By Niles E. Cole

"Hi Gary,

"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 Rashes"

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.

Our 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.

The 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 green afterwards.

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 our soil.

Early 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 offered.

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!

I’ll 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.






All images and text © Copyright 2018 Common Ground 191 - All rights reserved