The Little Island that Could

 

Winter 2008

The big-bellied moon hangs just above the eastern horizon turning the world to tones of   lead and pewter. The Caribbean – 2000’ below my aerie here on the cliffs of Saba- is unpolished silver plate tarnished by cloud shadow and misty rain veils off to the south. Stars – as well as Venus and Jupiter- are playing hide and seek as the moon- lit clouds scud to the west.  The breeze for once is just that – a breeze, not the gale force blows that have been rocking my home for the past few weeks. The locals call these not so gentle trade winds ‘Christmas Winds’ and look forward to their arrival as a sure sign that the ‘season’ is about to begin.

I’ve been here for a month now, winter chef-in-residence for a resort not much bigger than the Horse, and I’m still sane. My first attempt at Caribbean island life in 1978 ended after only two weeks with what was diagnosed as ‘rock fever’ – a mental aberration arising from the need to take a long drive while stuck in the middle of an ocean on a piece of dirt that takes about 25 minutes to circumnavigate – on foot. The only cure for rock fever which manifests at its worst in uncontrollable shaking, sweating and inability to breathe (picture severe claustrophobia) is to get your butt on the first outgoing plane, preferably landing in Kansas.

But such is not the case on this adventure to Saba. Admittedly, there have been a few hours here and there where the heart beat increased and the breathing shallowed, but it was quickly overcome by picking up a hiking stick and heading for a mountain, and what a mountains we have  here on this unknown little island gem.

Until now I considered the hike up to Rumble Lake to be my benchmark for difficulty by which all other hikes were rated. For all of Saba’s demure size – she’s only 5 square miles – she offers up some of the most challenging vertical I’ve encountered including a few that put Rumble Lake in the ‘Sunday afternoon stroll’ category. And what views! Elfin woodland complete with banana palms and blooming epiphytes, savanna gardens of euphorbia and night blooming cacti, cloud forests of mahogany, and of course, the brilliant blue Caribbean in every direction.

There are three reasons to come to Saba, the little sister of her more popular siblings – St. Maarten and St. Barths – which lie just a few miles off towards the northeastern horizon. The first, and most popular reason, is world class scuba diving in the marine sanctuary that encircles the island. The second reason is the hiking, and the third is (excuse me while I slip into something a little Buddhist) nothing.  Overly simplified, the goal of Buddhism is to reach nirvana or the state of nothingness – but to the Eastern mind, as well as here on Saba, nothing is everything.

Unlike her glam’ sisters, Saba boasts no resorts, no casinos, no giant piers for cruise ships, no discos, and as result of all this lack, very little crime and no animus. There are only three ways to get here – flying WinAir, or by ferry on the Dawn II or the Edge, from St. Maarten. Even on a busy day with all three transports at capacity, less than 100 visitors will arrive on island and the majority of those will be day trippers from St. Maarten.

Where many of the islands in the Caribbean Basin are becoming Tommy Ba-homogenized with influxes of up to 16,000 tourists a day coming off a dozen or more cruise ships, it becomes clear how Saba has retained her non-McDonald’s culture -  she is a fortress island welcoming only those strong enough and patient enough to uncover the charms hidden beyond her ship-devouring cliffs.

And her charms are many.

Imagine a five square mile patch of Montana’s Mission Mountains floating in an 82 degree cobalt blue sea, cooled by 78 degree trade winds, populated with 1400 or so people who all know one another and many of whom are related to each other claiming continued family land ownership back 400 years or more. Toss in the endless smiles and warm welcomes, and add a large dose of pride in one’s homeland and as a visitor you get something unheard of on other islands – reality.

It’s coming on 5am and the moon has coursed her way to the west. This has become my favorite time of day. With a steaming cup of Santo Domingo coffee cut with heavy French cream (one has to keep up one’s strength to hike you understand!), I head for the pool deck, positioning my chaise to face due east. Orion has followed the moon and fades as the sky begins to lighten. The sun won’t make an appearance for another hour but the coming sky show is always spectacular.

At this altitude, I am at eye-level with the Spanish galleon clouds that rise another thousand feet into the paling sky. They fly by me like a time-shortened OmniMax film turning from pearl grey, to mauve to rosy pink, and then suddenly to flaming orange and gold as the sun hurls itself out of the ocean just north of St. Eustacia. On this particular morning, my neighboring islands are sharply etched, their volcanic outlines arcing gracefully to the south east – St. Eustacia, St. Kitts, St. Nevis, and volatile Montserrat.

As if on cue from an unseen conductor, the night symphony – a Phillip Glass-esque atonal celebration of nature – of tree frogs, crickets, night birds and bats goes silent.  Swan Lake, even in high summer, cannot compete with night sounds of Saba. My first nights were fitful.  Between the cacophonies of little creatures looking for mates, the high electric chatter of several species of bats, night birds on the hunt and the constant soughing of the wind coming up over the cliffs and curling around the buildings, deep sleep was not to be found.  But on the fifth night, it was as if the Bose Acoustic Wave was switched off…my brain had finally processed a new set of parameters for ambient noise and silence ruled.

