biking guyana: tough times on 'the trail' to georgetown

Total Kilometers:  76,028 (47,816 miles)
9 May 2010

what are we in for?

A long slog to Georgetown--Cycling in Guyana.I sat in perfect contentment and watched the steady fall of the rain.  No immediate worries plagued us.  We had found shelter at the Pirara Ranch. Once one of the largest cattle operations in South America, it was now just a cluster of decaying buildings some 35 kilometers from the Brazil border.  

All morning we'd been slogging away on 'the trail.' That's how locals refer to the 460 kilometer dirt track connecting the border outpost of Lethem with Guyana´s capital, Georgetown.  

bad timing

We'd picked a bad time to attempt The Trail.  After a near drought, the rainy season had arrived with a vengeance. Riding The Trail in the rainy season meant contending not only with the usual man-sized pot-holes, bone-jarring corrugations and sand traps, but also with mud and muck.  The exasperatingly sticky kind prone to clogging bike chains, making it impossible to pedal.

Gazing out at the beating drops battering the soft red earth, I wondered how long it would be until the swollen river beyond burst its banks..   Between our haven at Pirara Ranch and the paved road leading to Georgetown, lay the empty Rupunini Savannah, which was flooding fast, and beyond, a riot of thick jungle and rushing rivers.  How would we make it to Georgetown?
The last couple who'd passed this way on bikes had opted to hop on a bus.  And that had been in the dry season.  More than a year had passed since we'd tackled any really rough terrain.  Taking on southern Ethiopia's mangled roads seemed like an eternity ago.  We'd gone soft, gotten used to smooth tarmac and well-stocked supermarkets.

* * *

The savannah is coming to an end: cycling in Guyana.We weren't the only ones seeking shelter at the ranch.  Two guys stampeding cattle to some remote Amer-indian village had hung their hammocks on the veranda.  I'd spotted them on the road prodding the stubborn beasts.   At first I'd taken them for cattle rustlers. They turned out to be honest, hardworking ranch hands on a two-week cattle drive.  All on foot, burdened by heavy packs and un-cooperative cattle. The territory was too rough to go on horseback, they explained. Biking The Trail, I decided, didn't amount to much of an adventure in comparison.

mud, muck and stocking up

Six days seemed sufficient to make it to Georgetown.  Knowing we'd be passing through some remote territory, we'd stocked up on provisions.  A large canister of powdered milk, two packs of quick-cooking oats, 5 cans of tuna, a kilo of pasta, 500 grams of rice, 3 tins of tomato sauce, a giant jar of guava jam, ramen noodles, a loaf of whole-wheat bread, some hard cheese, a jar of mayo, a jar of locally-produced Tandy's peanut butter, soya chunks, instant soup, a couple of cans of lentils and some hard-boiled eggs.  Plus some cookies--but those didn't last long.  Our panniers were bulging.  

Please, no more rain.  Biking Guyana.Day two was more of the same mud and muck.  We were fast becoming experts at the chain de-clogging process.  Find a nice sturdy stick, wedge it between the tire and mud guard and scrape out all the gooey gunk. Eventually I renounced the stick and attacked the mud with my bare hands.  It was far more efficient.  

On Day Three wide open savannah abruptly gave way to thick tropical forest . We'd passed the occasional cluster of thatched huts that make up traditional Amer-indian villages as we rode through the savannah. Now our only company was the howler monkeys darting between the trees and the brightly colored birds soaring and screeching high up in the canopy. For almost 100 kilometers at a stretch, absolutely no signs of human habitation blemished the pristine jungle.  

Another bridge to be crossed: Biking Guyana.The road cutting through the jungle was narrow and lonely with little traffic. Despite being just 5 degrees north of the equator, the thick foliage and overcast sky kept the forest refreshingly cool.  At times the jungle opened up, but this terrain was invariably flooded and unsuitable for camping.  Foolishly, we had forgotten to pack a machete.  With a machete we might have hacked through the foliage to clear a camping spot. A hammock might have been useful, but a tent is impractical gear for the jungle.

Reaching civilization on the far banks of the Esequibo River by day's end seemed a must.  There we were assured a place to spend the night.  Road conditions had improved, the rains had let up and we were bumping along at a reasonable speed.  Still, cranking away 100 kilometers before nightfall meant bringing it up a notch.

A bridge across the muddy waters of the Esequibo is apparently in the works, but for now a pontoon transports vehicles  across the river.  On the far banks a few enterprising locals have set up rest stops for travelers who miss the last ferry. It was either forge on to the rest stop or spend a soggy night in the jungle.

