Into the Jungles of Surinam with Tony Henneberg
Perhaps canoeing with my 68-year-old mother through an almost uninhabited part of South America was not the most responsible thing to do. However, she felt the trip would make a pleasant change from the misery of Zimbabwe and the gray dampness of England. Very well, but I hadn’t counted on her actually being in the boat. “You do realize that if you get hurt, you could be in pain for days?” She said she didn’t care, so I bought a 16-foot inflatable canoe we could paddle together.
Spondias mombin. The Latin sounds so much better than “Mope.” “When you are on the river, look for a big tree with little orange fruit. That’s Mope, and you’ll be able to smell it. You can watch Tapirs and other wildlife come to eat the fallen fruit.” I was also told that the river was so high it would be difficult to catch fish, find camping spots, or run some of the rapids we would encounter. But it was the season for Mope. Some consolation.
“I heard they have found Cock-of-the-Rock at Temper Falls. When you reach Kayser, ask them how to get to the ‘lek.’” Real consolation. Mom, meanwhile, was looking forward to catching Piranha and exercising her culinary talents on these toothy delicacies.
Our small plane bounced into Kayserberg, where forested hills surround the airstrip with the Zuid River at one end. Mr. Winter, the caretaker, who spoke no English, hauled our gear down to the riverbank with an old Ferguson tractor. We opted to spend the night rather than looking for a campsite with the few hours of daylight remaining.
It’s hard to top morning coffee to the roar of distant Howler Monkeys and the symphony of bird sounds. A troop of Squirrel Monkeys stopped by to eat dark berries in the surrounding trees. Red-Fan Parrots ambled through the branches across the river, while Caciques, Tanagers, parrots and macaws added their voices to the cacophony. We crammed the boat with everything that we needed, thought we needed, or were told we might need. It was too much. For just two of us, we had three folding chairs.
Mr. Winter drew a crude map in the sand with a box indicating “Sula,” the waterfall; a line below the rapid for “Kamp” (which had washed away); a squiggle for the “Kreek,” (hidden by vines); and a curved line ending in a dot: “Oroekoekoe,” or Cock-of-the-Rock. With luck I would get to see some of these outrageous orange birds. We were told the rapids at Temper Falls were too dangerous to run, but the area was very good for Okopipi (Poison Dart Frogs).
We set off into the current. Whenever the river was lazy, we floated along, watching wheeling King Vultures, or Green Ibis cackling away in trees along the river. A Tiger Heron posed before scuttling away into the tangled growth. Iguanas splashed into the water as we approached. We could see and hear Capuchin Monkeys, Squirrel Monkeys and Spider Monkeys, although in the heat of the day, the Howlers kept quiet. Giant Otters were a daily sight; some were shy and others curious. As we rounded one bend in the river, huge trees erupted with squawking Blue and Yellow macaws.
For campsites we tried to find flat rocks by the bank with sturdy trees for the hammocks. It was almost dark one evening when, out of desperation, we camped on a sandy bank along a game trail. Before long a Tapir crashed into the water close to the boat. After dinner we would stay up for a while, Mom with tea and me with rum, listening to the night sounds. A pair of Goliath Tree Frogs came to a rock pool near my seat one evening, and by morning the pool was covered with a raft of perfectly spaced eggs. Another morning, just as we pulled away, Mom noticed a brilliant Emerald Tree Boa coiled around a branch.
Temper Falls, the point of no return. We unloaded the boat and found the trailhead. After several trips to hack a way through the spiky palms, vines and fallen branches, we hauled our gear down to the beach below the falls. Even dripping with sweat, and longing for a cold beer, I enjoyed seeing the Okopipi along the trail, although I missed some good photographs by wielding a machete instead of a camera.
The next problem was the boat. I planned to ease it down, run the first set of rapids, paddle hard for a flat rock and stop before plunging over the falls to disaster. I would use the bow and stern lines to maneuver the boat past the rocks. All went according to plan until the nose of the boat got stuck under a boulder. I scrambled up the rock, skidded down the other side, undid the bowline, freed the boat and promptly fell into the water. I managed to pull myself into the boat and head to the beach for a drink and to examine my scrapes.
