Liming – Settling – The View that became mine

 If you want to see the first post on Liming – Click here.

I got driven round Tortola on my first visit, but with more time on my second,  I took to walking at weekends.  Most people felt I was mad.  Apart from the coast road the three roads that headed out of Road Town went up two mile long 1 in 4 hills.  I walked two of them; Huntums Ghut and Belle Vue.  On each occasion, I reached the top and walked along the Ridge Road.  Tortola is less than two miles wide for most of its 14 mile length, and apart from the southern coast road, the Ridge Road is the only way to get from west to east.  From the central ridge you can see both sides.  Although there are still some ups and downs it is a fantastic walk. At each bend a new vista would open up.  At one point, as the sun was beginning to set, I saw the silhouettes of two of the larger islands, Guana and Great Camanoe, and Virgin Gorda in the distance.  The composition was perfect, just enough sea, a smattering of islands of various shapes and sizes, dramatic beaches and coastlines dappled in coral reef, and an ever changing cloudscape which is enriched by the varying light of the day, bright and intense during the morning, sharp and bathed in red at sunset, purple at dusk.  I looked around at the houses and decided that I could quite easily live here.

 During that visit I discussed with the head of Conservation and Fisheries Department the possibility of working there.  It took a lot of painful toing and froing, but eventually, a year later I moved to BVI.  On arrival I checked in at a hotel in Road Town but had to start searching for a house to rent immediately.  The first place I looked at was a hundred feet below the Ridge Road looking out at the wonderful vista I had seen the year before.  No other place I looked at that week matched up to it, and from the end of 2001 to the very end of 2003,  I looked at that same group of islands every single day.

The View that became mine

The View that became mine

Liming – Settling – Time for the Baths

 We drove back over the island, but instead of heading back to the ferry port, our friend had one more delight to show us on this amazing island.  We parked in amongst the huge granite boulders on the top of a dry sandy hill.  He guided us along a path through a gully to the most incredible sandy beach, set in amongst larger cousins of these batholiths.  We wanted to have another swim, but instead he took us through a narrow gap between two of these boulders leaning together.  It was very tight but it opened up to a labyrinth of caves.  Some were dry with a sandy bottom, in others the tide invaded and made small paddling pools, filled with ghostly white fry.  The light penetrated through the occasional gap magically lighting the rocks and the water.  A footpath guided us through, in some places we had to climb wooden stairs, in others we tugged at ropes belayed into the rock.  Every twist and turn of that pathway revealed more delights.  The rocks had formed under intense heat and formed their rounded shapes, and were blasted day and night by the hot sun to form a sort of onion skin peeling.  In some places, the curious mixture of the makeup of the rocks and the bashing from waves had cut out huge gouges on their undersides.  The whole environment synthesised into a natural spectacle of beauty.  This was The Baths.  I was never sure whether they were called the baths because they resembled Turkish Baths or whether it was just short for Batholiths, but that mattered not.  What was important was that these were a national park and people were being encouraged just to wander through, as they always say, taking nothing but photographs and leaving nothing but footprints.  Unfortunately the Baths are the jewels in the significant crown of the BVI, and tend to get overcrowded by cruise shippers and yachties.  They have to be seen to be believed, though, and although there are many other fantastic sights in Virgin Gorda, this is the most miraculous.

