2000 Expedition Journals
We arrived on a beautiful little island called Rendez-vous caye. Our islet was a strip of sand 200 yards long and 50 yards wide, dotted with a dozen coconut trees, a patch of mangrove and surrounded by emerald water and coral formations. We shared the island with a dozen pelicans and two-dozen small sanderling birds. In Thailand we had started to learn how to climb coconut trees, but never made it to the top. Here coconut juice was vital to us so we struggled to make our way up these trees.
After drinking coconut juice and taking a nap under the palms, Luke came out of the water after his morning swim and told me about his first encounter with a six-foot shark. He was too scared to look closely and identify it. I went spearfishing and brought back a Nassau Grouper for lunch. We barbecued it on a fire of coconut palm fronds, using two spear shafts as a grill. Luke demonstrated his culinary skills by preparing a unique sauce where he sautéed diced flesh of young coconuts with some fresh garlic and minced ginger, lime zest, chile paste and a bit of chicken bullion. He then spooned the caramelized sauce over the fish and we had a king's meal on our private island.
In the afternoon I returned to the water to look for dinner. As I glided silently through the water I spied three majestic spotted eagle rays and then found myself face to face with a barracuda. With their large jaws and razor sharp teeth that stick out of their half open mouths like a snarling crocodile, they look as mean as they are. It circled me a few times and I slowly retreated toward shallower water whereupon I turned the tables and started to stalk it. I was thinking "dinner!" but didn't want to risk shooting it in deep water. I suppose it was also thinking about dinner, but didn't want to follow me into the shallows. It returned toward deeper water. After following it for a minute I stopped and turned back; it then came right back at me. I knew I was dealing with a smart fish and a potentially dangerous predator. All the fishermen I met always told me to never spear a barracuda unless you are sure you can kill it instantly.
The fish suddenly approached me and got so close I was sure I could spear it in the head. I fired my speargun and hit it in the cheek but the spear bounced off without even drawing any blood. My first thought was that I was at the limit of the range for my gun's spear leash and that the spear had merely been yanked back. Future dives would teach me though that we had chosen our spearguns poorly and that it just lacked the power for such fish. The barracuda fled uninjured. I came out of the water without dinner but enjoyed the evening sipping coconuts as we watched the sun set and the turquoise water turn to black. Belize at last delivered the tropical experience we had dreamt of.
How is it possible to kayak 5000 miles between Mexico and Panama? When you look at a map it isn't; it doesn't add up. The distance tracing the coast is closer to 2000 miles. That's because when we planned the Central American Sea Kayak Expedition it wasn't just about paddling from Baja to Panama. It was about using kayaks as a means of transportation to visit the indigenous people of Central America and document their lifestyles. When you add up all the coastal mileage, crossings and river paddling into wild rainforest, 5000 miles becomes a good estimation. Have you ever set out to paddle 5000 miles? Neither have we. Wind should be used to your advantage. Sailing is an option, but on a kayak it only works downwind. How about a traction kite? We looked at the new cult in boardsailing and saw them tacking up wind, jibing, maneuvering quickly and generating speed like never before. Would it work for us on our fully loaded expedition kayaks? This is what we wondered a couple of years ago when we were planning this expedition. If there was a way to use a double-line control kite, we would find out and CASKE 2000 would be the best way to test it.
The first time I saw a kite of any type attached to a kayak was on a short Australian documentary on the circumnavigation of New Guinea. I was fascinated by the bright parafoils floating in the air 50 feet above the kayaks. But I thought their use was too limited. They were single-line kites, which meant they only pulled the kayaks straight downwind. After a few months of research, I found two double-line kites which could fly even when wet. One was a giant delta wing developed for speed water skiing, but it had a heavy and bulky design. The other one was a five-square-meter parafoil with an inflatable frame developed in France for windsurfers. It looked promising.
When I ordered my first kite and took it out for its first test run, I went sprawling out of control sliding around on my stomach on a snowfield near where I was living in Hokkaido, northern Japan. My friends laughed and advised me to abandon the idea and get a sail. My thoughts were that a sail would take too much space, add more weight and wouldn't match the speed of the kite. My mind was made up; I was going to learn how to use this thing. It didn't take long to convince my expedition partner Luke to buy his own kite. We spent the full winter skiing on the snow-covered beaches of Hokkaido. The five square meter wing pulled us at incredible speeds. On windy days we would even catch air off of the bumps. And with our ski edges holding our line in the snow, tacking upwind was easy. If it was possible on skis, I thought it ought to be possible on a kayak. It was all theory of course, as I hadn't much kayaking experience. As of the winter of 98, I had never sat in one.
