This was going to be a story about trekking in the western reaches of Guyana, about beautiful waterfalls and indigenous people living in an area where the border with Venezuela is a mushy and unimportant thing. Then I found myself travelling with a pair of influencers, so instead it was going to be about what it’s like to witness, up close, the rise of their industry and the death of mine. It was going to be about content and clicks and what any of that matters in a place with no electricity, let alone WiFi.
But then something weird happened, and we all almost died together, so now it’s really a story about that.
The collision detector let out a short scream the second before our Cessna bounced down on the outskirts of the village of Paruima. The sound was immediately replaced by the propeller’s roar as it fought to slow us down before the end of the grass runway. Moments earlier, the village — home to people of the Arecuna ethnic group — had appeared uncannily neat from above, all well-trimmed lawns, flowering bushes and a white wooden church built by Seventh-Day Adventists.
A small crowd of locals had gathered by the runway and some in our six-strong party thought it was a welcoming committee, at least until items (gas canisters, bananas, babies) started being thrust on to the plane for the return journey to Georgetown. Not everyone ignored us — a group of four porters were there too, men who would be with us for every step of a four-day trek into the deep jungle.
Their village lies in a bend in the Kamarang river where toucans nest, plantains grow enormous and the meander has slowed the water to a benign and tranquil force. Our plan was to spend three days hiking west to a point where it was more agitated, specifically at its eponymous waterfall, where the Kamarang tumbles 160 metres into its own misty abyss. On the last day, we’d begin walking back, pass the even grander Uchi Falls, then boat downriver, all the way back to Paruima.
We were to sleep in hammocks along the trail, but before that we’d have the luxury of a night in the village’s only lodge, which gave us individual rooms and access to a rudimentary shower. Largely for our benefit, the diesel generator was started so that we could charge our devices a final time. It would be the last power we would have until our return.
Guyana is being widely tipped by tour operators as a new frontier in adventure travel; earlier this month Lonely Planet included it in its “best destinations for 2023” list, billing it as the “rising star” of South American eco-tourism. And if tourism is something new to many parts of the country, it is especially so to Paruima. We were among the first to experience this itinerary designed by Wilderness Explorers, a programme that had taken months to plan and implement, partly because villagers had a public vote on whether or not to participate. “I think most people can see the beauty of it now,” said toshao (leader) Lennox Percy. “There was concern about youngsters being corrupted by outsiders, but we have rules like no smoking and no alcohol, and visitors follow that too.”
Depending on who I spoke to, the population in Paruima is as low as 700 or as high as 1,000, but in any case it is not large. Unfortunately, to achieve its very particular neatness, what sounded like competitive gardening began around 6am, two hours after the belligerent roosters, and about four before I was ready to get up.
Unable to sleep, I took a walk around. All the houses were stilted and the people friendly, often greeting me with a slightly archaic, “Good morning, how do you do?” I couldn’t remember the last time someone had posed that exact question. I also couldn’t remember ever visiting a place that smelled quite so delicious as this. Aromas of frying bread, blooming flowers and wood fires commingled at dawn. Later, on the trail, things would get so upsettingly sweaty that I would regret not breathing in a few more lungfuls of that splendid village air.
At breakfast, talk turned to adventure, what that meant, and what lay ahead. The two influencers in the group were there to promote the country through their social media channels, and both had a habit of recording pieces to camera with no warning, sometimes in the middle of conversations. Much of what they said was full of cliché and positivity, most of which I’ve had beaten or edited out of me in 15 years as a travel writer for newspapers and magazines. At one point there was talk of “the extreme, the awesome, the adventurousness”, and I wondered what any of that meant.
As we plunged into the jungle, I was still chewing it over. Gary Lineker, the English television presenter and former footballer, tells a story about playing golf with Michael Jordan when the American basketball player was at the height of his sporting and financial prowess. They agreed to have a wager, but Lineker had no idea what to bet. Jordan, lighting a cigar, said to make it “whatever makes you feel uncomfortable”. Adjusting my 20kg camera pack to its least painful configuration, humidity also squeezing me tight, this seemed like a decent definition of adventure too.
The first day began with mud and confusion, followed by a withering two-hour ascent to reach the summit of a table-top mountain, several of which are found in this region, with the largest known as tepuis. Traversing would be a comparative breeze, but this initial climb made my calf muscles sing, then scream. I looked around to see Gideon Dick, a porter, his face covered in droplets of sweat that gave the impression of morning dew. “I’ll be perspiring for a while yet,” he said, somehow resisting the urge to mop his brow.
The porters wore high packs held by crude leather straps. All were carrying more weight than I was and appeared to be indestructible. At each camp, they set about hanging our hammocks, often before they’d even sat down. They drank impossibly little water and when they did so, they filled their bottles from little brooks and burns along the route. The contents were the colour of Islay malts. It wasn’t until late in the second day that I had the courage to follow suit.
While dinner was prepared, I took my camera out to the edge of the plateau. In the valley below, four hours of dense jungle trekking away, a couple of lights shone in Paruima, while more immediately fireflies waltzed near my knees. In the distance, rainless and silent lightning illuminated the horizon. Aside from our little group, there were no other tourists around for hundreds of miles.
