Lost Sails and Lost Cities

As most people know, an integral part of a sailing vessel is the sails. In the right conditions we sail faster than we motor, plus the motion of the boat is far more comfortable. Knowing that our old mainsail was 10 years old and had done some serious miles, we decided to bite the bullet and have a new one made & shipped to the boat in Curaçao. It was due to be there mid January, about one month before we arrived. But the best laid plans of mice and men don’t always work out. We’ll never know the full story, but it seems our sail may have swapped containers in Busan, Korea, then it decided to have a little holiday in Panama, because the container it was in had to be filled up. Then it arrived in time for a Customs strike in Curaçao. After phoning the receiving shipping agents office daily, visiting them several times and eventually jumping up and down a bit, in the end the only thing that got us our sail was having the help of the guy who owned the marina, who knew people in the shipping agency business. We still have no idea why they wouldn’t release it when the paperwork was all “Green” and good to go. Thanks Harry! With Loki back in the water and the new sail on board it was time to say goodbye to Curacao.

We had an uneventful three day sail from Curacao to Cartagena, Colombia, sailing straight past Santa Marta due to the perpetually windy conditions off the coast there. We all settled in well to being back on the water after being on land for a couple of weeks.

The old town of Cartagena, which is full of colour, is bound by 13 kilometres of old stone walls that have protected the city from marauding pirates for centuries. It’s lovely to just wander about taking in the sights and sounds and soaking up the atmosphere.

We then bused back up the coast to Santa Marta for our 4 day trek to “The Lost City”. Our intrepid group of twelve consisted of the four of us plus another German couple around our age, a group of four young Germans, an Italian girl and a French guy, all delightful twenty-somethings. We were accompanied by our local guide, Wilson, who has been guiding on this track for 31 years and Sergio, our translator. It certainly enhanced our experience to have such lively fellow travellers and have the opportunity to learn about the area and its people from such a seasoned campaigner as Wilson.

We carried backpacks with whatever clothing we wanted for the four days. At the start we trekked through open country where we saw large areas of barren, cleared hillsides. This, we were told is the result of the poisoning of the illegal cocaine crops that were grown here in the past. Originally the local farmers had grown bananas and avocados. But then the drug barons came along and introduced marijuana, which was a more lucrative crop, followed by the coca plant (for cocaine) which was even more lucrative, as it could be harvested four times a year. Thankfully nowadays the farmers grow coffee and cacao (for chocolate). As the hours went by we got deeper into the jungle. About four hours later we arrived at our first camp. It was like a scene straight out of the Netflix series “Narcos”. We could have been in a Colombian drug cartel’s jungle hideaway. The accommodation is very basic, with bunk beds completely encased in mosquito netting. With an early start and 8 hours of trekking the next day, an early night was had by all. The next morning we had to be up at 5:20am (that wasn’t in the brochure!) I awoke to small light beams (from people’s torches) silhouetting slow-moving forms. As people fumbled around in the dark it was reminiscent of a scene from a weird sci-fi movie where zombie creatures emerge from their sleeping pods.

The second day is most memorable for the killer hill, which was about an hour straight up, after our lunch stop. We didn’t disgrace ourselves though and kept up with the youngsters. In fact chatting across the dinner table Marc, the young German guy asked Ben: “Do you guys do much trekking?” to which he responded “every so often” and the German replied: “Gee! You are in good condition!” Day 3 we did the most kilometres and Camp 3 put us within striking distance of our goal, “The Lost City”, just another 1160 steps after breakfast next day and we’d be there! Being able to take a refreshing swim in the river at the end of a long day was an added bonus.

The local indigenous people are the descendants of the Tayrona, who built the Lost City around 600AD. You see them about as you trek through the Sierra Nevada, but they don’t make much eye contact, live a very basic life and eschew most things Western. Wilson is very knowledgeable of their customs and explained how they strip plant leaves to make thread to weave their bags. Also how they use various plants to naturally colour the thread.

