Top of the Season Bro',
Just back from a wild and wet journey into the depths of the Guyana rainforest. It was a trip no one could pay for, but one I had to make in order to save my consulting company, which has been left out to dry by non-paying clients: companies that have all been hit hard by crappy global economics, abysmal gold prices, and the dubious reputations of Canadian stock exchanges.
Most often the geologists and geophysicists in my company are hired by public companies to explore for gold — sometimes for base metals or diamonds — but usually for gold. When early in 1997 Alberta-based Bre-X Resources admitted that its $6-billion Indonesian gold find was a *complete fraud* — a lot of public companies — and a lot of people I know — lost a lot of money.
I went to Guyana to see if I could both find and save some money. Luckily I managed to sell off some of our equipment in Georgetown and slash our operating costs, which should help us ride out this low ebb if it doesn't last too long.
Still, I was thinking that without some movement, some new developments, my clients would be dead in the water. They would have no news to tell their shareholders, no titillating releases about "multiple gold-zones," geophysical anomalies, or drill programs. You raise money in the mineral-exploration business by raising hope. Without hope . . . well, a lot of mineral exploration companies are in a downward spiral right now, and unfortunately (for me and mine) consultants are at the bottom of the feeding chain.
So, I thought, I'm not getting paid, the few Amerindians I have stationed in our Base Camp are all paid for the rest of the month, salt beef and rice are cheap, a major mining company circling us like a shark waiting for us to die is willing to pay for some samples to be analyzed.....hmmmm....it all adds up to an exploration program without a budget! Great! Let's mobilize! Perhaps with a small "rap-attack" team we can strike deep on foot and sample the untested ground, the Yakeparu region in Northwest Guyana.
In the pre-dawn I checked my gear and got ready to head to the airstrip. Better stash my passport and ticket, I thought, and let my guys know where they are in case anything goes sideways. Well....no passport!!! Shit, man, what a time to realize this. I have to leave in ten minutes. What to do? I am getting out of the bush three days before my departure, which happens to be on Guyana's election day. During the last election, parts of Georgetown burned due to racial and political violence. Unfortunately the landscape of democracy in Guyana is mainly based on race, so the prognosis for this year was tense. It turned out the ruling East Indian PPP party won a reasonable majority this time, prompting a number of broken windows, stolen bikes, machete wounds and a few bombings, but luckily no more than that.
How long will it take to get another passport?...and over a weekend, to boot....ah fuck....Christmas air traffic...ethnic cleansing!?...you've really done it this time, Chris.
Hell, passport or no: *I* *got* *to* *go* .
Airborne, the muddy coastline of Guyana gave way to rice and sugar plantations, then verdant jungle. It was a pleasure to glance at the faces of my fellow passengers. They were a striking mix of Amerindian, African, East Indian and Portuguese and every possible mix in between. Actually, they were all mainly mixed. These were the faces typical of the remote interior, an interior cut off from the world except for the odd jungle airstrip or river landing. (Miscegenation is much more popular in the bush than in the city, where cultural differences and prejudices remain strong.)
Below, an immense crop of giant broccoli stretched solid, horizon to horizon. I couldn't help but feel this passport screwup was a bad omen. What's the best way for a guy to disappear? How about: Lose all your personal documentation; fly deep into the South American jungle: then walk even deeper into the snake- and bug-infested bush. Yeah, that sounds about right!
Geez Chris, lay off this line of thought, my voice of reason told me. Still, I was in a funk.
In our base camp late that afternoon I assembled my team and gear: four guys including me, salt beef, sardines, rice, flour, oil, sample bags, tarp, hammocks, gold pans, sieves, shovels and the malaria drugs Halfan and Lariam. Ordinarily, one would not venture as deep into the jungle attempting to do what we had planned with such a small team, but if this sampling project was going to happen at all it had to be cheap and light.
I could tell that Rocco, my Carib Indian guide and foreman, was concerned, perhaps even dubious. He had never ventured as far southeast as we needed to go, but in his usual quiet demeanor he nodded in the affirmative when I asked him if he felt we could make it.
