Pakaraimas Safari 2009.
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N.B. I wrote this as a short article to accompany photographs of this trip in a Guyanese magazine called “Apsara”. I can’t recall which issues it was published in and the photographs here are not necessarily those included in the magazine (some are from a trip in the interior in 2005). I’ve also edited the content a bit from the magazine article.
On vacation you are supposed to experience exotic foods, meet interesting people and see unusual sights. I might have expected to achieve two out of three of those on the Pakaraima Mountain Safari 2009, but it never occurred to me that I would have an exotic lunch of curried chowmein after driving six hundred and fifty kilometers over three days into the heart of Guyana’s interior. Curried chowmein is certainly not something I had ever eaten before, but it was an unexpected treat on a journey where lunch is usually a handful of fried plantain chips or crackers.
Started in 2003, the rather unfortunately acronymed (my own word 🙂 ) Pakaraima Mountain Safari (PMS) was intended to honour the opening of the first road route which connected several remote communities in the interior of Guyana, from Karasabai to Yong Peru in Region nine to Paramakatoi and Kato in Region eight, by traveling the roads connecting those communities with the eventual aim of reaching the Orinduik Falls in Region eight.
Pioneers of the safari included Mr Harripersaud Nokta MP, then Minister of Local Government and Regional Development and Dr Bheri Ramsarran MP, now Minister in the Ministry of Health.
This year’s safari began on a sad note when the participants were told, just before driving off from Georgetown, of the death of Mrs. Janet Jagan, a former President of Guyana.
Traveling as a group were my friends and fellow photographers, Michael and Andre Lam, as well as Nicholas Lam and Frederick Low. We used two vehicles and traveled along with fifteen other vehicles, two motorcycles and a four-wheel ATV. This year’s safari attracted the largest group of vehicles to attempt the drive to Orinduik Falls so far.
For us intrepid amateur photographers, this trip was long anticipated. Traveling through some of the many breathtaking areas of Guyana, which untravelled coast dwellers would find it hard to believe existed here, we expected an abundance of photographic opportunities; and were not disappointed. Interesting people, unusual sights and, apparently, even exotic food.
Our first day was, at the same time, the least interesting and the most tiring. We began driving from GUYOIL’s Regent Street Service Station, in the centre of Georgetown, at just about twenty minutes before two in the morning on Saturday, 28 March. We did not end that day’s driving until ten minutes to six in the night when we drove into Karasabai, nearly six hundred kilometers from where we started.
The drive from Wismar to Karasabai can be a wonder of sights and experiences. But even this well traveled road is rarely visited by the most of the Guyanese who make their homes on the Atlantic Coast of Guyana.
Among the attractions on the way from Wismar to Karasabai is the magnificent Iwokrama Rain Forest Reserve and its Canopy Walkway. The three hundred and seventy-one thousand hectare Iwokrama Reserve described in their own words is an “extraordinary ecosystem encompassing a range of habitats which…contains an extraordinary biodiversity, including over four hundred and seventy-five species of birds and the highest recorded number of species of fish…for an area of comparable size”.
The Canopy Walkway, which forms part of the Iwokrama Reserve is a series of suspension bridges and decks which are as high as thirty metres and as long as one hundred and fifty-four metres in the forest canopy (right at the top of the jungle). This is an experience which ought not to be missed, even if you are afraid of heights, since you can join the high-fliers like the harpy eagle in the rainforest tree-tops.
To complement your experience and to give you a change from the forest, you can spend some time on the savannah, which you meet after leaving the Iwokrama Reserve. The remainder of the way to Lethem is through Annai and the savannah. There are a number of hospitable facilities in the savannah where you can stay, including Rock View, a resort facility located at Annai. It is an experience that travelers will find impossible to regret.
Our journey, however, took us off the main road to Lethem into the Pakaraima Mountains. This part of the journey defines off-road driving and should not be attempted, without a local or experienced guide, by anyone who has not driven off road before. It is quite a challenging drive through savannah, forest and mountains and drivers have to be very careful so as not to allow their vehicles to slide off the dangerous sides of the mountains.
Mike and I were forced at one point to imagine ourselves being immolated in flames as our vehicle started to slide off the edge of the “road” carved out the side of a mountain. Fortunately, after a few seconds of screaming like teenage girls (and Mike permanently affixing his handprint on the passenger side grab handle) I remembered how to drive, goosed the throttle a bit and pulled the vehicle out of the slide.
The vistas and scenery of the Pakaraima Mountains must be seen in person to be believed. A common question, accompanied by raised eyebrows, among fellow travelers was whether we were still in Guyana.
Villages such as Karasabai, Monkey Mountain, Paramakatoi, Kato and Kurukabaru and others all have airstrips and are accessible by airplane. Experienced tour operators can arrange packages via air which would require less time and effort but provide an outstanding experience. In my opinion, though, the only way to properly experience the magnificent sights is by hiking or driving.
Although my primary purpose was to take photographs, I enjoyed the drive and the opportunity to simply sit in quiet contemplation of the views around me. I think that our group of travelers all agreed that this was a fantastic trip with something different to offer each of us. And while we each had very similar reasons for participating I am certain we each had a unique experience.
The organiser of our safari this year, and for many years previously is Frank Singh of Rainforest Tours. Frank is the man who makes sure that participants have a good time safely. Unless you have been making trips like this for 10 years or more, Frank is the man to listen to if you want to avoid tears. Disregard his advice at your peril. It is a tribute to Frank’s experience and professionalism that everyone returned from the trip safe. It is also a tribute to him that everyone I spoke to thoroughly enjoyed themselves.
I know one rather large young man will never forget his experience. Frank stopped the convoy and walked down the line of vehicles telling everyone that the way forward was flooded and for safety the passengers would have to continue on foot to climb an extraordinarily steep trail while the drivers braved the flood waters. Andre, the lunatic, immediately announced that he wanted to climb on top of the vehicle to get the best vantage point to take photos.
Frank, realizing the type of people he was dealing with in our vehicle, immediately admitted that he was just pranking us and went to the vehicle behind us looking for more fertile ground for his prank. Approximately 30 seconds later, we saw this . . . bountiful young man, wearing a pair of slippers, taking off at a determined pace towards the mountain, jiggling all the way. 5 seconds later we see Frank, also a bit bountiful himself, trying to walk quickly behind the young man while doubled over laughing. I bet that young man won’t soon forget the trip.
So what about our group of intrepid, amateur photographers? We returned to Georgetown with over three thousand photographs. It was a successful and thoroughly enjoyable safari.