Liming – Settling – Trip over the fat virgin

I got further on my second trip.  I invited a number of Vincentians to the training course in Road Town and although they were placed in a different hotel, we would meet up for the occasional lime and one weekend we intrepidly set off to find a fellow Vincentian friend in Virgin Gorda, the second island of BVI.  An early morning ferry sped us past the south coast of Tortola, beyond Beef Island and out across the Sir Francis Drake Channel to the sleep little island.  At the single concrete jetty we were met by this friend and family, piled in the cab of his pickup.  We jumped in the back and swayed along the bumpy streets to his house in Spanish Town, the main settlement.  He overlooked this marvellous sweep of bay in front of the tiny airstrip.  The island is low hills at the south end, topped with remarkable granite boulders and a dry cactus scrub.  The north is similar to Tortola, old volcanoes clad in dry forest.  After a beer or two, we headed up over the largest of these, Gorda Peak.  Virgin Gorda became my favourite island that day, and still remains so, not because it is lively.  It has some of the friendliest people in the Caribbean living there, but they are not very dynamic.  No, it is the sheer variety of beauty in its nine miles by two.  As we came out of Spanish Town the road jigs either side of a narrow isthmus; the sheltered waters of the channel protect Savannah Bay, a beautifully unspoilt sandy beach with great fingers of coral reef jutting out from four or five places.  On the other side rough waves break from the Anegada Channel against a rocky shore.

 As we climbed, I looked back at the revealing panorama.  At the peak, I knew it was the most fantastic view in the Caribbean.  The bays either side of the road were directly below us, the stripes of breaking waves, reef edge, coral, seagrass, beach and coast marked Taylor Bay to my left, beyond the boulders and houses of Spanish Town, the huge sweep of protected channel that makes BVI the yachting capital it is was full of vessels, milling in all directions.  Tortola and its smaller cousins loomed to the west and on the left a series of smaller islands guarded the southern approached.  At the very end, St John, one of the US Virgin Islands, blocked the exit, its green clad hills unspoilt from development.  The ensemble was breathtaking, the colours vivid.

 We drove over the crest of a ridge dropping from Gorda Peak and stopped again – here was the second best view in the Caribbean.  The road tumbled down steeply through the village of North Sound to a wide body of calm turquoise water with the same name.  It was surrounded by islands of various shapes and sizes and was filled with yachts, speedboats and a seaplane or two.  Two vast hotel resorts sat on the eastern side, still on Virgin Gorda but one of the two peninsulas that dangled precariously into the Atlantic.  In the centre of one of the channels was another small resort sitting on the tiny Saba Rock.  On my right, on the other side of the lower peninsula was another fabulous bay; South Sound, with the now characteristic pattern of reef crest, seagrass and sand in a bright blue sea, a few mangroves and a small salt pond completing the perfect Caribbean environment at one end.

 Moving my eyes beyond the immediate view, another island sat in its own circle of coral reef.  This was Necker, bought by Richard Branson some years before as a private island resort.  And in the distance, hardly visible at all, was another large island, but because it was almost completely flat, only a thin sliver of beach followed by a green line of vegetation gave it away.  And yet, for about fifteen miles to the east waves were breaking.  The island was Anegada, the waves were breaking on Horseshoe Reef, one of the largest continuous reefs in the world, some scientist describe it as one of the largest single organisms on Earth.

 We dropped down the sleepy village of North Sound, a slightly tarted up version of any sleepy fishing village in this part of the world, and came out at Leverick Bay, another resort.  Here we loaded our ice box on a small boat and carefully guided it over to one of the resorts I had seen at the top of the hill; Bitter End.  The boat had a very shallow beam, but the water was so calm in the sound that we were able to progress quite quickly.  We dabbled in amongst the resort’s attractions then had lunch at Saba Rock.  We spent an hour or so on the beach at another island, Prickly Pear.  My St Vincent friends and I lying on our backs in the warm water, a mixed drink perched on our bellies.  Michael Bailey, one of the group, looked over at me floating there and said “you really have a shitty job”.  I couldn’t help but agree.

Liming – Settling – Nature’s Little Secrets

No place more evokes the tourist image more than the Virgin Islands.  Like Timbouctou or Outer Mongolia, they are a myth of a placename.  I doubt most people would be able to place them in the Caribbean let alone pin point where they are.  It is hardly surprising, they cover less than 25 square miles on the British side, and only a bit more on the US side.

