Friday, 4 April 2014

In Unknown British Guiana -Part 4

In Unknown British Guiana -Part 4
By A. Hyatt Verrill
From The Wide World Magazine, December 1918,  Vol. XLII, No. 248?, American Edition. Digitized by Doug Frizzle, April 2014.
Illustrated from photographs

It is no exaggeration to say that British Guiana, a vast stretch of territory on the shoulders of the South American Continent, is one of the least-known portions of the globe. Here are great primeval forests, mighty rivers, huge waterfalls, extensive plateaus, and great mountain ranges, where dwell strange Indian tribes and quaint animal life of which virtually nothing is known. The Author, who has made it his business to penetrate into the unknown interior of this land, has specially written for "The Wide World Magazine" an account of his journeys and adventures, which will be found of absorbing interest. He discovered large rivers and mountains whose existence was unknown, and stumbled across primitive races who had never seen a white man before. His striking photographs give an added value to a fascinating narrative.

HIDDEN in the heart of British Guiana—almost unknown to the outside world and yet within comparatively easy reach of Georgetown, the busy, attractive, up-to-date capital of the colony—is Kaietuerk, the cataract incomparable, a stupendous waterfall five times the size of Niagara and in a tropic setting whose beauty cannot be excelled in all the world.
To visit Kaietuerk is by no means difficult, and the round trip may be made from Georgetown in less than ten days and at a total expense of less than two hundred dollars, or forty pounds sterling. It seems incredible that in these days of progress a country should possess such a world wonder as Kaietuerk Falls and should be so short-sighted, or apathetic, as to leave it unexploited and relatively inaccessible. In a straight line Kaietuerk is scarcely one hundred and fifty miles from Georgetown, and yet one must travel for five days by steamer, railway, and small boat in order to reach the cataract. For a comparatively small outlay the falls could be brought within two days' travel of the capital, but in a way it is fortunate that it is unexploited, for the very wildness of its surroundings, its untouched, unspoiled beauty, its solitude, and its freedom from crowds of visitors are among its greatest attractions. Here, in the presence of Kaietuerk, with civilization left miles behind, with only Indian guides as one's companions, and with the vast interminable forest stretching to the very heart of South America, one feels as if he were the first human being to gaze upon the marvellous sight.
There are two ways of reaching Kaietuerk: the first by steamer and rail to Rockstone, the other by boat up the Essequibo from Bartica and through the rapids to Rockstone.
If one be in hurry, or desire comfort and ease, by all means take the first route; but if you would really see the "bush” with its wealth of wild life and its vegetable wonders, and would taste the thrill of adventure, the spell of the wilderness, and the excitement of a journey through the jungle, then travel up the Essequibo.
Although the falls and rapids which stretch between Bartica and Rockstone are considered among the most dangerous in the colony, yet in the dry season, and with a good crew of six men, a captain, and a bowman, there is no danger, for the greatest peril is in running down the rapids; there is nothing to worry over when going up, although there is plenty of excitement and thrills. Bartica is a tiny frontier settlement at the head of steamer navigation on the Essequibo, and here one may always secure a boat and crew. The prime necessity is a competent captain and bowman, and with these engaged all other details may be left in their hands.
Propelled by the powerful strokes of the eight paddlers, the craft sweeps swiftly up the tranquil river and soon leaves the last outlying houses of Bartica astern. Low in the east the sun is painting the sky in gorgeous crimson and gold; above the league-wide river hangs a curtain of gossamer mist; parrots wing screaming overhead, macaws screech and toucans clatter and yelp from the tree-tops, and from the forest depths issue the countless songs, notes, and cries of awakening life. Then the clearings and lime orchards of Agatash are passed, and nought but the untamed wilderness stretches ahead for forty miles along the river's banks. Close to the shore the boat skirts the rank green jungle with its dark, mysterious shadows and giant trees, while strange birds and great sky-blue butterflies flit amid the labyrinth of roots, vines, palms, and foliage—an impenetrable barrier, a living wall, through which one cannot move a yard without hewing a way.
