CHAPTER 7: KAIETEUR
I had chartered a boat to take me from Pamela’s Landing to Amatuk, the village situated immediately before the route’s first impassable set of rapids, but it turned out to be more of a shared taxi, and after twenty minutes of steady progress, our boat sputtered into a sloping dock to drop off the man who had been traveling with us, his three rubber hoses, and his two sacks of fresh vegetables.
Only forty minutes later, we reached Amatuk, and Gottfried turned the boat back downriver and sped away, his lucrative job finished, while Soldier and I grabbed our equipment and scrambled up the dock’s hill. “We have to get an engine,” Solider said as we entered the tiny settlement. He led us up toward the town’s largest building, said a few words to the woman sitting on a chair outside the door, and motioned me to come inside. “In here, you buy something to eat,” Soldier advised as he crouched down to examine an idle outboard engine.
It was a surprisingly tidy house, neatly swept, with rows of children’s shoes placed obediently next to the living room’s circular rug. But it was also a store, with a shop window built directly into the living space immediately to the left. I walked over to the counter and saw long shelves of dusty non-perishable goods for sale—soda, biscuits, rice. Unaware of the plan for food, I bought a packet of chocolate biscuits, enough to get me through the next two days if necessary.
Soldier emerged from the house with the 150 pound, twenty-five horsepower outboard motor slung over his shoulder. “Let’s go,” he said. “Take the bags.” Grabbing both our backpacks and the container of fuel, I followed Soldier down a narrow dirt path through the jungle, watching as he struggled to keep the engine balanced between his arm and head. Midway through, he stopped, panting, and leaned the engine against a tall dirt mound. He instructed me to hold it steady while he hustled back to Amatuk to enlist additional help for the difficult portage. He returned five minutes later with a man from the village who hoisted the engine onto his shoulder and continued confidently down the trail. Soldier and I divided the equipment I had been carrying and followed behind.
We caught up with the man at the end of the path, a primitive sandy landing dotted with empty soda bottles and frayed clumps of rope. Soldier and the man dragged a canoe down from a small ledge and into the water, attaching the engine to its stern. I did my part by tossing our bags and the fuel into the boat, making sure to avoid the puddles of rainwater that had collected on its floor. Soon, we were on our way once again.
As we progressed farther upriver, the scenery began to change. The uniform walls of dark green jungle that had flanked the route to Amatuk had been replaced by rocky cliffs looming threateningly above dense thickets of forest, their coarse outlines reflecting sharply off the shimmering surface of the river. Just as I began to settle in, watching the birds flutter from one side of the river to the other, Soldier pointed to a cracked wooden sign, hung uncertainly on a thick tree trunk and partly shielded by the sprawl of the jungle’s growth. It said, “Welcome To Kaieteur National Park.”
We glided into another makeshift dock and Soldier instructed me to repeat the process we had performed earlier—bags out, engine off, find another boat. We had arrived at the Waratuk ranger station, the apparent entrance to the National Park, but it looked deserted and we continued past the building to a small landing on the other side of the rapids. “This is the National Park boat,” Soldier said, pointing to a metal canoe angled up onto the shore. “It’s the only one here—we have to take it.” Returning to the first landing, Soldier again heaved the engine onto his shoulder, and carried it to our new ride; I dutifully followed, carrying our bags. Second portage completed, Soldier revved the engine, and we zipped away from Waratuk.
My first glimpse of Kaieteur Falls came only moments later when, rounding a bend in the river, Soldier pointed ahead to a barrage of green cliffs. Above the trees, I saw the topmost section of the waterfall thundering down into an unseen canyon below. My first view of Kaieteur! But the moment was fleeting and Guyana’s (supposedly) greatest tourist attraction was soon cloaked once again by the towering cliffs and opaque bush. Shortly thereafter, we arrived at Tukei, a man-made clearing from which visitors began the hike up the mountain to the top of the falls. Soldier tied the boat to a tree, hid our extra fuel in the woods, and pointed to a dirt path that rose crookedly into the forest. We strapped our bags to our backs and begin the climb up.
The route was steep and damp, and I struggled to keep my balance over the slippery, moss-covered rocks. The humidity of the enclosed jungle, combined with the weight of my pack, was a dewy combination, and my entire body was soon covered in a thick layer of sweat. Soldier hadn’t told me how long we would be walking and the unfamiliar forest mockingly transformed into a perpetual tease; I would often think I heard the falls, only to stumble upon an inconspicuous creek, pounding audibly against a handful of boulders. An hour and a half in, Soldier mercifully told me that we had reached the top of the mountain, and that the route, from there on out, was flat.
