South America: It’s Like America, but South

With all due respect to Ellie from Pixar’s ‘Up’, it really isn’t.

To refer to Guyana as part of South America, is almost incorrect. Guyana is an anomaly in that it is the only English speaking country on the continent and relates itself more with the Caribbean than South America. In Canada, folks from Saskatchewan move to Alberta, and Albertans move to Vancouver. In Guyana, people from the interior move to Georgetown, and people in Georgetown move to Trinidad! Guyana is thus better thought of an island. And island whose more remote locations are more reminiscent of Africa than typical America.

Karanambu is a piece of land just over a hundred square miles in size, located in the heart of Guyana. It is a two hour boat ride south of Rock View and gets its name from the volcanic rock formations on its river bank. ‘Karanambu’ is the Makushi word for “Carib warriors turned to stone”. This concession of land belongs to Diane McTurk and is the location where she carried out her work with the Giant River Otters. Diane is basically to otters what Jane Goodall is to chimpanzees. In a lot of ways, Karanambu is the opposite of Rock View. The guest houses are very basic. As Diane explained, when she designed them, she had no idea how to architect a building, so they were inspired by how children draw houses – four walls in a rectangle, and a triangle roof. Here, there are mosquitos and bugs everywhere. Bats (and their droppings) are all over the guest rooms. The lodge is nothing more than a few simple buildings thrown up over a dusty piece of land, but it’s perfect.

Volcanic Rocks

Volcanic Rocks

The atmosphere here is what makes Karanambu great. Salvador and Andrea, who picked up and moved from New York to manage the place, are incredibly warm, inclusive and supply the ‘rum punch’ attitude to everything that happens here. In addition to other staff, Diane McTurk still makes her home here and interacts with the guests whenever she can. In her later years now, I was blessed with more than my fair share of time to talk with Diane about otters, the land, and what travel was like sixty years ago. She truly is the matriarch, not only of Karanambu, but of conservationism and tourism in Guyana.

With Diane McTurk

With Diane McTurk

The experience at Karanambu was finally the contrast to the safaris I had in Africa. Our first activity was an afternoon boat trip on the Rupununi and its associated tributaries and ponds. In addition to finally getting some sun, I finally saw my first land mammals. As we sat still in the boat, a family of about a dozen squirrel monkeys jumped from tree to tree along one bank, crossed the river, and back up the opposite bank. Since the clouds had now mostly cleared up, we sipped rum punch in the boat and watched the sun set over the forest. Very similar to an African safari, some of the best wildlife spotting is done at night. So along the way back to the lodge, Salvador amazingly located tree snakes no thicker than my thumb just by using an ordinary flash light. He had spotted something in the brush just before we got back and as I sat there trying to make out the lizard or bird I thought we had paused to see, my mind must have subconsciously gone back to Africa. Suddenly a large golden-yellow creature appeared from the trees and was visible in a small clearing. I immediately thought, “It’s a lion!” Luckily logic took over before anything came out of my mouth, and Salvador simultaneously informed us that what I was looking at was a Capybara. In all, there were three of them and even though I came in knowing they are the world’s largest rodent, now that I’ve seen them I can honestly say that they are mucking fassive!

Sunset

Sunset

In the morning we set out in search of a Giant Anteater. These creatures don’t actually have any natural predators and in fact have been known to kill jaguars! As a result, they do not fear human interaction and can be habituated quite easily. So while it would be simple and humane to keep anteaters at the lodge for guests to see, half the fun is getting in the back of a Land Rover and going to find them. Very similar to an African safari, we set off just before sunrise and off-roaded all over the endless savannah. Unlike in Africa however, here we had help. Ahead of us were two vaqueros, two Guyanese cowboys on horseback that radioed in to our truck when they had found an anteater. True to form, we got the call, and as we drove to meet up with them, the sight of two men on horseback following an anteater seemed comically surreal. The individual they were following was a juvenile that had just been dropped from its mother’s back (Giant Anteaters carry their young for about a year). As a result, it was a bit shy, but still came very close and satisfied its curiosity with us human visitors.

Anteater

Anteater

That evening we headed out at dusk to watch the Victoria Amazonica flower bloom. We went to a place called Buffalo Pond and the origin of the name goes to prove I’m not overdoing it with the African similarities. The story goes that some time in the 1940s, an experiment was conducted where some South African animals were brought over by boat to see if they could survive in the South American savannah. During their journey up the Rupununi River, a pair of Cape Buffaloes jumped off the vessel and disappeared into the jungle. The pair bred, and now a small population of African water buffalo lives in the middle of Guyana!

As we sat there, the Arapima fish briefly came to the surface. Not enough to actually see the fish themselves, but just a quick splash and the ripple effect on the pond. Unimpressive, but staggering to think that there were dozens of these fish, that are known to reach 7 feet and 300 pounds, just below the surface! With lily pads that can reach up to two meters in diameter, it’s an impressive sight to see an entire pond with giant lily pads from shore to shore. Tiny frogs jump from pad to pad and uses their louder than life voice. It took over an hour to see any kind of blooming action, but at the very least I can now say that I’ve seen sunset over a giant lily pond and have watched a flower bloom. Sometimes it’s nice just to sit and watch Mother Nature. It’s been said before, but it’s true: Every rock and tree and creature has a life, has a spirit, has a name.

Lily pads

Lily pads

On our final morning in the interior, we said our goodbyes to Diane, Salvador, Andrea and the other guests. We were taken to the pebbled airstrip with its thatch-roofed bench and watched as the same 12 seater Cessna came to collect us. As we took off, our hosts, as well as some of the locals, were standing on the tallest hill they could find and waved goodbye. It was the perfect send off from such a pristine and special place.

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