It looked like the birth-cradle of a predator from Alien. At least ten metres high, a diaphanous web of silken threads was suspended between a towering mora tree and a mass of vines and creepers.
At first it seemed devoid of life, but watchful and waiting. Then we saw them – hundreds of spiders, busily extending their skyscraper realm and feeding on fresh prey. When our guide, Wally, poked the web with a stick, the tremor brought dozens of spiders scampering to the spot.
“Best not get too close,” he advised us, unnecessarily. “They’re only small but you don’t want too many of them on you.” Personally, I didn’t want any on me, and stepped gingerly around what was possibly the world’s biggest spiders’ web.
Such close encounters of the slightly scary kind are to be expected in the jungles of Guyana, one of the last largely unexplored frontiers of adventure tourism in South America. In a country almost the size of mainland Britain, a population of less than a million people lives along a narrow coastal strip and on the banks of rivers that are often the most practical way of reaching remote settlements in the interior. The rest of the land – more than 80% of it – is carpeted with equatorial forest that, from the air, looks like an endless green ocean, surging towards the borders of Brazil and Venezuela.
Our encounter with the six-storey spiders’ web took place in Iwokrama, a rainforest reserve deep in the heart of Guyana, which is home to an international centre for research and conservation. It is also home to many of the continent’s biggest and deadliest creatures, which spend much of their time stinging, biting and eating each other and anything else that gets in the way.
It is thus important to have a good guide, and the magnificently named Waldyke Prince, aka Wally, resident biologist at Iwokrama, fits the bill. On a stroll in the forest, he came equipped with a hooked metal stick. “It’s some kinda snake catcher,” he explained, “and it’s good for liftin’ up large insects.”
The first creature he brandished on his stick was an ant, a couple of centimetres long. “This is a really mean guy,” he said. “He grabs you with his mandibles, locks on and zaps you with a stinger.” They are called bullet ants because the pain they inflict is like being hit by a bullet – and for people allergic to insect stings, the end result is much the same.
Back at the research centre, a huddle of thatched wooden buildings on the banks of a river, Wally ran through a list of Iwokrama’s feathered and furred splendours. They include the biggest eagle and snake in South America, the biggest cat in the Americas and the world’s biggest freshwater fish, otter and pit viper. Not to mention the continent’s biggest blood-sucking bat. The forest, about the size of Trinidad, is apparently a Guinness Book of Records of the animal world.
That night some of them made their presence known as we slept beneath mosquito nets. It began with a low moaning sound, like a distant wind, rising and falling. Then it swelled to an unearthly banshee wailing that made the hairs rise on my neck. I imagined a fractious gathering of Tyrannosaurus Rex, and in the darkness I whispered fearfully to my companion, Geoff. “Probably just monkeys – go to sleep,” he said. He was right: the cacophony was a colony of aptly named howler monkeys enjoying a midnight snack.
The next day, Wally led us on a hike up Turtle Mountain, a not-so-aptly named bump of barely 300m. But, although the trek is no more than five kilometres to the top and back again, the trail lies through a dense hothouse of exotic flora and fauna. “The most important thing is to be aware of where all parts of your body are at all times,” Wally cautioned: no leaning on trees without checking them for insect life first, or posing for photos before ensuring there were no snakes lurking in the dead leaves. We also learned not to step over fallen tree trunks and expose our legs to vipers that may be on the other side (the trick is to step on to the log, check the ground beneath, then step away from it).
In the event, we encountered nothing more threatening than a column of leaf-cutter ants, and a morpho butterfly flitting among giant creepers on midnight-blue wings. We also stopped to admire a veritable lord of the forest: a mora tree. Wally reckoned it was more than 30m high and 50 years old, and it evoked an almost spiritual aura.
On the summit, we found Turtle Mountain was surrounded by an ocean of undulating forest stretching to far horizons. In the distance an opaque grey mass of rain was sweeping across flat-topped mountains on the border with Venezuela, and a rustle of wind in the trees around us heightened the illusion of a sea washing on to a lonely shore.
