A brow-beaten and slightly emphysemic eight-seater plane of uncertain age and less certain power (max speed 110 mph — my Audi does that on West End Lane) flew us from Guyana’s weather-boarded old colonial capital of Georgetown, birthplace of more West Indies cricket legends than you can wield a bat at, to the fabled and heart-stoppingly sensational Kaieteur Falls.
At 750 feet, one of the longest and most powerful single-drop waterfalls on the face of the planet, Kaieteur is arguably the most beautiful waterfall in the world, and incontestably the most remote and least visited.
Five times higher than Niagara, pumping out 140,000 gallons of thundering water each second, it’s a flight or nothing to get you there. Visitors land at a dusty airstrip cobbled from machetes, hatchets and a broom in the thick of a 100 percent humid jungle rich in luminescent scarlet macaws, screeching howler monkeys, microscopically tiny yellow poison dart frogs, even the occasional jaguar.
And since Guyana receives fewer than 2,000 tourists a year (that is 40 visitors a week in a country the size of England and Scotland combined), pretty much the whole country is pristine and virtually untouched by human hand, Kaieteur included.
Guyana grows more beautiful and beguiling the deeper you wend your way from the Caribbean-vibe coast and into the interior. Eighty percent of this is lost in the jungly rain forest, the rest in flat savannah, where the one percent of the country’s 700,000 population who do not live on the Atlantic coastal strip have built their tiny settlements.
One such settlement is Karanambu, a 125-acre ranch deep in the Rupununi savannah, for more than a century home to the legendary McTurk family, latterly Diane McTurk, renowned for her work rescuing orphaned giant otters.
A year either side of 80 (no-one seems quite sure, least of all Diane), Diane is a star. Rarely have I been in such total awe as those moments each day when Diane would wade chest-deep into the river to play with her “children”, a chunk of fish in one hand, a psychotically boisterous and hysterically squeaking otter hanging from the other by its sharp pointy teeth. Graceful and down-to-earth, Diane’s Home Counties vowels are the perfect vehicle for her myriad tales of life on the wild side.
In the company of Diane on a night-time river trip in our makeshift dug-out, rum punch flowing, I became, instead of one of life’s talkers, a born-again listener.
The river, and its labyrinth of brooding razor-thin creeks, is home not only to a whole raft of impossibly vast lily pads (hundreds upon hundreds of them that, with yellow lilies in the middle, look uncannily like 72-inch Fiorentina pizzas on water), but also to the fearsome caiman alligator, a 20-foot long brute who prowls the shadowy creeks of the Essequibo river.
Eclectic, often downright eccentric, wildlife abounds in and around Karanambu, from Bandit the black-eyed house raccoon to the bats that draped themselves seductively across my bed at night, or dive-bombed my mosquito net at every opportunity.
Nothing, though, compares with the elusive anteater. With a hump-backed whale of a body, a vacuum cleaner hose for a snout and a feathery quill of Shakespearean proportions to the rear, this creature proves, once and for all, that God has a sense of humour.
No less oddly cobbled together is the tapir, a creature encountered while staying at the idyllic Rock View Lodge not so far from the border with Brazil. It looks, depending on how rum punch affects you, like an inflated pig or a deflated rhino. Either way it has, like the anteater, a seriously odd snout that wiggles and sniffs, and will scoop a whole mango from your hand.
Rock View is a complete joy, presided over by Colin Edwards, whose affable bonhomie belies the raw determination of a real maverick, who has single-handedly breathed life, water, electricity, airstrips, schools, clinics, and his own glorious hideaway into a previously untouched and unreachable corner of Guyana. Dawn treks from Rock View are a real treat. One morning, while the sun was coming up, a few of us even blazed our own trail up a mountain where, it is entirely possible, no human had ever before set foot. We built cairns, stuck coloured poles into the ground, and felt like pioneers.
Guyana isn’t short of visionaries like Colin Edwards. In the nearby micro-settlement of Annai we met Virgil, a man with charisma that runs deep as a well. Virgil used to head up the local school and now staffs the local pirate radio station. In fact he is the local pirate radio station. It has just one producer, one technician, one presenter, one tea-maker, one cook and bottle washer. Virgil.
Deep in the rain forest at Iwokrama Field Station and Research Centre we met biologists, zoologists, entomologists and all manner of naturalists, — inspirational folk who discover, monitor and preserve all manner of species never before known to man. From the nearby canopy walkway — a succession of rope bridges and small landings 120-feet up in the trees — we observed a cavalcade of monkey and bird life. Squirrel monkeys, spider monkeys, resplendent yellow-billed toucans with bigger bills than at any of Gordon Ramsay’s establishments, and Guyana’s national bird, the hoatzin, resembling a bird fossil more than an actual living bird.
I stayed a fortnight in Guyana, commuting by light aircraft, canoe and jeep — the last of which says all you need to know about Guyana: a main highway 400 miles north to south, from the Atlantic right the way down to Brazil and not a blob of tarmac in sight, just a very, very long strip of pock-marked pink that only a seasoned and well-oiled jeep can handle.
Many countries have moved me but none has made me feel so privileged just to be there as Guyana. Rare and precious, it fills the senses and lightens the heart. I’m already fixing to go back there fast as my canoe will carry me.
Journey Latin America (firstname.lastname@example.org; 020 8747 8315) specialises in tailor-made and group tours to Guyana. A 15-day tailor-made tour in Guyana including Kaiteur Falls, Karanumbu and Iwokrama from £2,981 per person based on 2 sharing. Price includes accommodation, ground transfers, most guided excursions and most meals but not flights. Prices are vulnerable to fluctuation. International flights from £750 return with British Airways.