Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Kaieteur Falls - Day Two

February 15, 2014

Realizing that a couple of hours at the spectacular waterfall would probably not be enough, we arranged our trip to culminate in a day and a half at the falls, allowing us plenty of time to enjoy the falls from every angle and take advantage of having such a beautiful spot all to ourselves.

The falls are named after a local legend about a tribal leader, Kai, who sacrificed himself by riding a canoe over the mouth of the falls.  Teur is the local word for falls, hence the Kaie-Teur name.  We rose early to try to get a look at the swifts that fly in and out of the waterfall at dawn and dusk, but the rain was still falling hard, so we took it as a sign to take it easy and sleep in.  The morning then began on a quest for bird-watching and frog-spotting, specifically looking for the iconic Guianan Cock-of-the-Rock and Golden Frog, a tiny species living on the leaves of some of the unique plant life.  Our search for the frog was unsuccessful, though we did get two sightings of the bright orange bird (though no decent pictures).

We enjoyed our last day in Guyana, continuing to marvel at the views and the natural splendor.  At 1 or 2 in the afternoon, another group showed up, coming in on the day flight where we met up again with the Canadian/Guyanese family that we had met in Surama a few days earlier.  We also found the other small group doing a day trip, the group with which we would head back to the capital city.  It's not easy to arrange a one-way flight in and out of the falls, so it took a lot of coordination and perhaps some luck to make it happen.  Our flight wasn't confirmed until just 3 or 4 days before, and even then, our spots were almost sold out from under us.  Fortunately, our guide's wife spoke with the airline again, went straight to the airport in Georgetown and paid for our spots, so ASL (Air Services Limited) held our seats open on the day trip, and we were able to board the plane for our last views of the falls.

As is customary on these flights, we passed by the falls on both sides, providing some perspective from above the falls and the surrounding forest.  The flight then passed through miles and miles of untouched forest before finally revealing a few hints of villages and then the large river mouth of the Demarara and the capital city of Georgetown.  Unfortunately, our airport ride wasn't there to meet us, so after 45 minutes of asking around the small airport, we were lucky enough to get a ride back to the city with the security workers who were nice enought to drop us right back at our hotel and end our trip on a friendly note.  Other than that, our last night was uneventful, relaxing at the hotel before our early morning departure.  We got into the taxi weary-eyed at 2:30 AM and began our long trip home.  The taxi took us to the airport, where we had a very tight connection through Trinidad, and this was my one biggest concern in booking our trip so tightly.  We didn't have a lot of time on the trip, and I really didn't want to lose a whole day just to ensure our connections, but I knew things don't always run as planned in this part of the world.

When we got to the airport, the sign board brought about a sinking feeling in my stomach.  Our flight was cancelled.  Our connection in Trinidad only gave us about 2 hours if the flight were on time, which isn't a lot of time to get through customs/immigration and then turn around and check in for a flight on another airline, so I had checked the stats over and over before booking.  Things looked pretty consistent, so I thought we could make it, but the one factor I didn't consider was that both the early morning flights were so empty that they cancelled the first one and combined the two.  While checking in, I mentioned the situation in passing to the gate agent who continued to go about his business.  Perhaps because he felt sorry for us and wanted to be helpful or maybe out of pure chance, as we walked away, he called us back and changed our seats to the first row of economy class, so we could get off the plane as fast as possible.  The flight took off about 45 minutes later than I had hoped, but I knew we still had a chance.

We got to Trinidad, grabbed our bags (we intentionally didn't check any baggage) and hurried to the customs and immigration agents.  Being able to sit in the front of the plane worked out perfectly, as we ended up being the first people in line, speeding through the check-in process in just minutes, even leaving us enough time to go get a very quick breakfast of doubles (the spicy chick-pea and roti meal) at the stall just outside the airport before hurrying back in to catch our flight.  We had a wonderful view of the Caribbean below as we passed over countless islands and clear blue water before making it back to Houston and connecting home to Atlanta to finish off our whirlwind trip.  All in all, it was fantastic, and we were able to see a lot in a fairly short time.

(A very ordinary photo of the extraordinary Guianan cock-of-the-rock.  We searched early in the morning and found the colorful bird, though it quickly spotted us and simply flew further into the dense forest and out of our view.  These orange/red birds have a prominent crest along the top of their head and are only found in this region.  We also searched in vain for a golden frog that lives in the huge leaves of the tank bromeliads, peeking into the crevasses of many plants before giving up.)

