Saturday, 20 October 2007

My Boat Trip through the Guiana Wilderness

My Boat Trip through the Guiana Wilderness
BY A. HYATT VERRILL (with seven photos by the author)
From Harper’s Magazine, January 1917, digital capture by Doug Frizzle October 2007

WHERE the Mazaruni and the Cuyuni rivers, flowing north through the center of British Guiana, pour their coffee-colored waters into the turbid flood of the Essequibo, Bartica perches upon the rivers bank.
A tiny village of scarce more than a score of buildings separated by grassy lanes, Bartica owes its existence to its position, for the countless gold-diggers and diamond-miners—bound to or from the "diggings" of the upper Mazaruni and Cuyuni districts—find the little port a convenient stopping-point. Daily river steamboats, ply between Bartica and Georgetown, sixty miles distant; smaller launches make regular trips up the rivers to the rapids; and from the gold-fields fortunes in the yellow metal annually pass through this little hamlet on the borders of the wild.
It was at Bartica that our boat trip through Guiana’s wilderness really began, for the voyage up the great Essequibo from Georgetown, while full of interest and novelty, paled into insignificance compared with our journey from Bartica through the falls and rapids to Rockstone.
Although neither a long nor an arduous trip, yet it was not without excitement at times. It was novel; and in many ways it was one of the most interesting experiences of my many years in the American tropics. We selected this particular route for several reasons. Lewis, the geologist, in search of certain minerals, thought this section of British Guiana promised well; I wished to secure photographs of subjects which the district afforded; and, in addition, it seemed the least-known trip which could be accomplished in the limited time at our disposal.
As far as we could discover, no white man, save Mr. Anderson, the Lands and Mines Commissioner, had ever traveled from Bartica to Rockstone up the rapids. Even the Sprostons, who maintain the river-steamboat services, could give us no definite information about the trip, and everyone agreed that it was dangerous and inadvisable. But this only made us the more determined to undertake the journey, and, as I suspected, we found the perils vastly exaggerated, and the trip merely fraught with enough danger and excitement to make it interesting.
At Bartica we secured our boat and crew, the former a heavy, strongly built affair twenty-eight feet in length, of the universal tent-boat type peculiar to Guiana, and admirably adapted to navigating the falls and rock-filled rapids of the great South-American rivers.
To get a crew together was by no means easy. No one, save the captain and bowman, appeared anxious to take the trip, even though the wages offered were high; and one after another the men we engaged backed out. When at last, after innumerable delays, we secured enough men to handle our boat, we had a motley crew indeed.
The captain, Abraham Boters, was half Indian and half negro; the bowman Glasgow and the stern-paddler Chung were half negro and half Chinese; Correia was a Portuguese; and the other two hands were negroes, black as ebony. Last, but by no means least, was Small, general factotum, majordomo, steward cook, padrone, and man of all work combined, a colored man of "the legal line," as he expressed it, and equally efficient in all his various capacities.
By the time our dunnage and that of the men, our provisions and the crew's supplies, were on board and stowed beneath the huge tarpaulin which was to serve as our shelter at night, the Erin was deeply laden. We were still short-handed, and planned to pick up two Indians on the way, to act as paddle-men while traveling, and as hunters and fishermen while in camp.
With a goodly portion of Bartica’s population gathered at the waterside to see us off, the boat was pushed from the beach, the six paddles dug into the water together, and our trip through the wilderness began.
The method of paddling adopted by these men is very peculiar and consists of about a dozen short-arm strokes, all the paddles being slid along the gunwales on the recovery. Then at a shout of "Yep yai!" and the signal of a raised paddle, given by the bow paddler, the stroke suddenly changes. At the signal the paddles are dug deeply into the water with the full power of brawny arms and backs, the water is thrown upward in a miniature cataract at the end of each stroke, and the heavy boat is fairly lifted from the water, until, at another signal, the short, lazy arm-stroke is resumed. All is done in perfect time and unison, the brown arms rising and falling, the bronzed backs bending, and the paddles flashing like one, while on the prow the bowman perches with his enormous paddle ready to swing the craft to right or left at sight of submerged rock or sunken snag; and at the stern stands the captain, the big steering-paddle slung to the gunwale by a bight of rope, and its handle gripped firmly in his hands. Of all the crew the captain is the most important. He must be skilled in handling the boat, and must know every eddy, current, rock, rapid, snag, and island of the river. He is responsible for the safety of the boat and passengers, for he is licensed by the government, after a long and searching examination, and his word is law when afloat upon the river.
