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Guyana: Land of the Black Piranha

CommunityJames Hipkiss

GUYANA: Land of the Black Piranha Kevin Casey, the Remote River Man, shares his most extraordinary adventure yet an exploration of the untouched upper reaches of one of the most isolated and wildlife-rich rivers in all of South America.

The thunder boomed, the lightning cracked, the rain pounded and then the big trees started to fall, one by one, as the howling wind and the weight of the deluge proved too much for them. I was suspended in a lightweight jungle hammock above the banks of Guyanas Rewa river, doing all I could really do wait it out. It is a disconcerting thing, hearing the bottom of a huge rainforest tree snap out of the ground like the crack of a thousand rifle shots at once, followed by that eerie whirring sound that accompanies tons of tree crashing to the earth. Most of the sounds were far off, but some were not. When it was morning and the worst had passed, I noticed three things I was alive, my trusty hammock was bone dry (the rain fly had done its job) and there were four freshly fallen trees within 500 metres of where I had been sleeping. It was day six and I hadnt even reached the starting point of the expedition yet. Welcome to the jungle, Remote River Man... Guyana is, in my view, the most under-rated destination in South America for pristine jungle, abundant wildlife and Amerindian culture.

Wedged between Venezuela and Surinam, it is called The Land of Many Waters for good reason. Born in the mountain heights of the Guiana Shield are several rivers that start as tumbling, rocky creeks and end up sluggishly pouring into the Caribbean to the north. The Rewa is one of the least visited of these rivers, and just getting to its headwaters involves a ten day journey by motorboat, portaging around six major waterfalls and rapids. The upper reaches are worth the effort, however; few areas in South America offer such untouched beauty and incredible animal life. I would suggest that no others at all offer the spectacle witnessed by Ashley Holland, my in-country guide, during one journey he made in 2004. With the Rewa drier than usual, he spotted ten jaguars during that one trip absolutely unheard of, and for me, more than enough reason to canoe downstream from its headwaters.

I normally conduct my river explorations alone but on this occasion I was accompanied by Joe Fencer, an indigenous Makushi tribesman from the village of Rewa, the closest settlement, over a months solid canoeing from the headwaters. Joe is one of the few people who has visited this area enough to know it well, and he possesses extraordinary jungle skills, including an uncanny ability to stand in a moving canoe with a primitive, home-made bow and arrow and shoot fish straight through the middle, even when they're swimming a full metre under the waters surface. I also saw him weave a serious, full-sized backpack from natural forest materials in two days, and it was easily as strong and stable as my 90-litre, store-bought expedition pack. The river levels were higher than normal due to thunderstorms, and though I was anxious to get going downriver, we waited a few days for the water to drop. I was here to film wildlife, and lower water levels are best for this in the jungle, as many creatures use the exposed, sandy banks as a highway when searching for food. Once Joe and I had paddles in hand, we didnt have to wait long for the action to begin.

Rounding a bend, we disturbed a group of capybaras resting in the shade three metres above a steep bank. These are the largest rodents on earth, and rare on rivers where men carry guns, since they are such fine eating. No one hunts in the upper Rewa, though even the Makushi people so much of the wildlife shows little fear of man, and the capybaras seemed to view us more of a nuisance than a threat. Still, as we got closer they belly-flopped in unison into the water and let loose with distinctive honking alarm calls. There is a section of this river where a low rocky bar extends out far from the forest. This, according to Joe, is a favourite morning sunning spot for jaguars; he has seen them here twice before. The big cats didnt cooperate for us when we drifted past, but the area was criss-crossed with other animal tracks: paca, ocelot, brocket deer and the tayra, a large, hyperactive member of the weasel family which left two perfectly clear prints in the shallow mud near the rocks. Joes keen eyes missed nothing in the forest. He pointed out a branch where a small deer had rubbed its antlers, a path made by feeding agoutis during the night and an area covered with a scattering of old fish bones evidence of a river otters meal.

