Story by David Noland
Photos by Andrea Booher, Kevin Schafer, and Stephen Frink of Tony Stone Images
This article is from Travels Along the Edge by David Noland, which can be purchased online.
We'd been paddling for almost four hours, our oceangoing kayaks slicing through wind-riffled seas under a fierce tropical sun. Dead ahead, a speck on the otherwise unbroken horizon, lay Laughing Bird Cay, a solitary quarter-mile sliver of sand 12 miles off the coast of Belize in the Caribbean sea.
We were seeking that most enduring of travelers' fantasies, the deserted tropical island in the middle of nowhere -- a place to be a castaway, to sleep in a hammock under the stars and the palm trees, to eat fish you catch yourself, to drink coconut milk from the husk, perhaps to find romance. My own personal desert-island fantasy had been nurtured by 1950s-vintage Virgil Partch cartoons in the Saturday Evening Post. (Example: Guy and buxom, scantily clad girl are marooned on a desert island. The moon is just rising in a starry sky, a gentle breeze riffles the palm trees. Guy says to girl, "What do you mean, 'Not here, not now'?")
There may be no better place to pursue the desert-island fantasy than Belize, where the world's second-longest barrier reef parallels the coast about 20 miles off-shore, creating hundreds of small uninhabited coral islands and atolls. Moreover, the reef protects the waters around the islands from big waves, so they are easily accessible to small man-powered craft.
Our voyage had begun in Placencia, a sleepy fishing village whose main "street" is a sidewalk that meanders through the sand. Our group of eight, which ranged in age from twenties to fifties, and in fitness from lean triathlete to pudgy sloth, arrived from Belize City via chartered twin-engine bush plane and outboard launch. We pitched our tents on the beach and inspected the waiting kayaks, which were laid out on the sand like a string of giant mackerel. Our trip leader, Clark Jones, a crinkly-eyed riverman from Moab, Utah, delivered the pretrip briefing. The primary hazards, he warned, would be sunburned lips, sea urchins, and falling coconuts. and well, yes, there was a slight change of encountering a shark while swimming or snorkeling. "If you see one, just don't act like shark food," he advised reassuringly.
The next morning, Clark and our assistant guide, David, a wiry, irrepressibly wisecracking Beilzean, checked us out in the kayaks. AT 6 feet 2, I found it awkward to scrunch down into the tight cockpit, and my knees and feet were jammed into the narrow snout. An elastic spray skirt, which stretched around the perimeter of the cockpit to keep out breaking waves, held me in even more tightly. The word sardine came to mind.
After a lesson in basics of paddling, we moved to the so-called wet exit exercise, an outfitters euphemism for "practicing how to get the hell out of a flipped kayak before you drown." Unlike tippy whitewater river kayaks, sea kayaks require a rather extreme tilt to capsize. To my relief, once flipped, I was easily able to release the spray skirt and wriggle out of the cockpit while ingesting a minimum of saltwater. It is surprising how quickly and decisively the human body reacts when suddenly placed underwater and upside down.
The packing up was a painstaking ordeal that took almost three hours. Tents, sleeping bags, cooking equipment, first-aid kit, hammocks, snorkeling gear, and food for six days had to be stuffed into waterproof dry bags and crammed through small watertight hatches into the crafts' innards, along with huge jugs of fresh water.
At last, around midafternoon, the final dry bag was shoehorned into place, and we were ready to get under way. Lips balmed with SPF 40 and cosseted in place by our spray skirts, we set off into the gentle swell. The day's destination was Bugle Cay, a mangrove island just visible in the distance, about 5 miles away. Not a particularly inviting place, it would serve only as an overnight stop and a place to top off our water supply.
Because of my long legs, I had switched to one of the roomier two-seaters. My front-seat crew member, Ursula, due to certain unfavorable marital dynamics, had elected not to paddle with her husband. A novice kayaker, she seemed nervous and claustrophobic as we set off. But after fifteen minutes of paddling without mishap across the warm, sparkling seas, she reported giddily, "This is great! I feel totally comfortable." Our armada of eight -- six singles, two doubles -- cruised along in loose formation, stretched out over several hundred yards. We reached Bugle Cay after a pleasant two hours.