Apart from the poster in the airport, and my momentary peek from the river, I had never seen an image of Kaieteur Falls. So, when we turned off the main trail and emerged onto a clearing overlooking a torrent of water billowing down a 700-foot cliff, it was the closest thing I would ever come to “discovering” one of the world’s natural wonders. It was an extraordinarily rewarding sight, especially after the minibus, the taxi, three boat rides, two portages, and a two-hour hike, and I crept to the edge of the cliff slowly, trying to interpret the scene’s scale and magnitude. The indigenous name of Victoria Falls, another of the world’s most famous waterfalls, is translated as “the smoke that thunders.” But I thought Kaieteur had more of an incessant whooshing sound, its root beer colored water plummeting over the edge to create small wisps of placid fog.
Mostly, I marveled at the solitude. Rarely do travelers arrive at a sight as spectacular as this, unprompted and unaware of what they are going to see or what they are going to discover; even more rarely does that experience occur alone, the entire panorama revealed to them specifically. It was a real moment, the kind many travelers yearn for, and as I stood at the top of the falls, I watched the water race down the canyon to the navigable portion of the Potaro River, tracing the route we had traveled to get here.
Dark clouds began to dim the once bright sky and Soldier indicated that we needed to get moving. I followed him away from the cliff, through the trees, down a different path than the one from which we had come. Just as the heavens began to open, we arrived at the Kaieteur Guesthouse, and Soldier and I scrambled up the stairs to its covered deck as the scenery behind us exploded into a thunderous afternoon rainstorm.
Soldier hurried around the back of the building, unlocking the front door from the inside out, and I dragged both our bags into the guesthouse. The front room was unexpectedly spacious and surprisingly welcoming. There was a large dining room table with straw placemats aligned symmetrically around its edges. In the corner was a smaller reading nook, where a guestbook lay open among scattered tourism brochures. A large map of Guyana hung on one wall, while posters of regional animals hung on another. I brought my bag into one of the bedrooms and changed into dry clothes. When I returned, Soldier was waiting with a fresh pot of hot water, a bottle of instant coffee, powdered milk, and a jar of sugar.
As I sipped my coffee, a young man appeared, introduced himself as Rubin and explained that he was the ranger of the Kaieteur Falls guesthouse. After struggling to speak with Soldier for the past several hours, I was grateful to discover that Rubin not only spoke perfect English, but also knew more about Kaieteur Falls than anybody I had met up to that point. He sat down at the table, and acknowledging the tranquility, I asked him if it was a particularly quiet day.
“Yeah, we usually get some visitors via airplane from Georgetown. They fly in, stay the night, and return the next day. But overland trips, like yours, are a bit more rare—we get maybe two or three of those a month,” he explained.
I related my surprise at finding such a spacious lodge so close to the falls. “How many people can sleep here?”
“Probably around thirty,” he said, pointing out the various places where visitors have hung hammocks. “But they’d be packed in like sardines!”
“How long has it been here?”
“Oh forever,” he said. “It was built back in 1975. The Canadian Prime Minister told our government that he wanted to visit the falls. Since we didn’t have anywhere for him to stay, they decided to build a guesthouse. They renovated it in 1999, adding a few rooms and updating the kitchen.”
It was a strange story, and when I tried to verify it later, I couldn’t find any information about the Canadian Prime Minister’s trip to the falls.
The conversation turned to my vacation—why I had come to Guyana and how I had ended up at Kaieteur Falls. I explained that I had arrived overland through Mahdia. He laughed. “You know why they call it that right?”
“What, Mahdia? No why?”
“Because people go mad there,” he said smiling. “It’s a crazy place.” He explained that the entire town was built upon the region’s mining industry. Guyana was rich in both gold and diamonds and market prices were at exorbitant levels. There had therefore been a mini Guyana gold rush, with people flocking to jungle towns to set up shop and try their luck with the big mining companies. The party I had seen in Mahdia was a way for these men, forced to spend difficult weeks slogging away in the mountains, to unwind before going back to their laborious work. There were even some mines inside the boundaries of Kaieteur National Park.
“The park is actually one of the oldest in South America—it was established back in the 1930s. The government reduced it to 4.5 square miles in the 1970s to accommodate all the companies that wanted to set up mining operations. Then, in 1999, it was expanded to its current size of 224 square miles. But the mining companies were already here, so they were allowed to stay.” The compromise made sense, both politically and economically—it had allowed the park to expand beyond its comically insufficient size in the hopes of attracting more tourists, while maintaining one of the country’s only legitimate revenue streams. But having a practice as environmentally intrusive as gold mining inside a national park still seemed bizarre.