In the spring of 98, we flew to Thailand to learn the basics of sea kayaking from Sea Canoe International with Dave Williams, a hot shot white-water paddler from the '80's, and John "Caveman" Gray, an experienced man of the sea from Hawaii. We finished our kayak training in the Pacific waves of Baja learning from the master in the field, Ed Gillet.
On October 98, we pushed off from San Felipe for La Paz, the first section of our Expedition. Our Feathercraft kayaks were barely floating with an incredible load of equipment. Planning for a two and half-year odyssey, we had no choice but to load each boat with a mountain of gear. We were even forced to strap three large dry bags on deck. We learned the hard way that we were way overloaded. The Sea of Cortez was our testing ground. Dead calm seas often changed rapidly into blustery chop and we encountered full-blown storms with 8 to 12 foot waves. The relative narrowness of the body of water also created steep wave shapes and shorter frequencies. The opportunities to use the kites were very limited. Strong gusts and an excess of equipment on deck made it impossible and our two kiting tests failed.
In March 99, we portaged through Mexico to Belize. The second leg of the expedition was designed to start in Belize City and end up at the border of Costa Rica from which we would portage across the country to paddle the Pacific coast until the Darien Gap of Panama. Protected by a barrier reef, Belize was the perfect place to try out the kites. We had significantly less equipment on deck than in Baja, the wind was fairly consistent, and the waves were very small.
On March 24, we were on a small tropical island next to the reef. The wind was strong but not gusty. The conditions were good. I emptied my kayak, put on the sea-sock, and for our first test, added the lateral sea wings for increased stability. We thought of using a sea anchor to keep enough tension on the lines to launch the kite from the water. But this first time we were just trying to sail, and Luke would launch the kite standing in knee-deep water and hand it off to me after I got situated in my kayak.
I fastened my spray skirt. The wind was strong enough to throw Luke in the water. He didn't let go and stood back up in waist deep water and kept control of the kite. With my paddle attached to the deck, I just hand paddled to him. He handed me off the control bar while holding me until I had the kite in a stable position 50 feet above my head. We were ready for what we were sure was going to be very brief glory. I gave the order, "Let go!" I threw the kite into a crosswind and the acceleration almost pulled me out of my seat. Skimming across the water, I could hear the sound made by the sea-wing sponsoons strapped to the side. They were causing much resistance in the water, but I was going fast enough to leave a wake behind the kayak.
The kite was fairly easy to handle and required only minor adjustments to stay up in the crosswind. With a leeboard I could have tacked upwind without any difficulty. Within a few minutes I was already far enough from the island that I couldn't see Luke standing on the beach. I wanted to come back on a broad reach with the crosswind, but first I had to change direction. It had been an easy maneuver on the skis, but this time I made the mistake of turning the kite and the kayak at the same time. When both faced downwind, the kayak accelerated quickly in the direction of the wind and the kite no longer had as much resistance, the tension on the lines sagged and it stalled in the water right in front of my bow. Without a sea anchor to keep my boat static during the launch and offer resistance to the kite, all my efforts were in vain and I just drifted for ten minutes.
I packed everything into a small bag and paddled back. I was very surprised about the distance I had covered in so little time. The boat had certainly reached maximum hull speed with the sponsoons attached. I felt like with practice, we could kite without the sea wings and be rid of their added resistance. My first test was more successful than I expected. Running on a crosswind was easy and fast. Ironically, going downwind was more of a problem.
Three days later, Luke and I were set to paddle 15 miles to a small Garifuna town on the mainland. The wind was moderately strong and directly from the rear. Our two kayaks were loaded up with our 400 lbs. of gear, food and water. We decided to tie our kayaks together with a towrope. I put on the sea wings and prepared to pilot the kite, while Luke, being dragged behind, prepared his sea anchor for possible water starts. I sat in my kayak. Luke handed me the control bar with the kite in the hover position in the air and held on to the rope tying my stern to his bow, and worked his way back to his kayak. While he got in his cockpit, I kept the kite hovering but already we were moving. As soon as his spray skirt was secured, I brought the kite down into the wind and traced figure eights in front of me to maintain a downwind course. I expected that we would last only 20 seconds but the extra resistance in the water of a second kayak prevented us from accelerating much faster than the kite and I was able to keep it in the air.
