Trip report: The Rupununi, Guyana
The Rupununi region of Guyana is famed for the abundance, and size, of its animals. Dom Tait goes searching for big beasts, but finds it's the little things that linger in the memory.
It was early morning on the Rupununi river, and Guyana's monsters had woken up. As our small boat followed the water's meanders, a black caiman, the largest member of the alligator family, eyed us up and then sank into the murky water. A pair of jabiru storks, the tallest flying birds in South America, stood sentry on the riverside before putting their prodigious white wings to flight. Arapaima, torpedo-shaped fish that can grow over two metres long, regularly breached the surface with thunderous splashes.
The river gives its name to the wider region: the Rupununi. I was in southern Guyana, specifically in the 125 square miles of wetland and savannah owned by Karanambu Lodge, a pioneering eco-tourism centre just a 45-minute Cessna ride away from the country's capital. The window of that Cessna provided a view of its untouched, untrammeled grassland, a stunning contrast to the heavily forested mountain ranges that flank the region, the Iwokrama to the north and Kanuku to the south. Still further south lies the northern fringes of the Amazon. The Rupununi river, which winds through the region before joining the larger Essequibo, is the main draw for the area's 105 species of mammal and 500 species of bird.
And early morning offered a glimpse of this wildlife at its busiest. The river was alive with movement, colour and sound. Around each bend lay a new surprise, from a noisy bunch of ani – a large bird of the cuckoo family – to a group of black skimmers, graceful birds that use their vivid orange bills to hoover up any unwitting creatures beneath the water's surface. Next we saw a sunbittern camouflaged amid the riverside's twisted roots. You can be forgiven for thinking the bird rather extravagantly named when its wings aren't spread, but my group was lucky – this one stretched out to display a dazzling mixture of yellows, reds and blacks in a pattern straight from an Incan mural.
Yet the Rupununi region is perhaps most well known for the prodigious size of its animals, and on my trip it didn't disappoint. We watched as a pair of capybara, the world's largest rodent, cautiously picked their way through the dense greenery on the water's edge. They didn't linger for long, unsurprisingly so since jaguars roam these parts, and soon merged back into the verdant vegetation.
We headed further downriver, all senses alert. The nose worked first: a sharp whiff of scat. Then our guide pointed out markings on the river bank signalling the “play area” of one of the Rupununi's superstars – the giant river otter. One had to be nearby. We waited, the humidity and our silence adding to the sense of tension. Then, without warning, a head popped up. A “water dog” had come to investigate our boat. The playful carnivores can reach nearly six feet in length, and are strong enough even to overcome one of the plentiful arapaima. We watched as ours, streamlined and sinewy, arrowed through the water around us. It paused, sized up the boat's passengers, then raced off in search of fresh adventures.
That there are otters in the region at all is largely thanks to the efforts of Diane McTurk, the owner of Karanambu Lodge. She has dedicated her life to the cause, rehabilitating orphaned otters whose parents have fallen to habitat loss or poaching. Estimates suggest there are less than 5,000 left in the world, but this river at least had a healthy population.
In 1997, McTurk founded the Karanambu Trust with the aim of ensuring some of the Rupununi's pristine habitat remained protected. Her lodge was opened up to eco-tourism, with five guest cabins for those willing to visit a country that's yet to establish itself as a tourist hotspot. Such bountiful wildlife has inspired further resorts in the Rupununi, with the staff at Karanambu helping local Amerindians to create their own.
At the lodge I was treated as family, with all meals taken together, a touch that created a sense of community between me and my fellow travellers. Even in the grounds there was interesting wildlife. On the edge of the property, I was called over to take a look at a bullet ant. It would have been removed upon trespassing further, and for good reason: the insect is reputed to have the most painful sting in the animal kingdom. Its name is inspired by how victims describe the sensation; all things considered I gave it plenty of space. Meanwhile, at night I listened to the bats that called my eaves home – unsettling at first, but over three evenings their soft fluttering made for a benign companion. I even excused the specimen that eyeballed me guiltily after blundering into my bed's mosquito net.
On my second morning, we took to a 4x4 to find out what animals stalk the vast grasslands. Wrens and flycatchers darted around as the Rupununi's smaller creatures seized their chance to shine, but the main draw was another of the big beasts – the giant anteater. Our guide had received word that one had been spotted nearby, so we drove in hushed anticipation.Despite their size, spotting anteaters is not easy – they are capable of blending in so well with their surroundings that even our guide admitted to occasionally mistaking the odd blackened tussock for the real thing. But our party was in luck. Two vaqueros from a nearby farm had found one out on the prowl. We stopped the car and jumped out for a closer look. It was over six feet long from slender nose through greyish, willowy body to thick, bushy tail. A mohican of hair rose up across its body in the wind, increasing its size still further. The charismatic animal seemed unfazed by our presence, raising its great head to catch the scent of a promising termite mound. Finally it tired of us, turning with a great swish of its tail and stalking off. We returned to the lodge to enthuse about our sighting with another group. They in turn had made a discovery at the other end of the scale – a pygmy anteater, a tiny bundle of fur weighing less than a pound.
