Nickerie.Net, donderdag 27 maart 2008

Tumble and paddle in the Surinamese Jungle

By PATRICK WOODHEAD, Published: May 21, 2006

The author Patrick Woodhead (rear) with Pieter Sonneveld, his intrepid guide (foto Bob Fischer)

A quarter of an inch to the left, and my Achilles' tendon would have been severed. But first, how I got to this precarious spot.

I had been invited to join an expedition down the remote Lucie River, deep in the South American rain forest. Our team of ornithologists and photographers planned to meet in Suriname and then fly south to the Lucie's source, buried in the jungle's interior. Once there, we would paddle its length a journey that would take us eight days and 145 miles and that had been done only twice in the past century allowing the birders to study the exotic specimens and the rest of us to concentrate on the rapids. After numerous trips to the Arctic, I looked forward to trading my ice ax and skis for a collapsible canoe. But first I needed to do two things: practice my paddling skills and find out where on earth Suriname was.

I paid a visit to the Royal Geographical Society in London, home to almost every explorer's journal from the past two centuries. Rummaging through the card catalog, I came across 267 entries for the remote island Vanuatu, 329 for the partly unmapped jungles of Irian Jaya, but only 18 for Suriname, 10 of which predated 1901. "Is that it?" I asked the librarian loitering nearby. He came over and then nodded somewhat apologetically.

Suriname is a wedge crammed between French Guiana and Guyana and nestled on the shoulder of Brazil in the oldest part of the mighty Amazon rain forest. Back in 1667, with little more than a handshake, the British swapped the entire country, 63,037 pristine square miles, for the colony of New Amsterdam (now known to all and sundry as New York City). The minor outpost would remain under Dutch rule for most of the next 300 years.

Suriname might have gone the way of nearby Barbados and St. Lucia and their multimillion-dollar resorts if not for one thing: a lack of sand. The Amazon River flushes out millions of tons of silt each year, clogging up Suriname's shores; its endless mud flats and mangrove swamps aren't a big draw for beach tourists.

So, not knowing much more than I knew before, I dragged my new collapsible canoe down to the banks of the Thames and began bolting it together, James Bond style. To the small gathering of nosy dog walkers, I tried to look as if I knew what I was doing, but my haphazard launch and dangerous wobbling were enough to dispel any illusions. Once adrift, the unnaturally brown water made it clear that capsizing would be disastrous, if not infectious. After a shaky start, I seemed to get the hang of it. In fact, I was actually quite enjoying myself. Training for polar expeditions involves dragging enormous car tires through thick sand for hours and hours on end.

This was better.

However, after five pleasant jaunts down such a lazy river, I didn't exactly feel prepared for whatever the Amazon might throw at us. In fact, at this stage, I had no idea who "us" actually was. In polar circles, there is a saying: "On expedition choose your companions carefully. ... You may have to eat them." In Antarctica, the bitter cold and long marches mean that it's absolutely vital to get on well with the people on your team. Would the jungle be any different?

A few weeks and a nine-hour flight from Amsterdam later, I touched down in Paramaribo, Suriname's capital. From the vantage of my taxi, the city looked unmistakably African, with parts lifted directly out of Maputo, Mozambique, or Kinshasa, Congo, but well ordered and affluent and seemingly lacking any of the pockmarks of African poverty or war. Indian women stood at their market stalls idly bartering with groups of Javanese. Across the street, a bus station half filled with blacks was decked out with Bollywood posters and a statue of Gandhi. Farther along, a mosque stood next door to a synagogue, the faithful from both chatting casually in the street outside.

It felt like some weird sociological experiment how many disparate cultures could be crammed together in one small city? Where was the good old-fashioned tension, the acrimony and the clash of cultures?

Paddling in Suriname (Photography:Bobby Fisher)

A bird's-eye view of the Lucie River in Suriname.