Unfortunately, not much about our sojourn there was pleasant. As Clark had warned, the bugs were voracious, forcing us into long pants and sleeves almost immediately. Then, just after we'd made camp on the island's one small corner of dry sand, a drenching thunderstorm roared in, flattening two tents and flooding another. The resulting improvised sleeping arrangements did much to promote a feeling of group unity.
The next morning we set off under ideal conditions -- smooth water and a slight tailwind -- on the 9-mile run to Laughing Bird Cay. We quickly fell into the languid Zen-like rhythm of long-distance paddling across the open sea. After two hours, the speck on the horizon looked pretty much the same as it had when we set off, the tops of the palm trees barely visible over the curvature of the earth. But with an eerie suddenness, the slender trunks and the beach popped into view. Our fantasy hd at last taken form, and the sight of it renewed flagging energy. One by one, we nosed onto Laughing Bird's beach of white coral sand. No other sign of human presence intruded.
Within minutes, Hal the Math Professor, a paunchy, sedentary fellow who viewed ocean kayaking as a lamentably arduous means of transport between hammocks, had assumed his favored horizontal position. The rest of us quickly set up our tents, taking care to avoid potentially lethal coconut drop zones. Bursting with energy and enthusiasm, we felt smugly superior to our lethargic comrade. Little did we know what was to come.
Our major task for the rest of the day was to catch dinner. David quickly organized a spearfishing party, which swam out several hundred yards wielding three-pronged spears and towing empty kayaks as giant floating creels, into which bleeding, flopping fish were tossed as quickly as possible in the hope that passing sharks would take no notice.
A peaceful sort, I chose not to join the bloodthirsty hunting party. (I did not hesitate for an instant, however, to later scarf down my share of the spoils.) Instead, I snorkeled, unarmed, a few yards offshore amid the phantasmagorical underwater landscape of Belize's barrier reef. cartoonishly decorated fish drifted among forests of elkhorn coral. Clouds of minnows flashed and billowed. Floating just above a spherical brain coral that must have been 12 feet across, I felt as if I were orbiting Ganymede.
Back on shore, as the sun dropped below the horizon, we lounged in our hammocks, sipped run and coconut milk, and watched an egret perch on a reef, motionless against the copper sky. My energy level seemed to be inexorably declining. The palm trees rustled in the breeze. Wavelets lapped at the sand. There wasn't a bug anywhere. Yes, we agreed, this was a rather good approximation of paradise.
For dinner, David steamed up the day's catch -- hog snapper, French angelfish, mackerel, and parrotfish, along with side orders of crab, conch, and lobster -- in Ricardo sauce, a spicy Belizean specialty. After-dinner entertainment consisted of a palm-frond bonfire, David's off-color jokes involving various tropical fruits, and the seven o'clock radio news broadcast from Belize City. The lead story was the graduation of twenty students from a Red Cross training course. I fell asleep in my hammock just as the full moon came up.
We had planned a one-day layover on Laughing Bird, but high winds kept us pinned down a second day, by which time we began to fall irrevocably into the grip of tropical ennui. The pace of island life soon approximated that of a unair-conditioned old folks' home in August. Trivial matters loomed large from the languorous vantage point of the hammock. Hey, Hal, you think that coconut up there is fixin' to fall any time soon? (Hard to tell, we'll continue to monitor the situation.) Should I make the five-minute walk to the end of the island now or later? (Later; I don't feel like expending the effort just now to brush the sand off my feet and find my sandals.) Time to snorkel? (Nah. The underwater light is better in the late afternoon.)
The hyperactive David, failing to recognize that the entire group had by now become firm acolytes of Hal, at one point actually tried to rouse us with a game of coconut bocce ball. But the sentiment of the hammock-bound was unanimous: sorry, David. Not here, not now.
For information on this trip, jungle/sea combo trips, and a cultural Mayan tour in Belize, contact Slickrock Adventures: (800) 390-5715.