We decided to sleep on the sand, and, of course, it poured rain. The river rose almost three feet during the night, so the crossing required some effort. After making our way up the hill, past the rock face, over a fallen tree, between the spiky palms, we came upon two large Oroekoekoe. They were perched in branches above the lek—patches of bare earth where they would dance to entice females. As we watched, two females appeared, calling loudly, but the males seemed too aware of us to dance. Still, we were lucky to see these magnificent birds native to Suriname.
Soon after leaving Temper Falls, the river presented us with some tricky rapids. The last appeared to be a drop into calm water below, but as we approached, we saw several large rocks that couldn’t be avoided. We were in for a bruising and loss of gear at the very least. Luckily, once again the boat stuck on a rock just before the nose went over the drop. “Put your life jacket on and get out of the boat. Carefully. Take the bowline with you.” Mom got out, found her footing and managed to secure the line around a tree. I prayed the boat wouldn’t float free before I got out with the cameras. I had violated a basic rule: scout any rapid that you can’t see.
A Harpy Eagle flapped languidly across the river and perched for photos, but fish were still refusing to bite. One night we camped on an island where Mom’s flashlight revealed schools of small fish in the shallows. Taking care to avoid freshwater stingrays, I took the machete and flashlight and successfully cleaved a few little fish. Although they would make excellent bait, this was the most unsporting act of my sporting life.
The next morning we parked the boat against two closely spaced rocks, baited a large hook with an aromatic half-fish and dropped it into the current. One minute, one huge Piranha. For good measure we slung the hook back into the water and came up with another smaller fish. A few miles further along we found a small island with a good landing spot where we cooked our catch. The fish was delicious, and the heads and fins would make good bait.
We stopped at an island in a set of rapids. It was threatening to rain, so we decided to make camp, and as soon as I had strung one hammock, it poured. All the clothing we had been trying to dry out was soaked again, so we consoled ourselves with a little fishing. Mom caught the biggest Piranha I have ever seen.
A Piping Guan, almost the size of a turkey, flew overhead. Mom explored the vegetation and emerged with a sprig, asking what the black things were that ringed the edges of the leaves. They were the dead ants with fungal “horns” we had seen on television. Terrestrial ants breathe in fungal spores, which reconfigures their brain circuitry; they climb trees, clamp onto a leaf and die, leaving the fungus to send out its fruiting body and start the cycle again.
Finally we smoked our last two cigarettes. Rum was running low—five bottles is not nearly enough for a ten-day paddle. Fortunately, according to the GPS, we were almost in the Corentyne River. We had seen no Spondias mombin, and Jaguars had eluded us, too. Ahead of us were signs of human habitation. After ten days we had run out of river.
My friend Winston had said, “Go to the village and ask for Kapitaine Papu, he wears glasses and is a nice chap. Ask him to take you up to Arapahu, or at least as far as Amotopo, and my guys can come to pick you up.” As advertised, Kapitaine Papu was very pleasant. With gold teeth flashing, he agreed to take us up to Arapahu. We headed upstream through a soaking rainstorm. After a few miles, Kapitaine Papu pointed to a large tree with clusters of orange fruit and said, “Mope.” Better late than not at all.
We spent a week at Winston’s rustic little resort at Arapahu Island, with Ronald the caretaker, Danny the Trio kid and a Cattle Egret who followed us everywhere. I had cold beer and rum, so I was happy. Mom had habaneras, papayas and a firm bed, so she was happy.
Ronald was delighted to have someone other than “the Indian Boy” to speak to. He talked about women, the Surinamese, Americans, Chinese and Amerindians; it was hard to convince him that not all Americans were as addled as Whitney Houston, and that pigeonholing peoples was a tricky business. But he knew plenty about the jungle. As we sat on the deck late one evening, a distinctive, musty smell wafted over us. “Boofalo,” he said, meaning Tapir.
Our first attempt to leave was aborted because of a plane mishap, so we returned to the island from the airstrip. As we pulled in, the egret flew over and landed on our dugout. Early the next morning, I took the bird for a final stroll through the grass so it could murder grasshoppers and lizards. It followed us down to the dugout and for a few moments sat on some rocks as we pulled away. We were sad to leave this enchanting creature when suddenly it flew to the boat and landed just in front of me in the bow, where it remained for the 40-minute ride to Amotopo. Ronald suggested that we catch and box it because the Trio kids or village dogs at Amotopo might kill it. I managed to get a grip on its legs and, with it pecking and protesting, boxed up the bird for its return to Arapahu. A few days later, we learned that it was still following Ronald and Danny around.