One of the many unusual things about Guyana is that, even in these remote regions, everyone speaks English, the official national language. Porter Caleo Elliman explained that in Paruima they learn English at school, Arecuna at home and Spanish on the road. Many have family in Venezuela — where the majority of Arecuna people live — or travelled there for work before Nicolás Maduro’s regime destroyed inbound tourism and much else besides.
Sharing a language meant that I could listen to concerns about everything from dubious Brazilian mining to possibly illegal Chinese logging to definitely criminal narco planes from origins unknown. We could also tell stories from our youths, like the one Caleo told us about a boy faking a snakebite so that his friend would carry him all the way home, or the one about the “Playboy Mansion”, a rock formation so named because of a chalk deposit that looks like a white bunny.
On the second day, after 15km of dank jungle walking and another 5km over unshaded savannah, we felt considerably less jocular. We dragged our grimy selves into camp, then summoned a little more energy for a further kilometre to the banks of the Kamarang, where we bathed as though in the holy waters of Lourdes.
The following morning, after a quick breakfast, Caleo led the way back down the river, then through a final section of thick jungle along a barely defined path. When we emerged to the splendour of the falls, he stood aside and simply told us to be careful.
At 160 metres, Kamarang is only the third-highest waterfall in Guyana, but it is perhaps its most majestic, a muscular single drop disappearing into a vast basin. It is crowned by a permanent rainbow. It was admired by just us and a single black vulture wheeling lazily in the considerable updrafts. Some in the group sat on the precipice, dangling their legs, while I stood back taking photographs, my stomach liquefied on their behalf.
After an hour of slack-jawed admiration, we retreated back upriver. The plan was to cross the river where we’d bathed, then trek for just two more hours to a final camp. However, the local fisherman who’d been hired to take us and our gear across was nowhere in sight. No matter, we thought, we would bathe in the restorative water once more. We were relaxed.
Almost two hours later, tranquillity had tipped towards boredom and, rather than wait any longer, we commandeered an old boat that had been lying temptingly on land. Two of the group crossed without issue. Then Oriel Andres, another porter, returned to pick us up to make the same short journey. We were approximately 150 metres from the top of the waterfall.
In those 15 years as a travel writer I have experienced curious and extreme weather around the world: katabatic winds in Antarctica, an electrical storm on the fringe of a typhoon in Japan, hail the size of golf balls in Oklahoma. Somehow, they were all expected — or at least explicable. What happened next in Guyana was not.
Fat rain began falling as we pushed away from shore, but upriver we noticed a wall of precipitation suddenly building across the river. Some in the boat reached for phones to document it, but then, as though summoned by a mage, a tornadic waterspout appeared to our left. This buzz-saw wind spun towards us, smashing at the water like a drowning helicopter. It roared in our ears. Between the din and our rising adrenaline, it was hard to make anything out other than profanity and references to gods we didn’t believe in.
Oriel fought as best he could, but within seconds there were cries of “We’re losing the boat!” and “Jump if you have to!” We were being sucked downriver towards the colossal waterfall. For a second the tornado relented, and it seemed we might yet be OK, but then it turned again and there was no option but to grab our gear and jump. Storm-tossed and overboard, bubbles span all around me in the maelstrom. By now I was just 50 metres from the precipice.
I kicked from below and even in the moment thought how lucky I was to have switched my heavy hiking boots to lightweight trainers that morning. Even so, the abyss was coming closer. I desperately tried to keep my camera bag on the surface, creating an inefficient angle for propulsion, but hopefully saving some part of my livelihood.
And yet there was progress — seconds before I would have to let go of my backpack altogether, my toes touched the riverbed. I was saved. I looked for the others and saw that they had made it too. Behind them, the old boat slowed for a second, then disappeared down the falls.
Many hours later — camera gear and phone destroyed, clothes sodden — we sat by a fire at our campsite and reviewed extraordinary footage of the event. Even having lived through it, nothing made sense. The river was calm, then there was all that whirling violence, then just as suddenly all was calm again. Caleo was particularly perturbed by what he had seen. “No, no, no, no, no, no, no,” he said solemnly. “This is not good. No good at all. This is Ratto. An evil river spirit. It came for you.”
I didn’t believe this but I had no better explanation for what had happened, no easy point of reference or compelling meteorological argument. Theories about why Ratto was so vengeful ranged from one of the influencers bathing naked to us cleaning our pots and pans in the river. For the rest of the trip, there was little conversation about anything else — what did it all mean?
The following morning we descended from the plateau, half walking, half sliding the 160 metres the Kamarang Falls had almost made much quicker. From there we hiked for another hour to Uchi Falls, which hung in a huge cove like an organ in a vast, ornate cathedral. We agreed that it looked especially beautiful from the bottom. After that, we climbed into rubber dinghies and rejoined the river to return to Paruima, not exactly fearful but not making many wisecracks either.
I’m not sure I know what happened on the Kamarang river even now, but I do think it gave me a better idea of what counts as adventure — it’s getting up to the edge of things, perhaps even peering over, then coming back. But how close you get to that edge isn’t always up to you.
Jamie Lafferty was a guest of Wilderness Explorers (wilderness-explorers.com). Its six-day Guyana Highlands Trekking Adventure costs from US$3,245 per person, starting and ending in Georgetown. Safety procedures for river crossings have been revised since this trip. British Airways (britishairways.com) is relaunching flights from London to Georgetown, via Saint Lucia, in March 2023
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