(Fog typically covers the morning views, burning off around 10 am.  Here you can see the falls shrouded in the ethereal mist from Johnson's View.)

(Even the walk to Johnson's View is impressive, passing under some huge boulders and vines on the way to the exposed rock.)

(A close-up of some of the early morning light hitting the vegetation.)

(Laying out in the ochre-colored water just above the falls.  This area is protected from the current, so despite being just a few seconds from the falls, this was completely safe and very refreshing, given the heat and humidity.)

(Lunch was pretty much the only thing unimpressive that day.  Sliced potatoes and fish bones didn't add much flavor, but we were anxious to get back out and explore more of the waterfall, so we weren't too bothered.)

(After the clouds cleared, the amazing falls shone in all their splendor.)

(A close-up of the bottom of the falls.  Johnny/Soldier told us that it was very hard to hike to that point from Tukeit, where the uphill trail started, also mentioning a lot of snakes in that area, though who knows if that part is true.)

(A straight-away shot of the falls, or at least a piece of them.)

(If you zoom in very closely to this shot, you'll again see me with arms outstretched just to the right of the top of the falls, dwarfed by this massive waterfalls.)

(A shot from Rainbow View, named for obvious reasons.)

(Still, the view over the edge of the falls remains scary and impressive at the same time.)

(We hurried out to the Cessna to get our preferred seats on the plane, though it turned out that the pilot circled the falls from both sides, so everyone in the plane had a great view.)

(The view of the Potaro river just downstream from the falls and back into the untouched tranquility.)

(Kaieteur Falls from above.  The tiny house in the forest in the middle right of the picture (with a red roof) is the lodge where we spent the night.)

(One more aerial shot and our last view of the falls before heading back to Georgetown.)

(About an hour later, we arrived back in Georgetown and started the long trek home...I used "trek" liberally here, as we didn't actually walk home to the US.  That would be quite difficult.)

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Kaieteur Falls - Day One

February 14, 2014

Iguazu Falls, Victoria Falls, Niagara Falls, Angel Falls.  These are some of the big names among waterfalls, and then there's Kaieteur Falls.  Although the name is probably not as immediately recognizable, it has to be one of the very best in the world.  Waterfalls have always captivated me, drawn to the beauty, grace and sheer power of them, and after having seen a few pictures of this place, I knew I had to one day come to see it for myself.  We saved the falls for the end of the trip, which could be a great culmination, but it also worried me because if something went wrong or the weather was bad, we wouldn't have any time left to change around plans to accommodate it.  Nevertheless, it was fantastic, mind-blowing and awe-inspiring.

After our arduous hike up to the falls, our fatigue was quickly forgotten as we saw the Potaro River fall 741 feet off a sheer cliff to the valley below.  Rainbows came and went in the mist, and we marveled from every angle.  The amazing thing is that despite it being one of the more impressive natural sights in the world, its isolation (and the general isolation of Guyana itself) keeps it fairly quiet.  Tourism figures put the number of visitors per year at around 5,000-6,000 people.  To give you some perspective, Niagara Falls estimates around 22 MILLION visitors per year.  Unlike most developed attractions, there are absolutely no fences, no vendors, no crowds.  A small lodge and tiny visitor's center at the airstrip are the extent of the development.  Oh, and a sign wisely warning you to stay at least 8 feet back from the edge.

Needless to say, I had high expectations for the falls, and they did not disappoint.  When we arrived, we saw a few guests waiting for an afternoon flight with the park ranger, but we literally had the entire run of the falls to ourselves.  For me, there is something magical about being able to experience such a natural wonder all by yourself.  We walked up to the edge of the falls, inching forward with tiny steps as we got closer and closer, watching the water plummet off the sheer drop to the misty pool below.  There are a few lookout points and one extremely scary perch.  We each inched out on the perch for pictures on the precipice of the platform, hanging like an extended walkway out over the edge of the falls.  Looking down, you get a feel for the immense size and power of the falls, though after a minute or so, my better judgement convinced me to slowly back away to a safer viewing point.

I've been lucky enough to visit many of the mighty waterfalls in the world, and Kaieteur definitely has to be near the top of the list.  (I'd probably rank it as #2 behind Iguazu.)  The power, isolation and natural beauty here are an incredible combination, and it's still hard to believe that something this amazing remains mostly unchanged and unvisited.  We spent the afternoon walking around the various viewpoints, taking way too many pictures and marvelling at each and every view.