At the start of the trek we’d been advised to make sure we didn’t leave our backpacks open and to check shoes and clothing for tarantulas and scorpions, but that was the least of my worries. I arrived at Camp 3 having been bitten on the fanny by a tick! Highly embarrassing! I don’t know much about ticks, but I sort of knew that getting rid of them isn’t straight forward. The sneaky little buggers bore head first into your flesh. They spiral their way in, so you can’t just pull them out by hand. As luck would have it there was a young French surgeon in one of the other groups, who actually had a tick removing device! What luck! He valiantly got rid of the little blighter, ably assisted by nurse Kath holding the torch. Gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “tick-ity-boo”. (No, there are no photos of the tick incident!)(Postscript: not wanting to be out done, Ben discovered he also had a tick invader only this morning. Our Immigration agent was visiting our boat at the time, so she very helpfully arranged for a doctor to come down and extract it for him).

The Tayrona built their settlements with multiple stone terrace bases, upon which their thatched wooden houses sat. When someone died, they were buried under their house, along with their gold, and the house was abandoned by the family. It was this gold that the grave robbers were looking for in 1975 when the Lost City was rediscovered. Shortly after our arrival we were greeted by the local Shaman, who welcomed us and gave us his blessing. Whilst the indigenous people don’t embrace Western ways they are pragmatic enough to realise that they also benefit from the tourist dollar.

Back in 2002 eight tourists were kidnapped by guerrillas during a trek to the Lost City (that bit definitely wasn’t in the brochure). So these day there is a strong presence of Colombian soldiers along the way, around 70 along the route we were told. Based near many of our stops they were highly visible. Obviously the Colombian government appreciates the importance of the tourist dollar. The hike was at times challenging, but well worth the effort. We covered approximately 62 kms, through varied terrain with boot-sucking, clay-like mud, slippery rocks, river crossings, grinding uphill ascents and steep knee-jarring descents. As with so many things in life, it’s as much about the journey as it is about the destination, as well as the people you share it with along the way. So glad we made the effort to do this!

Early tomorrow morning we’ll be heading off for the San Blas islands in Panama. Some of these islands are inhabited by indigenous people, so should be a very interesting, and we’re told idyllic place to visit.

Hope all is good at your end.

Adios,

Kate

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Time for a Change of Season

The last stage of our travels this season has taken us from the Eastern Caribbean to the ABCs (as the Dutch Caribbean islands of Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao are known). These are very parched, arid islands with eastern coasts lashed by Atlantic seas and about the only thing that grows here in abundance is cactus. So much so that they even build their fences from cacti. In Bonaire we then said farewell to Dean and Sue after an enjoyable 430nm crossing from Bequia. Thanks guys!

We’d heard Bonaire offers some of the best SCUBA diving in the Caribbean (if not worldwide), but it wasn’t until we got there that we realised why it’s such a diving Mecca. This is the home of DIY shore diving. The whole island is just one gigantic dive site. In 1962 Captain Don Stewart arrived from California, fell in love with the place and spent the next 50 years both diving on and protecting the reef. His early dive gear is on display at one of the local museums. Complete with his low-tech depth gauge – a red ribbon! Water is much denser than air which means light gets absorbed more quickly. The longest wavelengths of light are absorbed first, so the colour red nearly disappears at around 5 metres. I guess he didn’t venture too deep. Many of the 90-odd dive sites were marked and named by him. Most are accessible straight off the shore. All you need to go diving is to rent a pick-up truck, pick up some dive bottles (with your PADI card), pick a dive site and just wade in. For the sites that aren’t accessible by car, you can do an organised boat dive with one of the many dive operators. Or for the sites close to the marina you just jump in your dingy and tie up to the dive site mooring buoy. Bonaire is so well set up for diving, and the underwater world is quite spectacular. One of the more novel sites we explored was the salt pier. No, that’s not me – the girl at the back of truck. (Image credit to Sanne Wesselman). I pinched a couple of images from the web to give you an idea. (Underwater salt pier image credits also to Jennifer Penner & Angie Orth). The pylons there are enormous and the fish life incredible. We hadn’t done any independent diving before Bonaire so it was good to hone some of our newly acquired advanced diving skills. In Italy there’s the passegiatta, where strolling couples acknowledge each other as they pass on the street. In Bonaire it’s a little underwater wave to the couple scuba-ing towards you. Weird! But depending on the dive site you may be the only ones down there and you often have that part of the reef all to yourselves. Just you and the fish. So many fish! At times I felt a bit like I was in that Monty Python sketch, you know, the one where all the fish are swimming past each other saying “Morning!”, “Morning!”, “Morning!” Some of the fish swim straight at you, not the least bit concerned by the bubble blowing monsters.

