21 February 2012
The other morning the bonus was the snout of a black caiman for just a moment before it slid under the red-brown water without a ripple. The day before it had been the discovery of a tree in fruit, a few yards from the water's edge that gave me a clear view of the flock of white fronted toucans hopping through the branches. I watched them hang up side down and delicately pull a ripe red berry from a bunch and then flip it back into their mouths with that crazy big beak.
We are up the Essiquibo river almost fifty miles from the sea. Dawn dingy rides up stream so that we can drift back down along the bank watching and listening to the rain forest have become part of our routine. The dawn light and sunrise are just too good to miss, so it is early to bed and early to rise for us and the rest of the river's inhabitants. These are mostly birds and animals as the sparse population is well spread out, up here above Bartica there are miles of pristine forested bank without a single habitation.
I am normally a creature most at home on blue water, happiest with swell and a good breeze but I have find the wonderful soft light and tranquillity of Guyana's easy to cruise river, the Essiquibo, wonderfully relaxing.
We left Natal in Brasil en route for Tobago. We took our first break at Ile's de Salut off French Guyana. The three islands (Royale, St. Josephs and Devil's Island) were all part of the prison colony made infamous by "Papillion". Now they are a low key tourist destination attracting cruise ships and day trippers from the space station town of Kourou just seven miles away.
The wild-life is very tame as the islands are protected. The animals are an odd mixture of local and introduced. The red rumped agotis seem quite at home with the feral cockerels and pheasants, after all there are enough mangos and coconuts to go around.
Part of the old prison is now a hotel and another of the old buildings houses an interesting museum that reminds you only too well of the terrible "solution" for political and ordinary prisoners that the French shared with other European countries in the past.
After a peaceful week on the good anchorage at Ile Royale we continued on in the light trades for Guyana. We are on a slightly tight schedule to rendezvous with family in Tobago before Christmas and so skipped over Suriname in favour of Guyana.
Armed with a copy of the Doyle cruising guide to Trinidad, Tobago and Guyana we entered the eastern or "ship channel" of the Essequibo estuary. We had passed the approach buoy an hour before low water and by the time we reached Parika had a strong flood tide with us which we rode almost all the way to Bartica. The only traffic in the forty miles were a few water taxis flying past with 150 and 200 hp on the back of fairly small light boats.
We were approached by one launch that was painted camouflage and were asked by the (we assumed) policeman aboard where we had come from and our destination. He told us of the upcoming general election and was happy to allow us to proceed to Bartica for clearance.
We anchored our first night off the Shankland's Resort but saw no sign of life ashore. After a really good sleep we motored the last few miles against the river and anchored off the "Stelling" or pier in Bartica. I dingied in and easily found the customs house where Nigel, the customs officer insisted on a visit out to check for contraband and explain the rules before he would clear us in. Customs clearance in hand we called in to the police station to see the immigration officer and finish the formalities. The police station is ringed with a high security fence, and the frontier feeling was completed by the "lads" calling out from between the bars of the lock up for cigarettes.
Bartica is a real cultural mix these days, Brazilian restaurants, beauty parlours and bars are popping up between the Hindu owned general stores and gold dealers. There are cows in the street, Indian style, but the street vendors are Rastas, West India style. We stocked up on some fresh and went back on-board for an early night. Some chance anchored close to waterfront bars that cater to Brazilian gold miners on a Friday night.
The next morning we move the four miles up to Baganara island where another small hotel or resort is located. Half of the island is still forested, the other half an air-strip, lawns and the hotel itself atop a sandy beach. We anchored just past the hotel building and when we went ashore were met by the manger Kurt and welcomed with a limeade and a briefing about the resort. Yachties are welcome just let the hotel know when you want to come ashore in case there are reclusive guests about !
We started our dawn habits the next morning and took a guided walk around the island at six o'clock. Our guide was young but very enthusiastic and knowledgeable about the birds, the howler monkeys and the sloth that we respectively, saw and heard.
The neat aluminium Ranke designed yacht moored to the bank a mile upstream drew me up for a visit the next day. As I pulled in to tie up the dingy my breath was taken away by the beautiful octagonal wooden house standing on the bank. Bernhard and his Guyanse wife Sharmilla welcomed me and showed me around the garden they have created in the rain forest clearing. It is very impressive for such a new garden but then that is the reward for hard work in the tropics, fast results. The magic ingredient is the organic compost that Bernard artfully creates from lawn mowing's, green trimmings and granite dust from the quarry a few miles upstream. I can vouch for how tasty all their produce is from the banana chips, to the golden apple juice and from the red berry jam to the hot, hot chutney to dip those banana chips into.
After a couple of peaceful days we headed further up river armed with waypoints from Bernhard. We took it nice and easy and poked our way another fifteen or so miles up before we ran out of water. The rapids were all around us but we found holding in a deep pool and enjoyed the evening parrot rucus as they come back to their river side roosts. It was this morning's dingy run that gave me sight of the cayman and after some torrential rain had passed we upped anchor and started back.
It was a more difficult run down with the current and I had to re-negotiate more than one. I let my guard down once we passed between two old channel buoys and found a lump of granite. We backed off all right but it certainly made we wish for clear blue water.
Bernhard and Sharmilla hosted us magnificently that night and the next day we passed below Bartica and crossed to the west side of the river to visit "Miss Joyce". We had been told about another cruising couple who had built a house on the riverside and were curious to meet them. Unfortunately her husband had passed away a few years ago and Joyce is now living alone there in another amazing riverside property. Her yacht "Mood Indigo" and her two wheaten terriers, Duke and Ellie keep her company.
We enjoyed our few days moored off her garden and were glad that we were able to help out a bit with some energy generating problems she was having and a bit of garden work. Joyce has certainly a wonderful spot on the river but it would not be my choice for long term living, especially living alone.
We anchored for our last night on the river twenty miles downstream from Bartica between the Lau Lau islands. This really was jungle cruising, not a sign of a human habitation just the evening parrots and the odd fish splashing in the water for company. A dawn start gave us five hours of ebb tide and we flew down the western channel. There was one seine net stretched almost all the way across the river to negotiate and then we were past the miles of fish trap stakes and in slightly greener water.
The trades tend to be light in here close to the continental shore but we had enough for a pleasant sail and were able to lay the top corner of Tobago on one tack. I had been expecting to make Charlotville sometime the morning of the second day but had to slow the boat down the second night to avoid entering in the dark.
Now we are officially in the Caribbean. It took a while, over three years but then what is the hurry.