5 Feb - exploring Guadeloupe
On Monday 4 February, the Askaris joined us to venture ashore early and find a hire car to explore the island – or at least the western part of this butterfly-shaped tropical paradise. The roads run around the coast, with just a couple crossing through the mountainous rainforest interior. Unsurprisingly it reminded us of parts of Montserrat and Grenada; what did surprise us was how like the south of France it was; the roadsigns, the shops and small businesses, the quality of the roads and the overwhelming proportion of French cars – what a contrast to the Americanisation of the BVIs. Near Pointe à Pitre we found ourselves on a dual carriageway with sophisticated agriculture on either side – bananas and sugar cane predominate, but it’s a mixed economy here. Our destination was a series of waterfalls high up in the rainforest where we planned to go on a fairly strenuous trek and then swim in the rivers.
Two of the three Carbet Falls, Capesterre-Belle-Eau, Guadeloupe
The weather was a bit overcast, but the scenery was exotic, dominated by the nearby Soufriere Volcano (every Caribbean island seems to have a volcano named Soufriere) and incredibly green. I guess you’d expect it to rain a lot in a rainforest, but for me, what really sets this environment apart from other parts of the Caribbean is the size of the vegetation. Everything appears to be on steroids – enormous leaves, huge canopies of ivies, giant ferns. It’s pretty wet underfoot too, although the path to the first of the Carbet Falls waterfalls was paved and clearly aimed at Cruise ship visitors. The more challenging tracks to other waterfalls were closed – not quite sure why – so whilst the 100-metre cascade was quite spectacular, we were unsatisfied physically. As we returned to the car, Julie spotted a path leading up to a lookout, so we set off. Two hours of tortuous, slippery, root-strewn scrambling later, we reached the viewpoint. It was more of a clearing in the forest really, but the view down to the coast was great, even if the weather limited my enthusiasm for photography.
‘Are we nearly there?’ Rainforest mountaineering with the Askaris
‘No. Just keep climbing…’
We ate lunch perched on some rocks and then picked our way back down. We agreed that whoever slipped and covered themselves in mud should buy the beers at the bottom.
About halfway down, I managed to stumble and broke my fall by grabbing hold of a giant fern. Whilst I averted serious injury and remained entirely mud-free, the fern was equipped with some razor-sharp spines on its stem, so I ended up with a generous handful of them embedded in my left paw. Blood everywhere and I fretted a bit about ghastly tropical infections. Nurse Julie, normally the first to respond with the Ship’s Portable Operating Theatre, told me to ‘man up’ and a shameful debate ensued as to whether this qualified me for beer-buying. We reached the car without further incident and set off to Ecrevisse Falls where we had an opportunity to swim in the pools, wash off the blood and generally recuperate. We timed it well – the cruise ship parties had left and we caught the best of the afternoon sunshine in an idyllic spot.
Cooling off in the river – note the size of the foliage!
Needing a beer, we set off towards Deshaies and stopped at a beach bar near Pointe Ferry on the west coast where we parked amongst the palm trees, wandered through a bohemian collection of beach restaurants and diving shops before enjoying Normandy-standard crepes and a couple of cold beers at the water’s edge as the sun set. [I paid.] A fine way to round off an energetic and rewarding day. Interestingly, the beach was quite stony, but there were few other similarities with Stokes Bay!
The following day Julie and I took the car to explore a bit more of Basse Terre, the western part of Guadeloupe. We found the Reimonenq Distillery at Sainte Rose and enjoyed the self-guided tour before stumbling across their remarkable collection of butterflies and beetles. Not quite sure what the link with the ‘rhum’ was, but we were spellbound by the quite bizarre and beautiful creatures pinned to a piece of board. The collection was not specific to Guadeloupe, but somehow that didn’t matter. It was much better than the rum, which we didn’t like enough to invest in. French rum is made from sugar cane, whereas rum from other Caribbean islands is often made from molasses. I expected to prefer the sugar cane version but based on a limited sample from this one distillery, I have to say that I favour the molasses product.
One of the more bizarre exhibits at the Rum Museum in Guadeloupe. You wouldn’t want to find this chap flying in the bedroom window!
We reached Pointe à Pitre, the capital, in time for lunch and managed to get a table at the Café des Artes. It overlooks the extensive harbour and we wished we had enough time to bring Escapade here. We didn’t, so we concentrated on enjoying some good quality Franco-Caribbean food at a reasonable price – certainly cheaper for a good lunch out than in the US. Across the harbour was a striking modern building which the waiter told us was the museum of slavery. Having seen so much evidence of slavery on this trip, from Lagos in Portugal, to Morocco, Cape Verde and of course throughout the Caribbean and the south east of USA, we had to visit. It’s a very modern place that makes extensive use of audio-visual technology to tell its tale. We struggled a bit with the IT gadgets, but not enough to detract from the story, which is terrible, uplifting and discomforting in equal parts. The story runs from the Spanish conquistadors to William Wilberforce and some very difficult statistics about modern slavery around the world in 2019; it is very awkward to accept just how much of the world’s economic development over the last 600 years has depended on slave labour.
The slavery museum in Guadeloupe, opened in 2015
Throughout this two-year adventure, we have been very privileged to see how history has shaped the current world and this museum, the Memorial ACTe, does a great job in putting much of what we have seen and read into context. We now need to find a good ‘history of the Caribbean’ book.
On the way back to the boat we found a huge Casino supermarket and rejoiced at the breadth of choice and the reasonable prices and quality. Wednesday 6 February was declared a ‘Sunday Routine’ onboard and we did very little except eat French cheese and baguettes. Glorious.
One morning, two 25ft open boats were drifting near us, each with two men aboard. One boat had a net and after some debate, they set about laying the net out in a circle. The empty boat took one end and set off to the left, whilst the other pushed right. The crewmen threw small rocks into the water ahead of each boat, presumably to encourage any fish near the surface to swim into the gap between the two boats. As they got three quarters of the way round the circle, the coxswain of the empty boat jumped into the sea and swam to position himself in the gap between the boats as they came together – the net spanning a radius of about 100m. Once the boats made contact, the men began hauling the net back onboard. About twenty minutes after the evolution started, the net was back aboard the first boat and the swimmer was back in his boat. They caught one fish. A frigate bird picked up a minnow. That was it. Men and bird set of to repeat the process a few hundred yards further out to sea.
Two boats, four men, one net, one fish…