Sitting on the wraparound verandah at Dadanawa Ranch, looking out at God’s gift of a landscape – grassy fields, cattle grazing and the misty Kanuku Mountains in the background – I think to myself: I could stay here for a long time. A long line of laundry blows in the wind and Pat, an American traveller, whispers to a horse in the pasture below.
Lying in southwestern Guyana, in the South Rupununi Savannahs, Dadanawa is one of the largest and most isolated ranches in the world. It spans 2,000 square miles and contains about 28,000 head of free-range cattle. This is Amerindian vaquero territory. There are two main roundups every year, when vaqueros from the Wapishana tribe work the cattle as they did centuries ago, using a horse and lasso.
Head tanner Uncle Cyril uses red bark from the mangrove to tan the hides, and produces leather to make saddles, chaps, lassos and crops for the vaqueros. It’s an all-natural process that not many ranches practise any more.
The ranch is run by Duane and Sandy de Freitas, visionaries who first came here four decades ago. Dadanawa is a flourishing community dedicated to a harsh lifestyle, but one that sustains the land and their culture.
“The river is rising. We have to leave now if we’re gonna make it to the rodeo,” our guide Leroy says to Abigail, my photographer friend, and me, as we eat lunch in the main house.
Pat says, “Duane called, wants to know if you could bring two sheep with you.”
The image of us sitting in the back tray of Leroy’s truck with two sheep going to Lethem Rodeo is hilarious – but not surprising. Throughout our road travels, Leroy has generously picked up villagers here and there: a grandmother with her five granddaughters and one bike; Asaph and his son; a man and his wooden paddle; a German teacher; and a mother and son with their village’s rations for a month.
“Have you ever smelt wet sheep?” Pat says, lighting a smoke. “It’s downright awful.”
The rain is coming down harder. If we don’t leave soon, we will be stranded here for days, as Dadanawa turns into an island when the Rupununi River floods. Within minutes, we load up the truck (without sheep, thank God) and make our way down to the river pontoon.
Everybody in the vicinity has heard of the pontoon crossing: there are three pickup trucks packed with locals, approximately ten people in each back tray, sitting on supplies; mothers and daughters and babies sitting each other’s laps in the front cab, waiting for us. Then the two motorcycles arrive. Everyone is heading down to the famous Lethem Rodeo this weekend for Easter.
“This is gonna take a long time.” Leroy sighs: the river pontoon can only carry one truck at a time, and there’s only the tiniest of speedboats, with one small outboard engine, to push the pontoon over to the other side.
Cheryl from the ranch rides up on her motorcycle, picks it up – with some help – and plunks it into the small speedboat. Eventually, truck by truck, bike by bike, we all get over.
Every year Dadanawa Ranch supplies the Lethem Rodeo with approximately 30 head of cattle. Their vaqueros, young and old, herd the bulls across the Rupununi, taking two to three days. We catch up with them in Shulinab, about halfway down from Dadanawa to Lethem.
“You can film the cattle when we let them out of the corral – but maybe stand over there, by that tree,” says Ozzie Isaacs, at 65 Dadanawa’s most senior vaquero.
The wooden gate is opened and 30 bulls come charging out of the pen. All I see is their black eyes and horns coming towards me – then I run behind the tree.
Watching the Lethem Rodeo is compelling and a little scary – one fatal move and it could all be over, for human or animal. Dadanawa’s vaqueros Hilary St Hill, Egil, Rasta, Oswin Isaacs and the rest will be competing, including Ozzie’s daughter Marilyn, who does bareback bronco.
There are many other categories of competition, including saddle bronco and bull-riding. There are also old amusement-park rides and games at the rodeo grounds. Rum is cheaper than Coca-Cola. Fresh tasso (beef jerky) is strung up on wire fences. There appear to be no rules about climbing the fence to where the bulls and wild horses are kept before being wrangled out into the arena for competition. It is truly the wild west.
Yet that isn’t what makes the deepest impression on me.
We camp out with the Amerindian people of Dadanawa Ranch on the plains just outside Lethem, for the rodeo. When we arrive on Friday night, Justin and Kayla (Duane and Sandy’s children) make sure there are four posts (small trees with their branches cut off) planted in the ground for our hammocks. A young vaquero, Cain, helps us string them up, then says, “If you want to bathe, just walk 200 metres that way” (pointing to the moonlit savannah) “and veer left, there you’ll find the river.” Justin hands us freshly brewed coffee in tin cups, piping hot.
They have set us up in the kitchen, a massive blue tarp strung over their food, stored in boxes and bags, and a two-burner gas stove. Red coals flicker in the black ash of the fire, as the others have gone to bed.
“Where is everyone?” I say, expecting to see a camp full of people.
“They’re out there,” Justin responds, pointing to the dark savannah. But I can see no trace of anyone, just a peaceful, moonlit vastness under a million stars.
I open my eyes to the most glorious sunrise and see a horizon line of green savannah, trees and mountains. But where are all the Dadanawa people camping?
Then I see a hammock slung underneath a tree, and then another and another. To the right, more hammocks, barely visible. Behind me, there are five hammocks slung up under the same tree.
To the left, in the forest – every single tree has people in it! They’re amazing: so at one with nature that they don’t just live in it, but become part of it.
Freshly made bakes are being fried in a pan, and huge slabs of beef “slow roast” on a grill of small logs over an open fire. Coffee has already been made.
The strong, passionate women of Dadanawa Ranch wake up every morning at the crack of dawn to prepare breakfast and all meals for the vaqueros, staff and guests. They wash clothes down by the river, take care of the children and support their husbands, the vaqueros, as they compete in the rodeo – and, most importantly, as they all work the land and the cattle every day of the year.
Kayla de Freitas, from Dadanawa Ranch, and Leroy, our guide, showed us this other world this land, this “other world” so full of intrigue and ruggedness. As she ran her hand through the tall green grass, Kayla said to me, smiling, “I’m combing the hair of the earth.” And indeed she was. Respect for the earth and what it gives is their way down there.