It was dark, the only light coming from the waning headlights of the overloaded van that wasn’t built for these roads. We were driving along the right side of the road, which would be normal in many places in the world. But this was Guyana. Traffic flowed down the left side under normal circumstances. This road was different. The only interior high way of the country stretches from Georgetown, the coastal capital, to Lethem on the Brazilian border. It is paved from the coast down to the town of Linden, about an hour south of Georgetown. After that, it becomes a rutted dirt road as it enters the northern reaches of the greater Amazon rainforest.
Trees touch overhead as the road narrows, creating a tunnel where the walls are alive – and any traces of moonlight are blocked out. The track is a nightmare to navigate, with heavy rains creating potholes and divots that are sometimes large enough to swallow an entire vehicle. This was why we were driving down the right lane: in interior Guyana you follow the path of least resistance, whichever side it may take you.
I sat in the front passenger seat, alternating between banging my head on the roof and my knees on the dash. A strange mix of emotions coursed through me: excitement, fear, anticipation, nervousness – but mostly fear. This fear, however, wasn’t caused by the rough road we were bouncing along down the wrong side. For someone like myself, heading into the jungle was terrifying. I grew up in a city and had very little exposure to basic outdoor activities like camping. Seeing the Amazon on documentaries as a youngster always piqued my interest, but it felt like a different world, one I would never see. Now, here I was, diving headfirst into the densest region of the largest rainforest on earth – to live at a research station a full day’s drive away from civilization.
As I sat looking out the windshield, seeing nothing but the dirt road and the trees surrounding it, a large object loomed ahead in the middle of the track. From a distance it looked like a misplaced rock. Suddenly, the thing unfolded like Megatron, elongating and moving quickly. It took off down the road in front of us at an incredible speed. I looked over at the speedometer. We were traveling at just under 60km/h, yet this thing was keeping ahead. I still couldn’t make out what it was, and for an instant the surrounding darkness and mystique of the jungle made me think it was an apparition. We kept driving behind it, slowly gaining while excited passengers behind me erupted with shouts in Guyanese Creole. As we crept closer, an imaginary line was breached and the creature dashed left perpendicular to the road. In an instant I saw what it was.
It was a jaguar.
The powerful hind legs propelled the sleek, athletic cat off the road and into the bush in two strides. Time seemed to slow as I took in every detail of the spotted feline illuminated in the headlights, its shiny coat glowing more magnificently than any apparition I could have imagined. The driver let out a loud hoot. “I drive this road many times and never seen a jaguar this far from the reserve!” he shouted. This was my first time ever entering any part of a tropical forest. Apparently, I was lucky.
The excitement subsided gradually. I spoke with the driver for a long time about animals, music, sports – a great way to learn more about the country I was set to be living in for at least the next half of the year. Eventually, I began dozing off, despite the bumpy ride that made airplane turbulence seem like a ride on the autobahn. I was in an out of consciousness, straddling the line between asleep and awake, until a firm hand pushed in my chest. “Look! LOOK!” the driver whisper-shouted while pointing off to the left side – my side – of the road up ahead. I was groggy, not yet fully alert. I strained my eyes to see as the overloaded van slowed to a crawl. At first, I couldn’t see anything. Then I realized I was staring right at it.
Standing on the side of the road, barely visible along the outskirts of the headlights, was another jaguar.
This one was bigger, and much rarer – with a full black coat.
A black jaguar!
Also known as a black panther, though in reality panthers do not exist, these are jaguars with a genetic variation that makes their golden hide darker. If you look close enough you can still see the spots, but in real life, in real time, all you can see is a glorious, all-black cat. I tried to snap a photo, but in the darkness only a shiny glint from its eye was captured. The other passengers – and especially the driver – were even more excited about this sighting. For good reason: we may have witnessed the rarest cat in the world outside of the snow leopard, half a planet away.
This had to be the luckiest, most exciting intro to the jungle I could have asked for.
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