I’d arrived in Lethem on the Thursday with plans of heading south to Sand Creek to see the family of James and Doris. There was one slight snag, that way you arrive in Amerindan communities and you can need permission to go there. I mentioned my idea to Chris, and it turned out that James’ father was his uncle and apparently his brother used to work as a high-up in the Sand Creek community and could take me there. Unfortunately, both on the Friday and the Saturday he ended up being busy with work so I didn’t end up going.
Isabela, my Warmshowers host to be in Georgetown, had put me in touch with Curtis, a Canadian cyclist in the area and we’d been emailing back and forth. He had told me that he’d arrive in Lethem on the Saturday afternoon and so we planned to ride together. The almost 500km road from Lethem to Linden is unpaved, despite offers, and – especially in the rainy season – is a challenging ride. The first 130km are across the Rupinuni Savannah is toasty and the only reason it’s not too hot is that it has a constant strong wind from the north-east, (aka a headwind) then it’s into the Iwokrama jungle which is hot and humid, followed by a lighter forest which is about 250km long with very few houses or settlements. Good fun.
During my time in Lethem, I got to speak to both Chris, and Joe (who I’d be staying with just south of Georgetown) about life in Guyana. I heard about the difficult 26 years between independence and 1992 (particularly during the Cold War as the US was scared it was leaning too far left), which President Carter came down to help resolve. I learnt of a country where racial tensions were provoked and aggravated during British rule to control the people with politics going on racial lines between blacks (who had been given a lot of the police/army type roles during British rule), those from the East Indies, and the local Amerindian population. I was told about the efforts that Venezuela is taking to disrupt Guyanese efforts to extract petrol from their part of the Caribbean to ensure that Venezuela continues to control the market in the area. There was also talk of the future, and the past, where there is hope that the Lethem-Linden road will be paved. The Brazilian government is keen on doing so as it would allow much easier distribution of products to places like Boa Vista. Ford apparently offered to pave it and lots of other roads in the country just after Guyana gained it’s independence, in May 1966, from the UK, but only if they’d have a monopoly on car sales in the country and instead of negotiating the Guyanese government said no. I also picked up a hammock and mosquito net, because that’s just the way things are done round here.
Curtis, who is travelling the South Americas in alphabetical order during his holiday time from work, arrived with only one pedal on his 10 year old bike that had taken him around countries in Europe, Africa and South America. He had flown from Canada, to French Guyana and, instead of following the road west to Guyana, headed into Brazil to avoid Suriname, which he can’t enter before Paraguay or Peru. His pedal had fallen off at the border with Brazil and Guyana, but his host, Eddie, was able to fix it the following day with a bolt and a block of wood to take the weight of the foot.
Lethem is a very windy place during the day, and so Curtis and I decided that heading out in the afternoon would make more sense. In theory it was perfect. In practice, a little less so. We left just after 4:30, probably about an hour later than ideal but Curtis’ pedal wasn’t ready until just past 4. The sun went down around 5:30, and the new moon meant that the only light was a combination of the stars and Curtis’ headlamp. The first hour or two was really enjoyable. We felt like we were making good progress, but then it got more washboardy and while they’re generally possible to avoid during the day, that’s much harder at night. That continued on and off for hours. I’d heard of a ranch around 37km in, and at our 6-8km/h average we’d have got there around 10pm. We saw nothing. Then, around 10pm, I spotted a light in the distance. Maybe that could be it. 10:30pm, the light seemed a little stronger. 11pm, it seemed to have jumped to the left hand side of the road, I saw windows and Curtis also could see the details of it. By 11:30, and 90 minutes of chasing a ghost house we stopped in confusion, figuring we’d see a building in the morning to explain the situation. In the 7 hours since leaving, we’d covered 44km.
We didn’t. The next morning, we woke up from camping in a field to see absolute no buildings around us. We’d gone to bed certain that the previous night’s ghost house would be very close by, but there was nothing. Confused, we continued on. We’d got up early, before either the wind or heat could pick up too much. We made the most of it, and being able to see things, to have an enjoyable ride for about 30km to the next ranch, where we filled up on water, and then another 10km to Point Ranch – owned by Chris’ mother-in-law. We asked if there was a place to rest for a while, and were directed to where we could put up hammocks. Telford Davis, one of the workers there, showed us around and then offered to go and buy us some cokes from a shop just down the road. We were relaxing in the hammocks, drinking our chilly cokes, when we were let know that lunch was ready. Such generosity from the ladies cooking there.