The only ensuing problem that I encountered was that I had not planned to have the kite in the air for long and wasn't prepared for the intense strain on the arms. I should have put on my harness and clipped the kite to it. After 10 minutes, in spite of all the resistance in the water, we were moving as fast as our top paddling speed had ever been, but my arms were sore and my shoulders filling up with lactic acid. A few times I put the kite back above me in the hover position and rested my arms for a few seconds. Then I sent the kite back into its figure eight pattern in the sky.
Each time you send the kite from one side to the other, its velocity increases quickly and it pulls hard on your arms. Even with the sea wings, I had to anticipate that side pull and put pressure on my knees to compensate for it. I think it would be possible to do it without the sea wings after much practice.
After 20minutes of successful sailing, I dropped the kite in the water a couple of times. The wind was starting to die on us. Luke didn't need to use the sea anchor as he was able to apply enough resistance by backpaddling to allow me to launch the wet kite. When we reached the Midway Islands, the wind died entirely leaving our kite floating in the water. We packed it and started paddling the 13 miles to our destination.
In half an hour of kiting we had covered 2 miles. Because I had not put on my harness, it was more exhausting than if I had paddled. However, I was ecstatic to find that one kite was able to pull two heavily loaded kayaks, with the added drag of a pair of seawings, at 4 knots. Imagine that a 5 square meter kite folds into a small bag weighing less than 2 lbs. There is a 3.5 square meter version weighing less than a pound and half. Kite kayaking certainly has the potential to become a big water sport but may not be practical for covering long distances on long expedition paddles, at least not when most of the paddling is against headwinds or irregular crosswinds. We had our fun, got some great pictures and some great looks from passing boater but it turns out that we will be paddling most of the distance after all.
Coconut trees hanging over a beach of fine sand, palms reflecting in the crystal blue water, tropical birds singing in the adjacent rainforest and a myriad of colorful fish dancing around you as soon as you put on a diving mask. Such are some of the wonderful realities of a tropical island. We all dream of a deserted tropical island paradise but living there requires a lot more than the lazy dream vacation we often conjure from the image on a postcard.
Tropical islands are spectacular and most of the time provides what is necessary to survive. Nothing comes easily but with basic knowledge and a little practice, you might be able to turn your next vacation in an unforgettable Robinson Crusoe-style experience.
A few years ago, I read a popular novel called "Castaway". As an experience in subsistence/survival living, a couple marooned themselves on a tropical island for one year. They chose their island well, but they nearly starved because they didn't possess a few of the most basic yet crucial survival skills. During our sea kayak expedition in Central America, my expedition partner Luke Shullenberger and I have learned all the skills necessary to live well on tropical islands.
The ocean provides fish, crustaceans such as crab and lobster, shellfish, sea urchins and cephalopods (octopuses and squids). All are delicious and nourishing. As well, a variety of plant foods can be found on a tropical beach. Sometimes a green carpet of Sea Purslane will cover rocks and sand. It is delicious eaten raw or cooked. It is juicy and rich in minerals. Fruit trees also abound. In addition to the ones we commonly know like mango, and cashew nuts, others like Sea Grapes, Geiger Tree and Cocoplum flourish in the Caribbean.
Edible fruits, trees and plants vary with each tropical region, but the king of all edible plants, the coconut, is found on almost every island. More than just the universal symbol of tropical paradise, it is the magic tree of life for it provides all the essentials, water, food and shelter. In tropical climates your priority is to find drinking water. A small island without a river or other source might not provide any other water than its coconuts. The juice is rich in potassium and other minerals. The young flesh looks like yogurt-gelatin and is delicious. The old flesh is hard and can be good to eat in reasonable quantities, and when shredded or processed into milk is a great addition to various dishes (for ideas don't miss Luke's Latin cuisine and outdoor cooking page). In addition to its nutritious value, coconuts also have some medicinal properties. The juice of green coconuts (immature fruits) is recommended for heart, liver and kidney disorders, as well as gonorrhea. In case of dehydration, it can be excellent mixed with lime juice or even lime and baby formula.
