Fri 18 Oct 2013 19:44
It was overcast when six of us bundled into Jesse James' Taxi and headed for the hills, Jesse quizzing us on our local knowledge on the way. Lindsey soon learnt that any answer that included the words "Brian Charles Lara" was acceptable whatever the subject and we giggled our way through the traffic jams of Port of Spain until we hit Arima and turned North to the mountains. The road got narrower and steeper, hair-pining it's way up the valley into the rainforest. Bamboo 50ft high vaulted the tree tunnels as we went and the sun broke through the clouds sending shafts of bright white through the diversity of greens.
Originally a coffee and cocoa plantation, Asa Wright sits at the head of a valley. It is now a nature centre with trails criss crossing the 1,500 acre grounds of the colonial house. The ceilings are impossibly high, with doors built for very thin giants - at least twice normal people height. Open windows allow the breeze that's flowed up the valley to cool the rooms, helped by the lazily spinning fan on the ceiling, whilst the shutters keeps the hot sunshine at bay. It made me want to slow down, sip a cool drink and sit a while... But then I wandered out to the veranda.
It was magical. I couldn't believe it. I knew that the bird life here was wonderful and that they put out sugar feeders for the humming birds but I hadn't expected to be surrounded by these wonderful creatures, darting within a few feet of you, with Kiskadees, grey green Palm Tangiers and Bananaquits arguing with each other over the fruit that had been put out for them. I didn't want to move, fearing that this display would vanish if I turned away but after a while I realised that it didn't stop, although the players varied a little at different times of the day. So for the next 24 hours, whenever we weren't exploring the grounds, we would slip away to the veranda, help ourselves to tea or a cool drink from the bar and just absorb the coming and goings. We very soon got our cameras out, taking snap after snap, trying for the perfect one, not able to resist one more shot when the birds were so close. We got quite a few good ones, the ones on this page are a mixture of mine, Phil's and some our friend Bruce let us have.
There were always rangers on hand to point out interesting birds or tell you what you'd spotted, and they took us for walks into the rainforest to see what we could find. We felt like we were living in a David Attenboroughs documentary. Agoutis crossed our path from the undergrowth, golden striped iguanas soaked up the sun. As we walked a line of bright green leaves seemed to be bobbing along across our path, joined a little further down by a line of yellow leaves. They were leaf cutter ants, carrying their loads from the tree tops to the huge next, where the leaves would be chewed down by other ants so a fungus could grow on them, which is what these farmers eat. Some of the leaves had tiny ants riding on them. They were literally riding shot gun to protect the carriers from parasitic wasps that prey on them. Manakins, like cotton wool balls, danced near their leks and a bearded bell bird chimed into the canopy.
Here's a couple of video clips - the leaf cutters and the Bell Bird:
After dark we took to the paths again, this time with flashlights and head torches, searching out the mini beasts and some not so mini beasts, of the night. When we were in South Africa I taught for a day in Phil's sister Cath's school. They had a box of plastic bugs, of all shapes and sizes. I swear I saw every one of them for real that night! I found it a little disconcerting to realise that all around me were scorpions and tarantulas and next day I was rather more careful where I put my feet and hands. Phil loved it though. He and the other chaps in the party were like 12 year olds, pushing past each other to pick up the stick insect or tree frog or whatever, loving the new discovery every few yards would bring.
A Barred Antshrike, flashing his black and white stripy tail greeted me when I looked out of the morning next day and the veranda brought me the view of three toucans socialising, their beaks flashing in the morning sun. Along with an American couple on a photography holiday, who happened to be jazz musicians, we were being taken through the rainforest, following a stream down a valley, to a cave where Oilbirds roost. These birds are nocturnal, are about a foot and a half long, have over a meter wing span and are fruit eaters. They make their nests in caves out of regurgitated fruit (yuk!) and their chicks stay in them for about 3 months, fed on palm fruits by their parents. This means the little blighters get seriously fat... The Amerindians discovered this property and used to steal the baby birds, boil them, skim off the fat and use it in their lamps. They also used to short cut that process and simply skewer them on a stick and use them as garden flares!
On the way back to Chaguaramas we diverted to see a fabulous sight. We took a large flat bottomed boat out through the Caroni swamp to see the Scarlet Ibis come in to roost, seeing Green and Crested Herons along with a Black Hawk and a tree boa along the way. It was really spectacular - hundreds of Ibis and Egrets coming in to roost on one island. Jessie made pineapple chow (add garlic, chadon beni, hot pepper and a little salt) as we went along and we shared this with the other boat passengers along with hot pholourie with mango chutney... yum!
It's been a privilege to stay the hurricane season in Trinidad. Great to really feel we've got to know the place: the people, the wildlife, the politics, even the dangers. As we voyage we necessarily dip into the countries we pass by: a taste, a scent, a sight combining to leave impressions. It's not often that we get to see a little deeper and build up a fuller picture of a place. We'll definitely come back.