Until one has traveled through the rapids with these men, one cannot realize what consummate skill and knowledge they possess. On every hand are the jutting rocks with foaming, roaring torrents rushing between, and everywhere upon the black waters are swirling eddies indicating sunken reefs or dangerous currents. There are no marks, no buoys, no beacons to guide, and far and near are countless wooded islands separated by winding, tortuous waterways, one so like another that no one who had not spent his life upon the river could distinguish them.
For several miles after leaving Bartica we swung along close to shore, past the outlying thatched huts and cultivated gardens, past the well-tilled rubber-groves and lime-orchards of Agarash, and between the mangrove-fringed shores and wooded islands of the river beyond.
In a few hours all signs of civilization were left astern, and the mile-broad, tranquil river, the interminable mangroves, and the vast forest stretched before us. A little after noon we headed inshore toward a darker patch upon the greenery of the bush, and presently entered the mouth of Kureai Creek.
There is something wonderfully fascinating about paddling up these little sluggish creeks in the wilderness, where deepest silence reigns, only broken by the harsh screams of parrots or the curious human-like cries of toucans; where vine-draped trees, graceful palms, and great forest giants rise in a wall of greenery on either side. Arches of tangled lianas and spreading branches meet above the water; mangroves sprawl their strange, aerial roots in the muddy shallows, giant, lily-like Arums form miniature islands; strange orchids and air-plants bedeck the vines and trees; and giant, brilliant, shimmering Morpko butterflies flit back and forth, their cerulean, flashing wings reflected in wondrous manner upon the dark surface of the creek.
Here passing breezes never ruffle the water, which is stained a deep brown by the vegetation, and has a thick, oily appearance that reflects the surroundings to marvelous perfection. It is as if one were floating on a gigantic mirror, and every leaf, twig, and detail is duplicated so perfectly that the eye can scarce distinguish the real from the unreal, nor can one say which is water and which land. Here and there great fallen trees, or "tacubas," bar the way and force the occupants of intruding boats to crouch low as they pass beneath the tangled mass, while submerged logs and snags grind against the bottom of the craft with imminent danger of capsizing it.
But by twisting and turning, swinging to right or left, and following leads only visible to the trained eyes of the river-men, mile after mile is traversed in safety through this forest wonderland, where the traveler may see the strange plants and luxuriant growth of the tropic forest, may watch the brilliant butterflies, may see rare and beautiful forms of bird life in their native haunt,, and, in short, may enjoy all the novelty of a trip through the heart of the jungle without the exertion and difficulties of tramping and hewing one's way through the bush.
Along the creeks' banks, little coves or lagoons stretch into the forest, and here one may see frail dugouts, or "wood-skins"—canoes made from the bark of a forest tree—moored to the banks, and primitive ladders, formed by cutting deep notches in a log, leading upward from the water to the land. These mark the landing-places of the Indians, whose gardens and houses are hidden in the bush beyond, and who, though nominally civilized, lead lives almost as free and unconventional as did their ancestors before the advent of the white men.
It was in search of one of these Indian settlements that we entered Kureai Creek, for Lewis had heard that a "buck" known as Hermanas knew where there was a deposit of the mineral he desired, while our captain was confident that from Hermanas's camp he could obtain the two men required to complete our crew.
Soon after entering the creek we sighted a little opening, with two boats moored among the trees, while perched upon the bank, amid banana and palm trees, was a thatched hut, from which a man stepped forth at our bowman's hail. He was no Indian, but a white man, and, strangely enough, proved to be a Boer from the Transvaal, an ex-prisoner of war, who had chosen to remain in Guiana rather than return to his native veldt when hostilities were ended. He informed us that Hermanas's place was "Not too far top side creek"—for he spoke in the queer, talky-talky jargon of the aborigines—and with this vague information we resumed our journey.
Several miles beyond the home of the voluntary Boer exile, we spied several canoes hidden among the trees, and near them a larger boat in which a man was preparing to embark. He was a half-breed, just returning from the Indians' camp, and offered to guide us to Hermanas's home. At the summit of the bank stood two well-built logis, or Indian houses, and here we decided to make camp for the night, as it would be impossible to visit the Indians, return to the boat, and reach another good camp-site ere nightfall.
