Mud wrestling: Cycling ‘the Trail’ from Lethem to Georgetown
The unpaved road from the Brazilian border to Guyana’s costal capital, Georgetown, meanders through the Rupununi Savanna before lurching into the Amazon rainforest where jaguars and snakes roam. Yet, wild animals aren’t the main concern for cyclists. Our principle worry was riding the route in the dry season, as when it rains it becomes impassable. So we were delighted to arrive in Lethem a month and a half before the official start of the wet season. We soon learnt though that they’re called ‘rainforests’ for a reason.
We crossed the border from Brazil and now in a former-British colony, we were cycling on the left hand side and speaking English. Bizarrely for us as Brits, both things felt very strange. We had to do a bit of pleading to get a one month stamp as the smart customs official wanted to give us only two weeks, which was not enough time to make it to Suriname and was annoying as we should have been given a 90 day entry automatically.
The border town, Lethem, has grown from an indigenous village to cater for Brazilians who travel to purchase cheap products from the Chinese supermarkets there. We also splurged. The Savannah Inn was a great place to stock up on pasta and other staples as there would be little available on the road over the next week. We were giddy to discover some British favourites including baked beans and caramel wafers that made for an odd but delicious supper that evening.
After some sticky nights in the tent in Brazil, we also treated ourselves to hammocks. We were clueless about how to hang them, but fortunately had the help of Rebecca, the manager of the Outdoor Store, who tied the knots for us. The store is owned by Warmshower hosts Joe and Christine who we were to meet closer to Georgetown, and who kindly let us sleep behind the shop.
Having slept well in our new swinging beds we set off waving goodbye to the tarmac in the centre of town and onto ‘the trail’ as this route is known. The road was fairly good to cycle on and the only difficult parts were corners where vehicles had turned the road into washboard. The traffic was light, which was a relief as every time a car zoomed past we got covered in a cloud of red dust.
Our progress was steady despite the surface and the strong wind against us. We covered 80km to Point Ranch where Rebecca had offered for us to stay with her mum who was the manager there. We arrived just before sunset and on the advice of the workers dropped our bags and rushed to the nearby creek to wash off the day’s grime. It felt great to be clean again and this was only day one.
We were awake early after a cock-crowing competition that began about 3am. However, swinging in our hammocks with a view across the savannah to the distant Kamuku mountains wasn’t too bad.
The trail continued along the foot of the mountains and we followed the weaving path to the outskirts of Annai, where we stopped at the Oasis service centre and stocked up on cold, well water and pizza. The temptation to stay the night and work our way through the tasty-sounding menu was strong, but the accommodation prices weren’t aimed at budget travellers and we headed on.
Shortly after we got drenched in a storm which had us huddled under the tarp as the rain lashed down horizontally. It lasted about half an hour and made the road sticky to cycle on, but not too bad. ‘Gosh,’ we thought, ‘we’re really glad we aren’t doing this in the wet season.’
We stopped for the night at the turnoff for Sumara where there was a small shop and hammock stop. We’d entered the rainforest and from our hammocks could hear howler monkeys screeching and watch bright, red parrots flying overhead. The place was run by a lovely lady called Madonna who let us hang our hammocks for free and boiled up eggs for our lunch the next day. It seemed a lucrative business as about 9pm the place filled up with noisy customers who were travelling north to Georgetown and were waiting for the forest park to open in the morning so they could continue along the road.
Throughout the night it rained constantly and when we woke up in the morning it was still going strong. This left us in a quandary. The distance to the next village was about 80km, if we didn’t cover that distance we would have to camp in the jungle, which neither of us was keen to do, especially as I had worked myself up about being eaten by a jaguar, which meant neither of us would sleep.
In the end we decided to pack up and see how we got on, if it was really bad we would turn back. So we wrapped up in our waterproofs as the rain was unexpectedly cold. Surprisingly the road turned out to be ok, as long as we kept to the centre and avoided the thick, wet sand at the edges. We pushed on and covered the 9km to the forest gate in good time where we found a fascinated audience whilst we checked in with the police. Our details were registered in the logbook, the policeman told me so that they know who we are if we get eaten by a tiger – the local name for jaguars.
With his words ringing in my ears we carried on. The lush green scenery was stunning but my eyes were focused on sudden movements in the undergrowth that could possibly be a tiger or a snake. At one point I realised that nobody had actually told us what to do it we encountered them and I spent a good while worrying about that. We stopped a few times to eat, but with danger lurking in the bushes I was much more efficient than I normally am. When we did stop I made Paddy sit directly opposite me so that we had an all-round view. He was much less concerned though and I wasn’t convinced that he really had my back covered.
The rain finally stopped in the late morning. We took that as a good sign, but as the day continued we realised the downpours had already caused enough damage. The last 20km, to the ferry crossing over the Essequibo River, was in a poor state. The terrain was hillier and the combination of water collecting in pockets and cars revving up the hills had created huge stretches of mashed up mud.
We found ourselves pushing through big puddles of water, at one point Paddy’s bike was floating on his pannier bags it got so deep. Our sandals filled with mud and stones and our legs were caked in the stuff. But this wasn’t too bad. Ok, it felt disgusting but at least once we got past each section we could get back on the bikes and cycle.