He asked where I planned on going next. “Not sure,” I answered. “Have any suggestions?”
I unfolded my map of the region and handed it to him. He pointed to a spot just southeast of Mahdia. “Iwokrama is very expensive, but very nice. Lots of things to do there.”
“How can I get there? Can I take a bus from Mahdia?”
He thought for a second. “No, I don’t think so. You have to arrange from Georgetown I believe.”
I saw Rubin glancing outside the borders of Guyana, to Brazil, Venezuela and beyond. I asked him if he knew what Suriname was like. He shook his read. “I don’t. I’ve never been there.”
It was getting late, the sun was setting, and the only food that Soldier and I had was the pack of biscuits I had purchased in Amatuk. Rubin explained that there was a small settlement built for the miners about twenty minutes away—Menzi’s Landing, because only “men can find it”—where we could buy the ingredients for a simple dinner. He agreed to come with us, and as we walked, he became my de facto tour guide for the region.
The path was uneven, filled with murky puddles, and as we skipped from rock to rock, Rubin mentioned that I should keep my eyes peeled for snakes. “The ones that like to hide on this path,” he said, “are poisonous. They can bite you four times before you even realize what’s going on.” As I scanned the ground with my headlamp, I asked him what other kind of wildlife lurked among the trees. “Oh, all kinds,” he said. “Deer, foxes, tapirs. And jaguars, of course. There are six kinds of jaguars here at Kaieteur—but only three are dangerous. One particular kind travels in packs, six to ten at a time, and they don’t let anything get in their way. If a human is blocking their path, they’ll attack it, all together.”
Twenty minutes later we reached Menzi’s Landing, a large, open-air building that once again demonstrated the remarkable Guyanese ability to turn any situation, no matter how desolate or how isolated, into a party. Four men were gathered around a pool table, drinking beer, while multicolored disco lights flashed around the walls. American pop music blared from a large tube television, propped up on a cart at the far end of the room. In the corner was a giant cooler, filled with ice and several cases of bottled beer. Behind the television was the store, where I could see various items arranged neatly around the interior of a cozy kitchen.
Rubin lingered at the entrance to the building while Soldier and I bought rice, bouillon cubes, an onion, and a packet of something called “beef chiplets,” described on the packaging as a “meat substitute.” The total came to $1,700 Guyanese dollars and when the proprietor, Sammy, mentioned she had no change, I relented and dipped into my already limited funds, buying beers for Rubin, Soldier, and myself, and perhaps prioritizing camaraderie over fiduciary responsibility.
We took a different route back to the guesthouse, a path that found us walking down the concrete airstrip I had heard so much about the past few days. It was an idyllically clear night, with a perfect temperature, and being on the top of the mountain with only a few other people, surrounded by the jittery sounds of the encroaching jungle, was exhilarating. We walked side-by-side, sipping our Guinness, and I swiveled my headlamp into the shallow depths of the forest, asking Rubin to identify the different eyes shining back in our direction. I mentioned how much fun this was, this night safari, and how relaxing the experience was after the madness of Georgetown and Mahdia. “It’s true,” said Rubin pensively. “It’s great to be up here—breathing the clean air of the mountains once in a while.”
“So how did you end up here?” I asked him.
He shrugged. “I’m from a tiny village down by Iwokrama. I saw the opening for a tour guide in a newspaper and applied. I went to a few interviews and eventually got the offer. There were two years of training and then I was sent up here, to take care of the guesthouse and help visitors.”
“How long ago was that?”
“Well, it’s only been a year for this current assignment. But I was here before. I had left, done my time, and then they called me up and asked if I could come back. I figured why not.”
I asked him what he thought about everything I was seeing—the National Park, Guyanese Tourism, the sustainability of Kaieteur Falls. He talked about visibility and accessibility, and how Guyana remained off the radar for all but the most determined visitors. “Kaieteur Falls is unknown to everyone except in a few countries, it’s almost like a secret.” The statement was neither a complaint nor a boast; it was simply an intelligent assessment.
We reached the guesthouse and Rubin wished us a good night, heading back to his own building a few dozen meters away. Soldier and I went to the kitchen to start dinner. I chopped up the onion while he prepared the rice and chiplets. While cooking, I thought about Rubin’s situation. He had been one of the few people I had met in Guyana who understood tourism, sustainability, and conservation. He could articulate different aspects of the flora and the fauna, and he was truly interested and invested in the work. And yet the government isolated him in a house on the top of a mountain instead of in a more visible position, promoting the country and its tourism potential. The lack of visitors suddenly made a lot more sense.
