Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Kaieteur Overland Part 2

To read part 1 of this series, follow this link
Before I begin the second half of this journal, I’m gonna quickly describe our party.

There were ten of us as guests: Derek and Trudy (VSO in my community), Michelle Kinsella (VSO in Georgetown), Jason and Abby (VSO in Georgetown), Nicole (VSO in Georgetown), Matt (Abby’s brother), Tom and Nareesa (Canadian couple on vacation), and myself.  

Our Guyanese tour guide was named Kurt.  Our trail guides were John (nicknamed Solider) and his family.  Soldier is also the captain of the Amerindian tribe in Kaieteur National Park and, therefore, has governing powers over the use of the land and whether or not outsiders are welcome in.  Soldier and his family took very good care of us and they were great about answering all the questions we had.

September 30, 2009

I spent this Wednesday morning on a field of rocks dividing the Potaro River into two slow moving streams.  After watching the morning unfold, I joined everyone else for breakfast.  Matt found a black scorpion about four and a half inches in length in his bag.  It crawled onto his arm and I’m guessing he shook it off because he didn’t get stung.  One of Soldier’s sons, David, removed the scorpion’s stinger with his sandal and decided to show it around like a proud zoologist displaying his latest addition to the insect house.  That morning we were also charmed by the enticing songs of the “Sweet Man’s Bird” and saw an incredibly large spider having breakfast on a tiger bromeliad.

On the walk to the next camp, we stopped at the edge of a near dried tributary bed.  It was littered with giant, pink, sand stone boulders.  We dropped our packs, took off our shoes, and hiked up the small riverbed until we reached its waterfall, about half a mile in.  It was a tall cliff (approx. 40 ft.) with just a few streams falling from the cliff’s edge.  We bathed under the falls and a few of us climbed up the face of the cliff.  When it began to rain, we crouched under the boulders for shelter.  It became VERY slippery from the wet moss.  The cool shower turned those pink boulders into deep shades of crimson and brown and the smell of the sun-baked stone lifted from our feet and made me think of playing in the rain on an asphalt street as a child.  After the shower let up, we headed back down to where our packs were and continued on our way.  There was absolutely no one around for miles.  We were hiking in one of the most remote and untouched places in the world.

As the day moved on, we met our hike’s end at a magnificent white sand beach.  After setting up camp, we bathed at its river’s edge at yet another giant pool tucked neatly next to the slow and wide moving Potaro.  Due to our early arrival, we took the time to wash our clothes and enjoy the beauty and serenity of the afternoon.  This would be our last camp before the hike to the falls.  Our camp had hornets everywhere.  Hundreds buzzed and hovered around us.  They seemed to move as solitary individuals, digging holes in the ground by the hundreds like a dog burying his bone.  They did not sting us or swarm at all but provided a constant buzzing symphony as background noise to accompany our wonderful evening playing Cricket, having dinner, and finally, playing a game of password.  In a way, we and the hornets shared the same land for some hours symbiotically.

That night we had a delicious meal: potato curry and pumpkin curry with rice and pepper (the hot kind).  There were no clouds in sight and the moon was near full.  At some point in the middle of the night I got up to use the latrine.  I walked out from under our sleeping quarters and entered a new world filled with bright, white, moon light.  The low droning of hornets had disappeared and was replaced by the low, guttural sighs of howler monkeys in the distant tree line.  The sand was, again, as white as Antarctic snow and seemed to radiate light more than the moon above me.  I ended up walking around the camp site for about twenty minutes before returning to my hammock.

Thursday morning started early.  I had just enough time to bathe, pack, and eat breakfast before we all left on the last day of hiking.  Walking with all our belongings, we headed for the foot of the mountain ridge that holds Kaieteur’s namesake.  Our hike lasted a little over two hours with stops every now and again to re-energize and rest.  It was very humid and hot and all of our clothes were drenched within the first ten minutes of our trek.  There were two inclines Soldier prepared us for which he appropriately named Oh My God 1 and Oh My God 2.

When we reached the top of the mountain, it was about 11am and we were all pretty excited to finally reach the finish line.  We hiked the ridge line for about fifteen minutes before emerging from the forest.  What opened before us was a clearing that resembled an asphalt plateau salt and peppered with shrubs, trees, and giant bromeliads.  It felt like we had entered Jurassic Park (see link – Mt. Roraima) as we put our packs down on the ground.  What looked like asphalt was actually a combination of lime stone and granite covered with a thin layer of algae.  Since it is the dry season, the algae lays dormant until the rainy season comes and turns the prehistoric parking lot we were standing on into a wet and super slippery place.  Good for us it was the dry season because there were moments when a few of us slipped on wet rocks near the falls.

