Islands Walk-About, Part 1
Will pride goeth before blisters when crossing the Caicos by foot?
I am losing ground fast. It is midday and water is raging through the small channels like a flash flood. The winds are at full power and knocking whitecaps off the waves, pulling at the little rubber dinghy that cradles my rucksack. I am swimming from the northernmost point of South Caicos, heading for Plandon Cay while pulling the bowline. (Actually, the current is dragging me out to sea towards Grand Turk.) I glance up at Coast Guard Point for some kind of assurance from John Claydon, my driver to the site and a professor for the School for Field Studies. He is laughing while waving his arms and screaming, “Turn around you fool, you’ll never make it. You should have checked the tides, moron!”
In the worst-case scenario I could be swept out to the east off the shelf and possibly drift for days. But soon the water goes from three fathoms to waist level, and I am able to stop, fight the tidal bore and wind, and plot a new strategy. I decide that the best idea, if I plan to keep going, is to swim across the current until inside the shadow of the next island, a small speck on the map. This blip should block the current and allow me to swim back up. Great plan, but when John is the size of an ant and my target just a chocolate chip on the horizon I wonder . . . Eventually the chip begins to grow and behind the tiny island a large eddy helps to bring me across.
Plandon Cay is a long strip of land shaped like a big check-mark. A gentle slope of tan sandstone slips down into the sea with coconuts strewn about above the high tide zone. I take stock of the situation. I have almost drowned. There’s blood trickling down my right leg and rubble in the shallows has sliced my feet.
In the old days, Turks & Caicos Islanders regularly walked between islands. That got me thinking. What better way to see the undeveloped Caicos Islands than to bridge the archipelago by hiking about 100 miles from the southern tip of South Caicos to the northern edge of Providenciales? The personal challenge of carrying all my gear and supplies the entire length has awakened the purist in me. An inflatable raft will float the pack so I can swim it across the water passages.
Now, only into my first hour, I am not so sure if I can complete the hike and the prospect of swimming across these channels seems equally unappetizing. However, mostly because I told so many people of my intentions, I decide to soldier on. I’m not ready to go home with my tail between my legs quite yet.
The sun is low in the sky and the wind is whipping around the corner. At the edge of Plandon Cay, behind the windward point in a hidden cove, are small shacks built by fishermen to wait out the worst of storms. These little homesteads are tacked together with scraps that have floated up the beach: corrugated, driftwood and bits of plywood. Each building fosters a foam pad or a pile of nets for bedding. They speak of times worse than today and give me hope.
The crossing from Plandon to Middle Creek Cay is anticlimactic. I barely drift outward the throw of a stone before making it across. The blue sky is deepening, day is slowly turning to night and a dark grey cliff of mixed sandstone and limestone with lines of sedimentation runs the length of the beach like the side of a giant elephant. Pygmy palms stand at the edge threatening to jump into the fields of sargassum and trash that lie below. Like a squadron of dirigibles, big puffs of clouds are sailing overhead out to sea. It is very quiet, the sea is like glass and I am finally totally at ease. I am the only human that has walked this beach in a long time.
In stillness, daggers of light pierce through the sheet of water. Every tenth step an iguana scuttles off into the burr grass and bushes, causing dry leaves to rustle and crunch. Their tracks are interesting compared to other two-legged and four-legged wildlife. A goliath tree trunk welcomes me, draped with green gill nets and outstretched roots like a shawled grandmother approaching for a hug. As I pass the driftwood and step further north the limbs seem to wave good-bye and goad me onward.
The crossing to McCartney Cay looks treacherous with swales whipping a white slurry through the cut. But with a hop, skip, jump, splash and a few swim strokes, I’m on the biggest land yet. As the sun and moon near their shift change, the tidal slosh is slowing down. The sky casts a fluorescent glow on the sand. Osprey circle from above, squeaking disapproval at my path just below their nest. Hills and troughs run the length of McCartney with patches of pines and brush in the swales. I decide to hike until moonrise and then stop to set up camp.
As I clear a fire ring to cook dinner, a letter in an Absolut bottle clinks against some stones. It is printed on a laser printer with a fill-in-the-blank format. I figure, if you’re going to send a message in a bottle capture the romance in the action; compose it on rice paper, burn the edges, write it in blood and seal it in an old chianti bottle with wax. As for this bottle, a Swiss couple was crossing the Atlantic on the Sea Cloud II in November, 2004 and wants me to send them a postcard. If I do, it will read, “Please keep your trash on board next time, our beach has enough, thank you.” Or better yet, “Next time please hold the note and send the vodka.”
