The pilot of the Trans Guyana Airways five-passenger aircraft taps you on the shoulder. You've been flying for several hours over an ocean of rainforest, and you've dozed off. Look down there, he tells you. He banks the plane, and, wide awake, you are looking straight down into the roaring maws of Kaieteur Falls. You see a complete rainbow--a giant 360 degree ring of color diffracted by the cataract's roiling mists. In this remote northeast corner of South America, not far from the Brazilian and Venezuelan borders, amber colored waters collect atop a three-billion-year-old high "tepui" plateau and are flung 741 feet down the world's longest uninterrupted fall of water. The pilot skillfully lands the plane on a jungle airstrip yards away from the top of the falls. Your guide takes you down a short jungle trail surrounded by giant bromeliads, home to spectacular but tiny golden frogs. Almost on cue, not five yards away from you, perched on a liana vine, is the rare Guyanian Cock-of-the-Rock, a fluorescent orange bird of extraordinary beauty. The entire experience is breathtaking.
Guyana is a hard sell, admits David Holbrook, whose Holbrook Travel is one of the premier natural history and education travel companies in the United States. Guyana is not for everyone. It is not for the "Sun, Sea, and Sand" seekers. As an adventure destination, the country is still too new to have become "fashionable." Visiting its more remote--and fascinating--areas requires a degree of physical fitness. Tropical inoculations are recommended. Travel in the interior is either by Land Rover on unpaved roads or by small plane, making land transport part of the adventure and air transport relatively expensive. But, Mr. Holbrook adds, whenever he comes back from Guyana, he is all fired up about its pristine, unspoiled beauty and the potential for his more adventurous clients to be at the forefront in discovering this virginal Eden. He works closely Wilderness Explorers, the largest supplier of adventure travel in Guyana.
Says Tony Thorne of Wilderness Explorers, "Guyana is part of the Amazon Basin. In fact, the Kanuku Mountains which make up the range that separates northern savannah from southern savannah, the conservationists say, is one of the few remaining areas that has true Amazonian wildlife and flora and fauna in a pristine state."
Australian-born Tony Thorne adds about his company, "We offer extensive tours throughout Guyana, ranging from very soft adventures staying at the resorts with very easy challenges to the visitor, right through to the very arduous trips for the more adventurous. Some trips go into extremely remote areas where people are doing just camping, sleeping in hammocks, cooking over open fires. We also do some very specialized trips such as bird-watching tours, natural history tours often led by noted ornithologists and field botanists." He adds, "And remember that this is an English-speaking country. Even in the hinterlands, a North American can communicate with anyone."
The Ranches of the Rupununi
There is a place in western Guyana where the cowboys are the Indians, cattle are still rustled now and then, a jaguar or a cayman crocodile might take an occasional calf, and the nearest dentist is clear on the other side of the country. That place is the Rupununi, Guyana's ninth region, a land of unspoiled rainforests, pristine rivers, and a vast savannah reminiscent of the plains of Kenya and Montana--a South American Big Sky country. It is the heartland of the country's cattle ranches, a huge area of natural grasslands where no rancher needs to cut down forests for pastures and the only way to get around is by Land Rover on unpaved dirt roads or small plane.
For the most part, the "cattle barons of the Rupununi" are European immigrants--some fourth and fifth generation--who do not live on baronial estancias, Argentine-style, or on hi-tech King Ranch-style spreads. This is still frontier country in many ways--and it is wonderfully different. What is more, the ranches are now welcoming adventure clients and will provide them with simple but comfortable accommodations, fine regional cuisines, and the opportunity to experience the nearby rainforests and mingle with the gentle, friendly, well-schooled, but unpolluted Amerindian natives in a breathtaking setting.
This unique experience can begin with arrival in Georgetown on BWIA International Airways' daily Airbus A321 flights from the U.S. gateways Miami and New York. International arrivals into Guyana are all funneled through Georgetown, the capital city. It is a typical Caribbean town, slightly ragged around the edges but with interesting architectural remnants of its days as a Dutch possession and later a British one. Parts of the city are actually below sea level, and Dutch dikes remain but are generally inadequate to keep high tide flooding in some neighborhoods. First night accommodations might be in Georgetown's Guyana Pegasus Hotel, a quality establishment recently become a LeMeridien Hotel under Forte ownership.
The next day might begin with a morning tour of Georgetown, followed by transfer on a Guyana Airways Twin Otter small aircraft to southwestern Guyana's Rupununi country and Rock View Ecotourism Resort at the foothills of the Pakaraima mountains bordering the Iwokrama Rainforest preserve.
Once a stopping place for Rupununi cattle roundups and now restored and managed by Colin Edwards and his Amerindian wife Velda, Rock View Ecotourism Resort offers double occupancy rooms that are four-star quality, plus excellent regional cooking served family-style, and access to rivers, rainforest, and rangelands. Mr. Edwards, an agronomist by training and a talented jack-of-all-trades by necessity, explains, "My objective is to blend together the Brazilian idea of a hotel/fazenda--a kind of ranch/guest house--and an ecotourism resort. Ecotourism is not just looking at monkeys and spiders. It's also a question of looking at how people live in such an environment in a way that does not destroy it. The two must work hand-in-hand. This setting is within a vibrant Amerindian community, the Macushi Nation, so, you have not only the habitats, you also have the people that co-exist with the habitat." Mr. Edwards clearly has a deep commitment to the people--he married the head man's daughter--and his prodigious efforts to bring responsible tourism to his people go far beyond business motivations. Rock View Ecotourism Resort is a labor of love against the difficult odds of its remote location from "civilization" and very little outside technical help. Colin and Velda are especially proud of the elegant pool they provide for their guests. They built it themselves.