These Indian logis are found scattered through the bush and serve as temporary resting-places for the natives when traveiing about. They are merely great open sheds timbered with poles and roofed with palm-leaves, beautifully thatched and supported on strong posts some five or six feet in height. They are identical in form and construction with the houses, or benabs, used by the Indians for their permanent homes. Light poles resting on the rafters form an overhead platform upon which household utensils and belongings are stored; hammocks swung from side to side between the upright posts serve as chairs and beds; and with a fire or two built at the ends of the building to keep the interior dry and provide means for cooking, the Indian’s home is complete.
The Guiana Indians are a wonderfully honest people, and have a sublime confidence in the integrity of others. Their own honesty, and their belief that all men possess the same trait, was most vividly illustrated when we took up our quarters in the logi by the creek shore. Upon the rafters, hanging under the eaves and tucked away among the thatch, were various belongings of the Indians. Even their most cherished and valuable possessions were there, such as trunks and canisters of clothing, ammunition, cooking-utensils, machetes, and even a new breech-loading shot-gun still in the original box, as sent from the factory in Massachusetts. Here they were left unguarded and within reach of any passer-by, the simple aborigines trusting solely to the integrity of strangers for the safety of their goods. Any traveler was welcome to come and go and take possession of the logis for as long as he saw fit, provided the contents were left undisturbed. To the credit of the blacks and whites, the half-breeds, and the innumerable other natives who put the Indian logis to their own use, the red men's faith in human nature is seldom shattered, although the fact that this is not due entirely to moral principles was proven by the naive remark of one of our men who, in reply to my question, answered, "No, sir, we never takes the bucks' things; we bound to be shot up if we does.”
Soon after we reached the logis an Indian canoe arrived with a young buck, accompanied by his squaw, or buckeen, and a youngster about two years old. The man and his wife were garbed, as are all the Indians when near the settlements or when out of their forest fastnesses, in civilized clothes, but their boy was innocent of all adornment and was as bright and interesting a little savage as one could wish. His sixteen-year-old mother carried a huge load in a basket secured by a strip of bark around her forehead, and seemed little inconvenienced by her burden, even when climbing up the steep and slippery path from the creekside. Like our own North-American Indians, the Guiana red men leave to their women most of the manual labor, with the exception of felling timber, clearing land, and hunting; but they are by no means lazy or indolent, for all that, and are hard, tireless workers once they can be induced to work at all. Their disinclination to labor is due more to inborn independence than inherent laziness, and, while always friendly, they still possess a distrust and contempt for strangers. Once you have won their friendship and respect, they will do anything in their power for you, and will remember a kindness or an injury for years and return it in kind when opportunity offers.
We had been assured in Georgetown that we would find no interesting Indians on our proposed trip; that all the aborigines in the section we would traverse were thoroughly civilized and Christianized; and that to see the bucks in their natural state, clad in loincloths, or laps, and armed with bows and arrows, and to secure specimens of genuine savage handiwork, we must travel far into the interior, to the savanna country on the Brazilian borderland.
Under these circumstances, imagine our surprise when, after walking scarce a hundred yards into the forest on the way to the Indians’ camp, we came face to face with a naked savage—bow and arrows in one hand, a beaded girdle about his waist, and his only garment a scant lap. He was a splendid figure, a statue of glowing bronze, but we had scarce time to glimpse him ere he slipped into the forest and melted into the shadows of the great trees like a spirit of the jungle.
This incident somewhat shattered our faith in the reliability of information vouchsafed us in the city. Our hopes rose accordingly, and, while throughout our trip we saw none but apparently civilized and Christian Indians, we yet found that beneath the surface the aborigines were all we desired. The women might deck themselves in slatternly gowns, but under their unbecoming rags they still wore their beautifully woven bead aprons; and the men, who appeared like vagabonds in ill-fitting trousers and calico shirts, were transformed to ideal savages when, casting such things aside, they slipped through dim forest aisles or breasted foaming rapids clad only in their blue or scarlet loin-cloths.
Our path from the logis to Hermanas's camp led for a mile or more through the virgin forest, where great trees reared their vast heights for many scores of feet, and vines and lianas trailed downward in a tangled maze. In the tree-tops parrots screamed and toucans croaked and clattered, and from far-off glens the wonderful notes of the bell-birds rang in silvery tones.
