Peter and I would sometimes go fishing in the night. If you floated with the current down the river keeping to one of the banks and shone your torch into the water, you would attract fish to the light. Then it is a matter of spearing them. The spearing takes some skill because thanks to parallax error of refracting light in the water, the fish is actually not where you see it. But once you get the hang of correcting for it, it is a simple matter of spearing the fish and pulling it up flapping on the end of your spear. I have seen Amerindians even shoot fish with their arrows with great accuracy. They would have a light line tied to the arrow so that they could then haul it in.
On these excursions, if you shone your torch over the surface of the river, it would appear as if the water was sprinkled with diamonds. Shining stars, eyes of Caiman, young and old, out fishing, floating on the river with only their eyes and nostrils above the surface. Like alligators and crocodiles, the Caiman is a fish eater but not above taking the unwary to add variety to his diet. They also eat turtles and so their jaws are adapted to taking in broad prey and exerting tremendous biting pressure to crack their shells. You definitely wouldn’t want to go swimming with one especially as a big one can grow to 6 meters (20 feet) in length. Caiman are seen as a nuisance by riverside dwellers as they destroy fishing nets and sometimes attack cattle. I hate to think of little Amerindian children playing in the water all day jumping in and out of it – I expect when one did not show up at home at night is when you know that something had happened. But at night, the shining eyes used to be an amazing sight and I loved to shine our torch and look at it. During the day you would almost never see Caiman as they lie up in the mouths of creeks that flow into the Berbice in the thick shade of riverside trees, waiting for the night to descend. What we would see a lot of in daylight was Terrapins; little turtles taking the sun on any available rock, log, tree root or even floating debris. They would sit there with their necks stretched out and a quizzical expression on their faces. If you got too close, in a flash they would slide into the water, much faster on their feet than you would likely give them credit for.
It was a beautiful idyllic existence doing all that I loved to do and doing it all for free. I know that you could spend thousands of dollars to take a trip up one of the major rivers in the Amazonian system, camp on a sandbank by a fireside and spend the night in a hammock gazing at the stars over the river. And I did all of this and more at will, free of cost. I am indeed very fortunate and most grateful to Allah for it. Early in the morning, well before dawn Peter and I would wake and take our boat to check the nets which we would tie at the entrance of several creeks that flowed into the Berbice. Fish go up into the creeks to feed in the night and a net across their path is an easy way to ensure that you don’t come away empty handed. We would float on the current or paddle and pull in the nets and haul in our catch. Then as the sun rose we would return to our camp to cook our breakfast.
One day as usual we went inspecting our nets while it was still dark. We floated silently down river to the first creek where we had tied a net. Peter steered the boat and I sat at my station in the prow looking ahead. The night was very silent, waiting for dawn, when all hunters and prey are at rest. The Howler Monkeys are not awake yet, nor have the Macaw flights started. Everything is waiting for the sun. At that time almost nothing moves except hunters like us, checking on their traps, snares, and nets. We reached the creek mouth and Peter pulled up the net. The boat dipped with the weight of what he was pulling. “Man!! Looks like we got something big!!” he said. That river at that place was home to the largest fresh water fish called the Arapaima and so I was very excited. But what came up was something totally unexpected and unwelcome.
Looking at us intently was a flat triangular head with sharp bright eyes – a full grown Anaconda which had got himself entangled in the net. He went after a fish that was caught in the net and having swallowed it along with the part of the net that it was entangled in, he tried to get out and managed to get himself into such an unholy mess that he was completely entangled. He was definitely not amused at his plight and hissed at us to tell us what he thought of us. He was so big that pulling him into the boat to try to free him surely meant sinking the little boat. Leaving him as he was would condemn him to a slow and painful death as he was so entangled in the net that he could never free himself from the nylon mesh. So reluctantly we decided to shoot him. While Peter held the net out on an oar raising the part where the snake was entangled, I shot his head off with a 16-gauge shotgun that I always carried on these trips. The snake went into such a convulsion that had Peter not wisely dropped him back into the water he would have upset the boat and dumped us both into the Piranha infested waters of the Berbice in the darkness of pre-dawn. A decidedly unpleasant prospect.
Once the snake was dead, we tied the net to the side of the boat and rowed back to the camp. We pulled the boat up on the sand and cut the snake out of the net, completely ruining it in the process. I was definitely not amused as nets were valuable. Then we measured him. He was 22 feet long and both Peter and I together, could lift him only with great difficulty. I was very sorry to have killed such a fine animal but we had no alternative. We took off his skin and I had it with me until I met a young man called Fridolin Stary who came from East Germany to Guyana on holiday and liked it so much that I gave it to him. Fridolin told me how he helped his girlfriend to escape from East Germany. Today with the wall gone, I hope they are living happily somewhere. Sequel to this last sentence: Thanks to the power of the internet, I actually found Fridolin, who was a top manager of a chemical company in Germany until he retired in 2017. He remembered the time we spent together and we exchanged some mails and met in 2011 when Fridolin came to India. It was a lovely meeting, as if all those decades had not intervened at all. Fridolin came home and we had a typical Hyderabadi meal, which he seemed to love. We discovered that we share many core values, respect for the environment, love of the wild, importance of justice, and owning responsibility for our actions. Small world, made smaller and flatter by the internet.
