Giant spiders and harpy eagles: discovering the jungles of Guyana

The interior of this South American nation is a natural kingdom presided over by giant spiders and armoured fish, but in its eco-lodges and villages, indigenous Amerindian communities are navigating a new era in the development of their wilderness.Wednesday, 26 February 2020

As our turboprop plane navigates a corridor of puffy clouds, Guyana’s Atlantic coast is exchanged for an infinite sea of green. Along with seven others, I’m high above this one-time British colony, heading deep into its vast interior. Below, varicose rivers channel brown water through the jungle. There are no roads, no towns, no farms. The only hints of human impact are the occasional ugly gouges along riverbanks — the remnants of gold mines. Thankfully, those man-made scars are a miniscule part of this colossal, riotous whole.

We’re heading to Rewa, one of Guyana’s most remote villages, close to the western border with Brazil. From a dusty airstrip, we transfer to motorised canoes, then continue down the Essequibo River to Rewa Eco-Lodge. We only left our hotel in the Guyanese capital, Georgetown, a few hours ago but the modern world already feels very far away.

Built in 2005 and run entirely by the local Amerindian community, the eco-lodge accommodation is rustic but comfortable. In the two days I’m here, I find four frogs hiding in my toilet and three lizards on the walls. One of the other guests is joined in his cabin by a pink-toed tarantula (as much as I love wildlife, I’d understand if he kept one eye open at night). I have no such problems, the distant, dread calls of howler monkeys making for a curious lullaby.

For those living this remotely, the Rewa and Essequibo Rivers are vital transport networks — essential highways through the untamed jungle. For us foreigners, they’re our primary routes for excursions into the wild. 

The following day, we head downriver for around an hour, powerful engines shooting us across the smooth surface at an electric clip. These boats have revolutionised travel for this community, allowing them to transport goods and people with far greater efficiency than their old dug-out canoes. That’s not to say they’re perfect — after a bug hits me on the shoulder with the force of a paintball, I spend the rest of my journey with my mouth closed and sunglasses on. 

As we race along the river, ringed kingfishers and white-tipped swallows match our pace, following us like jets accompanying a jumbo. We also spot yellow-billed terns and scarlet macaws. Time seems to slow when the massive wings of a startled cocoi heron gradually carry it aloft. Later, high in the canopy, we’ll see the great potoo, which sounds like a tribal leader but is actually a small, nocturnal, owl-like bird.

This is the sort of environment that can make a twitcher of the most avian-averse visitor. There are over 1,000 bird species in the sprawling, 883,400sq mile area of northeast South America known as the Guiana Shield, from the lethal harpy eagle to hummingbirds so fast and tiny as to seem imagined. However, on this trip we’re to meet one of their mortal enemies: the goliath birdeater spider. 

We disembark at what looks, to my untrained eyes, like a random spot in the jungle. In fact, half-an-hour’s walk from here, researchers found a thriving population of these tarantulas and they have now become an unlikely visitor attraction. In reality, the spiders only rarely attempt to eat birds, but they’re the world’s heaviest arachnid and generally enjoy life in the jungle unmolested by any other creature. 

We plunge into the green, daylight fading as the silent river is left behind, humidity tightening around us like a boa constrictor. Our guide, Vivian, moves with the swiftness of a man native to this environment, while I stumble around like a drunkard in a library.

As well as the unending worry of stepping on one of the spiders, my eyes feel overwhelmed by my surroundings. Some of the larger trees are being inexorably devoured by termites, with ghost leaves hanging from dying boughs. There are spiny palms that could easily cut open my arms and burrowing ticks hanging from sticks, eager to feast on the next passing beast. There are more benign sights, too — mosses, ferns, vines, roots, fungi, new growth, old growth, some things withering, many more thriving — but it certainly feels hostile to me, and fitting that this kingdom should be ruled by giant spiders.

Eventually, we find one of these fat terrors outside its nest, its green-black form seeming to drain what little light is piercing the canopy. Perhaps exhausted after shedding its old skin, it’s in no mood to move. I’m in no mood for it to do so. As well as having a ferocious, poisonous bite, the goliath has the ability to shake loose hairs from its considerable legs, which can irritate the airways and skin of would-be predators. 

We take what photos we dare before returning to the river and I feel like I’ve come up for air after a dive that’s lasted a bit too long. From here, we’ll begin our journey back to the lodge, but en route, staff meet us on a large, sandy riverbank, where they set up tables and chairs so that we may dine under the stars. 

Lodge manager Dickie Alvin is there too and, while a fire is lit and the meal prepared, he talks to our group, a waxing moon illuminating him from on high. “In our first year, we had just one single visitor and the local community wondered what we were doing,” says Dickie, who’s been involved with the project since the start. “The next year, it was three, then suddenly we had 18 Americans visit at the same time. When the children from the village saw them, they ran away. I had to explain that they were
our friends.”