Emerging from the forest and passing a strip of half-cleared land, we entered a little garden of cassava and plantains, in the midst of which stood several thatched Indian huts. In one an old woman was busy cleaning manioc roots, while the young squaw we had already seen sat nursing her two-year-old son. In the larger house close by, a number of Indians swung lazily in luxurious hammocks, and, without deigning to turn their heads, grunted guttural "How-dies" as we entered.
At our guide's call of “Hermanas," an old buck raised himself from the depths of his hammock and inquired, "What you want um?"
He was a shrewd-faced, small man, with head swathed in a white rag, and showed every evidence of being ill. To his question we answered that we had come to ask him to show us the mineral deposit Lewis sought.
"Give me two hundred dollar, I show um," replied the wily old chief.
"Eh, man! Why you make um sport?" exclaimed Small, who acted as our spokesman. "You no got um nothing for sell. How we know you find um? Gentlemen must for see um first. Mebbe good, mebbe no good. S'pose um good; you get um plenty work, plenty money. S'pose um no good, gentlemen pay for you show um."
"Me no dam' fool," the Indian assured us. "Me catch um plenty rock-stone like um want. No pay two hundred dollar, no show um."
A little further conversation disclosed the fact that a certain enterprising employee of the Lands and Mines Department at Bartica had heard of Hermanas's find, and had assured the Indian that he could obtain two hundred dollars for guiding Lewis to the deposit, for which valuable advice he was to receive a goodly share of the amount.
Lewis explained how ridiculous such a proposition was, and how it was impossible to determine the quality, value, or extent of the deposit until he had seen and examined it. To all of this Hermanas listened silently, and, even when Lewis offered him a large sum for his services, with a promise of more if the deposit proved valuable, the Indian still maintained his stoical attitude.
"Me much sick man," he declared. "No can walk um too far."
At this juncture I offered to cure his neuralgic headache—which was apparently his only trouble—and, while he still seemed obdurate, he was really wavering. At last, after a deal of arguing, coaxing, and flattery, the old chief stretched out his hand for the bill Lewis temptingly displayed, and then, rising, picked up his gun slipped bark sandals on his feet, and without a word led the way toward the forest.
Through jungles so thick we were forced to hew our way, through deep, muddy creeks, across treacherous bogs on slender trunks of trees, up hill and down the trail led. For an hour or more we hurried on, stopping only for a moment or two to catch our breath, and with the old Indian ever in the lead, until at last we toiled up a steep hillside. Reaching the summit, Hermanas suddenly halted, squatted down, and with a grin exclaimed, "Now gimme two hundred dollar." He was sitting upon an outcrop of the mineral we sought.
The return was by a shorter though harder route, and we reached Hermanas's camp as darkness fell upon the forest.
"S'pose you catch um sick like me, you no take um walk 'tall." was the Indian’s only comment as he pocketed the balance of his money. The truth of his statement we could not deny.
Two young Indians were engaged as hunters and boat-hands, and, telling Hermanas to join us at supper, when we would give him the promised medicine, we turned away from his camp and followed the dim trail through the dark forest to our logi by the creekside.
Presently Hermanas and the two young bucks appeared in the light of our fires, seeming to spring by magic from the shadows A hearty meal was furnished them, and the chief was given a five-grain compound phenacetin tablet. He seemed highly amused at the idea of the tiny pellet curing his pain, but he swallowed it, nevertheless, and a few moments later disappeared as silently and mysteriously as he had arrived.
This was our first night in the bush. All about were the mysterious noises of the forest. An owl hooted from the thicket; innumerable frogs boomed, trilled, and croaked in the creek and among the weeds; and with a tremendous roaring crash some forest giant toppled and fell prone to earth within the neighboring woods. But we slept soundly, despite the danger of vampire bats which the Indians said abounded in the district, and we were only awakened when an inquiring yuarri, or opossum, invaded our logi as the howling monkeys filled the early morning air with their fiendish cries.
Before sun-up Hermanas and his family arrived on their way to Bartica to spend his newly acquired wealth, and, much to my satisfaction, he informed us: "Head no hot; make um all right this time."
Apparently I had won quite a reputation as a piaiman, or medicine-man, and to show his gratitude Hermanas presented me with a beautifully wrought bead apron, or queyu, in its half-finished state, which I had seen hanging in his home the day before, and which at that time he had refused to sell at any price.
