Topside Trip Report
For background on the trip and diving narrative, please visit the Diving Trip Report.
The diving in Bonaire was undeniably fantastic. However, unexpectedly (and much to my delight), Bonaire topside turned out to offer just as much excitement--everything and more that a young naturalist could possibly enjoy in two weeks. Because of the weather and our focus on diving, I was unable to take part in as many adventures as I’d hoped, but here's a bit about what I did do. Words in bold have pictures associated with them in the gallery.
But first a little background on the island. Roughly the size of Douglas (for those Juneauites out there), Bonaire sits north of the coast of Venezuela, almost within site of the mainland on a clear day. At the southern edge of the Caribbean, Bonaire shares many of the familiar coral reef critters from other islands, but is unique in diversity and abundance. The topside climate is scrub desert, but we arrived in the middle of the rainy season so the island was unusually green and blossoming. Formed around an old volcano, 70% of the island today consists of limestone and coral from a time when the sea level was much lower. The rest is volcanic.
There are scattered settlements around Bonaire, but most inhabitants live in the main city, Krallendyke (where most of the shops, hotels and restaurants are), and Rincon. Downtown Krallendyke is charming with its brightly painted, slightly European/colonial buildings. We spend little time here except to eat dinner out occasionally and shop for groceries. North of Krallendyke, the road becomes one-way past Karpata (a great dive site), so we often had to take the long way home from diving. The road turns inland from Karpata and climbs a steep hill before cresting over a panoramic view of Rincon village. Despite a picturesque location, Rincon is impoverished compared to Krallendyke with considerably less Dutch influence.
Circumnavigating the Island (Gotomeer, Northern Bonaire, Boka
Onima, Wild Donkeys, Salt Works)
A few days after we arrived, Larry and I drove north to Gotomeer (a large lake) in search of flamingos. Shortly after passing Karpata (where the road becomes a one-way, single lane track), we turned inland and followed the southern shore of the lake, dotted with the unlikely pink of Caribbean flamingos. As the road rose above the lake, we pulled off at an overlook and took in the strikingly beautiful landscape--an expansive blue lake surrounded by valleys thick with lush green vegetation and red, rocky hills . Tropical sounding birds sang around us, lost in the dense brush. Northern Bonaire is surprisingly pristine and picturesque, thankfully protected in the Washington Slaagbai National Park.
Shortly after leaving Gotomeer, we turned onto the road to the park and stopped at the entrance. As the ranger was showing us a map of the park roads and the points of interest, we decided to come back another day when we had more gas, water and provisions. I couldn't wait to explore the northern wilderness, hike Bonaire’s highest hill, and search for exciting new birds and lizards. We set aside our last day of vacation to visit the park at our leisure.
From the park we turned south and wound our way off the main road to Boka Onima. A flat, sparsely vegetated plain between the ocean and a row of low cliffs, Boka Onima’s rocky shore bears the full force of ocean swells--our first glimpse of Bonaire’s “wild side.” When the sea level was a little higher, the waves carved caves in the cliffs several hundred yards from the shoreline today. On the ceiling of one shallow cave, the Natives of Bonaire made paintings at some indefinite time in the past. The reddish designs looked to me like stars, swastikas, turtles and peacock flounders (though the latter was probably just my imagination). It was thrilling to see paintings that may have been executed as long as a thousand years before by Native Americans that had since absorbed into the colonial slave society of the Dutch. I was disappointed to learn from our cave guide a week later that local Bonaireans had repainted the designs within the last decade to make them more distinct and, while they were at it, added a few more. He was discouraged by the event, but I suspect that the majority (if not all) of the paintings closely resembled the originals and perhaps the “new” ones were merely too faint for our guide to have noticed before. We can only hope.
Between the caves and the shore were three wild donkeys, descendants of the donkeys that once labored in the salt works alongside the slaves. Having had several encounters with skittish donkeys in the past several days, I fully expected them to flee as we approached. However, when we stopped about 30 feet away, one donkey slowly walked over to us and stopped a few feet away. Holding my breath, I slowly reached out and touched the donkey’s ear, then his neck and back. He stood there, immobile, not looking at either of us, enduring his petting. The other two donkeys--a mother and large foal--kept their distance.
