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Suriname: an eco-adventure spot
“Harpy eagle!” The shout rung out from the Amerindian guide David, a minute after the dugout canoe shot over the rapids midway along the Palumeu River in Suriname. David pointed left from the boat’s bow, rocking in the wave-capped water. “Turn, turn (back)!” cried tour guide Sean Dilrosun. The motorised canoe glided around and held position close to a rock.
Luckily, it was a large enough rock to accommodate Dilrosun’s birdwatching tripod lens, as well as the T&T avian enthusiasts, who had clambered out the boat to try and glimpse the harpy. And there it was: the world’s strongest eagle, a majestic grey-and-white plumed predator, perched on a branch, well camouflaged by rainforest.
It was eating a snatched howler monkey, unaware of the gawking Trinis standing on a rock amid the river rapids marvelling at its Sunday morning breakfast. Harpy-spotting was one of several firsts for members of the group, which Mets Travel and Suriname Airways introduced to the former Dutch colony and a segment of its Amazon rainforest over June 7 to 12.
For veteran naturalist Courtenay Rooks, Suriname offered a smorgasbord of winged subjects and happy closure after years of yearning, particularly to see a harpy eagle. Canada-born Saleem Kahn who’d travelled the world and camped in the Himalayas, saw his first sloth atop a skyscraper-tall tree.
Businessman ornithologist Gerard Ramsawack fulfilled his lifelong ambition to see Suriname’s biggest woodpecker, an orange crested. And for Dutch citizens—Karel and son Robbie, Kelly and spouse Rene—visiting Suriname also meant getting to learn about T&T by meeting the Trini posse.
After 300 years of Dutch rule, 37 years of independence and assorted political issues, which have come full circle over the ’80s to date, Suriname is in outreach, opening up its natural wonders. The country is well known for its rich history and diverse population, from its indigenous peoples—Amerindian tribes and descendants of runaway slaves known as Maroons—to its Dutch, Javanese and Indian communities and resultant exotic mixtures.
The latest addition to the capital, Paramaribo, is an influx of Chinese in construction and via Chinese-operated businesses. The city alongside the wide Paramaribo River is laid out in similar wide boulevards as Guyana’s Georgetown. It, however, shows signs of more recent development, with increased businesses—a plus for Suriname’s tourism thrust.
Large casinos, including a branch of T&T’s Mau Pau, feature on its main street, which boasts goods from nearby Brazil. Paramaribo’s architecture, listed among Unesco’s World Heritage historical monuments, shows its Dutch roots in wooden white and green buildings and forts.
Its cathedral, St Paul’s, is attempting to best Georgetown’s cathedral as the world’s largest wooden structure. A Jewish synagogue stands alongside a Muslim mosque in one area and another district features a huge ornate wedding-cake-style Hindu temple.
However, Suriname’s allure—and its core tourism potential—resides in the beauty of its interior Amazon rainforest, covering 75 per cent of the landspace. A birdwatcher’s paradise, Suriname boasts over 730 types, including 24 parrot species. Palumeu Jungle Lodge, where over 400 species of birds are found, is one of three Mets Travel’s sustainable tourism projects.
The company employs indigenous peoples and part proceeds of each tour funds the Amerindian or Maroon villages where Mets’ lodges are based. This assists communities to develop schools and other facilities. In the heart of Suriname’s interior, the Palumeu lodge is closer to Brazil’s border than Paramaribo and revolves around an 200-strong Amerindian community of Trio and Wajana tribes.
An hour’s flying in a 12-seater airplane, over masses of jungle, accesses Palumeu’s dirt landing strip. The land en route features small settlements along winding rivers, stretches of red bauxite sand roads, bald outcrops from gold-mining projects and the odd patchy areas where logging has denuded the jungle.
Palumeu, however, the ultimate eco-destination for weekend warriors. The Amerindian hosts, while private and camera-shy, are a tightly-knit community that lives off the land. Men are proficient weavers, as well as hunters and fishermen. Cassava, a daily dietary staple, is prepared the old-fashioned way—squeezed through a large woven sieve. But they also do chicken to T&T curry and stew standards and are as successful with roti as they are with croissants.
Untamed jungle and “soft” river water are part of the allure. But moreover, Palumeu is naturally appointed for adventure. Kayaking, shooting the rapids on dugout canoes, river floating, jungle hiking, night boating and rock climbing are all easily packed into a four-day stay. Trees reach gigantic proportions stretching through the jungle for sunlight and a painter’s palette of huge butterflies abound.
Skins shed by (clearly large) snakes hang over river bank branches.
Jungle hiking last Saturday, the group eyeballed a fer-de-lance that crossed their path.
“That’s how you can die in the jungle,” said guide Dilrosun, after Amerindian senior guide David stopped cold on spotting the small leaf-coloured snake. (If it was a baby, no one had any interest in meeting mama.)
Animals can be heard heard—and smelt—in the jungle. Birds reply to whistles and calls. In the water, caimans’ eyes shine orange-red in the Pauleu night and a torch can attract a gazillion insects to the light.
The 21st century has, however, caught up with the Amazon rainforest.
Palumeu’s Amerindian kids are as proficient with BlackBerrys (not the fruit) as a bow and arrow.
Church is held five days a week, save Wednesdays and Saturdays—hunting days.
Jeans and Betty Boop T-shirts have replaced loincloths and bare breasts, and village youths are en pointe with the latest fashion and hairstyles.
But the communities appear to have learned balance and their traditional ways will hopefully survive the BBM age.
Mets’ guide Sean Dilrosun, a walking encyclopaedia of forest facts and wildlife lore, will be among the next wave of Suriname’s “ambassadors,” if the country’s tourism thrust cracks the market with eco-destinations like Palumeu.
For now Suriname’s doors have been flung open.
Tomorrow: Suriname’s government and T&T links.
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