The problem is obtaining those immature coconuts. When you find coconuts on the beach, they are already mature and can be used for their hard flesh or to make coconut milk and oil, but they contain very little water. So there is no other alternative but to climb coconut trees for the water-rich young ones.
In our efforts to be self-sufficient, we've tried hard to learn the necessary skills to climb coconut trees. The few first times, we barely managed to get a few feet off the ground. In addition to fear, the soft skin on the palms of our hands and soles of our feet made climbing difficult. The first time we made it to any significant height and then descended, we scraped our chests and forearms. This is what happens when you slide down hugging a coconut tree as hard as you can. But if you really want or need to climb, all this shouldn't stop you. There are two basic techniques and they are easy to learn. After that you just need to practice and to forget about your soft skin. It will probably get cut a bit the first time on the tree, but if you get a dozen coconuts full of water and flesh, it is well worth the effort.
After a week, climbing the trees becomes second nature and the collection of coconuts is one of the easiest and most enjoyable survival skills you will learn.
There are two different techniques with a few variations. All should be done barefoot and barehanded. A long sleeve T-shirt might save your skin from abrasion against the tree especially when you are learning.
I call the first method the front foot technique. You might have seen rock climbers challenge some crack climbing. They stuff their hands inside cracks, pull on them and push on the legs in opposition and walk up the rock. This front foot technique to climb coconut tree is very similar. You put your hands close to each other on the back of the trunk, and pull one foot in front of the other one in front of you on the tree. By keeping pressure on the trunk with the balls of your feet and toes, you walk up alternating moving your feet and hands. This technique is Luke's favorite. I only use it to climb wide trees at the base when the trees are leaning slightly. Technically it seems to be the easiest to learn but requires good balance and arm strength.
I found the other method, which I call the frog technique, much more efficient to climb vertical trees, unless they are very wide. To do so, your legs should be flexed on each side of the tree with the soles of your feet applied flat against the trunk. This position looks like the legs of a frog. Unlike the front foot technique, you place one hand up and behind the tree and the other hand at your chest level on the front side of the tree. In that way you apply pressure from both sides pushing your body up while thrusting up with your legs by extending them. You quickly bring up both of your feet at the same time and squeeze the trunk in the frog position. In this position your feet support almost all of your body weight comfortably and you can rest for a few seconds if needed before repeating this move.
If you can't seem to make any progress, a method used in Sri Lanka might help you. It is a variation of the frog technique where you put your two feet in a circle of rope or a sarong. This helps you to keep the pressure with your feet against the tree. Also the added surface of the rope (or sarong) applied against the tree helps you by adding more contact area and giving you more leverage to go up.
When you reach the top of the tree, you can grab the coconuts, or make your way to the top of the palm. If you can it is best to make your way through the layers of palm and stand on top them. A Garifuna friend taught me that technique. He showed me that it makes collecting the coconuts much easier when you don't have to hug the tree all the time. The trick is to pull yourself up using a palm from the second or preferably third level. Make sure you don't hold on to the bottom layer where the palms are older and more fragile. You can stand on any palm of the second or third layers and grab the coconuts. A machete isn't necessary; you just need to twist a coconut until the stem breaks and the nut falls. If you've been able to make your way up past the layers of palm, you might even knock off the fruits with one of your feet by putting the ball of your foot on the top of the nut and your toes around the stem and pushing the nut down. Sometimes it isn't possible to go through the layers of palm because they are too close to each other. You can then grab them from underneath with one arm and support your weight by keeping your legs in the frog technique while twisting the coconuts with your free hand. It's a bit more physical than from the top, but not difficult.
Once you've knocked off enough coconuts, making your way down is easy, but it is also the time when beginners abrade themselves. The technique is very similar to the frog technique. You keep your legs and feet in the same position. You can try hopping down step by step in the inverse to the way you went up, but most people just lower their hands one by one behind the trunk and just let the soles of their feet drag against the tree. Now you understand why our soft skin suffers. Natives have no problems doing this. It is also while sliding down against the tree that you might scrape your forearm skin and even sometimes your chest. Again not hugging the tree so hard will prevent that.
