Friday, 1 May 2009

Back to Belize; Family and Friends, Blue Hole and Whale Shar

Report no. 50 by Diana, May 2009. For accompanying photos see Pictures: Gallery no. 50.


Return to Monkey Bay Marina. Ilse signs on again.


We had been in our new flat in Lier just under three weeks when it was time to go back to White Admiral, waiting for us in Guatemala. So off we flew on March 7th, leaving our environmental footprints in London and Atlanta. Our stop in London gave us the pleasure of seeing our grand-son Finn who at eight months was quickly turning into a handsome, smiling little fellow, and was already standing!

The journey to Monkey Bay Marina is the longest we have had to the boat, thanks to a six-hour bus ride from Guatemala City at the end of the long flights. So it was good to see White Admiral washed and ready for us with no big repairs needed. When the boat is lying in the water, it doesn’t take long to get her ready for sailing and we were ready to leave two days later. We were joined for the first few days by Ilse from Toronto, Canada, who has sailed with us earlier in Panama and who we first met in Colombia. She is a remarkable woman originally from Germany, now a widow aged 70, who travels by herself for several weeks every year in different parts of the world. We motored along the tortuous Rio Dulce, through the steep gorge and anchored off the port of Livingston. After checking out, efficiently done by the agent Raul, we decided to do a night sail to get us quickly to Belize. In a light breeze, White Admiral shook the creases out of her sails and we had a gentle sail about 60 nautical miles north to Placencia, an attractive coastal village which we had visited earlier.

It was Sunday morning, no authorities would be open, so we had a day to relax, walking around the pretty village with its colourful little hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops along the white beach, and having our first swim of this trip in the 27 degree blue water.

The next morning we motored around to Big Creek, which is the commercial harbour for exporting mainly bananas, and the local place to check in. This was a bigger job than checking out in Guatemala: First a visit to Customs, then to the Port Captain, then Health Authorities, and last a long walk to the police station for Immigration. As the Immigration Officer was away at the airport and we had to wait over an hour for his return, the whole process took all morning, and made us feel that there is a bit of hassle having a yacht in a foreign country…

The Port Captain, however, did us the favour of checking us in and out at the same time (!), a practical but rather odd procedure which has never happened to us before.

At last we could be off to the islands. We decided to get out quickly to the barrier reef, where the islands are more often sand and palm trees, rather than the insect-ridden mangrove ones nearer the mainland. We were now in the trade-wind season, which should provide mainly north-east winds, but this first week the winds were fickle and variable, so we did use the engines part of the time. During these days we stopped on three different islands, enjoying walking on sandy beaches, snorkelling and swimming. The prettiest of these was Rendezvous Caye right in a small gap in the reef. This is a little patch of white sand with a few palm trees, which unfortunately a politician is now making into a restaurant for tourists and has already built a jetty as big as the island. It was being looked after a single man in a small shack. He who was obviously a bit bored and was happy to have us come ashore for a chat and a walk around the place. At a mooring near us we were surprised to see a yacht with the name ‘Eventyr’(Norwegian for fairytale or adventure). There was an American couple aboard, but sure enough the young skipper was of Norwegian heritage; one of his parents had emigrated to USA. He told us of childhood visits to his beloved grandmother; still alive and well in Horten, not far from our flat in Lier.



Anne and Knut and English Caye


Then we headed west again for Cucumber Marina outside Belize City to change crew. One night was enough here, thanks to our old friends the ‘No-see-ums’, a type of sand-fly which can hardly be seen, but can certainly be felt. Here another old acquaintance, chatty taxi-driver Errol took us to the bus-station where we said goodbye to Ilse. She went back to La Antigua in Guatemala to continue her Spanish classes, while we went on to the airport to meet our new crew Anne and Knut; our enthusiastic friends from near Arendal, who had loved sailing with us in the islands of San Blas and now came to see some more with us in Belize. Unfortunately a misunderstanding made us miss them at the airport, but we got our shopping done and soon met up at the boat. We got them installed and almost immediately sailed off to the nearest island devoid of insects. Our plan for the two weeks they would be with us was to get outside the barrier reef and visit the off-shore atolls, where we knew they would love the beaches and the snorkelling on the pristine reefs. On the way we stopped at English Caye, which has a lighthouse and is right at the entrance to the main shipping channel through the reef. The 83 year old lighthouse keeper Carl let us climb to the top for a fantastic view over islands and reefs, and told us the dramatic story of the time he and his family huddled together for five days beside the lamp at the top of the tower, while a hurricane raged around them!