The river changed every day. Each trip was different. There was simply no telling which animals we would spot, only that they would be many and varied. But there was one guarantee: every evening, the spectacular Victoria Amazonica would bloom. This flower is, naturally, the largest species of water lily, and there are hundreds of them at Crane Pond, one of the region's must-see locations. A little before dusk, our guide manoeuvred the boat towards a magical stretch of water surrounded by trees, dotted with anhinga and caracara, and strewn with lily pads larger than car wheels. Bobbing around were vast unopened lilies, perhaps the size of my two bunched fists.
The light faded and all across the pond, the lilies slowly unfurled. Over 30 to 40 minutes, night fell and the water instead became lit by brilliant white petals, each flower over a foot wide. Suddenly a beetle appeared, dive-bombing into its centre. Then another, and a third. We lost track when they reached double figures, but our guide said he had counted 100 of the pollinators in a single flower. It was a surreal, but unforgettable sight.
My next trip, on the third morning, was on foot. I was visiting in October, in the dry season, and the experience would be very different if not – river levels can rise 30ft in the wet season, with 15 inches of rain the norm in each of June and July. We trekked to trees near the water's edge to reach the lek of a resident capuchinbird – and, more importantly, to listen to it in action. After a short hike, our guide pointed out this brown-orange oddity, the size of a jay but resembling a shrunken vulture. But if its appearance was strange, nothing could prepare me for the capuchinbird's extraordinary cry, which it unleashed through the morning air in the hope of luring a mate. The two-tone call is sometimes compared to a chainsaw and a cow mooing, although if anything that underplays it. My best take, after listening to the audio I took seemingly dozens of times? Imagine an exhaled snore followed by a burst of electronica – an air raid siren as played by Kraftwerk.
There was still time for one more evening trip before I left, so we headed back to the boat. Entwined in branches, an emerald tree boa lay deathly still near the waterside as we navigated the Rupununi river's twists and turns. Our guide reached a spot he knew and then killed the motor. The last of the sunlight faded away. The birdsong had ended for the day, while the frogs were yet to pick up the night shift. It was blissfully quiet, but not destined to stay that way.
Suddenly, the peace was broken by a troop of squirrel monkeys, chattering, bickering and heading for the palm tree directly in front of us. A good half-dozen of them, flashes of grey and orange, leapt into its branches and continued their conversation, but as darkness descended and we resorted to torchlight, it became clear that they were wrapping themselves into the tree to bed down for the night. Their talk died down, they fell still, and they slept. Bearing such close witness felt an incredible privilege. We returned to shore, thrilled, then headed to the lodge for dinner, disturbingly drinkable rum punch and another evening of stories shared about the things we've seen.
COST RATING: 3/5
SAMPLE PACKAGE TOUR: Caribbean Sun (www.caribbean-sun.com) offers three days and two nights at Karanambu Lodge, including interior flights and all meals and activities, starting from £614.
GETTING THERE: Caribbean Airlines (www.caribbean-airlines.com) is your quickest way into Guyana. They will take you from Gatwick to Georgetown's Cheddi Jagan airport via one stop in Trinidad. Prices start from £715. The majority of other airlines add a further stop in the USA. The time difference is GMT-4 hours.
VISA REQUIREMENTS: UK visitors to Guyana do not require a visa. There will be a departure tax from Georgetown's international airport of $20 (about £12.50).
TIPS AND WARNINGS: Although you can reach the Rupununi region by road or river, air travel is by far the quickest method. If you are travelling independently, get your reservations in early: the operator, Trans-Guyana Airways, offers two flights per day and planes have little more than a dozen seats. Also be aware that you will need a different airport, Ogle, for interior flights from Georgetown. This is a surprisingly long drive away from the international airport.
It is recommended that you have vaccinations for hepatitis A, typhoid and yellow fever, while you must have proof of yellow fever vaccination if you are travelling from a country which has a risk of the disease. Prophylaxis for malaria should also be sought.
A trip to Guyana will doubtless involve time spent in Georgetown, where crime is high and police presence low. Conceal your valuables and try to avoid walking around at night. For an idea of the risks, see www.gov.uk
WHEN TO GO: Visitors during the Rupununi's dry season (peak months: December and January) can expect a very different experience to those coming in the wet season (peak months: June and July). Water levels can vary by 20 to 30 feet between the two. Each have their attractions, with the wet season enabling boats to reach nesting birds, while the dry season leaves far more tracks and roads passable. Biting insects are more of an irritation in the wet season.
TOURS OF SOUTH AMERICA, Tel: 0800 098 8546
EVERGREEN ADVENTURES, Tel: (592) 222-8053
CARIBBEAN SUN, Tel: (001473) 444 4717