JOURNAL ENTRY—KAIETEUR FALLS
Day 4—Kaieteur Falls National Park, Guyana: I can barely hear the waterfall from my room at the Kaieteur Guesthouse but it seems close, thick moisture hangs in the air. The sounds coming from outside are of the usual jungle variety—chitter chatter, chitter chatter, croak, groan, croak—and as I lie on the bed, I see streaks of moonlight illuminating the panels of wooden floorboard.
The events of the day keep me awake. I am fortunate to be here—fortunate to have had the opportunity to see a natural wonder as stunning as Kaieteur Falls, especially one I hadn’t even known existed before this trip. I can only assume that it’s a Guyana guidebook favorite—perhaps the cover photo— and that similar to other world wonders, it had received a pristine 5-star rating on various travel review websites.
What would I have rated Kaieteur? I have no idea—and what a ludicrous question anyway. What makes a water- fall worthy of a 5-star rating? Its height? Its seclusion? The volume of water pouring over its ledge? In all three of these categories, Kaieteur impressed—but trying to rank it among other waterfalls (Niagara, Victoria) or destinations (the Great Wall of China, the Pyramids) seems fruitless, irrelevant, and insufficient.
Still, extraordinary experiences unfailingly conjure similarly extraordinary experiences and as I lie awake atop this Guyanese mountain, the rain water from the wet clothes draped around my room creating a nostalgic ambiance— drip, drip, drip—I can’t help but reminisce about other memorable traveling moments, all of which are, in the end, invariably compared to the greatest thing I’ve ever seen.
It occurred 18,000 feet up the Nepalese mountain Lobuche East during one of my (very) amateur mountaineering excursions. Our team of five was climbing alpine-style—no fixed ropes—and moving quickly after an early morning start from a camp halfway up the peak. Three and a half hours into the climb, exhausted and out-of-breath, we approached a ridge where a panorama of early morning Himalayan light engulfed the jagged horizon of snow- capped peaks in a spectral display of violet, magenta, and fuchsia hues. I stopped; we all stopped. And as I balanced on the ridge, my crampons dug tightly into the snow, I uttered under my breath: “That’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen.”
I think about that moment a lot, mostly because it’s the only time in my life that I felt it necessary to verbally declare the almost unfathomable exceptionality of an experience (even today, it seems strange that I said something aloud—but I did). Part of what made the moment so indelible was its suddenness—for over three hours, I had been focused solely on moving my body up the mountain, staying in step with the rest of my team—left foot, right foot, breathe, left foot, right foot, breathe. So when we ascended the ridge and were granted a view of the horizon from which the sun had risen, the scene was abrupt, encompassing, immersive. The landscape through which we were traveling had undoubtedly provided similar jaw-dropping panoramas during the previous few weeks—hell, the entire Everest Base Camp trek is itself a giant panorama of mountain goodness—but this one felt different. It was an unforeseen and unforgettable prelude to the summit of Lobuche that, in retrospect, far exceeded any other moment of the climb.
And so part of me wonders if our first view of Kaieteur—when Soldier had rustled me out of a daze and pointed upstream to the waterfall peeking out behind the mountains— was perhaps more memorable than our time spent wandering around the top. Sure, the view had been brief, but I had been unprepared at that moment for even a fleeting glimpse. It was an unexpected tease, a small taste, but also, in a way, a confirmation of the worthiness of my trip.
I am reminded of Clark’s exclamation upon seeing what he believed to be the Pacific Ocean for the first time— “Ocian in view! O! the joy!” And yet the expedition was not actually at the Pacific Ocean—they were at the Columbia River estuary, twenty miles from the coast. But that, of course, wasn’t the point.
All of which makes me wonder about travel and expectations and preconceptions and surprises and discovery. It also makes me wonder if maybe, just maybe, the way we approach travel—with our 5-star rankings and destination highlights—is inherently inefficient and that perhaps anticipated grandeur, the kind we so often expect, can in fact be surpassed, and often is, by the abrupt glory of an unexpected glimpse.
I woke up the next morning to find Soldier in the kitchen, warming up what remained of the previous night’s dinner. Unable to stomach a chiplets encore, I declined the offer of leftovers, accepted the offer of coffee, and finished off the remainder of my biscuits.
