“Will the piranha bite my boat?” I asked our Makushi guide who’d led the 7-hour trek through the jungle of southern Guyana. The man eyed the inflatable packraft perched on the muddy bank of the Kwitaro River.
“Maybe,” he said. “Don’t dangle things in water.”
With that he was gone, leaving Paul and me to the adventure at hand: Traversing one of the planet’s last great tracts of unbroken rainforest, a two-week trip on the Kwitaro and Rewa rivers. The black water flowed lazily through a jungle corridor of impenetrable vine and vegetation.
I’d heard about the Kwitaro from Libor Zicha. Libor had paddled many remote rivers in Guyana, most often solo, and he recommended the Kwitaro as being one of the most pristine. In fact, he’d been attacked by a jaguar on that very river. He was making camp for the night when he heard the crashing of branches and mistook the sounds of a running jaguar with that of a falling tree. Libor ducked and the jaguar leaped over the top of his crouching body. You can imagine his surprise. The big cat continued to approach aggressively but Libor dissuaded the beast by throwing sticks and sand. He was lucky.
Our plan was to float a portion of the Kwitaro and then portage over to the head of the Rewa River. The Upper Rewa is protected from upriver travel by a series of falls and cataracts. The area is so remote, it’s said the animals there have no fear of man, not necessarily a good thing considering Libor’s story but a place I wanted to see regardless. True Amazonian wilderness!
While floating the Kwitaro we spotted a giant river otter devouring a stingray the size of a bicycle tire.
I was thrilled to see such a rare species in its native habitat, but Paul’s attention was riveted on the stingray. He was wary of the rays, especially when dragging the boats over sandbars. Now he treated every shallow section like a hostile minefield.
At the end of each day we made sure we were off the water by sunset so our paddling activities didn’t overlap the nocturnal feeding habits of the black caiman, a larger Amazonian cousin of the alligator.
We strung our hammocks, roasting fresh-caught piranha over hot coals as the jungle came alive with an orchestra of bird, frog, and insect calls, all competing to be loudest. The unearthly roar of the howler monkeys eclipsed them all.
We were traveling during the dry season, so we began the portage to the Rewa by following a small tributary. This was much more difficult than we imagined as the jungle near the creek was extremely thick, the banks a combination of sand and slippery clay.
Using our brand new machetes we hacked through the undergrowth until we were well away from the creek.
Once inside the primary forest traveling was easier. Unfortunately, the canopy was so thick my GPS couldn’t get a satellite connection, rendering it useless as a navigational device. Also, we worried about the lack of water. We couldn’t rely on rain during the dry season and the heat and humidity was sweltering. We used a compass to try and get us back to the creek but once again we ran into thick vegetation. We seemed to be going in circles which our compass confirmed. Getting lost in the jungle was a bit unnerving, as you might imagine, and we used a compass bearing to head straight back to the river.
We decided to continue heading down the Kwitaro, portaging over to the Rewa where the rivers come closer together.
The next couple of nights were a bit daunting. First of all, morale was not exactly high since our little foray into the woods and we were eating very little. One meal, called Tsampa, tasted of rusty nails. Then Paul accidently cut himself with the machete. With the light of my headlamp I could see the wound on his finger was deep. There was blood all over the leaves. We cleaned and superglued the flesh together. A large creature thrashed in the river all night. I tried to pretend like I wasn’t worried, but I was.
After a few days floating the Kwitaro we portaged the couple miles over to Rewa River. Every 30 seconds we’d check the compass so we didn’t go in circles. There are magnificent trees in the jungle, some the size of redwoods.
We could tell we were nearing the river when the jungle grew thick. I found myself hacking at the brush, swinging the machete like a baseball bat as an army of biting spiders crawled up my pant legs.
When we got to the river we began a grueling upstream paddle. We eddy-hopped for 10 miles until the freshening current bested our efforts and we took to the jungle again.
We portaged our lightweight crafts up the rapids to Corona Falls, where the river becomes a torrent of froth and mist as it cascades over a plateau.
We saw capybara (a rodent of unusual size) and tapir (something like a pig with an elephant trunk), but no jaguars. The trip’s wildlife highlight was coming across a 20-foot anaconda sunning itself on shore.
With our palms sweating, we paddled as close as we dared. As a kid I used to love to catch snakes. I’d use my socks as snake bags much to my mother’s horror. Seeing that monster face to face was a thrilling experience. It also made me want a bigger boat.
Now back home, I’m still processing everything we saw in Guyana. Those two weeks brought such a barrage of the strange, the primordial, and the unexpected. I can finally take a bath without thinking of piranha, and Paul no longer dreams of stingrays. Or so he says.