… I met Diane (pronounced Dee Anne) McTurk, the legendary Guyanese conservationist who was instrumental in changing the course of my life forever. Travelling has afforded me so many opportunities to grow as a human being and to learn my place in the world. Upon reflection, the time I spent with Diane as her guest at Karanambu Lodge on the Rupununi River in the interior of Guyana, was like a scene from a movie – except I was living it!
My adventure quest goes back to the mid-80’s when the world was open to exploration. Thank you Indiana Jones for the inspiration to travel where few had ventured. The Rupununi River is a tributary of the Amazon, teaming with life, including caiman crocodiles, piranhas, anaconda snakes, howler monkeys and giant river otters. It was Diane’s work with the latter, communing with the highly endangered otter species, which brought me to this remote part of the world.
Our small aircraft departed the capital city of Georgetown, Guyana with my allotted 25 lbs of essential luggage. Packing was easy, given the fact there would be no electricity and I would be ‘want for nothing’ with a couple pair of shorts, some T-shirts, a toothbrush and my camera. I was mesmerized, and in awe of the view as we flew over virgin rainforests and savanna for hours before landing on a small dirt landing strip in the middle of “nowhere”. Diane and her ancient Land Rover (made from 3 vehicles) awaited to take me back to her family’s 117-sq mile property which she had converted into an ecotourism operation called Karanambu. Obviously there was no turning back, so I was committed to trusting my life to this woman I had just met.
Born on her family’s cattle ranch (dating back to the 19th Century), Diane grew up in the remote wilds of what was then known as British Guiana. As was frequently done, Diane’s family sent her to London, England for her formal education. She subsequently pursued a career in acting and public relations before returning to a newly-independent Guyana in the 1970’s where she took over the family’s ranching business. Diane had the vision of converting part of the property into a unique tourist destination.
I soon settled into my traditional clay brick and thatched cabin, complete with hammock, private shower and flushing toilet. Electricity was non-existent back then, with only a generator which Diane put on for a couple of hours in the evening. It was at this time that she used her radio transmitter to check in with other ranchers nightly to ensure all were safe. Now, this award winning lodge is 100% solar with a back-up generator for emergencies.
My favourite place to relax was in Diane’s open air living/dining room where we would sit for hours at the family-style dining table, talking like old friends and indulging in her home made rum punch. Diane’s endless stories of life in the Rupununi had me in tears, both laughing and crying. This extended to our time out on the river with binoculars, camera and of course her rum punch! I was in awe of this 50+ year old woman’s ability to survive and adapt in what was considered a “man’s world”. The environment alone was frequently inhospitable and could test any person’s endurance.
Diane’s special relationship, rescuing and reintegrating orphaned giant river otters back to the wild was grass-roots conservation that helped bring understanding to the local people and subsequently laid essential groundwork for the development of Guyana’s unique ecotourism sector. This garnered the attention of two British national treasures: naturalist Gerald Durrell and BBC’s David Attenborough, as well as National Geographic who filmed a documentary on Diane’s work and life.
I was privileged to observe and work with Diane, side by side as she introduced me to Peter, one of the 40 orphaned river otters she had in her care over the years. Diane was like the “otter whisperer”. The otters knew they were safe in her care. I’ve never witnessed firsthand such a bond between human and mammal.
My visit to a small Macushi village was a most memorable experience. One family invited me into their home where I participated in making their daily cassava bread, and learned how they weave baskets and forage for food. Grandma was mixing up a special brew with questionable euphoric properties which contained the poisonous part of the cassava plant and her spit for fermentation! Had I been offered a sip, protocol says it would have been rude to refuse. I spent the day immersing myself in Macushi life, and although no one spoke English, I felt I came out “richer” for the experience.
Another pivotal moment for me was when I was sitting under the stars one evening and … OH MY!! Never before had I seen so many stars in the galaxy. The Milky Way was spilling across the sky. It was at that moment I realized what a tiny spec I was in the whole scheme of things. If I wanted to stand up and be counted, I needed to make my life have authentic meaning. I felt empowered by Diane’s energy and so upon my return home I made the decision to honour my true self and to follow my anthropological passion for understanding cultures. Hibiscus Tours International Ltd. was formed.
Thank you Diane for being my inspiration and guiding light!
RIP Diane McTurk: 1932 – 2016
If you are interested in visiting or hearing more about Karanambu Trust & Lodge, contact Hibiscus International. It may just change your life!