Iwokrama Reserve, Guyana (part 1)
Dec 10, 2004
|Iwokrama: Land of Refuge
(written by Byron Crape)
When my friends Ted and Karen arrive in Guyana near the completion of their world-wide tour, I conveyor-belt them through night clubs, foreigner-Guyanese parties, theatrical plays about vampires, Guyanese cuisine, meetings with conservation organizations; and introduce them to a variety of my friends, meeting new friends along the way. The interior beckons, in spite of Guyanese tales reminiscent of a Joseph Conrad short story.
The three of us join a Canadian family to venture into the jungles of Guyana, into the protected reserve of Iwokrama. Iwokrama is the ancient name of this place, meaning land of refuge. Iwokrama in prehistoric times was probably the mountain refuge for the peoples fleeing the raids of the war-like Carib tribes based on the Caribbean islands and along the coast. Today this name takes another important symbolism as the existence of the rain forests with their many thousands of species of plants and animals is threatened by logging and mining interests.
We ride up on a land cruiser for six hours over unpaved roads, mostly along the Demarra river, but ending up on the upper Essequibo river---where the waters are still clear and the river is an overgrown stream. We cross over the Essequibo to a paradise of modern airy eating facilities and soft beds. It's late afternoon when we arrive. We meet our guide, an Amerindian named Lawrence. He and I immediately connect and will become close friends by the end of the three days. Every morning he travels by his small dugout canoe to lead us on to our next adventure.
So, our first trek was a short walk through the jungle, a forest of giant trees and giant vines, near our home base. We see our first monkeys. There are parrots and macaws flying everywhere. When Lawrence and other Amerindian guides point out medicinal and utilitarian plants and animals, I sometimes do not see the differences in the species. I would recognize the giant ant whose venomous bite relieves back pain better than 'tablets'. I could identify the vine that maintained substantial amounts of drinkable water. However, when one guide explains the uses of two different vines next to each other, they look identical to my untrained eye.
The first night we return to the motorboat waiting for us on a misty eerie moonless-dark river to seek giant caimans (alligators). A man at the bow of the boat flashes a searchlight to discover shimmering beady eyes near the water's edge or sparkles just skimming the water. We see reflective retinas. With an advancing storm, we cut short the search for a quick return - but it is a false alarm. We return alive with all arms intact.
The next morning a three-legged seven-foot black caiman is hanging out in the river where the boats are moored. He is watching us as we board the motorboat for our trip to the jungle canopy. He probably lost his leg fighting with another caiman. He is the camp's pet mascot. When he leaves for caiman heaven, I'm certain legends will remain.
[Aside: Guyana has changed the meaning of road kill for me forever. Along the coast I've seen a seven foot dead caiman left for dead on the road as well as six foot squashed snakes].
The first night, there are ghostly moaning windy sounds: vocalizations by howler monkeys. The sounds lead me into frightful dreams.
We boat across the river and drive to a jungle trail taking us up a steep hill. We arrive to the jungle canopy walk, a series of suspended rope bridges connecting platforms built around high trees. At one platform the jungle is a 100 feet below us. We are walking and swinging where only monkeys and birds go.
That afternoon we take a longer boat trip to a trail leading up Turtle Mountain. We pass spider monkeys. We hike up to the mountain summit to a panoramic view of the jungle and rivers. The green is intense with the sun bearing down. Then, a scene too exaggerated to be real, like a dream with transcendent burning colors, macaws like mystical messengers fly above the jungle canopy with their noisy cries. The sun made their wings and tails flames of reds, yellows, blues. I forget to breathe. At some distance, two clans of howler monkeys provide a background jungle symphony.
We return late and eat our supper with the bats flying overhead, clearing out the insects like bug vacuum cleaners. We appreciate their work. I am never bitten by a mosquito during the three days and I use no bug spray.
The next day Lawrence takes us to the nearest Amerindian village downriver, called Fairview. We arrive at the head of the village trail starting at the river---everything in Guyana starts at the rivers. A young woman has only brassiere and shorts on as she washes; so, she stays modestly submerged until we finish taking photos of the petroglyphs and leave. Naked children play in the water nearby. Pot and pans and clothes are drying on rocks in the sun.
We walk past village homes and arrive close to the new schoolhouse at the open air meeting shelter. The community gives us a warm welcome. The village of 170 persons is meeting to plan activities for the Christmas holidays. I speak to the master dugout canoe maker and the head of the village. I wish everyone a Merry Christmas, though everything here is integrated into traditional beliefs. We part with smiles and real conversations about life. Our group of six was a good group for such encounters. We say goodbye and return to the boat. We have a long road trip back to Georgetown.
[This village and others have much to say over the affairs of Iwokrama, though conflicts do occur between first nations and the government]
(Ted's addition: Fair View Village (called Mulu pta in the local language) supports families from the Mukushi, Arawak, Wapishana, and Patamuna tribes. The village is only 30 years old. It was founded by Arawaks as a stop along the cross-country cattle trail, then mining brought Mukushis and Wapishanas. Now, Iwokrama provides the jobs.)