Guyana’s Rupununi: Which of us hasn’t wanted to be a cowboy? – By Geoff Burrowes

Ole time ‘tory or livin’ the dream …Which of us hasn’t wanted to be a cowboy or fireman?

By Geoff Burrowes

All the facts in this yarn are true apart from the ones that have been stretched to make it a better tale!

The beach house perched on tall stilts on the Buxton foreshore. The party was hot and heavy. The rum was rich and dark. Old timers will remember it fondly – it wasn’t from Bookers or Sandbach Parker but was distilled in Robb St by a maverick, Tommy Houston. It caused a warm glow when it hit the stomach and conversation flowed freely.

‘You don’t have to go all the way to Australia. Rupununi Development are looking for staff!’ Clive Bettencourt’s dad was Chairman of Rupununi Development and Monday morning I went to see him. He knew my Dad and I left his office with a job offer. That was how business was done in those days.    

A few days later I was on a cattle plane with a promise of $129.00 a month and find if I survived the first month. I had a broad brimmed bush hat of the kind worn by the mosquito control sprayers in Georgetown and lots of khaki shirts and slacks and one pair of jeans. I lost the hat in my first week and wore the shirts and jeans for the rest of my time as a cowboy.

It was predawn when we boarded the Guyana Airways DC3. It had been designed to throw paras out on their battlefields and had all the comforts of aluminum benches with bottom indentations for seats. As the engines warmed up every rivet in the plane rattled and banged. The other passengers appeared unconcerned, so I decided to not worry and be happy.

Many years before I arrived in Rupununi as an apprentice cowboy, a young Scotsman named Melville, son of a Scottish missionary in Jamaica climbed ashore in Rupununi after a tiring and hazardous trip by river. He fell in love with the Rupununi and also with the Macushi tucau’s (chief’s) daughter and after the customary negotiations married her. He and his new wife travelled South to the South savannahs which he also fell in love with. He was now in Wapsiana country with a different tucau who also had a desirable daughter so he married her as well and with his two new wives started a dynasty which lasted well into the 20th century.

Being a canny Scot he quickly realised that Rupununi soil was not very fertile but the grass was long and he crossed the river into Brazil and bought or traded for a couple of cows and a longhorn bull and introduced them to Rupununi grass which they obviously liked and the cattle industry in Rupununi was born.

Nowadays Indian activists would have you believe that the ranchers took advantage of the ignorant Indians and made them work long gruelling hours for very little pay. Long gruelling hours, sure. Hard, dangerous work definitely. The vacqueros I worked with considered themselves a devil may care elite who rode horses and who were skilled at an enviable trade that set them apart from normal people. Their main entertainment was riding the most fractious cows and bulls on their employer’s ranches with a rawhide lasso around the middle rodeo style.

Lionel from Sand Creek was best at this followed by Olaaf from Sowarawau.

The vacqueros were mostly 17 or 18 years old, with the youngest being Cedric from Sowarawau who was a handsome Bovianda (half black, half Wapsiana) and full of mischief. Then there were Darryl and Lionel also from Sowarawau and Lionel from Sand Creek the best horseman of us all; our boss was an Englishman called Stan Brock, more of him later!

The big boss was Mr. Turner who had been an English heavy cavalryman in the First World War and had taken part in the last cavalry charge in recorded history. I loved to sit with him on the verandah after dinner and listen to his reminiscences.

The vacqueros laughed a lot but never as much as when one of their buddies was being rolled around in the corral sand by an 800 lb bull or steer. When it was a white boy from the coast they laughed loudest of all. A favourite prank was to wait until a charging animal was just a few feet away and then call ‘Coedado’ which means ‘look out!’ One time I hurdled a 6ft corral rail just ahead of a powerful young steer, and made the vacqeros’ day by catching my big toe on the top rail and plunging head first into the adjoining corral.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. My first day on Dadanawa Ranch I was introduced to the bachelor’s quarters where I would be living – a two storied building in front of the headquarters building that the ranch was run from. There was a wardrobe for my clothes and a hammock for sleeping.