The author Patrick Woodhead (rear) with Pieter Sonneveld, his intrepid guide

A small greeter at the even smaller Kayser airstrip

One of Suriname's other frequent fliers.

Roots and vines form a barrier

The author and Sonneveld head back to the water.

The Amazon at dusk.

After a long day of paddling, Lee Van Alen Manigault, foreground, catalogs the day.

"It's the mystery of Suriname," the sociologist Jack Menke, whom I met there, told me with a smile. "The people are proud of their individual cultures, but think it's perfectly normal to respect their differences."

Supposedly, when the Miss World beauty contest asked Suriname for a contestant, various leaders got together and decided to put forward no fewer than 12 official entrants each from a different ethnic group.

"No, I am afraid you have to choose just one," came the official's response.

And so Suriname didn't send any.

But as a pimped-out Porsche 4x4 roared down the street past me, I began to suspect that there was more to the mystery in Paramaribo than could be explained by racial harmony. What of the fact that I counted no fewer than 10 casinos for a population of only 250,000 people? I've never been to Las Vegas, but it seemed a little like overkill to me.

Suriname, I later learned, is one of the many stopover points for cocaine traffic from Colombia to the rest of the world. Casinos are ideal money-laundering facilities. As a whole, its presence wasn't all that obvious, but as my taxi passed a string of half-finished mansions on the outskirts of town, my driver casually explained that their owners had recently been thrown in jail.

Pulling up to my hotel, I met Tony Henneberg, the man who had put together the expedition. An amateur ornithologist and painter, Tony had been mildly obsessed with Suriname and was desperate to get into the jungle to sketch some of the extraordinary bird life on offer.

Roald Amundsen, the first man to the South Pole, once quipped, "Adventure is just bad planning." It is a principle that Tony evidently adhered to every step of the way. Swigging back a beer in the hotel bar, he told me not to worry so many times that I began to worry. But I couldn't help but like him, and so did everyone else, as the entire hotel, staff and guests, already knew him by name.

As I sorted through my gear, I met Lee Van Alen Manigault, another member of our team. Originally from New York and six feet tall, she greeted me with a warm smile. She was packing up her own medical kit, which, I noticed, included sewing needles. "To darn your socks," I said flippantly. Little did I know she would be using them on me.

A day later, the three of us flew to the tiny Kayser airstrip near the source of the Lucie River. There we would await the three remaining expedition members. As our little Cessna bounced and rattled its way over the jungle canopy, we looked out over the Amazon's infinite expanse. Below, the trees merged, vine and root endlessly crisscrossed and twisted around each other, vying for position and stretching off into the horizon.

Just a few minutes after we had landed, a second plane touched down and dropped off the rest of our team. With perfunctory handshakes, we moved all of our gear to the banks of the river and began to assemble our boats. Bobby Fisher, our photographer, was teamed with his assistant, Christian MacDonald, in one canoe; Lee and Tony were in the kayak; and Pieter Sonneveld, our Surinamese guide, came with me: three boats, six people and 145 miles of river.

As we started, I wondered how easy a rescue might be. Motorized canoes would not be able to make it up through the rapids we were going to face, and Suriname's only two helicopters were said to be owned by the same kind of guys who drove the pimped-out Porsches. At the very least, any evacuation would require some form of international intervention. It was at this point that Bobby decided to tell us that he and Christian had never canoed down rapids before.

We started paddling. The boats, top-heavy from all our equipment, ran through the water like bathtubs. Bobby and Christian took the first in a long line of rapids backward. We had to do nearly 18 miles a day to stay on schedule, but even from the start, it was obvious that our progress would be entirely dictated by the current.

The first few hours slipped by unawares, all of us engrossed in the scenery. Pieter and I watched as giant otters languidly slipped into the water. Behind us, Tony and Lee cataloged the profusion of exotic birds rufescent tiger-herons, harpy eagles and iridescent macaws. Tony spent most of the time with binoculars clamped to his face, pointing out shapes concealed deep within the jungle. The only things I could discern with any clarity were the vultures circling overhead, hungry and patient.