All this sounds like a lot of effort but young coconuts are worth the trouble. If you ever spend any extended time in the tropics, this could be one of the most important skills to master, even if you aren't ready for a survival experience, you will love the juice and soft flesh.
People often ask me what they could do if unable to climb the tree. Anybody reasonably fit should be able to master these techniques, but if they remain beyond your abilities and you still need the coconuts to survive, you could try climbing with pieces of webbing or ropes. One goes around the waist as a belt. Then three are made into loops and used with a prussic slip-knot, one for each foot, and one for your hands. The one for your hands is also tied to your belt as a safety measure. To make a prussic knot, make a small loop in one end of the rope, wrap the free end around the trunk and insert through the loop. Pull on it and you have a prussic knot. Those knots grip the tree under tension, and allow you to go up (or hold you if you fall). Once the pressure is released (for example the pressure is on your feet releasing the tension on the rope in your hands), you can raise the knot higher and re-apply pressure to it. It is a very slow process, but less physical and safer than climbing with bare hands and feet.
The coconut tree provides more than water and food. Its palms can also be used to make a shelter to protect yourself from exposure to the sun and tropical rains. Other type of palms are preferred to make thatch roofs, but if you're a castaway, coconut palms crosshatched and laid on a stick frame will make a handy and effective shelter from the elements. Climbing coconut trees is the most important survival skill to learn in the tropics, but there are many ways to forage for food, build shelters and collect fresh water. The jungle that often covers parts of these islands is a different environment equally rich in useful and edible plants and wildlife. It was one of our goals when we set off to paddle to Panama, to learn new survival techniques and the lifestyles of indigenous people and put them into practice in our journey.
As we continued island hopping, we survived more and more from my spearfishing, our conch and lobster gathering, and edible plants found on the beach including the fantastic coconuts, to which we developed an addiction.
In places, we found conch lying in depths as shallow as four feet. Although their outside shells can be hard to see on the sandy bottom The real difficulty wasn't to collect them, but rather to open them and extract the snail-like animal. The first time I struggled to try and extract the animal I nearly broke my diving knife. My frustration ended when an amused fisherman showed me the right technique. The reason I couldn't get at the meat was because the animal is able to create a vacuum and remains strongly anchored in its shell. You need to break the vacuum by making a hole in the shell on the top on an inside spiral. To pierce this hole, the best way is to use the sharp tip of another conch. If you don't have another conch, a small ax or a hammer can be used. If you have a very strong knife you might be able to use a stone to hammer it down, but you might break your knife. Once you have made a hole and broken the suction you can easily pull the snail out with the tip of your knife. If you can't see the snail, you can break the edge of the outermost spiral part of the shell until the snail becomes visible, then pull it out. Once we had our snails out of their shells we saw that the conch has some interesting features, a pair of eyes, a dark part with a very strong "foot", and a tough nail used to protect the snail. The fisherman showed us how to remove all these parts. Then we peeled off the dark colored skin and only kept the white part. We diced the white meat that comprises about half of the snail, and prepared them raw with lime-juice into ceviche. There were so many conchs in Belize that they become part of our daily diet and thanks to Luke's imagination and cooking talent, we never got bored of them. (Follow one of Luke's recipes from our Cooking section).
Belize is different from the other countries on our route. Many of the interesting things are inland inaccessible by waterways. We chose Placencia as our Southern Belize base for our inland excursions. It is a small Creole town where the life is laid back, the people friendly and the beach almost free of insects (a rare treat).
The second week of April we ventured south and inland to visit Blue Creek, a small Mayan community set in the rainforest at the entrance of the Blue Creek Cave Nature Reserve. The place is peaceful, the river and lush vegetation is beautiful and the surroundings provide for great jungle or cave excursions.
In Blue Creek, we met Ignacio, a Mopan Mayan and manager of the Rainforest Lodge. Ignacio and Maura, an American volunteer naturalist, have combined their efforts to train more guides and promote Eco-tourism in the area. With a little more tourism, the village would be able to survive from the reserve and demonstrate the importance and long-term viability of running educational and ecological tours in the rainforest instead of over-exploiting it. The community would be able to preserve its culture that is lost in many villages as more and more workers must go to large plantations and young people head out to urban areas where if they're lucky they may receive the lowest paid jobs.
