GEORGETOWN, Guyana -- In the remote jungle interior of Guyana, Amerindian guide Cassius Williams employs a traditional method of communication to inform the village he's on his way home.
Scouring the forest floor, he finds a block of wood, which he knocks against the trunk of a large Mora tree, producing a loud reverberating tone that can be heard, apparently, back at the Atta Rainforest Lodge where we're staying, another 20 minute walk from here.
"That's to let them know we're on our way and they can start making dinner now," Williams says.
Who needs a cell phone? Certainly not the Makushi, one of nine Amerindian tribes who have inhabited Guyana's rainforest for thousands of years without modern conveniences. These days, some of them operate small-scale lodges and act as guides to the trickle of visitors interested in off-the-beaten-track experiences.
And there's a lot to explore in this country, which is 80% forest and home to some of the world's rarest and largest animals from the giant otter -- first documented in the North Rapununi in 1988 -- to the world's largest caiman (black Caiman, a carnivorous crocodilian reptile), and the largest scaled freshwater fish (arapaima) which can grow to 1.8-metres-long and weigh over 272 kilos.
Near the lodge, trails wind past trees including the poisonous Aromata and the endemic Greenheart -- a highly valued tropical hardwood, while the 154-metre-long Iwokrama Canopy Walkway, offers a chance to see howler monkeys, toucans and scarlet macaws up close. But the most distinctive and incessant sound I hear all day comes from the Screaming Piha, a bird that favours virgin forest and whose presence indicates a healthy ecosystem.
Our three-day trip with Wilderness Explorers includes visits to four lodges in a variety of landscapes: Mountains, rainforest and savannah, while travelling on a small plane, 4WD vehicle and motor boat to access seldom visited locales.
The Guiana Shield is one of the last four pristine tropical forests in the world. Its chance of survival got a major boost in 1989 when the Guyana government made an offer of conservable rainforest to the international community during the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Malaysia. Since then (in 1996), it established the Iwokrama International Centre for Rainforest Conservation and Development to "promote the conservation and the sustainable and equitable use of tropical rainforests in a manner that will lead to lasting ecological, economic and social benefits to the people of Guyana and to the world in general."
Ecotourism, though still operating on a very small scale here, has been one of the many positive results. At the Iwokrama River Lodge, which runs on solar power, collects rainwater for drinking and bathing, and grows its own produce, we meet scientists working at the international environmental research centre. One resident scientist tells us the area of rainforest that is being sustainably logged actually sees an increase in the number frogs, which are attracted by the puddles created in the tire tracks of logging trucks.
The lodge is in a picturesque spot. Eight cabins line the Essequibo River, Guyana's longest at 1,010 km, and home to several caiman including a three-legged critter, a regular visitor who I spot near the water's edge. There are lots of potentially dangerous plants and animals in the forest, but oddly the ones that startle me the most are the frogs. I hear their loud croaking but don't expect them to jump out at me one by one from the bushes when I return from a hike one night.
A few hours later, on a nocturnal boat ride, we watch our guide shine a flashlight on a possum, several young caiman, and a boa constrictor wrapped around a tree branch.
While strenuous hikes aren't necessary to see wildlife, waking up early is crucial. Departing at 5:30 the next morning for a boat trip around Indian House Island and beyond, proves rewarding (though some wondered if we had left too late) with plenty of bird life including toucans, a gray hawk, a kingfisher, and red and green macaws.
Visitors can also climb up 360-metre-high Turtle Mountain or take a short jaunt to the 6,000 year-old petroglyphs and Fairview village.
Like Africa with its Big 5 (the five animals that visitors aim to see on safari), Guyana has its own Big 5 (jaguar, giant river otter, giant anteater, black caiman and harpy eagle). The jaguar, South America's largest cat, is normally elusive, but nearly every local I meet has seen one. In fact Guyana is considered one of the best places in the world to spot the animal in the wild. Though we don't see the cat, I now have a list of reliable jaguar "hot spots" to check on a return visit.
Luckily, the Harpy Eagle -- the largest and most powerful raptor in the Americas -- isn't as elusive this day. Two appear in a treetop during a midday boat excursion.
"So many people come to look for it and never see it," explains our guide Bernard Williams who is beaming with excitement.
By day three I'm used to the bumpy roads as we set out for our last destination -- Surama, an Amerindian village on the savannah surrounded by the forested Pakaraima Mountains. The drives are a great opportunity for wildlife spotting (we marvel at the abundance of Blue Morpho butterflies and stop or slow at various times to allow a snake, a turtle, a lizard and an agouti to cross safely).
The trips also offer a chance to learn about the area from our local drivers, one of whom helped build this road and described the incredible feat first-hand. Another reminds me it was the Makushi who gave the world the invaluable "curare" -- one of the most widely used sources of muscle relaxants. And of course all have captivating animal tales.
My own wildlife encounters so far had been relatively tame, that is until a hike at Surama, where a dozen or so monkeys, annoyed by our sudden (albeit innocent) appearance began screaming -- either at us or as warnings to each other -- we couldn't be sure. Soon the critters were hurling branches down on us, and getting a photo became a challenge as my eyeglasses fogged up from the humidity. Ouch! Not exactly friendly, but it beats an encounter with the world's largest pit viper, the venomous Bushmaster, which also inhabits Guyana's forests.
I returned home after three days in the bush with the symptoms of culture shock and two souvenirs made from materials found in the rainforest. One is an ingenious item called a matape, used for straining cassava juice (which will hang on a wall), and the other is a carving of the world's largest rodent -- Guyana's capybara. I didn't see the real thing, but I now have a peculiar representation of it. It's made from balata, a latex that comes from the bulletwood tree. A few examples, I guess, of how you can use the forest, not lose it.