Saturday, 7 March 2009

Journey to the South

Sunset from the Jesuit garden in St. Ignatius village, Lethem
(B's favourite photo angle- from below- hippopotamus maximus!)

It’s the end of an ordinary day in Lethem. A small Amerindian boy chases someone else's horse out of the church compound. Only the commonest birds are in sight, flying home to roost- parrots, in pairs, squawking like toys, battering away frantically at the air, and lazy vultures cruising, on the lookout, gliding out over the river into Brazil and the sunset.

Our journey down here was (I’m told uncharacteristically) smooth. We had a royal send-off in Georgetown from Dengue Steve, Typhoid Ramesh, Laptop Rayan and BMX Britto. They came to drop us off at 7:30, and sweetly killed time with us till 8:30 when the bus actually arrived. We all managed to board and set off bang on time, 9pm. The Big Bus would have looked pretty shabby to me two months ago. If you drove up to Victoria Coach Station and started loading, there would be a few complaints. No-one could call it fancy. But it was the most comfortable seat I’ve sat on since leaving England, despite being plastic and ripped. We had the front two seats. Luxury!
The journey starts with two hours of surfaced road, and a stop-off at Immigration at Linden. Immigration? Have we crossed a border? Does the bus cross a border at all? Nope. But Immigration check us all out, especially the Brazilian passengers.
We then set off on the main part of the journey- on a good trip such as ours, a mere 12 hours on unsurfaced road. This “highway” is the main artery to more than three-quarters of Guyana. In my one hour Traffic Survey, I counted 6 vehicles. As you can tell, most of the population does not live in this three-quarters! The suspension copes so well that both of us manage a fair bit of sleep between 11pm and 5am.

The last five hours are the best part. At 5:45, the Big Bus is first in the queue for the Rupununi ferry- a 500 horsepower plank raft with a steel undercarriage. First, all the passengers walk on. Then each vehicle reverses down a steep muddy riverbank, and then across two planks on to the raft. The angles involved did not suit the Big Bus at all. Considering the palaver, it’s hard to imagine they go through this every day. The minibuses fit themselves on round the big bus, and the passengers keep hopping out of the way each time another vehicle gets packed on. At about 6a.m, a prime time of day for biting insects, the ferry sets off. It pulls upriver for a while, crossing the current high enough to counter the pull and nudge up to the opposite bank with aplomb. A boy in a vest and ragged denim shorts refills the fuel tanks with a chopped-down bottle as funnel, rinsing out the old diesel into the almost-pristine river.
Looks like it defies physics: Big Bus and Small Ferry

The road now goes through Iwokrama rainforest for an hour. I see my first “don’t litter” sign in Guyana, warnings against hunting and logging, alert-looking wardens. It’s heartening. Sadly every right-minded creature in the forest avoids the Big Bus like the plague. We stop for breakfast at Annai, a small village with a positively posh eco-resort and a red dirt landing strip. In the ladies’ toilets there’s a faded photograph of Prince Charles and a giant otter gazing at one another in mutual benevolent befuddlement (there isn’t one in the gents, B tells me). I get a decent cup of tea for breakfast; I’ve come to terms with the ubiquitous powdered milk.
The rest of the journey is over the savannah. We see egrets and vultures, and a few herons, but nothing more exciting in the way of wildlife. I don’t blame them for scarpering in the face of the Big Bus. The Kanuku mountains march us the last two hours into Lethem, rising abruptly out of the flatlands, cloaked in rich green trees.
One of the many plank bridges over the creeks
Once we reach our destination, it’s one last trip to Immigration, where you’re waved through swiftly unless you’re crossing the border, and we descend one last time from the comfy seat’s embrace to greet the equatorial heat and the dustclouds and the sweat and the cicada scream that I already don’t notice and the manic all-night cockerels and the kaboura flies of Lethem.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like quite an adventure. I particularly enjoyed the description of the bus getting on to the ferry. You were wrong - not boring at all :o)