The marquee feature of the reserve is the river and the caves. Led by Maura, we swam through an underground river up to a waterfall at the end of one of the cave tunnels in a network estimated at 20 miles.
Another highlight of our stay was a half-day, catch-and-release iguana trek with a Mayan guide named Pepe. We followed the river downstream past the village of Blue Creek and Pepe's house. His son would climb and shake the branches of the trees to make the iguanas drop. These reptiles can withstand falls of more than hundred feet by filling up their soft ribcages with air to absorb the shock. They throw themselves off the tallest trees to escape predators. The dogs herded them toward the river where they disappeared underwater. Pepe, armed with a diving mask, dove in and surfaced with a 7-foot giant iguana that we all got to hold. Once caught, the iguanas were very docile. We let them go after a few minutes.
All the people we met from the village were very friendly, and the children were especially charming. We were expecting visits from family and our visas were about to expire, so, we unfortunately couldn't stay longer in Blue Creek, but decided to return in a few weeks to learn more about their lifestyle and their land and promote their eco-tourism efforts. I worked on setting up a week-long program with Ignacio to document the lifestyle and culture of the village. The agenda included documenting their farming techniques and crops, cacao and coffee preparation, weaving techniques, ancient hunting and trapping techniques, edible plants of the forest, natural medicines, fauna, the school and education, and the future of the village.
We returned to Placencia on the 12th after extending our visas in Punta Gorda. My dad visited us for a couple of weeks. In Placencia, he stepped on one of my little toes with his 220 lbs. and broke the bone at the joint. A broken toe was our first accident since our departure in October. After paddling through the storms of Baja and being charged by a mad bull shark, I ended up becoming the victim of my own father. I taped the three toes together and after meeting Luke's mom and sister who also came for a visit, we took everybody on a chartered boat with kayaks to Glover's reef, one of the archipelagos in Belize. We wanted to give them a sample of island hopping with kayaks and life on the islands. They had it all, the beautiful beach, snorkeling and fresh coconuts, and the rainstorm and all the biting sandflies. Their skin looked like they had chicken pox or measles. I speared fish for the group and Luke cooked. One day I had a remake of my moray eel adventure in Baja, only this time with a giant grouper. I had a large pargot and grunt on my stringer and was suddenly violently pulled under water. I swallowed some water and looked down. The rope was pulling me toward a cave. I couldn't break the surface no matter how much I pulled. I quickly grabbed my diving knife and cut my rope. I left the water after losing our dinner to a Grouper that was certainly bigger than me.
After 5 days on the archipelago, we returned to Placencia and then Blue Creek
We had originally planned to stay three weeks in Placencia to receive family and friends. Six weeks later, at last we were ready to leave the town. We had not counted on all the time we spent in Blue Creek and all the computer work that resulted from it. Placencia was an ideal place to work. Its laid back atmosphere made it easy to concentrate while seating under the thatch roof of an open restaurant. The on-shore breezes on the beach kept the sandflies away and helped us endure the temperature. Our hosts Deb and Dave and their family, Annette and Sonny made us feel at home.
After 6 weeks of inland excursions and computer work, it took us a full day to set up our kayaks and re-pack all the gear. We sent home much of the equipment we no longer needed (i.e. water desalinator pump, sleeping bags, running shoes, etc.). We thought it would be nice to be able to pack everything inside our kayaks for once. We came very close, but we still had to carry a small dry bag on deck.
We knew the first paddling days out of Placencia would be hard. The temperature had risen to the highest level of the year and our bodies had become soft. Our first day would take us to Monkey River, a small settlement 13 nautical miles south. From there I planned to paddle the 28 miles to Punta Gorda in 3 days.
The alarm rang at 4:30 AM. We wanted to leave at 6 AM and figured it would take us an hour and half to get ready. Luke sat on his bed, looked at me and said: "Listen man. There is no way I can paddle today. My ear infection is back and my head is throbbing. Sorry man!" We got up at 6AM to tell our friends who had gotten up to say good bye. Annette had prepared us some breakfast. We chilled out for the day (Luke in hammock and I on the computer) and decided that if he didn't feel better the next day, I would paddle alone and Luke would meet me in a few days in Punta Gorda.
