Guyana: Journey to the Lungs of the Earth

It is a dreadful task to try to condense more than 25,000 words of my writings on Guyana into a 2,000-word article. Perhaps I should select every twelfth word in the narrative. It would read something like this: wet hot birds beautiful floppy anteater, and perhaps stand a better chance of capturing this place than anything I could put together on purpose. Guyana memories chug through my brain like a circus train, overstuffed with big, brilliant birds and outrageous animals, all of them squawking and snorting.

Most people who heard I was headed for Guyana assumed I’d end up in Africa, and sometimes it was hard to remember I was on the north coast of South America, between Venezuela and Suriname. Guyana has tall rainforest and baking-hot savannahs that immediately conjure Africa for anyone who’s ever been there. Straw-thatched round huts complete the impression; all that’s lacking are giraffes. Fewer than 800,000 people inhabit this small country, the vast majority clustered along the coast. Lacking infrastructure, travel to the interior is by air or water alone. Transported by small plane, you press your nose to the window and marvel at the unbroken nubbled carpet of green below, like nothing you’ve ever seen. Taking small skiffs from one eco-lodge to the next is a mighty fine way to go, too; the birding en route verges on ridiculous as cocoi herons, large-billed terns, crane hawks, king vultures, and jabirus flap and circle just overhead.

The Guyana birding experience sidesteps the typical Latin American travel experience, trundling from one isolated green reserve to the next, riding semi-miserably in a bus as miles of scalped mountains and plantations roll by. Guyana is virtually pristine: largely untouched, unspoiled, with everything that’s supposed to be there in its place. The oldest of the earth’s surfaces is the 30,000-square-mile Guiana Shield, thought to have been weathering under the tropical sun for two billion years.

Kaieteur Falls

Our first wilderness experience was at Kaieteur Falls, at 741 feet, the world’s tallest single-drop waterfall. Nothing prepared me for this place; nothing could have. Strange yellow rosettes that I’d spied from the air resolved upon landing into giant tank bromeliads (Brocchinia micrantha) twice my height, each colonized by golden frogs (Colostethus beebei), which raise tadpoles in the rainwater “tanks” between its toothed leaves. Both are found nowhere else on the planet. We wound our way through a fairy forest sporting some of the 20,000 different plant species found on the Shield, few of which I even vaguely recognized. I darted from one flower to the next, sniffing, touching, recognizing nothing, my overloaded brain turning pirouettes of wonder. The trail wound through denser and denser forest; rock cliffs and boulders rose. A flock of gray-winged trumpeters trundled away like footballs on stilts, their velvet necks glistening violet in spots of sun. And then we stopped dead, because just ahead was a daub of flame orange that might have been mistaken for a hunter’s cap, hung on a twig, were it not a cock-of-the-rock. This crow-sized cotinga with its lemon-cookie crest lets blazing color speak for it as it waits silently near the forest floor to be noticed by a female.

It’s one thing to see a Technicolor life bird. It’s quite another to enter a little rock cave, as we did later in Iwokrama Reserve, and see its mud and root nest, pasted phoebe-style to the wall. And beneath it, a deep rubble of plant material, and a forest of doomed seedlings, sprouting from the pits and seeds of all the fruits the cotingas have ingested over the years. Here, clearly written in seeds and plantlets, is the diet of the cock of the rock, laid out for anyone to identify. Here lay the evidence of the bird’s role as a seed disperser, here is the list of plants that the birds need to survive: a study waiting to be done. This trip to Guyana had given me one of the most satisfying experiences I’d had in nature—not only to see a strange, new and beautiful bird, but to experience a little of how it lives and breeds.

Karanambu

Too soon, it was time to pile back on the tiny plane and head for Karanambu, a private camp deep in the trackless interior. Access is solely by air or boat. That the place exists at all, much less houses and splendidly feeds ecotourists, is a marvel. We hopped right back into two skiffs and headed out on the river to witness the opening of Victoria Regia water lilies, famed for their yard-wide floating leaves and enormous blossoms. On the way, a capped heron shyly revealed itself, looking like bisque-fired porcelain with its banana-yellow neck and cerulean facial skin. Farther along, an agami heron skulked, fluttered and finally clambered away from us, all maroon and green and lancelike bill. The mysterious agami is a quest bird for many. They need but come to Karanambu.