My first ever view of BVI _ looking down on Beef Island Airport from the LIAT plane

My first ever view of BVI _ looking down on Beef Island Airport from the LIAT plane

 But it was to here I came in 2000 for the first time, about 8 years after I had first helped them create their map of the coral reefs and seagrass beds in Chatham.  I landed at the tiny Beef Island Airport and we taxied into Road Town, bump bump bump over the speed humps all through the east end.  I walked around this curious town, amazed at how over-Americanised it was with its parking lots, big square office buildings and the ubiquitous green road signs.  The northern Caribbean, being closer to the USA I suppose, was more susceptible to American trappings.  They were also generally more prosperous than the southern islands.  There were huge brightly coloured mansions on the hillsides, the ones under construction looked to be larger again, the cars were not beat up old Toyotas but expensive gleaming 4WD.  There were better facilities in the hotels, the offices and shops oozed money.  I was relieved when I saw a cockerel crossing the road in the middle of this; 

Why did the Chicken Cross the Road - because it lived in the Caribbean

Why did the Chicken Cross the Road – because it lived in the Caribbean

I was still in the Caribbean.  The backstreets still had the chattel houses and the accents were definitely Caribbean.

 The main island of Tortola was all I saw the first time around, but it was stunning.  Although the south coast is pretty rudimentary  – where the electricity is generated, the rubbish burnt and the fuel oil comes in, the north coast is a series of magnificent bays, each with their own particular view of the other 60 or so islands.  Jost van Dyke to the west and the US Virgin Islands in the distance, the Southern Cays of Norman (Reputedly Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island), Peter, Cooper, Salt, Ginger and Dead Chest (yo ho ho and a bottle of rum – we really are in the stuff of myths here).  To the east Virgin Gorda, the fat virgin lying on her side, her overdeveloped mounds covered in green forest.

Liming – Bathsheba – Feeling at Home

This keeps on happening out here.  In Tobago, a long thin island with rolling plantations taken over by mass tourism at one end, rugged mountains and lonely fishing villages at the other, I could see myself driving into the capital, Scarborough, saying hello to Norman Parkinson in his little café in the town centre.  I would imagine driving up and down that winding coast road.  In Trinidad, large and ugly though much of Port of Spain is, I wondered at living in the suburbs and joining the commute into town, with weekends hiking in the forests or exploring the north coast beaches.  Even in Jamaica, which has a lot of rough edges, there were places I felt at home.  More so than in Africa, I felt I could actually live in these places, join in with the community, rather than locked away in some compound or waited on by servants.

 It became hard for me to remember my emotions on that first visit to St Lucia, or the sarcastic comments from my colleagues about me “going on another holiday” out to one of the islands.  One of the project managers in Chatham had to go through my receipts on my return, and she got particularly miffed when she saw I had dined at Basil’s Bar, best in Mustique.  Of course I had actually dined in the Kingstown version below the Cobblestone Inn, but she never believed me.  But with names like Martinique, Antigua, Barbados, Tobago, Jamaica, they evoke the typical tourist image; swaying palm trees, crystal clear turquoise waters, bright white sandy beaches and lot of rum.  What I found, as I had found elsewhere in the world, was that the true Caribbean is a mix of this (yes, there is a lot of those kind of places around) and a whole series of other images, high mountains, volcanos, sugar cane, bananas, fishing villages, spices, and of course, the wonderful people.  And yet there is still this overriding feeling of living on the edge, and the pockets of poverty are as bad as the worst in Africa or Asia.

Liming – Bathsheba – Chilling on the beach, Relaxing in the Garden

On the coast, the backs of the beaches are covered in morning glory, in a few places cleared away and grass laid to give a park like feeling – could almost be New Brighton.  Just don’t lie under the heaving coconut trees for too long in that wind.  I walked along the beach for a mile or so, picking my carefully across the sharp coral rocks.  Brain corals, staghorns and elkhorns everywhere, the fragile looking skeletons of sea fans thrown up onto the shore.  Flotsam and jetsam from around the world kicks up there, mostly recognisable as fishing tackle or floating devices, occasionally goods from ships or carried around from other bays – a propensity of trainers.

