I have recently returned from collecting plants in Guyana in South America for the new Amazon Waterlily Pavilion. Despite Adelaide’s longstanding botanical links, this breath-taking region is almost entirely unknown to most South Australians. Both DFAT and the Lonely Planet are unenthusiastic about Guyana. As well, there are precious few Guyanese tourism operators – and, as we know, these are the people who market destinations. ‘The result is that the Gardens finds it quite a challenge to fill the available public places on these expeditions.
In fact Guyana’s rainforests are comparable with those of the Amazon and Congo Basins, and of New Guinea, as the last great rainforests on Earth. For anyone with their eyes open to natural history the experience of Guyana is sublime.
Of course we did see vampire bats, electric eels, caiman, freshwater stingrays, piranha, labaria and scorpions. These were rather more interesting than hazardous, although one of our party did stand on a labaria, and another only found the large scorpion in her pants after she had pulled them on and been subjected to a few painful stings. The good sense of sleeping in a hammock cocooned in a mosquito-net in these conditions is apparent. Once you get the hang of it, so to speak, it is surprisingly comfortable.
On this expedition I flew for the first time to Kaieteur Falls on the Potaro River. The falls are the feature of Guyana’s earliest national park and, at 822 feet are five times the height of Niagara Falls. While the White-chimed and White-collared Swifts that nest behind the falls, and the gorgeous orange Guiana Cock-of-the-Rock, proved that even botanists can be seduced by birds, the botanical highlights are astonishing.
Kaieteur is the home of Brocchinia micrantha, at 3.5 metres amongst the largest of the tank bromeliads. B. micmntha is so large that the golden dart-poison frog lives only in its tanks. Its tanks also commonly provide a growing site for Utricularia humboldtii, which is a carnivorous bladderwort with the largest flowers and traps of any of the bladderworts. Curious to observe a carnivorous plant living in the tanks of a bromeliad that’s also looking for nutrients from leaf litter and stray insects.
Sticking with the theme, another highlight was Heliamphom nutans, a terrestrial carnivorous pitcher resembling a yellow bromeliad. Both these carnivores were first collected by Schomburgk at Mount Roraima on the Guyana-Venezuela border in the 1830s. The plateau from which the falls drop from is one of the tepuis, the ancient and enormous mesas that extend into Brazil and Venezuela – the lost worlds of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The local name, tepui, means house of the gods – not a surprising name for these often sheer-walled formations that can rise up to 1,000 metres above the forest floor.
From Kaieteur Falls we flew to Lethem, a village close to the Brazilian border, and set out immediately for Schomburgk Peak near the Amerindian village of St Ignatius on the edge of the Kanuku Mountains – a long day, finishing with a long climb to a camp near the base of the peak itself. After Schomburgk Peak we had a memorable drive to Dadanawa Ranch. This was the starting point for the real expedition into the heart of the Kanukus down the Rupununi River to Sand Creek and Maparri Creek. Here we entered massive Mora dominated rainforest – huge buttressed trunks surrounded by characteristic rainforest lifeforms largely unvisited by botanists, tourists, miners or even Amerindians.
A small cassava plantation in the rainforest near Crabwood Creek, an outpost of the Sand Creek community, allowed us to see a range of Heliconia and Costus species. Indeed, for showy and botanically bizarre plants this camp was exceptional. However, we joined up with a sad story we’d heard in Georgetown of a local five-year-old girl who had disappeared. The version which reached Georgetown was that she had been taken by a jaguar. The truth was probably sadder, and for us it resonated with Australia’s early colonisation. The little girl had wandered off from collecting palm fronds and couldn’t be tracked as a result of heavy rain.
Our final destination was Karanambu Ranch, the most amazing site for Victoria amazonica, and the source of the seed for the Gardens’ new Amazon Waterlily Pavilion. It is necessary for us to refresh our seed-stock from time to time, because in-breeding of cultivated Victoria amazonica rapidly results in diminutive rather than Giant Amazon Waterlilies. The Government of Guyana has generously provided access to the Victoria seed, reflecting the special relationship between South Australia and Guyana as a result of our common colonial heritage and the importance of Richard Schomburgk’s achievements on both continents. Richard, the second director of Adelaide Botanic Gardens,and his brother Sir Robert undertook the early natural history and ethnogical explorations of Guyana, as well as surveying Guyana’s boundaries.
The relationship is an important one in the context of Australia’s commitments under the Convention on Biological Diversity that expects us to give something back to the countries of origin of plant material. We owe Guyana for Victoria amazonica that we’ve enjoyed in Adelaide since 1868. Interestingly, we also owe Guyana for food (pineapples were apparently introduced to commerce from Guyana), for ornamentals – many Caladium and Calathea – and for medicines. Curare, which provided the foundation for modern anaesthesiology, is derived from the vine Strychnos taxifera which was, like the giant water lily, first collected by Schomburgk.
If you are now interested in braving the sometimes challenging fauna to see some of all the at firsthand, Wilderness Explorers is a Guyanan nature-based tourism operator whose founder now lives in Melbourne.
The regenerated 1868 Amazon Waterlily Pavilion and an exhibition in the Museum of Economic Botany exploring the connections between Guyana, Richard Schomburgk and Victoria amazonica were launched by the Premier in Adelaide Botanic Gardens on Wednesday November 7.
Originally published in The Adelaide Review on 9 November 2007.