Guyana travel guide: Home of the world's largest single-drop waterfall

Officially there are no hurricanes in Guyana. The strange and little-visited former British colony on the north-eastern shoulder of South America has many challenges, and experiences two rainy seasons every year, but mercifully hurricanes are fated to occur further north.

Unofficially, however, there's a sort of hurricane every single night. I'm an hour by small plane to the south west of the unlovely Guyanese capital of Georgetown, standing on a cliff edge. In front of me stands the sensational Kaieteur, which at 226 metres is the world's largest single-drop waterfall. 

I am utterly fixated with it, unsure of how best  to take its photograph, when my guide Kenneth Shivdyal asks, "Have you had a look at the sky lately?" Sky? Hasn't he seen these falls? A little irritated, I look up. 

Above, a thousands-strong swoop of swallows is gathering, twisting and turning in fluid unison, moving like the world's most graceful pantomime horse. After seeming to reach a critical mass, the swifts start to plunge down, racing at the falls. Some fly behind the great curtain, but others seem to fly right through it, absolutely determined to make it to their nightly roost. 

Despite it happening daily, few people have had the privilege of seeing this – Guyana gets a startlingly tiny number of tourists. Estimates put numbers under 4000 a year, a fraction of the number who visit far more seemingly extreme destinations, such as Antarctica.

The majority who make the effort to come to the country do at least also make sure to come to Kaieteur. Located in a national park of the same name, the falls are just a 15-minute stroll from their dedicated airstrip – there's no epic jungle trek to get here unless you want there to be. 

Shivdyal and I are doing something a little different by staying in the park's lodge. It's a battered old place to which you need to take your own food and water, but at night you can hear the falls from your bed. In the morning, the building is often shrouded in mist generated by Kaieteur. Everyone else on our plane simply went back to Georgetown after a two-hour tour.

We get up at dawn, taking a flask back to the cliff to have an unforgettable cup of coffee. The Potaro River's basin is very gently U-shaped, meaning when the monsoon rains come, vast amounts of water arrive here, channelled into the river so they may take the dramatic leap from the fall's edge.

Speaking of dramatic leaps, one of the theories around the naming of the waterfall comes from an Amerindian legend about a great warrior-chief known as Kai. In a bid to appease the gods and save his people, the leader canoed over the edge, a bold  sacrifice that apparently worked, given people still tell his tale.

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This November marks 40 years since the mass murder-suicide that occurred at the People's Temple compound in a makeshift Guyana settlement known as Jonestown. That haunted site is a long way north of Kaieteur, near the border with Venezuela, and has long since been bulldozed and swallowed by the jungle. For many, however, "the Jonestown massacre" remains the only piece of general knowledge they have about Guyana, if they know anything about it all.

Kaieteur was flowing that day in 1978, too, and just like today, it was as separate from the hideousness of human behaviour as it's possible to be.

TRIP NOTES

Jamie Lafferty was a guest of South America Travel Centre.

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traveller.com.au/Guyana

FLY

Georgetown has few international flights. The easiest international connections are from the United States, through New York and Miami, with Caribbean Airlines, see caribbean-airlines.com  From December, American Airlines will also offer a direct route from Miami. See aa.com

TOUR

Travel in the Guyanas (French Guiana, Guyana and Suriname) can be complicated. Regional experts South America Travel Centre can organise a tour of all three to ensure you see the best of them, including Kaieteur. See southamericatravelcentre.com.au

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