I was taken out to the corral, a square of sand enclosed by a fence of 6 ft high corral rails within which a herd of longhorn cattle circled restlessly. They all seemed to be huge with long sweeping horns, crazy looking red-rimmed eyes and stamping hooves. The vacqueros job was to surround them and drive them into a chute where the ones going to the slaughter house would be separated from the herd. Two or three of the herd were alpha males who objected to  being driven and would charge at the circle of little men who were annoying them and they would be followed by the rest of the herd. The little brown men would scatter followed by the clumsy white man from Georgetown. It was almost too exciting to be called work!

At about 3pm the cattle were separated and the crew stopped for a quick meal of farine (ground Cassava flour) and (what else?) beef. The company capataj (foreman), Alfred, a tall lean Brazilian, then took me out and introduced me to a yellow horse, already saddled and hitched to a hitching rail “this is a caballo. It is saddled – next time you weel do the saddling. We weell teach you.” He grabbed the head strap and swung lightly into the saddle. See?’ Then he looked at my new desert boots of which I was very proud and said “Take those off. They weell keell you.” I discovered after that boots got caught in the tiny Brazilian stirrups and when the pony stumbled you could get kicked to death as the horse tried to get rid of the weight bumping along behind it. That was the last time I wore shoes for a year and the soles of my feet became like shoe leather.

My only experience up to this point was riding captive donkeys at birthday parties in Georgetown. I was soon to find out that wasn’t nearly enough! We all mounted and the party set out to the west. The cow ponies trotted in a bone-jarring gait which didn’t just jar the bones but very quickly resulted in soreness to the bum. Still it was exhilarating to be riding across the wide open savannah in the company of real cowboys.

We eventually saw a clump of bush in the distance surmounted by tall Etai palm trees and when we got closer we found a clearing in the savannah next to a small creek where we dismounted stiffly, in my case, and hung our hammocks between convenient Etai palms.

The vacqueros very quickly had a tin pan of hot, sweet coffee on the boil over a small fire and some tasso (jerky) roasting on sticks over the fire. We filled our enamel cups with farine from our saddle bags, mixed with brown sugar and soaked with creek water and contentedly chewed tasso and sweetened farine.

My normal bedtime was midnight but that night I lay in the hammock enjoying the bright stars in the dark savannah skies and before I knew it Cedric was rousting me out of my hammock. There is a time on the savannahs that the Amerindians call dayclean. It is before the pink light of dawn starts flushing the Eastern sky and before the heat of the savannah day drives sensible people into shade. We had a hurried breakfast and swung into the saddle before dawn, splitting into groups of two and set out to find cattle. We quickly found a small herd which immediately split into two and the vacquero followed one bunch and sent me into a bush choked gully after the other. By the time I negotiated the gully the cattle had disappeared into the thick brush.

. What was worse was I had no idea where I was and there was no sign of the vacqero.

I set out across the savannah in the direction I imagined the ranch to be. The savannah stretched out before me like the waves of a vast green sea. I could see the blue Kanaku mountains off to my left and if I looked over my right shoulder I could see Shi Ri Ri, a three mountain savannah island (Mountains that are not part of a range, but pop up unexpectedly out of the savannah.)

I was faced with turning up at the ranch with no cattle and obviously having been lost. Way to start a new job! So you can imagine how relieved I was when I saw a brown Stetson bobbing over a rise to my left. It was Olaaf with his cattle and mine wearing a smug grin which I interpreted to mean that he had taken great joy in seeing me lose first of all the cows, and then myself. As far s I know he never told Stan Brock but a couple of times I caught him with another vacquero, nodding over in my direction, with a sly grin!

Every time I came to Dadanawa from a different direction the ranch looked different. It was like its own little town with a population of colourful characters. I have introduced you to Mr. Turner the Manager. He was retiring and Stan Brock was taking over. Brock was athletic and walked with the grace of a panther – I never discovered if that was his natural walk or if he put it on to impress visitors to the ranch. I was told that he came to Guyana on holiday to visit his parents (his father was an engineer who was setting up the new telecom system for the government.) He came to Rupununi on a visit and fell in love with the culture and the people of the savannahs and decided to stay. His teacher was sadistic and Stan learnt the cattle trade in spite of many petty meannesses practiced upon him. The people on the ranch warned me that Brock was likely to teach as he was taught – and I found it so!