Late in the afternoon, we headed to the top of the falls again to watch the nightly migration of swifts (birds) that come in at dusk and leave at dawn, passing through/around the waterfall to their nests behind the falls.  We had read that it was a magical site, so we took our shoes off and waded into the river just above the falls to rest our feet and watch the action.  Clouds shrouded the view, and a light rain started to fall as the darkness began to set in.  We saw a few of the groups of birds, but we may have missed a larger migration, if that does occur.  As the rain came down harder, we ran back to the guesthouse and got in just as the skies opened up.  Much of the night continued with rain pattering down on the tin roof of the spacious lodge, consisting of a large open dining (where hammocks are sometimes strung for guests), a kitchen and two small guestrooms - one occupied by us, the other occupied by one of the workers at the park.

After our long day of hiking and with very little to do when the sun goes down in a place like this, we fell asleep early, anxious for our next day of exploring the area.

(The view at the edge of Kaieteur Falls, where the Potaro river drops 741 feet.  This is known as the largest "Single Drop" waterfall in the world, though I'm not quite sure about that claim.)

(Looking down from the rock perch to the bottom of the falls.)

(Look very closely at the rock on the right side of the falls and you will find Kristina and her pink shirt sitting precariously on the exposed rock.  We each took turns on the rock ledge, inching our way out there and back, as the falls have no safety rails or fences...which is part of what makes them so special and unique.)

(Here's a closer view, this time with me sitting on the ledge with my arms outstretched.)

(Yes, similar picture to the one with Kristina on the rock ledge, but it's hard to resist such a fantastic perch.  Plus, we couldn't both be in it, as someone had to actually take the picture, and we were the only visitors at the park that afternoon.)

(I believe this is the shot from Boy Scout View.  The three major viewpoints, from closest to furthest are called Rainbow View, Boy Scout View and Johnson's View.)

(Kristina looking majestically over the valley below...or is the valley looking at her??)

Mahdia, Guyana - A Mining Town and Kaieteur Falls Overland

February 13 - 14, 2014

The overland trek to Kaieteur Falls was one of the main reasons I wanted to go to Guyana, so we had to figure a way to work it into our busy plans for the trip.  Most overland tours take four days through the rainforest and up to the waterfall, but after many iterations with our guide, I came up with a plan that worked better for us, mixing in time in other parts of the country and cutting off a bit of the initial hiking.  We would still experience the boat journeys up the river and the accomplishment and toil of hiking up to the spectacular falls, but we'd just cut out some of the less-inspiring bits along the way.

Continuing up the road from Iwokrama (and Surama early that morning), we made our way through a few river crossings by ferry and ended up at the outpost of Mahdia late in the afternoon.  Mostly a mining town and tiny trading post, the few blocks of development mostly cater to the men who mine the area, so the town has a rough feel with bars, ladies of the night and a few supply shops.  Finding a spot to eat an early dinner, we found armed guards sitting with shotguns outside the shop next door, so we decided we wouldn't explore too much around the area, though we did take a nice walk around the edge of town at sunset to find some kids playing soccer and a few locals sitting on their porches.  Our hotel, Roger Hinds Hotel, is the "nice" hotel in the village, but we stayed in the cheaper part of it and were a little worried by some incessant moaning in the room next to us.  At first we thought it might stop, but this wailing continued for about 20-30 minutes before a worker came to see what the problem was.  The noise stopped for a while, but soon enough, we heard it again.  We weren't sure if it was some sort of drug issue, but we decided not to get involved in the odd situation.

The next morning, we drove down to the river at Pamela Landing, hopped on a boat with our guide ("Soldier"/Johnny) and his three sons and headed up the river.  Surrounded by rainforest and the oncoming plateaus, the placid river was incredibly beautiful and peaceful.  A few mining tents could be seen along the way, but most of the ride was completely untouched by mankind.  Soldier's son, Freddy John entertained us with tales of debauchery from the weeks before as we headed up the river, interspersed with knowledge of medicinal plant uses and way to survive in the jungle.  We arrived at a small waterfall called Amatuk Falls after about 90 minutes where we had to land the boat, take it out of the water and walk it a few minutes through a trail to put in above the falls.  Another 45 minutes on the river took us to Waratuk Falls, more of a series of small rapids, where we also had to take the boat out and around.  30 minutes later, we arrived at Tukeit, the start of the trail up to Kaieteur Falls.