While Larry continued to the beach, I ran back to the car to get an apple. As I reapproached the herd and offered this treat, the same donkey came over and took a morsel from my palm, tossing his head and looking me in the eye for the first time. It seemed to me a friendly glance of appreciation, reserved for those who, I expect, offered him more than the standard pat. I bit off tidbits of apple and fed them one at a time to my appreciative donkey friend. The baby donkey was very interested, too, but nervous. He smelled my offering and even touched my fingers with his fuzzy lips, but never took anything from my hand, though he did enjoy what I threw on the ground for him. The mother always watched from a distance. I was surprised by how small these donkeys are, their backs reaching just above my waste. With pale grey fur, tiny black hooves, and impossibly long ears, they were quite charming creatures. For better or for worse, Bonaire is rounding up its wild donkeys and confining them to a “sanctuary” on the southern end of the island. It’s probably best for the vegetation, but very sad to see Bonaire lose one of its most charming inhabitants--old survivors from the salt mines confined again.
From Boka Onima we tried to visit a bird preserve, but were foiled by a locked gate. Farther south we reached the edge of Lac Cai (a deep bay) and the mangrove swamps that surround it. Shallow pools of water between the mangroves and dying trees were thick with flamingos, Louisiana herons, ducks, and white egrets. Very exciting birding. Past the bay we returned to the edge of the ocean, driving across a flat, coral plain with salt ponds to the right and mounds of debris along the shore to the left. It looked like good beach combing territory, the coral littered with flotsam. Not a picturesque site and we were just as happy to reach the lighthouse at the southern tip of the island and head north along the shore. We passed the slave huts (strangely refurbished and freshly painted), the salt ponds colored pink with bacteria (the source of the pink colored flamingos), and eventually the great mounds of brilliant white salt sitting across from a cargo ship ready for loading. Then to Krallendyke and back to our hotel. It was an adventurous morning, but we were back before noon and ready to dive the rest of the day (Bonaire is not a very big island). Unfortunately, due to rains, we didn't travel most of these roads again.
Through the dive/adventure shop at our hotel, I set up a trip to explore Bonaire’s limestone caves. The tour normally required a minimum of nine people, but for some reason they set one up for just Larry, myself and Carleen, a friend who traveled with our group. Thinking that the caves would be cool and wet, I donned long pants and sandals. Our guide Henk soon set us straight (warning us that our bravery in the face of intense heat would determine how far into the caves we’d venture), and we changed into shorts and tennis shoes. We soon found that Henk alone was worth the trip. A Dutch naturalist, he’d lived on the island for a decade and was the only government licensed cave guide. Mostly formed of limestone and fossil rubble, Bonaire has hundreds of caves, most of which are about 50 feet above sea level.
Henk took us a few miles north in a decrepit van and parked near a posh neighborhood, informing us that many of the local houses were built on limestone caves (in fact, one had a private cave as a basement). We proceeded to trudge through the brush on a barely visible trail until we reached a hole in the ground about four feet across. Into this we descended by ladder and the temperature immediately shot up about 10 degrees. There were no paths, no cables, nothing but the natural formation of the cave (full of head-bumping hazards and tight spaces). Armed with flashlights, we wound our way down into the dry heat where Henk pointed out the different limestone formations. There were sparkling structures that indicated fresh crystal growth, caves where different layers of stone had separated and whole ceilings collapsed, and clumps of fossils on the walls. Apparently, true limestone was interspersed with layers of shell and coral rubble and, as caves developed, sometimes whole layers separated and the roof collapsed. Where the limestone had fallen away, fossils were revealed. We could clearly see spiral snail shells and the bones of fish. In many places the ceiling had concave formations the shape of brain coral where the coral itself had fallen off the ceiling and left a perfect image of the structure from the inside. We could even see the homes of ancient tube worms sticking into the abyss of where its host’s body used to be. In other areas, rich reddish patches on the ceiling indicated where magma had forced its way through weak points in the limestone and solidified.
