Secret Land of the Tangerine Dancer

Article and Photography by Stephen Thorpe

The most beguiling state in the entire Americas celebrated 30 years of independence in November and hardly anyone noticed.

Suriname is like that—unobtrusive, largely unknown, the second smallest country on the continent, perched on the north east shoulder of South America between Guyana and French Guiana—and certainly one of the least travelled places on the planet. Bhutan and Papua New Guinea probably have more of a global image but, while the odd Dutchman may be aware through its colonial past; elsewhere in Europe, Suriname is effectively off the map. Er….Suriname…. where’s that now, near Samoa, close by Vietnam? It’s no surprise either that the lunatic who craved the Guinness Book of Records title of youngest person to visit every one of the world’s 192 countries, Maurizio Guiliano, only completed the set when he winged into Paramaribo in February 2004. If he failed to kiss the tarmac, he should have, because here is a singular land where strangers rarely tread.

With around 430,000 people and the vast majority on the flat coastal belt, the republic is low density but second to none in terms of cultural diversity. A rich melange of ethnic groups embraces 21 identifiable languages and a main contact tongue of Sranan Tongo founded in Creole. Dutch is the official language, though Chinese, Javanese, Hindi and English are all in ready usage, with some French and Spanish, while various Amerindian and seven distinct African tribes have also retained their own dialects. Seventeenth century European settlers arrived with African slaves then, after emancipation in 1863, contract workers were imported from Indonesia, China and India. Small Jewish and Lebanese communities still exist too and Maroon tribes eking a living in the interior contribute to a bewildering polyglot society. Where else would a synagogue sit happily beside a mosque?

Paramaribo has the raffish edge of a frontier city with pockets of faded architectural grandeur reflected in the Presidential Palace environs’ recent designation as a World Heritage site. However, it is the biodiversity of a virtually untrammelled interior, stretching south towards Brazil beyond the narrow savannah, which defines the country—a vast pristine wilderness of northern Amazonia accessible only by boat on 3,000 miles of myriad creeks and rivers or by rough airstrips carved from the verdant bush. Suriname has almost 90 per cent rainforest cover, a ratio of huge international significance and minimal annual depletion, though severe destruction is wrought on river systems in the far south by thousands of illegal gold miners, the Brazilian garimpeiros who have a life expectancy of only three years.

One hundred and eighty five different mammals and 152 reptiles have been recorded overall and the stunning plethora of birdlife can be gauged from the fact that there are almost 700 resident species, half the number of nearby Venezuela on only a tenth of the land mass. The climate in latitudes 15 degrees south of Jamaica and the Leewards, and just above the equator, is far more extreme than the Caribbean. It’s hot and oppressive, very hot, in fact, at up to 34 celsius, with a harsh, unforgiving sun—not even Englishmen venture forth at midday and mad dogs think twice. Best times to visit are the dry seasons from February to April and August to October, but beware the sibibusi or forest broom, the sudden heavy downpours in the intervening rainy seasons. For a truly absorbing rainforest experience, Raleighfalls at Fungu Island in the Central Suriname Nature Reserve is hard to beat. The 6,000-square-mile preserve is also a World Heritage site and is home to eight species of primate as well as affording a close-up view of one of the most arresting visions in world birding—the courtship display at the Guianan Cock of the Rock’s lek— the secret land of the tangerine dancer. Against the all-green background, tens of males, in their bright orange costumes, compete, but only a few of them get the chance of copulating with a (dull green) female.

While accessed quickly by air from Paramaribo, the overland route is a more rewarding option, entailing a five-hour road trip to Witagron, a Kwinti bushnegro village on the Coppename River, before a serene three-hour sail upstream by motorised “krajool” to the idyllic base of Gonini Lodge. Life is slow and languorous, at one with the overwhelming power of nature. Squirrel monkeys offer prime entertainment, leaping from trees onto unsuspecting agoutis and riding them bareback like crazed jockeys. Patience, respect, silence and water intake are keynotes for forest travel and opening your eyes to Nature can deliver a valuable gift. The lek is near the domed granite outcrop of the Voltzberg poking through the canopy four miles distant, where the bird’s ritual signalling, tangerine crests flung taut, is a truly spellbinding vision wholly symbiotic with the interior’s hidden wonders.

Palumeu, a pioneering rainforest retreat 180 miles south east of Paramaribo, has a different perspective in a timeless primordial setting 55 miles by boat from the nearest village settlement. Two hundred Amerindians lead a subsistence lifestyle essentially unchanged for centuries and travellers are housed nearby in rustic cabanas overlooking the river. Peace and contemplation are the watchwords with the forest’s sheer majesty reinforced from the river—immense walls of greenery sprout skywards, occasionally overlooked by a towering 200-foot high kapok, the favourite tree of the world’s most powerful eagle, the fabled harpy, serial killer of sloths and much else besides. Here, Suriname epitomises a rapidly disappearing unadulterated natural world—inspirational and the ultimate destination for a spiritual awakening.M

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