We woke up at 5 AM and went to work. We carried the kayaks and all the gear to the beach helped by our brother Sonny. By 7AM we were all packed and ready to go. Deb invited us for breakfast and we finally paddled out by 8:30 AM. Already the sun was high and it was hot. There wasn't a puff of wind and we started to suffer from the sun and heat by 11 AM. Just before reaching Monkey River, the squawking of birds attracted our attention toward a small islet made of mangrove. We paddled around and silently made our way through a small cut in the mangrove. A mess of half submerged roots rising up into a thick tree canopy sheltered a rookery of white egrets. There were dozens flying all around and hundreds more hiding in the trees. We resumed our paddle and I sighted a veranda with tables and chairs. I told Luke that the place would probably have some food. We landed on the beach of The Monkey House and were surprised to find such a quaint and comfortable lodge. The owner Martha was from Texas. With her husband Sam, they had decided to leave their urban life to find peace and quiet in Belize. They built everything themselves with simplicity and taste. Luke and I spent the rest of the day playing chess while listening to classical music. The meals were delicious and it was hard to leave. We camped next to our fully loaded kayaks to guarantee an early start in the morning to avoid suffering in the mid-day sun as we had the day before.
After a breakfast offered by Martha, we started paddling at 6:30 AM. The original plan was to reach Punta Gorda in 3 days but I thought that we could do it in two. People had told us that many of the islands on our way would be fine for camping. At 9AM we landed on the beach of Punta Negra, a settlement of 5 families. We stopped for 15 minutes to cool off. Already the sun was grilling us. We thought we would paddle another hour to Punta Icacos, take another break and finish with an hour and half of paddling to camp on another island. The distance would then be 15 or 16 miles and we would only have 10 to 12 more miles to cover the day after to get to PG. The next point was nothing else but mangrove and all the islands that followed were similar. We kept paddling under the heat. The back of my hands burned even with the layers of SP50 repellent that I continuously spread on. In spite of all the splashing and drinking I forced myself to do every 15 minutes, I could feel my body overheat and dehydrate. Luke started to lag behind. I kept my rhythm, checking on him every few minutes. As I was navigating through a maze of islands, I started to have visions of sandy beaches with coconut trees that danced in front of my eyes. Sometimes I really thought I could see them on the next island, but paddling closer I could never find anything else but mangrove. I waited for Luke and we attached our kayaks to roots, stretched and submerged ourselves to cool off. After 16 miles, we understood that we would have to make it to PG in a day. The wind started to blow 4 miles before PG. We could see the town and I tried to use the tiny waves, which were forming to surf, but they didn't lift much. Luke, exhausted, had already put on the autopilot. He was paddling like a robot. We arrived in PG at 3PM, burnt, dehydrated and very sore. The back of my right hand suffered a second-degree burn and was severely blistered the next day.
Our muscles were sore. We took a rest day in PG, shipped our storage bags (for use when we fold the kayaks) to Honduras and went to Immigration to get stamped out. Immigration in Belize was a breeze, but we got a lot of hassle from customs. (Read Luke's journal for a description of it). In the afternoon we spent some time with Ivan Jones, a Rasta man, half Garifuna and half Jamaican. We had met him the day before and had already spent hours talking about the Garifuna culture. Ivan was a character. He told us he had played music and a bartender role in the movie "The Mosquito Coast" with Harrison Ford. He has been featured in a few albums with his turtle shell drumming. He had fathered eight children from two Garifuna wives and an Austrian. We donated some money so he could purchase the rope necessary for him to finish the traditional drums he was making. In exchange, he invited us to eat a Garifuna dish he was proud to cook, but this didn't turn our as expected.
We found ourselves in the middle of a marital fight where the Garifuna mama, 3 times his size was in total control. We left discretely and ended up at a restaurant on the other side of town. The owner, a Canadian named John offered to let us sleep on his terrace to be protected from the rain. The rainy season had just started. Minutes after settling in, it was pouring and things got soaked almost immediately. We had decided to paddle directly across the 20-mile wide bay to Guatemala and it looked like we would be doing it on little sleep as we wanted to leave at 3AM to avoid the heat and the headwinds of mid-day.