Soldier and his family took us to three separate viewing points each bringing us little closer to the main event.  From each point, we took time to soak in the incredible panorama before us and snap some photos.  Aside from these impressive vistas, other highlights included seeing blue and yellow macaws, parrots, chicken hawks, and a Peregrine falcon.
We arrived at the Kaieteur guest house just after midday to set our packs down, prepare our sleeping corners, and have some lunch.  That’s when potential catastrophe struck in the most unpredictable way – as it has a notorious reliability of doing.  Since there were over ten of us, we all had to find places to hang our hammocks in one, giant living room.  And, it’s this point in my story that I have to describe this room to you

Most windows in Guyana are louvered glass slats sometimes constructed in double sets within a window frame (so, imagine two sets of louvered windows in a frame separated by a vertical piece of wood). 

Our tour guide, Kurt, decided to tie one of the ends of his hammock around the wooden window divider next to where all my gear was.  At the same time as I was rummaging through my back pack, Kurt had finished his knots and decided to settle into his hammock for a snooze.  Kurt is six feet tall and weighs only 130 lbs., and the next thing I heard was a deafening crash. Thinking the roof was caving in on all of us my instincts kicked in and I dashed away from the noise looking up to see that the roof had actually not caved in at all.  Startled and surprised that there wasn’t metal and wood tumbling down on me I looked around to see if anyone else was injured. Due to the flight reaction, I had failed to process what my eyes had just witnessed: shards of glass raining on me from the two windows that had ultimately imploded from Kurt’s seemingly harmless 130 lb. ass.  So, I took a deep breath and warily checked myself out.  Turns out, my elbow wasn’t as fast as the rest of my body and was now bleeding on the guest house floor. Cursing under my breathe I walked briskly to the kitchen and started relaying orders to anyone listening.

“Uh, I need, ummmmm, things, I NEED THINGS PEOPLE!” my brain kicked in and told me, “You idiot, you don’t need things, you need: clean water, bactine fluid, gloves, gauze, a needle and thread, butterfly strips, band aids, and you need a shot of RUM!”

Thankfully, Michelle and Nareesa (who both have medical experience) were quick on their feet and had heard me relay my list of first aid necessities spewing out of my mouth.  We started tending to the wound (which wasn’t severe), and I tried to keep my thinking brain from thinking.  But, as you know, Christopher Olin always over analyzes.  A chair came out of nowhere and I sat down while we all went to work.  

At this point, Nareesa had gloves on and was probing my gash for loose glass and saying, “Oh, that’s definitely gonna need stitches.”

“Shit,” I thought to myself, “Just what I need in the middle of freaking nowhere.” And the neuroses begin pushing the panic button.

No stitches were with us, only butterfly strips that I put in my bag in a fleeting decision before leaving my house in Bartica – thank my lucky stars.

“Hey guys, I brought some water over,” said Kurt, appearing from the background and trying his best not to look guilty.

“Woa, woa, woa, Kurt!  You can’t pour that water from the river on his wound, it’s not clean!” exclaimed Michelle who reached out, last minute, to block Kurt standing with a pitcher full of brown-tinted water. I just rolled my head back as the cloudy whiteness of shock kicked in and my thoughts tried to keep me sharp.

“You idiot.  You can’t pass out now, what would everyone think?  Especially if you need stitches, you are already going to have to be flown out of here and someone will have to accompany you AND IT’S NOT GOING TO BE KURT. Pull yourself together, you are sweating all over the chair and making a mess.  Aren’t you a Peace Corps volunteer?  You are disappointing me right now, you know that?”

I was more worked up about the idea of inconveniencing everyone and ruining the rest of this trip by needing stitches and passing out that I was actually in shock and passing out!  So I asked for a glass of water and for the girls to talk to me.  I became embarrassed and started to force random thoughts like swimming in my neighbor’s pool, or baseball, or anything one thinks about to get the mind off of fear.

In about three minutes, I came back, full force with lucidity and dripping in cold sweat.  Then I experienced what I can only describe as an intense and warm euphoria from the adrenaline, endocrine, serotonin, or whatever had been released.  It was a really awesome and enjoyable moment and I really didn’t care about anything else aside from the chemicals swimming around in my body.  I was high.

Needless to say, I was successfully patched up and wrapped up without the need for stitches (which I definitely would have gotten had I been at a hospital). I then headed back to that shoddy window to deliver my full arsenal of expletives.  It was about 2pm, and while walking the fifty feet down to the falls, I reassured everyone else I was ok and laughed about the series of events that had happened in my brain.  What a trip.