These queyus were formerly the sole article of wearing apparel used by the women, and, while civilized clothing has been adopted by all but the most remote tribes, the bead apron is still retained and worn under the conventional costume. Although the aprons of all the tribes and sub-tribes are more or less similar, yet they vary greatly in design and pattern, and, upon inquiry, I was told that each pattern indicates a certain woman's family—a sort of feminine coat-of-arms, as it were.
With a full crew of eight men, we left the logi, paddled down the creek, and, entering the Essequibo, headed upstream toward the distant rapids. It was flood-tide, for, strange as it may seem, the tide rises and falls for a distance of nearly one hundred miles inland on these great sluggish rivers, and we traveled easily and rapidly, following the shore that stretched in an endless green wall of jungle as far as eye could see. Hazy and dim, a similar line of greenery marked the opposite bank of the river, but so numerous and so large were the wooded islands in the stream that seldom was it possible to distinguish the farther shore with certainty or to tell the islands from the main. By mid-afternoon the islands had changed in character, and instead of being densely wooded from base to summit, bold, rocky shores and exposed granite ledges jutted from the water, and the strong current of the river became noticeable. More and more rocky grew the islands, lines of reefs rose menacingly between them, shelving beaches of creamy sand gleamed here and there, and far ahead could be seen the flashing glimmer of the first rapids.
Now the rocks assumed strange, fantastic forms, and one in particular attracted attention from its marvelous resemblance to a titanic toad, perfect even to the mouth, eyes, and limbs. Just beyond this striking example of natural sculpture the boat was run upon the sandy beach of a wooded island, and the men bustled about preparing camp. It was a charming spot, densely wooded, ringed by a crescent of golden-yellow sand, and surrounded by jutting rocks and swirling water. Here, close to the shore, the huge tarpaulin was stretched between the trees.
In its shelter the hammocks were swung, and, lolling in them, we listened to the quaint expressions and odd jargon of the men as they prepared the evening meal. As the velvet-black tropic night descended upon river and on forest, a wonderful picture was presented, a scene beyond the power of brush to paint or of pen to describe. Against the background of the great trees glowed the camp-fires, touching the orchid-covered trunks with ruddy lights, filling the air with the aromatic scent of burning gum, and transforming the stained old tarpaulin to a canopy of gold. Squatting on their haunches, leaning against the trees, or lounging in their hammocks, the men rested from their labors, their brawny limbs and half-savage faces gleaming like bronze in the fitful light, while all about great fireflies twinkled and flashed like animated stars. Borne from afar on the cool night breeze, we could hear the muffled roar of the falls. From the forest on the main a jaguar screamed; a soft-winged goatsucker cried querulously as it flitted by; a startled capibara splashed noisily in the river. Soon came a sudden shower and quenched the last glowing embers of the fire, and darkness and silence fell like a curtain over all. With everything carefully stowed and covered with tightly-lashed tarpaulins, we started early the next morning for the most difficult and supposedly dangerous portion of our trip—the ascent of the rapids.
Within a half-mile of camp we met the first falls, in reality a rapid, with the brown water churned to yellow foam where it swirled and eddied over hidden rocks between jutting fangs of granite. At the base of the falls the boat was paddled alongside a mass of rocks, and the passengers stepped ashore, while the boatmen uncoiled long bow and stern lines and prepared to haul their craft through the boiling waters.
Waist-deep in the rushing flood, they struggled up against the current, secured precarious footholds on slippery, submerged boulders, and bent their backs to the strain of the rope. Others exerted all their strength upon the stem lines, while, paddle in hand, the captain stood erect in his boat, directing, encouraging, and guarding his craft from being smashed to bits against the rocks. Slowly the boat forged ahead to the drag of five pairs of knotted muscular arms; the water dashed and roared high about her bow; the stern was swung deftly by line and paddle, and a minute later the heavy craft emerged from the maelstrom and floated quietly on a smooth backwater above the falls.
