The Berbice River of Guyana- Flag 99 August 9 to 21, 2011 with

The Berbice River of Guyana
Flag 99
August 9—21, 2011
With preliminary expedition to Guyana
February 9—16, 2011
The Berbice River of Guyana
Flag 99
August 9–21, 2011
With preliminary expedition to Guyana February 9–16, 2011.
‘Naar de Barrebiesjes gaan’ (Get thee to Berbice), is the equivalent of ‘Go to Hell’ in
Dutch. This modern day expression is a hold-over from the horrors experienced by Dutch
settlers and slaves on the Berbice River during the 1760’s bloody slave revolts there, says
British author, John Gimlette, in his recent book "Wild Coast Travels on South America's
Untamed Edge." Did it merely chronicle a bloody regional history or was it symbolic of
the area’s present as well? We wanted to see for ourselves.
Gimlette warned that “people in Georgetown, Guyana’s capital, spoke of Berbice as if it
were another planet; upriver (where we were going) was impossible; there were no roads
or telephones, and often everything is flooded. Take a gun and a satellite phone, although
don’t expect any help,” was the advice. He concluded that “everyone seemed to agree
that Berbice was remote, backward and different.”
To most, the entire country of Guyana, not just the Berbice, is relatively remote.
Unfortunately, many only have the vague recollection of the place where the Reverend
Jim Jones induced his 900 religious cult followers to drink the Kool-Aid. Some recall that
it was originally the Crown Colony of British Guiana, while others simply confuse it with
Guinea or Ghana in West Africa. Few remember the alleged CIA rigged election of
Dictator Forbes Burnam over reputed Communist Dictator Cheddi Jagan, and the ensuing
years of economic challenge that continue to this day.
In fact, collectively all three Guianas—Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana—are
relatively remote, and the trio may well comprise the last relatively unexplored region in
this hemisphere. So, if Berbice was among "the most remote, backward and different”
places within this entire extraordinary venue, it certainly warranted serious exploration.
We began our adventure when our Caribbean Air flight arrived in Georgetown. There are
two Caribbean Air flights from the US that
customarily arrive at approximately the same
time: one from NYC and the other from
Miami. The night our team member, Dave
Steadman arrived, the NYC flight crashed and
broke in two. Dave was on the Miami flight
and arrived safely, as did we, albeit a week
After a night in Georgetown, we met up with Alex Mendes
and Luke Johnson, two Guyanese members of our
Expedition. We loaded our gear in a 4x4 and began the eight
hour drive overland to the Berbice. Log bridges were
passable with care as this was the dry season. Flat tires and
winching another 4x4 from the mud as we forded little rivers
en route provided
welcome interludes
from the pot-holed
Of course, as those
readers familiar with
the tropics are well aware, the ‘dry season’ is a
relative term as it still rains almost every day.
One’s clothes never dry out. The ‘rain forest’ did
not get its name for nothing.
Although our driver was heavily armed as was customary due
to the bandits and drug gangs on this road, he did not need to
use either of his two weapons in this trip with us. This was not
the case between the time he brought us to DuBuLay and the
ten days later when he returned to drive us back to
Georgetown. Unfortunately, during that time on the same
route, he was shot in
the left hand.
Author Gimlette also
began his visit to
Portuguese Guyanese,
Alex Mendes, the
owner of DuBuLay Ranch. This 30,000 acre
cattle station, 90 miles from the coast on the west
bank of the Berbice River was Gimlette's most distant upriver location. For us, it was the
starting point for our quest to press on into unexplored regions toward its source.
Our Expedition Had Three Objectives:
1. Archeology – Observe the major excavation at DuBuLay and continue the search
for potential undocumented archeological sites upriver.
2. Critique Unique Fauna – Ornithology—Catalogue all bird species—and record
all other wildlife.
3. Pure old fashioned exploration of uncharted territory in Teddy Roosevelt
"River of Doubt" mode. Plant Flag 99 where no scientist has been before.
We started planning our expedition not long after
August 2009, when Dr. David Steadman,
Research Chair at the Museum of Natural History
and Curator of Ornithology at University of
Florida, Dr. Michael Heckenberger, Professor of
Archeology, at University of Florida (UF), with
assistance from scholars at University of
University of
preliminarily excavated what showed prospects of
becoming an extremely significant pre-European
contact archeological site. The important
discovery was on part of DuBuLay Ranch.
Members of the original UF/Guyana
archeological team, with a bevy of
graduate students, began a major
excavation of the site, at DuBuLay Ranch
site in the weeks before our arrival. Our
plan was to arrive at the site at the time
these researchers were closing the
trenches, and cataloging the thousands of
newly unearthed stylistically distinctive
pottery shards. Our timing was perfect. We
actively observed
documented what may prove to be one of
discoveries on the South American
continent in many years.
