Rum, Manatee & the Mash

THE rising sun found its way through the canopy of trees along the riverbank before filtering into the mosquito nets which surrounded our hammocks.

Not a bad way to be woken early from a comfortable night’s sleep, swinging on the porch of the huts which made up our jungle lodge home.

Home for the night

And, considering some of the options we experienced in terms of transport and sleeping during our crossing of Guyana, waking up early in the jungle to the sound of howler monkeys and the local birds – think chickens crossed with vultures – hopping about us was pretty normal.

Or as normal as things get at the moment.

We have, via delays, illnesses, change of plans, sleeping on the move and a spot of carnival, made it to the sweltering Brazilian city of Manaus – capital of the Amazon – pretty much on schedule.

We are here for three nights (complete with trip to the ballet) before heading off on a boat to Colombia for five or six days and catching a flight to Cartagena which, hopefully, will bring us a reunion with the truck.

That last bit was always part of the plan – Will and Spongebob heading overland while we drifted down the Amazon to catch us up somewhere in northern Colombia.

What was not part of the plan is them being an entire country and several days behind us before we even board the boat.

Spongebob tries to hitch a lift
Picture: Will Dreyer

The latest news, following the truck being a touch too tall to fit on a replacement ferry, is they should finally break the magnetic pull of Suriname and start catching up tomorrow.

Fingers crossed. Touching wood. Stroking any good luck charm you may have to hand.

While we were enjoying the delights of Georgetown (and the comforts of an extended stay in relatively luxurious hotel rooms) and finding our own, idiosyncratic way back into Brazil, Will and Spongebob have been going nowhere fast.

Finding a barge to cross was sorted relatively quickly, raising hopes of a swift reunion.

But with paperwork and immigration issues over arriving at an unofficial crossing port, complicated by a national holiday and a looming election, things dragged on.

On the road to Georgetown – genuine village name

And on. And on.

When we finally thought everything was in order and the green light was given, all of a sudden it turned to red, permission was withdrawn and Will was heading back to Paramaribo to await the proposed return to action of the original ferry which was tied up, out of action as we boarded its replacement.

Complete with troublesome arch.

Which is where you left us, the remaining 18 of us crammed into a minibus alongside all the luggage we had grabbed to last us until a reunion with the truck – or everything for the four leaving us in Georgetown and two who depart in Manaus.

We did our best to lighten the load by breaking into the duty free supplies, helped by the driver buying us beer due to the total absence of local currency between us.

The effects of Guyanese rum come to the fore

We had managed to load up on Guyanese dollars at the hotel before the first of several trips to the Red Bar down the road – via a hole in the wall cheesy chips place – with one of Danny’s contacts.

Buying the round is simple – one bottle of local rum (very nice it is too), one bottle of Coke, a bucket of ice and cups for everyone. Repeat to fade.

It all made Lisa and myself grateful our flight to Kaieteur Falls (cancelled, then moved to another operator after a terse email exchange – remind me not to get on Lisa’s wrong side) had been shunted back a couple of hours.

Kaieteur Falls
Cute but apparently deadly

It would have been a shame to have too foggy a head for such a natural wonder, well worth the hour flight each way over dense jungle.

The Falls may not be in full flow – dry season is something we would come to appreciate – but the 226m single drop is still spectacular, however close to the edge you choose not to stand.

Or sit for that oh so daring Instagram pose.

Cock of the rock. Honestly

Throw in sightings of the small but deadly golden frog and the colourful cock of the rock bird and it made for a great day out, rounded off by a trip across town to a T20 cricket match to kick off the holiday weekend which was more notable for the antics of the colourful, if sparse, crowd than the actual contest.

Georgetown itself is very much part of the Caribbean – rum, cricket and speaking English may have given that away – and comes with a different, if slightly rundown, feel to its continental neighbours.

A group of us spent much of the next day exploring some of its delights – the chaos of Stabroek Market, the cathedral with touches of Olde England, drinks on the seawall and an afternoon feeding the charming, huge manatees who live in a lake in one of the city parks.

