Sunday, March 15, 2015

Kasikasima, Biggest of the Big!

Greetings All,
On February 24 we flew from Managua, Nicaragua to Paramaribo, Suriname, a tiny country on the northeastern Atlantic coast of South America.  Here is a map showing the places we'll visit during our 2-week stay:

Map of Suriname Showing the Places We'll Visit

We arrived late at night and thankfully our transfer was waiting to take us to our hotel.  We were surprised to see the city streets crowded with traffic and pedestrians at this late hour.  "Is it always this way?" I asked our driver.  "No," he explained, "tomorrow is a national holiday, Liberation and Renewal Day."  President Desi Bouterse created this holiday 4 years ago to commemorate the coup he staged that brought him to power 31 years ago!  

Paramaribo is the capital and largest city in Suriname with 250,000 inhabitants.  The historic inner city has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2002.  Many of the city's privately-owned wooden buildings dating from Dutch colonial times (1667-1954) have been restored while government-owned buildings have not.  The government of Suriname has received a warning that Paramaribo may lose its World Heritage status so renovation of these buildings has begun.

Colonial Dutch Buildings in Paramaribo

Paramaribo is a multi-ethnic city comprised of East Indians, Maroons, Creoles, Javanese, Chinese and Europeans of Dutch and English descent.  The city has one of the oldest Muslim and Jewish communities in the Western Hemisphere and here a mosque and synagogue peacefully coexist side by side.

Mosque and Synagogue in Paramaribo

Our city tour concluded with a visit to Fort Zeelandia.  The fort was built in 1640 by the French and taken over by the British who called it Fort Willoughby.  In 1667 the Dutch captured the fort and renamed it Fort Zeelandia.

Fort Zeelandia

The next morning we left Paramaribo for the jungle interior of Suriname to climb the mysterious Kasikasima Mountain.   A 75-minute flight in a Caravan brought us to the tiny Amerindian village of Palumeu situated at the confluence of the Palumeu and Upper Tapanahony Rivers.  Around 300 members of the Trio and Wajana tribes eke out a living by fishing, hunting and growing a few crops in rainforest clearings.  We spent out first night at the Palumeu Jungle Lodge in preparation for our trip upriver the next day.

Palumeu Jungle Lodge

Our Kasikasima Expedition Team consisted of Henk, our Maroon trip leader, Roy, a local guide, Jakra, our boatman, Remy, a helper, Toewise, our cook, her son Arien (all from the village of Palumeu) Marc, Michel, a Dutch tourist, and myself.  We loaded all our provisions needed for the next 5 days including food, hammocks, a spare boat motor, fishing gear and even a weed whacker into a motorized dugout canoe.

Packed Up and Ready to Go!

We cruised up the Palumeu River whose banks were lined with rainforest.  At first there were clearings in the forest where the villages have tiny agricultural plots to grow manioc, corn, bananas, pineapple and peanuts.  The soil here isn't very fertile so every few years a new plot has to be cleared and the old one reverts to secondary rainforest.  We stopped at Jakra's farm to pick up a fishing net and continued up river to the Puliowima Rapids.  It's quite exciting motoring up rapids in a fully loaded dugout canoe.  I tried to capture the excitement in this video:

We stopped for lunch at an abandoned fishing village just above the Wejo Rapids.  After lunch we continued our journey not seeing much in the way of wildlife.  Since hunting is prevalent in the area, you have to travel away from the village in order to see animals.  Suddenly Henk shouts "otters on the rock!"  I couldn't believe it there was a family of 5 Giant River Otters sunning themselves on a rock about 100 meters ahead.

Giant River Otters

They let us approach to within 40 meters while craning their necks trying to figure out what we were.  With shrill cries of protest over our intrusion, they slid off the rock and hid behind it.  Giant River Otters are one of the most endangered mammal species in the neotropics.  Habitat degradation and loss are the current greatest threats.  The Guianas are one of the last real stronghold for the species and we were very lucky to see this family.  We soon reached Camp Kamankabari named after the rapids just beyond.  Situated on a tiny island in the river, the camp was a pleasant surprise.  There was a dining/kitchen area with a thatched roof and a hammock house also with a thatched roof.  I was worried about camping in the jungle without any protection from the rain but we would stay quite dry in our hammocks and mosquito nets under a thatched roof.

Camp Kamankabari

Toewise prepared dinner of rice, pork and string beans over a wood fire.  It was a nice evening and we sat and watched a Black Caracara bathe in the river below.

Black Caracara Bathing in the Palumeu River

We turned in early and I struggled to get comfortable in my hammock.  I tried numerous positions but all hurt my back or neck.  After about an hour of frustrating tossing and turning I told Marc "This is ridiculous, I can't spend 12 hours in this contraption!".  So we got up and went to talk to Henk in the dining house.  We managed to stay up until 9:30 and gave the hammocks a second try.  This time I was more tired and actually slept reasonably well with the sounds of the jungle and river lulling me to sleep.