(How does a guy disappear?! Juan de Guzman, the sample-salting geologist of Bre-X infamy, chose a helicopter exit over the Indonesian jungle....or was it an unfortunate look alike?! Can my wife collect the insurance pay out and meet me in Brazil? Probably not without a body. Guess I got to keep working.)
I pulled Rocco aside.
"Rocco, between you and me, we are going to figure this one out."
"Yes Mr.. Chris. I feel so."
Following a map and locating oneself in the rainforest is no easy task. Airphotos make topographic maps, but the dense canopy hides more than 50 percent of the land and water features underneath. There is never a distant hill or mount to sight a compass bearing on, as five to twenty feet is as far as one can usually see. Modern tools like Global Positioning Systems require line-of-sight with at least three satellites, again almost impossible under the dense foliage.
Why do they call it "Dead Reckoning"?
As the mist was rising before dawn the next day, we struck out, loaded with 60 pounds each. I hoped that El Nino continued to delay the seasonal rains: otherwise, we would be in trouble. There were creeks, swamps and rivers to cross. Many of these water courses only exist during the rains, and of course none were on my shitty maps. When the upper slopes are being inundated, the muddy surges rushing downstream are phenomenal — dangerous of course, and scary. To execute this exploration plan, it was critical to get to the right watersheds at the right spot. Once there, the heavy sediments would be located, screened and concentrated by panning. Samples full of gold or diamonds are only conversation topics if you don't know where they come from.
Two hours out the roar began, and the early morning light faded. Hardly any light penetrated to the forest floor now. Off to the east we heard the gunshot crack and ensuing crash of a tree blasted by the wind. Then the rain hit us. Instantly we were soaked.
The clay beneath our feet turned to slimy shoe-sucking glue�can't stop...got to keep pushing...
Man, "the rains were upon us."
I drifted into the waking dream state of the long distance hiker. It helped to put aside the ache of my busted collarbone I got on an earlier foray nearby. (The steering box went in our Land Rover which had no brakes to begin with, sending us rolling down a ridge. Although I didn't know it at the time, the crack I heard before being knocked out was my collarbone, not my neck.) I had long stopped trying to jump over small creeks. What for? I was completely soaked. I smiled inside. There is a kind of freedom to being so wet. Ha!..come at me swamps and creeks, you can do no more to me�.Yee Ha.
Carib Paul froze on the trail in front of me, jolting me from my reverie. He waved me back, drew his machete, lopped a long pole from the bush and ... whoosh, whack, whack, his pole came down upon its target. With the far end of the pole, he lifted up a now very limp 7 foot snake, lime green with a grey/white belly, and tossed it aside.
"Wow Paul! Good eyes, man! Was that a poisonous snake?"
He nodded gravely.
"What's the name of that type?"
"A runmon, Mr. Chris."
"A runmon, hmmm haven't heard of that one before."
"Yes Mr.. Chris, when you see him you RUN MAN!!!"
Everyone broke into a laugh. I chuckled with them, shaking my head at being the butt of their very dry Carib Indian humour. I often didn't get their good jokes.
On we slogged. Again I fell into the hiking daze, studying my boots. Great boots...cheap too, yet they have lasted four years of jungle abuse. Yeah... great boots...hmmm, boots....hmmm footwear...something's ringing a bell here and I don't know what. Boots...sneakers...my sneakers!?...MY SNEAKERS!?...did I put my passport in my deadly smelly sneakers as the ultimate in clever stashing? Man oh man...my pace quickened. Couldn't wait to set up our fly camp. Hope our old portable radio gets through to Georgetown. I'd get Pete to check. I hoped I was right.