Blackbird Caye – Resorts new and old.


From English Caye a few hours’ sail took us to Turneffe Atoll, where we drove into the large, shallow atoll through a long creek lined by dense mangroves. Thanks to Mike, the lobster fisherman we had met on our earlier trip, we knew the way through the mangrove islets to get to the east side of the atoll. It was a bit scary though when the depth went down to about one meter and we were brushing the turtle grass! This is certainly the place to have a catamaran.

We dropped anchor near Blackbird Resort, a friendly diving resort which welcomes yachties. Stein had had a great dive with them in November, and wanted to repeat the experience. He went off the next morning with James, the Dive Master and a few other divers, while Anne, Knut and I went with the snorkellers. It turned out to be a lovely trip to a reef which was like an aquarium, with colourful corals and all the reef-fish we could hope to see. Then we were taken to see a new development on the east coast of the atoll, where we were horrified by the vast area of mangrove swamp which had been cleared away for houses, a marina and an airstrip. We met the owner, who was very friendly, a swarthy Syrian who had made his fortune with a string of Opticians shops in Canada. He was an optician himself as is Anne, but on rather a different scale! He was a bit of a caricature with his heavy, gold necklace and huge gold watch. I asked him what the ecologists would think of his project, but he defended it strongly saying it was good to get rid of the mosquitoes! I wasn’t convinced; just hope the government doesn’t give too many more entrepreneurs such a free hand. I doubt his chances of a lasting success as most of the resorts didn’t seem to have many guests, and many have been abandoned and are for sale.



Long Caye and Conchs.


From Blackbird Caye we went out to sea through a passage in the east side of the atoll. It is always a bit exciting going through these passages, as the charts for this area are not detailed; the area has never been accurately surveyed. We do have a good guide book written by sailors, but the information is not always quite correct, and this passage was not described, so our information was from locals. When we go through a pass, I usually steer with one eye on the depth finder, while Stein stands in the bow or up the mast looking for the deepest way through. For difficult passages and best visibility it is also important to have the sun shining from above or just behind.

From Turneffe we had a good sail to the most distant and most interesting of the atolls, Lighthouse Reef, a couple of hours sailing away. After another shallow entrance, we dropped anchor on the west coast of Long Caye; a large island with a mixture of palms and mangroves. There was a little jetty where we tied our dinghy, not knowing what the path would lead to. We were surprised to find a network of well looked-after paths leading to the north coast where we found three diving resorts and a pretty beach. Only one of the resorts, Huracan Diving, was open, and we had a chat to the owner, a charming Dutch girl Ruth who had bought the place with her husband a year ago and were running a diving business. It seemed a brave thing to do, but they had managed to make a profit, getting mostly Belgian customers through Internet.

At their jetty there was a small fishing boat, a typical sailing craft with several Belizeans aboard. They sail and fish for 7-10 days at a time, then take the catch stored on ice back to Belize City. Unfortunately it was not the lobster season, which the fishermen here seem to respect, in contrast to Panama where we were offered lobster many times out of season (we said no!). We did buy some conchs (the big snails) from them, which are still plentiful and popular here. Stein has now got the hang of making conchs tender, wrapping them in a kitchen towel and hammering them until they are soft. They can be prepared and served in different ways. We had them lightly fried with toast, mayonnaise and sour cream, or served with tomatoes and onions with rice as a meal for dinner. Excellent!





