The morning was spent asking around the 3 Lethem shops for a phone card in an attempt to cancel my lost bank card. Ian & Sarah made last minute preparations for our journey. We pop into a house in Lethem to pick up Charlo and Collette, the owners of the Happy Days Ranch we're about to stay at. Come midday we're ready to embark on our 4 hour 4x4 ride. En route Charlo points out some of the more common smuggler tracks to Brazil. Most of our route is chosen to coincide with some natural shallow river crossings. We stop for lunch at an idyllic stream setting where Charlo says he was born and we have us a little swim.
We cross a river, sorry, drive through a river, and discover a puncture on climbing out on the other side. No big deal, we have 2 spare wheels! Only a pin snaps in the jack, jamming it open, leaving the 4x4 stranded in the air. I suggest we could reverse the 4x4 or knock the jack out with a hammer but there could be safety issues involved. Ian retorts, "Fuck safety, this is Guyana!", reverses the 4x4, releases the jack and we're on our way!
The ranch is amazing - only one walled building (with 2 rooms, a bed room and a kitchen) a couple of visitor huts, a working well and a real corral complete with cows! It has no generator and no electricity - only a bottle gas stove brings the ranch into the 20th Century.
It transpires that Charlo is an leatherman expert. He hand makes all the Bushmasters machete sheaves, saddles, raw hide lassos and bull whips and has a back log of orders from Cowboys all across the Rupununi. He owns all he land as far as the eye can see in all directions. There is also gold in them there mountains and the evening is spent pouring over tales of gold panning and gold lumps so big you need a hacksaw to break it up and drag it home!
I'm looking forward to spending a few days out of my boots because for the past week I've not had any feeling in the ends of my big toes!
Wake up, have breakfast, grab a raw hide lasso and after a couple of failed attempts on the training post it's straight into the corral to do it for real!
The Cowboy day is as follows; Let the calves be with their Mum for a small feed to get the cows all juicy like, then you milk the cows. You then lasso the calves and tie them to the corral for the day whilst the cows go out grazing. This is to get the calves used to being in the corral. Come evening let the calves feed again once the cows are back before lassoing them again so they may roam and graze during the night. They aren't going to stray far from their Mum.
It's great fun trying to lasso a moving mooing target. I didn't get one straight off but Ian got a couple round the back legs and I then got the head - Tag team! I never thought I'd be doing bare foot either! Then I got a big bull by mistake and the others made me ride him! Luckily he was tame and didn't try too hard to damage me!
Lunch and then off with Collette and her Farther (Paula) to go net fishing in the creeks. We grab a bicycle each and head off. The bike ride is really difficult on the Savannah because you're following these little ruts / tracks which are often sandy and are a Bitch to correct when you veer off course even slightly. Collette look the rear and basically laughed at me all the way there and all the way back ! We found these isolated pools of water from a drying up stream and strung a fishing / tennis net across the middle to catch fish. We then went in with casting nets to get the rest; think spider webs with lead weights around the circumference. These things are seriously heavy and I was impressed by Paula's ability to fling it out far with just the flick of his wrist.
Back at the ranch and it's time for a round up. Some cattle have strayed and need to be brought back. I'm given a horse, Rambo! It only has one ear, it lost the other fighting! I also get a Jaguar skin saddle, ye hah! So Francis (a Vaquero), Ian and I ride out. Bear in mind I think I was 12 when I last sat on a horse, and then it just ambled along. When it looks like I'm comfortable we try a trot. Ouch. All of a sudden my balls and tackle are being slapped up into cavities I'm not supposed to have. Once I've re-arranged myself we try a quick gallop - yeah! Wow! Another hours ride and we find the cattle. We radio in and are told in no uncertain terms, "Round em up Cowboys!" So we do. The 3 of us split up, keep the cattle hemmed in and drive them back to the ranch, culminating in a full gallop for a good part of the way. We drive them straight into the corral. It's a beautiful feeling! You've just brought all this cattle in from the fields on horseback!
Work isn't over yet. We tend to our steeds, grab some lassos and head back to the corral to put those calves out for the night. I get my first calf in a head shot. Awesome!
Next it's time for a bathe in a beautiful scenic river spot just down the way and back to the ranch for dinner. It's Chicken curry, outdoors in the light of a full moon. I'm telling ya, days just don't get any better than this!
At 5:30 am I'm up with the cock crowing (no, not mine) and the dogs barking (no, not mine either) to milk some cows. Mikly milky! I never knew you could get so much out of a single cow! (And no, I'm not talking about her either!) There's a definite knack to it and for best results you're not to be shy either! The cow doesn't mind how hard you squeeze!
All the Amerindians strongly believe in little people, some good, most bad; mean little f*ckers with an attitude - think Child's Play. Paula and Zeta (Colette's Mum and Dad) are convinced they're around the ranch at night, which is why the dogs have been acting strange. It's an interesting topic for breakfast.
There's a rumour that some of Charlos cattle have been spotted in the next mountain over so Alfredo, Francis and Henry (the real Vaqueros on the ranch) saddle up and head out. They could be gone a day or two. That leaves Charlo, Ian and I to round up the Calves. I hooked a big one and they made me ride him - he's wild, he's furious and I'm thrown to the ground real quick with a hefty thump. Mental note: Arse pads required! I then hook a real large bull by mistake and it becomes a behemoth effort for us to tie him up and ground him so we can take the lasso off. He's big, he's strong, he's a fighter, it took ½ hour but net result:
Cowboys - 1 :: Big Bad Bull - 0
I'm hot, thirsty and covered in cow shit so it's off to the creek for a swim and wash in the midday sun.