In the heat of midday much of the wildlife remained hidden, but we heard the constant chattering of monkeys and the harsh cries of red and green macaws; on a river trip back to camp, ripples on the surface betrayed the presence of black caimans.
Later, Wally explained that research and development at Iwokrama focused on the three T’s – timber, tourism and training. “Basically we’re looking at ways of exploiting the forest without destroying it. It’s like a giant experiment in a living laboratory, and if it can’t work here it won’t work anywhere.”
Beneficiaries of this enlightened approach include about 4,000 indigenous Amerindians living in communities around the reserve. Our next stop was to visit one: a cluster of mud-brick dwellings called Surama, which houses 240 Macushi people, who live off farming, hunting and fishing on the edge of the forest.
Geoff and I were expected, and our hosts had prepared food in a rest house, a simple timber lodge with bedrooms and washing facilities. They were gentle, hospitable people with a grave politeness and handsome features reflecting their Asian origins.
A woman who had prepared our meal of fruit and vegetables said they were concerned about the loss of young people who leave the village for further education and employment. But the population was remaining steady, thanks to two or three births a year.
The children attend a primary school, funded by UNICEF, which is a joy to see. Heart-stoppingly pretty girls in saffron tunics and boys in smart white shirts and dark shorts listen attentively to teachers in a room divided by partitions. Education here is fun, summed up by a poster on a classroom wall that says the goal is ‘to create a learning environment in which human ideals and values are emphasised’. There is a sense that such conduct comes naturally to the Macushi people. They have learned English and they wear modern clothes, but traditions of mutual respect and courtesy to visitors remain strong.
Needless to say, they make good guides and companions. A farmer called Milner and his friend Francis were our guides for a hike to a river camp, where we were to spend the night. The camp was no more than an open, thatched hut for slinging hammocks by the banks of a small, brown river, plus a smaller hut for cooking over an open fire.
It was dark by the time our hosts served our meal of rice and beans, and we ate by the crackling fire to a night chorus of croaking frogs, exotic birdcalls and mysterious rustlings. Fireflies made bright stabs of light among the trees, the sky was full of stars and the dark side of the moon was clearly defined as a glowing rim above a ghostly crescent, like a paper lantern in a fairy tale.
It was still dark the next morning when we emerged from our chrysalises of mosquito netting for a paddle down the Burro-Burro River in a dugout canoe. The air was still as we glided silently between banks of dense foliage, in the hope of spotting giant river otters or tapirs foraging in the woods. We saw only a heron perched on a branch and kingfishers flashing low over the water like little fighter planes, but the calmness of river and forest in the early morning lingered with us.
Later, we spotted a rare species at a domestic airport – tourists. Andrew Love and Jane Anderson from London had come to visit a friend working on a VSO engineering project at Lethem, near the border with Brazil, and they seemed to be enjoying themselves.
“It’s been a lot easier than we thought,” Jane said. “We didn’t know what to expect. It’s a good destination for adventurous spirits, but you can do it quite comfortably.” Andrew agreed: “You can rough it if you like, but you don’t have to. It’s the jungle with good facilities for visitors.”
I could have roughed it on a three-day hike through the forest to Kaieteur Falls, the country’s biggest natural attraction, but took the easy option of a flight in a ten-seater aircraft, which banked and swooped for spectacular views of the highest single-drop waterfall in the world. At 226m, Kaieteur is almost five times higher than Niagara and, in full flow, spews 130,000 litres of the Potaro River per second into a cloud of mist and spray.
It takes only a few minutes to stroll from the dirt runway to the first of several viewpoints overlooking the falls, where eyes drop to the tumult below and stomachs follow them. It is a gut-wrenching precipice, which does not deter visitors from ignoring warning signs and posing for photos on the edge of it.
It’s the sheer scale on which Guyana does everything that can inspire humility in even the most experienced traveller. Epic waterfalls, giant trees and enormous spiders’ webs – this is truly a supersized land, largely untouched by tiny travellers like me.
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