In case you don’t recall, I had just left my PhD position in the Rupununi savannas of Guyana – no more job, no more income, no more jeep, no more free housing in Lethem – but then again, no more job.
I was free. As if to mark the occasion, the day after I got fired (after I already quit – a long story) Dan and Bryan invited me on a fishing trip out into the bush.
“Just walk with hammock and handline,” they told me.
‘Walk with hammock’ meant camping and no way in hell were we really walking. In late March with no rains yet, the leached-out, white soils of the savannas form brilliant, smooth, boiler-plate single track between the villages. Like I said, in the Rupununi most practical folk move around on bicycle.
the Rewa Road with Makarapan mountain in the distance
Our plan was to head out of Annai along the new jeep track to the village of Rewa. Annai sits 5 miles west of “bushmouth” – literally the gateway to the Rupununi. Its the point along the main road from Georgetown where the huge expanse of high Guianan rain forest gives way to the rolling savannas that stretch for hundreds of miles to the west into northern Brazil. About 30 miles southeast of Annai, back into the high rain forest, across the Rupununi River and at the base of Makarapan mountain is the village of Rewa.
Rewa is a relatively young community, having been established at the confluence of the Rupununi and Rewa rivers sometime in the 1960s at the height of the balata-tapping days. Back then many Macushi and Waipishana amerindians moved from their villages in the savannas to temporary camps in the rain forest to work the balata trade. They scoured the jungle for the bulletwood tree, Manilkara bidentata, to harvest its milky latex – the natural rubber called balata. Once collected, the balata is poured into thin sheets and dried into mats. These mats are then rolled up to be hauled out of the bush several at time. With each roll weighing 80 to 100 lbs, it is back-breaking work. The amerindians working these balata camps often established farms and, eventually, some camps became permanent villages like Rewa.
drying out balata
loading rolls of balata into dugout by the village of Katoka
While the balata trade has waned in Rewa, a couple NGOs have helped the village construct a beautiful new ecotourist lodge. Most that make it come to see the giant, prehistoric-looking fish called arapaima that lurk in the waters nearby along with other wildlife like river otters and caimen. The more adventurous and well-funded might be up for the several week journey up to the headwaters of the Rewa river – some of the wildest country on the planet. A guiding friend of mine told me they spotted 12 jaguars on one trip alone, many just basking on the rocks, completely indifferent to the humans drifting by downstream in their boats (check out his site www.wilderness-explorers.com/ashley_holland.htm).
couple bottles of 'duck curry' at the Rewa Ecolodge
Fishing with handline at a pond near Rewa
Potentially more profitable and more sinister is oil. Yes folks its there, sitting beneath the feet of the Rewa villagers and a Canadian company has its sights set (see www.groundstarresources.com/country.html). The consequences of impending oil development in the region are anyone’s guess. Too often in these cases, local villages reap short-term benefits through surveying and construction jobs only to see the long-term profits pass them by into the pockets of the developers.
We do have the same oil company to thank, however, for the jeep trail connecting Annai and Rewa. Until a couple years back, the only way to reach Rewa was via the Rupununi River – about a 1/2 day trip by engine boat or a day and half in dugout canoe from Annai. Now, at least in the dry season, villagers in Rewa can reach Annai and the main road to Brazil in a 1/2 day bicycle ride instead.
Vacquero (cowboy) shack on the Rewa Road
For us, the Rewa road meant easy riding deep into the savannas and access to a couple good fishing holes at the base of Makarapan Mountain. Mid-morning we pedaled out of Annai towards Rewa – Dan and Bryan on their Brazilian Monarks and me on a cheap, borrowed Chinese mountain bike. In the afternoon we came upon a campsite at the edge of a gallery forest bordering a stream and set up our hammocks. Bryan was convinced the pond was just up the road, so we continued on with just fishing gear.
jungle gym - the real thing
We pedaled and pedaled. Five miles? Six? Who knows? We passed through open savannas, shrublands, forest, back into savannas. The landscape changed continuously. Were they islands of forest inside the savanna or islands of savanna inside the forest? Impossible to tell but wherever it was, we were way out in the bush. Finally, late in the afternoon, we arrived at the fishing hole and threw in our lines.
classic Rupununi savannas
pit stop in a bush island
Dry season fishing in the Rupununi will make anyone feel good - its shooting fish in a barrel. As the waters recede throughout the dry season, fish get trapped in ponds and as their food runs out, they become ravenous. Throw in just about anything and you get a hit. In this particular pond the hasa, or armored catfish, were plenty. We caught our fill and before long the sun was setting.
Bryan's fishing hole
a bad time to start the ride back
Well shit - dark was nearly upon us and our hammocks were swaying on trees who knows how many miles away. At least Dan and I had headlamps – Bryan was left to his other senses for the ride back. And just to make the adventure thicker, right after we mounted our bikes, the rain came.
It was hours of blind pedaling through savannas and bush islands – no brakes (remember?), sliding out in the mud, crashing into tree stumps, and falling into stream beds with our headlamps all but useless in the rainy gloom of the night. We were soaked, our toes and shins bruised and bloody from slipping off the pedals in our Havaianas (rubber flipflops), and Dan’s rear wheel was coming loose every 20 minutes. But we were laughing all the way – flipping over his bike on the lonely wet jeep track, trying to crank the bolts down with a leatherman, and pushing off again.
more feral humans
We made it back to camp still smiling through the time warp of the night and commenced with the next mission. Fire. We kept ourselves warm chipping wood with our cutlasses, keeping the flame alive. Meditation through sweat and constant movement. What rain? What cold? We were soaked to the bone, but our fire grew and grew. When we were finally convinced it would survive the weather, the rain stopped. Things began to dry out, we set up the hasa to roast over the coals, broke out the duck curry (rum) and feasted on a huge pot of jumbalaya Bryan had stashed in his bag.
sweet lovely hammock time
Funny how great adventures so often teeter on the brink between misery and a good time. The night turned out beautifully. A starry sky, stars, jungle sounds, and the dead calm sleep of exhaustion. We awoke to a breakfast of smoked catfish and a fresh rinse from the rainwater collected in my tarp. Compared to the night before, the ride back to Annai was a dream.
Dan and Bryan dig into breakfast
very cool shot of a jumping spider who'd snatched up a bee
the ride back to Annai - the fishing hole far behind near the base of Mt. Makarapan
I had no job, no income, no jeep, no home. But I was free and in company of some wonderful people. I spent the next 2 months visiting the friends I had made across the savannas and exploring little corners of village and wilderness alike. There is no place quite like the Rupununi to make one feel so bloody alive.