From above, the Rupununi Savannah looks like a topography map in reverse. The green bumps are the hills, covered in dense vegetation, while the brown indentations and splodges indicate the paths of the overflowing rivers during the rainy season.
From the ground, arriving at the savannah is a shock to the system. We’d just spent two days at the riverside jungle camp in Surama, in humid semi-darkness, with little sunlight penetrating the thick canopy and the air pierced by the roar of the howler monkey and the singing of frogs. So when we emerge in the bright sunlight, with scrubland and tall grass stretching as far as the eye can see – punctuated with the tall ant fortresses, the lumbering forms of the giant anteaters and the occasional thatched roof of an Amerindian house in the distance – the contrast is spectacular.
Our first camp on our trip round the savannah is at Oasis, near the village of Annai – a pit stop for the overloaded minibuses that ply the red dirt ‘highway’ between Georgetown on the coast and Lethem on the Brazilian border as well as for the local Makushi Amerindians who cycle long distances on their sturdy Brazilian contraptions. We pass one such cyclist clutching a bow and arrow – still a favourite method of hunting around here.
The nearby village of Rupertee is known for its carvings, made of a red hardwood peculiar to these parts. However, when we arrive it becomes apparent we’re unlikely to find any, as the whole village is attending a football match between two teams of teenage girls from rival villages. They play with more gusto than finesse, running barefoot on gravel and splashing through the waterlogged parts of the pitch. It’s riveting viewing, made even more so by the potent fermented cassava drink that’s being passed around.
On the way back, we’re caught in a deluge of biblical proportions; the footpaths become rivers and what at first appears to be a deformed cat walking beside me turns out to be an absolutely enormous toad. As darkness falls, the savannah is lit only by the stars and the sparks of fireflies. Moving onwards towards the Brazilian border, we detour along the Rupununi River to Karanambu Lodge – an isolated, enchanting place that attracts wildlife and wildlife lovers in equal measure. The stills from movement sensor cameras around the property are like a Who’s Who of Guyana’s must-see mammals: jaguars, ocelots, tapirs, giant anteaters, capybaras.
The dinner table at the lodge is usually presided over by 82-year old Diane McTurk, a local legend and larger-than-life character famous for her work with orphaned giant river otters. “It’s not just otters,” her colleague Adrienne tells us in her absence. “People here come from miles around to bring Diane orphaned or injured anteaters, tapirs, and even jabiru storks.” We’re told the story of the baby tapir raised by Diane that came back to her as an adult to be nursed after getting savaged by a jaguar. “It knew where to come for help.”
Our final stop before flying back to Georgetown from Lethem is the Makushi village of Shulinab. We wander around the village, stop by the local one-room school pursued by a gaggle of curious children, peek into the tiny health centre, complete with anti-AIDS posters, and talk to the villagers. Everyone is friendly and welcoming, unlike, say, the Amerindians from highland Peruvian villages, who often view strangers with wariness and distrust because outsiders have often brought them harm.
Several local ranch hands take us out on a horseback ride through the savannah towards the Kanuku Mountains, known to the locals as ‘mountains of life’ and tell us of the most exciting time of the year in the Rupununi – the Easter rodeo in Lethem which attracts vaqueros (cowboys) from both sides of the border for a wild weekend of calf roping, bull-riding and more. “You gotta get there early or every hammock spot gets taken,” they caution. “We’ve ended up sleeping in the back of truck a few times.” They finally leave us behind and canter towards their herd, whooping and swinging their lassoes. Practising for the rodeo, presumably.
Anna Kaminski was in Guyana researching the forthcoming new edition of Rough Guides South America on a Budget.