Dinner is a disaster. The potato goes down easily enough, but the cold corned beef hash seems to be stuck in my throat. Even worse, my bug-suit does not seem to be working as efficiently as I had hoped. Actually, it doesn’t work at all and the sand fleas or “no see-ems” walk right through and start digging in for the feast of their lives. As it looks like sleep is a lost cause, I might as well be moving forward Ñ so I throw on a headlamp and hike through the night.
Another bad idea. Because the rest of the cay consists of fingers of rock that protrude into the surf, I am forced to wade. This is my first intimate introduction to everything in the pack. Four and a half gallons of water, thirty pounds of camera gear, a week’s worth of canned goods, potatoes and onions and the pack is teetering over a hundred pounds. The water sandals were a discount online and I now realize why. The leather insole becomes slippery as warm butter when wet. Each step has my feet slide out through the toe hole or roll off the side. Will I twist an ankle or sink through soft sand and struggle for the next step? I push on, unsure. Finally, after crossing into East Caicos, the coastline shifts to sandy beaches; a mile or two up the coast and there’s enough wind to lie down safely out of grasp of the bloodthirsty microbugs.
Sunrise a couple of hours later has me up and tripping my way across rubble until lunch. The southern part of East Caicos is a weathered limestone shelf with jagged gullies and razor-sharp edges in every direction. The only discerning trail is to be near the dullest of boulders at water’s edge. Waves have pounded this tortured coastline for millennia, undercutting the edge. Waves break into a curl seconds before the ledge and then slam into the wall with the force of a train wreck, misting everything for yards. Every set of sleepy steps, a slam jolts me back to wakefulness with a wet slap in the face. The platform that I walk rattles with each watery thunder. After a short, sandy intermission the rocky shards continue. A cobblestone plantation wall suddenly appears from nowhere, leading down to the water where a blowhole spits spurts of seawater straight into the air. Every few seconds, ppppssssshhhhhhhtttt! A mist jet shoots skyward. Just past Drum Point, I sit in the shade of the only Bahamian pine around and watch huge frothy white rollers envelop the point. These are the biggest and longest rolling waves that I have seen.
As soon as I begin to relax, a gang of Cuban crows lands above me and starts a warbly screech of disapproval. The only comparison to this bird’s odd call is a turkey gobble played in reverse. Taking a nap is out of the question Ñ as I lie back, they dive towards my face with claws drawn, swooping in groups of cacophony. I am impressed with their nerve and intelligence. Crows from around the world fly in packs like wolves, scavenging, gathering together and then hiding their loot in a stash that they remember for months. I realize I am lying on their cache when one starts digging near my head.
I head onward in the midday heat sucking down water. At this point I am going through almost a gallon and a half of water a day. I am two days from Middle Caicos with one day of water left. Time to open the mind and think of a solution. What are my options in this situation? There are no fresh water catchments and the last rain was weeks ago. Eureka! A giant pile of trash ahead has a two-liter bottle of clear fluid; it’s sweet water. My spirits are lifted and I march onward with a new bounce. A rocky outcropping in the middle of a sandy expanse appears, with excellent snorkeling promise. I’ve found Black Rock Point.
The lobsters here are relatively untouched by fishermen and reflect this in monstrosity. Under every ledge a pair of spiny antennae and beady eyes twitch back and forth to ensure my distance. A group of blue-lined grunts huddles under some coral; their laser blue and yellow stripes confuse the eye. This is where I’ll throw my line from shore, but first things first; let’s find the remains of a possible shipwreck.
The Trouvadore was an old slave ship that was heading to Cuban sugar grounds in 1841 full of shackled Africans, a trade that was banned in 1808. In the 1990s, a letter that incorrectly linked African idols (actually Easter Island idols) to TCI was discovered in the Smithsonian Institute, which sparked interest the world over. Historians have said that all TCI Belongers are related to the Trouvadore survivors either by blood or marriage. As I look (in vain) for the splayed ribs and metal hardware of a dead ship blooming from the intertidal sands I ponder what the people were thinking when they walked this coast that I am on, so long ago?
With light to spare I start up a little cooking fire behind a windbreak and throw a line in for some protein. A grunt from the school under the rock nibbles at my treble hook and becomes the sixth course. After a full helping of sunset, a russet potato, a sweet potato, an onion and another cold can of corned beef hash, I throw him on the hot coals. (I heard somewhere that it is best to toss the whole fish onto the coals to ensure even cooking.) The heat sears off the scales and cooks him through his entrails. It tastes like putrid intestines, but I finish it nonetheless.
Tonight sees the happy return of the wind. My mind returns to the unquestionable problem of water and the fact that my feet are becoming increasingly mauled and blistered. Tonight is the mid-point where I can turn back and possibly make South Caicos, or go the distance. The decision is made; I must push on and see this through.
