Monthly Archives: December 2006

Lots of Patient Waiting

December 19, 2006
Day 447

Craig and I took off at the crack of dawn this morning. We managed to get on a minibus right away, then a ferry and another bus to the Corentine River, which borders Guyana and Suriname. We waited in line 45 minutes to buy a ticket for the ferry to cross the river, but that didn't really matter because we sat around for two more hours while they unloaded the ferry from its previous crossing. The ferry took all of fifteen minutes to cross the river, but then we had to go through customs on the Suriname side. That took another hour, and suddenly it was mid afternoon.

We got onto a bus to Nieu Nickery, and once we got into town, we waited another hour while the confused driver figured out where to drop people off. There was nowhere to get anything to eat all day (unlike Latin America, where you're never more than five minutes away from food, even if you're on a bus speeding down a highway) so my patience was wearing thin. Eventually we found a guesthouse at the YWCA (pronounced "why-ca" here, another source of confusion) that was recommended by someone I met in Georgetown.

I can tell already that this is a much nicer place than Georgetown. It's quieter, the houses are nice, there's not piles of garbage on every street, and the people don't shout at you constantly. Dutch is the main language here (it's a former Dutch colony), but everyone seems to understand English. The people are an interesting mix mainly of black, Amerindian, Indonesian, Chinese, and Indian. While looking around, we met Arwen, a Dutch doctor who is staying here a year. We hung out with her and Robert and Rodger, two locals, and learned more about places to go and things to do in Suriname. I think we'll stick around for a couple days now that we're away from the madness of Georgetown.

Avoiding Getting Whacked

December 16-18 2006
Day 444-446

Picture of court.

Most people in Georgetown go to the High Court every day.

My only reason for going to Georgetown was to get a visa to enter Suriname. I got into town on a Friday night, however, so I'd have to stay a few days until the embassy opened. In the meantime, I checked out St. George's Cathedral, which is supposedly the biggest wooden building in the world, the Starbroek Market, where you can buy anything legal or otherwise, and the multitude of old English wooden buildings that are scattered throughout the city. One highlight was going to two new movies for 50 cents, but I was a bit disappointed that I missed out on seeing the new Bond movie by only a few days.

The guidebooks didn't lie: it's a dangerous place, and I was sick of it after a few days. Walking around in the day was fairly safe, but the constant shouts of "Hey white boy" started to bother me after awhile. I guess that since they don't get many tourists here, the people have no idea how to treat them. I can imagine their surprise in a couple months when thousands of Australians storm the streets for the Cricket World Cup. A lot of people are nice, but the majority just shout at each other and drink and smoke weed all the time. There are almost no police around, and the atmosphere is completely different than the interior of the country. It's too bad that the few tourists who do go to Guyana usually only go to Georgetown because hitchhiking around the interior was a real highlight for me. I felt that I was taking my chances with every day I stayed in town, so I was happy when my visa was processed quickly as soon as the new week started, and I made plans to enter Suriname first thing in the morning.

The photo album for this entry is here.

From One Jungle to Another

December 15 2006
Day 443

Kaieteur Trek Day 8

A boat left early this morning for Pamela. We walked halfway back to Mahdia before a truck came and took us the rest of the way. We picked up the rest of our gear from the hotel and waited with Sally for a truck. It was only about an hour before an empty Bedford on its way to Georgetown passed us. Sally only stayed with us for a short time before getting off on a side road to try to hitchhike to his house in the middle of nowhere. We said goodbye and continued to Georgetown. It was great having a local with us for the trek to teach us about the porkknocking culture.

The road to Georgetown was horribly bumpy, and it was difficult to keep my sanity. I'd stand most of the time until my arms tired from being jiggled around too much, then I'd sit down for awhile until I got sufficiently bruised from being thrown around the bed. At one point, I got the bright idea of slinging my hammock across the bed of the truck, but I got violently swung to and fro, and fell out of the hammock a few times, so I eventually gave up and went back to standing. The good things about riding in the Bedfords vs the minibuses are that they are higher so you can see more scenery, there is plenty of space because you're in the bed with only a few other people, and of course it's free, whereas the minibuses are quite expensive by South American standards.

