Monthly Archives: December 2006

Preparing for Kaieteur

December 7, 2006
Day 435

I spent most of the day today washing my clothes and showering. I think the fuel smell is finally off of me, more or less. Craig ran into a local man named Sally who has been porkknocking in the area for many years. The route to Kaieteur is on the way to his home of Karisparrow, so he offered to walk with us. We agreed because having a local with you usually makes the experience better, but it might be a problem because he doesn't appear to have any money. Still, he said that he'd take his own food, so maybe it will work out. Diego never showed up, so I guess just the three of us will go on the trek.

A Long Ride to Mahdia

December 6, 2006
Day 434

Shortly before dawn, Craig got out of the tent and tried to figure out when the truck we had heard about last night would be leaving. Suddenly, I heard him running toward me yelling "Let's go!" I quickly packed everything up and jumped into the Bedford just before it pulled away. A new adventure had begun.

The truck dropped us off at Mabura, from where we had been waiting to get to Mahdia a week ago. Everyone there remembered us, and we told them all about the porkknocking jaunt. We hung out at the police station all day again waiting for any vehicle on its way to Mahdia. About the only exciting thing that happened was a guy showed up with a turtle, chopped it apart in front of us, and prepared it for dinner. While we were waiting, an Argentine named Diego passed by on his way to Georgetown. He was the first tourist I had met in Guyana, and he seemed really keen on walking to Kaieteur Falls with us. We told him to meet us in Mahdia tomorrow night if he wants to go. It will be a long journey for him, but still possible.

It was really frustrating waiting for a ride because every minibus that passed us was already full and the drivers weren't interested in talking to us. It seems that nobody can say "no" here. They'd rather just ignore you entire entirely, presumably to avoid losing face. Finally, a minibus with a little bit of room showed up and we took off. Only half a seat was available for me, but at least we got there.

It was pouring rain and almost dark by the time we got to Mahdia. Music was blasting everywhere, and it soon became obvious how lawless the town was. The town's composition was roughly 90% rowdy, drunken miners and 10% prostitutes. I thought I'd see some tourists on package trips out of Georgetown, but there were none. Tonight I opted to stay at the hotel, get clean, and get some rest on a bed for a change.

Seeing the Mine

December 5, 2006
Day 433

Picture of water.

Water being shot back into the river.

The main order of business for today was seeing the mine in operation. Craig and I made the short ten-minute walk from the camp to the mine, which once again went through the jungle. Along the way, we noticed that white mud seemed to be taking over the vegetation on the ground. The mine consisted of a large pit that had been dug out in search of gold. Nearby was a break area, where we sat for awhile to observe the action. Water was pumped from the main river into the hole, where the dirt was dredged up and blasted back out into the river. At the end of the process, the dense gold was sifted away from the dirt. A small operation like the one we saw could expect to dredge up about ten ounces of gold per week, which the government will buy for about $5000. Rudy, the friendly GM, came over and happily showed us the entire process.

Picture of tree.

Cutting down a tree.

Later, we sat back down and started talking to one of the miners. Suddenly, a few of the employees decided that a large tree was in danger of falling and killing someone. Out came the chainsaw, and a few minutes later, the tree was down. As more and more of the pit is relieved of its gold, the miners will continue to cut down all vegetation in the way and dredge up more ground in search of deposits. This operation is small with only around ten people actively working at any given time, but with an estimate of 60,000 miners in the country, a lot more damage is being done. The good news is that the government wants to get its revenue so badly, a prospective miner can buy a claim of land (big enough for the entire operation that I visited) for only $5 per year.

When we were finished looking at the mine, Craig and I walked back to camp and learned that another operation's boat would be going back down the river in the afternoon. Considering how long it had taken to reach the back dam, we had intended to stay another day or two, but we didn't know when our next opportunity to leave would be, so we hastily packed up our stuff and prepared our exit. The bike guy happened to be going back to the river, and since he wasn't carrying anything but a bunch of empty fuel jugs, he let us ride along. We opted to walk across the bridges, but the trailer managed to stay intact this time.