In the end, we hopped on the last ferry of the day and pedaled into the rest stop just before sunset.  Filthy, feeble and famished, but thankful for a nice dry spot to pitch the tent.  In the morning the generous proprietors, a kind couple of Indian descent, sent us away with provisions of piping hot fry bread to sustain us until the next settlement--again some 100 kilometers away.  

nearing civilization

Day Four passed in a blur of rough roads, hilly terrain and torrential rains.  We reached our first substantial settlement since leaving Lethem, a place called Mabura Hill.  It was a dreary company town, existing for the sole purpose of supplying labor to the adjoining Chinese owned sawmill.  We set up camp at the Border Line restaurant, pushing a few tables out of the way to make room for the tent.  Throughout the night, rain pounded the metal roof overhead.  I listened to the steady thump of the tropical deluge and counted my blessings.

Jungle skys after the rain.A gaggle of roadside restaurants known as Mile 58 was our first (and as it turns out only) stop on Day Five.  For some reason, we'd imagined Mile 58 marked the beginnings of civilization and an end to the hills.   The road widened up, but still there was another empty stretch of almost 100 kilometers to reach Linden, Guyana's second city.  Under a steady late afternoon rain, we concurred that it would be impossible to reach Linden before nightfall. The road was in horrific condition, covered by a thick, glue-like mud that made pedaling a near impossibility on many stretches.  The land adjoining the road side was nearly all flooded and I couldn't imagine pitching the tent in a swamp.

a short-lived reprieve

We waved madly at the next vehicle that appeared and a huge flatbed truck came to a sliding halt .   Tough conditions on The Trail meant drivers had developed a strong sense of solidarity.  Without even exchanging words, two muscle-bound young men hopped down and heaved the bikes onto the truck.  We climbed aboard and within moments the truck was flying down the road.  We bounced along at breakneck speed.  Eric and I holding on for dear life, the bikes taking a serious bashing, the driver and other passengers seemingly oblivious to the dangers and discomforts of speeding along a rough, rutted and muddy track.
"Let us down," I shrieked.  Over the roar of the engine, no one heard.  I began to stamp my feet and beat on the high metal side board of the truck.  "Stop, Stop, we want off."
One of our fellow passengers took notice.   A young rasta guy, who'd so expertly loaded on the bikes.  "No problem, man.  He best driver."  
"Off,"  I implored, "We want off."  He nodded, made his way to the cab, crawled on top, and lowered himself down through a hole in the roof and shouted something at the driver.  

We screeched to a sudden halt, the men lowered down the bikes, and the truck was off, spraying us with thick, red mud as the driver peeled away.

Frist sign of civilization.It was a short-lived reprieve from pedaling.  The ride had cut off around 20 kilometers, we reckoned.  With a bit of luck we just might make Linden before sunset. We plodded on, pedaling and pushing and praying.
The light began to fade and I flagged down a car headed in the opposite direction.  "How far to Linden?"  "You are near, very near, maybe an hour away by bicycle."  came the answer.  "Why don't you catch a ride on the back of a truck?"  
I rolled my eyes and slogged on.
Another hour passed and still no sign of civilization.  It was pitch black now, heavy clouds blocking out the star light.   Eric got a puncture, but there was no place to possibly repair it.   Through the deep, wet sand, it was nearly impossible to ride anyway so we pushed on together in silence.  
Nearly two hours after sunset, the first lights of Linden appeared in the distance.  

We pulled off onto the first side road and wandered into a roadside shop.  "You look like you come from The Trail."  I sighed and mustered a smile for the enormous lady with a gentle face.  "Yes, we've been riding from Linden.  Five days now.  We're hungry and tired.  You know any place we might pitch our tent?  Some place safe where nobody will knife us in the night."
It was a stupid thing to say, but the lady laughed and then spoke to her husband, "Whadda ya think, John?"
"Come on," and he motioned for us to follow him.

It was a musty garage, full of empty jerry cans reeking of gasoline, old bottles and broken appliances.  Not some place I'd usually consider pleasant for camping.  But  we were content just to find a dry place to rest our exhausted bodies.  

We had reached the end of The Trail, the tarmac had begun.  It felt as if we had been on the road for weeks.  I lay down to rest and reflect on all we'd been through.  The Trail had been an adventure, and not one I'm sure I'd readily re-live--at least not in the rainy season.

If you enjoyed this post, you might like these posts, too:

Cycling around the World Video
Biking Guyana Video

Tour Update
Cycling Around the World: Biking Venezuela 

Touring Talk Video
Interview with world traveler and cyclist Bob Sara

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