Sunday, 22 April 2007

The great Shell Beach Easter Adventure

Our big adventure was over Easter. On the Wednesday we set off to go to Shell Beach to see the turtles lay their eggs. It was to be a 24 hour journey by minibus and sea going speedboat because the 90 mile beach in the North West of Guyana, a few miles from the Venezuelan border, is only accessible by sea and river as the Atlantic is on one side and thick rain forest on the other. What a challenge it became.

We left at 6am to go to the central market – Stabroek – and caught a speedboat across the Demerara River (sugar fame) to Vreed-en-Hoop where we got a minibus to Parika only to catch another speedboat across the Essesquibo River, mentioned earlier. I have been on this one before in full work gear and brief case and it goes unbelievably fast, there is no cover except tarps and you get very wet. They hold 10 and you have to sit in the boat according to your weight. Getting on and off for those not so nimble can be a challenge. This one took 45 minutes and yes, we did get very wet. We dried off on the next 90 minute minibus journey to Charity and the estuary of another river. Here we got provisions (bananas) and I used the public loo made of rusty corrugated iron, which hung over the river and you can guess what happened after that. But when you’ve gotta go, you’ve gotta go!

We left in the “Da Generation X” speedboat for 15 passengers at 12-30. This was to take us all the way to Shell Beach in about 3 and half hours (remember that!). Fine, we went to the Ocean and it was decided it was too rough. We were pleased because it was incredibly fast, choppy and we had lost contact with out bottoms and the sea and our soggy underwear all merged into one. We turned south into the rain forest. Beautiful, hanging trees, dangling roots nine foot long, birds, eerie, windy, beautiful water lilies everywhere (the National Flower) and generally enchanting. We set off at high speed and the wash was 6 foot high and the boat threw us from side to side as we twisted and turned without every slowing down – a very skilled driver. After a while, we arrived at a bridge and Maruca – an Amerindian (local inhabitants) village which was real rain forest Guyana. We were a novelty as we walked through the village but no one spoke. It started raining and the dirt main street changed into a river. We waited; it didn’t abate, so we set off again.

This time the water was coming from the wash, the clouds and the seriously dripping trees. We could not have been wetter if we had been in a Launderette machine and so we dispensed with the tarps and enjoyed the scenery. Until, when we got to the 99 turns river (so called because it was built by local slaves in the 18th Century to join the Waini River with another leading to the ocean and it literally had 99 bends). It was very shallow and it was not unknown for passengers to have to get out and push. There was no-one for many miles except the eagles above and the stork idly looking on wondering what these crazy white humans were doing.

Then the pump silted up and we went so slowly we could have swum faster. The day was getting on and dark comes at 6-10pm sharp and we weren’t going to make it either way. Unlike the Norfolk Broads there was no friendly pub to moor up against! Then we had a spurt, off again at great speed and crack!!!!!! The propeller hit a root and sheared off a blade. Boats like to go round and round in those circumstances but our driver, who was very skilled but a little fool-hardy, carried on without telling us. It was only when we realised there was a problem that we got him to stop and we did, in VSO terms, a needs analysis. Yes it would be dark in an hour, Yes the boat was going about 2 miles an hour, no there was nowhere to stop or get help, yes, we only had one torch and when it gets dark, it’s really dark.

We voted to turn round and go back which we did slowly and carefully and eventually arrived back at Maruca 8 hours after we had left. We stayed in a small boarding house only accessible by river. There were 15 of us and the landlady managed to put us all up in bunk beds, sleeping on the floor, in hammocks etc. Then the real adventure started. We came back from having our tuna sandwich and our friend Allende (who is Spanish) was exclaiming “It’s impossible, it’s impossible! I have arachnophobia. I can’t sleep with the spiders. I can’t sleep with the tarantula (pronounced the Spanish way tarantoola) and to our surprise, right above her head in the open eaves, there it was!!! Baby but nevertheless hairy and menacing and about 5” wide. No amount of spray and shooing would convince Allende whose hysteria was considerable. Mary was just hiding away because she knew the open eaves could invite the spider over to her bed as well. Allende finally slept after donning her iPod, closing her eyes and being tucked in all round in her net. The spider was never seen again.

They suggested we get up at 5am for a 5-30 start. Mary was not best pleased but was outvoted and we were down at the river before it got light. There was no electricity anyway so it didn’t make any difference. We waited and waited and the boat appeared “Just now” the Guyanese expression for any time from 1 minute to several days. At 7-30am we set off with a mended prop but still a dodgy pump. After several hours we were going slowly again and phut phut the fuel ran out. Oh dear! We flagged down a boat and siphoned some off, paid him and we were back on our way. This time, it went well and we finally reached the ocean in the top end of Shell Beach and then we found out how fast this boat could really go – zooooooooooom, splash, bump, serious bump, throw up in the air bump, but we all managed to hold on and eventually spotted our camp at 2-30pm. It was like the film South Pacific and the sailors’ entry into BaliHi. Thin logs were placed horizontally on the beach and as we arrived we were pulled up on the logs by about 12 jolly Amerindians who gave us a wonderful welcome, even if 24 hours late!

It was worth the wait. It was like a desert island with the beach being made entirely of crushed shells with no sand. We had tents, there was food cooked in the open and it was an experience we have never had before. The downside were the latrines where the mosquitoes peculiar to Shell Beach bit hard and left blisters, the well which produced water the colour of hot chocolate and the same temperature. But we were treated really well and it was a great adventure. We went turtle watching in the dark at 8pm and others went in the night but no-one saw any and we were probably too early in the season.

The boat left the next day at 10am and was an uneventful, if not bumpy and extremely wet journey. Well, that’s except for the springing of a leak in the Atlantic. We noticed

it when the Guyanese passengers started bailing out. We had to wait for a boat and when one passed (there were very few) and probably a banana boat, all the young passengers had to get off and women and old men (I put myself in that category) stayed on board. The Guyanese continued to bail out whilst the captain bunged the hole with a cork (pronounce “cark”) and away we went, arriving back at Charity after having spent exactly 24 hours on that speed boat (remember the three and a half hours earlier)!!!!!!
We did enjoy it really and it was the greatest
adventure of our lives