The Blue Hole of Lighhouse Reef


Our next trip was with engines, against quite a strong east breeze into the main lagoon and over to the beautiful Half Moon Caye at the south-east corner of Lighthouse Reef. This is a nature reserve, which we had visited last year to see the nesting of the thousands of Red-footed boobies and Magnificent frigate birds. This time the birds were not courting, so there were not so many male frigate birds with their puffed-up red breasts, but there were young, fluffy chicks to be seen instead, sitting in the nests or learning to fly.

Here too the lighthouse could be climbed for a breath-taking view. The osprey nest next to the big light that we had noticed previously had been removed, and the big birds had settled on the ruins of the old light-house instead.

From here we planned to visit Belize’s most famous marine attraction, the Blue Hole, which is at the centre of the atoll. Again, the charting is inaccurate, so this means driving slowly with bow look-out, but the coral heads and patches of reefs are quite easy to spot and we drove up inside the main reef, through the hole and anchored on the west side behind a rim of brown reef. This place is a spectacular sight, but to see it properly we had to climb up the mast. It is a deep blue pool, caused by the collapsed roof of a pre-historic lime-stone cave, which has left a cylindrical hole about 400 metres in diameter and 110 m deep. Its dark, marine blue is in contrast to the light blue and brown of the shallow water and small reefs around it. It was first investigated by the French explorer Jacques Cousteau, who found deep down in the vertical walls caves with stalactites and stalagmites; proof that the cave was originally above sea-level before the seas rose and caused the roof to crumble. This must have happened with the global warming after the last ice-age about 10.000 years ago. The hole itself does not contain a lot of animals; in fact only few compared to the teeming reefs around, but it does sustain a population of Hammer-head sharks and Bull sharks and other large fish. Daily this famous site is visited by several dive boats, but we saw no other yachts here and had the Blue Hole of Belize to ourselves. We had also heard that it was expensive to visit the place, as the National Park demands a stiff fee, but nobody came to ask us for money... So Stein did a dive by himself down to 39 metres, not really advisable, but he is an experienced diver. He got down to the first level of caves, saw the impressive drip-stone formations, some big groupers and a large lobster, but to his disappointment no sharks. He had brought an under-water camera and was hoping for some good pictures....

The rest of us snorkelled around the rim of the hole. It was one of the best snorkelling trips I have ever had, with all the usual reef-fish, and being a protected site, many fish were bigger than usual. Also there were lots of beautiful angel fish. And I surprised a sea-turtle who scooted off when he saw me.



Sandborne Caye and Northern Caye


We continued up to the north end of the atoll, still inside the reef. There are two islands at the north end, surrounded by a lot of smaller reefs which are difficult to negotiate. We anchored off the north-easterly one, Sandborne Caye, a rather rolly anchorage in the now very fresh trade-wind. We took a bumpy ride in the dinghy to the island the next morning, where a friendly group of fishermen were relaxing in their camp, the trees decorated with shoes which they had collected from beaches near and far! We bought a large supply of conchs and snapper fillets for a reasonable price, climbed the lighthouse, and then arranged that one of the locals, who was going over to the other island Northern Caye, would guide us through the reefs. Here we got a much more protected anchorage; a good place to relax for a couple of days. This island has an air-strip, a lovely long white beach and a large resort. But unfortunately for the owner, or fortunately for us, the place had closed down about 3 years earlier, and only had a couple of care-takers living there while waiting for new owners. Apparently there is some disagreement about the price, and a court case is coming up. Anyway, the care-takers were relaxed and friendly, and we enjoyed the lovely surroundings undisturbed, Stein even used one of their resort kayaks for a long paddle around the island.



Anne and Knut’s last sea voyage was a gentle one, the wind having died down, so we partly sailed and partly motored to Caye Caulker, in the more touristy part of the country. The passage through the reef here is very narrow and not much used by yachts, but today we could see the deep pass easily and motored through and round to the west anchorage. Here were several yachts, while we had hardly seen any for nearly two weeks - looks like most don’t dare to go out to the atolls.