Just before sundown the boat is run upon the sandy beach of a wooded island and the men bustle about preparing camp. While some "catch" a fire, others are busy clearing a small opening in the brush, and others again are cutting poles and stakes, and in a wonderfully short time the big tarpaulin, which forms a part of every outfit in the bush, is stretched across a pole between two trees and in its shelter the hammocks are slung. As the velvet-black night descends upon river and forest a wonderful picture is presented, a scene beyond the power of brush to paint or pen to describe. Against the background of the giant trees glow the camp-fires, touching the great trunks with ruddy lights, filling the air with the pungent odour of smoke, and transforming the old tarpaulin to a canopy of gold. Squatting on their haunches, leaning against the trees, or lolling in their hammocks are the men, their brawny limbs and half-savage features gleaming like polished bronze in the fitful light, while all about the giant lantern-flies twinkle and flash like animated incandescent lights. Borne down the river on the cool night wind comes the distant roar of the falls; from afar in the forest echoes the weird scream of a jaguar; a soft-winged goatsucker cries querulously, complainingly, as it flits by, and from every side issue the countless croaks, trills, whistles, and booming notes of innumerable frogs. Then a sudden shower rattles like hail upon the canvas roof and quenches the glowing embers of the fire, the forest voices are hushed, and silence falls like a curtain over the wilderness.
Long ere the sun has risen, everything is again stowed in the boat and is covered with tightly-lashed tarpaulin, and once more the flashing paddles are urging the boat upstream.
Within half a mile of camp are the river falls, in reality a rapid with the brown water churned to amber foam where it swirls and eddies over hidden rocks and between jutting fangs of granite. At the foot of the falls the boat is paddled alongside a mass of rocks and the passenger steps ashore, while the men uncoil long bow and stern lines and prepare to haul the craft through the boiling waters.
Waist-deep in the rushing flood, they struggle up against the current, securing precarious footholds on slippery submerged rocks, and bending their backs to the strain of the rope. Others, holding the stern line, brace themselves for the supreme effort; the captain, huge paddle in hand, stands erect in the stern, directing, encouraging, and guiding, while the gigantic bowman, submerged save for head and shoulders, exerts the mighty strength of his back against the bow—a human buffer between the boat and the jagged rocks. Slowly the boat forges ahead to the irresistible drag of six pairs of knotted muscular arms; the water dashes and roars high above the bow; the stern is swung deftly by line and paddle, and a minute later the heavy craft emerges from the turmoil and floats quietly on a smooth backwater above the falls.
Within ten minutes after re-embarking above the first rapids you are compelled to disembark again as another series of rapids is reached, and throughout the day the traveller does little else than clamber in and out of the boat as one rapid follows another. But even if one loses interest in watching the men, there is still much to occupy one's attention. On every side are thousands of rocks and ledges surrounded by water rushing and roaring like a mill-race, and every rock and boulder bears its own crown of vegetation and its quota of life. Everywhere the rocks appear as if covered with a stubbly beard, and a closer examination reveals the fact that this is a curious, sedge-like plant with delicate pink blooms which somehow finds roothold and sustenance on the smooth, bare surface of these water-washed rocks.
But blasé indeed must be he whose attention is not riveted on the toiling men, or whose pulses do not quicken at their constant perils, escaped by almost superhuman efforts. In places the raging waters tear between rocky barriers scarce wide enough to permit the passage of the boat; in other places the waters above the falls run black, deep, and ominous, and the men are forced to swim ahead with towlines grasped in their teeth in order to reach a foothold from which to haul their craft upstream. Now and again the water roars in cataracts over dam-like dykes where the boat cannot float, and by herculean efforts the sweating, toiling men actually lift their craft and drag her to deeper water by main strength.
But they never hesitate, never grumble, never shirk. Their lives and yours are at stake, and though the waters are infested with the dreaded Perai fish, though the cry of "Cayman!" often causes the crew to glance apprehensively about, and though ever and again some man loses his footing and is swept from the line, they take it all in the light of a frolic and laugh heartily at one another's mishaps.
It is thrilling enough as one watches their progress from the safe, dry vantage-point of the rocks, but the real excitement comes when, in certain spots, the traveller remains in the boat while the rapids are conquered.
Perchance, when paddling furiously to stem a series of small rapids, the boat may be caught by an unseen cross-current, and, despite the frantic efforts of the men, it is dashed full upon a submerged rock.
With a blow that all but throws you from your seat, the heavy craft crashes against the reef, rides half its length over it, swings as on a pivot, and tips perilously. But ere it can capsize or fill, the men leap overboard, some breast deep, others buried in the torrent to their mouths, and others swimming, and by dint of sheer strength they lift the boat and push it into deep water. Then, with the agility of monkeys, they clamber over the gunwales, grasp paddies once more, and drive the boat through the rapids to safety. It is a marvellous exhibition of skill, pluck, and concerted instantaneous action. If they hesitate, if one fails at the critical moment, nothing can prevent a capsize or a washout with loss of provisions and possible loss of life.
