The red light of sunset hangs in the mist churning out of the thundering rapids. Two tribesmen, the best river runners in their village, steady their motor-dugout for a run upstream into the fury of the monstrous waves. Beyond lies the mystery of the vast, jaguar-haunted Guiana Highlands, but the only way in is on the Kabalebo River, which sits just past these rapids. The Amerindians pick a line and the old outboard screams as the boat shoots into the heart of the rapids. If the canoe happens to turn broadside to the fury of the river, it will be broken up and lost, and we will be left stranded in the Amazon jungle.
Upon my arrival to the capital, Paramaribo, the Minister of Tourism told me “Suriname is very wealthy.” We meet in the shadow of an old Dutch castle with rusting cannons still trained on the Caribbean. Suriname is emerging from a dark era of dictatorship and atrocities, so common in post-colonial nations, but I’ve come here to explore its dramatic potential for adventure. His Excellency, dressed more like a Somali pirate than a diplomat, offers me a glass of rum and smiles, reaffirming that this is an extraordinary country. “In the jungle there is gold and bauxite; many minerals, many opportunities for mining.” The crux of what he is saying is this: Suriname must make its way in the world, either by extraction or appreciation of its only asset, the Amazon jungle.
Old town Paramaribo looks like a film set, and as I walk a dirt road lined with soaring Amazon hardwoods and colonial mansions, I consider my plan. The Minister of Tourism agrees to loan me a Cessna aircraft to explore the country, wanting to prove to the world that Suriname, both a Caribbean and South American nation, is at peace and has much to offer. My journey is taking me deep into the Northern Amazon to stand upon the banks of the storied river, Kabalebo.
“Ready to fly?” my pilot asks early the next morning as I board a small single-prop bush plane. Before I have time to answer, he quickly gets the shuddering craft airborne, and we’re tracing the Caribbean coast toward the mouth of the Kabalebo River, where we will land and refuel. From the air I can see silt dark water lapping at dense mangrove forests, a visual indication why Suriname has never caught on as a beach destination, despite a long Caribbean coastline. I was encouraged though; I wanted jungle adventure, not white sand.
Stepping out of the plane at a riverside airstrip, I’m greeted by Evan, the last Peace Corps volunteer working with the Maroon people.
“They were slaves, and when they escaped, they went into total isolation out in the jungle,” he explains as we step into his little wooden pirogue, a narrow canoe made from the trunk of a tree. Following the abolition of slavery in the 19th century, Dutch colonials brought cheap labourers from Indonesia, India and China. Meanwhile, former African slaves formed what amounted to a nation within a nation. Living in the jungle, they were cut off from the changing language and customs of their homelands. “Their culture is like a time capsule, it hasn’t changed for 200 years,” Evan says.
The people we meet in the village are quiet and show no signs of curiosity as to who we are. “The escaped-slave mentality is still strong,” Evan explains as we walk through the village. Shrines to Obeah sit at corners of dirt lanes and A-frame huts are decorated in a style that Evan says was commonplace in West Africa long ago. “Everything is about survival for them,” he adds. Their garden locations are secret and they keep caches of supplies hidden in the jungle, including machetes, cooking pots and pickaxes. “These are their wealth, their bling-bling.”
I check into a riverside lodge nearby called Pikenslaay, where I fall asleep to the calming and mysterious sounds of the jungle, and awaken to the golden sunrise reflecting on the Kabalebo. The view before me is an almost clichéd picture of a jungle river; a dense canopy hangs over dark, slowly roiling water.
Our next destination is a 300-kilometre plane ride away. My pilot is navigating by map and compass as we trace the looping course of the Kabalebo, sometimes crossing the broad stretches of unbroken jungle. From the aerial view, the jungle looks vast with no sign of humans, yet across the border in Brazil, the very same jungle is quickly disappearing. Technically known as the Guianan Moist Forests, the terrain we are venturing into is known as one of the largest intact tropical rainforests in the world, stretching from Venezuela in the west to the Atlantic coast in French Guiana. My thoughts drift back to the tourism official I’d met in Paramaribo and his unconcealed pro-industry attitude. If Suriname is to save its wild places, it will have to be done with tourist dollars.
Suddenly, the pilot pulls back the controls, jams the throttle and the plane shudders as it angles away from the grassy airstrip below, and narrowly clears the jungle canopy. It banks steeply, and as he wipes his forehead and pulls off his radio headset, the pilot says “On the runway… big anaconda.” Our welcoming party to Nature Resort Kabalebo, a rough collection of buildings and grass huts set on a short runway cut out of the jungle. This is the most remote settlement in Suriname.
“Welcome to the jungle!” a bare-chested, barefooted man shouts, happily swinging a machete as he walks towards the plane. “I’m Jerry, your guide,” he says in a strong Dutch accent. He explains that come afternoon, we will be travelling upriver in a boat, into a part of the Amazon that is untouched by man. “No place you can go is more wild.”
Jerry, a zealous fisherman, suggests a walk to the river to cool off. As I glide through the water, he pulls a big silver fish from it. I ask what type of fish he’s catching, to which he emphatically replies, “Piranha.”
“How dangerous are piranhas?” I ask, quickly kicking toward the shore. He takes a moment to think before he responds; “This time of year, if you aren’t already bleeding, they shouldn’t attack you.