After a few hours, we passed Mahdia one more time and were once again back on the main road. There were three people in the front of the truck, but I didn't take much notice until we stopped on a side road to pick up another hitchhiker. The driver got out with a roll of toilet paper and ran into the bush. His buddy also got out and stood behind the truck to stretch out. The hitchhiker got in the back with us. Suddenly, the third guy who had been in front the entire time moved over to the driver's seat, started the truck, and took off! Craig, the other hitchhiker, and I had no idea what was going on. The driver's buddy stared at the truck in disbelief as we drove away. I didn't realize it at the time but we were being hijacked, or at least the guy was trying to steal the truck.

After about a minute, we hit a big bump and the truck came out of gear. The thief must not have known how to drive very well because he couldn't seem to get the truck back in gear. We coasted to a stop, and the thief got out and ran around the corner. Suddenly, driver and his friend came running toward the truck. They asked what happened, and we told them that the other guy ran off. Finally, it clicked in my head that he had stolen the truck. A fuel truck for the same company was a few minutes behind us, so I don't know how the thief thought he could get away with the truck, but he still gave it a shot. He hid in the thick jungle, so there was no way we'd find him, but the driver was angrily swearing and yelling about what he'd do to the guy if he ever caught him. It was a really bizarre sequence of events.

We finally reached Georgetown after seven solid hours in the Bedford. It was strange being on a paved road and seeing a city again after being away for so long. At first, the city didn't appear as dangerous as everyone said. It's supposed to be one of the most dangerous cities in all of South America, and judging from the constant reports of murders and robberies in the local newspaper, I'm going to be extremely cautious here. In fact, my only reason for staying at all in Georgetown is to get a visa to enter Suriname.

Our Ride Shows Up

December 14 2006
Day 442

Kaieteur Trek Day 7

After breakfast this morning, we took inventory. A couple onions, no potatoes, enough porridge for one small breakfast, noodles and rice for a few bland meals, and almost no fuel to cook with. On top of that, we had almost no cash due to Guyana's lack of ATM's, and only a few days left on our tourist visas before having to leave the country. We really had to get back down the river soon, but there was still no sign of the boat guys.

Craig managed to catch one decent-sized fish, so we were able to eat a meager lunch. Afterward, I decided that I'd waited long enough and took off to look for the boat driver on top. I was walking about five minutes when I met the driver, his friend, the family, and Sally coming down the trail. We packed up camp and got ready to leave, but suddenly the driver wanted five times more money than what we gave him yesterday. I guess he realized that since we were tourists, he should try and jack up the price. There was no way we'd pay any more money. We already agreed on the price yesterday, and besides, we gave him practically all the cash we had. I demanded that they either give us our money back or take us down the river, and they finally caved and took us.

It took three days to walk upstream to our base camp, but it only took a few hours to go back down the river in the motorboat. When we reached Wartok falls, we unloaded everything and the driver went over the falls in the empty boat. We loaded all our gear once again and continued down the river. We reached Amatok late in the afternoon.
There weren't any more boats heading down to Pamela today, so we camped out of the rain under a guy's veranda at Amatok. We had a nice conversation with the guy who ran the mining camp we visited on our first night. The porkknocking lifestyle is really interesting; it's just too bad they don't care at all about the environment.

The gentle hum of a generator sounded shortly after dark, so we headed over to the bar to see what was happening. The owner put on a DVD of a documentary called The White Diamond, which had to do with a German company creating a small blimp and floating it over Kaieteur Falls. It was a pretty weird movie, but at the end, they showed an ultralight aircraft flying near the blimp, which confirmed that the German company was the same one that had the animal sanctuary I visited in Surama. So they had all kinds of cool toys in the Guyanese back dam at one point. It was a goofy movie, but it did have a lot of nice shots of the waterfall. I especially liked the guy break dancing and moonwalking at the top.

The Raft that Didn't Float

December 13, 2006
Day 441

Kaieteur Trek Day 6

Craig had been talking up the idea of building a raft for awhile, so I figured what the heck, I'll give it a shot. Our first task was to find wood. A few large logs were scattered here and there, and we got some more wood by disassembling part of the abandoned mining camp.