Caye Caulker is a cheerful back-packers hang-out with sand streets, cheap hotels and restaurants. Anne and Knut took us out to Don Corlione’s, one of the better restaurants, where we enjoyed their great vegetable lasagne.



Family Visiting.


In Caye Caulker we were going to have another change of crew as our son Martin and his kids, Hedda (age 7) and Johan (age 4), were arriving on 1st April in Belize City. I took the water-taxi to go and meet them at the airport, but had no sooner arrived in Belize City when a mobile message ticked in saying they were stuck in Houston, Texas, thanks to long immigration queues, and would not be coming till the day after. So I did some stocking -up of food and took the last water-taxi home.

The next day I was off again, and this time came back with the family. White Admiral was now pretty crowded for two nights, but with Stein sleeping in the cock-pit, and I on the sofa and the weather perfect, that went fine.

Anne and Knut had one last day aboard, so we all took a trip to the neighbouring island Caye Chapel, with its luxury golf resort that we had visited last year. We found now that also this resort was in the process of being sold, and had no other guests than the same elderly man in a wheel-chair we had also seen in November. When we arrived in our dinghy, having anchored off the west coast, we were met by a guard who was obviously preparing to tell us the island was closed, but fortunately I remembered the name of the manageress, and when I asked to see her, he told me she was on holiday, but maybe thinking I was her friend, he let us come ashore. After consulting the guy in charge, we were free to enjoy the island, spent some time on the beach and walked round the golf-course looking for the famous crocodiles inhabiting the many lakes, but didn’t see one this time.



The next morning we waved to Anne and Knut as they disappeared in a water-taxi to Belize City, very happy with their latest island experiences, and we were ready for a new trip to the atolls. The weather had become fresher again, so we took a shorter route to Turneffe Atoll. We entered through the passage at the north end, this time with a way-point from last year which made it easier. We dropped the anchor just off a fishing camp and were immediately visited by two friendly dolphins, which made us jump into the water to swim with them. The kids thought this was great, Hedda had already learned to use her mask and was able to get close to them under water, while Johan raced around the deck yelling whenever they surfaced.

After this excitement we rowed our dinghy ashore, and met a friendly old fisherman called Milo, who was keen to show us his conch traps. So we rowed along the coast, with some broken-looking trees after the last hurricane, and he took up his traps and took out a few living conch shells. We all watched fascinated as he showed us how he got the conchs out and cleaned them. We bought these few conchs, and were given the most beautiful shells as well.

Later in the evening Milo took everyone except me (I decided to make dinner) on a crocodile expedition, great excitement for the kids, using torches to see the orange reflections from the crocodile eyes. They did see two crocodiles, although not the biggest, but got very close to one which was temporarily blinded by the torch-light, so the expedition was declared a big success.



Lighthouse Reef Revisited


The north end of Turneffe atoll is also shallow and full of small reefs, so our new friend agreed to come with us the next morning in White Admiral to guide us across the lagoon to a passage out on the north-east side. We trailed his canoe after us and meandered through the shallows, very glad to have this local knowledge. We asked him what he wanted for his help, and he was very pleased to get a pair of shorts, two old T-shirts and a few dollars.

From here, we took the same route as with Anne and Knut to Long Caye, Half Moon Caye and Northern Caye , all in the Lighthouse Reef atoll.

The kids loved the beaches and the swimming, and Hedda quickly become an accomplished snorkeller. Unfortunately, Johan refused to use his mask, so didn’t get all the under-water excitement in Belize, but on returning home to Oslo, quickly learned to use it in the swimming-pool. So next time!

Martin proved to be a patient and skilled fisherman, using a rod off the stern while sailing. He caught four big barracudas this way, with great excitement each time - the largest weighing in at 6kg.

This time as we approached the Blue Hole, hoping to just snorkel for an hour or two before moving on, a boat with park rangers approached and asked us if we were going to stop, in which case it would be 30 US dollars each, please! After a quick discussion, we decided we could snorkel elsewhere and sailed on.