With the morning coffee ritual complete, guests fed and on their way to some island adventure, it is now time for me to seek out some adventure of my own. Putting on my hiking boots and sunscreen, I flip on my Ipod and to the strains of Emmy Lou I head down my side of the mountain called Booby Hill to the village of Windwardside and the Trail Shop.

All of Saba not privately owned is part of the Saba Conservation Foundation, a non-profit group that maintains both terra and aquatic trails on and around the island. The Trail Shop, once the home of Saba’s first environmentalist, Edward S. Arnold, is the first place to stop before heading off to explore. As small as she is, Saba can put up a tough front and helicopter rescues of hikers finding themselves clinging to a cliff face they had no intention of climbing occur often enough to warrant checking in with Ranger ‘Crocodile’ Jim Johnson to get the scoop on trail conditions and to pick up a map, whistle and walking stick.

After chatting with Jim and the Trail Shop manager, Evelyn, I’m off to Spring Bay. Emmy Lou gets replaced with Ceza, a Romanian rap artist compliments of the young men who worked for me last summer at the lodge. More melodic than American rap, it offers a great beat to really stretch out the legs and get warmed up as I push through the hobbit streets of Windwardside and on to English Quarter and the trail head.

The trail is well signed and within minutes I’m heading downhill through a dense ravine of elfin rainforest populated by dwarf palms, mahogany and many flowering vines. The trail is in good condition, but steep, rocky and criss-crossed with roots so attention must be paid to foot placement – and paying attention is a real challenge when all I want to do is gape at the view teasing me from each switch back as I descend.

After 15 minutes or so, the trees fall away to an open ridge of low barrel cactus and tropical shrubs. If you look closely into the boulder-strewn trail side, you’ll see miniature orchids and other flowers clinging to the undersides out of the constant breeze funneling up from Spring Bay, which is now laid out below me – a perfect horseshoe of deep azure blending to a vibrant green and finally to a luminescent foam of white where the sea meets the rocky shoreline.

I’m only a third of the way down, working my way along the ridgeline with a deep gut to my right that during torrential hurricane rains must look like the Swan’s Wild Mile at spring flood. It is dry now – there are no natural streams on the island, in fact, no water table to speak of and residents must rely on rain-catch cisterns.

As I get closer to sea level, the temperature rises. Before the final descent down to the beach, I stop and turn to face the interior. Mt. Scenery looms above me, its cloud forest peak shrouded in mist, while the cottages of English Quarter appear as squares of Saba lace, flung bright white against the lush green mountain backdrop.

The last hundred yards or so of the trail is in the bottom of the ravine and it is a testament to the power of rushing water when I pass loose boulders the size of Volkswagens and carcasses of large palms and mahoganies ripped from the forest high behind me.

At last I am on the beach, and I use the term loosely as there is little sand. Spring Bay faces northeast and takes the brunt of the Atlantic Ocean weather. The surf line which looked like a delicate ribbon from the ridge is actually an 8’ break, the sound deafening as the water moves large rocks and broken corals back and forth. Sitting on a Hummer-sized rock, drinking the last of my water, I contemplate how one might breach the surf and access the calm clear water which beckons 20 yards out. The diving out there must be incredible, but after several minutes of observation, I admit to myself that my days of immortality are long gone and the girl that would have willingly defied commonsense has been replaced with a woman who can afford to rent a boat.

I spend an hour poking about through the flotsam and jetsam (gotta love those two words!) and imagining the stories behind the skeleton of a fishing boat, a piece of a kayak and other oddities. The breeze begins to abate and the temperature begins to rise as noon approaches. It’s time to head up to Kelby Ridge on the northern side of the bay and out to Hellsgate – the early settlers to Saba were quite practical when they made their place names: The Bottom is at the bottom, Windwardside is on the windward side and quite windy, English Quarter was for the ex-pats, and Hellsgate which feels hotter than Hades today.

As I begin the steep ascent the sweat moves beyond a trickle and I wish I had another liter of water. The only shade on this part of the trail comes in two scrawny, wind-whipped trees at one of the switch backs. I make myself small as possible to get out of the now serious sun and take a few minutes to catch my breath; my only company some island goats that eye me warily until I remove myself from their territory.

It’s only a few hundred yards to the ridge line and I push it out, cresting from the semi-arid desert behind me back into lush tropical green dripping with humidity. The trail comes out by the home of the local chicken farmer – his charges clucking out an alarm as I pass. Following a serpentine driveway I am delivered to The Road which connects the world’s smallest commercial airport to the rest of Saba and civilization.

I’ve been out four hours, descended and ascended over 2200’, moved through four different microclimates and covered less than three miles and every step was if not breathtaking, darn near close.  I sit in the shade on the side of The Road waiting “for the kindness of strangers” and a lift home, the breeze cooling as the sun slips behind Mt Scenery. It’s been a most excellent day, and even though I suspect I won’t be able to walk tomorrow, it doesn’t matter because instead of walking over Saba I’ll be diving below her…another exceptional day awaits with another exceptional adventure.

Saba, Dutch West Indies

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