Next, we threw each of the logs into the water to test their buoyancy. The first three sank into the abyss of the river. The fourth one finally somewhat floated. We continued testing wood, but most of it sank. Still, maybe we'd have enough floaters to make it work.

We tied a bunch of the logs together, threw some planks we found on top for seats, and gave it a test run without our backpacks. When we sat on the raft, it slowly submerged into the water, then reached an equilibrium about a foot down. "Looks good, let's go," Craig said. I seriously began to question his sanity. Heading down the river on a raft would be cool, but not with water up to my chest and a backpack to worry about.

I went back to the campsite and started preparing my backpack. I inflated my mattress as much as possible inside my backpack, put whatever I could into plastic bags, and threw in a couple of plastic bottles I found scattered around to help the backpack float. I was seriously considering biting the bullet and flying out, even though it would mean an additional 8-hour bus ride back to Mahdia to pick up the gear I left behind. Suddenly, a motorboat came up the river and docked next to our raft! We hadn't seen anyone on the river for days, yet here was this nice, big aluminum boat, ready to head back down. The driver and his friend claimed that they were there to transport a ranger and his family back down the river, but they needed to go up to the top to buy fuel. We agreed to a price, gave them our money, and they took off.

We figured they'd take about four hours to return with the fuel, but as the day droned on, it became more and more likely that they weren't coming back down. Finally near sunset we set up camp and began cooking dinner. The boat was sitting in the water next to my tent, so there didn't seem to be any way possible for the driver to take off with our money. Maybe the raft still would have been the better option. At least we'd be partway down the river by now.

Another Rainy Viewing

December 12, 2006
Day 440

Kaieteur Trek Day 5

I walked to the top of the falls bright and early today, but it started raining again when I was near the top. Sally and Diego safely made it last night, so we spent awhile looking at the rainy falls again. We also walked over to Menzie's Landing, a small mining outpost with a lot of shady characters near the waterfall. Diego and Cuckoo will fly out tomorrow, and Craig, Sally, and I will figure out some way to get down the river.

Up to the Falls

December 11, 2006
Day 439

Kaieteur Trek Day 4

Picture of falls.

Me on a ledge by Kaieteur Falls.

Craig and I got up early, ate a big breakfast, and walked to the top of the falls. For the first time, the path was actually in good condition and was easy to follow. It was foggy and raining heavily all morning, but we still managed to get to the top rather quickly. We walked around trying to find a sign of civilization, but the place looked deserted. We saw a sign for "Boy Scouts View," and walked to it. There was a loud roar that we figured had to be Kaieteur Falls, but we still couldn't see anything because it was so foggy. We kept walking and found an airstrip. A few minutes later we were at the guesthouse.

The owner of the guesthouse told us the direction to walk to get to the main view of the falls. When we got there, the view was overwhelming. At 741 feet, Kaieteur is boasted as the largest single-drop waterfall in the world, although it's clearly just a marketing term. Angel Falls is over three times as high, yet it has a small drop at the top, so it's not considered a "single-drop" waterfall. Still, finally getting to the falls after such a difficult trek was a really great feeling. Realizing that there weren't any other tourists there other than Cuckoo, a Brit who had flown in, made the experience even more unique. Unfortunately, the rain and fog forced us to retreat to the guesthouse after less than an hour of viewing the falls.

When the rain picked up again, we were invited inside for coffee and biscuits. The owner, who is also the park ranger, couldn't believe that we'd walked all the way from Amatok in the rainy season. He kept stressing that we should have paid for our park entrance in Georgetown, but he couldn't comprehend that we hadn't been there yet either. Still, he was quite hospitable to us after we promised to pay the park entrance fee tomorrow.

Picture of Craig.

Craig looks over the edge.

Craig and I walked back to the bottom early in the afternoon, but I vowed to return tomorrow if the weather was better. When we got back to base camp, I was relieved to see that Sally had finally made it. He promised that Diego wasn't too far behind, and a few minutes later, he stumbled in. We all cooked up a big lunch, and Diego laid down, unable to do much else. We all put our heads together and eventually figured out how to take apart the plunger on my stove. I dug out the o-ring that had fallen off and put it back in place. The stove was fixed, so we didn't have to cook on campfires anymore.