Guyana is a place of many potoos. These big-eyed nocturnal birds look and forage for night-flying insects like overgrown whip-poor-wills, but there the resemblance ends. The female common potoo lays a single egg on the top of a rotted stub. The nestling clings there, bolt upright like its parent, camouflage its only defense. It is fed for 50 days, until it is ready to fly. Softly vermiculated plumage makes potoos disappear into their perches, and they peek at the world through a tiny notch in the eyelid, which allows them to spy on boatloads of birders without so much as opening one enormous, liquid orb. On this trip, we were to enjoy crippling looks at great, common and the Fred Astaire of potoos, the long-tailed.

Our hostess at Karanambu was the ethereally thin, snowy-haired Diane McTurk, world famous for her work with orphaned Amazon giant otters, of which there are less than 5,000 left. Diane is one of those people whom you meet and instantly wish you could multiply somehow, to spread all that knowledge and caring around for awhile longer. It takes enormous dedication to raise and release an apex predator like a giant otter, with its long juvenile dependency period and crushing jaws. I couldn’t get enough of Diane’s hand-raised male otter’s silky fur, luscious pink lips and creamy white bib. Otters are mammalian Möbius bands, endlessly rolling and turning in on themselves in sinuous loops, never still, flowing like furry water. I adored messing with the giant otter and his smaller Neotropical river otter companion. The only problem being: I am not Diane, and the otter let me know that. His flat head suddenly lashed out like a snake’s and fearsome jaws closed around my wrist, the one I write and draw with. Oh, please, not that one. One canine broke the skin through the sleeve of my shirt. I was astounded at his power, but then again he was chewing the head off a perch when I first spotted him. I picked at the little giant otter tooth hole in my wrist for the rest of the trip, hoping to bring a visible scar back for my family, but alas it healed nicely and is now just a tiny whitish spot.

As delighted as I was to be able to play with a hand-raised giant otter, I yearned to see them in the wild in Guyana. And so I strained my eyes as we boated the Rupununi, looking for that seal-like bump in the water that might prove to be the rarest animal in the Amazon. We passed enormous otter holts, or dens, in the riverbank. Finally our boatman pointed. “There, on the log.” And then there were two more, and they were squalling and wailing as giant otters do, coming closer for a look at a photographer who was quickly filling her viewfinder with tears. If you want to see a giant otter in the wild, come to Guyana. Do it soon.

The accommodations at Karanambu are not for sissies. Not being a sissy, I loved them. There’s nothing like the heavy plop of a largish scorpion falling off your bed netting to set a naturalist up for a night of peaceful dreams. Or the chitter and flap of roosting bats, and the gentle patter of their effluent on your belongings. But the most exciting invasion of our privacy came in the form of a tame crab-eating raccoon, appropriately named Bandit, who, in a flurry of scrabbling, forced his grinning face and tubby body through the louvers in our window and began throwing handfuls of clothes out of my suitcase, digging toward my secret stash of jerky, nuts, and power bars. “HEY! What do you think you’re doing?!” I hollered. Bandit snarled, flashing rows of gleaming teeth. “Digging through your suitcase, and just try to stop me!” Hearing shrieks of laughter from me and my roommate, writer Erica Gies, a staffer grabbed the raccoon by the scruff and carried him, squalling, to his cage. I was thrilled to make his acquaintance, even if it cost me a power bar. Coonlike, monkeylike, coati-like, Procyon cancrivorus is a whole ‘nother ball of wax from our North American beast.