Rewa now attracts around 200 visitors a year (Dickie says he wouldn’t want that figure to exceed 400). This is thanks largely to its impressive roster of fauna: giant otters and jaguars, as well asthe extraordinary range of birds and disturbingly muscular spiders. Lagoons off the main river are also home to gigantic, endangered arapaimas, surface-breathing armoured fish that have been the focus of local conservation efforts.  

“People who come here from different countries love to see what we have,” explains Dickie. “Now our community understands how important our environment and resources are. The income helps our communities, especially the school.”

As Dickie is talking, I notice that the chefs preparing our dinner are cutting off bits of the sticks holding a large peacock bass above the fire. As the flames dwindle, they shorten the sticks, rather than add more fuel.

“I get asked if I want to expand, but more buildings, more boats, would maybe scare away the animals. In five years, we’d want the same number of rooms, but we do get offers from some companies,” Dickie says, sounding hesitant, and I briefly worry that the flames are a little too close.

Tides of change

At the 2.5-mile marker on the dusty road to Surama Eco-Lodge, there’s a sign that reads: ‘Development is a Human Right It Belongs to Every One’. Throughout the rest of my time in Guyana, I often find myself thinking of that sign, and not just because of the curious grammar.

Surama was one of the first eco-lodges in Guyana, and it’s often championed as an exemplar of the concept in these parts. During our visit, it’s receiving a major refurbishment of its main buildings — a telltale sign of how well-established it is. 

We head next to the nearby Makushi Cultural Village, originally built as part of a film set. Today, community leader Glendon Alicock, his extended family and a handful of adolescents from Surama village, use the place to demonstrate fast-fading Amerindian traditions. There’s no doubting the sincerity of their project, even if at times feels a little kitsch — the cultural displays include some singing and dancing, during which many of the embarrassed teenagers look like they, too, would like to shed their skin.

Later, while some of the youngsters grind cassava into flour, Glendon regales us with stories of killing a jaguar that had come into a family home, and explains from which birds his extraordinary headdress is assembled. “I’m a real child of the forest,” he says with unmistakable pride. “I was born out here, not in some sophisticated hospital.”

Glendon is content, too, he says, with how this cultural preservation project is going. “For a time, all of our grown youths were gone, but now these young ones have stayed,” he explains. “I think our culture is coming back now, and perhaps sharing it with the world will help.”

As I’m offered some barbecued tree grubs and a glass of local punch known as fly (“Drink too much and you’ll feel like you’re flying!”), Glendon offers some forthright opinions on organised religion and, in particular, language. Listening to him talk, it’s easy to sympathise with his concerns that English has steamrollered the Makushi tongue — and his annoyance at how many missionaries came here looking to sell the god business to people who’d survived millennia without it.

Yet, at least with language, there are some upsides, too. The nation being almost exclusively English-speaking adds an element of the uncanny for outsiders like me — the Amerindians of Guyana’s interior look ethnically similar to tribes deeper in the Amazon, yet speak with a soft, almost Caribbean lilt. This means discussing development and ecology requires no translation for one thing, but for another it allows them to follow international news to learn about threats to their environment.

Yet there are always temptations to give up some of what they have. Back at Rewa, inside the office of the toushao, or chief, Rudolph Edwards had explained that there have been offers over the years from Brazilian and Chinese mining and oil companies to develop the land. “We looked at what would happen and we were worried about the environment and our animals,” he said. “They proposed a road and a bridge, but we thought of the damage and so we said no. Yes, it would be good to get money in our pockets but in the long term the negatives would outweigh the positives.”

These foreign companies may well describe such work as development, but to the people of the Rewa region it would more obviously mean pollution. So far, the government in Georgetown has been supportive of its Amerindian population, a story not commonly repeated in other parts of the continent.

As it stands, the people of Rewa and Surama seem content to enjoy comparatively humble gains, welcoming controlled numbers of visitors while preserving what often feels like an Edenic environment. That’s not to say their lives are prehistoric — the internet has recently come to both villages. It was encouraging to hear people speak optimistically about improved connectivity. “It’s already improving things in terms of education, communication and messaging between us and the government,” Rudolph explained. “We aren’t really using it for fun or whatever.”

Internet, motorised canoes and solar power are just some of the ways in which life is changing in Guyana’s interior. But the focus seems to be on improving what they have, not mercilessly chasing profit. Development may or may not be a human right, but for now these communities are still able to interpret it as they wish.

The secrets of Kaieteur

As it turns out, the most striking interruption to Guyana’s great green expanse isn’t man-made at all. From another small plane, mighty Kaieteur Falls appears as a gorgeous tear in this infinite carpet of trees. 

