By Niles E. Cole
"I just got back from the jungle, and I’ve included
below a write up of our soil collection trip. The canister
will be mailed this afternoon..."
"There and back again:
A Journey to the Rupununi, or, How Cashew Nuts Cause Horrible
Just over two months of living in Guyana has given us our
first real taste of the wilderness experience: a 12-hour caravan
car trip through the darkest heart of the jungle to explore
the vast savannahs known as the Rupununi, where all the cowboys
are Indians and all the Indians hold visas to the U.K. We
gathered a group of 16 intrepid explorers and planned our
trip – we would caravan out in a number of vehicles
just to make sure that if one vehicle got disabled everyone
would be able to make it home.
Our trip had another purpose, however. We were also going
to collect soil for the Common Ground 191 project, an international
effort led by Gary Simpson to collect soil from every country
on the globe and create a massive abstract work of art.
trip started of innocuous enough – a 3:30 A.M. rally
call followed by a quick breakfast, muffin bake, and car pack.
The moment we stepped inside our vehicle and shut the doors
at 4:40 a.m., the skies opened up and torrential rains began
to fall – the kind of rain that only falls in the tropics
or during a hurricane. Sheet upon sheet of fat drops as large
as the sky could muster splattered the windshield and quickly
covered the road in 2 inches of water.
We tried to pick up our passengers, but our first tagalong
overslept – her alarm clock was a PDA, and had shifted
to daylight savings time (which we do not observe here in
Guyana ). We abandoned our first passenger and went to pick
up the second – she, at least, was ready but very wet;
the rain just would not let up. We assembled at the rally
point at the designated departure time, but our guide overslept
as well. Our 5 vehicles – one Nissan truck, two Toyota
4runners, and two Land Cruisers – were loaded for bear.
We carried a spare tire each, a liter (for bodies), a blowout
kit (for massive trauma, not repairing tires), GPS, chains,
spare parts, oil, radios, food, water, extra clothing, gallons
of DEET, machetes, the kitchen sink, and enough extra gas
and diesel to completely refuel every vehicle at least once.
Finally all 16 passengers were assembled, and the caravan
of 5 vehicles headed out at 5:30 in the morning, southward
bound to the heart of Guyana , the Iwokrama Rainforest.
The Iwokrama International Centre for Rain Forest Conservation
and Development is an autonomous non-profit institution established
by Guyana and the Commonwealth. The Centre manages the nearly
one million acre (371,000 hectares) Iwokrama Forest in central
Guyana to show how tropical forests can be conserved and sustainably
used to provide ecological, social and economic benefits to
local, national and international communities.
The rain didn’t stop. As we headed south, the rain continued
to pour down. After about 3 hours of driving we stopped at
the last gas station on the road and topped off each car before
really beginning the adventure. The pavement ended, and from
here on out there was only one road, and all of it was slick,
muddy, and rife with potholes that would make any vehicle
cringe. Some of the largest potholes should really have been
classified as sinkholes; they filled with water and could
be 15 feet or more across, big enough to swallow two vehicles,
let alone one. Our merry caravan wove around, between, and
through as many of these menaces as we could, striving to
keep our vehicles in one piece and out of the mud. The vehicles
would fishtail around the curves, and only good reflexes on
the part of the drivers kept the vehicles from crashing into
the road side embankments or over the edge.
road itself is amazing. There is only one road, one way to
go. It is hard packed red clay, cut out of the rainforest
by logging companies. It extends from the Georgetown (the
capital of Guyana ) to Letham, the only town on the border
with Brazil . It is the one of the few roads in the country
and the only road that goes to Brazil. It is only about 600
KM (375 miles) from Georgetown to Letham, but on a good day
the drive can still take 14 hours. The road is notorious for
disabling vehicles and people – if you drive it, you
are always advised to bring food, water, and booze to last
a week. There is so little traffic out there that if your
car dies, you could very well wait two or three days before
you see another human soul. The food and water is to keep
you alive until help comes. The booze it to bribe whatever
soul you meet on the road to help you lest you get lost in
the jungle and never return.
The road finally took its toll; our luck could not last for
ever. After about 7 hours of driving we suffered our first
vehicle catastrophe. A tree branch punctured the lead vehicle’s
radiator as we crossed a particularly nasty “puddle.”
A “puddle” is really a misnomer, because it should
be classified as a mud hole covered in as much as 3 feet of
water. When crossing a “puddle,” one is advised
to stick in the middle of the puddle (where the water is deepest)
and hit it going as fast as you can manage. That way, your
momentum will carry you out of the mud, and hopefully across
to the other side. If not, you are forced out of the vehicle
(as water floods the inside) and onto the hood of the car.
Then, you can wade across the mud hole and attach some chains
to a tree and winch your car out. This sometimes works. Sometimes.
