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Lost land of the Jaguar

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1 January 2008 by Pete Mathers

Though trumpeted by a 1930s guidebook as ‘a land of promise for the youth of the Empire’, Guyana has stayed largely off-radar. Now thanks in part to a BBC film crew, travellers are discovering it’s an eco-adventurer’s paradise. “Travel north from the Amazon and you’ll find another jungle, a true wilderness, its interior uncharted, its animals uncatalogued – Guyana. If you think the world has been explored, think again.”

So began the BBC’s three-part documentary, Lost Land of the Jaguar, aired in the summer – an orgy of wildlife-rich landscapes, jaguars, giant otters, anacondas, harpy eagles and terrifying bird-eating spiders. Eighteen Brits, including naturalists, mountaineers, cameramen and sound recordists, were accompanied by Guyanese boatmen and Amerindian trackers as they searched for hidden species in the unexplored jungle. Those of us watching at home – well anyone with an appetite for adventure, wildlife or eco-tourism – were left staring in disbelief. What was this mysterious Promised Land?

Guyana sits on the shoulder of South America, between Suriname and Venezuela, occupying a space about the size of Britain. The 750,000-strong population is clustered along the coast, leaving the country’s interior a wide, beautiful and practically untouched expanse of jungle, savannah and cattle ranches. In fact, about 85% of Guyana is pure rainforest, only accessible by riverboat and plane.

British visitors needn’t worry about language problems either, since English is the official language. A legacy of British colonial rule has left strong links with the Caribbean, a fanatical love of cricket and an easy-going mix Black, Indian, Creole, Amerindian and other ethnicities, all of whom speak with an endearing, molasses-thick accent.

A decade ago, with a socialist government in place, Lost Land of the Jaguar would never have been made. Today, however, officials in the capital Georgetown are keen to tap the benefits of nature-based tourism. President Bharrat Jagdeo has asked Britain to support him in combating climate change by preserving his country’s rainforest. And already, in the Amerindian village of Surama, 60% of income is generated by visitors – impressive proof that eco-tourism can be a force for good. Channelling that force has been Wilderness Explorers, Guyana’s leading tour operator, offering soft, mild and hard adventure options for green-minded travellers. Its Guyana Nature Experience itinerary, listed in ‘The World’s 25 Wildest New Trips of 2005’ by National Geographic Adventure, is a wonderful way to see the country’s highlights at an easy and relaxed pace.

The number one attraction is Kaieteur Falls, which at 740ft is the world’s tallest singledrop waterfall. Thirty-five thousand gallons pour over its lip every second, while all around precipitous sandstone peaks jut up from the rainforest floor. Despite its jaw-dropping beauty, Kaieteur remains almost entirely unspoilt. The eerie roar of red howler monkeys echoes about the valley, tiny golden frogs peek out from giant pineapple plants, and if you’re lucky, you may catch sight of the luridly orange cock-of-the-rock bird, or see the flights of the Kaieteur swifts, which nest behind the curtain of relentlessly falling water.

The chance to spot jaguar is an obvious draw, though even in the Iwokrama Forest, where numbers are high, sightings are not guaranteed. But big cat or not, there’ll be plenty to see on the wildlife front. On the Burro Burro River watch out for giant otters, tapir, tira, spider monkeys, orangewinged parrots and Amazon kingfishers. The savannah is home to giant anteaters, and its open spaces are cowboy country. A ride with the local vaqueros (cowboys who ride barefoot, stirrups held between big and second toes) is an experience not to be missed. Then, where the savannah meets the forest-clothed foothills of the Pakaraima Mountains, keep an eye out for armadillo, as well as ocelot, agouti, capybara and peccary, the latter still hunted with bows and arrows by the locals.

Whatever your tally of wildlife, a guaranteed pleasure is the forest itself. You’ll fly above the canopy for hours seeing nothing but a patchwork of green crisscrossed by rivers. Equally impressive views can be had from the summits of Turtle and Surama Mountains, though neither require strenuous climbs. For a monkey’s eye view, you can’t beat the Iwokrama canopy walkway, a series of suspension bridges 100ft up in the treetops.

Of particular interest is the chance to meet Diane McTurk, widely known for her work in rehabilitating giant river otters and returning them to the wild. Her family home is the Karanambu Ranch on the Rupununi River, an area thought remote by Guyanan standards. Hearing her stories, even helping her tend to any resident orphaned otters, is undoubtedly a highlight of the trip. And as you cruise along the river, passing giant-sized lilies and looking out for black caiman, there’s every chance yours will be the only boat on the water.

Guyana needs tourists to help protect its rainforest, yet it’s the startling lack of visitors that adds to its allure. When Evelyn Waugh visited in 1932, he spoke of a ‘journey of the greatest misery’. Though things have improved since then – with comfortable lodges set in tropical gardens, infinitely knowledgeable tour guides and eco-conscious operators like Wilderness Explorers – Guyana remains gloriously obscure and mysterious; an ideal choice for the traveller with pluck.

Tailormade holidays:
Latin American specialist Clare Plummer visited Guyana with Wilderness Explorers in 2006. Call her on 020 7838 5966 or email your enquiry to [email protected].

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