During our time together, I had learned what I could of Soldier’s life. He had served in the Guyanese army, hence the nickname, but had become a tour guide soon after his service had ended. The first company he had worked for had taken advantage of him, pilfering most of the profits, and paying him only $5,000 ($25 U.S.) for two days of work. Unable to feed his wife and four children with this paltry income, he packed his bags, moved to Mahdia and began work in the mines. After only six months, he had made enough money to build his own house, which he constructed on an open plot just outside the main town. At some point, he agreed to continue work as a guide, this time for a different company and at a salary six times the previous rate. I had found him between assignments, and he had quoted me a per-trip price similar to the one he was paid by the tour operator. Since I had met Soldier, I had been searching for an appropriate word to describe him. He was respected, but not revered, friendly, but not endearing. Sometime that morning, I stumbled on the word that I had been searching for: capable.
While drinking my coffee, I leafed through the building’s guestbook. It went back several years, and I noticed that even though I had found the place empty, the guesthouse had seen its fair share of visitors from all over the world. There were frequent mentions of two tour operators in particular, including the one that Soldier had said he currently worked for. But there were also a few visitors who wrote that they had done the trek “independently” and I wondered if their experiences had been similar to my own. One ironic theme infiltrated nearly every comment—the desire to keep the area around Kaieteur pristine and untouched by tourism.
While I scanned the comments, Rubin walked into the room and sat down in the chair next to me. He wished me good morning and asked if I had slept well. Then he got down to business. “I have to ask you a question,” he said to me. “Did you come here with a guide service? Or did you come on your own?”
I sensed trepidation in his voice and admitted that I had hired Soldier alone, from Mahdia. “Okay, I thought so,” he sighed. “That means that you need to buy a ticket to the park. People usually buy it in Georgetown, but since you’re already here, you can buy it from me. And you also need to pay to stay in the guesthouse for the night. Together, it comes to $6,000.”
It was another hit to my already deflated wallet, but I knew I had to pay. It was the right thing to do. Here was a guy trying to abide by the seemingly loose Guyana Tourism regulations, and he looked almost apologetic having to ask me for the fee. I filled out the necessary paperwork and he handed me a receipt, the first I had received since leaving Georgetown. We shook hands and I thanked him for the hospitality.
In the guestbook, I had read about a handful of Kaieteur Falls “must-sees,” regional animals or particularly unique sights that were regularly encountered on the standard tour, and I asked Soldier to point them out to me, if possible, on the way down the mountain. We found one of them, the golden frog, almost immediately, sheltering next to a shallow pool of water inside a giant palm frond. We were less successful with the Cock of the Rock, a distinctive bird endemic to the region, but known to be more elusive. Perhaps recognizing his lack of guidance on the way up, Soldier continued the commentary voluntarily, pointing out the howl of a spider monkey, the footprint of a tapir, and the fresh droppings of a tree-dwelling sloth (although we somehow failed to spot the notoriously sluggish animal in the canopy).
Our boat was waiting obediently for us at Tukei and we jumped in, retracing our steps back to Waratuk and beyond. At the next stop, Amatuk, there was no sign of Gottfried (who Soldier had said would come and pick us up), so we paid the owner of the store $8,000 to take us back to Pamela’s Landing. Mid- way through the journey, the skies blackened again, unleashing a brutal rainstorm far worse than the one we had walked through the previous afternoon. Our driver, determined to power through, sped the boat through the choppy water, forcing Soldier and me to crouch down in front, our heads between our knees, the sharp rain pelting our arms and legs.
Pulling up to Pamela’s Landing, I was shocked to find Trevor already there, his pickup truck backed up gently to the edge of the water as he used the rain to power wash the mud-caked vehicle. We waved hello and scrambled uphill to the nearest covering, waiting out the rest of the downpour. When the rain finally subsided, Trevor drove by to pick us up. I noticed that his demeanor had changed significantly, from tough guy intimidator to concerned taxi driver, and on the ride back to Mahdia, he asked me multiple times if I had enjoyed the trip. I told him I had; it had been an exciting, albeit unorthodox tour.
As Trevor dropped me off at the hotel, taking the excursion full circle, I began to wonder how the guidebook would have steered me toward the falls. Did it recommend the uncomfortable mini-bus to Mahdia? Or Trevor’s charter service to Pamela’s Landing? It was unlikely. I guessed that the most recommended route involved one of the two tour services I had found in the guestbook. The most luxurious route would of course be the “drive-by” of the falls via the “aircraft” from Georgetown. But regardless of how circuitous or lengthy it may have been, my route, the one I had stumbled into, had been a success. It had allowed me to “discover” Kaieteur without significant preconceptions or buildup, and I knew I would remember the experience for the rest of my life. I could only hope that my subsequent guidebook-less forays would be as seamless and as rewarding as this one.