And then there were bats!! Its only indigenous mammals, Bonaire is home to several species of bats, some of which colonize caves by the thousands. The caves we explored were home to only a few of the smallest variety. They flitted all around us, brushing by so close we could feel the wind on our cheeks, but too fast to focus on. We saw the black-tipped stalactites where they roosted and, from a distance, even caught them in the act.
Deep into the cave, we finally came upon a narrow passage about two and a half feet tall. This required crawling and squeezing our way about eight feet into the next chamber. It was a welcome feeling to sit down on the other side, but the temperature rose again and we were soaked with sweat. We estimated the temperature at over a hundred degrees F and the air was motionless. We turned off our flashlights and enjoyed the rare novelty of absolute darkness. Twenty minutes later when we emerged onto the surface, the 84 degree Bonaire air coupled with a light breeze felt mighty cool and refreshing.
Typically, Henk took his guests to another cave with a clear, fresh water pool. His guests free dive under the pool to an adjoining chamber not connected by land. We opted against this, and Henk took us instead to a cave not far from Oil Slick Leap dive site. Here we saw a glimpse of an underground stream through a small hole about 100 feet below. Cave divers haul their gear down there to dive. I couldn't even imagine hauling myself (let alone my gear) through such a narrow, steep passage! The entrance to the cave had collapsed into a sink hole. When Bonaire had trouble with draughts, the locals had built steps down to a concrete trough and pumped water into it for the goats. From that sink hole there were entrances to at least seven different cave systems.
On top of telling us about caves, Henk answered all our questions about the island, proving knowledgeable and insightful about the natural and human world of Bonaire and giving us a far more profound understanding of the island.
I’m a sucker for horseback riding and seek out opportunities (there are few in Juneau) to ride. I read an article in a Bonaire travel guide about a stable that offers rides and swims with horses, so I gave them a call and wound up joining a couple from Pennsylvania on a morning ride. The stable was small, home to six horses, and so remote that the owner has to drive buckets of water to water them every day. Happy to be around horses and pleased that the weather wasn’t suggesting rain, I hopped onto my ex-racehorse steed (from Venezuela, I think), named Renegade.
The ride was very pleasant. We wound our way through paths among scrub bushes and cacti, onto the mud plains that run along the edge of the mangrove, and onto a road that leads to Lac Cai (the bay surrounded by mangroves). We walked most of the time, though I let Renegade trot as often as I could. Our guide Tessa told me that Renegade needed to be kept under control if he ever started galloping. Galloping? I asked--do you mean cantering!?!? Evidently she meant galloping, but I had no intention of going beyond a canter--or of loosing control. She said that when Renegade had taken off in the past, only one person had managed to stay on. Anyway, at one point along the road, the other woman in the group and I were trotting together and Renegade gracefully broke into the most lovely canter I’ve ever experienced. I enjoyed it as long as I could (always under control), but all too soon Tessa called me to stop, as the woman I had been trotting with was screaming in terror at the increasing speed of her steed, and mine was encouraging it.
After an hour and a half of walking we arrived at a sandy beach in Lac Cai. Here we stripped down to our bathing suites and the Tessa stripped the horses of all their gear. We took turns taking the horses into the bay and holding them while they rolled and pawed at the water. Then we swam them! Tessa would take the horse’s lead and urge them (somewhat reluctantly) into deep water where the riders hung on to their manes as the horses swam. We never swam for more than about 15 feet at a time, but it was quite a thrill to feel the ground drop out from under the horses and the powerful kicks of their hind legs as they swam! Most of their manes were cut short, so hanging on was difficult. With Tessa’s help, I swam with two of the other horses, and then took Renegade in and managed to swim him on my own.
