By the light of the full moon, we step carefully down the steep muddy bank, to the river’s edge where our canoe lies waiting. We load her up with rods, a cutlass, longboots, food and water. Then we pick up our wooden paddles and we are off, gliding through the night across the glassy water, in which the stars are reflected. The river is lined by the black silhouettes of towering trees. Behind us Chenapou village is sleeping, but all around us the forest is alive with the sounds of insects and frogs.
As we paddle deeper into the mountains, the sky turns slowly but surely from night to day, accompanied by the chirping of the ‘sun beetle’ and the cries of the village cockerels, which echo for miles along the river in the cool, early morning air. Not that we have really left the village behind- still we spot more landings, more dugout canoes lurking in the shallows, and realise yet again that the boundaries of Chenapou are far beyond where we imagined them to be, and we understand more fully what it means to live in isolation.
“Left! Left! No, right!” cries Ben from the bow as we collide into trees, branches and rocks that jump out from the gloom. The boat rocks each time we crash, threatening to turn over and spill us into the Potaro. After a short break I take a turn of paddling at the bow, whilst Ben takes my place in the middle and Miss Bev, the grade 6 teacher at school, continues steering from behind.
We reach a set of rapids, and find we need to cross over from one bank to the other in order to get to a creek where we can dig for worms to use as bait. As we approach the creek mouth, however, the current, pushing against the long side of the canoe, jams us against a rock just below the surface. No matter how hard we paddle, the flow of water is too strong and always swings us back around. The upstream side of the boat is dangerously close to being flooded, the edge just sticking millimetres above the water level. Bev gets out onto the rock to try pushing the boat around, but still the current prevails.
I decide I’m going to have to get out too and help. I stand up and swiftly strip off my trousers, pull my shirt over my head. It is at this precise moment of imbalance, with my shirt over my face and my arms raised up, that the canoe wobbles. The next thing I know, the torrent of cool water is surrounding me, I’ve come up to breathe, and see the distance between myself and the canoe increasing rapidly. I can’t stop laughing at the ridiculous leap into the river I just made, but manage to battle against the rapids, swimming clumsily with my sodden shirt still in my hand until I reach the rock where our canoe is still jammed. After throwing my shirt to the bank I’m able to help bring the canoe into the shallows.
Above us the sunrise is starting to burn the mist off the steep mountainside. I check my watch. 6 am. About time for my morning bathe anyway.