 An old fishing boat, its paint peeling and fading in the sun and spray, bobs up and down in one of the few coves on this stretch of coastline.  How many years since people fished here?  The houses above are empty, probably an abandoned villa or hotel from a particularly bad hurricane.  Everything here is dictated by the weather, the few trees are bent heavily away from the coast, the other shrubs hug as closely to the ground as they can get.

And yet, just half a mile up the road from Bathsheba is one of the prettiest gardens I have ever been to.  The Andromeda gardens, like their namesake, cling to the rocks on that Atlantic coast, but they sit in one of the valleys that cut into the ridge and subsequently, large tropical trees have grown and other species, more delicate than one could imagine, take shelter beneath them.  I spent a very soothing afternoon sitting in that garden, smelling in the aromas of a million flowers and watching the birds and insects busy themselves.  As I lay there, glimpsing the Atlantic through a gap in the canopy, I said to myself.  I could live here.

Liming – Bathsheba – Taking the Bus from Bridgetown

My favourite place is over that ridge and down onto the Atlantic coast.  My first time exploring the island one sleepy Sunday, I took a cheap minibus ride into town from the Blue Horizons resort in Rockley.  I did wander around Bridgetown for a short while, it has an pleasant setting astride the Careenage, a strip of water full of fishing and pleasure boats, a recent walkboard had enhanced the area, if only they had cleaned the water up.  The major buildings at the back of Trafalgar Square (renamed recently National Heroes Square) are old but not imposing; the parliament building looks more like a parish church than a seat of Government.  I prefer to amble round the old warehouses to the west of the centre, part West Indian, part British and part wild west frontier town, Bridgetown is a mixture of styles.  I worked my way back to the main bus station for the government buses.  Barbados has the best public transport system in the Caribbean.  The terminal is quiet most of the time with only a few expectant passengers hanging around out of the sunlight.  Just before the hour, a fleet of buses draw up against the gates and almost perfectly to the clock, they pull back and head off to every corner of the island.  I took the bus to Bathsheba.  It circulates around the perimeter of the city centre, across a wide parkland and into the suburbs.  On a Sunday, the bus fills with old ladies dressed up to the nines for church, men in suits or at least white shirts and ties, an occasional adventurous honeymooning couples and the odd surfer clutching his board.  Or several odd surfers clutching their boards.

 The main road rises steadily, despite the terrain being a series of limestone terraces.  The road gets through these in narrow cuttings, emerging once more in the sunlight.  As the houses give way to sugar cane you can glance back down at the blue Caribbean beyond the city.  The hill ahead rises uniformly, the peaks demarcated by a series of radio and TV masts.  We stop at several places which could almost pass for villages.  The terrain becomes more rugged and the road has to follow the contours more closely.  Fewer sugar plantations exist up here, and a more diverse range of tree crops take over.  Finally we go over the edge, a small area of scrubby forest is all that remains of the old vegetation.  On the other side, the road hugs the side of a steep drop, and the mist rising from the Atlantic.  A few small fields of bananas manage to grow in here, but you tumble down a series of steep inclines to the coast.  Bathsheba, by far the largest settlement on the Atlantic Coast, is hardly a village, more a cluster of small houses, a couple of bars and a lot of limestone stacks.  It is absolutely gorgeous.  The Atlantic batters in  – nothing stopping its progress from the Sahara to this point.  There are a series of beaches, most of them full of coral rubble, which are divided up by huge blocks of limestone, which have either fallen into the sea or have been eroded away from the mainland by the salty winds and crashing waves.  At most times of year, a bunch of wetsuits is bobbing up and down just beyond the surf waiting for that wave.  Especially popular is the Soup Bowl, a point where the topography of the deep water makes the best breaking rollers.

