When I got a sneak peek of the film “Jungle Fish” my first thought was like many: Badass! My second thought was how remote Rewa Eco-Lodge was, and I wondered how many people got hurt while filming … I’m a dork like that!
A few months later I get a text from Oliver White, “Just got back from the jungle, incredible experience, need to get Finns West down there to do a wilderness first aid course.” Not long after that text, my wife and partner Kristin and I were winging over the expansive jungle canopy of Guyana on the way to Rewa Eco-Lodge to do a custom wilderness/remote medical course for the guides and staff (and of course, try and stick a giant arapaima).
Catching arapaima on the fly has been the buzz for a while but this operation and project stands out. A collaboration between Costa, Indifly, Oliver White, and a host of other folks, as portrayed in the film “Jungle Fish,” have come together to support the Amerindians of Guyana to create a sustainable sport fishery, preserve resources, and protect the arapaima. The base of fishing operations is located at the Guyanese jungle village of Rewa. There, the Rewa Eco-Lodge hosts fly fishers on the hunt for giant arapaima. The Macushi villagers now manage operations as well as provide the fishing guides.
There have only been a few other places on earth that I have fished or taught a course that are more logistically remote — Antarctica and Everest come to mind. From Georgetown, Guyana, a charter flight deposits you on a small grass strip in Apoteri. From there it is about another hour boat ride to Rewa. All of that is solely dependent on the weather and river levels. It is not a quick trip in for sure, which means it is not a quick trip out.
Prior to our journey we had been working with Matt Breuer who is the Guyana country director for Indifly. Matt has guided and fished all over the world and understands the importance of appropriate first aid training and emergency plans as he has seen some gnarly stuff go down on his travels. Matt set us up with as much information as he could about the operation and the fishery at Rewa, but feet on the ground was absolutely necessary.
“Work” aside, this place was amazing. It is truly the real deal; very remote, howler monkeys in the tress, caiman sunning on the banks and arapaima … really big arapaima swimming in the waters.
The goal of our trip, besides trying to stick fish, was to dial in the guides and staff at Rewa with a custom wilderness first aid course that was appropriate for their location and environment and also tweek out an emergency action plan for the lodge to be better prepared in the event something were to go sideways in this remote location.
After our arrival to the lodge, the first order of business was to meet the guides and staff and have a sit-down to get their perspective on the potential issues that could occur in their environment and get our heads wrapped around the jungle madness that surrounded us. These folks know their jungle and are acutely aware of how to keep their clients safe. But accidents do happen and the guides and staff were eager to learn how to better take care of their clients and fellow villagers if an accident did occur.
Being true professionals, the guides suggested we take a skiff ride to do a little “site assessment.” Lucky for us, the assessment included 8 weights and surface flies. We motored up the Rupunnui River to a cut in the thick jungle where we secured the skiff and proceeded on foot. We emerged from under the jungle canopy at a “pond” that was created when the river floods during the rainy season. When the floodwater recedes, it leaves these shallow bodies of water dotted all along the jungle landscape. These ponds hold the bounty-arapaima and peacock bass. Today we would add to the preverbal bucket list with peacocks. There was a small skiff waiting on the bank and after bailing a little water we were slowly cruising the parameter of the pond bombing the weed banks with surface flies. Our first venture into this landscape was surreal. Tannin stained water, caiman (related to the alligator) swimming around with just their eye poking out of the water, and howler monkeys roaring in the distance. I was in a trance when the water exploded at the end of my line — I had forgotten I was stripping a fly! My first peacock bass came to hand. We repeated this process until the sun began to dip below the horizon. It was surreal. On the paddle back in I reached out to inspect a beautiful lily pad with a purple flower in the middle. Instantly fire engulfed my fingers. Upon closer inspection, the underside of the lily pad was covered with millions of thorns and a few thousand of them were now stuck in my fingertips. Vivian, our guide, smiled and said, “we probably should cover impaled objects in the course, huh?” I didn’t think it was funny, but everyone else did! After an incredible meal and some friendly banter, we turned in for the night in our comfortable cabins listening, again, to the distant roar of the howler monkeys.