We met a 32’ Swedish yacht named Bella in Half Moon Caye with parents and three children aboard, the two oldest were almost the same age as our two. They had a monohull, needing deeper water than we in our catamaran, so they sailed up to Northern Caye outside the atoll while we repeated the inside trip. The fresh trades and the still water behind the reef meant fast sailing even with only the genoa up.

In Northern Caye the children had a good time together on the white beach, running in and out of the water, building houses of sand and stones, collecting pretty shells, and fooling around with Stein in our inflatable kayak. In the evening we all had a big fish meal on board White Admiral. Martin had caught the fish and the Swedes brought two cakes!



This time the sail back to Cay Caulker was a fresh sail, with a stiff easterly trade-wind off our stern. Good fast sailing, occasionally some impressive waves roaring up from behind, but when we arrived at the reef it looked pretty terrifying. Here the waves were breaking right across the passage. However we had our GPS way-point from earlier, and we were sure we could make out the deep entrance, so despite guests (and crew!) with high levels of adrenaline and hearts pounding, we raced with the waves through the opening. Boy, was it a good feeling to be on sheltered inside!

We had two last days together back in civilisation at Caye Caulker and for us all to have a last meal together at Don Corleone’s. After waving goodbye to the water-taxi the next morning, we were on our own again for the first time in five weeks.



Whale Sharks!


But now time was running out. It was 14th April, and our plane home was on the 23rd. In that time we had to get back to Guatemala, get the boat ready for leaving, and also hoped to visit the old town of Antigua before flying out from Guatemala City. So we left the same day, partly motoring as the winds close to the main-land had again become light and variable, back to Placencia. Despite the Port Captain having checked us out, we still had to visit Customs and Immigration to have our passports stamped.

The area around the barrier reef outside Placencia is where whale-sharks can be seen, the biggest fish in the world. They are plankton-eaters who come for an annual orgy of eating enormous quantities of roe from groupers and snappers when they spawn. In spite of their impressive size these big fish are not of any danger to humans.

They can only be seen here in March-April, and only around full moon, and we were there just at the right time. Stein had dreamed of seeing these enormous sharks, and went on an organised snorkelling trip. I decided to have a quiet day for myself, didn’t fancy the long drive in a little boat to the outer reef with no guarantee of seeing them, and it was quite expensive at 90 US dollars just to snorkel. I slightly regretted that decision though, when Stein came home and told me in glowing terms of swimming with two whale-sharks of 10 and 7 m length and in addition close-up encounters of dolphins, sea-turtles and lots of big fish!



The same evening we went off on another night sail to Guatemala, started off with good sailing, but had to motor towards morning. We anchored shortly after dawn in front of Livingston’s busy port with a huge amount of gulls and pelicans accompanying the fishing boats returning from the night’s haul. Raul and several local bureaucrats came aboard as usual, all very polite and friendly. They didn’t look at anything on board; perhaps we don’t look very suspicious. An hour later we got our papers and were ready to drive back up the spectacular gorge into the Rio Dulce.



We stopped shortly after the gorge at what had been a nature reserve for manatees and other wild life, but which we found shut up and deserted, with political graffiti all over the signs. It was still pleasant to stroll along the trails through the original forest. We heard later that there had been a lot of protests from the local Indian population that this was their territory, not to be made into a reserve. The ancestors of these Mayans had been displaced to this area from other parts of the country when the Spanish ruled it with an iron fist, and understandably feel that they are not going to be replaced by gringos keen on manatees and monkeys…



By the time we got to Monkey Bay, the wind had risen as it always does in the afternoons here, and we anchored off, ready to go in the next day. The boats have often to be rearranged to get everybody in place, and this has to be done in calm morning conditions. John, the manager, came out to welcome us back and arranged a time for coming in. The next day after tying up, we got quickly to work, getting all the sails and equipment inside, patching and washing the dinghy, and so on. There was a little time for socialising, with a friendly Canadian couple on a Prout Snow-goose catamaran, and with Hal, a kindly Texan who has sold his boat Griffin and is about to retire from his sailing days.