The water of the river changed complexion throughout the day. Early in the morning it has, what looks like steam rising from it. So you would be floating through this cloud of vapor looking ethereal and ghostly. As the sun rose and it got hotter – we were sitting close to the equator, remember – the mist would disappear and you would see the colors of the trees reflecting in the river. If we were planning to stay another day we would spend a couple of hours walking in the forest, following some track or the other simply to enjoy the experience of being in the rain forest. We were not hunting seriously and only the unwary animal with suicidal tendencies achieved his objective at our hands. We were more interested in watching Humming Birds flit from flower to flower looking like moths more than like birds. They beat their wings so fast that you can’t see them and they are the only birds that can actually fly backwards. They fly up to a flower and hovering before it on buzzing wings, insert their specialized beaks deep into it for the nectar, then fly backwards to get out of that flower and go to another one.
Mornings would be announced by the booming call of the Howler Monkey answered by his cousins everywhere and so for a while there would be cacophony in the forest. Macaws taking off for their daily commute would also be talking to each other and you would hear their calls. Toucans would call to each other as they hunted for fruit in the tops of giant figs. You would hear the crash of branches as Sakiwinki (Spider Monkeys) took off on their highway a hundred feet in the air, throwing themselves from one forest giant to another with gay abandon. They would be followed by others, heavier than them and the branches would crash more loudly. Ah! The difficulty is in trying to describe what the eye sees, what the ears hear and what the heart feels in mere words on paper. It is the whole atmosphere of the forest when you become one with it, when time has no meaning and the daily grind and work pressure feel like a bad dream that you woke up from.
Some weekends Peter and I would drive into the Backdam (bush, veldt, outback – depending on the country they all mean the same thing – uncharted territory) and camp and hunt on land. That had its own interest and excitement. These lands were not truly uncharted because people, mostly Amerindian hunters and loggers, had long gone along the trails that we drove on. I have no idea who made these trails originally but they were ideal for the small yellow Land Rover that Peter drove. So we would load up the car, which had a cab and an open back, and off to the jungle. Peter had a great sense of direction, so we always got back safely two days later even though I had no clue where we were going. I would just concentrate on the driving or on watching out for game. Hunting in the rain forest is very tough because though it is teeming with wildlife, the forest is so thick that you can’t see more than a couple of feet on either side of the trail. So you had to concentrate on the trail, watch for tracks and when you did see something, be quick and accurate if you wanted to eat.
The canopy was so thick that more often than not we would be driving in semi-darkness. But that didn’t mean that it was cool. It was more like a sauna with very high humidity and almost no breeze. Sometime if you got lucky you came into a forest clearing when you would feel the breeze as the jungle was open enough to allow for airflow. That has to be one of the most pleasant experience of mankind – the feel of the cool breeze on hot sweaty skin. The thick cover resembling a green ocean as you fly over it in a small plane, is very deceptive in that the trees have very shallow roots. Most rainforest soil is very poor with all the nutrients largely remaining at surface level. Because of this rainforest trees have very shallow roots. Some very tall trees have developed ways of obtaining much needed additional support by forming buttressed roots, which grow out from the base of the trunk sometimes as high as 15 feet above the ground. These extended roots also increase the area over which nutrients can be absorbed from the soil. The forest floor is carpeted thickly with leaves on which grow mosses and lichens. Roots of trees take from this thick carpet and go very little into the earth. The soil beneath this thick cover of leaf mould is sandy and loose. As the trees grow they literally hold up one another with their intertwined branches and the many creepers and vines which climb up the trunk of one giant and across the canopy of another.
A clearing is created usually when one of these giant trees falls, either the result of logging or when with age and disease it succumbs to the wind. When that happens it usually takes down a few others with it and an opening is created in the thick canopy of the forest. The open soil gets quickly washed of its nutrients with the almost daily rainfall and is taken over by grasses and other secondary growth. A piece of rain forest is thereby lost forever. This is the problem with the slash and burn agriculture so common in these parts as well as with the indiscriminate logging that takes place everywhere. For every tree that is actually harvested, there is a huge swathe of forest that is laid bare, never to regenerate; gone forever. The rainforest is a very fragile and delicate ecosystem, easily destroyed and impossible to repair.