Sometimes, too, there are huge treacherous whirlpools to be passed, great swirling oval spaces below or above the falls. With every ounce of their strength the eight men ply their paddles, the boat hangs motionless for one instant, the bow quivers and vibrates to the drag of the water, and then the craft darts forward. High above the gunwales boils the maelstrom as the centre of the pool is reached; the boat seems actually to rear on end; it slides up a hill of racing water, and ere you have time to realize it is accomplished, the boat is beyond the danger-point and is safe in a narrow, swift-flowing channel. It is no place for the timid, no trip for the nervous; but exhilarating, exciting, stirring beyond compare for those who love a spice of danger and a novel experience.
But while falls and rapids innumerable are passed through, the river is by no means all broken water. Between the various falls the stream stretches for miles, broad, unbroken, tranquil, placid as an inland lake, and walled by primeval bush which is reflected in the oillike water as on a polished mirror. No sign of man or of his handicraft is visible; one can scarce believe that fellow-men have ever passed this way, and the traveller feels as if he were in the very heart of the wilderness, in a land untamed, untouched, and all but unknown.
On every hand rises the vast forest, the enormous trees towering for near two hundred feet above the river banks, and so bound together with lianas, so densely foliaged, so overgrown and covered with vines and creepers that the forest appears like a stupendous curtain of green velvet draped in graceful folds above the quiet river.
Overhead toucans, parrots, macaws, and many smaller birds wing their noisy way from shore to shore; crested eagles and great white-headed hawks soar majestically in vast circles; great-billed terns and pied skimmers preen their plumage on golden sand-bars, and thousands of steel-blue dainty swallows rise in vast clouds from their resting-places on the ledges. And as the boat skirts the forest's edge, hosts of vicious little vampire bats flutter from the tree-trunks and, winging an erratic course for a few yards, again flatten themselves against the bark of other trees, where instantly they become invisible. From before the boat, shoals of fresh-water flying-fish spring from the glassy surface of the stream and skitter off like skipping-stones, or a clumsy tapir or startled capybara crashes into the forest in headlong flight.
And now the last rapids have been passed, the boat speeds swiftly up the smooth river, it sweeps around a wooded bend, and ahead are the broad cleared lands and the scattered buildings of Rockstone.
This town is of no importance, save as the terminus of the railway from Wismar, on the Demerara River, which was built to obviate the necessity of travelling up the line from Bartica in order to reach the Upper Essequibo and the hinterland. At Rockstone the boat and its Bartica crew may be dismissed, for noisy, ill-smelling, kerosene-burning river-boats ply up and down the river between the town and Tumatumari.
The trip up the Essequibo above Rockstone seems tame indeed by comparison with the journey from Bartica, but once or twice glimpses of distant mountains may be seen, and at the mouth of the Potaro a brief stop is made before continuing the voyage up the Potaro River to Tumatumari.
Tumatumari is a very beautiful spot, with its four foaming cataracts roaring between their wooded islands just below the rest-house windows, and there are few places in the tropics which could be transformed into more desirable resorts in which to spend one's time. There is an abundance of game in the forests; the river teems with fish; there are extensive gold placers four miles back in the bush, and close to the settlement are several good-sized Indian villages, while the air is delightfully cool and invigorating and the scenery is magnificent.
As the falls are practically impassable, it is necessary to walk for half a mile over a good road to the head of the cataracts, and from here a launch continues the journey to Potaro Landing, about a dozen miles up the river. This landing is at the head of launch navigation, and it is also the terminus of the road leading into the Minnehaha and other goldmines. From this spot the traveller must tramp about seven miles to Kangaruma, but as much of the distance is through the dense forest it is cool and shady. This detour is made necessary because of Pakutuerk Falls, whose roar can be heard as one walks along, and which bar the river with a series of dangerous cataracts. While these falls can be navigated, so much time is required and the trip is so dangerous that it is not advisable, unless one is out for excitement. On one occasion I went through Pakutuerk Falls, and some idea of the difficulties may be gauged by the fact that it required four days of unceasing, heart-breaking, almost superhuman efforts on the part of my twelve men—ten of whom were Indians—to successfully negotiate them. But returning was a wonderful experience, and with the speed of an express train we shot through the foaming, roaring, rock-filled rapids and over the cataracts in less than four hours. It was an adventure I would not have missed for worlds, but which I would never care to repeat, for although we got through safely, yet time and again we came perilously near to death, and in one spot we had a lively washout with a considerable loss of our belongings.
At Kangaruma one embarks once more in a batteau and is paddled swiftly up the ever-narrowing river towards Amaktuerk.
