Rapt in a mystery island
Juliet Coombe discovers the Bahamas ‘La Isla del Espirito Santo’: the Island of the Holy Spirit – Andros, just like tropical Sri Lanka, an incredible island of unspoilt beauty and a Never-Never land of amazing story telling.
Footsteps appear and vanish in the sand below. Trying to trace these elusive sandy trails in search of the invisible men is not only impossible, but also foolhardy according to Peter, my local guide. He explains that “the sinking sand will sink you under into Never-Never land.” Maybe that explains why Andros is also the most sparsely populated of all Bahamian islands and the most mysterious.
As we circled to land, I felt looking out at the azure blue sea from the air, Andros looks a little bit like Sri Lanka with its sandy beaches, rocky out crops and as I get closer and the plane starts to lower its wheels to land, I can see several big footprints on the long stretch of beach below, only to vanish mysteriously into nowhere again. The air hostess seeing my surprised face explained as I put my seat belt on that according to local legend, they are made by spirits of the Lucayan tribe, the 16th Century Indian inhabitants of Andros, the largest and most surprising island of the Bahamas.
In 1492 Christopher Columbus, for good reason, dubbed Andros ‘La Isla del Espirito Santo’: the Island of the Holy Spirit. A large part of its magical charm stems from the strong sense of mythology that pervades life here. One mystical story is that of the Chickcharnies, a mischievous red-eyed, tree dwelling creature said to be half bird and half human. Legend says if you see a Chickcharnie and show it respect, you will be blessed with good luck for the rest of your life. Be careful not to sneer at it, however, or your head will turn completely around. Then there’s the sea monster called Lusca, said to be the Loch Ness of the Bahamas. The mythical half-dragon, half-octopus creature apparently lives deep in the ocean’s ‘blue holes’ and likes to drown unwary divers, or so locals like to tell you. The Yahoo and the Bosee Anansee are another two lesser-known but just as intriguing creatures that roam the mangrove-choked swamps and thick pine bush of Andros.
Alighting from the island-hopper plane, I’m greeted with the smiles of my hosts from the Small Hope Resort who tell me the only rules while staying here: ‘No shoes, telephone calls, email or contemporary magazines.’ With these words I know I am in my kind of paradise no matter what otherworldly creatures inhabit its seas and shores. The hardest things I need to master are the art of hammock swinging and how to mix Goombay Smash cocktails while munching on addictive Conch fritters and enjoying the fairy tale sunset.
The island is an Eden-like paradise teeming with lush green foliage, spunky land crabs and wild orchids of every possible colour. It was also once a favoured haunt of pirates and for those who have come in search of treasure, there’s no better place to start looking than Small Hope Bay. This is where Henry Morgan, the region’s most notorious bad-boy buccaneer, buried enough gold to buy the island several times over. But as forewarned by the resort’s name you’ve small hope of finding his stash. In fact it was Morgan himself who supposedly named the bay saying that it was a “small hope” that anyone would find the treasure that he had buried. Even so, the Resort Manager, Jeff Birch, claims he came across an 18th Century cannon while swimming in the bay one afternoon. Then there are the die-hard treasure hunters who, despite the odds, rummage optimistically through the jungle and scour the seas fuelled by sunstroke dreams of a golden-bullion hoard.
Keen to conduct my own loot hunt under the waves, I join the resort’s diving course. The island is fringed to the east by the world’s third-largest barrier reef (the most unexplored in the Western Hemisphere) making a scuba foray a must-do activity in Andros. In fact, it lays claim to being the oldest dive resort in the Bahamas.
The three-metre deep aquamarine ocean is so clear that 50-metre visibility is common on most days and the waters are thriving with marine life including a bunch of incredibly friendly dolphins. Those looking to up the adrenaline ante usually head ‘over the wall’: a 1,800 metre dive that plummets deep into the blues. Over the edge, dubbed ‘the Tongue of the Ocean’, are masses of colourful fish, some of the world’s deepest blue holes, spectacular coral gardens and underwater caverns and may be Lusca, the mythical sea monster.
Following a couple of treasure-less dives, and with an aversion to plummeting off underwater cliffs to meet monsters of the deep or the infamous, I succumb instead to the lure of a banana-lounge and the relaxing comforts of a beachside bar.
After a lesson from the island’s resident Shaman on the art of making love potions from local flora and learning about other plants and their amazing health benefits I set about looking for firewood to build a fire and cook my dinner under the stars. In my search for fire wood I secretly hoped to find Morgan’s pirate treasure of gold and silver and wondered if anyone flying over head could see my footprints in the sand. (Small Hope bay beach)