Dancing with Ants — Wild Guyana


A short while later we came across the remnants of a trail. Our local Makushi Amerindian guides, Harold and Lawrence, had to keep their machetes in a constant chopping motion.

The steep jungle climb took us past towering buttress trees; we stepped over endless deadfall and chopped through vines. Spider, capuchin, and squirrel monkeys bounded effortlessly through the trees and macaws squawked unseen above the canopy.

Suddenly the foliage thinned out and the steeply sloped forest floor leveled off; we reached the top and were rewarded with an amazing panorama of jungle-covered mountains that receded into the far-reaching Rupununi Savannah of southern Guyana.

For the past week we had been living under the thick jungle canopy where sunlight was sparse; seeing miles of blue sky filled with puffy cumulous clouds was sublime. The ceiling of flora became a carpet of treetops, hawks soared at eye level, and beautiful red-and-green macaws finally came into view below us. The pain in my blistered feet and aching legs faded, and each and every burning ant bite became tolerable.

Hours later, on the long walk down, I considered asking Ian why he left the ant dance out of the jungle training prior to the trek, but then realized it’s more natural reaction than learned moves. Still, two-stepping aside, the jungle isn’t unforgiving terrain, and before loading up our rucksacks and walking into its bowels it was necessary to acclimatize and gain a bit of knowledge. Ian Craddock, our trek leader who has been guiding trips through the remote jungles of Guyana for five years, was just the man for the job.

Even with the relative obscurity of South America’s often-overlooked English speaking country, it’s easy to see why Ian has chosen Guyana for his jungle trips. Guyana is roughly the size of Idaho, but has more rain forest than all of Central America. And with most of the 750,000 inhabitants living along the Atlantic coast, Guyana’s interior (roughly 80 percent of the landmass) is relatively unpopulated outside of migrant mining towns and Amerindian villages home to Guyana’s indigenous peoples.

Within Guyana, we mainly stuck to the boundaries of Iwokrama International Centre for Rainforest Conservation and Development. Guyana’s gift to the world, Iwokrama is a one million-acre preserve set aside as a living laboratory for tropical forest management, ranging from eco-tourism to scientific research. It’s location within one of the last four mostly untouched tropical forests in the world provides a perfect home to more than 1,500 species of flora, 200 mammals, 500 birds, 420 fish, and 150 species of amphibians and reptiles.

Our first two days were spent in the comfortable surroundings of Iwokrama’s Field Station; we had beds to sleep in, cold beer at night, and we ate in a beautiful open dining room overlooking South America’s third largest river, the Essequibo. Once our equipment was issued (necessary jungle gear, ranging from hammocks to mosquito nets, waterproof canoe bags to machetes, were supplied) we spent the time covering jungle hazards.

From the field station we piled into a boat and moved an hour downriver to a camp at the base of 900-foot Turtle Mountain. For three days we acclimatized and got into the rhythm of camp life. We learned how to set up our hammocks, mosquito nets, and rain tarps, discussed necessary chores ranging from cooking to digging latrines, and were trained in the art of the machete—your best friend in the jungle.

Besides providing you with a sense of security (real or imagined), the machete clears your path, helps to prepare food, chop firewood, build shelter, and even find potable water in various vines, bamboo, and banana plants. Swinging a 16-inch blade can be a bit intimidating at first, but it wasn’t long before I bonded with my new multi-purpose tool and quickly understood why it rarely left the hands of our guides, Lawrence and Harold.

The following day we did the final phase of preparation for our trek by hiking to the top of Turtle Mountain, albeit without our 45-pound packs. We took our time on the climb, allowing Lawrence and Harold to transform the tangled mess of green around us into something more discernable.