Antigua; Past Capital of Central America


Antigua is the old capital city of Guatemala, built by the Spanish. The correct name is La Antigua Guatemala – the old city of Guatemala. It has retained its characteristic architecture, cobble-stoned streets and colourful one- and two-storey buildings with red and brown tiled roofs, and large, often flower-filled, inside court-yards. When walking about, there are constant surprises on looking through arches and doorways to these beautiful gardens inside the houses. Also this town of about 30.000 inhabitants is attractively clean and organized, a Unesco World Heritage Site and quite a Guatemalan treasure.

Ilse had stayed here a month recently while attending a language school (of which there are lots in Antigua) and gave us the name of a private house which takes guests. David did indeed have a vacant room, so we got our own keys and very reasonable accommodation.



Antigua was both the capital and a religious centre, and there are an amazing amount of old churches and monasteries. Some were completely or partly destroyed by earthquakes in 1773, some are restored, most are very beautiful and worth a visit. The biggest monastery is Casa Santa Domingo from 1547, now a five star hotel of spectacular beauty.

This colonial town was founded in 1543, less than 50 years after Columbus first found the New World. It reached its peak importance 2-300 years ago when 70.000 people lived here and it was the main city of all the Central Americas. It is mind-boggling how the Spanish could create such a jewel of a Spanish town up there in the Central American highlands, a long, long way from Europe; even a long way from the ships off the Atlantic coast. But looted Mayan gold, silver and precious stones made good exchange for priests, monks and bibles, and ordinary labour was plentiful and almost free.



Antigua is surrounded by several volcanoes. It was earthquakes and eruptions from these hot-headed, restless neighbours that in 1770’s made the authorities move the capital and most of its inhabitants to Guatemala City, about 40 km to the north.

Stein and I decided we would like to both get some exercise and see one of the volcanoes, and so the next day we chose to visit Volcan de Pacaya. It is one of the easiest to climb, can be done in half a day, so we arranged to go on a guided tour.

After driving north and east through the slummy urban outskirts of Guatemala City, there was a couple of hours’ climbing first through forest with scattered litter, then through open, steep hillside with ugly radio-masts and loose volcanic rubble. I was wearing sandals which I had to keep emptying, and was starting to regret the whole trip. But I changed my mind when we came to a ridge near the top; suddenly we were only a few feet from red-hot lava flows, and a huge hole which looked like the entrance to hell! It looked decidedly scary, but the guide assured us that as long as lava flowed freely there was no build-up of pressure and no danger of explosions…

Now the ground under our feet was hot. In fact we were standing on rock that Mother Earth had delivered in molten form only days ago! After taking photographs, it was time to turn and start the descent, but now I wasn’t so worried about the stones in my shoes...



An early taxi the next morning took us to the international airport, and back we flew via Atlanta and London. Here Elisabeth and Finn were waiting for us at Heathrow, as I was going straight on to Glasgow and I wanted to see Finn first. We had a pleasant hour together before I got my plane to Glasgow to go to an old school reunion. This was the first time I had set foot in my old school since 1962, and I met many of my old class-mates from Hutchesons’ Girls Grammar School; just as well we had on name-labels!

Oddly, Stein had a 50th reunion the next day in Sandefjord with his old school class from Sande folkeskole. He also had a great time reminiscing – in spite of no name-labels.



Now we are back in Lier, enjoying our new flat, and both working again. Stein got a job at the local hospital in Drammen in cardiology. Unfortunately the Eye department didn’t need anybody right away, but the department in T√łnsberg (50 minutes’ drive south) did, so I am now established there, have got used to their complicated data system, and am quite enjoying being useful again.

It’s a lovely time of year here, all the spring flowers are out, and we are looking forward to summer in our flat at the water’s edge.

Our next trip south is not until the end of September. After a third visit to the amazing reefs and atolls of Belize, the plan is to sail for shores new to us; Mexico and Cuba. And with the hurricane season not officially over until November, we are hoping for no extra excitement!

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