Soon after we reached the river, the mining crew that would take us back arrived. It was good timing because in reality, we only knew that the boat would be leaving sometime today. People going back down the river are carrying gold, so they don't establish any sort of pattern for transporting the goods in order to avoid bandits. It's real Wild West stuff.

We got onto the river right away, but the engine kept cutting out. The driver methodically added more and more oil to the fuel mixture, and eventually we got going, but we easily lost an hour trying to get the engine started. Going over the rapids was much easier on the way downstream. The miners all got out and waded over the rocks while Craig and I stayed put inside the boat. It took us three days to get to the camp, but only one to get back. Still, it was dark by the time we were back at the Chinese camp, so we had to camp there for the night. We were told that a Bedford would be on its way out in the morning.

A Bad Day for My Gear

December 4, 2006
Day 432

Picture of camp.

The porkknocker camp.

This morning a 4-wheeler came to the river from the "back dam," which is Guyanese for "middle of nowhere," and started loading up fuel to take back to camp. After the driver loaded 18 jugs of fuel, he offered to load up our backpacks as well, and Craig and I happily obliged. I removed my passport, camera, computer, and all other electronic equipment, and loaded it all into my day bag, which I carried myself. The walk through the jungle was beautiful, and most of it appeared to be untouched by humans. There were a few diabolical looking bridges along the way which crossed the muddy streams that had been contaminated by the mining operations. It took two hours to reach the mining camp.

My first impression of the camp was a lot better than I had expected. A large area had been cleared of debris, and the white dirt was even neatly raked. I later realized that the camp was built on top of a former mine on which nothing could grow anymore. At any rate, there were huge tarps set up for protection from the elements. Under one tarp were the hammocks, and the other one was used for eating and socializing. Everyone was out mining except the cook and a guy with malaria. It seems that every miner here gets malaria a few times annually.

Picture of cook.

The camp's cook.

We saw the bike driver at another mining camp, which was next to our camp. He seemed a little worried and casually mentioned that the bike's trailer tipped on its side and got a little wet. I didn't have anything fragile in my backpack, so I didn't think it would be a big deal. I walked over to Chris' camp and noticed that our backpacks were both dripping wet. As I began pulling stuff out of mine, I noticed that everything was completely drenched. I later found out that the trailer had fallen off one of the makeshift bridges and was submerged in the water for half an hour before the driver could pull it out. Luckily it was a sunny day, but it took all afternoon to get everything thoroughly dried. I was most worried about my down sleeping bag, but it appears to be salvageable. The incident turned out to be a close call because I had all of my electronic equipment in my day pack.

When everyone came back from the day's work, we met Rudy, the general manager of the operation. He was an older man who treated us like kings. He said that we were welcome to stay as long as we wanted, we could set up our tents under the tarp, and we could eat with the miners. He even gave us doormats for our tents!

With all the scary stories of people contracting malaria here, I retired to my tent early. I was getting my freshly dried gear put in order and I started reviewing my pictures on my camera. I hadn't used my laptop in a few days, so I turned it on just to make sure it was still working. Right away, I noticed a big crack in the screen. It looks like I can still somewhat use the computer, but I don't know for how long. I'll have to wait until I get into a city to find out if it will be feasible to replace the LCD screen but keep the same computer.

Almost to the Back Dam

December 3, 2006
Day 431

Today started out with the long process of portaging everything over the rapids via a path on the side of the river. The big wooden boot couldn't make it up the rapids, so we carried a smaller aluminum boat over and had to make separate trips up the river. I went first with a prospector named Derrik, Rocco, who helps run the operation, and a bunch of fuel. It took an hour to get to the unloading point, which was still eight miles away from the main camp. I decided to stick around until Craig showed up. Meanwhile, Rocco started on the long walk to camp, and two porters showed up and each loaded two fuel jugs in their wicker backpacks. They would have to make the trek through the jungle for two hours carrying over 100 pounds each.

Smokey was brought up on the next trip, so I had to wait another two hours for the boat to go back down the river and return with Craig. By the time we were all there, it was getting late, so we decided to camp on the river for the night. We fished for dinner and set up camp in the flattest area that was somewhat free of fumes we could find.

Boating up Rapids for a Change

December 2, 2006
Day 430

Picture of me with fish.

Me holding the fish I wish I had caught.