The night on the asphalt of the restaurant's terrace wasn't the most comfortable. I woke up four times to go to the bathroom with stomach cramps. I checked on the kayaks, which were still floating fully loaded attached to a log two hundred feet from our cement camp. Luke as usual was sleeping soundly. We woke up at 2:30AM packed our mats and paddled to the dock. We still had to get stamped out at customs. After much fuss the day before, where the official tried to solicit a bribe, we arranged to meet him at the police station to get out stamp in the wee hours of the morning. The police officers were friendly and went to wake up the immigration agent who gave us a final dose of his bad humor and reluctantly stamped our passports after trying a last time to get bribe money.
All this made us lose an hour. When we left Punta Gorda at 4AM we couldn't see the other side of the bay. The sky was overcast and completely dark. I took a GPS reading, checked my compass and looked at my heading in relation to half a dozen stars. Passing clouds often obstructed the stars I chose as guides and we paddled out of the country into darkness. Two thunderheads passed close by. People had warned us that this crossing was dangerous. People told us of two Swedish guys who bought a yacht and were killed in Honduras. They told us about all the bandits. Our goal was to be more discreet than visible. After all these stories, I thought that the chance of being accidentally run over by a speedboat was smaller than being mugged by people who took notice of two flashing beacons moving at a paddling speed. Thus we used no lights.
The temperature was ideal for paddling. Our new neoprene sprayskirts were perfect. The sun rose in the middle of the clouds. With it the wind started to blow a little and hit us in the face. The waves were hitting us at an angle from the front. After a few hours my stomach started to cramp up again. I kept paddling, but suddenly felt as if no further movement would be possible. I quickly jumped in the water and relieved myself. Jumping back in the kayak, I felt tired but a bit relieved from the stomach pain. The same thing happened an hour later. Paddling for hours with my sick stomach, I remembered a few other occasions when I had been sick while traveling and it was during this period, on these waters between Belize and Guatemala, that I got inspired to write a story I named "When Nature Calls in Foreign Lands". After having to quickly jump in the water a third time, I decided to change our destination to go directly to Livingston, although it meant paddling a little farther. I would rather add a few more miles to reach a destination I was sure about. I wanted this crossing to be over quickly. My stomach was all over the place, my muscles were sore and the shoreline, which was well visible a while ago, had completely disappeared in a mist of clouds and fog. At least it was light enough to be able to read the compass. I looked back toward Luke and saw a dark mass moving toward us. I quickly unrolled my neoprene sprayskirt up to my chest and put my hat on. A minute later it hit us. It was raining so hard it flattened the waves. The surface of the ocean turned white from the froth created by the drops. It felt like we were suddenly paddling on the moon, a sensation we actually enjoyed as it felt too unreal to be true.
The rain stopped after a few minutes and was replaced by the sun. My right hand became very sensitive. Constant salt water and sun exposure were the last things I needed on my blistered skin. I focused on paddling toward the land that had reappeared in front of us. Luke and I paddled hard for 45 minutes. We had the feeling we weren't moving. Annoyed, I pulled out the GPS and checked. We had only covered 1 mile in an hour of hard paddling. It was demoralizing. We must have met some current. I kept paddling hard wanting to arrive before the temperature took its toll on us.
I landed on the beach of Livingston in front of two locals who greeted me with many questions:
"Where did you come from?"
"Punta Gorda, Belize."
"In that? Alone?"
No, my friend Luke is coming".
We looked back and Luke approached. He had this look on his face of a man who has had enough. I yelled: "Bienvenido a Guatemala" which the two old men repeated with big smiles. We paddled on to the entrance of the Rio Dulce to find the immigration office.
The town and scenery was very different from anything we had seen in Belize. We parked our kayaks next to the main dock and Luke went to the immigration with my passport while I kept the kayaks. I didn't even have to show my face at the immigration office to receive a stamp. If border formalities could always be that easy, it would be great. We sat in an open bar next to the river for an hour before moving a few feet upstream to a nice guesthouse with the best pizzas in town. Today's 19 mile crossing was one of the toughest paddling days we had experienced thus far. A combination of strong currents, lack of sleep, previous muscle soreness, and diarrhea weakened my body, and all the possible dangers I had been warned about took a toll on my mind. I was happy to finally be in Guatemala.
1 km = 0.62 statute miles
1 Nautical Mile = 1.85 km
1 Nautical Mile = 1.15 miles
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