If you're like me and know next to nothing about Guyana, especially about the "interior" region of Guyana, well this is your lucky day my friends as I'm about to enlighten you!
Firstly, for some dull old stats, the population of Guyana is about 760,000. Most people live in boring old Georgetown or along the Atlantic coast, an area that covers only around 5% of the country. Except for the Amerindians that is, of which there are still 9 different tribes in Guyana. They live mostly within the Interior. The "interior" of Guyana makes up around 80% of the country and is mostly unpopulated and undeveloped primary tropical rainforest. Within the Interior is the Guiana Shield, a large tract of intact rainforest which overlaps with the Amazon Basin to create one of the world's most unspoiled natural wilderness areas. Inside the Guiana Shield sits the Iwokrama Centre for Rainforest Conservation & Development, a one million acre forest reserve that's used as a living lab for sustainable tropical forest management and scientific research. Residing inside this forest reserve are approximately 150 species of flora, 200 mammals, 500 birds, 420 fish, and 150 species of amphibians and reptiles, some of which are reputed to be the largest species in the world.
With credentials like this, we had high expectations as to the type and amount of wildlife we'd see on our trip into the Interior. But first we had to get there, and that, as it turned out, was not the easy part!
Only one dirt road, filled with potholes and often flooded, passes through the Interior. As the crow flies, we only had around 300 kilometers to travel to get from Georgetown to Iwokrama Lodge, our first destination within the forest reserve. But when we bought our bus tickets, we were told it would be a 12-hour overnight minibus trip. Huh? Doing the math, that would put us traveling at 25 kph. That was our first clue that this wasn't going to be a particularly fun roadtrip.
So we set off from Georgetown at 6pm in our little minibus of 12 passengers, and drove for possibly 5 minutes before stopping at a Police Station cum Immigration Office for our first passport check. That was our second clue.
After that, we made it out of the city without further delay. But then the strangest thing happened … our little minibus was miraculously transformed into a Ferrari as the driver put pedal to metal and we streaked down a thankfully smooth and paved road at minimum 120 kph until we hit the town of Linden (about an hour’s drive) where we stopped at another police station for another passport control.
A few kilometers later, where the paved road ends and the bumpy dirt road begins, we ran into a police roadblock. We were all ordered out of the bus for yet another passport check, but this time all passengers were rudely questioned before passports were returned. Frustrating, but that’s just a typical example of a police officer with an over-inflated impression of his own self importance! Anyway, passengers were cleared and ordered back onto the bus, but then the police officer took exception with our Brazilian driver's identification (although the driver had had no problem at any of the previous passport checks), and a major argument took place between driver and police officer until I'm sure money changed hands and the driver was finally good to go.
Once we hit the dirt road, we started traveling in a convoy of 5 minibuses. I thought it was in case of breakdowns along the way, to help each other out, but what became more apparent was the convoy allowed the minibus drivers to participate in a car rally at high speeds down a very bumpy and muddy dirt road! Eventually the worsening road conditions forced all to slow down.
I won't bore you with further roadtrip details, but in the end it took us 5 police check stops, 2 food/drink breaks, 1 gasoline refill, countless vehicle inspections by drivers (possibly more of an excuse for drivers to chat & have cigarettes than to actually check vehicles), one ferry river crossing, and 12 long and sleepless hours to get to Iwokrama Forest Reserve Lodge where Aira, Olaf and I very gladly exited our bus. We were inside the rainforest … we had finally arrived.
Now, unfortunately, we couldn't actually spend as many days within the Interior as we might've liked because, well, to be perfectly honest, because the tours, accommodation and transportation options were all quite limited and very expensive (or at least they were expensive for us poor budget backpackers!) so to get the most bang for buck, we had set a fairly hectic schedule of visiting 3 different lodges in just 6 days. But when we arrived, even though the rainforest was right there waiting for us to come and explore her, after our sleepless-minibus-trip-from-Hell, we decided to relax in hammocks for the better part of the first day at Iwokrama Lodge, simply enjoying the peaceful sights and sounds of nature. There's no telephone service inside the Interior, no cell phone coverage, no landlines, no phone calls, no texts, no emails, so once there, you really do leave the noisy busy world behind and can focus purely on nature.