Wilder and more luxuriant becomes the forest; ever more beautiful becomes the winding river, the charming islets, and the vistas of mirror-like stream. Far away above the endless bush loom the blue Pakaraima Mountains, and as the sun sinks in a blaze of glory the boat swings around a bend in the river and Amaktuerk is revealed in all its beauty. Against the rose and golden clouds rise the towering mountains, already wreathed in evening mists; on either hand the dark forests are reflected in the gilded waters, and in the centre, bursting from between the wooded shores, leap the lovely falls, half hidden in a filmy veil of spray. It is a wonderful picture, a glorious sight, for Amaktuerk Falls are by far the most attractive on the Potaro and their setting is perfection itself. Here, above the falls, and directly across the river from the towering Amaktuerk Mountain, is a tiny rest-house, and it would be hard to find a more charming spot in which to spend the night. Portaging the luggage around Amaktuerk, another boat is taken above the falls, and from here, on, the traveller is in the heart of Guiana's scenic wonderland. On every hand the great isolated mountains rear their bare precipitous faces and forest-clad slopes for thousands of feet above the sea of forest, while fleecy clouds drift lazily across their frowning ramparts. Mirrored in the river, they appear twice their height and seem to overhang the passing boat; but, in reality, miles of impenetrable forest stretch from the river bank to their feet. Of them all, perhaps Kukuieng, or Hawk's Nest, is the most impressive and the most conspicuous, for it rises abruptly from the forest, its turret-like form and rocky battlements startlingly resembling some titanic castle, and for mile after mile it is ever within sight. But no matter where one looks, mountain after mountain may be seen, and with each mile they increase in numbers and in size as they merge into the stupendous gorge which forms a fitting approach, a worthy gateway, to the world's highest waterfall.
By noon the falls of Waraktuerk are reached, and, having made a short portage, the last stage of the journey is begun, and two hours later the traveller catches his first glimpse of Kaietuerk—a faint silvery thread against the hazy blue of the gorge. Now the mountains hem the river in as by a mighty wall on either side, and again and again one catches new glimpses of the marvellous cataract in the dim distance. It is a scene of surpassing beauty and grandeur, a land wrapped in a vast silence broken only by the silvery, ringing notes of the bell-birds, which, perched on the topmost summits of the dead trees, gleam like specks of alabaster against the dark verdure of the mountain sides.
And then, at last, the boat is run ashore at Tukuit, the journey by river is at an end, and preparations are made for the climb over the mountains to the falls on the following morning.
Tukuit is a beautiful spot surrounded by great wooded mountains with the silvery river at their feet, while directly across from the rest-house a lovely cataract issues from the verdure and plunges down for hundreds of feet to lose itself in masses of trees above the clouds. In many lands this fall in itself would considered a wonderful sight and worthy of the pilgrimage, but in this gorge of stupendous proportions, in the presence of titanic Kaietuerk, and amid such an excess of sublime scenery, this cataract and a dozen or more like it pass unnoticed.
Although several women have made the climb to Kaietuerk, yet it is a fearful trail and no easy walk even for an able-bodied man. Formerly there was an easier, zigzag trail, but this is now, or was until very recently, impassable with fallen trees, and one must clamber, or rather claw, a way straight up the mountain side in the dry bed of a water-course. It cannot by any stretch of the imagination be called a path, for it is filled with loose boulders of every size, deep holes and crevices, slippery mud, and gnarled, moss-grown roots. It is a good two hours' climb up a slope of about sixty degrees to the summit of the first ridge, which is marked by a large tree on whose bark is deeply carved the word "Amen."
Beyond here the way is comparatively easy, for it leads across a narrow, hog-backed ridge between two deep gorges and is fairly level. Here, if one proceeds quietly, may be seen the gorgeous cock of the rock, whose orange plumage glows like fire amid the leaves, for about Kaietuerk these rare birds are fairly common, and in the breeding season they may be seen performing their remarkable "dances" on the little open spaces among the rocks, which the birds clear for the purpose. Three hours after leaving Tukuit, the Kaietuerk Plateau is reached, a weird, strange place, so different from the forest that the traveller feels as if he had entered another land, and it is hard to believe that one is still in British Guiana. Everywhere are the strange giant lily-like bromelias peculiar to the region; here and there among the rocks are clumps of remarkable, grotesquely-flowered orchids; pretty sundews carpet the ground in spots, and grey lichens lend a northern aspect to the place, while clumps of bracken and nodding blue harebells seem out of place here in the tropics. Even the birds and butterflies are different from those of the lower levels, for the Kaietuerk Plateau has a flora and a fauna of its own. But, on the whole, it is a dreary and barren scene; a waste of smooth, water-worn rock and stagnant pools of rain-water, across which the visitor hurries towards the brink of the falls.