We were also intrigued to see the underwater coral nurseries that have been planted and subsequently found an informative exhibition on it at the local museum. I grabbed a couple of stills from the videos. Even though the diving is spectacular, apparently all is not well. The staghorn and elkhorn corals that once offered front line protection to the reefs have been steadily collapsing since the 1980s due to bleaching, diseases, deteriorating water quality and overfishing. There is now a very effective coral conservation push to actively restore the reefs. A couple of people, including another yachtie who is a marine biologist, mentioned the movie “Chasing Coral” which amongst other things is about the drastic bleaching occurring on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. We’ve not yet seen it, but both people told us when we do we’ll cry.

Just near the salt pier is the salt mine, that still operates today. The large snowy salt piles stand out starkly against the pink salt ponds and blue sky. The pink colour comes from a micro-organism that thrives in high salinity brine, whose cell membranes contain carotenoid pigments. These “brine shrimp” are a favourite food of the local flamingoes, giving them their brilliant pink plumage. During the slave trade days up to six slaves would be housed in tiny huts, that you or I couldn’t even stand up in, to work in this salt mine. At the weekend they’d then walk for seven hours to the other end of the island to visit their families and collect provisions before heading back to the salt mine. Very tough indeed.

As we’ve travelled throughout the Caribbean I’ve be been surprised by how little commentary/acknowledgement/information there is about the slave trade, given it provided the labour that sustained most of these islands in their early days of development. Here and there have been a few museums, with disturbing images and/or artefacts that tell a small part of the story. The museum at Bonaire has a small section which refers to the more than 12 million slaves who were forcibly brought to the Caribbean, in over 35,000 voyages, to provide labour for the various types of plantations (sugar, cotton, coffee, cocoa and tobacco). The images of slave ships layouts are nothing short of horrendous. It’s said that these were what galvanised the movement to abolish slavery. Although slavery may not exist today, there sure is a heck of a lot of inequality around these parts. Not surprising then that crime is a very real problem.

We reached our final destination a couple of weeks ago after sailing through the openable bridge at Willemstad, Curaçao. This is a town with a definite European feel with quirky street art and colourful, brightly painted buildings. It also feels a lot more like South America too, which is not surprising given that Venezuela is only 35 nautical miles away. There’s a lively waterfront fruit, veg and fish market, where the Venezuelans who’ve sailed across sell their fresh produce.

We managed to get in a dive here also and noticed the artificial coral reef balls. Again, reef renourishment is been actively undertaken here. Afterwards we were somewhat entertained by the local “wild” pigs turning up on the beach. Clearly not very wild!

In Curaçao there are a number of massive gated communities. I guess they’re full of people who are scared of what’s on the outside. Hmmm. I wonder if that’s really going to help solve any problems long term. Doesn’t that just create an even greater sense of disenfranchisement to the people on the outside? Isn’t poverty yet another form of inequality? The Caribbean is a part of the world which invokes most people’s idea of absolute paradise. Soft winds, blue skies, gentle waves on long white sandy beaches fringed with swaying palm trees. Beach shacks selling rum punches and friendly, happy people. Sure, when you travel through here, you see some of that. But there is another side to what’s going in many of these “idyllic” places. It is also the reality of the women washing their laundry in the river, who gave us a friendly wave when we were walking across Union Island. Just up the road from there we chatted to some locals who were limin’ (hanging out) at the local. Really friendly people, happy to chat, interested in where we were from and where we were going. Then there are the store fronts that look more like metal cages. Clearly there are areas you simply wouldn’t venture out to at night. We found the Caribbean to be a really mixed bag. And you just can’t ignore the stark disparity you see here on a daily basis. Hurricanes continue to keep them behind the eight ball also. In some places we’ve encountered plenty of enterprising locals who’ve worked out how to capitalise on the steady stream of passing yachties, offering bread, ice, island tours or laundry services. But of all the thousands of yachts cruising around these waters, we didn’t see too many black people sailing around in their vessels (maybe one).