A manatee in search of an easy meal

Punctuated by a trip to hospital for a few tests on one of our number. Not the last test for dengue fever in the group over the past few days, although only one back in Europe has come back positive.

Just one drink we said. Trouble is, the drink is a bottle. No conversations had that night are legally binding

The night could have ended relatively early but popping into the bar for just one drink when that one drink is a bottle is unlikely to end quietly.

Which made for a slow start to Mashramani – the annual Guyanese celebration to mark becoming a republic in 1970, four years after independence from the UK.

Thankfully, things did not kick into gear until the afternoon, by which time things were very hot, very colourful and very, very loud if you got anywhere near the competing sound systems.

Rare picture of Mashramani without Danny in it

It is, essentially, one long carnival – measure it in hours – with every suburb, town, village and organisation in and around Georgetown out to make the biggest impression.

Those who were not taking part seemed to be lining the sides of the road and, if some members of our group were anything to go by, joining in at every opportunity.

For those still nursing the after effects of a few rums, it was all a bit much after a few hours and we sloped off for a quiet night.

Normal service resumed

Which turned into a quiet extra day, night, morning and most of an afternoon as things gradually eased back into life after the holiday, plans were redrawn and we finally headed out of Georgetown around 5pm in two small minibuses heading for the jungle.

There was a reason we did not see any roads when we flew over the jungle – they do not really exist.

There is one rough, unpaved road which would eventually carry us all the way to the border town of Lethem.

Our transport and our home for the night. Thankfully not all of us

Thankfully it is dry and we made good progress, often at fairly rapid pace, to reach our overnight stop near a ferry around 1am.

We were woken from what sleep you can grab in a minibus four hours later to catch the first ferry and make the short journey to our rendezvous with the boats from the Rewa Eco Lodge, which carried us the two and a half hours back up the river, spotting caiman, otters and assorted bird life, to our home for the night.

And the waiting hammocks which we seized on gratefully to catch up on lost sleep.

Most of did make it up for one venture out of camp – four of us spending a very pleasant sunset hour or so at a secluded lake filled with giant lily pads and bird life.

There was little delay in heading back to the hammocks in the evening and, having pulled ourselves out for breakfast, we were shuttled back up the river for another cramped minibus journey on rough roads.

Thankfully, Lethem was just a couple of hours away.

A slightly more comfortable home for the evening

Wish there were tales of exploring what it had to offer, but even the guy at the hotel – who defied his local accent by claiming to come from Hull – admitted we would be lucky as we headed out in search of a meal.

He was wrong, we did find one.

Whether that was really lucky is another matter.

Our stay in Lethem and Guyana was ended just after lunchtime as we rolled over the border and back into Brazil, waving goodbye to cramped minibuses and welcoming more roomy, comfortable coaches.

If the one which whisked us from Bonfim to Boa Vista was pretty standard coach fare back home, the one which carried us through the night to Manaus was on a different level – double decker, reclining seats, WiFi, power sockets.

Who needs Spongebob?

We do. 

Settling in for a night of luxury on a bus
Picture: Danny Taylor

Crossing The River Material

Our last sight of Spongebob, unloading bags after it failed to fit on the ferry – what was left behind is still there until Brazil’s lockdown eases

IN a trip encompassing an entire continent, thousands of miles, seven months, a string of border crossings and a fair bit of political unrest, a few inches is proving the most significant and most troublesome.

The few inches in difference between the height of our truck and the archway on the back of the stand-in ferry which provides the only way out of Suriname into Guyana.

And the few inches which means we have spent the last few days holed up in Georgetown enjoying the national holiday which is making alternative arrangements – for us and the truck – even harder.

Our home for the night ahead of crunch time. The lack of communication and poses suggests it has WiFi

Sure over the course of the past 23 weeks the entire group has not stared so intently, hopefully and forlornly at anything as we did from behind the ferry terminal fence as Will attempted to get Spongebob on board the once-a-day boat across the Corentyne river.

Sneak through and we were on our way, ready to savour a long weekend in the Guyanese capital as its inhabitants celebrated Mashramani – the party to mark becoming a republic in 1970, four years after independence.