Throughout my life I have prided myself on never feeling nervous or dizzy at great heights. I have stood on lofty mountain peaks; I have climbed to the trucks of ships' masts rolling in a seaway, and I have gazed down at teeming city streets from the narrow steel beams of half-finished skyscrapers, and never have I felt ill at ease. But when, for the first time, I stepped boldly to the brink of Kaietuerk Gorge, I beat a precipitate retreat and sat down among the bushes a dozen yards from the edge.
I had expected to look down for an enormous distance, but I also expected to see some tangible connection between the brink of the plateau and the bottom of the gorge. Instead, I found myself standing isolated on a narrow, outjutting, shelving rock in mid-air, with nothing but space between me and the tiny thread of river a thousand feet below.
There is something so unexpected about this absence of a sloping, or even a precipitous, mountain side beneath one's feet that it quite takes one's breath away, while the motion of the falls and the rising spray gives one the sensation of plunging forward into the abyss. The feeling soon wears off, however, and in a short time I found I could approach the brink without trembling and could even lie down and peer into the gorge; but I confess that I had an irresistible desire to hold on to something whenever I drew near the brink.
There are some things in the world which are impossible to describe, and Kaietuerk is one of them, for words utterly fail to convey any adequate idea of the falls and the gorge. It is something which must be seen to be realized, and even the most perfect photographs fall far short of the reality.
Kaietuerk cannot be properly described as beautiful, for it is far more than that. It is awe-inspiring, sublime, overwhelming, and terrifying in its grandeur. It is the very epitome of stupendous power and titanic strength; immeasurable, irresistible, incomparable. In its presence one feels puny, helpless, and insignificant. Gazing upon it the beholder is filled with quaking, unreasonable dread, and yet is fascinated as by some gigantic savage beast of magnificent form and perfect grace. It is a sight so sublime, so marvellous, so stupendous that the human mind cannot grasp it all at once, and one must gaze long upon it, must remain in its presence for hours, and must become accustomed to the titanic scale of one's surroundings ere it is possible to appreciate Kaietuerk in full. Only by comparison with other objects can we realize the tremendous size, the overwhelming scale of the falls and the gorge: for the proportions are so perfect, the distances so deceptive, and the surroundings so vast that the cataract itself seems but a mere detail of the whole.
Far down, in the depths below the falls, we see a soft green carpet which we take for moss studded with pebbles. Then, with almost a shock, we discover that the apparent moss is in reality a forest of giant trees, that the pebbles are enormous masses of rock weighing hundreds of tons, and that the clinging vines and fern-like growths about them are immense bush ropes and lofty palms. It is the same with the falls themselves. At first sight they appear surprisingly small, and we cannot realize that the gleaming mass is plunging through space for near a thousand feet and is almost a mile distant. But little by little the scene assumes its true proportions. A man standing beside the verge of the falls appears a mere speck, almost invisible. We noticed that not a drop of real water ever reaches the deep pool below; that so stupendous is the drop that the falling masses are transformed to spray-long ere they reach the limit of their descent and appear more like falling smoke than water, and then it dawns suddenly upon us that there is something lacking, that there is no deafening roar, no audible evidence of a gigantic cataract; that there is scarce more noise than would be made by the rush of water over a good-sized mill-dam, that the only sound is that of the torrent pouring over the brink of the falls, and that standing at the very verge of the cataract there is no difficulty in conversing in ordinary tones.
Could one but reach the base of Kaietuerk a far better idea of its size could be obtained, but the difficulties in doing this are almost insurmountable. One or two men have gained the foot of Kaietuerk by almost superhuman efforts, arduously climbing over immense masses of fallen rock and lowering themselves down precipices by ropes. The vast forest conceals the true character of the country, and it is difficult to believe that beneath the mantle of green are stupendous precipices, black fathomless ravines, and a chaotic mass of boulders and broken rock. The only feasible route by land is close to the river, but with light canoes it would be a comparatively easy, although a slow journey, the only difficulty being to carry the canoes around the several rapids and falls between Tukuit and Kaietuerk.

Perhaps the greatest attraction of Kaietuerk is that it is never twice the same. Every moment it changes; with every breath of wind, with each variation of light, with every passing cloud, it takes on a different aspect. And scarcely less sublime, scarcely less marvellous than the cataract itself, is the stupendous gorge stretching from the falls for miles into the dim and hazy distance. Wonderfully beautiful is this gorge, hemmed between vast forest-covered mountains and plateaux of a myriad shades of green, with its frowning precipices and black ravines, purple in the shadows and golden in the sunlight, while between the mighty ramparts flows the slender silver thread of river which, through untold and countless centuries, has cut this titanic scarf through the heart of the enduring rock.

No comments:

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.