On every side were thousands of rocks and ledges, surrounded by water, rushing and roaring like a mill-race, and every rock and boulder was completely-overgrown with a curious, sedgelike plant which gave the granite a most remarkable, unshaven appearance, as if it was covered with a stubbly beard. How these plants found foothold was a source of wonder, for the rocks were absolutely bare of soil, and the surface was worn smooth by the water, which in the rainy season rises fourteen or fifteen feet, as proved by the high-water marks on the larger islands and ledges. Yet throughout eight or ten miles of rapids every rock and stone, every reef and ledge which projected above the river's surface, was thickly overgrown with this curious vegetation. Later I discovered that this tiny red weed is not the only form of vegetation which covers the nakedness of these rapid-washed rocks, for at certain seasons a still more remarkable plant supersedes it—a great, coarse, fleshy growth, which resembles leafless rhubarb stalks. So luxuriantly does this plant grow upon the rocks that it forms a pad or cushion which protects the boats when running the rapids, but its value in this respect is more than offset by the fact that under water it becomes a tough, slimy mass which often entangles or throws the boatmen as they strive to secure a foothold on the rocks.
Within five minutes after entering the boat above the first rapids we were compelled to disembark again as another series of falls were reached. Throughout the day we did little else than climb in and out of the boat, as one rapid succeeded another.
Soon after passing the second falls we had our first taste of danger, when, in paddling furiously to stem a series of small rapids, our boat was caught by an unseen whirlpool and, despite the frantic efforts of the men, dashed full upon a submerged rock. With a blow that almost threw us from our seats, the heavy craft crashed against the reef, rode half its length upon it, swung as on a pivot to the rushing waters, and tipped perilously. Ere it could capsize or fill, the men leaped overboard, some breast-deep, others buried in the torrent to their mouths, and others swimming, and by dint of sheer strength they lifted the boat and pushed it into deep water. Then, with the agility of monkeys, they clambered over the gunwales, grasped their paddles once more, and drove the craft through the rapids in safety. It was a splendid exhibition of skill, pluck, and concerted, instananneous action. Had they hesitated, had one failed at the critical moment, nothing could have prevented a capsize and probable loss of life.
It is seldom indeed that a fatal or serious accident occurs in navigating the Guiana rapids and falls, and this speaks volumes for the skill of the captains and crews and their intimate knowledge of the stream. Despite this, however, accidents do at times occur, and hundreds of lives have been lost in the rapids. Indeed, so dangerous are some considered that the shooting of them is prohibited by a law that makes penal servitude for life the punishment for a captain's infraction of it. One perilous fall was pointed out by our captain as we swept by—a rock-filled cataract, in which not long before a boat and thirty-five men had been lost. Once in the grip of its impetuous current, we saw that nothing could save any craft or its passengers.
As we navigated such spots as this, as the boat alternately banged into rocks, grated on reefs, and was hauled through churning, fang-dotted rapids, we realized why these river boats are keelless, built so strongly and heavily, and rounded from stem to stern. Stanch and tough indeed must be a craft to withstand the hard knocks, the terrific strains, and the fearful thumpings our boat underwent, for a hundred times and more we were driven on rocks, hauled over jagged reefs, and dragged between ledges which would have staved in anything not built of the strongest hardwood planks and timbers. Here, too, the spoon-like shape demonstrated its superiority, for a smooth, rounded surface was always presented to the rocks, and it was always possible to slide the boat off in some direction, while the absence of keel, or straight stem and stern, allowed the craft to be swung about as if on a pivot, and, in any spot where the loss of a few seconds in turning spells disaster, this is of vital importance.
How many falls we passed I dare not state, for, long before we had reached half-way through the rapids, we had lost all count. Suffice it to say that for nearly ten miles the river was one continuous series of rapids, threatening eddies, great whirlpools, and racing currents dotted with rocks, interspersed by reefs, filled with ledges, and bending, twisting, and turning around and about innumerable lovely wooded islands.
In places the raging waters tore between rocky barriers scarce wide enough to let the boat pass through; in other spots the waters above the falls ran deep and black, and the men were forced to swim ahead with the tow-ropes grasped in their teeth in order to reach a foothold from which to pull the craft upstream. Now and again the water roared over shallow, dam-like barriers where the boat could not float, and in such stretches, by herculean efforts, the sweating, toiling men actually lifted their craft and dragged her up to deeper water by main strength.
But the men never hesitated, never grumbled, never shirked. Their lives and ours were at stake, and though the waters were infested with the dreaded perai fish, though the cry of "Cayman" often caused the men to glance apprehensively about, and though ever and again some man would lose his foothold and be swept from the line, they still took it all in the light of a frolic and laughed lustily at one another's mishaps.