A second stop, reached by a full morning's drive by Land Rover, might be the Karanambu Ranch, overseen by Diane McTurk, a fifth generation cattle rancher in Guyana. This remarkable lady combines the willowy elegance of a senior high-fashion model and a cultivated British accent, with the strength and determination to deal with frontier life--sometimes including cattle rustlers. Also known as "the otter lady", she raises wild river otters that have been orphaned. These giant South American otters are much larger than their North American cousins and can be aggressive to an adult human when feeling threatened, but accept Diane as one of their own. Accommodations are rough-hewn but comfortable cabanas, and activities can include exciting river trips to view river otters at play, spot small South American 'gators known as cayman, paddle among the giant Victoria Regia water lilies, bird watch, or just relax in a hammock while listening to Ms. McTurk's endlessly fascinating accounts of a unique life.
A third stop might be the gigantic Dadanawa Cattle Ranch where 5,000 head of cattle roam freely on the 1,700 square mile property, and where Amerindian villages dot the vast savannah. At the main house, every meal includes at least three kinds of beef and countless delicious regional dishes as well as the company of soft-spoken Big Bosses, Duane and Sandy DeFreitas and their ranch managers at a long family-style table. Though authentic cattle barons, thankfully, Duane and Sandy do not fit the "Dallas" pattern, and there are no Cadillacs or Texas chateaus on Dadanawa. In the photo they are shown with their good friends and tenants, Bernard and Catherine Ritchie.
The Amerindian cowhands and their families in the villages are a friendly, gentle people, all English speakers, the national language in what, after all, was formerly British Guyana. A typical greeting from the head man of a thatched roof village or a ranch outstation will probably include the phrase, "You are welcome to share," impressively generous when one considers their modest possessions. A visit to Dadanawa might include taking part in the morning cattle roundup as well as a four-hour ride across the savannah in "Sandy Candy" one of the DeFreitas' Land Rovers, and a one-hour hike into the nearby rainforest to inspect the nesting sites of rare Harpy Eagles. "Sandy Candy" has acquired something of an international reputation. It has a mind of its own and requires a firm but loving and understanding hand to start it, keep it running and bring it to a stop whenever that becomes a necessity. Besides, there is nothing to run into out there in the middle of thousands of acres of flat savannah, and this near-human Land Rover seems to know where the rare Harpy Eagles can be found. So, why spoil a perfect combination?
The cost of accommodations in the ranches of the Rupununi is surprisingly moderate, ranging from $95 per person per day to $120 at Karanambu. Transportation is the major expense in visiting the area. As all three ranches are so remote, it is necessary to reach them by air.
In the "easy category" is Timberhead rainforest lodge, a true rainforest experience with accommodations in native-built long houses on stilts, sleep under insect net canopies, candlelit gourmet meals served open-air under the trees or in the comfortable lodge, and visits to a nearby Amerindian village, all an incredibly short eight miles away from Georgetown's international airport. VIP guests in recent years have been Queen Elizabeth and former president, Jimmy Carter.
Another "soft adventure" can be experienced at Shanklands, an elegant resort "carved out of the rainforest with a panoramic view of the beautiful Essequibo River" and within easy reach of Georgetown, Guyana's capital. The resort has a honeymoon cottage equal to anything the Hawaiian Island of Maui has to offer plus extraordinary bird-watching right on the grounds and access to river sports and nature walks. Recently, a rare (and very grumpy) Harpy Eagle was in residence in the resort's aviary, recovering from an injured wing and waiting to be released when healed.
One of the excursions in the "hard adventure" category is marketed and sold in the United States by Holbrook Travel. It is a 14-day expedition to the Wai-Wai, Guyana's most remote Amerindian tribe. The area is so sensitive that it took Mr. Thorne 18 months to arrange it with tribal leaders and government agencies concerned about the impact tourism might have. It is escorted by Terry Henkel, a noted field botanist and expedition leader who has led scientific expeditions for the Smithsonian and has excellent relationships with Guyana's indigenous tribes. This particular adventure includes extended visits with the Wai-Wai themselves, travel by dugout canoe, fishing with the Wai-Wai, and viewing of the abundant wildlife that can include tapir, peccaries, jaguar, river otters, sloths, monkeys, and abundant birdlife. Holbrook's prices range from approximately $2,700 per person for a 10-passenger group to $3,200 per person for 6-7 passengers. Costs include internal flights, city transfers, meals, accommodation, guides, expedition leader, and entrance fees.
The best times to come to Guyana are from mid-February to early in July. August to mid-November is a hot and dry period, and then the Christmas rains start when the rainforest blooms, but road travel can be difficult.
Getting there is easiest on BWIA, many times selected as the Best Airline Serving the Caribbean. The 59-year-old carrier operates a fleet of MD-83s, four L1011s, and has introduced A321-100 aircraft to its Caribbean run from Miami. It offers daily A321 flights departing New York and arriving Georgetown approximately eight hours later, with intermediate stops in Barbados and Trinidad.
Some useful sites for Guyana:
Guyana Guide - http://www.guyanaguide.com/index.html
BWIA Airlines - http://www.bwee.com
Holbrook Travel, Inc. - http://www.holbrooktravel.com
Wilderness Explorers, Inc. - http://www.wilderness-explorers.com
PHOTO CREDITS: Wilderness Explorers: golden frog, cock-o-the-rock and monkey photos, Rock Ledge poolside, Timberhead guest room; all others: Rod Lopez-Fabrega
© 2000 ROMAR TRAVEL GUIDES