The well-marked trail is easy enough to follow, but this is no easy walk.  The stifling heat and humidity, in addition to our small backpacks (we left some of our supplies in the Georgetown hotel), made it a difficult hike as we marched on through the forest and up the steep mountain.  The hardest parts are called Oh My God #1 and Oh My God #2, based on the hiker's sentiments when they reach these steep climbs.  We took a few breaks along the way, but fortunately the hard uphill part of the climb was over in 1.5 - 2 hours.  We were still in thick forest, nowhere near the waterfall, but we were happy to hear that the rest of the walk would be mostly level.  So we trudged along for another 30-45 minutes before coming to a clearing.  After being entrenched in untouched nature, the clearing revealed a long strip of pavement, certainly an incongruous sight for this area.  We got a little closer and saw that it was the airstrip for the planes that take day tours in and out of the falls area a few times a week.  Many people choose to see the falls this way, but I wanted more time to explore every bit of the huge falls, so we opted for the overland route and ended up having the area to ourselves for the majority of two days there.

(The main road running down the middle of Guyana, connecting Georgetown on the North coast to the interior and eventually to the border with Brazil, making it one of the major trade routes.  Even so, it remains a dirt road with potholes and huge mud puddles.  There is talk that it will eventually be paved, but it may take a while before that happens.  This is a typical view of the forest encroaching on the road with no other signs of development in sight.)

(Our minivan backs onto the ferry.  Heading from Surama to Mahdia, we had to take a few ferries across the river, as there aren't bridges to make the crossing.  As you can see, our van was a bit muddy from the ride, and this is during "dry season."  Our driver/guide told us that it's impassable for most normal vehicles during wet season.)

(A small river beach and island as viewed from the ferry.)

(The remains of an old minibus outside a snack shop on the other side of the ferry crossing, backed by a small shelter with a couple of hammocks.)

(After a night in Mahdia, we headed up the river from Pamela Landing.  Rivers are still an important mode of transportation in the undeveloped region, as evidenced by this huge pontoon boat that we saw floating by.)

(The only real development in the area is due to mining of gold and diamonds.  This post-apocalyptic machine is dredging through water and soil to try to sort out minerals from the riverbed.  A few barking dogs warned us to stay back, but the owner on the boat smiled and waved, as there don't seem to be a lot of people that pass by these parts.)

(A far-off view of Amatuk Falls.  It doesn't look like much here, but as you get close, it's very clear that you would not be able to get a boat up the river, so you have to stop along the side, walk a few minutes and carry the boat up and around to the next point where you put in.  The ride from Pamela Landing (the start) to Amatuk was about 90 minutes, followed by a 45 minute ride to Waratuk Falls where you have to take out again, and then another 30 minute boat ride to Tukeit, the start of the trail.)

(One of the makeshift mining spots along the river.  They basically cut away the side of a river bank, set up a few tents and dig through the area in search of diamonds and gold, but the operations here are still fairly small scale.)

(This steep uphill section is known as the Oh My God #2 part of the trail.  While most of the walk is uphill, Oh My God #1 and Oh My God #2 are the steepest portions.  It's a difficult hike, and the heat and humidity just add to the challenge.  Fortunately, the hardest part of the hike from the river's edge up to the top of the plateau lasted about 1.5 - 2 hours, and the final 30 - 60 minutes was somewhat flat, making our way along the plateau towards the river and spectacular falls.  Drenched in sweat, this was no easy walk in the woods.)

(Kristina and "Soldier" (aka Johnny), our guide, cross the tiny airstrip on top of the plateau, marking our arrival at the lodge and the falls.  The hike was definitely a difficult one, but it was a great way to get a feel for the vast size and undeveloped feel of this entire area.  That being said, it was an experience where we are both very glad we did it, but we won't be rushing back anytime soon to make the hike again.)

Iwokrama - Wandering Through the Rainforest Canopy

February 13, 2014

Heading up from Surama, we entered the realm of the rainforest, a vast, mostly undeveloped area covered in thick vegetation.  This area, part of the larger Guiana Shield, remains one of the least developed and most intact rainforests in the world.  The main road leading down Guyana is a mere dirt road filled with potholes and mud puddles, surrounded on both sides by the encroaching greenery.  Having to get from Surama to Mahdia, we got an early start, and our driver expertly navigated the road, spinning through a few pockets of huge mud puddles along the way.  I was really hoping we wouldn't have to get out and push, but Navin did a great job as we sat in the back of the minivan and enjoyed the view, including a few bird spottings (mostly black currasows - a very large upright walking bird and a red-rumped agouti - a cat/dog sized rodent that wanders the underbrush).