We’ve now hauled Loki out of the water – at midnight because we needed all of the high spring tide. The cleaning and packing up has been done and it’s almost time to start heading home. We’re looking forward to catching up with friends and family upon our return, but suspect the weather might take a bit of getting used to!

Ciao for now,

Kate

Posted in 2018, Caribbean, Uncategorized | 2 Responses

How to make your own island

If there is one thing that is synonymous with the Caribbean then it’s rum, or rhum, as they say here. Every island, if not every bar, has their own concoction and the local history often revolves around the sugar plantations of yesteryear. We visited the Depaz distillery, located in the foothills of Mt Pelee, Martinique. The earlier sugar plantation on the site dated back to 1651. The Mt Pelee volcano spectacularly erupted in 1902, killing all 30,000 inhabitants of the nearest town, St Pierre, except for three people. The entire Depaz family perished with the exception of a son who was away at school in France at the time of the eruption. He subsequently returned to Martinique and rebuilt the distillery in honour of his family. One of the more novel aspects of this site is the steam driven machinery which is still in operation today.

Another activity that’s been going on over here just as long is fishing. There are plenty of fish around and it’s not uncommon to see the local fisherman selling his catch of the day at a roadside stall. But if it’s pizza that you’re craving then look no further than the pizza boat that floats around Le Marin area, complete with oven on the back. We didn’t try it, but we did get a couple of excellent takeaway meals from some French cruising guys cooking awesome gourmet meals on their yacht. Plenty of good food choices in Martinique.

From Martinique we headed on down to St Lucia and the oasis that is Marigot Bay. We’d heard there’d been some problems with multiple dingy thefts up at Rodney Bay, so went for the safer option of Capella Resort. You can take a berth in the marina which provides 24 hour security and gives you access to the resort facilities and pool. Hiring a car and driving around the island was interesting. The volcano on this island is billed as “the world’s only drive through volcano”. One of the fumeroles is somewhat disturbingly named after a guide who some years ago fell into the boiling mud up to his waist, suffering severe burns. Luckily he was pulled out by quick thinking people and managed to survive. We drove to the main southern town of Soufriere, which was quite an eye opener, as it seemed incredibly poor and in very stark contrast to both the nearby Sugar Bay Resort and Capella. Yet another example of the massive disparity between the haves and have nots. No photos at Soufriere I’m afraid. It just didn’t seem appropriate to pull out a camera out there (not even an iPhone). We actually didn’t even get out of the car to stroll around.

We opted to sail straight past St Vincents, not feeling the need to stop there. So our next port of call was the delightful island of Bequia. The shoreline around the bay is dotted with some cute gingerbread buildings, a whalebone bar and a sandy beach. The locals are all super friendly. There are lots of Rasta guys with serious locks, including Brian and his “rosemary” (that’s what he calls his calf length hair). He told me he spends $100 per week on various shampoos, oils and spray – who’d have thought, a high maintenance guy!) They also have some weird looking sheep with no wool, which I thought were goats, that graze along the roadside. It’s all very chilled in Bequia.

We took the opportunity to stay here for a bit and brush up on our SCUBA diving skills, completing the Advanced Open Water Diver course. Diving in Bequia was an absolute delight. Great visibility, plenty of fish and coral, with the water temperature a balmy 26 degrees.

We then hot-footed it down to the Tobago Cays when the breeze backed off a little bit. The marine park here includes five small reef-fringed islands that are surrounded by wonderfully clear waters full of fish and turtles. It’s a bit like snorkeling in a giant fish tank made from an enormous bottle of Bombay Sapphire gin and once again we were lucky enough to swim with turtles. The locals run a terrific BBQ dinner ashore with fresh lobster which or course we availed ourselves of.