Find our way blocked by the metal arch on the back of the ferry and we were unloading our hastily repacked bags, making our own way to Georgetown and leaving Will with the task of finding an alternative solution.

By far the least bizarre aspect of the meal

All that complicated by the fact he has no visa for French Guiana, the only realistic (if lengthy) option to go over land and meet us in Manaus or, more probably, in Colombia in a few weeks.

At least the truck is stashed full of nuts, handed out free in huge bags with our duty free purchases.

Early pessimism as we camped out overnight at the front of the ferry queue at the South Drain terminal (seriously), moving our tents from the grass to concrete after warnings of venomous snakes, was replaced by a bout of optimism when a lorry came off the arriving boat which appeared roughly Spongebob’s height.

And as Will rolled down the ramp, the roof dipped below the arch and we began to get our hopes up.

In search of dolphins

Right up to the point where he levelled out, rolled up to the arch and reversed away, those few inches too much for deflating the tyres to make a difference.

So as the hunt for alternative arrangements began, we unloaded as little as possible for up to a few weeks without the truck or, for those leaving in Georgetown or Manaus, the entire contents of their lockers.

Lugging rather more bags than packing light would imply, we joined the queue of foot passengers and trudged on to the waiting ferry – passing the stricken normal vessel tied up alongside which the truck could have rolled on and off without a second thought.

And so we headed off slightly into the unknown and swapped Dutch for English on the final leg of our multi-lingual crossing of the Guianas.

The I Love Suriname sign pictured from the correct side (you’d be surprised)

Our crossing of Suriname had also started with a ferry crossing, a pre-dawn departure to get to the front of the queue at St Laurent du Maroni doing the trick once the French immigration officers had got their heads around a British passport still having European Union written on the front.

A brief stop on the other side to load up with breakfast, a packed lunch and duty free and it was a relatively quick run to the capital city of Paramaribo.

It is not the biggest and not necessarily the most beautiful city and has a gritty edge, but it possesses a certain charm – slightly to very worn wooden buildings and an interesting mix of its European heritage, Caribbean neighbours and a touch of Africa.

It is different to anywhere else we have been and that is always a good start to make it stand out.

As well as its sights and history – its president is a former dictator convicted for his role in killing opponents – we explored its bars (one down by the river in particular) and restaurants.

Settling in for a lengthy evening in the bar

One left us perusing the menu for 15 minutes before informing us they only had the set Valentine’s Day meal while one rib restaurant provided a meal which could fill a blog post all of its own.

May be diplomatic to leave that one for a while.

We headed a bit further afield in search of dolphins, finding a few breaking the surface on our sunset boat ride towards the mouth of the Suriname river.

But you cannot head too far afield in Suriname, it just is not big enough and we were back around the capital on our return from a couple of nights even further up the river at a jungle lodge.

Just a horrible spot in the jungle

Wish this post could report on adventures into the jungle and encounters with the local wildlife – some did head out on foot with a guide and mainly learned about the trees which enveloped us – but spent much of the time relaxing and soaking in the surroundings.

While not swimming in the river or doing our best to make dents in the duty free supplies which had made the boat ride up the river with us.

Not that much made the return journey as we worked our way back to Paramaribo and a camp at a yacht club.

Our riverside property for a couple of nights

Or a bar with a car park for our tents next to the river which had a couple of yachts tied up nearby, depending on how you want to look at it.

It did come with the added bonus of the distant orange flame as the satellite launch we had seen being prepared eight days earlier in French Guiana made its way out of our atmosphere.

If only getting the truck free from the gravitational pull of Suriname was as straightforward.

  • At the time of writing, we remain in Georgetown awaiting details of our departure by alternative transport later today. There are worse places to be stuck, but we’ve been here long enough.

    The truck is… somewhere behind us. We know it got on a barge, but with things only just reopening after the holidays, quite when it will catch up is unclear.
Our penultimate cook group – not that we knew it at the time – marked more enthusiastically by some than others