The last few kilometres to the ferry though we were reduced to pushing as the mud had turned into the thick, orange stuff that sticks under the mudguard and clings to the brake pads. Every 100 metres we would have to stop and scoop it all out before pushing on.
We spent the ferry crossing picking out the mud and flinging it into the river, but we could still only limp into the rest stop in Kurupukari, where our arrival caused an outbreak of laughter amongst the truck drivers in the restaurant. When they regained their composure they said they were heading to Georgetown tomorrow and would take us in their truck. The road they said was even worse that what we’d just covered and it had taken them nearly 24 hours to do the drive. At that point thunder broke out in the direction we would be heading and a torrential downpour started.
We strung our hammocks up and considered our options. To the next village was just over 100km. At the rate we’d covered the last 10km there is no way we would make it through the next day. Camping wasn’t an attractive option so we decided that we would accept the offer of the lift and if the road looked rideable then we would get out along the way.
Our driver’s name was Trevor and he’d been driving trucks along the road for over 30 years. He said at one point that it had taken two weeks to get from Georgetown to Lethem, but that now it was all highway, a description I didn’t quite agree with.
The road wasn’t too bad as we left Kurupukari and we looked at each other as we bounced about in the cab of the old army Bedford truck, wondering whether we should get out. Soon after though we were passing through puddles the size of small lakes. The section to Mabura was incredibly hilly with steep climbs and as the Bedford chugged slowly up them in the mud we knew on the bike we’d have had some long, slippery pushing.
Overall, the road was in a condition that was ok to cycle, but the stretches that were bad were so terrible that we would never have got through riding. We would have ended up having to sit down and wait for a lift to the other side and there is no way we’d have covered 100km that day.
After a few hours we came across a jam of vehicles, many of which had left the hammock spot a good time before us. On inspection there were two trucks stuck in a particularly mashed-up section and nobody else could get through. Trevor impressed us with some cool driving, managing to get one out which cleared the route. The second was so stuck that trying to pull it out the Bedford had wheels off the ground and saw us clinging to the roof of the cab to stay inside. We had to abandon it and the driver was left alone to wait for a heavier truck to come to his rescue.
We stopped for lunch at Mile 58 where there was a restaurant serving the best food we have had in a long time. Paddy devoured a beef curry, whilst I had four different vegetarian options to choose from. We are loving the food in Guyana which is full of flavour and spice.
We continued in the truck, although this stretch would probably have been rideable if not that pleasant as it was principally washboard and holes. I for one was glad of the decision when a branch lying across the road suddenly coiled itself up into a shimmery, green snake that jumped in the air at the truck. Aside from the creepy crawlies, it wouldn’t have been too bad to camp in the area as there was more open space and the occasional workers camp. However, we drove on until Linden where tarmac returned.
Trevor dropped us off at the centre of town, Five Corners, where we were immediately adopted by a local cyclist called Nigel who was intrigued by our Rohloff hubs. He invited us to hang our hammocks in his yard. Although we may not have cycled that day, the truck ride had been an adventure in itself and I was looking forward to collapsing on a bed for the rest of the afternoon.
As it would have been rude to say ‘I’m tired, I want to lie down and be unsociable ‘, we headed over with Nigel to his apartment underneath his mother’s wooden, stilted house. There wasn’t, however, much room for us or our hammocks and when we discovered there was no bathroom either we made our excuses and headed for a guest house. Nigel showed us one nearby but then asked for money for doing so, which felt uncomfortable. It’s not the only time we’ve been asked in Guyana and one guy was pretty insistent that we should give him our cycle gloves. We definitely stand out and I’ve been called ‘white girl’ a few times, which quite surprised me as I’ve worked really hard on my tan and thought I’d qualify as ‘brown girl’ at least.
The next day we headed up the undulating and windy highway towards Timehri and the home of our Warmshower hosts Joe and Christine, where we slept in their towering guest house. It was a beautiful spot and was lovely and relaxing. We took a day off to give our bikes and bags a good scrub and to play with the many dogs and cats that follow Joe around like an entourage. Christine treated us to some fantastic food, including our favourite – curry. We fed some noodles to Birdman, their rescued little bird and kept a careful eye as he hopped around, terrified we might stamp on him. There was also a live-in tarantula in our bedroom, which gave us a fright at first, but who seemed more perplexed by us that we were scared of him.
It would have been easy to stay much longer, but we decided we should continue on to Georgetown to get our visas for Suriname. The 50km cycle into town wasn’t the nicest, with little space for bikes and crazy, impatient drivers, but didn’t take too long.
Cycling into the centre we passed scenes reminiscent of the American West, with saw mills and horses roped up to wooden carts to take away the planks. Georgetown is known for its old, wooden buildings, one of which, the Rima Guest House, where we’re staying reminds us of something out of an Agatha Christie book with its cute, chintzy rooms.
It will be nice to spend some time exploring the city and recovering from our days on the trail, before we head off again towards Suriname. Guyana is incredibly different from any country we have visited in South America so far and we are enjoying discovering a completely different culture and way of life. Arriving in Georgetown we have also hit the Atlantic Ocean for the first time since we said goodbye in Brazil many months ago. Now all we have to do is follow it along to Rio de Janeiro.