Iwokrama Lodge offers a wide variety of tours, both on foot and by boat, both daytime and nocturnal. We stayed there for two nights in lovely private cabins along the bank of the Essequibo River and participated in various tours. From there we moved on to Atta Lodge, a further 60 kms down the same bumpy main road (1-1/2 hours drive in a 4x4 jeep), and stayed in a more rustic cabin right in the heart of the rainforest, where Aira & Olaf got the bed and I spent a somewhat restless night in a hammock.
The attraction at Atta Lodge is “Canopy Walkway”, a system of steel and woven rope walkways suspended between big old trees at a height of about 11 storeys off the forest floor, with viewing platforms around the big old tree trunks from which you get to view birds and wildlife from closer proximity. More entertaining for us than the wildlife, however, was a large group of hard core bird watchers also staying at Atta Lodge, binocs never far from their faces, and humping around huge telescopes, cameras, tripods and video and sound recorders at all times. Hushed sounds of excitement went through the group as they spotted a Purple Throated Fruit Crow which, to us normal folk, looks pretty much like a big old black crow. It took all of Olaf's restraint not to mention that he hunted crows back home in Finland!
A further 40 kilometers and 1-3/4 hours by 4x4 jeep later, in heavy rainfall this time just to make driving even more interesting and challenging, we left the Iwokrama Forest Reserve and the rainforest behind, and entered the Rupununi Savannah, 5000 square miles of grasslands, wetlands, rainforest-covered mountains, and river waterways. We stayed 2 nights at Rock View Lodge, a large private ranch with a friendly but quite eccentric British host. Rock View Lodge also offers a wide selection of tours and activities, but the ranch itself is a beautiful place to simply relax as it’s like an oasis with fruit trees, an organic vegetable garden, about every barnyard animal imaginable, and even a swimming pool and a small plane airstrip (a very good option to reach the Interior without doing the 12-hour-minibus-trip-from-Hell!!).
Our pre-organized trip ended at Rock View Lodge, and after breakfast we were dropped off at a nearby rest stop on the muddy main road, hoping to catch a minibus enroute from Georgetown with 3 empty seats. When unsuccessful at that, we eventually begged a lift in a pickup truck that was headed in our direction, which was Lethem and the border crossing into Brazil.
There are, of course, more tourist options within the Interior, but our budgets prohibited further exploration. There are also more options for reaching the Interior more comfortably, but we chose the cheaper bus option, so I guess like the old expression goes...you get what you pay for. Anyway, with the hikes and other tour activities that we participated in, we felt we'd gotten to know a fairly good amount of this untamed region in our short time spent there.
But one thing we started wondering as tour after tour went by was.....wherrrrrre was all the wildlife??? I mean, we've been on many a jungle tour before, with varied degrees of success in spotting wildlife, we know there are no guarantees when it comes to wildlife and it's just your lucky day, or not, when you're out there. Also, we know that birds and animals migrate based on where the food supply is during any particular season. Don't get me wrong, we had a great time and did see some interesting birds and wildlife -- including some Arapaima (the world's largest scaled freshwater fish) and I did get to touch a tree boa! But with all the tours we did, and with the amount of wildlife supposedly living within the Interior, and with so little development and tourism within the region, I'll admit that we expected to see much more!!
Despite lack of wildlife, one thing that we really did enjoy was that all our guides and the vast majority of staff at the lodges were Amerindians from the Makushi tribe, and by chatting with them we were able to get great insight into Makushi beliefs and traditions, both past and present, some of which we found downright amusing. For example, we heard how the Makushi believe that if you see a toucan, it'll rain. Or, if you toss a hot chilli pepper into a pond, it'll rain. I'm sorry, but this is the "rain" forest - you can lie in your hammock with eyes closed all day, not a toucan in sight or a pepper tossed in pond, and it's pretty much guaranteed to rain!!
Another interesting tradition, no longer practiced, was that if a man wanted to marry a woman, he would have to withstand being covered with giant-sized bullet ants. If he somehow survived the ordeal, without being stung or bitten to death, he was declared worthy of becoming the girl's husband. And finally, another Makushi tradition was to spread a paste made from hot chilli peppers on the private parts of (thankfully) the male anatomy. This would make him a better hunter or a faster runner. Yeah, I'd run like hell too if someone was heading towards my privates with a pot of piquante chilli pepper paste! Anyway, despite some bizarre and unusual customs, the Makushi are wonderful and friendly people, and we felt privileged that they shared a part of their lives with us.
And that, folks, is it for our Interior Guyana adventure. Sorry to ramble on so, but you know there's an “Old Connie” tradition......why say something in a few words when you can say it with many!!