Guyana Safari

A ferry across the Essequibo by dawn, then through the Rupununi Savannahs to the Kanuku Mountains. Janine Fung logs a rugged journey

  • Chickens at Shulinab. Photograph by Abigail Hadeed
  • Brilliant, electric-green grass with black boulders and scattered caimbe trees make up the landscape of these rolling hills. Photograph by Abigail Hadeed
  • Our Amerindian guide catches fish for our breakfast. Photograph by Abigail Hadeed
  • Ferry across the Essequibo. Photograph by Abigail Hadeed

The Kanuku Mountain Range, in southwestern Guyana, forms a stunning backdrop to the Rupununi Savannahs, with its sculpted peaks just below the clouds. It is one of the few remaining pristine Amazon habitats.

Arriving in Georgetown, capital of Guyana, we are told we have two options for reaching Lethem, the main town of the Rupununi and the starting point of our real journey. You can travel by Intraserv bus service or by small plane. We opt for the more adventurous, safari-traveller experience: the bus.

Approximately 15 kids playing African drums, from Georgetown; two teachers from Scotland; some local Amerindian people; my photographer friend and me cram into this tour bus outfitted with giant-size, heavy-duty tyres. Eighteen hours, 376 miles of bumpy road, made of red sand and loam, through Guyana’s dense, lush rainforest. What am I getting myself into? All I know is that we have to catch the ferry at 6.30am to cross the Essequibo River…and that there are jaguars in this country.

Our guides are Leroy, part of the last remaining Macushi tribe in central Rupununi, and Kayla, who works for Conservation International Guyana, an organisation proposing that the Rupununi and the Kanuku Mountains should be a protected area. They greet us at a bar/ convenience store in Lethem, where all the locals sit on a wall drinking cold Banks beer.

Just as our three-day trek into the interior begins, fresh out of Lethem, Leroy’s truck comes to a screeching halt and we pick up two villagers hitching a ride. Leroy rearranges the back of the truck. Within minutes, two bikes are strapped on, rations of food and diesel are packed down, camera equipment is secured, and now four of us — Abigail, my photographer friend, and me, and the two villagers, a mother and son – squeeze into the tray of the truck and we’re off, leaving a trail of dust and dark red road behind us.

In the distance, I can see the ever-rising Kanuku Mountains. Surrounding me is a vastness of green, yellow and brown savannah buzzing with life and a horizon line that stretches for thousands of miles. Etae palms and caimbe trees with leaves like sandpaper fly past us as we bump along in the back of Leroy’s pick-up truck. The sun sets over the giant anthills dotting the vast plains as Amerindian vaqueros (cowboys) corral wild horses across the land. A faded lavender haze falls over the mountains. A tarp flaps in the wind as our truck heads into the night towards Leroy’s home village of Shulinab. Yellow candleflies flicker across the dark savannah.

Curtis huddles underneath the bikes strapped to the iron cage covering the back tray. His mother, Bernadette, sits quietly on top of the rations. They are from Potarinau, just past our destination of Shulinab. Potarinau means “giant stingray”. Legend has it the Sawariwau creek that flows between these two villages once had giant stingrays in it, found in underwater caves. If you were to step on one, it would pull you under.

Waking up in Shulinab, I step out of the door to brush my teeth, with a cup of water in my hand. A little brown pig passes by my feet, then another and another, roosters and chickens graze off the land, rows of goats walk past, two by two – it’s like Noah’s Ark. Do they know something I don’t know?

Past Leroy’s grandmother’s hut, built of clay bricks with a thatched roof, I see the fattest black pig, half submerged in mud, smiling. Abigail points to a wooden plank enclosure with no roof. “You can shower there.” I open the gate and find buckets of water. Pouring a bucket of water over your head can really make you feel alive. The second one makes you feel like a warrior and the third – courageous.

As we get closer to the Kanuku Mountains, the dirt trail ends, but we keep driving, through holes and ditches, the truck bouncing and swaying. Leroy weaves between caimbe trees and bush. Branches scrape against the sides, shredding the tarp as he pushes the truck further into the interior.

From there, we ride on horseback. It’s the real deal. You have to guide your horse through dense forest and huge savannah. As we cross the plains, our timing couldn’t be better, as the sun sets perfectly over this God’s land. The horses brush against the tall grass as we trot through a vast sea of yellow and orange, surrounded by the Kanuku Mountains. It’s a real safari.

Our two Amerindian guide assistants, Abraham and Devon, go ahead to set up camp as we stop to take photos. Brilliant, electric-green grass with black boulders and scattered caimbe trees make up the landscape of these rolling hills and this deep valley. It is quiet as we descend a steep slope, with a faint sound of rushing water. We see our white horses grazing between the trees by the creek in the twilight.

Our campsite is on a very small island at the foot of the Saraub Rapids. Refreshing pools of clear water reflect the full moon as it rises over the trees. Our hammocks have been strung up and everyone gets their own tree to hang their personal belongings on. The fire crackles as Kayla prepares dinner.

That night, from my hammock, I see a woman washing her clothes in the creek. I close my eyes, as I am scared. The air is refreshingly cool and there is not one mosquito, and I finally lull myself to sleep. The next morning, when I tell Kayla what I saw that night, she smiles and says, “You saw the spirit of the river.”

Waking up to the roaring sound of the rapids all around us is magnificent. We bathe in the pools as the sun rises. Devon and Leroy fish with a spear, diving into the clear pools and catching mangie, piuab and fox fish. Abraham tells me the Macushi and the Wapishana come here to fish for their villages. These rapids are the meeting ground.

The fish are so small that when they are fried in a pot over an open fire, the tiny bones become crispy and make for an awesome meal – you can eat the whole fish.

We ride out to Skull Mountain to see Leroy’s Macushi ancestral tomb, dating back 200 years. The climb is incredibly steep and there’s a sheer 50-metre drop. At the top, tucked away in a cave, are the skulls and bones in large clay vessels. There are jaguar droppings, too. “This cave is ideal for jaguars to sleep in, being so far up the mountain,” says Leroy. There really are jaguars in this country.

This part of the journey was made possible by Leroy Ignacio and Kayla deFreitas, who can be contacted at: [email protected]

Transport was provided by Intraserv Bus Service, Trans Guyana Airlines, and Correia Group Inc