In last week’s blog post I wrote about how we flew to the Iwokrama Forest in Guyana’s interior where we started to collect information on Guyana’s fauna and flora and existing ecotourism operations. Already on day one, we were lucky to spot Guyanan Red Howler monkeys (Alouatta macconnelli), a rarely seen spotted antpitta (Hylopezus macularius), and a variety of other cool birds.
On day two, we rose before teh sunrise met for breakfast and coffee at five am in the impressive main building of the Iwokrama Lodge. As we were sitting and discussing the day, heavy rain showers came down delaying our excursion to turtle mountain. After a good 45minute wait the rain had passed (in typical tropical manner: heavy and fast) before Ute, Denis, Luke and I boarded the small fiberglass boat and together with our captain and local guide made our way upstream the majestic Essequibo river.
While we had successfully waited out the rain at the camp no one seemed to have checked the direction in which the rain was leaving an. It came how it had to and we drove right into the rain again and basically stated in it for the whole 30min boat ride and a subsequent 15-minute hike to a small base-camp at the foot of turtle mountain, where we waited out the rain a second time.
Having 15kg of expensive camera gear in my backpack I was pretty relieved to find all of it dry when I unpacked it in our sheltered hut. Luckily I had gotten a large black bin bag from the lodge which I put above my rain cover and it did the job. Those torrential rainfalls are tough and while I personally don’t mind them, the rain doesn’t mix well with all the electronics I am carrying. After some fruits for breakfast, sunshine took over and I could shoot a few scenes switch my drone.
We also used the beautiful setting to record an interview with Luke Johnson, our Guyana guide that accompanied us from Georgetown and we were particularly interested in his perceptions about Guyana’s ecotourism sector. We had a good two-hour hike ahead and this doesn’t include the constant stops along the way. The rainforest is full of surprises and once out guides spotted or heard something of interest, we often had to remain silent and motionless. You don’t want to scare away anything with rapid or loud movements.
A first highlight was the yellow-footed tortoise (Chelonoidis denticulatus), the sixth-largest tortoise in the world. We were stalking the sounds of a ground cokoo and left the trail for a few dozen meters when we stayed motionless for several minutes but weren’t successful in localizing the call origins. Just as we were above to return to the hiking trail, Luke spotted the tortoise hidden between the fallen tree leaves on the rainforest ground.
Tortoises are closely related to turtles with one key difference: turtles need water to survive whereas tortoises are land-dwellers, thus our find here in the middle of the rainforest (although there were small ponds and lakes around).
Eventually, we made it up the top where we were rewarded with a pretty amazing view over the canopy of the vast rainforest. Denis recorded a few scenes with Ute for social media purposes and I took some drone shots and videos before we packed up and made our way back to towards the boat. Walking down the patch we encountered a little leaf frog (anyone can identify this little fella?) and later passed a little pond, that according to our guide gave the name to the mountain: turtle mountain.
Looking through the bush and on to the water, we saw three yellow-footed tortoises basking in the sun on a tree trunk. Our guide told us, they’re shy in this position and might quickly slide into the water if they’d discover us. So we approached them as quiet as possible, getting closer and closer and taking images on the way just to make sure to end up with some in case THE shot won’t work. We made it fairly close. or at least close enough for my 600mm lens before the last tortoise had enough and slid into the murky water.
It was long past midday when we got back to the boat and cruised along the Essequibo river back to the camp. Along the way, we saw a group of black vultures basking in the sun on a sandbank and – as so often here in Guyana- saw the PPP party flag (Progressive People Party) in the middle of nowhere which always felt a little strange as it resembles the German flag.
We had a quick and super late 3 pm lunch and made our way via land cruiser towards the Canopy Walkway aiming to be there just before sunset. We threw all the luggage in the jeep and off we went – keeping our eyes wide open for a potential puma or even jaguar along the way! Most of the jaguar sightings were on the road and out of the car. Oftentimes the jaguars would just be casually crossing the road when they were sighted. Fingers crossed and eyes wide open!
It didn’t take long and we did encounter a mammal – not a jaguar but at least a red-rumped agouti (Dasyprocta leporina), a super cute little rodent that is very common and didn’t really care about us being there.
When we arrived at the little lodge at the foot of the Iwokrama Canopy Walkway the sun was already low and we had to be fast to make the most of our time. I grabbed my tripod and camera bag and we hiked the short trail towards the structure which was built by Candian Researchers. Today, there are three platforms left that sit 33m above the forest floor offering great opportunity to discover life in the rainforests canopy or too simply enjoy a view from higher up. The hanging bridges connecting the platforms are very swingy and Denis who is afraid of heights hat to clearly overcome his fear here but made it over all of them 🙂
In the distance, we saw a few macaws flying and a group of Guyanan red-howlers was chilling in the trees but too far for any usable photos. But photographically I was concentrating on the magnificent landscape and changed from my tell to a wide-angle to capture the stunning ambiance. As the sun was setting, the rainforest appeared like a painting: the distant mountains were shining in various shades of yellow and gold, while the tree canopy was glowing vividly in a warm green-yellow. It is moments and sights like this that are simply humbling and make me remember how stunning this planet really is. And how often we get stuck in our everyday lives worrying about small, unimportant stuff.
We stayed up here until darkness fell – a process that is incredibly fast in the tropics – and made our way back to the car with little light left. With our cellphones illuminating the way our guide stumbled upon a small snake that was crossing the path, maybe a meter long. I can’t remember its name and also don’t have a photo of it but it as a small poisonous one. We waited and observed it disappearing in the thicker bush. We got back in the car and made our way to our final destination for the day: The Surama Eco Lodge in the Rupununi region. Here we were hoping to see some more mammals action and who knows, maybe even the harpy eagle that we were all really keen to see.
Stay tuned for Part 3 and some wildlife encountered that we didn’t anticipate!
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Tom Vierus is an award-winning photographer, filmmaker, and marine biologist based in Suva, Fiji Islands. This blog is dedicated to his assignments and to sharing some behind-the-scenes footage.