Late in the afternoon, aching, wet and wiped we arrived at a river. Well above it was a small knoll. "OK, let's get camp up before dark guys." Sloshing in the mud we quickly rigged up some fresh cut poles, tied down the tarpaulin, and slung our hammocks. Singerman, a most jovial tall muscular black man who does half of his communicating by musical inflection, got a pot of muddy creek water boiling for the rice and salt beef. I set up the radio and Rocco and Paul stretched the antenna as high as they could.
"Georgetown, Georgetown, this is Walkabout, do you copy? Georgetown, Georgetown, this is Walkabout, do you copy?"
"Base Camp, Base Camp, this is Walkabout, do you copy?"
"You are coming in weak, Base. How do you read me?"
Then I heard Pete booming in from our heavy-duty radio-set in Georgetown. "Base Camp, Base Camp, this is Georgetown, are you trying to reach me? You're coming in broken up, please repeat, you copy?"
Shit, I thought, Pete barely hears Base Camp, and us not at all.
"Base, Base, this is Walkabout, relay message to Pete, you copy?"
Crackle, "Copy Chris."
"Tell Pete, 'Get my sneakers,' you copy?"
"Roger Chris. Pete, we have a message from Chris, you copy?"
"Roger Base, send message."
"Pete, Chris wants his sneakers sent in, you copy?"
"Roger Base, copy, send Chris's sneakers into camp."
"BREAK, BREAK, NEGATIVE BASE, TELL PETE TO GET MY SNEAKERS NOW. THAT'S GET — GOLF, ECHO, TANGO — GET. BRING TO RADIO NOW, YOU COPY?"
"Hssss...ease repeat Chris, you..hsss..oken up."
There's some humour developing in this, I thought.... but...
"Base, Base, Tell Pete to get my sneakers NOW, bring to radio NOW!! We will standby, you copy?"
"Copy Chris....Pete, get Chris's sneakers now, we will standby. Copy?"
"Roger Base, going now, standby..."
Tick, tick, tick, I'm waiting in the mud, ear by the speaker to hear above the rain slapping on the tarpaulin. Come on, come on baby... Meanwhile Pete heads to my room back in town and grabs my sneakers and goes back downstairs to the radio. I didn't know at the time, but he had some people over discussing business and they were watching and listening with some curiosity. Why is Pete standing at the radio holding somebody else's stinking shoes? Strange outfit, are they professionals?!
"Base, I have the sneakers, you copy?"
"Roger, Chris, you copy?"
"Base, tell Pete look inside sneakers."
"Pete, Chris says look inside them, you copy?"
"Roger, Roger, stand by."
"Oh!!! Walkabout, Walkabout, if you can copy me. Great place to store your documents! An old travelers trick, I'd say!"
Yee Haa!! I yelped. This is how a man can reappear!
My mind was at ease and the bush had grown pitch black. Not much else to do but settle back to a jungle repast of a big bowl of rice with oily, chewy, salt beef on top. I have never been a fan of this cuisine, but after the day we'd had, it was almost a welcome sight.
"We have any pepper sauce Singerman?"
"Sorry, Mr.. Chris."
I guess that condiments would be an unnecessary luxury on a trip like this, so without much more ado I wolfed down my bowl. Got to fuel the machine, at least.
I took off my sopped and muddy clothes, hung them over a pole and slipped into my hammock. For a tall guy, I have never really mastered a comfortable sleeping position in hammocks. I would have to have knee and hip joints with 360 degree articulation. It is either on your back or "one-quarter side position," that's it. And the rotating back and forth, searching for comfort, has to be done slowly and carefully. Being all tied to the same two poles, when one guy moves everyone else bounces as the wave moves down. Luckily, fatigue took over and I passed out.
Next morning I awoke, before dawn, shaped like a banana. Joints creaking, I slid out onto the mud. Turning to head away from camp for a pee I noticed the river. Yikes!!- it was right up to the side of our camp, a rise of 7 feet overnight! Man, I hadn't counted on needing diving gear for this job! Rocco and the guys smiled at our predicament, just another day in the jungle for them.
Breakfast was deep fried dough ("bake" they call it, but it ain't baked, it's fried!) with sardines. We would have the leftovers for lunch. (Wow, I couldn't wait.)