Brock had a couple of feline pets, two mountain lions, which roamed the compound unfettered and a savage jaguar called Chico who he kept penned in a cage behind the house. Brock had had Chico since he was a cub and one day he undid Chico’s neck chain before he was clear of the cage and the cat leapt after him with a terrifying snarl. He snatched the green cap from his head and flung it away from him and mercifully Chico went for the cap while Brock slipped away through the gate.

Jimmy Brown was an engineer from Saskatchewan who looked after the jeeps that were invaluable for getting around the ranch and travelling to Lethem for supplies.

Jimmy had a couple of sheds out the back of the HQ building and generally had a couple of jeeps up on blocks, waiting for parts to repair them. He always had a couple of vaqueros in training as mechanics.

Alfred was a seasoned vaquero who had learned his trade on the Brazilian savannahs and he was responsible for the whole ranch including the outstations which were spread over 25,000 sq miles of savannah. He was pretty aloof but knew his trade inside out.

There were a number of people from the coast keeping the headquarters running. The store keeper who lived in the low adobe building that was the company-owned store was an Awarak called Fredericks from North West district who had somehow ended up in Dadanawa.

Irene and London, the cooks were from West Coast, Berbice. Irene was jovial and cooked mouth watering food. She and London helped make me feel at home in the first couple of months on Dadanawa. I imagine they must have come up the cattle trail which stretched from the intermediate Berbice savannahs to Caranambo, the McTurk ranch in the North Savannahs. By time I got there the cattle trail was no longer used and beef was shipped by plane from the abbatoir in Lethem. The capataj for the Dadanawa HQ was also a Berbician called Jerome who had a never- ending supply of jokes which he told whenever we were camped out in the savannahs.

There was also a Canadian of my age, Ted Gorsline, who, like me was learning how to work cattle. He lived downstairs in our bachelor quarters.

Dadanawa felt miles from anywhere, but the savannah and the mountains and the fresh air and never-ending blue, clear sky made you get up feeling refreshed and alive each morning. We woke and dressed well before dawn and met at the calf pen – let the calves into the corral and let the milk cows out to mingle with their calves. Each vaquero was allotted a cow while the top hands might have two. My cow was a cross-grained brindle without horns and a disposition that made up for the lack of horns. After she kicked me in the jaw I gave her a couple of licks with a corral rail and she and I existed in an uneasy peace.

We would lasso our cow, pull her up to a hitching post in the side of the corral and tie off the back legs to make sure we didn’t get a swift kick a kick and then bring up her calf to start her milking. We’d then pull up a bucket and milk her. When the bucket was full we released the calf to continue milking and then sat on the corral rail and gaffed while the pink glow of the dawn suffused the sky. It was one of the best times of the day.

Brock was a great rider and knew cattle well. He had a pack of foxhounds in a pen behind headquarters and he lavished his affections and care on them and knew them all by name.

When an Indian village was subject to attacks from a rogue jaguar he would load the hounds in back of his long wheel-base Land Rover and track the jaguar to its lair in the mountains and shoot it. He once shot a mother and adopted its orphaned cub, called it Chico and when it grew full-sized and became too much to handle donated it to the Georgetown zoo. He was really attached to Chico in spite of his bad nature and I believe he grieved when he had to get rid of him.

Brock did not disappoint those who thought that he would teach as he had been taught. Apart from the milking I didn’t have much to do with the cattle and rode infrequently. I did learn to weed the large paddock behind HQ, suffering multiple red ant bites from the ant nests around it. Brock offered little instruction, no encouragement and not even a pleasant demeanor. He reserved those for Gorsline the Canadian, with whom he seemed to develop a good relationship.

I tried to do the best I could but on the day that Mr. Turner retired and Brock took over he told me that there was not enough room on Dadanawa for me and him and gave me an airline ticket to Georgetown.

While I waited for the DC3 next to the airstrip at Lethem I ran into an old friend, Tony Melville who told me that his aunt, Mrs. Orella was looking for someone for her ranch/cum guest house at Manari. He drove me out and I found Mrs. Orella most gracious.

I spent the next 6 months learning the cattle trade from her son Louis. At the end of the 6 months I left for Georgetown to earn some money and start a spread of my own.

I there met the love of my life, who had no plans to bring a family up on the savannahs and my life took another direction.

Not quite the end.

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