Guyana, land of waters

by Paul Cardwell on April 9, 2011

This is the country to visit if you have a hankering to see jungle, jungle and more jungle! 80% of Guyana is jungle, and although it is the smallest country in South America, it still is 4 times the size of Costa Rica and with a population one-sixth the size. Most people live on the coast, so the rest of the country is extremely under-populated – as we saw for ourselves in the 2 week trip around the country.

You know a country is pretty wild when you find out there’s just one main road from north to south, and that this is still unpaved. And traffic so infrequent that many sections through the jungle offer the best chances to spot that most elusive of animals, the jaguar. Unfortunately our trip was so fast moving, to cram in as many sights as possible, that we only had an hour one evening to cruise along in a truck at night looking for jaguars. I’m sure they’d become bored of strolling along the road, or just lying and scratching themselves, and had wandered off for that hour just to keep themselves awake.

We’d tried to get into the picture before arriving by peeking at the Bradt guide book (pretty good), and reading books like Benedict Allen’s ‘Mad White Giant’ (a fascinating account of his first expedition, travelling from the mouths of the Orinoco down to Amazon) and ’92′ by Evelyn Waugh, who visited Guyana in the 1930s after the failure of his first marriage. The latter painted a picture of the country which, although it had definitely changed significantly, nevertheless was surprisingly recognizable despite the passage of more than 70 years.

Just after departure I finished ‘Papillon’. Although read ages before, all was forgotten. And again this time, despite being the original French version, it proved really hard to put down. Particularly so as we were now in the region and so names, places, and the overall atmosphere made much more sense. It was fascinating to learn that, in his last successful escape, Papillon had spent most of 1943 in what was then British Guiana. French convicts were quickly given freedom by the authorities as French Guyane was in the hands of Vichy France.

With some, Papillon set up a restaurant, Victory, in Georgetown (Water Street) which was very popular but eventually had to be sold at a loss after nightly fights between the patrons, mainly sailors. Undaunted, Papillon looked round for the next way to earn a living and this time decided to set up a nightclub in the mining settlement of Mackenzie, some [] miles inland. This proved highly successful, but as fickle and it was closed by the police after one of the miners, in a fit of jealousy, shot and killed a dancer. Shortly afterwards Papillon and some other convicts headed over to Venezuela.

But back to Guyana! The highlight at the start of our trip was undoubtedly Kaieteur Falls, so remote that it can only be reached by a 5-day trek or by charter on a 16 passenger Cessna Caravan. Set in pristine jungle, with the falls crashing down into a series of gorges below, Kaieteur is on the eastern edge of the range of tepui mountains stretching into Venezuela. The closest tepui, also the highest, is Mt Roraima and is shared between Guyana, Brazil and Venezuela. Because so few visitors go to Guyana, and locals cannot really afford the flight, you very often have the national park to yourselves. And even if other planes land, as for our visit, you hardly bump into each other so the effect is the same.

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