It was not all broken water that we passed through, however. Between the falls the river often stretched for a mile or more in a broad, unbroken, tranquil stream, placid as an inland lake, bordered and walled by the primeval bush, and with the forests reflected on the oillike waters as on a polished mirror.
No sign of man or his handiwork was visible. We could scarce believe that fellow human beings had ever passed that way, and we felt that we were in the very heart of the wilderness, in a land untamed, untouched, and all but unknown.
Here and there amid the rich green of myriad shades gleamed vivid masses of scarlet flowers; strange orchids filled the air with fragrance, clambering vines drooped yard-long racemes of waxen-white blooms above the dark and shadowy shores, and enormous flowering trees rose in billowy masses of magenta, lavender, and purple, from which fell gorgeous showers of blossoms that, floating on the still surface of the river, formed vast rafts of marvelous hues. Overhead, toucans, parrots, and macaws winged their noisy way; a crested eagle soared majestically above our boat; great-billed terns and pied skimmers preened their sleek plumage on golden sand-bars; jumble-birds flitted on noiseless wings from rock to rock as we approached; stately white egrets flopped reluctantly from the shallows; thousands of steel-blue, dainty swallows rose in vast clouds from resting-places on the stubble-covered ledges, and queer, day-flying bats fluttered up from fallen tree trunks and overhanging limbs only to wing their uncertain course a few yards ere again flattening themselves against the bark of other trees. From tranquil reaches fresh-water flying-fish sprang from the surface of the stream and skittered off like skipping stones before our boat; and once a giant otter rose and, followed by a trailing wake of silver, swam slowly toward the shore.
On the whole, however, bird, animal, and insect life was scarce, and our Indian hunters seemed to have little prospect of supplying us with game. Once, when about to pull the boat through a rapid, Theophilus, one of our Indians, seized bow and arrows, and, with a gesture for silence, dashed ahead, stringing his bow as he ran. Then, standing upon a rock, he drew his weapon as if to shoot, for his keen eyes had detected a flash of silver amid the eddies which told him of the presence of a huge river fish. But the creature darted out of bowshot, and the Indian, with one hand grasping his weapons, sprang into the rushing torrent and through the seething rapids swam to a distant ledge. Again and again the fish eluded him, and again and again the Indian breasted the rapids, until finally, abandoning the pursuit, he regained the boat and fell lustily to work hauling on the tow-line with his comrades, as if swimming rapids with one hand was the most simple and every-day matters as indeed it was to him.
Although the Guiana Indians all use guns for hunting game, they still adhere to bows and arrows for killing fish, and employ blow-guns and wourali—poisoned darts—for securing birds and small animals. The bows are usually of letter-wood, about five feet in length, and very powerful. The arrows vary according to the purpose for which they are designed, but all are long—from five to six feet—with shafts of arrow-cane and a shank of hardwood fitted at one end. This piece is tipped by a steel point or head which is fixed immovably if the arrow is for shooting birds or small fish; or, if used for killing turtle and large fish, is equipped with a socketed head, attached to a long, strong, cotton line. When a large fish is struck, the shaft floats free from the socketed head, which acts as a toggle, and turns at right angles when a strain is put on the line. By means of this harpoon-like arrangement the fish or turtle is hauled in. Neither fish nor turtle arrows are feathered, but those used in hunting birds are provided with two feathers which seem far too small to serve any useful purpose. With these simple weapons the Indians creep along the rocky edges of the streams and eddies and with marvelous dexterity shoot the fish which only their hawklike eyes can discern deep beneath the surface. Naked, save for a lap, or loin-cloth, the hunter stands motionless as a statue, with drawn bow and poised arrow, and, if no fish are visible within range, he "calls them" by a peculiar beckoning motion of his hand and a low whistle. Whether or not the fish actually respond to this command I cannot say, but the Indians affirm that they do, and, when this method fails, the savages resort to attracting the fish within range by throwing certain pods and seeds into the water.
On most matters pertaining to the habits, beliefs, and customs of their race, our two Indians were not at all reticent, and, while shy at first, they soon became very friendly; and from them I obtained a vast amount of interesting lore regarding the various primitive races of Guiana. After the day's work was done, and we rested comfortably in our hammocks beneath the shelter of our camps in the forest, the two red men would regale me for hours with quaint folktales of bird and beast, and accounts of dances and tribal customs, all of the most intense interest.
