GUARDIAN In the oppressive, dead-weight heat of midday, an improbably polite man ushered me through security at Georgetown’s dusty domestic airport. Behind him I could hear the gurgling of a Dam-Busterish, chocks-away type plane waiting for me on the tarmac – I was euphoric. Old-time civility – a rarity almost everywhere these days – is a quality you’ll find by the trunk-load in Guyana. It’s very old school: a bit knackered, louche and shambolic – traits that I love.
Some 10 times the size of Wales, Guyana’s population is well shy of a million and most of them live on the coastal strip. As for visitors, the country attracts fewer than 3,000 tourists a year. That leaves the interior thrillingly short on human habitation. Mile after mile of rainforest splattered with swollen rivers like unravelled guts and endless stretches of virgin savannah passed below me without a town in sight. After picking up and putting down a few passengers, the air-borne minibus eventually dropped me off at Karanambu Ranch.
It’s not every day that I’m met by a living legend. Diane McTurk is world-famous for looking after orphaned giant otters. Karanambu has been in her family for about a century, but she returned permanently 30 years ago and soon began to welcome paying guests. We had to dodge a giant anteater, as you do, while she told me her story on the way back to the compound.
Gigantism is big in these parts. On a lazy boat trip along the Rupununi river I saw dragonflies the size of Churchill’s cigars, lily pads bigger than satellite dishes, the scaly backs of arapaima (a colossal freshwater fish) and, of course, the giant otter. They were squealing and begging for fish and obviously ecstatic to see Diane – but perhaps not quite as ecstatic and foolishly eager as I was to see them.
We got back to the ranch just in time for lunch. It was a simple, communal affair for those who happened to be around and gave me the chance to meet my fellow guests, a couple of twitchers and a Scottish woman who was revisiting the country with her daughter after 30-odd years away.
The accommodation is basic, there’s no hot water, I found a frog in the loo and the roof is open at the sides to the elements. I loved it. Where else in the world would you find wardrobes without doors to stop bats from roosting?
But there was no time to waste unpacking; I had another river trip lined up. It wasn’t long before the boat was engulfed with butterflies and all sorts of birds that were seemingly released to order as we glided by. Boat-billed herons, ugly guys with pitta-bread beaks, and great egret chicks, punkish with scruffy mohicans, filled the air with screeching. Other more haughty creatures deigned to look down on us with imperial and querulous gazes. I was spellbound.
As well as birds, the other big draw in Guyana is the fabled jaguar. I wanted to know if there were any in the area. Diane said: “There are, but you should ask me how long it was before I saw one.” I did: 27 years apparently. But two days later I saw evidence of big cats for myself, a peccary skull with fang holes in it. Finding the remains of a jaguar’s supper was almost as exciting as seeing the beast itself.
Idle conversation is the only night-time entertainment in Karanambu. I was told how war clubs of indigenous tribes hanging on the wall were used to break arms and legs before leisurely crowning hapless victims. And stories about the week it took to get a message out of camp were fondly remembered. That all changed during the war when radios were given to ranchers with tips on how to spot fifth columnists. They use Skype nowadays, which isn’t half as romantic.
And, best of all, I got to meet another of the waifs and orphan strays that Diane takes in, a lovely creature I reckoned on being part dog, part cat with a splash of monkey. I’ve never felt the need to have a pet before, but if anyone reading this has a spare racoon cub up for grabs then I’m your man.
Over my last rum punch of the evening, Diane mentioned that she’d been asked to upgrade the place, something she’s keen not to do. “I don’t want to turn this into a sausage factory and I don’t want big parties of people.” Of course she’s right; people should come here and enjoy it for what it is and because they want to. Not every tourist experience has to come with hot and cold water, plunge pools and patios.
I left the next morning under duress, I didn’t want to go. But I was rewarded with the transfer of a lifetime. A speedboat whisked me through rainforest, taking the bends on the snaking river like a motorbike would go round corners in a street race.
The road to Surama Eco Lodge meanders through dense jungle and it was here that I saw my first macaw. Birding is not a hobby that comes naturally to me (I bought my first pair of binoculars at the airport). All the same, it was thrilling to spot a macaw flying snub-nosed overhead without the expert eye of a guide to point it out. Then again the thing is four feet long and the blingest airborne beast on the planet.
Clarice the cook was waiting for me at Surama with a home-cooked lunch ready to be eaten before Clifford (an Amerindian wildlife guide) arrived to take me on a jaunt in to the jungle.
It’s easy to imagine you’re in a BBC wildlife documentary while walking through this exotic forestscape. Under the thick canopy I heard a shriek from overhead and was convinced it was a bird. But no, it was an insect that spends 13 years underground before it emerges screaming into daylight for just 24 hours to find a mate. I know how it feels.
An hour later we got to Clifford’s dug out canoe and drifted through hot sticky super-nature on the Bora Bora river. Electric blue morpho butterflies flapped languidly in pools of sunlight. Enormous red bees buzzed us and grey velvet bats the size of flattened ping-pong balls flew on ahead and clung to trees. Squadrons of kingfishers zipped low across the water and back into thick vegetation, dodging pink orchids as common as foxgloves are over here.
The best bird-spotting moment came while doing nothing more strenuous than hanging out in Clifford’s cassava patch. You name the bird, we got to see it; or at least that’s how it felt. Toucans had me thinking about Guinness; woodpeckers, cider. Clifford, of course, had more sophisticated avian taste. I asked him which his favourite birds were. After careful consideration he said cock of the rock purely for their aesthetic beauty, and black turacao if he was going to cook it up.
Clarice had been busy while I was out and rustled up a fried fish supper that Jacky, Surama’s manager, shared with me. We sat up talking about the lodge. It’s owned and run by the local village and has had a big impact, bringing money and work into the community as well as benefitting the wildlife with educational programmes. But best of all I liked the egalitarian spirit – everyone in the community is involved because all the positions are job shares.
A small bottle of rum during our chat soon did the trick for me; it was pitch black and – I assumed – about ten-ish. It was actually ten past seven, but I went to bed anyway and slept straight through until six the following morning. Birding is hard work.
At dawn Clifford and I went for another jungle walk. We soon stumbled on a group of black spider monkeys in the canopy. They were an aggressive lot, throwing sticks and small branches at us with surprising force.
If there’s one bird in Guyana that folk get geed up about it’s Clifford’s favourite, the cock of the rock. I reckon it sounds like a phallic martini . . . This rare bird has an almost mythic reputation around here. Illustrations in the guidebooks depict him as orange – but it’s a wholly inadequate representation. Clifford helped me track one down: impossible to miss, fluorescent, improbably virulent, he’s the zingiest Tango-ed ball of feathers on Earth. But – and maybe this is heresy – he’s a bit of a one-hit wonder as far as I’m concerned. Give me the multi-coloured, psychedelic crassness of a macaw any day.