Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Adventures of a real-life Dr. Dolittle

Exploring the jungles of Guyana

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'BUDDY, BuuuddyBuuuddyBuuuddy, Buddy," Diane McTurk calls from a sandbank, shielding her eyes from the glaring sun while scanning the shallow, muddy waters of Guyana's Rupununi River.

Sighting the shiny brown creature playing happily upstream with a gaggle of near-naked Amerindian children, McTurk clucks, "My baby, darling, my pride."

Obediently, blind Buddy heads in the direction of McTurk's welcoming voice and is scooped into her nurturing arms. "My love bug," she murmurs, rubbing his wet, velvety, wriggling body.

Buddy is a one-year-old orphaned giant river otter, coined a water dog by local Makushi Indians deep in this South American hinterland, one of the last bastions for the endangered mammal. The largest of the otter species, estimates peg 45 wild otters living in several family groups along this stretch of the Rupununi.

His morning play, hunt and meal time over, he follows McTurk, like a faithful dog, up the riverbank and along the forested trail home to Karanambu Ranch, with his affection for his adoptive mom evident.

Karanambu is a southern Guyanese cattle ranch turned eco-lodge and the ancestral home of McTurk, famed for rehabilitating orphaned and injured giant river otters. Although too modest to say, filmmakers such as National Geographic and BBC have featured McTurk.

Though Buddy is the only orphan in residence when we visit, she often cares for more. Over the years, McTurk has helped 47 otters brought to her from folks in surrounding communities.

A specially designed otter pen, complete with pool, is Buddy's current home and will likely remain so. Although McTurk's goal is to return nursed otters to the wild, Buddy's blindness means he will not stand a chance.

This remote outpost, where life is a chore the likes of long-ago pioneers, is a surprising place to find a 70-something unmarried woman, never mind in charge.

However, McTurk, ever the quintessential lady thanks to her upbringing in Britain, is singularly dedicated and fiercely determined to keep both her heritage and her beloved otters afloat.

More so, she has a seldom-found passion for this flourishing, untamed land, one of the world's last wildernesses.

Guyana (gy-AH-nuh), tucked in northeast South America, is the continent's only English-speaking nation. It borders Venezuela to the west, Brazil to the south, Suriname to the east, and the Atlantic Ocean to the north.

In the heart of this little-known country, more Caribbean than Latin, the Amazon Basin meets the Guiana Shield, harbouring one of the world's four remaining large tracts of untouched tropical rainforest.

If you long to explore a destination unspoiled, where Mother Nature still reigns supreme, Guyana is it.

Back at the ranch, a multi-building settlement akin to an African safari camp between the river, bush and open savannah stretching to the Pakaraima Mountains and Brazil, we learn Buddy is just one of a motley cast of characters, all playing roles in Karanambu's tropical Dr. Doolittle set.

While showing us to our simple clay brick and palm-thatched cabana, Pat Rush, an American expat who is McTurk's no-nonsense right-hand woman, chuckles good-naturedly as she advises what other creatures and creatures we may meet. Lizzy, a brown spider on steroids; George, a small house snake (both of whom I gratefully do not encounter); Sir Walter Raleigh, a young Tom cat; and Osama bin Bandit, the terrorist of Karanambu.

Another orphan, Bandit is a mischievous raccoon and a strange looker, nothing like the common raccoon back home. His species, the crab-eating raccoon, is much shorter-furred, rust-chested, and bigger-pawed, nicknamed raccoon dog because of its long legs.

It comes as no surprise, then, that he goes for walks with Rush, McTurk or willing guests, usually running out in front and darting away and back again. Although Rush says he is a tame pet, she warns he plays rough and not to touch him.

We soon witness why this rascally coon requires close supervision. He gets into everything, best epitomized by the chocolate raccoon wrangling incident.

Laughing, Rush recounts how the wily Bandit broke into the fridge and got into the chocolate sauce. He was wound-up like a $3 watch.

This is just the beginning of the evening's excitement. We boat with McTurk to a nearby pond to see the giant Amazon water lily Victoria amazonica, Guyana's national flower, bloom at dusk.

It is fascinating to watch scarab beetles burrow into the closed petals of the huge plant, pollinating and opening up the flower, white the first night, pink the second.

After a lively candlelit family-style dinner in the open-air, hammock-swagged main ranch house, presided over by storytelling McTurk, nocturnal Bandit escapes from his pen and engages us in a lively game of chase.

Before bed, Rush deals with a multi-legged centipede -- poisonous, I think -- on the veranda outside our cabana by whacking it with her shoe. Then honeymooner Edwin d'Haens urgently fetches our hostesses to deal with a scorpion under wife Ellen's pillow.

Welcome to the untamed wilderness. Perhaps one more of McTurk's famous passion fruit rum punches before sleep.

Twenty-four hours with this weird menagerie and the gracious, hospitable otter woman are just some of the highlights of our 11-day trip around this off-the-beaten-path country.

Despite the prior evening's escapade, d'Haens grins.

I am waiting for the horse to talk.

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 18, 2010 E1

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