Stories on a Map

Guyana: Debris of Empire

Guyana Debris of Empire largeJohn Goldhawk


The Barbados to Georgetown flight went low over the brochure-blue Caribbean Sea, studded here and there with brilliant white cruise ships. Approaching Guyana on the South American coast, the sea suddenly changed from shades of turquoise to a dirty grey, the colour of things to come. The road from the very basic airport was merely a potholed track lined with scruffy shacks selling everything and nothing.

The main street had an air of dusty decay, along with a frisson of corruption and even violence. Better to avoid the street market’s dangerous chaos and observe the activity from the balcony of the old British colonial hotel, run down and practically empty. After a long humid pause, an old man appeared with a tray of hot beer then vanished back to the dusty bowels of the hotel somewhere below. Rather better maintained was the huge wooden white cathedral, all calm behind the shutters which kept the blazing heat at bay. It offered a quiet, airy haven from the coastal miasma and traffic cacophony. Other distractions included a zoo full of bored-looking snakes and the Caribbean Rose – a raised, open-sided restaurant catching the cool breeze from the sea after dusk. A whole day’s diversion was provided by the Bourda Cricket Ground, which features in the itinerary of most international teams touring the Caribbean. The pitch was lovingly maintained, the wooden terraces shaded by tall trees that rustled in a sea breeze.

A walk along the coastal defences afforded an endless vista of dark brown mud, deposited by the Orinoco and Demerara rivers from the west and exuding pockets of evil gas. Across the mud scuttled thousands of tiny crabs, marching like soldiers in columns. Between the lines of determined crabs (going where?), lungfish flopped helplessly about. They tried to skip over the mounds of mud and avoid the no doubt toxic gas. Not a place for sea bathing, only nightmares.

Next to where I was staying was a reputedly dangerous place called Sheriff Street, featuring cafes and large open air bars with ear-shattering local ‘music’. When I went there alone I remained obscure at the back of a small café eating hacked-up chicken in peri-peri sauce.

A friend and temporary visitor demanded to witness all this for himself but, instead of keeping his head down, insisted in parking himself in front of a large heavy music joint where he was completely vulnerable to drug pushers and easy women. Despite dire warnings, even from some locals, he bought the girls drinks and let them sit on his lap. Such naivety would not go unpunished. He ignored their ‘business propositions’, the gold chain pimps moved in and a rapid exit was called for. Another friend and I dragged him into the Land Rover and the three of us roared off, only just avoiding knife-wielding thugs.

After that experience we decided on a safer method of experiencing Guyana, so took a flight to the Kaieteur Falls in the mid-west near Venezuela which claimed, with some justification, to be the highest single-drop waterfall on Earth. No roads existed anywhere near it but a grass airstrip on the edge of the forest could accommodate our Islander aircraft. From there we hiked along a forest trail lined here and there with pitcher plants harbouring tiny golden frogs. The falls had relatively little water in the dry season and the river drifted like a frayed ribbon onto the dark forest floor, invisible below. There was no sign of anyone or anything around, just part of the magic of the tropics that can sometimes be discovered in an undiscovered country.

South of the coastal plain is a rainforest belt that isolates it from the savannah area south to the Brazilian border. Access is usually limited to light aircraft, landing at places such as Annai, where an Englishman had carved out his own tiny empire, rather like some surviving outpost. He proved a welcoming host to us when we visited and laid on an expansive dinner in honour of the three of us.

After helping unload a generator we drove off the next day down a winding dirt track to the small town of Lethem on the western border with Brazil. The landscape consisted of scattered bushes plus a few old fig trees. Accommodation was limited to a basic shack enlivened by a cheerful woman who prepared us a dinner of local ingredients, eaten by candlelight as the town’s generator had broken down yet again. She told us of a ‘night club’ in the bush not far away. So we stumbled through the pathless scrub guided by strange sounds and lights. Heavy men guarded the door but let us in with knowing looks. There was not another building in sight and hordes of noisy insects. Despite our attempts to be invisible in a dark corner we were soon targeted by ‘hostesses’, as in Sheriff Street or any town in the world where foreign visitors are regarded as fair game and wealthy.

Deafening sounds crashed out into the bush from giant American speakers. We hoped for another power cut and anyway pretended to be deaf to the women’s entreaties. The hard men seemed less deaf and we soon had to withdraw after a deluge of death threats. Revolvers pursued us back to our shack but we gave them the slip in a maze of thorn scrub. By now we regarded nights out in Guyana as too dangerous unless you played the game according to local rules.

Next day my travelling companions went off on an esoteric mission to investigate the production of material essential for golf ball manufacture. So I wandered on foot to the dead town centre in Lethem, which consisted of a derelict concrete office block flying one ragged Guyanese flag. There was nobody about and no border control at the river crossing, a remote tributary of the Rio Negro, itself a tributary of the Amazon. Instead there was a muddy ford across which cattle were rustled and drugs smuggled. There was nothing on the Brazil side. Close to the ford was a grass airstrip, with its recently new control tower already crumbling in the tropical climate. Nearby was the inevitable corrugated snack bar selling huge bottles of ironically named ‘Antarctic’ beer made in Brazil.

From Lethem we went to an area called Iwokrama. At this time Guyana was accommodating an influx of foreign visitors because the government had donated 350,000 hectares to “the world” “for developing and demonstrating methods of sustainable management of tropical rain forests”. This was Iwokrama, along the Essequibo River in the central forest belt. Access by land was only possible by big trucks and there was no airstrip. From the south 4WD vehicles could bash through to the river in the dry season. Going into the dense forest from the sunlit river was like descending into a dark cellar, so we hacked only a short way through the muffled darkness. ‘Porknockers’ were the only other traffic on the sluggish Essequibo – illegal gold panners with connections to potential loggers. Was this what was meant by ‘sustainable management’? I wondered how the forest had survived for millions of years, like the Amazon itself, without the benefit of human ‘management’.

I sought distraction at a rumoured ‘bush bar’ across the river from the ‘dry’ camp site. A couple of us got across the river to a thatched hut but the porknockers had snapped up all the cans of beer. The emaciated bar owner was disarmingly apologetic and managed to find a few bottles of cheap, harsh rum. With a surprisingly cool tropical downpour leaking through the roof we drank in moody silence. The forest noises went quiet and beside us the river sidled darkly on to the Atlantic Ocean.
We soon found ourselves back in Georgetown with its contrasting chaotic din. At the airport a jolly lady sold hot lager from her stall. Being in a foul mood from recent experiences, I complained that the beer was “too gassy”. She cheerfully replied that “de good gas drive out de bad gas!” Rare humour in this desperate lost corner of our sometime empire.

To find some peace before my flight to Florida, what better than the gentle crack of leather on willow at the Bourda ground. A match against the nearby island of Trinidad attracted no vociferous spectators, so a pleasantly warm afternoon drifted by, a gentle sea breeze stirring a line of tall palm trees at the ‘river end’, like poplars along a Picardy road in summer.

After a last look at the scuttling crabs and gasping lungfish, the hard road to the airport beckoned. As ever, the waved farewells and the aero-engines’ roar wiped out painful memories of the patch of Planet Earth below, to be replaced by the immediacy of a very different place, introduced by lines of tyre rubber on the Miami airport tarmac.

© 2017 John Goldhawk
Image: David Stanley

Goldhawk 150
John Goldhawk is a graduate of King’s College, London, and has worked over many years as a hydro-geologist in Africa, Asia, Australia, South America and the United Kingdom. He lives in Devon, in the south of England.