“If you go in any of these villages, you’ll find people missing toes or fingers. Just don’t go swimming naked and you’ll be fine.”
On the walk to the resort’s nearby village, I learn that we will be travelling upriver in a motorised dugout with two of Jerry’s best boatmen. We are entering wild territory here with just the slight possibility of running into some small nomadic Indian groups, although unlikely given the remoteness of the area. It seems Jerry is more concerned about the illegal gold miners who have begun to rush in from Brazil and wreak havoc on the environment.
The village of thatch-roofed huts is small and smoky. Amazonian natives lounge around in loincloths and donated clothing, drinking warm cassava beer brewed in clay pots. “The women chew the cassava,” Jerry says, handing me a bowl of beer made from the fermented remains. I try not to think about the information he has just passed on to me as I take a sip.
Once a year, the village men make the trek to the coast to sell cotton, which is their only cash crop. The rest of the year, the village lives on starchy cassava, fish from the river and animals hunted in the forest. Despite understanding the modern world, and valuing manufactured items, they don’t like the city and distrust people from it, and even those who move to the city eventually come back to the village, Jerry explains.
As our vessel’s engine starts and we begin speeding up the river, Jerry yells over the drone of the outboard, “These guys know every rock and every fallen tree under the water.” The settlement is barely out of sight when I see my first caiman, a small alligator half-submerged and poised on a rock. A short ride upriver, we surprise a group of capybara, large rodents which can dive underwater for several minutes. One has long, slashing wounds running down its back. “Jaguar,” Jerry confirms. “There are many animals here because there are no people.”
Our aim is to travel as far into the Amazon as possible, but for tonight we’re staying at Uncle Piet’s Lodge. Our dugout glides onto a sandbar just as the sun is setting, casting its shadow over the raw wooden stilt house on the riverbank. “Welcome to Uncle Piet’s Lodge,” Jerry smiles. “The most peaceful place in the world.”
It takes no time for Jerry to bait his hook with some of the piranha he caught earlier and he begins fishing in the growing darkness. Behind us, a small generator kicks on and the house lights up. Over a fire, cassava bread is warmed and a bottle of rum is passed around as we sit with the locals. It’s the first time I’ve heard them speak and within minutes, Jerry walks out of the gloom with a monstrous fish.
“The jungle gives.”
I roll out of my hammock in the darkness. Scarlet macaws are screeching raucously nearby and monkeys forage in the treetops on the far bank. Jerry is already awake and brewing coffee over a small fire. We are leaving early to reach our campsite, water levels permitting.
Our hopes are high and we spend the day poking our canoe into tributary streams, swimming and fishing. Following a set of jaguar tracks from the riverbank into the jungle, I realise why early European explorers lamented the density of the “Green Hell” where a day’s travel is often limited to a single kilometre.
Sharp, spined hanging vines tear at my clothes as thick undergrowth and sucking mud entangle my feet. Cicadas call out as loud as fire alarms and every surface is covered in insects, but it’s Jerry’s snake warning I’m most worried about. He tells me there are species in the jungle with a bite that will kill me.
Despite this fear dwelling inside me, it’s hard not to marvel at the spirit of the Amazon. It’s full of life; monkeys make treetops their endless playground, capybara play their roles as the socialites of the jungle and jaguars stealthily crawl through the thick vegetation, each animal gliding through this hot gloom with a grace and ease I can’t imitate. This corner of the Amazon seems like one of the most deadly places on the planet, and yet, the natives consider this very same jungle home and thrive in its chaos.
I wonder to myself if it’s merely a change in perspective which will allow me to experience the jungle more as a friend than an adversary.
It takes us most of the day to reach the boat-destroying rapids, and after each attempt to make it through, we find ourselves courting disaster. I make my way upstream through the dense jungle to get a better look and realise the water is too low to make it over the rocks and the dugout is too heavy to portage around them. Jerry finally shakes his head and calls the attempt off. “It’s too dangerous, you don’t want to spend the night out here,” he said. He was right, I didn’t.
This is as far upriver as we can go. I am content with what I’ve seen. I take a moment to savour my last moments in the wildest place I have ever visited, and despite the urge to continue deeper into the jungle’s depths, I still have a couple of days to spend at the lodge. I sneak up on hiding caimans, fish for monsters of the river depths, search for glimpses of giant anacondas and jaguars tracks lacing the riverbanks.
As we silently drift back toward the airstrip, watching scarlet macaws browse the canopy, I wonder if more people were to come and experience this untouched aspect of the Amazon, would there be more incentive to preserve it? But for a country still recovering from a troubled past, is the wild expanse of rainforest worth more in tourist dollars than the gold which may lie beneath it? I certainly think so.
Before venturing into the jungle, relax in luxury at the Royal Torarica, considered Suriname’s finest luxury hotel. On the bank of the Suriname River, the Torarica offers easy access to Old Town Paramaribo. Walk to historic Fort Zeelandia and grab an Indian or Indonesian curry at the riverfront marketplace before strolling the shade tree-lined dirt streets to see colonial-era mansions. Two nights will cost about US$237.
The Tourism Foundation of Suriname website has all your questions on culture, nature and heritage covered, including information on trips to native and Maroon villages, stays at less remote jungle lodges, contacts for tour operators and necessary information regarding health and safety and visa requirements.