A Flirt With Death in Guyana’s Picturesque, Untamed Interior
By Albert Baldeo
It was 1986. As a Magistrate, I had just finished holding Court in Jonestown territory, Matthews Ridge and Monkey Mountain. I had only been married a few months with a newly born, but my duties as Interior Magistrate had to be done, and the 4 AM wake-up alarms, dangers of speed boats to Bartica skimming the brown waters, getting to some interior locations via canoes, bumping along in tractor driven trailers across rough terrain, ignoring the resident ghosts of the guest houses and flying in “paper planes” barely surviving the skies, had to be endured and overcome. Duty and sacrifice called.
Captain George Grandsoult, a storied and legendary pilot who also taught young pilots, was said to “know the interior like the back of his hand.” He was taking me back to Ogle Airport. He treated planes like salvaged tractors of the sky, they had to be flown even if held together with scotch tape and paper clips. If anyone could fly such a contraption, it was Captain Grandsoult. He was peerless, even if eccentric, undoubtedly a respected aviator of the weaning British influence in emancipated Guyana.
He was the sole pilot in charge of his aging, famous Cessna 206 single-engine aircraft, which was held together with such rubber bands and scotch tape. FAA would have put it in the museum, but not Grandsoult. He was always tinkering and making it work, like one with do with a bicycle. No one could tell Grandsoult that he, nor his toy, could not fly in Guyana. Nor would any other sane pilot dare to fly such a plane in the skies.
The aeronautical legend fell asleep during the flight after putting the plane in auto flight, a trademark habit he had, while I sat on pins and needles. Soon after, I reacted to his loud snoring, and saw we were quickly descending to the jungle terrain below us, over Kamerang. The plane was sputtering. It was on its last legs, or wings, pardon the pun. A plane crash was about to happen, and, most likely, we would have both died on impact, or eaten alive by the wild forces of nature even if we had survived the impact-ants, animals, snakes, alligators and such emperors of Guyana’s virgin habitat.
I frantically tapped his shoulder, and he awoke just as his 2-seater small plane began clipping the tall trees on a downward spiral to impending destruction and death. Miraculously, it made a saving last minute spiral ascent crucially upwards at the last moment. Grandsoult was cool as a cucumber, while adrenalin was surging through me.
I wondered if I would ever see my wife and our new born baby again. I made it my duty to keep talking to Grandsoult to keep him awake during the rest of the flight. I was thinking about how best to stay alive if we crashed in the majestic mountains and forests of Guyana, if survival was at all possible. We had no medicine, food or water. Rescuers may never find us with such a dense canopy. For the rest of the 45-minute flight, I thought about death, and my new baby and family. I was trapped in a flying tomb.
I have never been so close to death before. We were inches away from fatal impact in the Land of Makonaima, in the very heart of the empire of many waters, a land we call home, but a part we hardly see or speak about, but one I was privileged to see. Eventually, the mighty triumvirate of rivers-the Cuyuni, Mazuruni and Potaro, would have washed our remnants to the Atlantic and further adrift to the continents. Perhaps a reverse Kala Pani, a treacherous journey my ancestors had conquered to settle so gloriously in Guyana, away from the perverse caste system in India. Or join the wandering posse of unfortunate and duped American souls in Guyana’s interior who perished in Jonestown a few years earlier.
We were at the confluence of worlds where the Caribbean meets South America on its North Atlantic seaboard and an almost unknown, but incredibly wonderful land of unspoilt beauty lies, where the virgin rainforest leads to the Amazon Basin, and where the jungle is still unexplored, rivers uncharted and mountains yet to be climbed. Yes, this is the country Guyana, which explorer (I prefer revealer), Sir Walter Raleigh described as, “Rich and beautiful, with glorious rivers and possessing several varieties of birds and plants and delicious fruits. Whatever prince shall possess it, that prince shall be lord of more gold, and of more cities and people than either the King of Spain or the great Turk.”
I had escaped death. But another young pilot, Emile Khan, who had just been married and had a 6-month old baby, perished with Grandsoult a few days later in the jungles of Guyana, in an unspeakable tragedy. They dropped out of the sky, this time to their deaths in Guyana’s jungles, never to be found, despite sonar, radar and other searching techniques used. When I read of it in the news, I said a silent prayer of gratitude for myself and one of hope for them. But I knew…It could have been me, and Grandsoult, days earlier.
I have spent the years after that near-death experience helping others and fighting the battles they are incapable of. I spend my second lease on life constructively, and where possible, in service of others. Ever so often, Grandsoult’s rapidly descending plane to the forested mountain tops of Guyana’s great jungles would appear in my nightmares, decades later. You could see the veins of the leaves of the trees as they, and death, appear closer, as we rocketed downwards toward them. Sometimes I would awake from a nightmare just as a camoodie or anaconda is about to swallow me, or a huge tiger licking its lips as he approached me-his next meal.
I always remember. Guyana had lost its most respected pilot in Grandsoult, and a young pilot eager to learn from the master, one with a 6-month old baby, who deserved to live-Emile Khan. I always thank God I did not end up in that uncharted jungle of my beloved Guyana’s hinterland, albeit a region of majestic and picturesque beauty, a place unknown on GPS. I feel sad for Emile and family.
I have always prayed and hoped, to this day, that Captain Grandsoult and Emile Khan beat the odds of survival that day, by some miracle.
Even state of the art air crafts had their own shortcomings in Guyana’s interior. A few weeks before that, Captain Malcolm Chan-A-Sue had to return to Timehri after aviation fuel pervaded the GAC plane taking me to Lethem and Annai Courts this time, and the engine caught fire soon after take-off. On top of that, I had to justify to an unsympathetic Chancellor Keith Massiah, Chief Justice Kenneth George and Registrars Oslen Small and Winston Patterson the reasons why Interior Courts were not held! They no doubt expected me to walk, or swim to these locations if there was no other means of transportation.
But it was not all close calls. A few weeks later, another Captain, fellow Queens College alumnus Astil Rodwell Paul, rewarded us by hovering his 737 jet alongside the majestic, mighty Kaieteur Falls just a few yards away, as if suspended in mid-air. It was up close and personal. While I marveled at the skill of the pilot, I appreciated seeing our world famous falls from the air, as its droplets seem to bounce off the plane’s windows. I felt like I had taken a thousand baths, or seen a thousand fairies in excelsis. I will never forget that moment in time.
This memoir begs a very important question. Is Guyana doing its best as regards quality control and disaster prevention in aeronautical and civil engineering and interior flights?