More than a touch of civilization marks the second part of the journey.
In the old days, Turks & Caicos Islanders regularly walked between islands. This fact inspired Martin Pepper to walk, swim and hitch-hike about 100 miles from the southern tip of South Caicos to the northern edge of Providenciales, carrying all his gear and supplies the entire length. He used an inflatable raft to float the pack as he swam across the water passages.
In Part I of his epic journey (printed in the Summer 2006 issue), this voyager traveled along undeveloped Plandon, Middle Creek and McCartney Cays and East Caicos to reach the hospitality of Middle Caicos. Along the way, he fought strong ocean currents, sand fleas, blisters and a razor-sharp path while discovering a rugged, untouched coastline, messages in bottles, the ruins of the sisal industry, eerie caves and thriving examples of local culture, including ship building and basket weaving. When we left Martin, he had just been spared a long swim between Middle Caicos and North Caicos, hitching a boat ride across the passage.
On North Caicos, Kim gives me a ride to the outskirts of Bottle Creek. I find out he is a chef at the Meridian Club on Pine Cay and enjoys his work. He, like all the locals I’ve talked to, welcomes the tourist industry but is wary of going too fast or too far. For as tourism emerges, TCI is at the risk of slowly losing its culture and heritage.
I remember talking with Alton Higgs, one of the few Islanders who still has much knowledge of bush medicine. He urges others to remember the old ways of the Islands, arguing that TCI culture is rapidly dying off and the homogenization of American culture is replacing the color and grace that has wrought TCI’s strong and independent personality. He says that the island youth aren’t as interested in home dishes, tradition or history as they are with fast food, music television and Hollywood glamorizing the “gangsta.” Many of TCI’s unique qualities could pass in Mr. Higgs’ memory if steps aren’t taken to archive this knowledge and instill pride of heritage in the children.
I set up camp just off the road. The vegetation on North Caicos forms a compact microforest. The wind is high and breathes through the trees in a resonating gasp. All the branches and leaves bring depth to the sound, like pipes in a church organ. The night is peaceful, and under the stars I commune with a dragonfly on a branch above.
The next morning while walking I try to wave at somebody driving by who doesn’t wave back and end up tripping on a rock, spraining my left ankle. A sense of loneliness sets in and I feel alienated. North Caicos is larger than East and I can sense more weariness. I catch a ride in the back of a government truck and then call a friend at the District Commissioner’s office.
Jody Rathgeb shows up and hijacks me for the day. We have tea with friends who are building a house across the road. The conversation steers towards the “joys” of shipping and importing building materials. At another friend’s we bottle some home brew. I am impressed with the sense of community Jody has with everybody on North. Jody is a freelance journalist writing stories for magazines like Times of the Island that exemplify local culture and island living. Much of her work gives voice to the people of TCI supplying local foods, services and artistic beauty. She makes some suggestions that help me decide to finish this trek.
I take a rest day walking around Whitby and make some curious finds. At one site in a pair of buildings in the bush there is an argon gas cylinder, last hydro-tested for use in the 1960s. Flakes of rust at the base fold outward like pages in a book. If it is under pressure, it could become a missile at any moment. It brings to mind my high school metal shop teacher, who told us of an oxygen cylinder that rocketed through eight concrete floors before escaping through the roof. There is no need to find out if he was exaggerating so I duck and scurry.
I also find a derelict resort from a chain that has gone out of business. It looks as though one day they just closed the doors, cut their losses and ran off without paying their debts. Bitter creditors must have retaliated, because sliding doors are smashed, furniture is gone and the buildings are in complete decrepitude. But I find a coconut tree across the street near the tennis courts – lunch! The nut has fermented and I stumble back to Whitby intoxicated.
For dinner, Jody’s homemade chili and bread are my recovery medicine and I binge, washing it down with home brew. I am fat and happy. Bryan Manco, senior conservation officer with the TCI National Trust, stops by to show off the new vegetation maps that they’ve been working on. We talk about the terrestrial ecology of TCI and the many species that both inhabit and visit the Turks & Caicos Islands. What’s fascinating is that his team has documented airborne species that were not known to reside here, including the sandhill crane, American pipet, blue headed quail dove, Cuban emerald hummingbird and one or more species of red bat. What’s troubling, of course, is that these birds and mammals have been sneaking in and out of the country without immigration clearance!
In the morning, I call Parrot Cay Resort, hideaway of the rich and famous, and inform them of my pending arrival. Questions arise about my sanity so I tell the assistant manager that I am writing a piece for a local magazine and set up a tour. We decide that I will show up at Sandy Point at 10:00 the next morning, where they will send over a boat to pick me up. Once I reach the cay an escort will lead me to the other side. My mind begins to race and I become impressed that they will send over a private yacht and personal bodyguard to keep all the movie stars and wealthy at bay. All the rumors that I have heard about the decadence of the place must be true. I would hate to have to deal with people rushing me for autographs and photos!