The next morning there was a guide unconscious under a tree and another bleeding profusely from this leg while yet another had a stick protruding from his chest. A god-awful scene for sure, if this was real. This was the first of many scenarios we would be doing during the course. Over the next three days, the guides and staff would learn how to handle life-threatening injuries, common medical problems, and scene and patient assessment as well as how to move, lift and carry patients with and without possible spine injuries, and get injured or ill folks from point A to B in a skiff — all of this with no 911 or immediate help from professional rescue. While common first aid courses offer good information and appropriate skills, they are not designed for people without access to immediate medical and rescue response. Wilderness First Aid courses, on the other hand, are specifically designed for folks who work and play in locations where emergency response is non-existent or will be significantly delayed. These courses also focus on environmental emergencies such as hypothermia and lightening injuries as well wound care and critical thinking skills. Obviously, a remote operation in the middle of the Guyanese jungle is a great example for the importance of a course like this but so is a 30-minute hike from your car to the river with no cell service. A wilderness first aid course basically teaches you what to do beyond the normal 10 minutes it takes for emergency services to arrive.
The first morning’s scenario was an eye opener for the guides and staff. These folks knew that accidents can and do happen but to put it in front of them set the tone for the rest of the course. By the third day, the confidence, calmness and professionalism during the scenarios was obvious. It blew me away the dedication these guys put into the course. They studied their field guides during breaks, asked tons of questions during the course, and remained at the benab discussing the day’s topics long after class was over. True professionals.
We wrapped up the course with an advanced wound cleaning lab and one final scenario of putting to test all the skills learned over the past three days. It would be an understatement to say they blew it out of the water. With a successful course complete it was time to do a little more “site assessment” and see what this arapaima fishing was all about.
We headed out the next morning and motored two hours up river to the remote Riverburst camp. The tent camp was equipped with kitchen facilities, hammocks for sleeping, and a dining area with an insane view of the river and surrounding jungle. This would be our basecamp for the next few days while venturing out for arapaima.
Again, a lot has been written about the hunting and catching of an arapaima on the fly but nothing prepared me for the experience. We either threaded our skiff through tunnel-like channels or walked through the jungle to reach the “ponds” that held the arapaima. Then it was a waiting game. Waiting for the fish to surface to grab a breath or spot their air bubbles under the water. Oh, you had to be quiet too — something I am not very good at. But can you blame me? With huge arapaima surfacing and sounding like someone dropped a refrigerator from a four-story roof into the water, I got a little excited to say the least. After several missed opportunities due to blown casts or me being too loud, it all came together. My cast landed in front of a sinking fish, someone yelled strip (many times) and all hell broke loose. It was pure chaos! There was literally a jumping, running, tugging industrial refrigerator on the end of my line. The guides coached me through the fight while they paddled to shore in order to hop out and physically manage the fish. Within 10 minutes I was in the water holding a 150-plus pound six-foot long beautiful freak of nature.
This was truly one of the greatest experiences of my life, and I am not talking about catching an arapaima, but that was pretty insane too! The Macushis of Rewa village are some of the most fun-loving, passionate and engaging folks I have ever met. Their professionalism and dedication to their environment, fishery, and fellow man blew me away. I can now safely say that when and if you drop into that tiny grass airstrip in the middle of the Guyanese jungle you are in safe hands.
Oh, those thousands of lily pad spikes that were buried into my finger? The guides safely
removed them all and treated me for an infection three days later … just sayin’.
— Mike Tayloe
About Mike Tayloe
“Tayloe” has been involved in pre-hospital emergency care and education for the past two decades, focusing on remote and wilderness medicine. As director of operations and co-founder of Finns West and Katabatic Consulting he has provided remote medical services and courses from Antarctica to the Bahamas.
Tayloe guides for several fly fishing outfitters in Colorado and for Lakutaia Heli Fishing in Cape Horn-Patagonia, Chile.