Giant river otters are extremely rare in South America, but in this untouched paradise we encountered several families along the river. They would approach the boat in a half-hearted territorial display of bravado, then disappear below the surface with the precision of synchronised swimmers. Another aquatic denizen I desperately hoped to see was the legendary anaconda. A specimen measuring seventeen feet, four inches had been encountered on this river a few years back, and there was no reason to doubt that others of similar size lurked along the shadowy tangle of branches lining the waters edge. Unfortunately on this occasion the high water levels kept both the big jaguars and the big snakes away. The modus operandi for filming was to paddle quietly upstream both at dawn and dusk, then float silently back down to our makeshift camp. This yielded excellent sightings of howler monkeys, king vultures, scarlet macaws and even a couple of tapirs, South Americas largest wild herbivore. As big as a pony, these three-toed beasts are not uncommon in the jungle, but their keen hearing and wary nature makes them extremely hard to spot, and their understandable fear of man makes them almost impossible to film in the open. Getting wild tapir footage was a true highlight for me personally, since I had once spent almost a fortnight trying to track and film one in northern Paraguay, without success. The Rewas tributaries are largely unexplored, and it was these that I was keenly interested in. To make headway up into them it was necessary to use machetes to clear away overhanging branches, while trying not to disturb the scorpions, tarantulas and wasp nests along the way. In these clear, narrow corridors of flowing water the fishing was excellent. Our favourite fish meal was kuti, a fork-tailed speedster about a foot long that Joe cooked with onions and cassava-based gruel a Makushi staple. I had brought my own supplies, including packet soups, rice, pasta and a few oddments purchased in Georgetown such as split pea powder, so I was able to keep my gruel intake to a minimum. Below the last waterfall, the Rewa is home to big black caimans, freshwater stingrays and electric eels, but in the upper sections there are only dwarf and spectacled caimans, and no eels or rays. There are black piranhas, though, and these are some of the largest piranhas found anywhere on earth, some longer than a mans forearm.

But what really demands respect in these parts is the haimara. This predatory fish is half as long as a man, very heavy, and eats huge black piranhas for breakfast. Your head would fit conveniently in its mouth, and though it doesnt happen often, there have been cases when this territorial creature has taken sizeable chunks out of a human bathers leg. Its teeth are pointed and razor sharp, so this could lead to a serious medical emergency. Joe and I managed to catch four twenty-five-pound haimara during our month-long descent of the river, and these fed us well. Smoking them slowly over the fire to preserve them ensured we had a ready supply of protein as we travelled. At each of the rapids and falls we unloaded the canoe, portaged around, re-packed and continued on our way. The canoe was dragged or carried along tapir paths in the forest, or carried over rocks, or walked through the fast, shallow water with a line at each end to guide it carefully through. Joe was used to either aluminium motor boats or indigenous dugout canoes, both of which are far more durable than a thin fibreglass craft.

This was his first experience with a Canadian-style canoe, and a few times I thought we were going to crack the bottom when his approach to dragging it over rocks became rather nonchalant, but it stood the abuse surprisingly well. All my Remote River Man journeys are self-filmed, which means the pack must hold not only food and camping supplies but camera gear, tripod, batteries and tapes for a month or so. On this trip I added a tiny GoPro camera for underwater shots and paddling footage, and carried a satellite phone and a nifty bit of gear called a Solara Field Tracker 2100. This uses a satellite network which enables texting to and from your home computer anywhere in the world, and also features an alert switch for emergencies. Alas, Guyana does not have any sort of helicopter rescue service, so if I had stumbled into real trouble it would have been a case of getting downriver as soon as possible (not too soon in our case), and hoping to reach medical help before things turned fatal. Interestingly, I had an emergency appendectomy less than three weeks after I returned from this trip excellent timing, I must say. Drifting downriver was a naturalists dream. Iguanas dropped into the water from high branches, capuchin monkeys scurried along the treetops, fish jumped everywhere, butterflies danced in the clearings and curious caiman waited until the last moment to submerge beside our passing canoe.

The pace was leisurely, allowing time for exploratory treks into the surrounding forest, where Joe pointed out Brazil-nut trees, armadillo burrows, snake droppings and box tortoise tracks. When we got thirsty we cut the stems of hanging vines and drank the pure, fresh water hidden inside. When we reached Carona Falls, the main barrier separating the upper and lower Rewa rivers, we had been on the river nearly a month, and knew our pick-up point was only a few days downstream. We celebrated that night by doing some fishing and promptly caught a seventy-pound yellow-tailed catfish which was gutted, cleaned and smoked, to be transported downriver to Joes village.

Wherever I have been in the world, I have noticed that indigenous people dont like to return from a wilderness trip empty-handed its always best to bring back a present or two. Joes haul was a backpack full of smoked fish (haimara, catfish, arowana and peacock bass), several expertly woven baskets and a hunting bow he carved by hand for his ten-year old niece. They start their hunting skills training early in the Makushi culture. I, in turn, had experienced the companionship of a man completely in touch with his jungle home, had captured some of the most amazing wildlife footage ever, and had reached that rare state of peace that I can only find by seeking out and exploring the worlds purest, least known rivers.

Editors note: Kevins amazing Remote River Man DVDs are available from the Products page of www.remoteriverman.com