The propellers have barely stopped spinning before we’re following a guide for 15 minutes along a narrow path, then emerging on a cliff edge, the giant waterfall waiting for us as it does for a few thousand visitors each year. If Guyana has anything that can be regarded as a tourist attraction, then Kaieteur is it. 

Dumping the Potaro River 741ft over its precipice, it’s the world’s largest single-drop waterfall by volume. There’s a near constant shimmer of rainbows jetting out of its beautiful belly. More than that, its mists breathe life into a yawning valley, sustaining everything from jaguars to tiny golden tree frogs that live their whole lives inside giant tank bromeliads.  

Despite how ludicrously photogenic it is, Kaieteur Falls is far from crowded. I’ve seen many of the world’s most famous waterfalls: squeezing in with the masses at Iguazu Falls, dodging selfie sticks at Niagara Falls, patiently waiting for bus groups to move out of the way at Iceland’s near-frozen Skógafoss. Within moments of seeing it, I realise that Kaieteur is indeed something special.

Aside from dropping your camera into its unguarded abyss, it’s hard to imagine how you could take a bad photo here and yet, during our visit, we’re the only people present. 

If the falls were all Kaieteur National Park had to offer, it’d still be absolutely worth the journey, but every night in the sky above, a colossal 20,000-strong flock of swifts gathers like a storm cloud. As more and more birds arrive, they seem to be waiting to reach a critical mass before plunging headlong towards Kaieteur like black rain. Their goal is their roost in a cave behind the watery curtain. 

On the night we’re there, just before the swifts begin this fraught ceremony, a red-breasted hawk begins a skulduggerous patrol beneath them, forcing them into a tight, black ball, like sardines being stalked by dolphins. 

In 2004, the brilliant — and strange — German filmmaker Werner Herzog released The White Diamond, a documentary largely shot on location in Guyana. Some of the most memorable scenes were captured around Kaieteur when the director’s on-site physician asked to be lowered over the edge to see where the swifts go.
As Herzog explained in his distinct cadence: “From the bottom of the falls, the gigantic cave is inaccessible and has resisted all attempts by explorers.” 

The director opted to send a camera over the edge too, so that the dangling doctor could reveal Kaieteur’s secrets. Yet, tantalisingly, he then opted not to include the footage in his final film. The physician — very much cut from Herzog’s profoundly weird cloth — said of the experience: “I had the feeling of weightlessness at the beginning and a sense of deep space, which ends in a black nothingness.”

Standing looking over this tremendous valley, I can understand the decision not to give away the mystery. It’s surely inevitable that Kaieteur Falls will soon begin to receive more visitors — this magnificent site can only be ignored for so long. The infrastructure will need to improve, even though any development will surely remove something of the organic thrill of seeing it so elementally raw today. 

Currently, the majority of visitors are day-trippers, taking an hour-long flight from Georgetown on small planes similar to ours, walking a set path along its edge, then leaving before sunset and the swifts’ daredevil display. There’s only one accommodation option: a battered cabin that looks one big rainy season away from collapse, although there are already plans for it to be replaced with something sturdier. It can only be hoped that development of this singular site is handled with as much care as Rewa and Surama.

What Guyana was, what it is and what it could be are all very different things. The ghosts of the colonial era may belong to Guyana’s past, and eco-tourism to its present and future, but Kaieteur is the nation’s constant. Whatever is to come, it’ll be there. It was flowing when the Union Jack was first raised in Georgetown in 1812 and in May 1966 when The Golden Arrowhead of Guyana replaced it. It was flowing when the first sugar cane was harvested along the Demerara River and it was flowing when the first hammocks were hung at Rewa Eco-Lodge. Guyana can, at times, be an unpredictable place, but there’s one certainty: Kaieteur Falls is flowing as you read this now.  

Essentials

Getting there & around

Fly via the Caribbean (usually Barbados) with Virgin or British Airways, changing to a LIAT or Caribbean Airlines plane to get to Georgetown, Guyana. Alternatively, fly via New York or Miami with American Airlines

Average flight time: 9h.

In Guyana, there’s only one road currently running from Georgetown into the interior, so visitors should expect to travel using varying means of transport, including boat, light aircraft and four-wheel-drive vehicle. 

When to go

Guyana’s wet season is from mid-November to mid-January and then May to mid-July (stretching into August in the interior). Travellers looking to head into the interior should travel during the drier months of February to April or September to mid-November. Year-round, temperatures hover around the mid- to high 20Cs. 

More information

Rewa Eco Lodge
Surama Eco Lodge
Guyana Tourism 

How to do it

Wildlife Worldwide offers a small-group tour, the 15-day Ultimate Guyana Nature Experience, which features Georgetown, the Iwokrama Rainforest, the Amerindian village of Surama and the Rupununi savannah. From £5,675 per person, including international flights, guided tours, transport, accommodation, most meals and activities.

Published in the March 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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