After a pepper pot lunch Ian and I make a horse hobbler each under Charlo's supervision. This is an open ranch, it has no fences (except for the corral) meaning at any one time (e.g. during dinner) you can be surrounded by chickens, dogs, calves, cattle and horses. Now, to stop the horses from running away you put a pair of leather handcuffs on their front legs - a hobbler! Charlo is an excellent craftsman and is very fussy about getting the various stress points just right.
We have lasso practice until the boys come home with the goods! The corral fills up with cattle, most of them a lot more feisty than yesterday. The boys tend to their steeds leaving Ian and I to do the calf thing with twice as many cattle as usual. We trap most of the big boys in one half of the corral giving us more room to lasso the calves. It took us a bit of time but I thought we did a damn good job.
Over dinner I chat with Bushmasters about details of a Cowboy holiday they want to run next year - right here at Charlo & Colette's Happy Days Ranch. I think it's an excellent idea.
The way my right bum cheek / lower back feels, I think I hobbled my self coming off that calf! But if I do it again I'm sure I know what to do. Sit over the haunches and lean back / sit upright. My arse pains so much I have to sleep on my other side! But once asleep, I'm asleep. I'm only disturbed by rats squeaking in the corner of the hut. I'm not too bothered. I figure the scorpions will get them.
I sleep in and rise to a swathe of glum faces and the sharpening of knives. One of the cows they brought in gave birth not so long ago and has a prolapsed womb. They could push it back in but they think it's been hanging out for too long and it's probably infected. It's just a matter of time before the cows dies so they figure it's best to slaughter it now and make the most of the meat while they can.
They lasso the cow, tie it to a tree outside the corral and pummel it in the head a few times with the blunt end of a Pole Axe (um, a big axe on a pole!). The cow looks stunned and a bit surprised but is very much alive, so it gets stabbed in the back of the neck. This cuts the spinal column, killing the brain. It's throat is then slit and as the blood pours out, its life literally drains away until it stops breathing. The only real grisly bit is when the manky ranch dog turns up and starts lapping up the fresh blood in full view of the cow before it had a chance to die. With no time to waste, the cow is skilfully skinned, axed and butchered. There is so much meat, it takes a cart to drag it back to the ranch. As we pass the corral the cattle are disturbingly quiet, as if they know. They just sit there, watching us walk by.
Whilst the ranch hands set about cutting up, salting and drying the tons of fresh meat, Ian and I saddle up some horses and ride out. I'm on Rambo again and am disappointed that no matter how hard I try, shout and kick I can't make the lazy horse canter, let alone gallop. Still it's a pleasant ride to a view point on the top of a small nearby hill. Then it's back to the ranch for a swim in the creek. Sarah joins Ian and I for the swim and I realise she's camera shy! Whilst they go off to do, um, their thing, I find an overhanging palm tree, climb up it and jump off into the creek.
On return to the ranch we decide to go for a ride - only this time I'm on Battle Axe! He's a fighter, has broken ears and he's a goer! Oh yes! He's very responsive and breaks into a gallop at the merest hint - fantastic! Full speed ahead captain! I try riding proper Vaquero style - in flip flops! It's a cool (temperature wise) afternoon in a wonderful setting - you feel isolated in a wild west time warp. Ian had a lesser afternoon. He had trouble with his horse Taliban, broke a stirrup and lost his shades. Oh well, at least there was fresh beef for dinner! (Spine needles stew and braised liver.)
I get up and shake the bat droppings off my mossie net. A couple of bats got trapped in the thatched roof and spend the night flapping about. I dunno why - it's not like my hut has walls or anything!
Charlo takes Ian, Sarah and I out for a ride before Brekkie. Holly, the Bushmasters dog also joins us for a walk. We ride to the top of a small mountain and look out at the spectacular view of Charlo's vast land. The best part was appreciating that you're no where near any civilisation (not even by Guyana standards) and that you and your mates just rode up there on horseback from a real cattle ranch. It's unreal and the feeling just simply amazing.
From there Charlo takes us to an idyllic creek crossing with clear, clear warm water where we tie up our houses, strip off, dive in and cool off. I'm still digging the horse transportation thing. Charlo mentions that horses are the original 4x4 vehicle! And come rainy season, they're the only mode of transportation that can cope. On the way back to the ranch we take out time to choreograph video footage of us galloping full pelt across the Savannah, reins in one hand, lasso swinging in the other, etc... Not bad for my 4th time on a horse! (And Ian's 6th!)
On return to the ranch Ian and I have an impromptu race around the corral, through the gates and into the ranch. It was so exciting (right angle turns at full gallop) that we decide to do it again for the benefit of the camera. Only the camera was on the wrong setting forcing us to do it again, twice! Ye hah! The only bad part about galloping is stopping because the horse then slows into a fast trot - an arse slapping, ball crushing trot! The stop trot is not funny. Both Ian and I felt it.
Unfortunately we have to drive back today so we pack up and load up the 4x4. We say our goodbyes and drive off, giving Charlo and Colette a lift back to Letham. We stop along the way for home made beef and cheese snacks and Charlo tries and spot giant Anteaters with his binoculars. I watch the temperature gauge on my watch clock up an outstanding 48.4°C in the sun. And this is at 3pm, the cool of the afternoon! It must have been well into the 50s at mid day. I always thought it rather warm over the past few days but never thought to actually check the temperature.
It's another 4 hours off road drive back to Lethem. I discover that any 2 parallel cattle tracks is a road and a dirt track is practically a modern motorway! Whilst driving, Ian feels something on his foot, looks down and sees a scorpion scuttling around! It disappears under the floor mat and Ian, being the hard man he is, can't be arsed to fish it out. If it stings, it stings. Ooo, and we see a little desert whirlwind too!
I check back into the Takatu hotel, shower (cold of course), shave, grab a cold beer and dream of racing across the hills on horseback. The pain in my arse making it all the more realistic!