I woke up to a lot of commotion today. Chris was putting the new wooden boat into the water and filling it with the fuel that had been transferred in his Bedford. However, last night's rain had caused such a muddy situation that the Bedford got stuck in the mud of the boat launch. The miners had some fun trying to dig the truck out, but eventually a bulldozer showed up and rescued us.

With all of the fuel loaded into the boat, we took off with three of the other miners, who are locally known as "porkknockers." Back in the early twentieth century, silver miners were predominately Afro-Guyanese. The only food they would take with them on mining expeditions were large barrels of pork, which they would knock to let others know that it was time to eat. This tradition seems to be gone, but the nickname has stuck, and today "porkknocking" is the biggest industry in the interior of Guyana.

It was a long day of driving the boat upstream. After about an hour, we encountered a set of rapids. We all got out of the boat and walked next to it in the shallow water. The locals have feet made of leather, but mine are a lot more sensitive, so I spent most of my time trying to keep the pain level to a minimum. In the process, I broke off the rest of my toenail, which had been slowly withering away.

The next set of rapids were bigger than the first so we had to unload everything from the boat and walk it to the top. The boat driver tried to power upstream, but the little engine just wasn't strong enough to make it. We ended up having to pull the boat by hand to the top. It took all five of us, but eventually it made it.

Several hours later we were at the last set of rapids. I thought we were going to get all the way to the mining camp today, but our late start forced us to stop early. An area had been cleared next to the rapids, and a few minutes later, the porkknockers had a big tarp set up for everyone to sleep under. One of the miners named Smokey took off with the boat, and a little while later, returned with a big fish for us all to eat. Actually, he claimed that the one he caught was only small and the big one got away.

We went to bed in the tent under the protection of the tarp so the rain didn't affect us this time. Everyone has been extremely nice to us so far, but I can already see the destruction the mining has caused. The majority of the trip was through beautiful, untouched jungle, but whenever we passed a former mining camp, the entire area was cleared, and nothing was growing. Sitting on and carrying jugs of fuel all day has made me feel filthy, and I'm sure it's not good for the environment when the diesel slowly seeps into the ground. It seems that nature's best defense against mining so far has been the rapids. Having to pass through them took a lot of effort, and most of the potential bigger mining operations won't bother going this far up the river.

The photo album for this entry is here.

Hitching Through Guyana

December 1, 2006
Day 429

The house had its generator running all night, so it was was tough to sleep over the noise. On top of that, the thought of waking up in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere in hopes that a bus would magically emerge from the darkness kept me in a half-awake state all night.

Not one car passed us while we were camped in the yard, so we figured the risk of getting hit by a car would be minimal. The mosquitoes were still out, and we were in a malaria-infested area, so at 2:30 we decided to pack up everything possible and sit in the tent in the road until the bus came. At 4:00, just when I thought the bus would never come, I saw its headlights rounding the corner. I think I have the world's fastest tent to put up and take down, and that proved quite helpful in this situation. Two minutes later, the tent was rolled up and we were boarding the bus. Transportation is quite unreliable in this country, so anytime you find yourself in a vehicle moving in the correct direction, you should feel thankful.

We rode the bus until shortly after dawn, when we reached the Essequibo River, where the Iwokrama Nature Reserve is located. We jumped off the bus and rode on a small boat with the reserve's cooks up the river a bit to the reserve. The area was beautiful, but it immediately became apparent that we wouldn't be staying for long.

As we found out, the place catered to bird watchers willing to pay thousands of dollars to travel to Guyana for a week, not to backpackers who travel on small budgets for years at a time. We met the ranger, but he didn't seem to be too happy to see us because we didn't give him a specific time of our arrival. We did radio ahead, but we weren't sure exactly when we'd arrive because we didn't rent a Land Cruiser from them for $800 to bring us there from Georgetown like most tourists do. We were shown an area where we could hang our hammocks and were told that breakfast would be ready soon. When we asked if that was included in the price, the ranger laughed. It turned out that food there cost $25 per day, and we wouldn't be allowed to cook for ourselves. The ranger asked us what we planned to do next, and when we told him of our plans to walk to Kaitur Falls, he laughed at us again and offered no explanation as to what was so funny.