You really start to feel old when you’re travelling around and you hear about an event of historical significance and realise that it happened in your lifetime. We visited the remains of Fort George atop the capital of St Georges. It was here that the revolutionary leader and Prime Minister Maurice Bishop, who led a bloodless coup in 1979, was executed. His death sparked events that lead to the US invasion. He was a British-trained lawyer who was subsequently placed under house arrest by hardline communists. However, Bishop was popular with the people and thousands of them freed him then marched with him to Fort George where he, along with a number of his supporters, was subsequently shot by firing squad in 1983. In the courtyard of the Fort there is a plaque that commemorates these events. Apparently the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States appealed to the US for assistance, along with the Grenaden Governor-General. President Ronald Reagan then sent in the troops. It’s hard to imagine that sort of thing happening today, or is it? It was in Grenada that we welcomed Dean and Sue aboard Loki. We hired a car to take a look around the island and visited the Nutmeg Processing Cooperative. It was interesting to see how much of the sorting, grading and packing was still done manually. No automation here. There was even a guy hand-stenciling the destinations onto sacks, whilst another was sewing them up by hand. Nutmeg used to be the main crop on the island before Hurricane Ivan wiped it out in 2004. These days it has been replaced by cocoa so of course we also felt compelled to visit the Diamond Chocolate Factory where you can see the whole process from raw beans to finished product, complete with sampling at the end!

From there we travelled north again stopping at Carriacou and Union Island. We’d heard from other yachties about a small island made out of conch shells that some bloke had built a bar on. Thought we had to see that. So we made our way out to “Happy Island” where we met Janti, it’s creator. He told us he’d landed a government contract to clean up the conch shells discarded by fisherman that littered the local beach. In 2002 he started piling up the conch shells on a shallow part of the reef, from where he proceeded to sell rum punches to passing yachties. The locals all thought he was a crazy guy. He kept on bringing in more conch shells and before long there was a working bar, a deck complete with tables and chairs, palm trees and dingy landing area. Janti seems like quite a character and he also makes a damn fine rum punch. Good luck to him!

Even before arriving here we started to see the beginnings of the massive seaweed problem they are experiencing all over the Caribbean this year. About two thirds of the way across the Atlantic we saw large areas of seaweed that we had to avoid from time to time. You really don’t want this stuff around your prop or fouling your engine water intake. From island to island we’ve seen the sargasso seaweed everywhere. It washes ashore on beaches and in harbours giving off a nasty hydrogen sulphide gas as it decomposes. There are a number of health risks associated with the gas such as: nausea, headaches and spontaneous abortion in pregnant women. This gas in the water was also responsible for destroying the desalination system at Virgin Gorda during the 2015-2016 season. There’s also a risk to turtle nesting beaches. Researchers are developing techniques to track and predict the weed masses, but the causes of the sargasso blooms is not yet well understood. Increasing weather extremes of heat and/or additional nutrients are thought to play a role. In the meantime we continue to pluck it off the deck every now and again.

Having spent the last three and a half months cruising through the West Indies it’s now time for us to head west. Tomorrow we sail for the Dutch Antilles, some 430nm away, or about two and a half days sailing.  The forecast is looking good, so we should have a pleasant trip.

I hope everything is good with you and life is treating you well.

Cheers,

Kate

Posted in 2018, Caribbean | 5 Responses

A Tale of Two Punches

Soooo, apparently the word is out in Melbourne. I may as well share with you the details of an unpleasant experience that occurred at the start of our Caribbean tour. Our week-long visit to St Kitts earlier in the season was bookended by two very different types of punch. One was a rather lovely rum punch, which we shared with the O’Donohue family one evening at an idyllic beach bar shack, before they set off the next day to continue their yacht charter. The other was unfortunately the kind of punch that nobody wants to be on the receiving end of. Yes, I was assaulted. In broad daylight. At 10:15 in the morning. On a main road beside the waterfront. Happy Valentines Day. Not!!! The people who came to my aid were Venezuelan, as well as their gardener, who was a local Kittitian. The attack happened right outside their embassy and it was the Ambassador and his assistant who called the police, drove me to hospital and stayed with me the whole time until the police came back. They also managed to get word to Fitz for me. (We didn’t have local SIMs, so that was a little challenging). The irony was not lost on me that Venezuela is the one country here whose waters we can’t sail in. Our insurance policy specifically excludes their waters as being too dangerous. The fact is that there are good people and bad people everywhere.

