`BRITISH Guiana—the first foothold of Mr Khrushchev on the American continent’—or so some United States Senators claimed recently. `What’, ask my more politically minded friends, `were you up to out there?’ The simple truth is that we, the six members of the Cambridge Expedition to British Guiana, 1960, were up to nothing at all political, and in fact spent most of our time literally very much down to earth and (to quote our botanists) ‘grovelling in that decaying muck on the forest floor’.
Martin Angel (zoologist), Gareth Evans (botanist), John Clifton (geographer, geologist, photographer), Andrew Watson (botanist) and myself (zoologist), all from Cambridge, and Dr R. McNeill Alexander, formerly at Cambridge and now lecturing at Bangor, spent eleven weeks in British Guiana in the summer of 1960.
We were in Georgetown less than a week, but the glorious warmth of its climate and welcome was unforgettable. Our three tons of major equipment and food were carried from there to Winiperu on the Essequibo River—it is a few miles up the river from Bartica—by the big steel pontoons of British Guiana Timbers Ltd, while we travelled less directly but more comfortably by train and then river steamer to Bartica. Bartica is a town with a feeling of the wild west. The time was when all diamonds and gold found in the interior passed through Bartica, but the aeroplane is changing this, and it is missing its turbulent and prosperous days. From there we set off in the Forestry Department launch, with ‘The Cambridge Boat’, in appropriate light-blue paint, in tow. At this stage we were joined by Sandy, an Amerindian who was a gifted botanist, guide, hunter and fisherman (Sandy was in fact his surname, but we only discovered that much later), and Mr Boodham, our East Indian cook and philosopher.
Two days later our party of eight was alone in the tropical rain-forest, at our camp-site on Moraballi Creek. Two miles down the creek lay the Essequibo River, and a further two miles away across the river was Winiperu, the logging-station of British Guiana Timbers. We worked for four days constructing the camp-site under
the skilled and resourceful guidance of Sandy.
We slept in hammocks of Brazilian design, each one inside a tailored mosquito-net. The function of these mosquito-nets is to keep out vampire bats, whose attentions can cause rabies. In the event of any of our members being bitten, I had been instructed to determine whether the offending bat was showing signs of dementia, and if so to cut the victim’s wound and pour in concentrated nitric acid. No-one was bitten.
Life in the forest was simple. At night we slept under the giant trees; if it was hot we swam in the sparkling peat-coloured water of the creek; and when we were hungry Mr Boodham brought us food. But there were complications too.
Dr Alexander produced a set of unbreakable and incomprehensible apparatus with which he performed experiments on the swim-bladders of all the fish caught. His main work was performed on the notorious man-eating piranha.
Gareth Evans and Andrew Watson operated a futuristic machine which allegedly recorded the changes of light intensity on the forest floor as the day progressed. Gareth would also disappear for long periods with Sandy and return with the words `Awasekule, Fine Leaf Kokoritiballi’, and many more incantations still fresh on his lips. In a quiet talk with Sandy I found out that these were tree names in the Arawak language. John Clifton, like a hospital nurse, took temperatures and measured volumes at very precise moments every day and compiled comprehensive meteorological records. His soil pits still serve to remind future geologists of the depths to which man sometimes descends. Martin Angel studied the microscopic animal life in the leaf-litter lying thick on the forest floor. Somehow he collected 40,000 animals and now has the job of sorting them into a semblance of order.
These various idiosyncrasies were tolerated with good humour by Mr Boodham, Sandy and myself. Our nine ,weeks in the forest drifted idyllically past. We stayed at Moraballi for all this period, detained rather by the nature of our scientific work than by any lack of desire to migrate through the forest. Soon we knew every trail, discreetly marked in true Amerindian style by Sandy. One of them went through the deep swamps in Mora forest, where the palms and other ground-layer plants never live up to the impenetrable nature of the traditional jungle. Another led away northwards from the creek up over laterite ridges where magnificent buttressed Morabukea trees grew to heights over 120 feet, to become a clean dry trail on white sand, with characteristic open Wallaba forest.
This beautiful and immediately varied forest dissected by fast running creeks, full of unbelievable insects and the noises and smells of another world, has been described before and at length in Richard Schomburgk’s Travels in British Guiana.
The two final weeks were our holiday, in which we travelled as rapidly as possible to gain some idea of the interior. A last glance at the camp and our home-made suspension bridge, a view shadowy through trees and early morning mist and through nostalgia; then ahead the Essequibo and its well-known falls. To negotiate the falls is dangerous work and we were lucky in having the services of Captain Bradford of the Forestry Department—the only man in the country capable of piloting boats up these rapids. We shuddered, crept and side-slipped between smooth shining humps of water and over roaring patches of broken river, with spray higher than the trees growing on the rocky outcrops in mid-stream. The Essequibo flows over these shallow sills of rock and is, as a result, almost useless for transport to the reaches above the falls. Before the aeroplane, all inland supplies made this difficult journey—now it is rarely done.