In truth, as I later learn, the guests at Parrot Cay are an amalgamation from all walks of life, all holding the common need to escape from the stresses of day to day living and demanding jobs. They come to the beautiful island to envelop themselves in quiet and calm and find a chance to restore and rejuvenate.
I am at the dock by 9 AM to catch the boat taxi, which runs back and forth all day and into the night. This is one of the most exclusive resorts in the world; in fact, they do a background check on patrons to ensure that no paparazzi are among guests. The crossing is two lengths of an Olympic pool and in different circumstances I could have easily swum this stretch. But, today I will follow instructions. Teejay welcomes me at the receiving dock and is my guide. I come off the dock a ragamuffin in the same clothes that I have been wearing since leaving South Caicos. The rucksack and my ratty clothes look as though I fell out of a dumpster, but she is able to work around them. I should have thought ahead and packed my penguin suit.
The name of Parrot Cay is thought to be a derivation of “Pirate Cay.” The island is said to have been the hideout of infamous female pirates Anne Bonnie and Mary Read. The location makes sense; a little nugget of tranquility with views from a hilltop. Our golf cart struggles to climb the slope from the water to the lodge.
I am instantly impressed with the seamless design of the resort; there is a sweet, simplistic nature demonstrated in all the accommodations. When approaching any project backed by affluence I am usually ready for the worst, but here I am pleasantly surprised. Parrot Cay’s developers chose a timeless approach for design, incorporating an Asian feel with functional, clean and spacious rooms.
The floor of the main lobby is checkered with satillo tile while the walls are framed with gabro squares up to eggshell white walls and a front desk cloaked in slabs of coral -all peaceful, cooling and welcoming. The view from the veranda is magical with the aquamarine bay merging into white sands demarcated by a patch of palms. As we travel down the path towards the spa and pool, I notice that the grounds around us are blanketed with immaculately kept grass.
Great herons and other wildlife roam comfortably amongst the guests and at times come flitting out of the sky. On the beach, guests can take a walk, learn how to sail, head out fishing, windsurf, kayak or just cozy up in private little cabanas pampered in cotton cushions.
On my way to the other end of the island we stop by a wing of the COMO Shambala Retreat. Teejay informs me that the resort’s spa specializes in treatments from around the world.
I ask, “Can I get a hot river stone rub?”
“A Javanese royal lular bath?”
“Marine mud therapy?”
“Not a problem.”
“Does the shrink jump in with me?”
“I think you’re misunderstanding the therapy part.”
“How about this rash growing up my leg?”
“Hmmm . . . I don’t think so.”
She takes me to the end of the island where the sweet amenities taper off to just a spit of sand covered in mats of dead eel grass. I snap out of the luxurious dreaminess, fill my raft, and swim away. Dellis Cay welcomes me with dense vegetation and piles of flat, weathered limestone boulders. Neither livestock nor human lives here; there are no trails. It is up to me to trace the ledges and not get blown back into the water. Gusts of wind steer my pack around corners. It feels like someone is pushing me sideways.
The southwest tip of Dellis has a camp with corroding awnings and splintered picnic tables accompanied by rusted signs stating ownership by J & B Tours. I figure it hasn’t been used in a while so I unpack, spread everything out and fall asleep in the setting sun. Less than an hour later a powered catamaran shows up with a heap of tourists showing more pink skin than cloth. I give a cursory glance and then run up to pack my things. The visitors hop out and jostle down the beach, avoiding the camp. I sit and hide behind my pack under an awning in a grove of Caribbean pines for an hour until they are gone. Rain thunders the entire night through the awning and soaks me.
The next morning is the biggest swim crossing yet and I am a bit nervous. Fervent wind has already tossed the surface water into a slurry and is moving north out to sea with some velocity. Flashbacks of the Coast Guard crossing echo in my mind. I decide to slowly start crossing and keep an eye on the speed of the shore from behind; any question and I return to shore. It works out perfectly. The wind blows me north and the undercurrent pulls me south. I am able to swim straight across to Fort George Cay, a glorified sand bar that had cannons installed shortly after the war of 1812 to fight American and pirate ships. The canons elude me and the hike over to Pine Cay is just a quarter mile, but with an inflated raft on my back I am spun to face the wind like a weather vane. I walk sideways like a crab stepping foot over foot with the wind in my face.
The energy in Pine Cay is like old welcoming neighborhood friends. Residents see my huge pack and they come up with smiles and ask, “Where ya going with such a big pack?” When I explain the trip they are all impressed and more friends come out and want to hear my story. At the Meridian Club grocery store I am given bottled water and purchase a few supplies.
News travels swiftly through the place and Kim comes out of the kitchen with surprise, “Wow! I can’t believe you’ve made it this far, I’ll have to tell Dennis that I saw you alive.”
Nigel, a chef from the Gold Coast in Australia, offers to show me the place with his personal golf cart. We weave through a narrow little trail with such thick vegetation that it feels we are punching through a hole to the main natural attraction -the Aquarium. The channel between Pine and Water Cays was hit by Hurricane Donna in 1960 enclosing a pond with sand walls. Since the 1960s, the south side has eroded back to free the inhabitants but the name has stuck. The northern shore runs the length to Leeward Cut. Pine Cay has what I believe to be the widest, most beautiful flat beach in the Caicos Islands. It is pristine, dotted with just clam and snail shells, and connects to Water Cay.
