Riverdave’s Journal

       While staying at our family cottage on the Bahamian Island of Abaco, my wife and I took a short plane hop to the island of Eleuthera just to the south.  We stayed in a flat across from the Rev. Charles Sweeting in the town of Current in North Eleuthera.  Rev. Sweeting was the pastor of the Methodist Church in the town of Cherokee, Abaco when our family cottage was purchased by my father in 1972.

       Like Cherokee, the town of Current is a somewhat isolated town and there are many kinship ties between these two communities.  Unlike Cherokee, Current is now a racially mixed community with a black majority.  But the owner of the flat where we stayed, a Mr. Algreen, appeared to be of neither strain.  We were told that there is a good bit of indigenous Arawak indian blood still flowing in the veins of many of the residents of North Eleuthera, more so than on any other island in the Bahamian Archipelago.

       The town of Current is a seaside fishing village, so we continued our island ritual of walking down to the waterfront to watch the evening sunset on the shallow western side.  Sunset at low tide is exceptionally beautiful. If the water also happens to be dead calm, as it often is, for several minutes the sea turns an incredible pink from shore to horizon giving a surreal aura to the entire surrounding area. I had never witnessed anything quite like that before. This startling phenomenon doesn't happen on the eastern Atlantic side of the island because both deeper water and rougher waves keep the water a dark blue in appearance.

       For dinner in Current, I bought fish to cook from local kids who were fishing with hand lines from the shore.  They were catching what they called "crawshad."  It looked like some species of jack, but suited our taste quite nicely.  Later, when I got a chance to snorkel further down the coast, I noticed that this fish was very abundant in the sea.
      We first visited the two largest old colonial settlements, Harbor Island, slurred as "Briland" by locals, and Spanish Wells, both of which are reachable only by ferries.  They have quaint old sections with tidy colonial homes. We walked around Briland and rented a golf cart for exploring Spanish Wells, roaming the old streets and peering into the trim little tropical gardens maintained by their owners.

      Harbor island is a tourist town and Spanish Wells is fast becoming a retirement community for wealthy Floridians, but we enjoyed learning how these offshore island communities make their livelihood, comparing them to Abaco's offshore cay communities. We think Abaco's cays still maintain a quieter atmosphere that we prefer.

      We swam at the Harbor Island beach, and found it, along with most of Eleuthera's other many beaches, to be much bigger and in better shape than Abaco's beaches.  So if one is solely intent on finding long pristine sections of pink sand beaches, Eleuthera is a great place to find them.  Of course sitting on sunny beaches is not the main reason Josie and I like the Bahamas. 

      In fact, both of us cannot tolerate a lot of the direct sun that one gets in exposed beaches.  After a dip of ten minutes, we usually head for a shady sea cave or protective forest.  But the contrast of the cool, clear, sparkling waters and a sunny day is a most exhilarating winter experience.  Winter water temperatures run about 73 degrees in Eleuthera and in Abaco.  On a cloudy cool day this is not an inviting swimming condition, but on sunny days it is the very ultimate in a refreshing ocean bathing experience.

      Next our attention shifted to exploring the island's other natural features.  North Eleuthera contains what is known as the Preacher's Cave, a large limestone cave with a forty foot high ceiling that recesses into the limestone hill about 150 feet deep. It's post Arawakan history begins with a band of 200 British Loyalists who headed south from Charleston, South Carolina after the American Revolutionary war ended and were then shipwrecked off shore from Eleuthera.  They took refuge in this immense cave for months as they began to build more permanent dwellings.  Their descendants now live in Spanish Wells and Harbor island.  The cave was also used as a place of worship by this group and others and hence it's name today - the Preacher's Cave.

     It is a startling visual contrast to sit inside this immense, dark, cathedral-like cavity and peer out its entrance to the colorful lush tropical vegetation that surrounds it. Rev. Sweeting proudly informed us that all of his relatives, on both sides of his family, trace their history back to the shipwrecked band that took refuge in the cave.  I pondered that situation while meditating deep inside the cave.  What an amazing sense of connectedness to a single geographical space he must have - to be able to trace all his origins back to a particular seaside cave two hundred years ago!  His mother and father were even fourth cousins.

      We rented a car and drove 110 miles to the southern tip of the island. Unlike Abaco, there are no pine forests on Eleuthera and instead of being flat, its terrain consists of rolling hills.  The northern half of Eleuthera is covered with a resurging bush forest that is reclaiming the land after years of experiencing a once flourishing citrus and pineapple industry.  Unfortunately, agriculture does not seem to be a priority of the present government of the Bahamas.

      Once a big exporter of tropical fruits and vegetables, it is now a net importer of food by a huge margin.  It seems that the government of the Bahamas has chosen to invest in a limited number of expensive and fashionable, high end tourism projects at the expense of sustainable agriculture for its people.  From my perspective, this looks like a mistake.

      Much of the southern half of the island is covered with a wild and untouched West Indian subtropical hardwood forest. We went there on a mission to find the great lizard cuckoo, a large indigenous bird of the island.  Although we found the more common mangrove cuckoo as we walked the final mile to the southern lighthouse point, the lizard cuckoo failed to make its presence known to us.  But the end of the island is a spectacular place with huge rocks jutting out into the sea and a pristine, coconut palm lined beach.  It was a very hot day and we barely had enough water to remain comfortable as we traipsed across that wild and rugged place.