Diego was delighted to hear that not only was there a guesthouse on top of the falls, but there was also a landing strip so he could fly out. A few hours before dark, Sally convinced Diego to start walking to the top. I let them know that I'd meet them in the morning. Craig and I discussed how cool it would be to build a raft to go down the river so we wouldn't have to walk it again.

Finally to Base Camp

December 10, 2006
Day 438

Kaieteur Trek Day 3

Picture of beach.

Craig and Sally sitting on the beach at Wartok Falls.

The rain finally stopped sometime before sunrise, so were able to break camp in somewhat dry conditions today. We made our way through some more difficult terrain and got to Wartok Falls after about an hour of walking. Craig, Sally, and I relaxed on the beach for about ten minutes, but Diego immediately jumped into the water, fully clothed. He looked absolutely exhausted. We continued walking to where we thought the settlement would be, but unbeknownst to us, it was on the other side of the river.
Sally had taken the responsibility of helping Diego, and pretty soon Craig and I got way ahead of them. We stopped at a nice spot for some breakfast, but there was another problem. My stove was broken. The pump that compresses the fuel bottle wasn't working, and I couldn't figure out offhand how to pull it apart. I had been using it without incident almost daily for weeks until now. I was starving after eating nothing all day yesterday other than a little bread, so the stove broke at the worst possible time. We decided to try to get to the falls and fix the stove later. We could always cook on a fire if necessary.

The path wasn't nearly as bad today, partly because it gets used more, partly because it's upstream, so the side streams aren't quite as big. Consequently, the trek changed from masochistic yesterday to quite enjoyable today. I lost sight of the river a few times crossing the side streams, but never for more than a few minutes. By 2:00 PM, Craig and I were at the base camp. We decided to wait there for the others to show up, and decide from there whether we wanted to lug all of our gear to the top.

We cooked a huge breakfast and lunch on a fire, and finally my stomach was full. It was sunny all afternoon, so I was able to get everything fairly dry. The area around the camp was absolutely beautiful with pristine jungle in all directions, a large set of rapids, and another waterfall on the other side of the river. We couldn't see Kaieteur yet, but we found the path that leads to the top. We did some more fishing and waited some more for the others.

At dusk, Diego and Sally still hadn't shown up. I was worried, but Sally is a local who is way more competent in this type of outdoor situation than even Craig, so we decided to give them another day to show up before going off to look for them. Tomorrow we'll head to the top of the falls without our gear and come back down again.

Lost in the Jungle

December 9, 2006
Day 437

Kaieteur Trek Day 2

This morning we waited until about 9:30 before one of the miners could paddle us in his canoe to the other side of the river where Craig, Diego, Sally, and I started walking again. It was even more of a full-on jungle adventure than yesterday because the side streams that flowed into the main river were plentiful, and there was virtually no path to follow. At least thirty times, we had to walk across a slippery tree that was suspended at least six feet above the stream to get across. We also had to wade a lot because there were no trees, and a couple times, we even had to swim. I wasn't so lucky to get a canoe to take me along today.

Around midday, I had to walk away from the main river to cross a side stream. Nobody else was in my view because the jungle was so thick, so I tried to take a diagonal back to the main river. I walked over a couple large hills, but I never hit the main river. I shouted out and thought I heard someone near a waterfall, so I headed toward the voice. I shouted some more but got no response. Suddenly, I realized that I was lost in the middle of the jungle.

The canopy was too thick even to see where the sun was, much less any meaningful landmarks, so I continued walking, hoping I'd stumble into something by chance. I came to a small stream, but the water was flowing backwards! That is, the water was flowing away from where I had perceived the main river to be. I followed the water downstream and hit a bigger side stream, this time flowing in a different direction. I sat down, collected my thoughts, and I realized that the hills I had crossed must have affected the watershed and thrown off my sense of direction. I thought back to yesterday and remembered seeing the sun setting upstream from me, which meant that the river flowed from west to east. Therefore, I would have to head south to join the main river again. I followed it until it ran into the main river, but I must have gone way out of my way because it took over an hour to get there. When I got near the main river, I finally got a response to my shouts. The others were out looking for me. It was a scary moment for me that I hope I won't repeat. We'd lost a few hours, but it could've been much worse.