"Got any peanut butter Singerman?"
"Sorry, Mr.. Chris."
I pulled down my beat-up, damp clothes from the day before and slid them on. Yuck. They were cool, oily and clammy. They warmed up soon enough, and I forgot about them.
That day I dialed Southeast on my compass, the guys sharpened their machetes, and we took off. The huge fallen Mora tree that was 7 feet above the river just upstream from camp was now right at river level, water rushing over it in places. Rocco and the guys danced across like they were born in the circus. I was glad they went ahead so I could nervously shake and wobble my way across without an audience.
Deeper and deeper we slogged, rain falling in torrents, then abating to large drops falling from the trees. Some of these drops burned the skin — dripping off of poisonous or acidic species was my guess. We then came to a swamp, the like of which I have never seen or tried to traverse. Warily we plunged in, wading up to our jewels, unable to see our feet.
"They must have switched me in the hospital." I announced.
"Why that, Mr.. Chris?"
"Well, I can say for certain that no one else in my family would ever think for a second about doing anything close to this, so I must have been switched!"
"Ha ha, yes, Mr.. Chris." And we went on.
Another river blocked our path. Searching up and down we found a fallen tree spanning the river, though not a very big one, with many limbs sprouting all directions, making the crossing awkward. We have to come back this way, I thought: I sure hope the water doesn't keep rising.
Hours later we made it to the broad and muddy Barama River, one of the largest draining Guyana's rainforest. The rain gave us a short break, so we hunched by the swollen river, sitting on our packs and gold pans, and inhaled our bake and sardines, oily juice running down our chins. A short distance away should be the mouth of the Yakeparu River, our sampling target.
Rocco looked around, reconnoitering. "Mr.. Chris, I feel this is where the Moruca Boys ended up last year."
I always paid attention to Rocco when he said "I feel" anything. That meant he wasn't fooling around. He was uncanny. I often tried to imagine his world view, so different from mine. Where I visualized things spatially, like a map, Rocco seemed to visualize in a feeling sense, an entirely different sort of internal compass, a bit magical from my perspective, and always honest.
The Moruca Boys were an Amerindian crew we hired the year before for a creek sampling job. They got lost, couldn't work the radio for days and had us all pretty worried. Finally they got through (probably decided to roll out the antenna) and said they were by a big river flowing to their left hands. Their left hands!!! We were completely baffled. Now it made sense. They had read the wrong side of the compass and went 50 miles in the opposite direction! How Rocco "felt" this from a few cut twigs I'll never know, but I believed him.
Our bellies full, we made for the Yakeparu. Feeling with long sticks we found the river bed we wanted to sample. The banks were so swollen that you couldn't tell where the river edge started. We then eased ourselves into the muddy water. It was a funny feeling. What's in here? Electric eels!? Hope not.� It was up to our necks. With the shovel I got a purchase on the river sediments. Shit, no way to bring it up. The only thing to do is to take a big breath and.....go under!
The samples were gathered — I hoped they contained some gold, and enough hope for another year's worth of work down here. Still shivering from the cold creek water, Rocco and Paul loaded up our packs while I marked the sample location on a small tree. Paul turned and saw what I was doing and let out a yell: "Aramata, Aramata tree! WASH YOUR HANDS!"
I could see he was serious and all but leapt back into the river. It turns out the Aramata tree produces a highly toxic substance in its bark and flowers, and can be deadly. Now I was in the river. I reached for a sapling to haul myself back out. The guys were above me on the bank. Rocco's eyes widened. "Mr. Chris, the TREE, the TREE!!"
I let go and fell back into the river.
"Jesus what, Rocco!? Another poisonous tree?"
They were now beside themselves in laughter. Their boss dripping from top to bottom in front to them.
"No, Mr. Chris, ants, many, many ants on that tree!"