Bathsheba Surfers

Bathsheba Surfers

Liming – Bathsheba – Hidden roads of Barbados

“Unfortunately”  ( 🙂 ), Barbados is a busy node for people involved in the aid and development business, and I have usually passed through there on the way back from somewhere else or stopped just to attend a short meeting.  Only a couple of times have I got out and about beyond Bridgetown and the South Coast.  Barbados is so different from the other islands (many other West Indians call it boring) but I have been intrigued by its landscape and make up.  Contrary to some people’s opinions it is not flat.  It is true it has not dominating peaks like St Lucia, St Vincent or Dominica, but it has a couple or ridges that split the island up.  The north east area rises to 1000 ft before plunging quite dramatically into the sea; the locals call this area Scotland.  The drive up to this ridge from the west is a simple incline of about nine miles.  Another misconception is that the whole island is built on.  Again, it is true that the south and west of the island is like a medium sized conurbation of a quarter million souls.  Bridgetown is the capital, commercial centre and the hub for this sprawl, but the city centre is minute, and cannot cope with the crush of traffic that heads in, out or through every day.  Along the south coast are a series of seaside towns some of which may ring familiar.  Beyond the Garrison, the massive fort area including the racetrack at the Savannah, you get Hastings, then Worthing and Rockley before heading out to St Lawrence, Dover and Oistins, the old fishing village that has attracted a reputation as a Friday night liming joint on the same lines as Gros Islet in St Lucia.  Many of the larger resorts are down here, the kind of hotels that my paymasters could afford for me.

Up west, the sheltered Caribbean side, are the exclusive villas and resorts of the Platinum Coast.  Beyond Brighton are two further towns, Holetown and Speightstown but drive along the winding main road and you would be hard pressed to find the dividing line between them.  Inland from Bridgetown too, the houses seem to go on interminably, gradually gobbling up the sugar cane fields around the bypass, the ABC Highway.  But go a little further and the cane fields are more numerous than the housing estates, and by the time you reach the high ridge or the top of the Island at St Lucy, you can feel quite isolated.

Liming – The Emerald Isle – Searching for parrots

Dominica exposed me to new Caribbean experiences.  Whereas other islands were heavily touristed, and offered beaches, yachting and other water activities to tourists, Dominica had little to offer in that way.  The beaches were black and often rocky, you could sail to or away from the main port, but could not go dancing in amongst islets, and although there was a lot of challenging diving, there was little for the amateur snorkeller to get excited about.  It meant that Dominica was for its inhabitants still, a richly agricultural and fish based society, and any tourists that did come in were still richly rewarded for searching out its gems.  They lay in its interior, in the thick largely unbroken forests that clad the two main mountain ranges, split by the Layou River.

 I visited one of these during a day trip from the hotel.  Left much to my own devices during the last weekend, I was trying to go trekking with a local guide, but he had to work that weekend at his bar, so I hurriedly organised something through the Garraway.  It all looked horrendously expensive for one person, but I managed to get in with a bunch of Guadeloupe weekend trippers, a family of four, and I set off with an old bearded gent in his minibus taxi.  The route followed the west coast further than I had been before, to Dublanc, almost by the northerly town of Portsmouth.  We turned inland and went through a similar garden environment that I had seen with Andrew.  We walked down through one of these gardens, the guide telling us of all the names of the trees we passed by.  We crossed a fresh stream, he placed new rocks across to act as stepping stones and took delight in steering the two nubile daughters and their equally shapely mother across, and leaving the father and me to our own devices. The light dappled in amongst the tree ferns and huge tropical hardwoods as we walked, and in the occasional breaks, soft fruit bushes such as strawberries and raspberries were growing.  We entered a dark gorge which came to an abrupt end where the river toppled down a fifty foot fall.  The spray played in the light and made rainbows in the sky, the rush of water filled our ears.  Below us, yellow and white land crabs played hide and seek in the rocks, and numerous birds darted in the gaps between the canopy.

 Our next stop was a reserve, where two of the rarest parrots in the world are being protected.  The Sisserou, which appears on Dominica’s flag, and the Jaco were not particularly abundant since they only occurred on the island, but with plantations and forestry, their ranges have been severely curtailed.  In the Northern Forest Reserve, near the curiously named Syndicate Estate, there is a special protection area.  We walked along an easy trail through the rainforest to a point which dramatically looks out over a deep valley, thickly cloaked in trees.  We stared for ages at the scene, and saw some eagles, a few smaller birds, a couple of inquisitive hummingbirds which got close up to us before darting back into the undergrowth, but no parrots.  The guide tried to cheer us along, like the Magic Eye artist who knows you will see it in the end, but we were unlucky.  At one point a noisy flock of Jacos could be heard as they flew over the canopy above us but we never got a glimpse of their bright plumage.