      While failing to bag that new exotic species on this trip, my interest in the more familiar mockingbird was reignited.  I was impressed with how much this common bird is the dominant singer in both Eleuthera and in Abaco. There are actually two species of mockingbirds in the Bahamas - the northern mockingbird which we also have in North Carolina, and the Bahama Mockingbird, which looks almost identical but which is a shade browner than the northern species that is gray.  But both sing their cheery repertoires with great vigor throughout these islands at all hours of both day and night, town and countryside.

      Probably my favorite experience on Eleuthera was the discovery of an extensive banyan tree grove in the countryside north of Rock Sound. We parked the car, climbed through a barbed wire fence and found a string of banyan trees that stretched at least a half mile.  We asked permission to walk from the local Hatian laborers that were wielding machetes in a nearby field.  I asked them what they called this magnificent tree and their reply was, "Hey mon, whah tree?"  It is amazing how often we fail to notice what is in our very own backyard! 

      The banyan (Ficus bengalensis) is one of the largest and most uniquely structured trees in the world. It is a native of India, but is planted ornamentally in all tropical regions of the world.  The strangler fig, Ficus aurea, is the largest native tree in the Bahamas. My own history with the banyan tree goes back to my first encounter with it on the campus of the American University of Beirut in 1974.   I was so transfixed by its fabulous shape and size, that I have since sought the tree out whenever I am in tropical lands, often finding them in city parks as ornamental trees.

      But this banyan grove in Eleuthera has a wilder country setting.  It is actually located in the middle of a sprawling cattle ranch.  My guess is that it was planted a couple of hundred years ago, perhaps even in Spanish times, as shade for cattle from the intense tropical sun. The banyan's complex structure of massive horizontal limbs and vertical prop roots reminds me of structures that I used to build with "tinker toys" as a child. If I was visiting planet earth from another cosmic realm and had only an hour to see the most wondrous sight on earth, I would ask to be taken to a mature old banyan tree!  This Eleuthera tree is the best example I have ever seen. 

      There may be better examples of banyans in India, but there we would have to cope with cobras hiding in its buttresses and naked hindu holy men camped out underneath its sacred branches.  All we had to contend with at the Eleuthera tree were a few friendly brahma cows, hummingbirds and anoles (arboreal lizards). There are no venomous snakes in the Bahamas.  Although nowhere advertised  as a tourist attraction, in my opinion this is the focal point of the island.  It was worth the time and effort to travel to Eleuthera just to experience this wonder of a tree.

      Shortly after we left the banyan tree, we picked up a Nassau newspaper and read with excitement that the U.S. Supreme Court had unanimously ruled in favor of legalizing for a church in New Mexico, the sacramental use of the Amazonian visionary plant medicine known as “Ayahuasca.”   Attorney General Gonzales prosecuted the church but he was soundly overruled on this one, based on the defendant’s use of the Religious Freedom Act of 1978.  This bodes well for the future use of this wonderful tropical medicine in the United States that I have worked with for eight years now.  The Bahamian columnist reporting the event gave an amazingly positive philosophical spin on the event.

      While in the south we spent one night at a small resort in a hexagonal cottage atop a dune overlooking the Atlantic side of the island.  It was refreshing to be up high with a view after being in the low flat in the town of Current.  I snorkeled among the coral rocks and we watched a fabulous sunrise to the east the next morning.  Josie recalled times spent with her mother who loved to spend winter months on the Island of Bequia further south.

      In our six days of travel in Eleuthera, we ate in restaurants only three times.  We prepared all our other meals ourselves from materials we picked up at small local markets and bought from kids on the beach.  This allowed us to "picnic" our way through the island, the preferred "Owen" style of traveling.

      We flew from Eleuthera back to Abaco in a six seater airplane.   We got to see the town of Cherokee from the air as we passed over all our familiar spots, flying at an altitude of just one thousand feet.  Weather during our Eleuthera trip was perfect, with highs in the lower eighties and lows around seventy with light sea breezes.  Since we have been back in Cherokee, the temperature has been mild, but at present lots of wind and rain is coming in ahead of the cold front descending into the Southeastern U.S.   We saw the encircling frigate birds yesterday, as they always show up just before a storm. It is now mid-afternoon, but it is so dark outside the street lights are on!

      Our neighbor's dog "Ninja" lies lazily on our front porch today as it rains, dreaming of more promising weather to accompany us on our next bush hike.  He showed up as an abandoned puppy the year Josie and I were married here in Cherokee. He took refuge across the street from us under the Methodist Church until he was adopted by our neighbors Gurney and Katherine Sands.  Ninja really is a "bush dog" too.  I have noticed how he browses on a particular shrub in the forest that has a square stem, so it must be in the mint family.  My guess is that he does this to deal with the medicine his owner gives him for his occasional seizures.  I think that these seizures are really the altered states of consciousness that a bona fide bush dog goes through in the course of his island life.  you see, Ninja really is a shaman ...

      I have not read much this trip - having plowed only about one-third of the way through a new annotated edition of Thoreau’s Walden.  On the other hand, Josie brought a pile of books that she is enjoying.  I just squeezed the juice out of fifteen sour oranges that I gathered in the forest behind the schoolmaster's house. I will freeze the juice to bring home for my mother to use to make her renown sour orange pie.  U.S. customs won't allow the whole fruit in, but frozen juice will pass. For some strange reason, a sour orange pie usually shows up around my birthday in april!
Photo by Riverdave: Eleuthera Island Banyan Tree