Iwokrama is a huge area of protected rainforest in the center of Guyana, so we stopped at the Canopy Tour to get a small taste of the area.  According to our guide, due to carbon credits, some countries such as Norway are even paying Guyana to not cut down their trees, basically selling their extra carbon/environmental credits to countries in need of the credits for global compliance purposes.  We got a young Brazilian guide, John, and headed into the forest, following the path through the greenery and thick humidity of the early morning.  About 30 minutes in, we reached the canopy tour, a series of walkways and platforms suspended high above the forest floor (up to about 100 feet above the floor below).  Wandering through the walkways provided some great views from the top level of the forest canopy, but we had to keep moving, so we didn't have long to enjoy the views before heading back to the van and back up the long dirt road.

(A tree boa constrictor was slithering along the path right at the beginning of the trail.  These aren't venomous, but I still decided to give it a bit of room as we passed and began our hike.)

(Kristina's bright shirt made her easy to find in the dense greenery...that and the fact that the trail was well-marked and easy to follow.)

(About 30 minutes into the walk, we descended a step hill to get to the first of the canopy platforms.)

(Thick vegetation covers this protected area, as does the never-ending humidity.  Fortunately, it was still early morning, so the heat of the day hadn't quite set in.)

(The first of the canopy bridges, shrouded in the top of the trees.)

(The bridges are metal laticework, suspended by strong cables.)
(A view down the massive trunk of one of the trees.  Supposedly the special construction of these platforms is movable and still allows the trees to grow unencumbered, but I'm no canopy platform expert, so I can't comment on that.  I just like taking pictures.)

(The canopy walkway cost nearly $180,000 USD to build, so we tried to show our appreciation by taking plenty of pictures and admiring the views.)

(As we were there in the morning, the early fog helped create an ethereal feeling amongst the varied flora.)

(More fog, more trees.)

(One of the forks in the trail that we did not explore.  I assume that's where all of the animals are.  Though rainforests are full of wildlife, the dense foliage makes them very hard to actually spot, in addition to them simply moving away from the trails when they hear obnoxious American tourists coming down the path.)

Surama Eco-Lodge, Guyana - Where the Rainforest Ends and the Savanna/Rupununi Begins

February 12, 2014

At almost a moment's notice, the thick rainforest of Guyana gives way to extensive grasslands.  This savanna in the Southern corner of the country (known as the Rupununi) is home to a few notable eco-lodges and impressive wildlife.  Lodges such as Karanambu, Rewa, Surama, Rock View and a few others entice visitors with the friendly indigenous populations, wildlife viewing opportunities and the vast openness of an area still remarkably undeveloped.  

With such a short trip and having to re-arrange some flights, we didn't have much time in the Rupununi, but we were glad we'd at least be able to see a tiny piece of it.  We took the small plane from Georgetown to Rock View lodge, flying over vast tracts of untouched rainforest before suddenly giving way to the Southern grasslands of the Rupununi.  We had a couple of hours to explore the area around Rock View before meeting our guide, Navin, and heading up to Surama Eco-Lodge.

(Shortly after arriving at Rock View, we took a walk around the surrounding area, finding beautiful rolling hills of grasslands and a few small settlements.  This area is between the official Rock View lodge and the Oasis, its budget offshoot.)

(We then headed up to Surama Eco-Lodge, leaving most of the grasslands and heading into the thick rainforest before coming upon another small opening where the lodge and a few communities take advantage of a break in the trees.)

(The view from the lodge down towards the rainforest.  Most of these lodges offer cultural visits, wildlife tracking, river cruises and a few other activities, though part of the joy is the splendid isolation and peacefulness of it all.)

(Walking down the dirt road from the lodge, we entered back into the forest en route to our river cruise.  The walk took us about 45 minutes through the trees where we saw a couple of birds and a lot of insects, including trails of leaf-cutter ants and the "bullet" ant, named because the bite of the ant is so painful that it feels like you got shot.  It's also known as the 24 hour ant because the pain lasts for 24 hours.  Fortunately, we decided not to try it out for ourselves.)

(Along with a Canadian guest and our two guides, we slowly paddled our canoe up the Burro Burro river.  Surrounded by trees and no development, this was a beautiful spot.  We did see a few monkeys playing in the trees, though we unfortunately didn't spot any giant otters.)

(Apparently this area does have some piranhas and electric eels, so we wisely didn't go for a swim here, though it sounds like it's really not that dangerous.  Our guide told us some good stories about he and his friends playing with electric eels and shocking each other.)

(This is the take-out point for the canoes along the Burro Burro, another tranquil spot on the relaxing river cruise.)

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