The car was beyond repair at this point. We brought everything
we could think of, but unfortunately we didn’t have
a way to fix a radiator with a quarter-sized hole in it. We
did the only thing we could think of: we hooked up some chains
and towed the sucker. First, we emptied all the gear out of
the disabled truck and loaded the passengers and gear into
the remaining cars. Then, we whipped out the radios and started
up again. The lead cars were scouting ahead, calling out obstacle
and holes in the way and the disabled vehicle being towed
in the rear. All was going well until one particularly nasty
mud-filled curving valley. Two downhill slopes meet at a mud-filled
hairpin turn. As the lead vehicles went down one side of the
hill, the only bus that runs once a week between Letham and
Georgetown just happened to be coming down the opposite side
of the hill, taking up the middle of the road.
“BUS! BUS! BUS! BUS! BUS! BUS!” screamed the lead
vehicles – but unfortunately, both the cars in the front
attempted to radio the impending doom at the same time. The
cars towing the disabled truck didn’t hear the call,
and reached the bottom of the valley at the same time the
bus did. The result? A near death experience for all vehicles
involved. They couldn’t go to the left of the bus or
risk going over the sides of the road into the 10 foot gullies
on either side. They couldn’t go through the bus for
obvious reasons. They couldn’t go to the right side
of the bus because there was a chain attached to the two vehicles.
They opted for the best of all possible worlds – a collision
that spun the cars around and into the mud, getting firmly
stuck and crushing the front and rear of two of our caravan
vehicles. (This would be a problem later – read on to
find out why).
Oh – and it hadn’t stopped raining.
The impact wasn’t hard enough to disable the land cruiser
(which had been towing). But, at the moment people got out
of the vehicles to attempt to get out of the 12 inch deep
mud, the skies opened up again and added to the mess. Luckily,
the last vehicle in the caravan was able to winch out the
stuck cars and a half-hour later we were on the road again,
frazzled, wet, and a little shell-shocked.
We had one more mishap before we made it to the ferry crossing,
20 miles away. On one particularly nasty and muddy down hill
the towed vehicle’s breaks gave out, snapping the chain
and ripping the towing hook off the front of the disable vehicle.
The vehicle spun out in the road and landed in a squelchy
pile of mud. No one was injured, but the driver was a bit
Twelve hours after our departure we managed to make it to
the ferry crossing, where there was some semblance of civilization.
There was a police outpost where we paid to cross the river
on an aging barge that barely had enough power to get out
onto the water. We abandoned the disabled car there and drove
on, reaching our final destination not too long afterwards.
The Iwokrama rainforest is pristine; no logging is allowed,
no development, no hunting, and practically no habitation
except for the few Amerindians who still inhabit the jungle.
This place is about as wild as it gets. We stopped here over
night to camp out in the jungle canopy walkway. You sleep
in hammocks and get up very early in the morning to hike about
a mile through the forest, climb up the side of a mountain,
and then step out on to rickety rope bridges to observation
platforms suspended between trees nearly 30 meters above the
ground. The sounds of the early morning jungle are pretty
incredible. The most ferocious sound is that of the howler
monkey. It is territorial and loud, and its call sounds like
something out of a horror movie. Imagine the fear it must
have struck into the heart of the earliest European explorers.
The jungle is alive, breathing, and raging in the night, conjuring
up images of fanged beasties waiting to sink teeth into the
sweet white flesh of those poor misguided souls who don’t
know where they are or what they are doing. Before we left
we gathered at the base of a particularly tall tree and collected
the next morning we set out again, this time to reach our
final destination, the Rupununi. The rainforest suddenly stops
for no reason and a vast savanna opens up before you, as if
God was child drawing a map with crayons. It is a very disorientating
experience to be driving through a small jungle road with
towering trees overhead that just opens up into this vast
plain of tall grasses and horses. It is beautiful and reminiscent
of East African safaris. Lots of wild fruits grow on the savanna,
and among the most prized is cashew. Fresh cashews are delicious.
They grow wild in the Rupununi, but don’t eat them if
A word from the embassy nurse:
The cashew is a relative of poison ivy and the oil in the
nutshell can cause a rash or other irritation to the skin--this
why the nuts must be heated in order to render the oil less
caustic. Never eat cashews raw since this caustic oil can
cause significant problems for most people. After roasting,
however, the cashew is one of the most delicious of nuts and
is rich in protein and fat; the oil which is in the spongy
layer of the shell is used in many commercial applications.
Ah yes. Delicious fresh cashews – we were served fresh
cashew juice, cashew this, cashew that. A day later, yours
truly broke out into horrid poison ivy like rashes on practically
every part of the body.
Please, don’t eat the cashews!
wind down – we managed to make it back with out too
many more difficulties, except one flat tire. Remember how
I said that it would be important later that we had a collision?
Well, the spare tire was housed underneath the land cruiser
which got hit. The resulting impact made it nearly impossible
to remove the spare and replace it – just one more snag
in an otherwise flawless trip.
Everyone made it out in one piece. We were rattled, tired,
and covered in poison ivy like rashes, but our spirits were
high and we established are real espirit de corps. We completed
our objective: collect a sample of soil from Guyana in a unique
and interesting place and live to tell the story. The adventure
drove home that nature is bigger than man, and no matter where
you are humans are humans. We share more in common than just
our genus. We share the earth and have to learn to live together.
Perhaps we are one step closer to that ultimate goal.