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10. A VIEW OF THE INTERIOR
THE larger portion of this book is concerned with the coast
lands because—although the 'Coast' is less than five per cent of the 83,000 square miles-it is here that the population of British Guiana lives. The estimated total population of the Colony in 1955 was 485,000, and of these a little over 20,000 live in the Interior—mostly Amerindians. The 'Coast' is a strip of land some 270 miles long and varying in depth from two to eight miles, according to the condition of the soil, and how far land reclamation has penetrated. It forms an economic unit on its own, and most of its inhabitants have never visited the vast forest hinterland, thinking of it as a mysterious country full of snakes and wild animals. These figures may give the impression that the Interior has been entirely neglected, and that one may travel in it for weeks without meeting a soul. This is not quite the case; diamond and gold prospectors leave Georgetown in a constant stream to try their luck in the fields, and the river highways to these areas-the Mazaruni and the Cuyuni— form traffic arteries on which you are unlikely to travel for a day without meeting someone. The prospectors, who form a special and dying type on their own, are Coast people who spend part of each year in the Interior. In the same way there are areas where the forest woods are being exploited, which are populated to a density which the figures do not indicate. There are a few other Interior activities, such as cattle-raising on the Rupununi savannas, bauxite production in the 'near' Interior of Mackenzie and manganese production in the 'forgotten province' of the North-West. The routes into the Interior which one is likely to travel on rarely have any feeling of special isolation. But these routes serve, in fact, a very small percentage of the whole area of the Interior. If one were to strike off along unknown Indian trails and finally into country where no Indian bothers to penetrate one would know that isolation, and would be able to hack a way through the virgin forest for months without hope of coming across even the abandoned hut of some nomadic Amerindian. The vast extent of
this wild and trackless territory can only be realized from the air, in a low-flying aircraft-a method of seeing a country which adds a new dimension to travelling. There is no better way than this to understand the physical formation of British Guiana.
We fly from the mouth of the Demerara river across the few miles of coastland, stretching in both directions as far as the eye can see, divided with geometrical precision into the long narrow strips of cane-land, pale green for the most part, but scarred where a field has been burnt for cutting, or glistening with water as it lies in flood-fallow. Suddenly, where the penetration and reclamation have ended, the neat, humanized landscape of Sugar gives way to the swamp-lands which form the water conservancy for the reclaimed land. Here the green of the vegetation is metallic, unhealthy, except where an outcrop of sandy soil has produced a cluster of ite palms, those 'trees of life' found all over the coastal areas. This alluvial belt continues inland to a depth varying between ten and forty miles from the sea, the land rising slightly all the time. Beyond this alluvial belt lies a slightly higher and undulating belt of sand and clay and soils composed of the disintegration of primordial rock formations. Veining this dead area one can see winding sand-dunes that rise from fifty to 180 feet above sealevel. It is a belt which begins in a small way near the Waini River in the North-West District and gradually increases its width as it extends across the Colony to its eastern frontier on the Courantyne. It is near the Courantyne that it has its maximum depth of a hundred miles. On this area of land there are savannas near the rivers, but after one has passed the areas that abut onto the swamplands, it is a territory of high forest, dominated for the most part by the mora trees.2
Beyond these two areas and towards the South the country rises between the river valleys, which in many parts are
1 Mauritia flexuosa. Hardly a part of this tree was not used by the Amerindians; its fronds for hut-roofing, its fibres for hammock thread and rope, its pith for food, the base of the leaf stalk for sandals, its fruit for a delicacy and its sap for an alcoholic drink. It was the Spanish missionary, Gumilla, who named the tree the 'Arbol de la Vida', the Tree of Life.
2 Mora excelsa. Schomburgk calls it the 'oak of the tropics' and its dignity and size have made the Amerindians name it 'the Chief of the Forest'. Schomburgk praises its quality as a hard wood.
swampy. As you approach the source of the great rivers like the Berbice and the Essequibo the land lies some 900 feet above sea-level, on the western boundary. This higher country forms more than 90 per cent of the area of the Colony. Here lie numerous low hills and small valleys formed by the unsuspected proliferation of the river-system; and here too lie the three main mountain ranges, and frequent, scattered smaller
Village on the Rupununi
ranges. The eastern part of this area is almost unrelieved forest, but the country on the western side, between the Rupununi and the Ireng rivers and extending southwards from the Pakaraima Mountains to the Kanuku range forms the Rupununi savannas, between 300 and 400 feet above sea-level. These savannas are watered by a large number of streams, and pockets of thick woodland tend to form at certain points on these creeks. From the Kanuku Mountains southwards the savanna country begins again, though its character is somewhat different from that of the northern savannas—more undulating and with fewer creeks and woodland. A few miles from the southern tip of the Colony dense forest begins once more and continues on over into Brazil, towards the outer fingers of the Amazon riversystem.