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Notes from an author: Michelle Jana Chan

The isolated South American wilderness of Guyana is teeming with colourful — and noisy — creatures, people and landscapes that offer exotic inspiration

Notes from an author: Michelle Jana Chan
Michelle Jana Chan. Illustration: Jacqui Oakley

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Guyana is one of the least explored countries in South America and therefore the perfect setting for a novel. Wedged between Venezuela, Brazil and Suriname, this is where Sir Walter Raleigh searched for the fabled city of gold called El Dorado and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle set his fantastical novel The Lost World — the story almost writes itself. And while Guyana, a former British colony, is also considered part of the West Indies, there’s not a sandy beach in sight. 

Set back from the mangrove-fringed coastline and over the foothills of the Pacaraima Mountains is the reason people come to Guyana: the rainforest. Here, the trees are so huge it’s no surprise they’re saving the world (exhaling all that oxygen). Flat-topped tepui outcrops rise above the canopy, while down at ground level there are some of the world’s highest waterfalls pummelling into tannin-tinted pools. 

There are all sorts of extraordinary beasts: from the capybara, the world’s largest rodent, to the black caiman, South America’s bigger answer to the alligator. Then there’s the jaguar, the anaconda, the loping giant anteater and also the harpy eagle, which some say are strong enough to carry off children in the clutches of their talons.

The noise of the rainforest is astonishing: the humming rise and fall of cicadas; howler monkeys that echo like the legendary sirens who shipwrecked sailors; and then there are the birds. The tinamou’s haunting whistle clamours against the crass squawk of a pair of mate-for-life macaws; and there’s the cackle of the caracara and the distinctive loopy whoop of the screaming piha. Amid the heavy thud of a rednecked woodpecker — more ‘axe’ than ‘pecker’ — golden-winged parakeets flit like tiny jangling bells. When I come here, to Guyana’s interior, I flop in a hammock shrouded in mosquito netting and lie back to listen to the frantic pulse of forest life before it’s silenced by hard, heavy rain. 

This country is not straightforward to traverse, either by motorised dugout or 4WD on potholed laterite roads. Traffic amounts to a mud-splattered Bedford truck loaded with miners. Tourist numbers are so low they’re barely measured. The few travellers one encounters may be a missionary, a group of NGO workers or perhaps a couple of birdwatchers. In the villages the locals make their living as balata bleeders who collect latex from balata trees; trappers armed with bows and arrows; and pork-knockers, as gold prospectors are called here. 

It is all too fascinating and quirky not to write about. In fact, Song, the protagonist in my novel, tries his luck pork-knocking hoping to strike it rich. When I’m asked how I went about researching a historical novel set 150 years ago, my reply is that I simply booked a trip. The interior today is in many ways the same as it was back then.

The isolation and remoteness has maintained the eccentricity, too. In today’s real-life Guyana I come across characters clamouring to be turned into literature such as a crazed Alabama preacher giving locals cash in exchange for church attendance. Or the inimitable Diane McTurk, born on the banks of the Rupununi 80 years ago and renowned for her work with orphaned giant river otters. She dresses in silk scarves, speaks with a cut-glass English accent and can often be seen crawling into a makeshift burrow to join her pet raccoon. At her home, Karanambu Lodge, we go for a swim together in the river: “Keep moving,” she warns me, “so the piranha don’t nibble your calves.”

But it’s the tiny creatures that cause the most trouble. Kaboura flies. Ticks. Mosquitoes the size of dragonflies. Bêtes rouges that reach the parts other insects cannot reach. Aptly named fire ants. But a trip to Guyana is worth all the scratching, I promise. If only for Kaieteur, a waterfall four times the height of Niagara. From a distance, it roars like an Antonov jet engine. Up close, there are no safety rails, none of the trappings of mass tourism, so you feel as if you’re the first person to stumble upon it. That’s the hallmark of a visit to Guyana: feeling like a pioneer.

Michelle Jana Chan’s debut novel, Song, is published by Unbound. RRP: £18.99 (hardback). michellejanachan.com

Published in the September 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)