Forest clearings however, are good for hunters because herbivores come to eat the new grass and where trees have been burned, to eat the ash, and if you sit quietly just inside the forest bordering the clearing, you can usually get a clear shot. Clearings are also where you can get a breath of air as there is space for airflow and so if you are walking in the rainforest you welcome a clearing when you come to it.
Driving on the forest tracks also threw up a unique challenge, which when it happened for the first time, was very shocking. We came around a bend and without warning Peter stopped the Land Rover. Right ahead was a deep gully about 20 feet across at the bottom of which flowed a stream. Land Rovers, for all their excellent qualities, can’t jump or fly. So what do we do? Peter was having a laugh at my expense, I could see that. He got out and stretched and then said, “All right! We gaffa build a bridge.”
Build a bridge? This I had to see. Peter took out the chain saw and we went hunting for trees of the right thickness. We wanted something with a straight trunk and thick enough to have the strength not to snap with the weight of the vehicle. We needed eight logs; four for each wheel track. Once we had cut the eight trees, we trimmed the branches off with our machetes and cut the trunks to size ensuring that we had a good length on either side of the gully. Then we laid the first set of four logs across the stream, standing each one up and dropping it across and then fixed them together by hammering in thick wooden pegs on either side so that they wouldn’t slide apart when the Land Rover wheel ran on them. Then we went across the little bridge and pegged it on the other side in the same way. Once we had one track in place, we drove the Land Rover up to the track to get an idea of how far apart the other track needed to be and repeated our bridge building. Then I went across to direct Peter over the bridge and he drove across. Took us about an hour of sweaty work, but then we were off on our journey. This bridge building is a very important activity to be able to do and the main reason why anyone driving in the bush would always carry a chain saw or axe and machete. If you couldn’t build a bridge you would have to turn back because thanks to the thick forest on either side of the road, there was no way of going around the gully. Another important survival lesson I learnt is that whenever you come to a bridge, you always stop and carefully inspect it to ensure that it was strong enough. Green wood doesn’t last too long in the rainforest and a bridge built a few weeks earlier can be seriously damaged by insects such that if you drove across it without checking you’d most likely find yourself in the gully head first. So we always inspected each bridge and when necessary strengthened it by cutting new logs and replacing any doubtful ones.
One day Peter and I decided to drive to the Corentyne River on the Orealla Trail. Orealla is small Amerindian village on the Corentyne River, overlooking Suriname. It is a lively and friendly place and we intended to drive there, spend a night, look at Suriname across the river and return to Kwakwani. The trail itself, if you walked would take about three days but since we were driving, we didn’t expect to take more than the day. What we didn’t bargain for was the condition of the road. For one thing, we had to build bridges in two places and that took a couple of hours out of our schedule. Then we came to a place where the road was deeply dug up by timber trucks so that the two tracks were more than three feet deep and the center was high up. If we drove the Land Rover into those tracks, it would hit the oil sump and either smash it or jack up the car with the wheels spinning uselessly in the air. Peter came up with a solution. He put the Land Rover in 4×4 drive and rode one wheel on the center median, the whole vehicle tilted and tipped over to one side where the cab rested on the high side of earth bank that bordered the road. Two wheels on the opposite side were up in the air. And slowly the vehicle moved, with two wheels in the rut, two occasionally touching the median and the cabin sliding along the earthen bank. I can tell you that it didn’t do much good to the cabin but then that Land Rover was already so beaten up that it didn’t matter. At the end of this track I stood on the runner which was in the air to tilt the vehicle back onto all four wheels and off we went on the trail. As always, our rule of eating what we shot was maintained and I shot a couple of Curassows and at midday we decided to take a break and cook our lunch. I made the fire and prepared the camp while Peter cleaned the birds. As always, first the tea, then the rest. By the time the tea was ready, the birds were also ready for the pot and while we drank tea the birds cooked. Then we both had hot Curassow stew with potatoes and red pepper, with bread which we had brought. A good lunch, a bit of a stretch, and then off again to Orealla.
We reached Orealla late in the evening and found a place to stay. There was a guest house and we took a room. Then we went out to get something to eat and ate some very fine fresh Corentyne fish curry and bread. The water front was like all Guyanese water fronts, with very noisy bars which got noisier as the night progressed and people’s spiritual levels increased. Mercifully, there was no violence the night we were there but tempers tend to run short and it is a matter of an instant for a bottle to be smashed on the edge of a table and then used to carve up the opponent in the argument. Dominos, as always, seemed to be popular with the people – probably because of its amazing noise making potential – slamming the dominos on the table with great force accompanied by a huge shout. Peter and I walked to the bank of the river and watched the lights across in Suriname for a while. It would have been illegal for us to cross over as we didn’t have visas. In any case this place was famous for smuggling and so it was not safe to be caught on the river in a small boat at night by the Surinamese and Guyanese patrol boats which cruised the waters.