Colossal greenheart trees, the source of one of the world’s strongest woods, stood next to equally massive wadalla trees, the bark of which is used to lash together shelters and make warashis, a type of Amerindian backpack. Scarred balata trees beckoned back to a time when their latex-like sap was quite valuable. Similar looking vines revealed distinct uses: karia and kapadula held pure drinking water; hiowee had a poisonous inner pulp that’s used in an inventive, if unfair, form of fishing; and nibi vines hung from treetops 100 feet above and made for perfect jungle swinging, a la Tarzan.

The top of Turtle Mountain provided a view of the Essequibo River, a shimmering ribbon twisting through the never-ending forest that stretched into the horizon where Guyana’s largest mountain range, the Pakaraimas, came into sight. From that height, the jungle appeared so impenetrable, that it was easier to imagine trekking over it—leaping from treetop to treetop—than through it.


We left Turtle Mountain camp and headed south to the base of the Iwokrama Mountains, where we began our seven-day trek. It took us four hours to make our way from the roadside to the river at the base of the gorge. As opposed to Guyana’s larger, low-lying rivers like the Essequibo, the river in the gorge ran clear and cool amongst exposed rocks worn smooth by days of higher waters; towering trees lined the banks, straining for a taste of the sun’s rays that shone through the hole in the canopy above.

The next day, two hours further up the gorge, we came upon a large rock situated on the bank of the river and covered in an ancient petroglyph. The left-hand side of the carving featured an upside-down body with arms at the waist and legs spread. To the right, attached by a cord, was a small head with two big eyes and an open, rounded mouth. It appeared to be the scene of a birth, but with no proper studies into possible meanings of the petroglyph, we began drawing our own conclusions.

We transported ourselves back thousands of years to when the carvings were done. Was this the spot of a sacred birth? A place where people would come in search of fertility? The work of a man, full of pride, after the delivery of his first child? The general scenery around us—trees, rocks, river—certainly mirrored what the artist saw while chiseling into the rock. Did they intend the scene to last as long as it has? Was their world, as ours is today, obsessed with the unknown future, and they wanted to leave a permanent reminder of yesterday?

The petroglyph became a never-ending metaphor that occupied my mind throughout the day’s walking, which ended when the river forked and we stood staring at two separate waterfalls. With cascading water in front and two steep mountains at our sides, we decided to set up a base camp.

From our camp, we spent one day ant-dancing our way to 3,000 feet and two more days following the river further up the gorge. The three-tiered waterfalls near our camp were so stunning that we spent hours on top, basking in the sun and watching jungle life: Ants completed mysterious missions with determination; lizards casually feasted on bugs; electric blue butterflies alternated between spasmodic flying and serene sitting; flies buzzed our heads, as they do; worms twisted through the soil; and trees fed off their fallen brethren.

Beyond the waterfalls we pushed through thick jungle and found a still, swampy section. There was no direct sunlight and everything was covered in subdued shades of green—the ground, the rocks, the trees, and the top of the water. As a dwarf caiman disappeared into the water and spider monkeys sprung through the trees, it all seemed too perfect to be real, too archetypal. But this was no movie set or Disney World ride, it was pristine nature beyond the reach of the human hands that so often destroy, only to try and recreate it again elsewhere.

The swamp was near the end of our push up the gorge; from there we would double-back and head out. Our trip wouldn’t end when we returned to the road where we began—we still had stays at two eco-resorts, along with an afternoon at 741-foot-high Kaieteur Falls, said to be the world’s highest single-drop waterfall, to look forward to—but I felt a pang of sadness when I thought about leaving this world behind.

The jungle as a whole fascinated me, and I began likening it to a complicated lover who soothes inflicted pain with unnatural beauty. At least that’s how I saw it when, as I sat watching a dark green hummingbird hover over the swamp, I was embraced by ants and invited to another dance. This time I knew the steps and, with a whispered promise to return, began slapping and hopping my way out of the jungle.

Currently based in Brooklyn, New York, Kirk Smock is the author of the Guyana guidebook published by Bradt Travel Guides, and Senior Writer for the Guyana Sustainable Tourism Initiative.