Imagine Niagara Falls, only 3 times taller, virtually no tourists, surrounded by South American rainforest, and you have to hike until your toes have blood blisters to get there but you get to swim at the precipice of it when you do. In short, forget Niagara Falls - I'm a Kaieteur Man!
Yeah, I'll bet you had no idea that one of the great wonders of the natural world is located right here in the heart of Guyana. Kaieteur holds the dubious-but-legitimate title of largest (not tallest, but largest) single-drop waterfall on the planet. Victoria Falls, far taller, doesn't count because it's got an extra little drop at the top, and we measure not just height, but volume too. But who cares? This place is fantastic! Nobody knows about it, so it gets maybe a couple hundred visitors a year. It's greatest claim to fame in the Western world? Heart-throb movie star Channing Tatum visited this past year. We checked the log book in the guest house, but he hadn't signed it.
The trip started off in Georgetown, Guyana's capital, where five of us PCVs and a Bulgarian woman also working in the country met our guide, an Amerindian originally from the Kaieteur region who has actually been to Washington D.C. to campaign on behalf of Amerindian rights. Together, we loaded up our backpacks and foodstuffs into a bus and took a long, bumpy, miserable ride into the jungle. The road was unpaved, dusty, lumpy, downright dangerous, and looked just like my usual route to site back in my Mali days (so of course I was feeling nostalgic and happy as a clam). The difference between here and Mali is that while in Mali, you'll see a farming village every few miles, this road took us through a dense rainforest with only the occasional Amerindian outpost or gold mining camp to break up the monotony. Even these rare glimpses of civilization were each limited to three or four houses, two or three bars, and at least one pool table. I have no idea how they got a pool table that far on that road.
But if the pool tables could all make it, so could we. We got to the town of Madhia, a large mining outpost-turned-city and met our motorboat captains. Onto the boats we climbed and after an hour of winding down the jungle river, the sun began to set and no sooner did we pull our cameras out to fire away at the gorgeous landscape than the brilliant glowing golden sunset clouds opened up into glowing golden rain torrents and that was the end of our photo-taking. It was also the last time any of us saw dry clothes for the next two days. Apparently, the least waterproof part of my backpack was the bottom, where I'd packed all my underwear and socks – which is how I ended up with the aforementioned blood blisters.
That night, we parked on Amatok Island, yet another small gold-miners' compound. We slept in our hammocks and mosquito tents, and woke up in time for some sunrise river-bathing. At first anxious about the reportedly piranha-infested waters, we were assured that the rivers were so full of piranha food that there was no way they would be interested in eating us – that is, I thought, unless we came upon the one piranha who hadn't had breakfast yet. Happily, the only things that were interested in eating us were tiny fish who took harmless little nips at our toes like the ones in those Japanese feet-cleaning parlors.
After breakfast was another couple hours of boating down the river, and just when I was getting antsy, we parked our boats, had a quick lunch of peanut butter crackers and watermelons, and began to hike. We had begun our ascent on the far side of the mountain from where Kaieteur Falls falls from, so we had to climb over to the other side of the mountain to get to the Falls. It was one of those great moments that I experience every time I do something awesome while travelling, when I could shout to one of the other PCVs I was hiking with, "Check it out: we're hiking up a mountain in the South American rainforest!" It was even more satisfying when I could shout, "Check it out: I'm taking a leak in the South American rainforest!"
Three hours of climbing, tripping, sweating, getting eaten by mosquitoes, and imitating spider monkey mating calls ended when we finally got to the top of the mountain, followed the trail out of the woods, walked into a break in the brush, and found ourselves at the edge of the cliff. Cerulean evening sky was painted behind brilliant green broccoli-covered mountains that rose over the river valley in front of us. While in one direction, the valley stretched for as far as the eye could see as the river flowed between the the steep mountainsides, the other way hit a wall only a few hundred feet from where we were standing at our lookout point. That wall rose up 741 feet into the air over the river, and gushed water like Mother Nature's storm gutter. It was the legendary Kaieteur Falls.
Kaieteur gets its name from a bastardization of the Amerindian word which means "old man," and was named when a local tribesman launched himself over the edge of the waterfall in a sacrifice to the gods to protect his tribe from their enemies. So far, the sacrifice seems to be working. The Kaieteur National Park borders only covered about four square miles until the last few decades when the government realized what a vital asset the region could be and closed it off to further development, as well as mining and logging, creating a pristine park that covered hundreds of acres of protected land inside a region which is mostly undeveloped anyway.
That is the real treat of Kaieteur Falls – the remoteness. Like I said, Niagara this ain't. We had a minimally maintained guest house which is run off of solar panels and whose fresh water supply comes from a rainwater catchment tank. The last people to fill out the guest book were the last PCVs who visited the house, two weeks earlier. We spent two nights, a day and a half, at the Falls and only 3 times did we see other travelers. They came in by bush plane, landed at the airstrip a 20-minute hike away, and cautiously approached the Fall's edge before jumping back squealing with a mix of terror and delight at this unbridled exposure to real Nature. They then retreated to a safer and more photogenic distance to figure out how to shoot their exemplary trip photos while trying their hardest to exclude the annoying group of PCVs whom they were probably assured would not be there, and certainly would not be lazily lounging in the river in the middle of their shot because we were too haughty and comfortable to move. After 20 minutes, they were on their way, and we just kept swimming, exploring, and soaking it all in.
Of all the majesty and beauty of the place, the most memorable part of the trip for me was watching the swifts. A little before sunset, a few dozen swifts began to congregate in the sky over the falls, sailing through the air in slow arcs, sometimes following each others' arcs, sometimes bisecting them, and all the while growing in number until a few dozen turned into hundreds, perhaps even thousands – too many to count anyway. As I sat there staring at them, I began to see a geometry in their flight movements, and the slow lines of birds curving through the air became hexagonal paths where the lines would cross each other, like a giant airborne imitation of the seams on a soccer ball. Sometimes the flock would divide like celular mitosis into two smaller clusters, only to slowly merge back together again. They danced their ballet through the air, a seamless mix of biology and art, until the sun went blow the horizon and, three or five or ten at a time, they would suddenly break off from the flock and drop straight down with a heavy whoosh of air audible even over the rush of the waterfall, and then dive between the waterfall and the cliff face where they would set up their nightly roost.
The last morning began with an early-morning yoga-photo-shoot. One of my fellow travelers and I went to the falls at 7am, while the entire area between the mountains is thickly enveloped in fog, and I took shots of her posed silhouette in the mist. We were soon joined by the rest of the group and took one last swim in the river, before resigning ourselves to going back to civilization, work, and leaving the serene adventure behind. At the airstrip, we got on our plane, which reminded me of the plane Baloo flew in Disney's Tailspin cartoon show, an early staple of my Sunday morning routine. (I half expected the pilot to be a giant talking bear in a flight suit, but alas...) We flew back to Georgetown, caught busses home, and I began my last month in Guyana...