The next morning we repacked the boat and continued up river to the Tronbaka Rapids.  Tronbaka means turn back and for good reason.  There was no way we could motor through these Rapids.  We'd have to portage around.  We unloaded the boat and starting carrying our provisions up a steep slippery hill.  There was a wheelbarrow on top of the hill which we used for the heavier stuff.

Portage Around Tronbaka Rapids

We managed to get all our stuff above the rapids but what about the boat?  Would Jakra be able to get the empty boat through the rapids?  The answer came when Jakra arrived carrying the spare boat motor.  There were two rather decrepit boats on the other side both full of water and on the verge of sinking.

Are These Boats "River Worthy"?

We would use the white and green boat for the remainder of our trip up the river.  Jakra, bailed out the water, pulled off a loose board and attached the motor.  As we loaded our "new" boat it began to rain.  After some refreshing watermelon we were underway.  I spotted a Guianan Red Howler Monkey high up in the forest canopy.  When we stopped to investigate we could see that the Howlers were with some Guiana Spider Monkeys.  Now that we were nearly 75km from Palumeu we were beginning to see more wildlife.

Guianan Red Howler Monkey

Around the next bend the imposing granite knobs of Kasikasima loomed above the river.

First View of Kasikasima

"How on earth are we going to climb that?  I anxiously wondered.  Henk explained that Kasikasima means "biggest of the big" in the local language.  Even though it's only the 12th highest peak in Suriname, it is the highest mountain in this region.   Just beyond, Sawaniboto Camp came into view below a set of raging rapids with the same name.  There was no way around these rapids, this was our final stop on the river.  Sawaniboto Camp is larger than our previous Kamankabari Camp. There was a large hammock house with a wooden floor, a separate dining house, a cook hut and a second hammock house for our crew.

Sawaniboto Camp

Although the upper hammock house was large enough for everyone all the staff except for Jakra chose to sleep in the lower house.  We settled into camp, home for the next 3 nights.  The clouds rolled in early and it started to rain after dinner.  We sought refuge in our hammocks hoping the weather would clear tomorrow for our hike up Kasikasima.

Marc Next to his Mosquito Net Covered Hammock

We convinced Henk to start our hike later in the morning after the rain had cleared.  We set out about 9:45 leaving Toewise, Arien and Remy at camp.  There was a reasonably good trail through primary forest.  We could hear birds and monkeys high in the forest canopy but they were hard to spot.  We clambered over a series of 4 hills often times climbing over fallen trees and crossing tiny creeks on slippery logs. After about 2 hours we arrived at the base of Kasikasima.  We were hoping to get a glimpse of the Guianan Cock of the Rock, a bright orange bird with a half-moon crest but had to settle for hearing it only.  We climbed steeply for about 800 vertical feet reaching a rocky outcrop about 250 feet below the highest summit.

Us on Kasikasima

We could go no higher without doing a technical rock climb.  Henk said that he didn't know of anyone that had reached the actual summit.

Rock Summit of Kasikasima

The view from our vantage point was stunning.  We could see across hundreds of miles of unbroken rainforest to the Brazilian border.

View From Kasikasima

There were no roads, villages or any sign that humans had penetrated this virgin rainforest.  Yet, somehow Remy had crossed this expanse of jungle from Brazil all by himself to settle in Palumeu!  In the distance we could see rain showers but they dissipated before they reached us.  We hung out on the rocks enjoying the view and utter solitude before heading back down.  We reached camp before more rain began to fall.

The next morning Henk, Roy, Marc and I set off around 9:30 for the Koedebakoe Rapids further up river.   We could hear the iconic rainforest calls of the Screaming Piha, a bird more easily heard than seen.  Click on the link below to hear the Screaming Piha.

We reached the Koedebakoe Rapids in an hour and a half and sat on some rocks to take in their awesome power.

Koedebakoe Rapids

Henk led on the way back and stopped abruptly.  I could make out a large shape in the path ahead.  It was a Giant Anteater!  It slipped off into the forest before Marc could get a photo.  A little further down the trail Hank spotted 4 Collared Peccaries!  This time Marc was able to get a photo.

Collared Peccary

Not far from camp we spotted a small troop of Golden-handed Tamarins.  We saw one of these tiny monkeys in Guyana in 2007 but it was a pet.  This was our first sighting of wild Golden-handed Tamarins. " Why would a black monkey evolve to have golden hands?" I wondered.

Golden-handed Tamarin

What a great hike!  We were so lucky to see so many animals including the rarely encountered Giant Anteater.  Later that afternoon we visited the Sawaniboto Rapids just above camp.  The guys never missed an opportunity to fish and joined us with poles in hand.  The clouds held off and we were treated to the light of the full moon reflected in the river.

Moonlight Reflected in the Palumeu River

As I lay in my hammock that night gazing out at the trees bathed in moonlight, I thought about the unbroken rainforest that lay beyond and what creatures may be lurking there.  What a privilege to enter their realm and get a glimpse of some of these elusive inhabitants and to climb the mysterious mountain that reigns over this primeval land!

We hope all is well back home.
Peggy and Marc

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