The next morning, we left in search of the giant anteater, which is neck-and-neck for rarest mammal in the Amazon with the giant otter. These 7’ long, densely hairy, inexpressibly bizarre animals with their banner-like tails and snorkelly noses make a living tearing into termite mounds that stud the savannah around Karanambu. Although the sun wasn’t up, it was already hot when our guides roused an anteater from its resting place and drove it toward us on foot. Ecotourism is in its infancy in Guyana, and having run with lightning speed over rough terrain and sent a giant anteater running practically into our arms, our guides glowed with pride at having given us such a thrilling experience. They were doubtless puzzled at our mingled exhilaration and dismay at seeing the animal so disturbed. I suspect this approach is viewed as the only surefire way of giving tourists a look at this reclusive nocturnal animal, of which perhaps 5,000 still survive. I trust that in the future, a spotting scope will be used for watching giant anteaters without stressing the daylights out of them.

The Savannah

The savannah yielded many other treats that morning—an obscure flycatcher called the bearded tachuri; a pair of double-striped thick-knees—a plover-like bird with huge, weary yellow eyes—fork-tailed flycatchers, wild Muscovy ducks, and a multitude of flowering plants and dragonflies, some doubtless yet to be named by science. Guyana’s savannah is natural; it came to be wherever the soil was too shallow to support trees. Lightning-sparked fires help discourage any trees that get ideas.

On Guyana’s savannah, raptors abound and are easy to observe: black-collared hawks, the gorgeous and common savanna hawk, white-tailed hawks, crested and black caracaras.

Near the Rupununi, red howler monkeys preened in a bare tree, while a troupe of brown capuchin monkeys bounded across a rock-strewn, grassy hill, their tails in springy coils. I felt I’d been teleported back to Africa. It made me shake my head in wonder. I know, this is a bird magazine, and I keep bringing mammals into the picture. But mammals as a rule are much harder to observe than birds, and I’ve yet to meet a birder who didn’t enjoy seeing them while ticking away at her life list.

A short, bird-filled boat ride (think jabirus on the nest, king vultures circling low, and a ruby-eyed crane hawk sitting quietly a few feet off the port bow) from Karanambu is a new eco-lodge called Caiman House. It’s well-appointed, sustainably constructed, and boasts wonderful food. We walked up from the dock at dusk through the Amerindian village of Yupukari, enjoying the soft laughter and an off-tune guitar in the gently falling night. The most spectacular sunset I’ve ever seen was cut by inky palm trees. A white-fringed antbird eyeing me curiously reminded me that I was not in Ohio any more.

Caiman Hunt

That night, we went out with Ashley Holland, who is studying black caimans on the Rupununi. He and his Amerindian aides used a catchpole on a 10’3″ female black caiman, with much thrashing and sunfishing and drama. Male black caimans can get to 16.5 feet, but there is a 1965 record of a 25.2 foot long male shot in Brazil. That’s four feet longer than my living room. Once hauled out and hogtied, the caiman was ready for inspection—ageing, sexing, measuring, and exploring by an agog natural history writer. I marveled at the seamless and supple flow of her black and white tiled scutes around the well-muscled contours of her body. The whole time she was lying trussed up she was sighing, a deep, watery rumble from her very guts, and the sound moved me, as the sighs of a beached whale would.

The Guyanan assistant tied the most amazing knot to keep her jaws closed while the jaw noose and the duct tape were removed. It could be loosened with just one tug, like the sewn seam on a 50-pound bag of bird seed. I watched him tie it, careful but lightning fast, and all the wonder I felt at the caiman’s perfection leapt over to those beautiful hands. Homo sapiens is one boffo primate. They carried her to the water’s edge—grunnnnnt!—and pulled on the magic knot with a long cord. One tug, and she was free, and nobody had to lose a hand untying her jaws. Pretty dang slick. It was good to see her great jaws come open, and she said Ahhhhh again and then she was gone, just a huge muscular lash on the water’s surface. That, and the sound of my own breathing.

