Hilda, my oxcart driver, was drunk. It was Amerindian Heritage weekend in Nappi Village, Guyana and everyone had been drinking parakari, the local fermented beverage, for two days straight. It was now Sunday afternoon but Hilda was showing no signs of wilting. She was wearing a glittery dress that had been cut haphazardly to hit just above her caramel-colored knees. Our legs and bare feet were dangling off the edge of the cart as we bumped and jostled along the dirt track. In front of us were two muddy cow butts and never-ending rainforest.
'Do you like my cows or loooove them?' she asked as she whipped an ox with one arm and gave me a side hug with the other.
'I love them!' I said enthusiastically. And I did. Maipaimanu and Bole were doing a commendable job of pulling the cart over a trail so pot-holed and deep with mud that not even a 4WD could get through it.
Only a few days before my ride with Hilda I had thought the only way to get around Guyana's interior was by minibus (which run along one main road) or by expensive chartered 4WD. Most visitors to Guyana are on tours and the jungle lodges are happy to arrange jeep transfers (the quickest and most convenient way to get around); the expense is easily incorporated into a high-cost itinerary. But what about the rest of us? My goal for updating the Guiana section of South America on a Shoestring was to find an affordable alternative for independent travelers on a limited budget.
We were on our way to Maipaima Lodge, eight kilometers from the remote Guyanese village of Nappi at the base of the Kanuku Mountains. This oxcart trip was going to take three hours and cost me US$30. In the dry season 4WDs and motorbikes ply the road at US$60 and US$10 respectively but I was happy to have ended up in the expert, over-jolly hands of Hilda. On the way she told me animated stories of her much younger husband who sat silently smiling in the back, and of her two little granddaughters who giggled or slept the whole way. By the end of the trip we were all friends - not something that could have happened on a half hour 4WD trip.
Finding the oxcart ride hadn’t been easy, and there isn’t exactly a regular scheduled oxcart service, so the arrangements had been very last minute. In Guyana it's incredibly difficult to arrange anything independently in advance. Months of emailing had left me with few responses and by the time I landed at Rockview Lodge, my first destination, I still had no itinerary. I asked the first few lodges I visited about sharing vehicles with other customers of even coordinating my travel times with their supply runs, but no one was offering anything except private Jeeps. It wasn't until I met Fernando, the manager of Caiman Lodge that my luck began to change.
'I can ask around the village and see if anyone will take you by motorbike as far as Nappi,' He said. 'That is if you're luggage fits on the back and you have a sturdy rear end.'
The cost was US$60 as opposed to US$240 in a Jeep. Fortunately I had packed light and Fernando found me a lift no problem. It was the end of the rainy season so the dirt roads through the Rupununi savanna, were a mess and we often came across puddles that could be more accurately described as ponds. I had no helmet, the trip took four hours in full sun and yet this was one of the most beautiful road trips I have ever taken.
We drove through yellow, grassy plains covered in termite towers, knobby sandpaper trees and occasional dark tufts of jungle. Every mile or so was a small cluster of traditional brick, thatched Amerindian huts. We passed over several low wooden bridges that traversed small shady rivers where invariably a few young men or a family were spearing fish. They'd look at us nonchalantly and sometimes wave hello.
Giant anteaters roam these lands, but as hard as my driver looked, we never saw one. We did see a few birds of prey and a herd or two of cattle. Once we went through a waist deep 'puddle' on the motorbike. By the time we reached our destination I was covered in mud and road dust. This is when I met Hilda for the next leg of the journey by oxcart. No one seemed to care how dirty I was.
After my first motorbike success word must have got out and everywhere I went people offered me this option. It was as if somehow the savanna had accepted me and were now letting me see it their way. From this moment onwards I got an unencumbered view of the savanna from the back of a bike, met some lovely people and saved a hell of a lot of money.
So how can you do it? In these wild lands of cowboys and Indians you never know what's going to work out and what isn't. Start by packing light, solo travelers or pairs will have the easiest time, prepare for rough roads, carry plenty of cash (no one takes credit cards and there are no banks) and ask around nicely. There's no guarantee you'll be able to get on anything besides a more expensive Jeep, plane or minibus (and even those aren't sure bets) so don't have high expectations or rigid plans. The dirt will wash off; the memories will stay with you for a lifetime.
The following lodges were helpful with transportation and if you email or call them you may have luck pre-arranging motorbikes.
Surama Lodge - www.suramaecolodge.com
Caiman House - www.rupununilearners.com
Maipaima Lodge - email firstname.lastname@example.org
Dadanawa Ranch - www.dadanawaranchguyana.com
Celeste Brash spent five years on a remote Pacific atoll, 10 more on Tahiti, and has travelled extensively throughout the the world for Lonely Planet. Read one of Celeste’s more memorable journeys in ‘Shaking hands with pirates – Visiting Pitcairn Island’.