Life at the Lodge: 3) History

A week of no guests provided me with ample time to browse the various bookshelves around the Lodge and uncover the dated, and often torn, contents that had been quietly resting on the hardwood, busy collecting dust and bat droppings.

From flicking through the available publications, I was reminded of the rich history that both the Lodge and the region hold.

Long before Guyana achieved its independence from colonial British rule in 1966, the Lodge was a pillar of the local community. And many centuries before the Lodge came into existence, the local Amerindian people, the Macushi, were raising families and living off the land.

There is archaeological evidence of Amerindian people occupying the Rupununi over 7,000 years ago. Their nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyles were complemented by the practice of small-scale agriculture, and the untouched wilderness of (the country that was to become) Guyana was a relative safe-haven.

Despite visits by Christopher Columbus and Sir Walter Raleigh to the area, it wasn’t until the 1600s that Europeans began to settle and establish colonies in the country. Initially it was the Dutch, but the British, French, and Spanish all soon had a presence also.

As the European colonies began to grow on Guyana’s northern coast – with regular wars breaking out between the competing colonial powers – the Amerindian people became more threatened. Slavery and disease drastically reduced the numbers of Amerindians from their peak of 160,000 around 1600. It is said that the Macushi chose to abandon their lands in the north and instead retreat into Guyana’s interior.

The Macushi eventually settled in the Rupununi, developing close ties to Brazilians across the border to the South and East. Whilst Georgetown may be Caribbean, the Rupununi is most definitely Brazilian, a fact that is clear to see when you’re in the region or speaking to its people.

The savannahs of the Rupununi however, did not protect the Macushi for long. By the mid-1800s church missions were being established in an attempt to “save” the “heathens”. Using the abundant waterways of the country, the missionaries spread, and the Amerindians were soon being taught the English language and the gospels of Jesus Christ.

Encouraged by these missionaries, and provided with schools, places of worship, and cash economies, larger and less-mobile Macushi communities began to form and their traditional way of life began to wear away.

In the early 1900s, as this process continued within Guyana, Europe found itself as the dominant battlefield for the first World War. One man to participate in the fighting was a Guyanese-born Brit, Edward “Tiny” McTurk.

After four years of needless slaughter, Tiny, understandably, had lost faith in humanity and sought to escape the “civilisation” that had caused it. He decided to move to British Guiana, as it was known at the time, and taking advantage of the global demand for the product, became a balata bleeder and salesman.

In 1927, Tiny McTurk established Karanambu Lodge with his wife Connie, using its close proximity to the river to transfer his product. At this time, nearly half of the Macushi males in the Rupununi were employed by balata bleeding.

As the popularity and demand for balata waned, the McTurks took to ranching, employing a number of Macushi to assist with their work.

With the passing of the decades, Karanambu Lodge expanded in size and eventually came under the management of Diane McTurk – one of Connie’s and Tiny’s children. Her love of nature and her particular interest in Giant Otters brought a new era to the Lodge, its emphasis shifting on to the conservation of the near-threatened river-dwellers.

Visitors came from around the world to learn from Diane and to help with conservation and research in the area. Sir David Attenborough is the most notable of these guests, but I am yet to find a single book on Guyana that does not mention a visit to the McTurk’s Karanambu Lodge at least once.

It seems that no trip to the Rupununi is complete without a visit to Karanambu.

Sadly, Diane passed away in 2016, but her legacy and memory lives on in the area. Family members, former guests, and local Macushi villagers have sung her praises whenever her name has appeared in conversation and it is clear that she was a much-loved and quite brilliant woman.

Like the present-day Managers (Edward and Melanie McTurk), Karanambu Lodge appears to be in the blood of some of the locals. My colleague Manny has been there almost his whole life, his mother and father (Cecil and Auntie Georgie) have been there for five decades, and Cecil’s father was there from the very start, working alongside Tiny in the 1930s.

21 down. 63 to go.

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3 thoughts on “Life at the Lodge: 3) History

  1. I met Diane McTurk once, in the UK. I used to hear about Tiny McTurk from my Dad, when we lived in BG (as Guyana was called then) when I was a kid (1955-63). I have never been back, about time I did! Heard lots of storoes about the Rupununi.

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