On Water Cay there are tall mounds of solid rock like blobs of magma that keep vegetation at bay and most of the way I am able to weave back and forth, jumping hill to hill and tearing through the troughs of pigmy palms and prickly brush. A quarter of the way down I find an old wreck just offshore with a windlass and a scupper poking through the surface. The waves stir the sediment to a milky haze, preventing a good view.
On a typical day, this section of islands would keep me busy past afternoon but the excitement of making it to Providenciales eludes lunch and snack time. As I approach a choice appears: head towards the northern rim on Little Water Cay and finish it off with one crossing or cut inward from Water Cay to Sinken to Bird to Lizard to Donna to Mangrove Cays and finally to Provo. If the tides are moving northward it will give me some buffer in case I am swept out to sea again. The maps have no information about depths so I decide to cut inward and take a look. Each expanse looks huge, whereas from my vantage point upward to the point on Little Water it looks as if it can get me right up to Leeward Passage and leave me with a small leap across. I decide to go for the outside pass.
On the point I am welcomed with boardwalks and signs about the endemic iguanas and unique vegetation. And there’s a surprise: this pass is monstrous, the winds are again at full tilt and the current is nasty. This reminds me of the flogging a week earlier, but it’s about ten times greater in distance. I don’t know whether I should start blowing up the raft or swim back to an anchored ketch in Stubbs Creek and ask for a ferry trip over in their Achilles dinghy.
The beauty of the tip is still quite breathtaking. Even down and out I can still appreciate the warmth of the day surrounded by an ocean the temperature of bathwater. I revel in the fact that the water passing before me will take this heat and swing up the eastern coastline distributing it northward. My nemesis today is the equatorial heat pump up to the North Pole. Traveling eastward on the Labrador Current off Newfoundland, this water will then bring cold currents down the European coast only to return in a few years and do it all over again. I know one thing -I really am not interested in seeing all this firsthand.
I dreamt of swimming the last crossing to earn a mental badge of accomplishment, but do I attempt it with conditions of suicide? A party pontoon boat comes around the corner. J & B Tours has come to the rescue. The same boat that had passed by me all day beaches to show patrons the famous TCI fauna. I come aboard to explain my trip to the captain and ask for a trip across.
“Are you that guy that has been walking along the edge of Water Cay all day taking photos?” he asks.
“Yeah that’s me,” I say.
“Wait, you’re the same guy that was over on Dellis last night too, huh?”
“Yeah, I was hiding, waiting till you guys left so I could camp under the awning. I didn’t have enough room to bring a tent and I knew that rain was coming,” I reply.
He has no problem letting me aboard, but it means that I have to finish the rest of the tour with the group. They’re going back around and down to Dellis Cay to hang out on the beach. Luckily, a chase boat arrives shortly after and is able to zip me over, drop me off and get back to the group in a few minutes.
So the walk-about ends in a fizzle. But it really doesn’t matter -I made it to the last island through walking, swimming, hitchhiking, boating, floating and crawling; laughing, sighing, moaning, huffing, crying, sweating, swearing and shaking.
FaI am able to catch two rides across Providenciales to the airport. The first is from a British outdoor enthusiast. His friends call him Extreme Ian and sensing my endeavor he picks me up without a problem. After consuming a whole chicken and drink at IGA I try to find another ride to complete Provo. Nobody wants to pick up a strange man with a huge rucksack. The only one who will stop is an off-road forklift returning to the dock. I ride like a king underneath the behemoth hydraulic arm as we lurch down the road, taking up both lanes. This is the perfect way to finish the journey.
The experience has had its own rhythm, beginning in complete solitude, interspersed with time spent talking with the local folk and other conversations catching up with ex-patriates. In the words of Albert Frommers, “The less one spends the more they enjoy their travel” and this trip was that of a miser. I have nothing but gratitude and warmth for all the people who were prepared to help me on my journey, asking nothing in return. These were the people who saved an idiot from himself despite the unpleasant smell he emanated.
The biggest lesson learned on this trip? DO NOT TOUCH THE POISONWOOD TREE! I rolled through a patch one evening and the sap formed a rash with blisters that spread down my leg. An almost ineffective treatment is to cover the area with WD-40 in order to dissolve the pitch and remove the toxins. I have been lubed-up for weeks with little improvement. My rust is gone but the poisonwood rash remains.
Martin Pepper is currently working for the world renowned Walindi Plantation Dive Resort in Papua New Guinea as a project manager and freelance photographer and writer. His work can be seen on http://martinpepperphotography.com
Editor’s note: The two photos of Martin appearing on p. 28 and p. 75 of the Summer 2006 issue of Times of the Islands were taken by John Claydon.
Story & Photos By Martin Pepper