At around 4:30pm, we were all still standing or sitting near the falls.  The water had this hypnotizing effect on me – enough so that my injury had lost all real estate in my conscious mind and I was as happy as a clam. Thousands of swallows then began to swarm above us.  For the next 2 hours, they congregated in the sky above the falls, began breaking off in smaller flocks, and then dove down and swooped up behind the falls to perch on the concave rock behind the water.  Standing on a triangular rock overhang about 20 feet from the falls, we were surrounded by these small, dive-bombing birds; it was like something out of a nature program with just a hint of Hitchcock’s The Birds.  I stood in awe and wonder at them.  They must have some particular reason for entering their evening home in this way, whether to help navigate through the winds generated by the force of all that falling water, to avoid other predators who may use this time of day as opportunity to hunt, or simply to enjoy one last thrill of being a bird before settling down for an evening’s rest.  Whatever the case, my captivation from the falls expanded out to these swallows as the sun set.

The evening for us may not have been as thrilling as it was for the swallows, but it certainly was enjoyable.  In the guest house, we ate fantastically cooked fish and potato curry prepared by Soldier and his family and drank rum while playing a card game called Pig.  At around 9pm, the moon was highest in the sky and we all decided to walk down to the rock overhang to watch the falls under a full moon and stars.  But, what we found instead was something more incredible. 
After a full day of sun, equatorial humidity and a few quick showers, a rainforest will absorb an enormous amount of moisture.  After the sun sets and night time settles in, the atmosphere above a rain forest cools, allowing the sun-baked earth and all that moisture in the jungle to escape back into the evening sky.

Approaching the falls, we were all shocked at the site before us: giant plumes of water vapour in the form of small clouds rising up from bosom of the gorge, naturally-constructed by Kaieteur Falls.  This million-year-old erosion must create its own mini-weather pattern every night as the rainforest exhales most of the water it takes in every day.  Like a long and uninterrupted yawn, we watched Kaieteur manufacture cloud after cloud like some factory in Pittsburgh industriously pumping out submarine after submarine for father Kremlin.  There were points when we were on our rock ledge and couldn’t see each other sitting five feet away.  I could never have predicted an experience like those swallows, let alone this silent and tranquil exchange of water – the most important material in Earth’s production of life.  Well, I tell you, it was hard to top that evening’s end.  Fortunately, the next day had just as astonishing surprises awaiting us. 

On Friday, we had until 3pm to explore the falls and its surrounding area before our plane took off for Georgetown. And what we explored, amongst many other things, were these little, golden frogs that Soldier’s son, George, showed us.  As I have mentioned before, the vegetation surrounding the falls has an eerie prehistoric feel to it as there are species of plants and animals living there that exist nowhere else on the planet.  The golden frogs we gazed at live in giant, 6-10 foot bromeliads their entire lives, making their homes in the reservoirs of water that collect at the base of each bromeliad frond (sort of like where an artichoke leaf grows from its heart).  The frogs are as small as your fingernail and carry an extremely powerful toxin on their skin.  To me, they are just another phenomenal representation of the way evolution can create life in the most obscure environments.

After lunch, ice cold beer, and a resentful, yet respectful “adieu” to my favourite window in the Kaieteur guest house, we walked to the airstrip and boarded our plane back to civilization.  The flight was just as captivating as any other part of our trip because we flew right over the falls low enough to retrace every place we explored.  After that, we were able to look down and see all the ground we covered on our hikes and boat rides (ballpark figure: maybe 175 miles).  We looked out at hundreds of miles upon hundreds of miles of untouched green carpet covering Guyana’s interior.  Then we passed over Bartica and I was able to pick out all the places I know as if using Google Earth to take a glance at some far off city or the back yard of my home in California.

It was an incredible trip that had all sorts of affects on me.  I realize that this trip signifies a part of why I am here, in Guyana, of all places.  I have had a lot of time to spend on self-reflection, inner growth, and what my identity as an American is.  Kaieteur was not only amazing for its sites, liveliness, and tranquillity; it was also amazing because there are hardly any humans living and visiting this special place.  There were no droves of tourists, no fences stopping us from walking out and on top of the falls, nor any authority telling us what we could and could not do.  There were only our personal constructs towards nature (keeping morals in check, of course), the bare necessities for lodging, and a full and open experience of one of Earth’s most uninhabited places.  It is a must adventure for anyone who has enjoyed reading this entry.

Link to my photo album - click here
Link to Naressa and Tom's photo album - click here

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