We thought we'd get all the way to the bottom of Kaieteur Falls today, but we didn't even get close. The trail was much worse than expected, the rivers were high and therefore difficult to cross, I got lost for two hours, and it was raining all day. As it was getting dark, it became apparent that we wouldn't even make it to Wartok, and we'd have to camp somewhere in the bush. We spotted a small beach and headed for it. The jungle near the beach was almost too thick to penetrate, but somehow we got there. I set up my tent in the rain and jumped inside. Sally somehow managed to get a fire going in the rain and proved that he was a real bushman, but I wasn't interested in supper. My arms were cut up from the vegetation, my shins were bruised from falling on logs, my pants were completely shredded, and everything was soaking wet. Yet for some reason, this was a really fun day for me.

Saved in the Nick of Time

December 8, 2006
Day 436
Kaieteur Trek Day 1

Picture of canoe.

We get paddled upstream in a leaky canoe.

The route to Kaieteur seemed pretty simple: Drive down a road to Pamela on the Potaro River, take a boat upstream to a settlement called Amatok, walk along the river to another settlement called Wartok, then walk the rest of the way to the waterfall. Nobody seemed to walk there, but the Lonely Planet (a budget guidebook) suggested taking a tour that would involve traveling by boat all the way for $750, so we opted to walk and hopefully spend less than $75.

Getting a truck to Pamela was no problem, and the driver didn't even charge Sally to ride with us. We were told the boat to Amatok would cost $10 each, but the driver said he wanted $70 because we would be the only passengers. We told him no thanks, we'd wait until more people showed up, but we wouldn't pay more than $10. Suddenly the driver said he'd take us "because he was heading that way anyway." Once again, Sally didn't have to pay. He may not have had money, but he sure had his connections.

The boat ride ended at Amatok, a mining settlement located on a beautiful set of Class V rapids on the Potaro River. We sat around for awhile and talked to the friendly locals who ran a shop for the miners. Eventually a porkknocker who happened to be walking the same route as us showed up and led the way.

We walked through a couple huge areas that had been completely cleared by mining. Eventually, we hit the jungle. It was more difficult than I had in mind. There were rivers that we had to wade through and razor-sharp vegetation everywhere. There didn't seem to be much of a path, but with two locals leading the way, it wasn't too difficult to keep making progress.

A lot of the deeper rivers had fallen tress spanning them that acted like bridges. They were slippery, and I had to move slowly at times, but I didn't fall in. At one point, the miner who had been leading us headed off in a different direction. A few minutes later, we were greeted by a river that was too deep to wade and too wide to have any tree-bridges. Craig wrapped his backpack in some plastic and swam across the crocodile-piranha-anaconda-infested river. Just as I was prepping my backpack for the swim (and crossing my fingers that my camera, which was in a dry bag, wouldn't get ruined), the porkknocker came back with a couple other miners in a canoe with a big hole in it. They took us up the main river for a few minutes to their mining camp. I was saved in the nick of time.

The rain that had fallen for each of the last few days told us that it would be a good idea to stop for the day at the mining camp. I set up my tent under the ubiquitous large tarp, dug some trenches in preparation for the upcoming downpour, and helped Sally cook some thick loaves of bread.

Shortly after dark, we were sitting under the tarp in the pouring rain and Sally was telling us about his life as a miner. In addition to mining for gold, he occasionally looked for diamonds, and participated in the importing and exporting of all sorts of illegal goods. His nonchalant attitude confirmed how little police presence Guyana has.

Suddenly, a couple guys showed up in a canoe and announced that "our friend" was here to see us. A minute later, none other than Diego walked in from the rain! He said that he couldn't make it to Mahdia until late this morning, so he hired a couple people to paddle a canoe up the river for a few hours to catch up with us. Even though we didn't know we were going to stop at the mining camp, it was easy to find us, he said, because everyone in Mahdia knew what we were up to. Apparently Craig and I are like a couple of celebrities in the area because there are so few tourists here. So tomorrow, the Guyanese, the Argentine, the Australian, and the American will continue their trek up the river, through the jungle, and to one of South America's little-visited delights.

This photo album for this trek is here.