Kipat Wilson visits the obscure and often overlooked South American country that inspired the work of Evelyn Waugh
Perched on the shoulder of South America like a gaudy parrot, Guyana is a place the world still barely knows - which is strange, given that it is the only English-speaking country on the continent. Until 1966, it was British Guiana (the locals still drive on the left and follow cricket with unfathomable devotion), and for decades it languished as an archetypal tropical backwater known only to birdwatchers, adventurers and mad scientists disappearing into the jungle with butterfly nets. All this is changing now as tour operators compete to market a destination billed as an "undiscovered" gem. Guyana's natural attractions are formidable and include tremendous waterfalls, a flamboyant wildlife and 200,000 sq km of pristine rainforest. Once you leave its sultry coastline, where most of the population reside and the lifestyle is more Caribbean than Latin American, travellers find a country that feels raw, bountiful and untouched. A 400km-wide band of unremitting jungle dominates an interior that is so new to tourism that some lodges only recently installed hot running water. Beyond this lies the Rupununi, a place of bewitching savannahs speckled with huge cattle ranches and wetlands where you can spot black caiman, giant otters and river turtles. Obscurity is all part of the appeal. In 1932, when the English novelist Evelyn Waugh sailed in to research his entertaining travel book on the country, Ninety-Two Days, he was drawn here precisely because Guyana was "absurdly remote", with a map that was all "blanks and guesses".
As I belt up for a flight into its emerald interior, I feel the thrill of venturing into safe but little-known territory. Waugh described his tramp to the Brazilian border as "a journey of the greatest misery", but today it is easy to bomb around Guyana using small planes, 4x4 vehicles and motorised canoes. After travelling along the coast, the author sailed up the Berbice river on a paddle steamer drinking gin swizzles. By contrast, I buzz in on a well-worn Cessna Caravan operated by Trans Guyana Airways. The inflight service is guava juice and chocolate biscuits, and the tail-plane freshly painted with the sights awaiting me: jaguars, Harpy eagles, anacondas, tinsel-like waterfalls and the flame-feathered cock-of-the-rock bird.
For one golden hour, as we leave behind the Dutch-built canals and lacy white wooden buildings of the capital, Georgetown, there is nothing to see but timeless jungle. When you fly over Brazil, the sight of the fires, logging camps and newly built roads down below can bring you to tears - but here in Guyana they still have one of the last intact rainforests in the world. By arriving late at the tourism ball, the country has suddenly found itself well-positioned to offer us some truly green holidays.
When I arrive in Surama, a 250-strong Amerindian community on the edge of the Pakaraima Mountains, it is heartliftingly obvious that here ecotourism is not just about recycling hotel towels or dropping a few dollars in the carbon offset bucket. Sixty per cent of village income is generated from visitors such as me coming to gawp at the vivid nature beyond its palm-thatched huts. That means family members do not have to go off logging, mining or cleaning swimming pools in Barbados. I only stay one night, but it's time enough to take a four-hour hike up Surama Mountain to see squadrons of macaws flying past, gaze at a night sky crammed with stars - with not a modern light in sight - and take a birdwatching cruise on the Burro-Burro river at dawn. I am overwhelmed by the sheer racket of rainforest life, made by an unseen army of birds, frogs, monkeys and insects. Waugh got seriously lost in the Rupununi, and it is easy to see why when I reach this scorched landscape of hazy mountains, trees with leaves like sandpaper and a rusty red earth that ensures all your clothes go in the bin on departure. He survived at odds he estimated to be 54,750,000 to one, and the region remains impressively wild. This is an ecosystem racked by drought and flood, where annual river levels range more than six metres and a rich birdlife is matched with such eye-popping creatures as the giant anteater and two-metre long arapaima, the world's largest freshwater fish. There is ample time to appreciate all this as I take a two-hour journey south on the Rupununi river. We are in the only canoe on the water, and it feels as if a whole country has been set aside for my delectation. Sinuous-necked snake birds patrol the currents, yellow-spotted turtles snooze on the rocks and black caimans sunbathe on sandbanks. Spin the wheel of time and I could be Robert Schomburgk, the botanist who discovered the giant Victoria Amazonica water lily here in 1837. When we call in to a pond covered with their bright green, two-metre-wide leaves, which are crowned with delicate white flowers and come with a flock of attendant egrets, it is like entering some dreamy spa pool on the outer rings of paradise. "Do caimans attack people?" I ask my guide, Melanie McTurk. "Only if you tread on them while hunting," she replies. Until recently, she and her husband, Edward, managed Karanambu, an impressively remote ranch established in the 1920s in a brave attempt to harvest balata, a natural latex, from the malarial swamps. Today majestic mango trees loom over a sparse compound where, for more than 30 years, Diane has run an acclaimed project to rehabilitate orphaned giant otters.