Although prior archeological studies have
shown that Guyana's indigenous people, or
Amerindians, have been living in the area,
now called Guyana, since around 9,000
BC, they were originally nomadic hunters and
gatherers. Prior to DuBuLay, it was thought that
most inhabitants of the region were coastal and that
they only began supplementing their food by
cultivating the land in more permanent communities
there between 3,000 and 4,000 years ago.
The UF/Guyana team, under the tutelage of Dr.
Heckenberger, is now carbon dating significant
numbers of pottery shards from the extensive
The scientific community awaits the
official publication in recognized
journals. Dr. Heckenberger believes
the results will be ready for
publication prior to ECAD 2012.
We spent two days observing the UF/Guyana team as
they photographed, examined, cataloged, and
packaged their extensive findings. Due to the bauxite
(aluminum ore) in the soil composition, some pottery
was noticeably light of weight—a very interesting
discovery. Trade pieces such as the pictured amethyst
from Brazil were observed.
Relative quality of early
artisan workmanship was
evident in many pieces
such as this pendant.
Our objective was to digest all newly discovered
archeological information from this massive dig and
scientifically utilize it in our research for additional
undiscovered archeological sites in the unexplored
zones upriver. So, explorer Charles Frederick “Rick”
Thompson ll, MN’02; Dr.Dave Steadman; Jack
Bierley, expedition co-sponsor, international lawyer,
banker, and Club member candidate; Alex Mendes;
African-Guyanese, Luke Johnson; and Wapishana native Guyanese, Josee, set off
on day four in two boats.
Our mission was to explore new territory and
carefully map potential sites for future archeologists
to excavate. National patrimony is sacred and we
respect the heritage of all indigenous peoples. So, we
did not disturb newly discovered potential sites
without a special Guyanese permit and Guyanese
overseer, but we (hopefully) did make it easier for
other archaeologists (perhaps University of Florida)
to seek grants and Guyanese permission for future
archaeological research.
From the river, we first observed a possible
archeological site in the WiWi Amerindian
reservation and another at Yellow Sand Cliff.
After pitching camp at
Mappa Lake, an estuary of the
river, we made note of three
additional test sites and we
were careful to choose areas
scientifically calculated above
best evidence historic flood
levels, with lowest oily clay
proximity to water irrigation
sources. This proved more and
more difficult as we navigated
up river: the dominant clay not conducive to agriculture was almost everywhere.
Savannahs (natural or man made) to provide sufficient open area to support crops—even
small cassava plantings—were hard to create near the river due to elevation and away
from it due to lack of water.
One type of sighting that always
drew our interest was a group of
Curatella or sandpaper tree mounds.
The sandpaper tree is so named
because its leaves resemble in
appearance and feel, rough sandpaper.
It thrives on the same charcoal soil base
agriculturalists. These early inhabitants
cleared forest trees, stacked them in
piles and burned them for charcoal to
enrich the soil for cassava.
On days five, six and seven, we closely observed the Yellow Bluff prospect, three
promising areas up a tributary of the Berbice, and a location where Guyanese
archeologist, Aad Boomert had recorded the only prior archeological excavation on the
Berbice by a Dennis Williams in 1976. We documented all findings.
2. Critique Unique Fauna
Our primary focus was Dr. Steadman’s specialty, ornithology. Every day Dr.
Steadman cataloged all the birds we heard and saw. We recorded in excess of
6,500 separate sightings of 211 species of birds. Attached is the list of species
referenced day by day.
Species observed included the extremely rare BloodColored Woodpecker (Veniliomis sanguineus), never
believed to live this far from the coast, and the
Hoatzin (Opisthocomus hoazin), the national bird of
Guyana. When Dr. Steadman compared notes with
international birding colleagues in Georgetown, all
were amazed at these sightings, and began planning
their own future ornithology expeditions to this new
birding territory.
In addition to birds, we made note of other wildlife
observed: Fish, Mammals, Rodents, Reptiles,
Amphibians and Invertebrates. To date, 225 species
of mammals, at least 880 species of reptiles and
amphibians have been identified in Guyana. Our
team simply identified and documented many of
these. It was not our purpose or
intent to attempt to discover any
new species. We merely hoped to
open the door to this new frontier
part of Guyana to let others know
it exists so they can make more
discoveries in their respective
One particular species of fish, the piranha, that is
plentiful in the Berbice River became a bit of a
nuisance to us. Due to the intense heat, and our need
to preserve drinking water, bathing of necessity was
in the river. In a bit of defensive posturing, in a token
effort to keep our team members from becoming
more like the often witnessed four-toed local Indian
bush residents, Rick pulled out his fishing rod and
caught both red and black piranha. We roasted the
big black one over the coals and ate him. So much
for catch and release, but conservation has its limits.
As to snakes, we observed the very
poisonous Fer de Lance or Labaria
(Bothrops atrox) in its almost
invisible state, two feet from where
we docked our boat. That was a tad
disconcerting in that we did not see
it at all when we landed; only on
departure. Dr. Steadman saw the
murinus). These sightings were
difficult when we were there as the
river was quite high in August, without normal banks, and these river snakes were
still back in the swamps.