I was already getting pretty fed up with the guy for his rudeness when he handed me a list of prices for various activities at the park. The cheapest thing was walking through the forest with a guide for $6 each. That sounded good, especially if the guide was knowledgeable of the wildlife in the area. Then we were told that we'd have to add on $15 to any of the listed activities for an administration fee, and there would be 10% extra charged to everything for some unexplained reason. Add that to the $25 for food and $10 for the hammock space, and it would cost over $60 each just to stay there one day and do the cheapest thing possible. That much money will normally last over a week in a country like Guyana. On top of that, while I was looking at the price list, the ranger and another guy were talking in broken English so I wouldn't understand them. All I heard was "blah, blah, blah, stove [referring to the fact that we wanted to cook for ourselves], blah, blah, blah, tent [referring to the fact that we had tents], blah blah blah, Crocodile Dundee [referring to Craig]." I'm sure the nature in the area would be great to see, but the extreme rudeness of the ranger and the high prices made it an easy decision to get the hell out of there ASAP.

The boat driver took us to the other side of the river where we made breakfast. There, we met a friendly old man who told us about all the great things to see and do in Guyana, and warned us how dangerous Georgetown is (everyone always warns us about the dangers of Georgetown). We waited several hours for a vehicle to pass us and finally were able to hop on a Bedford to Mabura.

We got dropped off at the police station in Mabura and gave the officer working there our passport information. The main road continued to Georgetown, but we were interested in going down the other road that lead to Mahdia. All vehicles passing Mabura had to register with the police department, so it worked out well for us to wait there for someone heading to Mahdia.

Several hours passed with no luck. Every vehicle was either going to Lethem or Georgetown. A couple of minibuses coming from Georgetown turned down the road to Mahdia, but they were all completely packed. Our only hope seemed to be to wait for another Bedford, but there was so little traffic it didn't seem likely to happen.

Finally a Bedford showed up, and out walked a middle-aged white man with a bushy beard and the low rumbling voice of a chain smoker. A wooden boat was sticking out of the back of his truck. "Nice boat," Craig said. Before I knew it, we were being invited to come along to visit the man's gold mine. It wasn't quite clear how we were going to get there or how long we'd have to stay before being able to come back, but it was better than sitting around all day waiting for a ride, so we hopped on the truck and took off.

Once we got going, we were told that tonight we'd be driving to a camp on the river. Underneath us were several dozen fuel containers. Next to us was the brand new wooden boat that would transport the fuel up the river to the mine. All around us were chain smoking miners. When I showed some concern that they were smoking while sitting on top of gasoline containers which, by the way, were really just cooking oil jugs not at all fit to be transporting fuel, they just laughed and said that it was only diesel fuel, which supposedly doesn't explode when ignited. Later, I found out that a large portion of the fuel was in fact gasoline, which definitely will explode from as little as a single spark.

We got to the "Chinese Camp" after driving a few hours on the bumpy gravel road. It was a former section of rain forest that had apparently been cleared some time ago. The entire place smelled of fuel, but that may have partially been just me because I was sitting on the stuff for several hours. I set up my tent in the least smelly location and put my fly on just in case it rained. And rain it did. The tent held up pretty well considering how heavy the downpour was, but the only problem was that the fly sits a few inches above the ground, so after awhile, water began splashing off the ground, under the fly, and into the tent. I got a little wet, but was too tired to care. It had been a long day, and I could've slept through a deluge big enough to make Noah proud at that point.

A Makushi Cultural Festival

November 30, 2006
Day 428

Picture of chief.

The chief at the party.

Today there was a celebration in Surama for World AIDS Day. I've learned from hanging out with the Peace Corps workers that a ton of foreign aid money comes into Guyana, but the only way to get any of it for your particular project is to tie it to AIDS. Not that there's anything wrong with preventing AIDS, but it's gotten to the point where, even if you want to teach the villagers something like basic first aid, the money won't come in until you give a big spiel about AIDS first. Anyway, some Germans helped the people of Surama by building them a gazebo, and today there was a cultural event for the Makushi tribe that lives here. It was all done in the name of World AIDS Day.

