which can make a twitcher of the most avian-averse visitor. There are over 1,000 bird species in the sprawling area known as the Guiana Shield, from the lethal harpy eagle, to hummingbirds so fast and tiny as to seem imagined. However, on this trip we are to meet one of their mortal enemies – the goliath bird-eating spider.
We disembark at what looks to these untrained eyes like a random spot in the jungle. In fact, half-an-hour’s walk from here, researchers found a healthy population of the spiders and it has since become an unlikely visitor attraction. In reality the spiders rarely attempt to eat birds, but they are the world’s heaviest arachnid and generally enjoy life in the jungle unmolested by any other creature.
We plunge into the green, daylight fading as the silent river is left behind, humidity tightening around us like a constrictor. Our guide, Vivian, walks with the swiftness of a man native to this environment, while I move with the subtlety of a drunkard in a library.
As well as the unending concern of stepping on one of the spiders, my eyes feel overwhelmed by this environment. Some of the larger trees are being inexorably devoured by termites, with ghost leaves hanging from those that haven’t made it. There are spiny palms that’d open my arms and, eager to feast on the next passing beast, burrowing ticks hanging from sticks. There are many more benign sights besides – mosses, ferns, vines, roots, fungi, new growth, old growth, some things withering, many more thriving – but it certainly feels like this hostile kingdom should be ruled by Shelobian spiders.
Eventually, we find one of these fat terrors outside of its nest, its green-black form seeming to drain what little light is piercing the canopy. Perhaps exhausted after shedding its old skin, it is in no mood to move. Perhaps terrified, I am in no mood for it to do so. As well as having a ferocious, poisonous bite, the goliath has the ability to loose hairs from its considerable legs, which can irritate the airways and skin of would-be predators. “Be careful,” says Vivian, a little unnecessarily.
We take what photos we dare before returning to the river and emerging onto the banks, I feel like I’ve come up for air after a dive that’s lasted a bit too long. From here, we’ll begin our journey back to the lodge, but en route, staff meet us on a large sandbar where they set up tables and chairs so that we may dine under the stars.
Lodge manager Dickie Alvin is there too and while a fire is lit and the meal prepared, he talks to our group, a waxing moon illuminating him from on high. “In our first year we had just one single visitor and the local community wondered what we were doing,” says Dickie, who has been involved with the project since the start. “The next year it was three, then suddenly we had 18 Americans visit at the same time. When the children from the village saw them, they ran away. I had to explain that they were our friends.”
Rewa now attracts around 200 visitors a year, thanks largely to its impressive roster of fauna: giant otters and jaguars, as well as the extraordinary range of birds and disturbingly muscular spiders. Lagoons off of the main river are also home to gigantic, endangered arapaimas, surface-breathing armoured fish which have been saved from near-obliteration thanks to local conservation efforts. At the last count there were thought to be 4,000 in Rewa, up from fewer than 200 in the 1990s. “People who come here from different countries love to see what we have,” explains Dickie, who adds that he’d like no more than 400 guests per year. “Now our community understands how important our environment and resources are. The income helps our communities, especially the school.”
As Dickie continues to talk, I notice that the shadow chefs preparing our dinner are cutting off bits of the sticks holding a large peacock bass above the fire. As the flames dwindle, they shorten the scaffold, rather than add more fuel.
“I get asked if I want to expand, but more buildings, more boats, would maybe scare away the animals. In five years, we’d want the same number of rooms, but we do get offers from some companies,” says the boss, sounding hesitant, and I briefly worry that the flames are a little too close.
At the four-kilometre marker on the dusty road to the Surama Lodge, there is a sign that reads: ‘Development is a Human Right It Belongs to Every One.’ Throughout the rest of my time in Guyana, I find myself often thinking of that sign – and not just because of the curious grammar.
Surama was one of the first eco lodges anywhere in Guyana, and it is often championed as a pioneer of the concept in this little-visited nation on the titanic shoulder of Brazil. The lodge has been around long enough that during our visit, it is receiving a major refurbishment of its main buildings.
Instead of spending too long at the accommodation, we move on to the nearby Makushi Cultural Village. Originally built as part of a film set, today the improbably named Glendon Alicock, his extended family and handful of adolescents from Surama village, use the place to demonstrate fast-fading Amerindian traditions. There’s no doubting the sincerity of their project, even if at times feels a little kitsch – the cultural displays include some singing and dancing, during which many of the embarrassed teenagers look like they too would like to shed their skin.
Later, while some of the youngsters grind cassava into flour, Glendon regales us with stories of killing a jaguar that’d come into a family home and explains from which birds his extraordinary headdress was assembled. “I’m a real child of the forest,” he says with unmistakable pride. “I was born out here, not in some sophisticated hospital.”
He’s content, too, with how this cultural preservation project is going. “For a time, all of our grown youths were gone, but now these young ones have stayed,” says the community leader. “I think our culture is coming back now, and perhaps sharing it with the world will help.”
As I’m offered some barbequed tree grubs and a glass of local punch known as fly (“Drink too much and you’ll feel like you’re flying”) Glendon offers some forthright opinions on organised religion and, in particular, language. Listening to him talk, it’s easy to sympathise with his concerns that English has steamrollered the Makushi tongue – and his annoyance at how many missionaries came here looking to sell the god business to people who’d survived millennia without it.
Yet, at least with language, there are some upsides, too. The nation being almost exclusively English-speaking brings an uncanniness for outsiders like me – the Amerindians of Guyana’s interior look ethnically similar to tribes deeper in the Amazon, yet speak with a soft, almost Caribbean lilt. This means discussing development and ecology requires no translation for one thing, but for another it allows them to follow international news to learn about threats to their environment.