The anacondas are usually plentiful, however, as our
up-river host confirmed. Donald, the 69 year old
Chinese/East Indian/African Guyanese, occupies the
only house upriver. One night, Donald allowed us to
throw our sleeping bags on his floor and hang our
mosquito nets from his planked walls. As he
entertained us with tales of his chosen solitary
existence, let us proof his recently written novel—
hand-pecked on his ancient typewriter—he
remorsefully recanted that he had to kill 40
anacondas the year he mistakenly put his chicken
coop too close to the river. He was pleased to report
that his anaconda kill is now down to a more
reasonable 5 or 6 a year since he moved the coop. He
related that these boa constrictors grow throughout their lives, can reach 30 feet in
length, and eat about anything. In addition to his chickens, these nocturnal
carnivores gobble up peccary, deer, caiman, birds, fish, capybara and agouti.
Almost no one ventures upstream from
Donald's house. During the entire time
upriver, we saw only one boat of
Brazilian gold miners who were
bringing supplies to their claim up river,
and two loggers of tropical hardwoods.
Monkeys were everywhere. Among
primates observed were the Squirrel
Monkey (Saimiri sciureus) - these very
social small, slender, beautifully colored little fellows were usually in groups of
15 or more. Their pale gray sides, shoulders and rump contrast with their white
mask around the eyes and forehead. We saw Black Spider Monkeys (Ateles
paniscus), Guyana’s largest monkey, 50–75 cm with small head, long gangly
limbs and prehensile tail covered with black hair except for its bare pink face.
Naturally, our alarm clock at 5 to 5:30 every morning without fail was the
howling of the baboons, aka Red Howler Monkeys (Alouatta seniculus). The
piercing snorts, grunts, roars and howls were deafening. You just knew that they
were right on top of your tent even when they were across the river.
Among mammals - as to
we saw
(Panthere onca) tracks from the
previous night. (left) and Peccary
We were fortunate to observe a Giant
River Otter’s (Pteronura brasiliensis) entire
family. The territorial parents vocally warned
us in no uncertain terms to keep our distance.
They finally directed the otter family safely to
shore. Our conservationist tendencies came to
the forefront as we recalled that these huge
furry unprotected creatures, not unlike a sea
lions in appearance, casually called water
dogs in Guyana, are easily and often hunted
for their fur.
Reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates
sighted also included Salamanders, Frogs and
the Spectacled Caiman (Caiman crocodilus).
At night it was a treat to shine one’s
headlight along the river bank and
watch the pairs of Spectacled
Caiman eyes shine back, see them
cruise across the river, and dive
from sight.
3. Pure Old Fashioned Exploration
For our third objective, we wanted to push further toward the source of the Berbice
than any other scientist had traveled. In our preparatory fact finding expedition to
Guyana in February, 2011, we determined that we could not actually reach the source
or sources of the river. The swamps were simply too deep, waterfalls too high and
treacherous, and the risks of chartering a small plane with no place to land, from
people who may transport rather questionable types of cargo, managed to outweigh
our desire to go where no one has gone before.
Nevertheless, we planned to push
ourselves to the limit. Since there are no
available outfitters in Guyana like one
might find in more “civilized”
Mozambique or Zimbabwe, with
inflatable rafts or otherwise more suitable
boats, we had to make do with what was
After all, this was an Explorers Club
Flag Expedition.
We managed to secure upriver a local
wooden boat, smaller than our two
regular boats, albeit still awkward and
very heavy. Just as important as the boat
was its owner, a savvy, local Guyanese
river/woodsman, Francis, who would not let
his boat go without him - to our good
fortune. In or with the boat and Francis, we
managed to cross over, through or portage
five waterfalls or serious rapids. To
successfully portage, we needed to cut a
series of small trees over which we
muscled/pushed/pulled the 500 pound boat
over little mountains past the falls.
Finally, there was no place to portage. As we pondered our
dilemma, we helplessly witnessed to our horror, our two
river men as they attempted to take the boat up and directly
through the Category 5 Rapids.
The boat filled with water, and almost shattered, one man momentarily
disappeared under the boat; disaster was narrowly averted. The mixture of river
smarts and brawn saved the day. Any other two to five persons in the same
situation would not have saved the boat and many could well have not saved
themselves. That marked the end of river transportation pure and simple.
Four of us had cutlasses (machetes) so we continued on foot, hacking our way
along game trails for a considerable distance. Finally when trails petered out and
turned into pure impenetrable jungle, reasonableness returned, and we hoisted
Flag 99 at a spot somewhere short of the source of the Berbice, but at a point
where no self-respecting scientist has probably ever been.
Respectively submitted,
Charles Frederick “Rick” Thompson ll, MN’02