Diane invites me to join the family for lunch at an heirloom dining table made from silverballi wood. Huge Marabunta wasps patrol the rafters, while a distant radio squawks. It's only a three-hour drive to the outside world. "Sure we have e-mail," Melanie tells me. "And we always reply within two weeks." When I ask how many head of cattle they have, no one seems too sure. The conversation wanders like a dream, roaming from cutlasses to London's Savoy Hotel to an amusing tale about a toucan who swallowed a diamond. Afterwards, everyone collapses into a choppy sea of hammocks. When I wander over to a rickety parade of bookshelves, I find all the spines were devoured many moons ago by "a misguided goat". Another hour's journey south, I step out of the canoe to find that my customary vehicular transfer has been replaced by a bullock cart piled high with giggling kids. Yupukari is a 500-inhabitant village that became hot-wired to the world thanks to two Americans, Peter and Alice Taylor. Helped by a sizeable donation from an English lord, they set up libraries and computer facilities and built the four-room Caiman House Field Station where guests stay in rustic-chic rooms adorned with cowhide chairs, wild cotton textiles and mixed hardwoods. "Peter's a nocturnal creature," Alice confides over a dinner of peacock bass pepperpot, cassava matzas and caipirinhas. A herpetologist and caiman expert, he takes me for a night cruise on the Rupununi river that is like some crazy Halloween adventure. Birdwatching is big business in Guyana, but I was no twitcher until I discovered it's so much easier at night. Just get a canoe and a big torch and, bingo, there you are gliding past a snoozing grey-necked wood-rail and looking up the beak of an unsuspecting potoo, birds indigenous to the area. The excitement doesn't stop here. For some reason, fish keep jumping into our boat. They plop on my knees and try to wriggle into my boots. It's hilarious until a vicious-toothed dracula fish leaps in and gashes the leg of Peter's assistant, Ashley. Apparently born with night-vision binoculars implanted in his eyes, he responds by spotting an Amazon tree boa twined around a branch. Immediately Peter leaps ashore to bring it on board.
"Oh, thanks," I reply, as a metre of constantly twisting snake slithers between my fingers. "Now that's service ..." Covered in orange scales, it shows its fangs and gives me a venomous look. "Are they, er ...?" "Nope," Peter drawls. "But sometimes they'll musk on you real bad." Caiman House is the sort of place where, if you stay a minute too long, they'll have you there forever, watering the passion fruit plants or teaching numeracy skills to the pet coati.
Waugh had planned to continue through Brazil to Manaus, but he couldn't get on a boat so had to trudge all the way back to the coast. On the way, he called in to Guyana's flagship attraction, Kaieteur Falls. Back then, it received just three or four visitors a year - now it is almost 5,000, most of whom fly in on a day-trip plane that lands on a rudimentary airstrip surrounded by unremitting rainforest. While Niagara can be tacky, Victoria Falls a circus of adrenalin activities, and Iguassu ruined by a tourist train (on the Argentine side), Kaieteur is still as virginal as the day it was discovered in 1870 by the geologist Charles Barrington Brown. The only other people there are my 11 fellow passengers, and its sheer, single drop of 226m makes it one of the most powerful falls on the planet. There are no barriers, no postcard-sellers, no cafe - just raw, thundering nature cascading down.
Guyana might be thin on conventional five-star comforts, but it offers a different kind of luxury - the chance to enjoy world-class sights still devoid of tourist hoo-ha. Then, in what seems an utterly decadent act, our pilot flies us down to the Brazilian border just so we can swim beside the enchanting Orinduik Falls. Here the water spills over cliffs of solid, vibrantly pink jasper, a semi-precious stone. Back in Georgetown, Waugh noted with satisfaction that a few more pages of the atlas had now been made real. He sailed back to Europe via Trinidad, taking five stuffed crocodiles as presents. I just buy a hammock, where I plan to sit and swing, remembering what a thrill it was to discover Guyana, and dreaming about the next obscure corner of the world to plop into. email@example.com