Creatures such as black caimans, giant otters, and jabirus live along these rivers because the waters are clear and unsullied by the silt of agriculture or mining. The Upper Essequibo features the highest recorded freshwater fish diversity on the planet. And because there is forest as well—primary, virgin forest, stretching as far as you can see in every direction. Eighty percent of Guyana’s land area is clothed in forest. That it has not been felled, despoiled, sold off or turned into failed agricultural plots seems too good to be true. Destruction is underway, however; tropical lumber is coming out of Guyana at an increasing rate. So rare and valuable is its unbroken forest that Guyana’s visionary president Bharrat Jagdeo, an economist turned conservationist, has proposed that it be viewed as a natural utility which generates rain and oxygen, that the industrialized world should be paying to use. In a nutshell, nations that exceed their carbon dioxide emissions caps would have to compensate Guyana for leaving its intact rainforest to absorb their emissions. That rainforests are more valuable alive than sawn into lumber is no secret to ecotourists, but this proposal could assign a real economic benefit to conservation.

The Guyanese Forest

The Guyanan tall forest bursts with life. There is one road traversing it, leading south into northeast Brazil, where cattle ranching has long ago devastated the land. Cloaked on every side by pillared trunks, hanging vines, and candelabras of scarlet blossoms, I enjoyed the illusion that the whole world was tropical forest. On our one trip on this lonely, amenity-free road, I chose to ride standing up in the back of a pickup truck, the better to spot flyovers (and severely dehydrate myself). I didn’t figure it would be dangerous, other than that. I thought it would be neat to travel through the migrating flocks of large, greenish-yellow Phoebus butterflies. When you are in the back of an open truck, standing facing into the wind, it is like being in a blizzard, with each snowflake a large butterfly. They hit you in the face very hard, and it hurts like crazy. There were more butterflies than I have seen in my life until now, more butterflies than I expect to see for the rest of my life. I ducked and winced and hollered. I kept my mouth closed. It was worth it to be in a butterfly snowstorm.

Neon-brilliant purple-breasted cotingas, red-fan parrots, and red and green macaws sat in treetops. Woodpeckers and toucans flapped over our heads. A black and white hawk eagle made tight circles and nearly everyone’s life list. The birding was ridiculous, and worth the dehydration and butterfly-smack headache afterward. Soon, we would trek to the nest of the harpy eagle, monarch of all Neotropical raptors. I’ll tell the story in a future installment of my column, “True Nature.”

Iwokrama Lodge

We’d reached our final destination: Iwokrama Lodge on the big, wild Essequibo River. It’s a very cool place, completely oriented toward ecotourism and research. You know you’re in a good spot when there’s a table full of skulls right in the dining room. I burst out laughing when I sank a spoon into my dinner and found it toothed. Just piranha teeth, but still. That was one bony stew. What is proper etiquette when one finds oneself being chewed by one’s soup? Spitting it across the room is out, that much I know. If you go, dip from the top of the cauldron.

We had a full schedule waiting, including a hike up Turtle Mountain. Now, Guyanese mountains are not the Rockies—any little rise in the flat Amazon basin is called a mountain. Although our goal was a spectacular overlook, we dawdled through several mixed-species flocks of birds following army ant swarms—must-see TV for the birder. Drawn by the insects the ants stir up, antbirds, antwrens, antvireos, antshrikes, and ant tanagers are skulky to view and oh-so-challenging to identify. Some, like the ferruginous-backed antbird, have lovely, unexpected little jolts of electric blue eye skin, a reward for straining your eyes through dim, jumbled vegetation.

As if one spider weren’t enough, in Guyana they have communal spiders. Unimaginable bunches of spiders, all living together in one enormous web the size of a king bedspread. It looked like Christo’s nightmare. Inching closer, I saw tens of thousands of small spiders, each spinning merrily away. I imagine they share whatever thing is clueless enough to fall into their giant web. I tried not to be that thing.

The Forest Walkways

Perhaps you’ve inferred by now that there was an element of Outward Bound in my Guyana adventure. After all, that’s what makes it an adventure: flipping through the album of everyday phobias and facing them one by one. We all have our monkeys. Mine include heights and lightning. So why not double up? Crossing a narrow, swinging, slippery wet canopy walkway during a thunderstorm: a phobic bundle.