Before sunrise the walking resumes. Shortly beyond Black Rock the pain returns as the beach width shortens, the angle increases, the sand softens and the water rises. With every step my right foot sinks in, rolls over and rakes the new blisters. I struggle to find a path that will lessen my suffering. In desperation I cut up and down into and around the brush. Vines and low-lying branches catch my feet and trip every other step while large thick bushes with oily leaves in giant patches make the vegetation impassable. Each scallop in the coastline closes in, restricting the view like blinders on a horse. Approaching each point before the bend I beg, please let there be rocks or a ledge above the surf zone. Each time there is none.
One step, ouch, next step, uggghh, the tenderness increases. Pain. I think back to my swimming days when I trained for the Olympic trials. Hurt is inescapable, I know, so I try to talk with the pain and welcome it. The technique works. As I look deeper into what pain is about, it loses its grasp. Detachment follows, and the steps come more easily. The beauty of the sun’s reflection on the sand and the sound of the waves licking at the beach take my attention away and I move on.
Sticking out of a patch of tansy above the piles of flotsam and jetsam, I find an old green wine bottle containing a handwritten message, rolled up and fettered with a rusty paper clip. This one has been sitting here a few decades waiting for an errant soul. Despite the aluminum cap it has more verity. The cap has oxidized so I need to smash it to get the message. As I unfurl the two old grey pages, they break off into little bits, so I write down the message as it crumbles. It reads:
I am passing Cape S.T. Vincent portage at 11pm.
We left Barcelona on the 28th of May.
We are bound for Felixs Lowe now.
So, if you find this bottle please write and tell me.
I will be home 2nd of June 1970
Please dispose of this bottle safely (oops!)
Just over the ridge lies Flamingo Hill and beyond that Jacksonville Harbor, where one can see signs of industry. The East Caicos Sisal Company sent sisal to New York and the Breezy Point Estate ranch with a herd of cattle over 1,500 head provided beef for Grand Turk in the mid-19th century. After the collapse of the sisal industry, new business ventures began. Railroad tracks for donkey drawn trolleys ran 14 miles along the north side of East Caicos pulling bat guano from the deep caves to support the production of gunpowder. Periodically down the beach I see piles of cattle and donkey dung and trails of footprints. Islanders have come here in hunting parties since well before World War II to hunt these remaining relics of the past giant herds. But now, besides herds of livestock, the entire island is vacant. The ghost town of a ghost island is home to a solitude that is both frightening and exhilarating.
Towards the north tip of East Caicos I am beyond despair and understand how Tom Hanks must have felt in the movie, “Castaway.” What I need now is a buddy to talk to, my volleyball Wilson. I round Lorimer’s Point and find my friend, a Bridgestone Soft Touch. He doesn’t look as good as Wilson, but Softy is just as faithful. He listens to my every complaint and sits there with a blank white look on his face questioning all my woes.
Before I can unpack lunch I notice a white Fiberglass run-about coming around Jackson Cut Bay. “That’s odd,” I say aloud, “What’s this guy doing?” For most of the trip, to keep cool I have been wearing only the bug suit, which is as wispy and see-through as a window screen. The boat is coming up fast and I am trying to get real pants on but all the elastic cuffs and bands tangle up my legs and I fall to the ground. A full wrestle resumes; hog-tied, I am barely able to get dressed before he is at the point. At the water’s edge I yell out, “Where you headed?” Obviously he hasn’t seen what just transpired, and he replies, “Middle Ñ you need a ride?” Albert backs the boat up in surf so I can wade out and hop on. I run back up, drop-kick Softy for not answering me and throw on my pack. Suddenly I am seeing the coastline at 25 knots.
Albert is from Bambarra on a trip to East to find sprouting coconuts but the rising water on Lorimer’s Point has made the pass too treacherous. We swerve hard right and sharp left. It doesn’t make sense to me, but he finds safe water. Some dark spots in the water he dodges and others we drive right over. At one point near Haulover Point he speeds up to get enough momentum to plow through some sandy shallows. At another, we cut so close to an outcropping that I could jump to shore with plenty of room to spare. We round Gamble Point where a pair of osprey sit watching. Their nest sits atop a perfectly square rock stack that marks some historical spot.
He drops me off at the Bambarra boat ramp and I walk onward. This little trip just saved me two days of walking. Guilt sets in; I have dodged all the water crossings to Middle Caicos. As justification, I figure if Bill Bryson can change his agenda to walking the Appalachian Trail on weekend stints and still write the travel book A Walk in the Woods, then I can receive a small ride here and there and still save some face. So I walk on with a guilty grin but make an amendment to the purist; now I must hike the rest of the way entirely by my own accord.
