Running the EssequiboFrom The Field
From its remote jungle source in the Acarai Mountains on Guyana’s southern border with Brazil, the Essequibo River flows north for more than 1,000km through the rainforest until it discharges into the Atlantic Ocean. The Essequibo had never been navigated from source to sea until Laura Bingham, Ness Knight and Pip Stewart completed it at the end of April 2018. Here Laura speaks to Sidetracked about the expedition, its aims, and the beauty of the area.
Where are you right now and how are you feeling after the expedition?
I’m sitting in my office doing admin. This is the first day since being back (nearly two weeks) that I’ve had enough headspace to actually think about doing anything. I’ve felt quite overwhelmed.
Why did you decide to do this expedition? What was the inspiration and what was the key aim of the trip?
My husband, Ed Stafford, had been to the Guyanese jungle and he spoke about its beauty, the richness of wildlife, and its Disney-like landscape. He then mentioned that it was bonkers that no-one had descended the river. At that moment I was sold! The original key aim of the trip was to make a world-first descent whilst highlighting sustainability and preserving the world around us. It then became so much more – it became a mission to locate and document the source of the Essequibo, to highlight the effects of mining, to document the rapids, and make a documentary about Guyana, the Wai Wai and our journey.
Did you know each other before you started the expedition? Were you all on it for the same reasons?
I met and got to know Ness when she came out to accompany my South American cycle trip; we had never met before, and she just came out to join us. She’s now the godmother to my son. And Pip I had met a few times at different events, but we hadn’t actually spent any time together before we started training for the trip! Equally, Ness and Pip had never really met before we started training, so Pip had a lot of balls signing up to spend three months with a woman she didn’t know very well
What was the state of the river? Was it polluted? By the end were you filled with hope, or were you worried about the environment along the river?
The upper section of the Essequibo was idyllic. I called it Eden because it’s how I imagined the world to have been before we started destroying it. We also called it Jurassic Park because at every turn we were expecting a giant dinosaur to pop out. It’s one of those places where words don’t do it justice – you have to see it for yourself. So when we reached the lower section, where man’s footprint became very clear, and the world of mining started bubbling through the tenderness of nature, all our faces dropped. Ness saw human faeces floating past her; I had a bleeding rash on my southern area with an abscess on my bum. Needless to say, we became worried for the future of the river and the environment.
What were the biggest challenges?
I get stressed about time, so my biggest challenge was staying relaxed. I always want to ‘get stuff done’ so to take a slightly more relaxed pace and enjoy every moment was my challenge, especially as I had my 10-month-old son at home. Being away from him was also difficult, although I think it was more a challenge for me than him, as every time I called home he was laughing and smiley!
What was the most important thing you learnt during the expedition?
I think one-month trips are OK for me – anything longer than that and it just hurts too much being away from home. It will probably change in the future and I’ll be more comfortable with the longer trips again, but for now, smaller ones are better.
And what was the one thing that surprised you?
The power of sisterhood and community. We all picked each other up when we were down and helped each other in times of need. It was a really beautiful attribute of everyone.
What is one thing you would tell yourself if you were starting again now?
I wouldn’t tell myself anything, because everything that happened did so for a reason.