map of Guyana (meatnpotatoes.com)
The Rupununi region is named after the river which bends through the landscape of southwestern Guyana to meet the country’s largest waterway, the Essequibo. It is truly a mysterious, uncharted corner of a continent – literally the land of El Dorado, marked on a map by Sir Walter Raleigh sometime in the 1600s. Despite early explorations, most of Guyana’s interior was left largely undeveloped by the Dutch and later British colonists apart from a few ranching operations still carrying on. Sadly, since independence in the late 1960s, much of the land has been concessioned to timber and mining companies by the Guyanese government.
over the river and through the woods - the Essequibo crossing on the Georgetown-Lethem road (photo by Joel Strong)
Fortunately the road connecting the coast to the interior – a dirt track winding from the swamplands surrounding the capital of Georgetown, through thousands of hectares of rambling rain forest, out into the wide open savannas surrounding Lethem on the Brazilian border – is so poorly developed that the mining and timber companies can’t afford to access these resources – yet. For the moment, the land still largely serves the needs of the local Amerindian people who have hunted, fished and farmed here for centuries.
in need of improvements
It is a difficult place to portray in words, the Rupununi. I can tell you about the open grassland savannas sweeping as far the eye can see, the sunsets that make the sky burn bigger than any sky on earth. I can write about the deep deep forest looming at the savanna’s edges, along the rivers and covering the hills. There are the creatures of this landscape – cayman, jaguar, giant armadillos, tapir, brocket deer, tamandua, ocelots, giant river otters, bushmasters, howler monkeys, capybara, macaws, anacondas, etc. – still so chock full it would make David Attenborough drool.
poison arrow frog
jabiru storks out in the savanna
Then there’s the water, confined within the banks of great rivers, oxbow lakes and ponds for the dry season, and confining the fish that filled our bellies. With the rainy season, the water swells in flood, breaching the banks of rivers and lakes to transform the same savannas into an inland sea. While the fish now disperse thin across what was once land, terrestrial animals themselves become concentrated, trapped on islands making easy meals for hunters. The rains come so full and heavy that somewhere out in that wilderness the waters of South America’s two greatest river systems, the Amazon far to the south (via the Rio Negro and the Ireng) and the Orinoco up north in Venezuela, actually intermingle.
the Rupununi by "engine-boat" - a motorized dugout (photo by Joel Strong)
queen victoria water lilies are found in still-water ponds
folks fish here with bow and arrow
hosts and friends Paulette Allicock and her son Frank parch farine - a local staple made from bitter cassava
I can describe the Amerindians that have shaped the very landscape of the Rupununi, setting fires to clear farms and flush game, inadvertently, or sometimes very advertently, thinning the trees that would encroach upon the grasslands. Villages lay scattered loosely across the savanna, with homes never too far from the edge of high forest and “bush islands” where they plant cassava, chilis, beans, gourds and melons and other fruits. The Macushi and Waipishana people of this region smile from bicycles on the road or dugout canoes on the rivers, walking always with cutlass, usually bow and arrows, and often slinging warishis (woven backpacks) loaded with food and firewood.
night-time savanna fires running up the hillside and into the forest (photo by Bryan Williams)
There is a spirit realm there too – implicit and real in the lives of most local people, yet scarcely visible to me, someone who just skimmed the surface of the Rupununi over 8 months. Was it sinister? Nineteenth century explorers wrote about the “demon landscape” of Guyana’s interior, told stories of travelers who disappeared or lost their minds in the wilderness. Despite the influence of missionaries, tales still abound of both Piaimen and Kanaimas - shamans “doing their work” for both good and evil.
a quiver of arrowheads
In the 1990s, an anthropologist documented the “poetics of violent death,” the ritualized murder of Amerindians and outsiders alike by Kanaimas in the Pakaraima mountains on the northern fringe of the Rupununi – he was actually poisoned and survived (check out the book Dark Shamans). Rituals much less macabre – communion with plant and animal spirits for farming and hunting, charms for luck and skill, the appeasement of mischevious forest spirits – were related in bits and pieces, barely revealed in passing conversation and only after months and months talking with local families.
jeep trek into the Pakaraima mountains
why aren't other beer companies catching on to this? (photo by Sean Giery)
Still, this all fails to convey the mad mad potential energy that permeates the place. Potential is the key word here because one passes a lot of down time in the Rupununi. Waiting for friends, hitching rides, whatever is happening happens only “just now” – an interpretive phrase that ranges in meaning from a couple minutes to a couple days. During that down time you gaff (talk story) and generally consume obscene amounts of good Guyanese rum or cheap Venezuelan beer (in fact the Guyanese beer Banks is highly superior, but we were continually suckered in by the Venezuelan’s brilliant advertising). All this downtime is almost a necessity, however, because when it comes to movement through the surreal landscape of the Rupununi, adventures tend to happen in epic proportions.
hen napping in a warishi
the Rupununi side of the Georgetown-Lethem Road
dugouts near the village of Yupukari