At one point, Tony waved a microphone in the air trying to catch some particularly rare birdsong, which was suddenly drowned out by a cacophony of demonic screeching somewhere high in the canopy. It was terrifyingly loud, like King Kong murdering something. The culprit turned out to be a shin-high and pathetically innocuous red howler monkey. I guess in the jungle it's all about bravado. Skip to next paragraph Multimedia Slide Show: Paddling in Suriname Slide Show: Paddling in Suriname

Unlike polar trips, where every scrap of food has to be towed in a sled, here we were trying to live off the land and save weight in our overloaded boats. We budgeted for one meal a day for each of the eight days we planned to be on the river. Anything beyond that we had to kill or catch.

After eight hours' paddling, we were happy to eat almost anything.

The waters were thick with piranhas, but the real king of the river was the anjoemara, a charcoal-gray muscular fish resembling a pike on steroids. The anjoemara were absolutely fearless and spent their time randomly terrorizing anything slightly smaller than themselves. Doing his wash next to the river one evening, Pieter saw a few circling close by. He banged a huge stick on the surface to scare them off. Undaunted, the fish bit the end of his branch. But their aggression was their downfall, as they would almost always have a go at one of our lures. And what a fight! To save our rods from being snapped, we resorted to very unsportsmanlike tactics. As soon as a fish came near the shallows, I would wade in and hit it repeatedly with a wooden club. I could have brained Mike Tyson these fish were unbelievably resilient. They were also delicious.

We smoked the fish over a campfire, the jungle's ubiquitous night sounds playing on our imaginations. It was hard not to wonder what other, equally aggressive wildlife might be lurking out there. As the protective flames slowly withered and we walked back to our hammocks and tents each night, I would sweep my head torch around in an arc through the bushes, crisscrossing the beam like a guard in a prison watchtower. As soon as night fell, the jungle became so dark, the undergrowth so impenetrable, that I could have easily missed an elephant, let alone a stealthy jaguar hiding behind the nearest tree.

With the howler monkeys in mind, I would crash about, making as much noise as I could. The night jungle is undoubtedly a scary place, but strangely, once I'd made it inside the hammock, I was somehow reassured by the paper-thin mosquito net. Human nature is weird that way.

On our third day on the river, a low hum broke the morning quiet. Pieter swiveled around from the front of the canoe.

"Is that a plane?" he asked, his forehead furrowed in concentration.

Seconds later we were backpaddling furiously, trying to avoid being sucked into a monster rapid.

As Pieter and I prepared to go down, the others tied up their boats and climbed over the rocks to wait at the bottom. Over the first drop, our collapsible boat flexed unnervingly and filled with water. Pieter pushed off the rocks, just managing to prevent us from being dashed against them, but by the third drop, we were almost completely submerged.

Tony grabbed the front of the boat as we swept passed him, penduluming us round, so that now the water surged over the sides. Pieter and I jumped out to lighten the boat. Just as my head disappeared into the foaming torrent, I heard Tony say, "Oh, look, a capped heron."

There are times when ornithology is just plain dangerous.

Standing in the shallows, happy to be in one piece, Pieter suddenly went bright red. He tried to say something, but as English isn't his first language, it took a moment to find the right word. He finally blurted out "electric eel" and jumped headlong onto the nearby rocks. Lee had also taken a hit and joined Pieter, furiously rubbing a leg. These eels, which can produce shocks of up to 600 volts, can injure or even kill human beings.

The following five days passed with quiet, contemplative stretches followed by similar jolts of excitement. The early morning was undoubtedly the best time to see the wildlife, when, out of the morning mist, animals would approach the riverside to drink. All was still, the long night of hunting or being hunted finally over. Our paddles cut through the water, each of us tired from the night of half sleep in our makeshift beds.