Due to flooding, we took the same route back. I asked to canter again, but the other woman was never in control of her horse and scared of it, so Tessa didn't want my horse egging hers on. I kept letting Renegade trot, though, until Tessa would call me to stop. We joked about horses eager to get home that make a run for the stables and Tessa said that Renegade was the only horse that might do that. Well, perhaps foolishly, I was letting him trot along the trail next to the other woman, unaware that home was just around the corner. Suddenly, the pleasant trot broke into a brief canter followed by a mad gallop! The hooves pounding beneath me reached impossible speeds and the wind rushed wildly across my cheeks. I yanked on the reins and hung on for all I was worth but there was no stopping Renegade. Once, he turned a little as he ran and I thought it was all over for me. Somehow I managed to keep my balance and, all too soon, (but with some relief), the stable appeared and Renegade slowed to a demure stop. I was so excited that I impulsively bent down and kissed him on his sweaty neck.
It took a moment for my joy and exhilaration to fade and to remember that the other woman's horse had also started galloping, and that I’d seen her fly off the saddle as I sped by. I turned to see her lying on the ground a hundred yards back with her husband approaching on his horse, screaming and moaning. I called the owner out of the stable to get an ambulance and, seeing that no one was taking charge, I dismounted and walked my horse (pliant now) over to the scene, gave the reins to her husband (so he’d have something to do other than yell) and told him to be quiet. I gave the woman my towel for a pillow and urged her to lay still to the best of my ability. She wanted to get up and walk (terrified that she’d ruin their vacation), but I made her stay down as still as possible and checked her for injuries. She had cuts on her head and arm, but everything else appeared undamaged. She complained of back pain which, I pointed out, was an excellent reason not to move. I stayed with her for about 10 minutes until Larry came to pick me up, trying to keep her calm and sharing my meningitis experience with her as a lesson in taking potential illness seriously. Several days later I ran into the husband at our dive shop. His wife had five broken ribs and may have punctured a lung.
Between Dives: Birds and Lizards
Coming from Alaska, I find lizards frightfully engaging and exotic. I also love to bird watch and Bonaire was fantastic in both respects. As soon as we arrived I purchased a book on Bonaire’s birds and another on its fauna; before I left, I’d identified (with no special effort) about 25 birds and four species of lizard. Between dives, especially north of Krallendyke, I went on miniature naturalist adventures, strolling through the cacti and thorn bushes in pursuit of speedy lizards and cavorting birds. Whiptail lizards were a dime a dozen, darting away in all directions. The big males with their aqua tails and pointed noses were quite striking, but frustratingly wary of approach. Less common were the big green iguanas, though several inhabited the rock wall and concrete dock around the hotel, so sightings were frequent. We also saw the only endemic lizard on the island by a lucky chance when we were on our way to a cave with Henk--he said it was a rare find. This fellow was kind enough to remain perfectly still and allow me close enough to take his photo (he was only a few inches long, but quite strikingly patterned). Larry and I also happened across an anole tree lizard who showed off his dewlap to my great pleasure. In the evenings we spotted geckos on the walls of the hotels.
The dive sites between Oil Slick and Karpata lie along a most picturesque road that hugs the edge of the cliff along the shoreline. At one time the government evidently put in walking trails here and there between the road and the cliff, and some farther inland along an old line of wave-carved caves. Though the asphalt paths are crumbling like the road, they are perfect for a quick surface interval naturalist walk. I never tired of strolling along them, warmed by the hot sun, feeling the breeze ruffle my salty hair, and listening for the sound of lizards scampering in the dry litter between the bushes, the wide aqua ocean stretching into the distance and the birds chattering in the thorn bushes.
My best bird watching also took place between dives. My most common companions were yellow warblers (all the way from my home, I’m sure), mockingbirds, (common everywhere on the island with their long tails and delightful songs), and bananaquits. These last were my favorite. Small fruit and insect eaters, the diminutive bananquits are ubiquitous on Bonaire, chattering charmingly while flitting from bush to bush. At 1000 Steps dive site I watched one of them building a hanging grass nest, carrying beakfuls of materials inside its little house while I watched.