Yet there are always temptations to give up some of what they have. Back in Rewa, the toushao or chief, Rudolph Edwards, had explained that there have been offers over the years from Brazilian and Chinese mining and oil-prospecting companies to develop the land. “We looked at what would happen and we were worried about the environment and about our animals,” he said inside his office in the centre of Rewa Village. “They proposed a road and a bridge, but we thought of the damage and so we said no. Yes, it would be good to get money in our pockets but in the long term the negatives would outweigh the positives.”
These foreign companies may well describe such work as development, but to the people of the Rewa region it would more obviously be a pollution. So far, the government in Georgetown has been supportive of its Amerindian population, a story not commonly repeated in other parts of the continent.
As it stands, the people of Rewa and Surama seem content to enjoy comparatively humble gains, welcoming controlled numbers of visitors while preserving what often feels like an Edenic environment. That’s not to say their lives are prehistoric – Internet has recently come to both villages.
To my mind this could be another kind of pollution, but for the first time in years, it was encouraging to hear people speak optimistically about improved connectivity. “It’s already improving things in terms of education, communication and messaging between us and the government,” explained Rudolph. “We aren’t really thinking to use it for fun or whatever.”
Internet, motorised canoes, solar power… One way or another, life is changing in Guyana’s interior, but the focus is on improving what they have, not mercilessly chasing profit. Development may or may not be a human right, but for now these communities are still able to interpret it as they wish.
As it turns out, the most striking interruption to Guyana’s great green expanse isn’t manmade at all. From another small plane, mighty Kaieteur appears as a gorgeous tear in this infinite carpet of trees.
The propellers have barely stopped spinning before we’re following a guide for just 15 minutes along a narrow path, then emerging on a cliff edge, the giant waterfall waiting for us as it has does for a few thousand visitors each year. If Guyana has anything that can be regarded as a popular tourist attraction, then Kaieteur is it.
Dumping the Potaro River 741 feet over its precipice, it is the world’s largest single-drop waterfall by volume. More than that, its mists breathe life into a yawning valley, sustaining everything from jaguars to tiny golden tree frogs that live their whole lives inside giant tank bromeliads. There’s a near constant shimmer of rainbows jetting out of its beautiful belly. It’s hard to imagine a more perfect waterfall.
But despite how ludicrously photogenic it is, Kaieteur is far from crowded. I have seen many of the world’s most famous waterfalls: squeezing in with the masses at Iguazu, dodging selfie-sticks at Niagara, patiently waiting for bus groups to move out the way at Iceland’s near-frozen Skógafoss. Within moments of seeing it, I realise that I cherish the near-deserted Kaieteur above them all.
Aside from dropping your camera into its unguarded abyss, it’s hard to imagine how you could take a bad photo here and yet, during our visit, we are the only people present.
If the Kaieteur was all the eponymous national park had to offer, it’d still be absolutely worth the journey, but every night in the sky above, a colossal 20,000-strong swoop of swifts gathers like a storm cloud. As more and more birds arrive, they seem to wait to reach some critical mass before plunging headlong towards the falls like black rain. Their goal is their roost in a cave behind the watery curtain.
On the night we’re there, just before the swifts begin this fraught ceremony, a red-breasted hawk begins a skulduggerous patrol beneath them, forcing them into a tight, black ball, like sardines being stalked by dolphins.
In 2004, the brilliant, strange filmmaker Werner Herzog released The White Diamond, a documentary largely shot on location in Guyana. Some of the most memorable scenes were captured around Kaieteur when the master director’s on-site physician asked to be lowered over the edge to see where the swifts go. As Herzog explained in his distinct cadence: “From the bottom of the falls, the gigantic cave is inaccessible and has resisted all attempts by explorers.”
He decided to send a camera over the edge too, so that the dangling doctor could reveal Kaietuer’s secrets. Yet, tantalisingly, he then opted not to include the footage in his final film. The physician, very much cut from Herzog’s profoundly weird cloth, said of the experience: “I had the feeling of weightlessness at the beginning and a sense of deep space which ends in a black nothingness.”
Standing looking over this tremendous valley, I understand the decision not to give away the mystery. It’s surely inevitable that Kaieteur will soon begin to receive more visitors – something this magnificent can only be ignored for so long. The infrastructure will need to improve, even though any development will surely remove something of the organic thrill of seeing it so elementally raw today.
Currently, the majority of visitors are day-trippers, taking an hour-long flight from Georgetown on small planes similar to ours, walking a set path along its edge, then leaving before sunset and the swifts’ daredevil display. There is only one accommodation option, a battered cabin which looks one big rainy season away from collapse, though there are already plans for it to be replaced with something sturdier. It can only be hoped that development of this singular site is handled with as much care as Rewa and Surama.
What Guyana was, what it is and what it could be are all very different things. The ghosts of the colonial era and the Jonestown massacre may belong to Guyana’s past and ecotourism to its present and future, but Kaieteur is the nation’s constant. Whatever is to come, it will be there. It was flowing when the Union Jack was first raised in Georgetown in 1812 and in May 1966 when Guyana’s Golden Arrowhead replaced it. It was flowing when the first sugar cane was harvested along the Demerara River and it was flowing when the first hammocks were hung at Surama Lodge. Guyana can at times be an unpredictable place, but there is one certainty: Kaieteur is flowing as you read this now.