Then suddenly, up ahead, a tapir splashed into the water, swimming with surprising agility up onto the bank. Farther along, a capybara, the world's largest rodent, stared at us with a look of surprise that was mutual. Then, on the right bank, under an overhanging branch, something sandy in color moved with perfect feline grace. The jaguar turned and hopped back into the jungle, perfectly blending into the foliage. I just stared, too amazed to even point it out to the others.Without Pieter and Tony, so much of the forest would have gone unnoticed. Trivia poured out of them anacondas allegedly smell terrible, tapirs are related to rhinos, a certain type of vine is pounded and used to stun fish. They say there are thousands of plants still undiscovered, mammals and birds yet to name, and paddling through such a place makes it easy to believe.

For a few hours on the fifth day, I lay on the top of the canoe, letting Pieter do all the work. I was recovering from one of those jolts of excitement, trying to keep my blood pressure down and stop the piranha bite on my ankle from bleeding. We were behind schedule, and everyone but me was working hard to make up some mileage. I felt a little guilty.

The next few days were to be long and exhausting. On the sixth, we got up early, preparing for much of the same, but that morning the river had other ideas. As Bobby and Christian attempted to dodge a fallen tree, their boat wedged itself squarely between two rocks. They both jumped out, desperate to save the camera film, and watched as the canoe's aluminum frame gave up the ghost and crumpled with a pitiful death rattle.

Pieter and Tony braved the strong current to fish out the flotsam, while Bobby and Christian heroically dragged what was left of the canoe onto the riverbank like a scene out of "Baywatch." I stood on a rock, of no particular use to anyone and not overly keen to go back into the water.

By the looks of the pathetic heap of twisted metal and plastic, hopes weren't high. I'd fixed broken tent poles and improvised ski bindings, but this job was definitely beyond me. The boat was shot. Lee lay back in the sun and warmed up the satellite phone for the impending evacuation, but Pieter and Tony had other ideas, and with an ingenuity to put the A-Team to shame, they raced into the jungle to whittle branches.

Five hours later, a fusion of wood, plastic and metal sat awkwardly on the rocks. A lowbred hodgepodge with the hydrodynamics of a potato, the makeshift vessel looked as if it would buckle on the first rapid. However, looks, apparently, are not everything, and by this stage, it was only another 45 miles to the pickup point.

The remaining distance passed with mild rapids, and the lowbred coped surprisingly well. As midday approached and the full heat of the sun was upon us, we suddenly saw the nose of a 40-foot motorized canoe tucked under a thicket on the far bank. Pieter had timed the pickup perfectly and, despite all that had happened, had gotten us there at our designated hour.

Farther downstream, at the more civilized Arapahu Island Resort, we watched the water tumble over the magnificent Frederik Willem IV waterfalls and life was good once again. Luxuries like beer and dry clothing were soon taken for granted, and we fed ourselves back up to our natural weight. The mauled boats lay forlorn on the sandbanks the only real casualties of our little expedition.

I have seen deserts, mountains and infinite quantities of ice, but the jungle is the only place where I seemed to stay in a constant state of amazement. Such a rare profusion of life, diverse as it is and interacting on every level. It could take a lifetime just to make the slightest sense of it all.

Such a life would be time well spent.

If You Go

Suriname has vast tracts of unspoiled wilderness that can be a bit daunting to navigate. Winston and Annique Gummels, of Tropical Gem Tours, organize custom tours and accommodations at their two resorts, Arapahu Island and Tafelberg (go to Pieter Sonneveld, a guide, is available for those interested in unbridled adventures in Suriname ( Other guides are also available through Tropical Gem. We used Gum Air ( for flights to the remote airstrips that were our pickup and drop-off points in the interior. The Central Suriname Nature Reserve is more than one million acres large and managed by Stinasu, the Foundation for Nature Conservation in Suriname, which offers tours to Brownsberg Nature Park and Raleigh Falls essential visits for die-hard birders. Tours can be arranged through its fledgling Web site, -- Lee Van Alen Manigault


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