For the cultural event, about twenty people got dressed up in traditional clothes and sang and danced for us. A variety of meat, including delicious peccary, was cooked over hot coals. We ate it with cassava bread and a tasty spicy sauce. The whole town seemed to enjoy the work that went into it, and of course the Germans were there filming the entire thing.

It was getting dark and we had to walk back to the intersection of the main road. A bus only goes from Lethem to Georgetown every few days, and we were assured that it would pass the intersection in the middle of the night tonight. However, that meant walking for two hours through the jungle without any guns or machetes for protection against the wild animals.

Picture of Indians.

The Makushi Amerindians eat dinner.

The walk was going fine at first. After an hour, it was completely dark and the forest canopy had become very thick. All of a sudden, there was a really strong smell from an animal. Then there was a low-pitched growl about ten meters in front of us. Craig and I both stopped and looked at each other, freaked out. Dozens of people saw us walking out of town, and none of them seemed the least bit concerned that we might get eaten by a big cat, yet here was one right in front of us, ready to do just that. We grabbed big, bushy sticks for minimal protection and started making noise in an attempt to scare it away. We slowly walked forward shining our headlamps in all directions. A few minutes later, the smell was gone and we eased up a bit, but my heart rate didn't slow down until we got to the intersection. I found myself looking back every few minutes to make sure we weren't being followed. Something with that strong of an odor had to be a big animal. The growl definitely came from a cat. And after visiting the animal sanctuary, I know that a puma has a high-pitched purr, almost like that of a house cat. Therefore, I'm sure we had a close encounter with a jaguar that night. I feel that I can still write about it now.

When we got to the intersection, the single house there had its generator going, and the residents were watching a loud movie. We didn't want to camp in the middle of the road, so we got permission to set up my tent in their yard until 3ish when the bus would come and pick us up.

The photo album for this entry is here.

More of Surama

November 28-29, 2006
Day 426-427

We learned that there will be a cultural event in Surama on Friday, so we decided to stick around for a few days. In the meantime, we had a bit of a dinner party with Rick, Monika, and two of the local girls. One of the girls happened to be married to the ranger at the Iwokrama park, so we were able to radio to him to let him know we were coming. We also learned more about the park itself. It was a great time to relax a bit and learn more about the local people.

South American Wildlife

November 27, 2006
Day 425

We waited all morning for a Bedford truck to show up. It was a long wait, but I had a book to read, and our patience was finally rewarded. We jumped on the roof and rode with the workers to a fork in the road. We were told that Surama was about five miles down the side road and hitching would be futile because there probably wouldn't be any trucks passing us all day.

We walked through the intense heat for an hour and a half. The open savanna had given way to a thick jungle which provided some cover from the sun. We stopped along the way for a break and decided to get a fire going to cook the cashew nuts. Plenty of oil spattered from them all over the frying pan, so cooking oil wasn't needed. By the time they were finished cooking, they looked and smelled like bratwursts, but they tasted delicious.

When we got into town, we were shown Rick's house, which was a nice place with plenty of airflow to keep cool during the hot afternoons. Surama didn't have electricity, but a few of the houses sported generators and I think there are even a few televisions in town. The houses were split far apart with over one hundred yards separating some of them, and by the look of it, the town appeared to be better off economically than the small Indian villages I visited in Peru and Bolivia.

Rick walked us over to Monika's, and she was happy to give us a tour of the animal sanctuary. We saw a few land turtles, an ugly snapping turtle, peccaries (a type of pig), aguties (a type of rodent), some three-toed sloths, a well-endowed tapir (it looks like a cross between a giraffe and a cow), some monkeys, and a capybara (the world's largest rodent), but the highlights of the sanctuary were the anaconda and the puma. The anaconda was at least six meters long and weighed at least 100 KG. When we walked in the cage to check it out, it started moving slowly and sticking its tongue out. Monika got freaked out and figured it smelled the blood from a cut on my foot. It was probably about to snap out and start constricting me, so we let it go. The puma had just grown to adult size and its face was covered with beautiful purple stripes. Its paws and teeth were huge, and I could see how it could easily overpower a human in the wild. Jaguars are even bigger. Someday, Monika's company will show up and start filming these animals as if they were in the wild, but nobody seems to be sure when that will happen.