Other exciting bird encounters included: scavenging caracaras (one swooped down to pick up a lizard from the road just in front of us); ruddy turnstones (exciting because I’ve seen them pass through Juneau on their way north to breed); Louisiana herons (they galloped helter scelter through the marshes looking for fish); great blue herons (because they, too, live where I do); parakeets (wow! wild parakeets! -- on our way to the first cave we spotted two motionless parakeets sitting side by side on a branch; Henk said they are always in pairs, but that it was rare for them to sit still together; later I saw two squawking and bobbing their heads together in what appeared to be courtship); pearly eyed thrasher (flying out of its roost in a cave); brilliant orange troupials and orioles; and flamingos (very striking with their black tipped wings). I identified 25 species without even trying, and surely would have seen more with effort. A naturalist famous on the island for his knowledge above and below water offered personal bird watching tours from our dive shop; I chatted with him several times, but eventually declined the trip in favor of other adventures. Next time for sure.
We stayed at the Sanddollar Resort. Located outside downtown Krallendyke, the Sanddollar is one of a string of dive resorts along the shore. With Bari Reef just off the dock (the #1 dive site in the Caribbean for species diversity) and an adjoining dive/adventure shop where we could schedule virtually any tour as well as pick up tanks and gear, it was a good fit. The hotel room was comfortable and included a full kitchen, air conditioning, and cleaning service. We ate most breakfasts and lunches at home, heading out more often for dinner. At first we went to the large grocery store in Krallendyke for supplies. It had a surprisingly large selection of items like canned beans and fish, but obviously lacked regular service for fresher produce. It was hit or miss whether they had cheese, tortillas, yogurt, milk, fruit, or any number of other perishables. As a Dutch island with direct flights from Holland, the kaas (cheese) was magnificent and we tried several varieties including real Dutch gouda. The Sanddollar also has a small market on site (as well as an ice cream shop and internet cafe) which turned out to supply more American style food. It also supplied, much to my relief, insect repellent and anti-itch medication. For the first week I was consumed each night by tiny biting flies or mosquitoes until my legs looked like I had chicken pox. I was tormented with itching. In absolute agony one night, I finally bought an "itch stick" which turned out to be an ammonia solution--today the smell of ammonia brings a sense of sweet relief. For several days I became obsessed with rubbing my ammonia stick all over my legs and arms and didn't go anywhere without it all the way through my flight home. I got up several times a night to apply it, even after I started covering myself with Off before bed. Larry received only a few bites, so I gather that my good bug karma is specific to Juneau.
Weather and Missed Opportunities
The weather was not all it could have been. We happened to arrive in the middle of the rainiest rainy season anyone could remember. After three days of pleasant, warm weather, we returned home for lunch after two morning dives into the fiercest, wettest storm I’ve ever seen. I can’t begin to describe the torrential downpour, the cracks of thunder every few seconds crashing around us, the flashes of lightening. It was absolutely thrilling, flooding the front yard of our hotel with several inches of rain in about two hours. Unfortunately, it was a bad portent for the rest of the trip. Thundershowers persisted for several days afterwards and, though it didn’t stop us from diving, it did make dressing and surface intervals somewhat less pleasant. By the weekend, the rain had diminished and we saw a few partly cloudy days during which we luckily scheduled our cave trip and horseback riding. A few days before we left, the rain and thunder picked up again and flooded the island. Water coursed across the streets and the avenue along the Krallendyke waterfront disappeared under knee-high water and was closed. Driving into town and back suddenly became an adventure. The activities I’d planned for the end of the trip (mangrove kayaking and exploring Washington Slaagbai Park) were canceled.
I can't wait to return to Bonaire and do more exploring. In
addition to visiting the park, I want to kayak among the mangroves,
take a bird watching tour, visit the donkey sanctuary, and free dive
with dolphins and pelagics. Please check out the topside photo gallery to get a glimpse