Lunch was, of course, followed by a siesta which also let it cool down a little, and then it was back on the road on the way towards the town of Annai and our next stop of Oasis Restaurant. Just before arriving there, we saw a shop on the side of the road with loud speakers and so had to stop. They were playing a recording of some kind of beauty contest where five local 15ish year old Amerindian girls from district 9 had been competing. I only saw a small part, but it was the question time, which instead of “What’s your favourite colour?” included one question about combating child pregnancy and another about solutions to prostitution.
We stopped at Oasis, for dinner, and a break from my routine of biscuits and peanut butter. They accepted Brazilian Reals at 1:100, better than the official rate of 1:92, meaning it was about 10% cheaper than I’d expected. Dinner was a plate of rice, macaroni, salad (two slices of tomato), beans and a couple of pieces of chicken. We could have put up our hammocks there, but that’d have involved paying, and so we pushed on, going 3-4km more until we found a good place to put our tents. It also meant we were a little closer to Wowetta, where Curtis wanted to go walking the next day.
The sun was creeping up as we packed up and pushed on to town. It was only a 30 minute ride, where we set about finding a guide for Curtis to go and see the local bird, the Cock of the Rock. We were directed to a nearby house, where Bertie Chavez, a high-up in the community, lived and he had a guy that could give Curtis a tour. They’re usually booked through Rock View, a nearby eco-lodge, but having turned up he could get a special deal. I was happy with the idea of relaxing, so while Curtis spent 5 hours hiking and biking to see his bird, I set up my hammock, drank coconut water, read my book, and slept until he got back.
Our goal for the day, was only a little further, the ranger station at the entrance to the forest. A quick stop at the Wowetta store was definitely a good idea, as the one 10km further along, owned by a lady called Madonna, only had cigarettes, sweets and crisps. Then it was less than 10km more to the ranger/police station where we met Wilson and Arthur, the two police men who warmly welcomed us in and even shared some of their chow-mein dinner with us, and told us about a nearby creek where we could clean up. It was a lovely wash, and followed by my first full night’s sleep in the hammock. Definitely cooler, but my hammock is a bit too small and so I don’t stretch out quite as well as I’d like.
I awoke before 5am with a crick in my neck, and a little concerned about the road. There had been a huge storm the night before, but it ended up being beneficial as it meant that it stayed overcast most of the time until 11am. The jungle was definitely humid any time we stopped, but being the dry season the road was much nicer than it is in pictures from other blogs I’ve read. The jungle is full of life, and we heard noises from all sides as we rode along. The green was incredibly vibrant, and contrasted well with the sandy-clay combination that made up the road. There are definitely potholes, but on a bike you can wiggle around them much easier than in a vehicle where they’re spread out enough that you have to ride like you’re going round chicanes.
Curtis had been thinking of a canopy walk, but it would have meant giving up an hour or two of cool riding and so he skipped it. We pulled up to the River Esequibo, the 3rd largest in South America, by 12:30, and were fortunate to only have to wait 30 minutes to get across. The pontoon only comes when there’s a car, and in the previous 8 hours there’d only been 9 vehicles heading the same way as us, the previous about 2 hours earlier. The vehicle that did come was a Peace Corps one, where a young American and her Guyanese leader were heading to Georgetown.
Just across the river, there were 3 restaurants, but we only saw the first one. It was a good choice. We ordered two lunches, at 1000GYD/10BRL ($5/$4.50) each mentioning that we were two very hungry cyclists. Isaac, the waiter, thought I meant that we wanted it quickly, but I clarified that it could take as long as he liked, as long as it was big. He didn’t disappoint. 30 minutes later he came out with two gigantic bowls of mainly rice that Isaac had called Everest. I happily accepted the challenge, and half way through I was done. I could have finished it, but this way I had dinner and my stomach wasn’t going to explode if we tried to ride off.
The obligatory nap took us to just after 3:30, meaning we hit the once-again-cloudy road with hopes of finding a place to camp before darkness hit. There were a couple of climbs, but the cool weather and generally flat riding meant we flew along, covering almost 20km before finding a place to stop 30 minutes before the sun went down. We could have pushed on, but the area has malaria and setting up a tent at night with that risk didn’t sound at all appealing. Curtis came off his bike, bloodying his right knee, but while he was down he saw a good place to stop – a definite mixed blessing. We got our bikes hidden just off the road, his leg cleaned up and our sleeping areas organised without a single bite, success.
Repulic Bank advert – Guyana started getting ready for Christmas in October and here’s wonderful video proof