While most of our traveling was by water, we nevertheless made many long trips into the forest or "bush," which was quite different from any tropical jungle I had ever seen. Many of the trees were enormous, especially the greenheart, wallaba, and mora trees, but they were not numerous and were scattered, while their majestic proportions were largely obscured by the dense growth of underbrush and small trees. So thick was this low growth in most places that it was necessary to hew one's way, even when traveling a short distance. In place of the hanging maze of gigantic, ropelike lianas depending from the lofty tree-tops to which I was accustomed, the lianas and vines of this Guiana forest were mainly small, and sprawled over the ground or trailed across and through the undergrowth, binding the whole together in a tangled, impenetrable mass. As the country was perfectly flat, save for an occasional hill fifty or sixty feet in height the bush was almost uniform in character from the edges of the rivers to the depths of the interior, and was, in a sense, exceedingly monotonous. Bird and animal life is not abundant in these forests, for while the aggregate number of individuals is tremendous and the number of species is surprising, yet the flat country presents no impediments to the forest creatures which range far and near and are never crowded into narrow valleys or confined to isolated localities as in many tropical lands. Throughout our trip of some three hundred miles we saw scarcely more than one hundred species of birds, not over a dozen mammals, and not a single snake, crocodile, or alligator. Even insects were by no means abundant. The great blue forest butterflies were, to be sure, everywhere; ants were legion, as usual; and an occasional scorpion or centipede would appear in camp; but beetles, moths, bees, flies, etc., were conspicuously lacking, and mosquito-nets were never required;
Moreover, this relative scarcity of forest life is not confined to one portion of Guiana, nor is it due to hunting or the presence of man. Indeed, birds and animals are far more numerous near the settlements, about the clearings, and along the creeks than in the dense primeval forest jungle. Our Indians assured us that, were they obliged to depend upon hunting for livelihood, they would soon starve to death.
For days the solitude of the river and the wilderness was unbroken, and we saw no sign of human beings other than ourselves. Then one morning our Indians' sharp eyes caught the flash of paddles against the shadowy shores of a distant island, and a few minutes later the approaching craft resolved itself into a large dugout canoe, or coorial, deeply laden, and with an arched hut-like shelter of palm leaves amidships.
As we drew alongside we found the canoe contained twelve Indians, five men and seven women, several of whom hastily donned conventional garments as we came near. They were of quite a distinct type from any natives we had seen, and our Indian Theophilus informed us they were Waupisanas from the savanna district near the Brazilian border.
As neither of our red men could speak Waupisana, and as none of the strangers spoke English or any dialect our men could understand, there seemed little chance of carrying on a conversation or of purchasing various articles of handiwork which were stowed under the palm thatch of the canoe. Lewis spoke Portuguese, however, and just on chance addressed the Indians in that tongue. Much to our satisfaction, the bowman replied in the same language, and a medium of intercourse was thus established.
At first the Waupisanas insisted they had nothing to sell, but after some insistence one of the men drew forth a splendid letter-wood bow and a number of arrows which he was willing to dispose of. When the girls and women saw the silver coins their cupidity overcame their scruples, and, much to our amusement, they deftly removed the bead queyus from beneath their outer garments and handed them over. A splendid cotton hammock of gigantic size was next procured, and, to round out our collection, we purchased several of the spindles used with marvelous skill by the women for spinning the native wild cotton.
Lewis was anxious to secure a paddle, and, in exchange for one of our own implements, he obtained a highly decorated one which had been used by the Waupisana bowman during the trip.
A short time after parting from the Waupisanas, we entered the last or upper falls, and, a few hours later, having towed, hauled, paddled, lifted, and dragged the boat through the rapids, we came safely into the smooth reaches of the river beyond.
Swiftly our willing crew drove the craft forward on the last stretch of the journey, and presently, rounding a wooded bend, we saw the broad, cleared lands and the scattered buildings of Rockstone ahead.
Half an hour later our boat glided alongside the tiny dock before the railway station, and, watched by a curious crowd, who had never before seen white men arrive by this route, we stepped once more into civilization.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I found this site using [url=][/url] And i want to thank you for your work. You have done really very good site. Great work, great site! Thank you!

Sorry for offtopic

Blog Archive

Countries we have visited

About Me

My photo

As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.