Whilst my attacker gave me a broken nose he was unsuccessful in robbing me and is now sitting in prison. (Pleased to say I am all fine now, with no lasting damage). The police did a fabulous job, they had their suspect within an hour or so of the incident. Tourism is just about the one and only thing that drives the St Kitts economy, so the police were very determined to prosecute, show that Kittitian justice is done swiftly, make an example of the offender and send a very clear message to his mates. We’d planned to sail north to St Bart’s the next day so they rushed through proceedings and we were in court that same afternoon. The young man got eight months prison with hard labour. The police said he’d serve at least six.

Up until that point we’d enjoyed our time in St Kitts, met and interacted with some very friendly locals and had not felt at all threatened. Generally speaking, the people here are good people and are exceedingly polite. As locals board a bus or walk into a supermarket they say: “Good afternoon”, to which others respond the same. Many people here have better manners than a lot of the “first world”. The unfortunate reality is that bad things can happen anywhere. They even happen in Melbourne.

Whilst my assailant didn’t have any priors and pleaded guilty I think he got what he deserved; he wasn’t particularly remorseful. But the philosophical flip side of that is that there is a huge gap between the haves and have nots, not just here, but in many, many places. And that gap seems to be widening. I don’t have any great answers, but I can’t help but wonder if we aren’t part of the problem too. Whether you come here by private yacht, fancy cruise ship, or stay in your luxury gated hotel you are still a million miles away from most of the locals’ day to day reality. When you see the incredibly modest, humble homes that these people live in, juxtaposed to wealthy tourists, like us, you can’t help but contemplate that it’s a recipe for disaster. I feel that as this gap between the haves and have nots continues to widen, not just here but right around the world, this seriously isn’t a good thing.

I didn’t mention the incident in my first post of the season as I didn’t want family and friends to be unduly concerned about our safety. Travelling is fun, but at times it can be just a tad risky. It goes with the territory. The good thing is that it hasn’t stopped us continuing to explore new places and meet new people. Don’t feel too sorry for me as we’re not doing too badly over here, as you can see by the poolside shot of us taken at Marigot Bay, St Lucia recently. We are now in Bequia brushing up on our scuba diving skills and very much enjoying ourselves!

Take care out there!

Kate

Posted in 2018, Caribbean | 13 Responses

Turtle kissing in Martinique

Just a quick post as I have a video I just have to share with you and luckily have good wifi for uploading. We had the best time ever diving the other day at Diamond Rock, Martinique. The story of the 175m high basalt island is an interesting one. Back in 1804 the British were fighting the French and running low on ships. Ever resourceful, they decided to commission the rock as a ship, which became HMS Diamond Rock, complete with cannons and a hundred or so men to man them. They say the French didn’t know what hit them as they sailed into Martinique. Apparently on today’s Admiralty charts the rock is still shown as HMS Diamond Rock and British ships are required to give it the naval salute as they pass. Sailors on the upper deck stand at attention and face the rock whilst the bridge salutes.

But it’s what’s under her waters that attracted us. When you look at the chart there is a shallow north side and a very deep south side. We enquired about diving there and were told we must have dived recently because sometimes there can be currents and you need to have good buoyancy control in the swim-throughs. On the second dive we’d go to a plateau where turtles often feed on sea grass. Our dive master, Cyril, said we may run into a large turtle by the name of “Paula”. He said if we find her we must be careful not to scare her. If she lifts her head from feeding, then drop yours so she doesn’t feel threatened. She’s often very friendly towards divers as they scrape barnacles from her carapace. He also said if she gets too friendly then a gentle push on her shell, rather than her flippers, is OK. Well, we did find Paula and she took quite a fancy to Fitzy. Not sure if she’s French though, as she didn’t kiss both cheeks! But then again Fitzy wasn’t entirely receptive to her advances. I think he was a bit focused on how close her rather large beak was to his air hose. And whilst we were watching Paula, the lobsters were watching us. Hilarious! We saw other turtles too, but none quite as engaging as Paula. It really is amazing down there. Our dive master, Cyril from Paradis Plongee, did a fantastic job of catching it all on video. At the end of the dives he very generously provided us with the footage that he’d shot. I was then able to edit it and add some music. It’s short and sweet but it’s really nice to have some footage that has both of us in it.

There’s also a quick look at going through one of the faults in the rock – you might have already seen this on Facebook.

Enjoy!

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