BOOK REVIEW: Wild Coast: Travels on South America’s Untamed Edge by John Gimlette (Kindle edition $US9.79; free preivew chapter)
In 1595 Sir Walter Raleigh talked up the Guyana coast describing it as full of easy women easy living and the promise of a city of gold.
It is in fact an ecological paradise full of spikey, toothy, poisonous animal and insect life eager to consign the unwary to an early grave.
Guyana was originally named New Zealand by the Dutch, however the danger, risks and possibility of wealth led to them naming it de Wilde Kust, "the wild coast.
This name is still appropriate today. A person can be casually murdered, disappear without trace in the impenetrable forest or die of any of a number of flamboyant tropical diseases.
Even Lonely Planet has reservations and points out that Guyana’s own tourist association describes the country as “Conradian" and raw.
Those who are not killed by the fauna are likely to be driven mad by the seemingly endless impenetrable forest or die infected by the virulent microbiological life.
If the dengue doesn’t kill the malaria or the bloody flux will. Then there are the sand-flies which carry trypanosomiasis. It will eat a face off given half a chance.
Three hundred years ago sugar was the white gold of the day. Europe was mad for it and investment in a sugar plantation, all going well, could pay for itself within three years.
Fortune hunters and shady characters from every European country flocked like flies to Guyana in the quest to make a fortune.
John Gimlette has written this book so the reader doesn’t have to go there- the wild, dangerous and uncomfortable can be experienced vicariously without the bother of risking becoming one of Guyana’s unfortunate statistics.
He doesn’t whine – he just gets on with it. This is a country with two rainy seasons, but he mentions the humidity in passing although he finds the forests very oppressive.
The danger is made light of – at dinner with politicians there is the possibility of a hand grenade attack.
His distant ancestor Robert Hayman is a typical would-be Guyanian.
A man with an aptitude for trouble and flair for disaster, he failed in Newfoundland so decided to set up a sugar plantation in British Guyana.
In 1628 Robert and his friends all vanished without trace, a fate suffered by many both before and after them.
Guyana still has ties with Newfoundland. Dark Guyana rum called “screech” is still a popular tipple in the long sub-arctic nights.
To become a millionaire and a member of the plantocracy slave labour was needed for the backbreaking work required to grow sugar cane.
Imported African slaves were subjected to horrific abuse which led to equally horrific slave uprisings. The stain of the mutual slaughter is still evident today.
Guyanese of African descent will happily work at anything - even the back breaking work of gold mining- but they refuse to work at anything which involves a boss.
Racial differences are irreconcilable. From time to time riots kill hundreds. Those who descended from African slaves don’t like the descendants of the indentured Indians and the Caribe Indians don’t like any of them.
There are still people with Portuguese, English, Scottish and Dutch names - descendants of the original settlers - living there. A sprinkling of drug barons, gold miners and misfits completes a human ecosystem which is almost as dangerous as the wildlife.
Before what was British Guyana became independent in 1966 the country was in such poor shape the Trinidadians suggested that it should be placed under United Nations control and run by New Zealand. Maybe it is lucky Helen Clark wasn’t around at the time.
Tourist attractions include Devils Island in French Guyana of Papillion fame, the ruins of Jonestown where Jim Jones poisoned 918 followers in 1978 and crumbling public buildings where locals will kindly point out bullet holes in the walls from recent assassinations.
The whole area is about the size of New Zealand divided into three countries; Guyana, previously British; Surinam, previously Dutch, and French Guyana which is still a part of France and thus rather improbably the EEC.
Nine out of ten inhabitants live on a long muddy strip about 15km wide on the sea front which is cut off from the rest of the country by impenetrable forest, so thick the forest floor never sees daylight, and which yields to an interior of savannah and flat topped mountains.
The Rupununi Savannahs can only be visited by plane. There was a road through the forest but it died. The wide variety of birds attracts twitchers from all over the world.
There are spartan "tourist lodges" available for the intrepid traveller, including one run by an 80-year old called Diane McTurk. Google her.
She looks as if she has a hell of a lot of fun rescuing giant Amazonian otters. They only bite a little bit. Accommodation is available in thatched guest rooms. The snake which lives in the rafters is non-poisonous but watch out for scorpions.
If I was thirty years younger and unattached I’d be off like a shot.