 At a second viewpoint we were equally unlucky, but got an idea of how patient you had to be to see endangered species.

Parrot-watching Perch

Parrot-watching Perch

On an old dead tree in front of the view point, along a branch that stretched out over the gorge, were small planks of wood nailed in.  A scientist from Jersey Zoo spent nearly half a year perched in a small hide at the end of these steps, day after day and night after night counting and observing the parrots in the valley.  Below him a near sheer drop of three hundred feet followed by canopy, bush and hard ground.  There is some devotion needed to get through that, but I was sure the sightings of the birds and particularly observing and increase in their numbers was the just reward.

Liming – The Emerald Isle – Soufriere and Scott’s Head

The last stop of the day was at Soufrière.  The name is common in the eastern Caribbean as it is French for Volcano.  Many of the islands I visited had been influenced by French at certain times and the Creole language, which was especially widely used in Dominica and St Lucia, derived many of its words from the French.  This Soufrière was close to a bunch of sulphur springs which blew bad egg smells over the town from time to time.  We were here because a marine protected area had been set up.  It was managed mainly by Al Philbert, an old fisherman himself, and was guarding the finest dive sites and the only extensive snorkelling reef in Dominica.

Soufrière Bay, within which the reef sat, was protected from the rough waves from the channel by a small hill called Scott’s Head, connected to the rest of Dominca by an isthmus, the same isthmus I could see from my hotel room in Roseau.  From a distance, I could see it was low and guarded by only a few palm trees, but I only got the sense of how thin it was when Jullan rumbled the truck over the cobbles to the foot of the hill.  Looking back, the berm was less than thirty feet wide.  To my left was a calm bay with myriad colours of reef and a number of snorkellers.  To my right, the open sea was bashing against the pebbles and you could see nothing beneath the white surf.  The whole isthmus was looking vulnerable from breaching by the first big storm.  Indeed, Al had told me how it had got narrower over the years, the palm trees which had once protected its whole length had been reduced to a few at the town end only, and the vines had been cut back so now it was just bare rocks.  But he also said that although they knew it was getting narrower, the evidence seemed to suggest that it was happening from the sheltered side, and not from the rough channel waves.

 We climbed to the top of Scott’s Head.  Jullan had insisted he could drive up half the hill, but the narrowness of the ridge we climbed and the lack of turning places at the top made me feel his driving skills were not up to it, so I got out the van while he was still arguing at the bottom of the hill.  As with many coastline hills in the Caribbean, this was topped by a fort, Fort Cachacrou.  It jutted out beyond the generally straight coastline of Dominica so you could get at least  a 270 degree view of any French or English misdoings, depending on which of them had the island that week.  Now it served as a fabulous viewpoint, a light beacon and liming joint.

 The town of Soufrière below was remarkably similar to its namesake in St Lucia, nestled in amongst the green mountains, fringed with palm trees and with brightly coloured fishing boats on the beach.  It poured with rain when we approached, the wonderful view of the head was obscured for ten minutes and all I could see was a solid sheet of water as it fell from the sky.  Mud and gravel were washed from the backstreets out onto the beach and muddied the waters.  We took shelter in the Marine Protected Area headquarters and chatted to some of the workers there.  As quickly as the storm had started it dissipated and we were able to get some lunch.  Jullan ate nothing but accepted a drink from me.  I tried Seamoss for the first time.  A curious plant clinging to rocks in the intertidal zone, the juices are extracted and sweetened with cane juice to make a syrupy, almost milk shake like drink.  Like Mauby, it has a curious aftertaste, like a childhood medicine, but all in all it is very refreshing.