The beach is too soft here, so I take the cobbled dirt road. Just up the hill is one of the last of the old-school boat builders, Headly Forbes, and his wife Ibiza, a traditional basket weaver. They both use the island’s resources for their crafts and prove more adroit than their counterparts from other countries. Mr. Forbes builds beautiful Caicos style sloops by first carving a half hull model and then laying out the rest of the design in his head. He walks the forest to find the branch with the correct bend for each part, hewing it by hand, from memory; mahogany for the ribs and the rock-hard, oily lignum vitae for the keel. The finished product is a true water-tight hull, made without the use of plans, lofting or a strong back that other shipwrights rely on.
As I head towards Conch Bar my pain becomes unbearable. Each step, ahhh, the next step ohhhhh. I try to talk with this new pain but it screams back in complete disapproval. My internal amendment to this purist venture requires further changes and at this point I will take any ride that passes by. Dennis takes me from Bambarra to Alice and Henry Taylor’s store just behind their house. Alice opens the door for me to peruse the shelves and find a few accents for tonight’s dinner. They are the second group of people I have seen so far and are very welcoming. I tell them about the trip and they graciously offer a sugar apple and a place to sit and chat about times past. It is my first taste of the fruit (also known as a custard apple), which tastes like a lichee and looks like a big, green hand grenade that is very squishy, like a deflated water balloon.
Henry explains that back before tourism was big in the Turks & Caicos Islands, if you weren’t working for the government or providing for yourself through fishing or farming, the only other possibility was to head up to the Bahamas and find work in construction and tourism. He worked there for much of his life and then came home near retirement with his wife of 50+ years.
Like Alice and Henry, the residents here are very friendly and Middle Caicos has that sleepy-town feel that starts down in Lorimers and livens as you approach the deep Conch Bar Caves. Day travelers come from North Caicos and Providenciales to see the largest above-ground limestone structures in TCI with smoke stains from the ancient Lucayans and graffiti that dates back to the 1800s.
The sleepiness might all change soon because there are housing lots starting to delineate ownership on the southern part of the island. Foreigners have been purchasing land as an investment and some have started moving forward to build a getaway vacation home. The locals that I spoke with welcome these and other tourist businesses, but are very wary of development getting out of hand and turning their home into another Providenciales. They all agree with the economic benefits of a big bustling island but fear losing the simple way of life through the violence and theft that comes with larger towns.
With some sugar apple seeds and new friends, I shake hands and attempt to put on my pack. I have developed a new technique to deal with the weight that’s easier than the standard way. The new method is to sit down and put the pack on, buckle the waist belt and then kick and flail to roll forward onto my belly, like an angry turtle that’s just been flipped on its back. Next I get to a crawling position, get my legs underneath and attempt to stand up. If not balanced, my first steps become a run forward to get under all the weight. Henry watches this with concern, either for my weakness or my mental health, but never cracks a smile. I am impressed. The next section is to head northwest towards the crossing to North Caicos, so I take off with a limp.
On flat ground the damage to my right foot becomes obvious. My blisters illustrate the soft steep terrain of East Caicos and my calf muscle has shut down in protest. I sit on the side of the road to drain the blood blister and empty the clear ones. But, even with a new lease on my feet, I will still take the first ride that stops to pick me up. The purist has died. Now the goal is to just make it to the end by any means.
The white chalky gravel road that heads out towards the ferry is almost a straight run. By mistake I stumble onto the smaller of Middle Caicos delights Ñ Indian Caves. Much has been written about this tourist attraction, but it is all new to me. My visit is not without its own drama when I enter and make my way to a vast cathedral hollow, with spires hanging from the walls like hunting trophies. As I take in the limestone forms painted by lines of bright green algae and grey limescale, a white flash of fury suddenly drops from a fissure, flapping in my face as it takes off through the entrance. Its mate swoops down through a hole in the sky and tries to defecate on me in defense. He needs more ballistics training; the digested rat splats on a spire to my left, which causes me to notice bones exclusively of mice and rats on the cave floor. These two owls have been here for many years and as I sit in the cave their strange calls sound like ghosts.
When I’m back on the road, Dennis drives by again and stops to pick me up. He is headed out to his boat to take Kim over to North Caicos. At the dock I hop out the back and start to blow up the raft. Dennis asks, “How you gettin’ across?”
“I’m swimming while pulling my pack in this little raft,” I say.
“Boy you crazy, just get in the boat, we’ll take you across,” he replies.
I try to resist and he scolds me, “What the hell you doin’? After this trip stop doin’ dis crazy stuff! You gonna get yourself killed and I’m gonna read about you somewhere.”
The trip across is long and I am lucky to have stumbled across Dennis, otherwise, I might have gotten into trouble. It could have been another trip out to sea . . .
Martin Pepper walked, swam and hitch-hiked the Caicos Islands while on Christmas break as Site Manager for the School for Field Studies in South Caicos. He is currently traveling around North America and Mexico while writing travel stories and taking pictures. His work can be seen on http://martinpepperphotography.com
Story & Photos By Martin Pepper