At Atta Canopy Tower Camp, there is a system of walkways strung through the tops of forest giants, I don’t know how many feet above the pitch-dark ground. It’s way higher than our 42′ tall birding tower, high enough to ensure that if you fell you’d be a spot of grease on the forest floor. I’d heard a lot about canopy tower walkways, but had never been on one. I’d never actually wanted to be on one. My time had come. Everybody else was going, so I did, too, instantly metamorphosing from an intrepid liver-of-life to a whimpering mess. But cross them I did, all five of them, and I did it again in the morning, although I confess that staying back at camp to watch crested currassows tiptoe out of the forest for their daily handout of cooked rice is much more my speed. Cotingas were thick around camp, too, with screaming pihas, Guianain red-cotingas and purple-throated fruitcrows plucking dainties from a bare fruiting tree. A red-necked woodpecker, a big, clattery Campephilus, drew a cry of astonishment from me—its bill ivory, its entire head and neck blood-red; red flashing even in its wings.

A Forest Teeming With Life

Guyana is the most cotinga-rich place I’ve ever been. Purple-throated fruitcrows, pompadour and purple-breasted cotingas, Guianian red-cotingas, swallow-wings, puffbirds, nunbirds and capuchinbirds, cock of the rock—they are the ones that birders dream of and drool over as they plan their trips. They’re big, colorful, and bizarre. The capuchinbird (or calfbird, as I know it) is one of the weirdest. It’s a large, cinnamon toast-colored bird with a bald gray head (and a monklike hood of brown feathers, hence the name capuchinbird). Its call sounds like a cross between a chainsaw and a calf—a rolling bup-bup-bup-bup-brrr that sounds like a chainsaw just being started, ending in a long, nasal WRAAAAAAHHHHHH that recalls a lonely calf. It comes from the top of the canopy, which in primary rainforest is very high up indeed—80-120 feet. Arggh. Can you feel your neck cramping? We lay back, propping ourselves on our elbows, trying to get a good view. When the capuchinbird moos, its undertail coverts pop out in two evocatively-placed round spheres, eliciting a startled squawk from me. The field guide hadn’t mentioned that!

If seeing this well-feathered bird that had lurked for years on my wish list were not enough, I had another bit o’ fun in store. Mike Weedon, Associate Editor of England’s Birdwatching magazine, and I had a habit of hanging back behind the group, because we found lots of nice birds that way, being very quiet, or because we were being very silly, and interfering with everyone else. Being both, we got separated, and I noticed that the trail sort withered away, then split off into threes, something that bothered me. If we took the wrong fork, then what? The Bushmaster Trail on Iwokrama Reserve is not a place I fancied being lost for long. My mind flitted to Asaph Wilson, our Wapishani Amerindian guide, who had always been so careful to keep an eye on me as I investigated, meandered and snorfled my way through the forest. He was, oddly, nowhere in sight. I stopped to gather my thoughts. Weeds was already starting to wig out a little.

From behind a huge buttress root came the unmistakable cough of a jaguar. I’d never heard it, but I knew what it was. Oh, I’ve done it now. And there was Asaph, also known as Jaguar, cracking up over his little Wapishani joke (he had a million of ’em!)

Reflections

Every moment of this wonderful adventure, I felt blessed to be there, no matter how hot and sweaty I grew. I hope that some of you reading this will treat yourself to a trip back in time to a place where everything you’d dreamt you’d see is still there, an unbelievably rich and pristine bastion of Amazonian diversity. I felt I’d journeyed into the hot, wet lungs of the Earth.

Many thanks to the Guyana Sustainable Tourism Initiative, U.S. AID, which funded the trip, and to Judy Karwacki of Small Planet Consulting for taking a chance on inviting a highly excitable Science Chimp along. If you thirst for photos of all I’ve mentioned, plus abundant and lurid detail, please visit my blog archives on blogspot.juliezickefoose.com. The Guyana posts run from December 2008 through April 2009.

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