It was now past two in the afternoon and we had to retrace our steps back to camp before dark at six. We plowed forward with a quickness and panic to our steps to make up time. The rain was now a deluge, fogging my glasses, adding to the forced stumble of my stride. We reached the river crossed by the small tree with many limbs. Only a few of the smaller limbs were now above water! Yikes!! Carefully we felt with our feet for the lower main branches that had supported us on the way out. They were now four feet under and how deep the flood waters were, I had no idea.
Across!!! Whew!! Now the swamp of dreams. It was chest-deep now. The water was dark and cool, sensual and creepy. As I slipped on the invisible uneven ground below I was thrown into the scraping foliage again and again. My arms were slashed and imbedded with thorns. My forearms later swelled to the size of a professional arm wrestler's, pocked with oozing wounds around each barbed thorn.
Right before the last light faded we hit the main river. Camp was just on the other side, but where was the Mora log bridge? It should be � here? Oh oh, there it is ... two feet below the rushing waters!
"Uh, you guys can go first."
Back in camp, our hammocks were slung over water. So, with flashlights in our mouths we slashed some slightly higher ground and moved. Singerman boiled up dinner in the shelter of our new spot. Belly full of brown rice (it was white before boiling!), I pulled out of my plastic bag a pair of dry underwear, pants and T-shirt and changed. Ah, bliss!!! There was no need to bathe, as we had been bathing all day! I negotiated myself into the banana position in my hammock, secured the mosquito net shut and fell into a deep sleep.
We spent several days like this, using our river camp as a pivot point for traverses to different sample sites. Each day had its moments; a scorpion next to my shoe one morning; a tree crashing 20 meters away the next..."Carib Paul and The Valley of the Turtles"... Bake and Sardines Again!...and again. Wearily, pack heavy with muddy samples and Paul's turtles, we arrived back at our Base Camp.
Rocco, the quiet smooth jungle operator, had made sure some beer had been brought in for the Big Boss. We fired up the generator to chill them in the freezer. Smuggled Venezuelan Polar Beer. Not very good if one has a choice, but I anticipated them with relish.
With the good cheer that follows a hard-working adventure, we bathed and changed. Singerman got some curried stewed turtle on the go. Passing by the kitchen I peered into the bubbling pot, knobby skinned legs and feet bobbing in the sauce. Singerman saw the look on my face.
"I no eat turtle, Mr. Chris. You?"
"Not today, I think. We got anything else?"
He smiled a huckster's grin. "You and me, we'll eat chicken."
We feasted, drank all the beer, scratched our bug bites, banged and slapped dominoes (the Guyanese way) till midnight. Bidding the guys good night, I stumbled to my hut.
I lit some candles, clumsily set up my mosquito net and undressed. I surveyed the body damage: lacerated swollen arms, a good case of jungle crotch rot, and�.DIRTY BUGGERS�a tick infestation!!! Shit, I hadn't noticed my least favorite bugs had climbed on board for some free meals and a place to lay their young.
I fumbled for my shaving kit and dug out my heavy-duty toenail clippers. With my flashlight in my mouth, neck craned to the limit to illuminate the operation, the battle was on! Dirty buggers hold on for dear life. I was flailing, tugging until my skin stretched several inches from the side of my chest�..snap!!�my arm swung free almost knocking me to the floor. Looking close to see if I got all of him (thanks to the beer I had to close one eye), I realized the head and pincers remained. Ah, crud. Too much for one night. Let's just douse what's left with trusty mentholated spirits and crash.
Rummaging in the medicine cabinet I found the bottle of highly aromatic, vivid blue spirits. No time to waste. I yarded it out, and the unsealed cap flew off sending a shower of blue over me and my bed. YEEOOW!� my cuts and scrapes came to life. But I was as good as new!
Smelling like the "Menthol Jungle Man," I dropped into my damp bed, this job done.
[Editor's note: We shall find out sometime in February whether Chris Basil and his companions found any gold or diamonds on this foray.]
Write "Ellavon" at email@example.com.
Released: January 31, 1998