Last year I was offered voluntary redundancy, and being wonderfully bored and frustrated with the rat-race, I gnawed their corporate arms off for some free cash and some time to go and do my eco-thang in some far flung country where loincloths were haute-couture. My country of choice was Belize in Central America.
I wasn't even really sure where it was - somewhere near Wichita I supposed. Imagine my surprise when I jetted into a proper jungle - a proper JUNGLE. It was beautiful - the interior was frequented by jaguars and alligators. The Barrier Reef, for which Belize is best known, teeming with Spotted Eagle Rays, Whale Sharks, turtles, and all manner of brightly coloured coral dwellers. I was in paradise, and I was here to help keep it so. I had signed up with a conservation project based on a desert island 35K off the coast of Belize, Honduras and Guatemala called Reef CI. Working with local NGO's and Government departments, they help to ensure that marine life is sustainable and available for future generations. I was excited. However, being a diver (and all-round party girl) I wanted to discover the pleasures of the tourist resort Ambergris Caye first.
I was horrified. Don't get me wrong, it was fun - I went snorkelling most days, but found all the sites swarming with American tourists, trampling all over the coral, and interfering with the turtles and nurse sharks. When I raised my concerns to several of the snorkel & dive companies, they appeared to be unconcerned. At $100 a day for snorkelling trips, I wasn't surprised. One trip out with a pair of Japanese tourists in a small boat with a local, caused my temper to snap when the tourists, tired with swimming, stamped all over a small outcrop of coral with their snorkelling fins. I was so pleased I had travelled there to conserve the reef - it needed it. I took the flight from Belize City in a rickety tin bus with wings through a thunder storm to land in Punta Gorda in the south.
With my legs shaking, I crawled off the "plane" and met with Polly, the Director of Reef CI. She bundled me into a speedboat with a lady from London called Sally, who was also temporarily escaping the ratrace, a marine biologist, and two local dive masters called Eagleheart Thunderfoot and Prince Lionheart. And there we took the wet, cold bumpy ride to Hunting Caye, about 2 hours away.
I wanted adventure, and this is exactly what I got! Now this was being at one with nature. The tiny little island only housed the inhabitants of the tender, along with a cook called Mel and a boathand called Roland. We were put up in a university research centre - that sounds very civilised, but in fact there was no electricity, no hot water, and everything (and I do mean everything) was infested with cockroaches.
But I had wanted to be at one with nature - and here I was. The weather sadly, was not playing ball. I was consistently soaking wet and freezing cold, and would have sold my first born son for a hot shower. On most days, we rose at dawn to get in a dive before breakfast. Dives were conducted to discover new behavioural patterns or new spawning sites but also gave us the unique opportunity to get involved with the ReefCI conservation work, learn about the environment and learn to identify fish, coral and other invertebrates. Sadly the weather was so appalling that the visability was only between 1 and 3 metres, and after 2 days Steph the marine biologist went back to the mainland with very little data.
Sally, my partner in crime, developed a rather bad cold, so with just me diving with Polly, (and not being the most enthusiastic morning person) I began to spend the mornings in bed, only joining in on the afternoon dives. One afternoon with the sun making occasional glimpses behind the storm clouds, myself and Sally were dropped about a kilometre off the island, onto a small shipwreck to snorkel. It wasn't particularly deep (approximately 6 metres) but Roland chucked Sally a lifebelt for visibility, and told us that it should take us about an hour to swim back to the island. We were both more than apprehensive with this arrangement, but Roland was insistent that it would be just fine. The shipwreck was beautiful, and we soon got carried away with chasing colourful parrotfish, and groupers around the corralled bones of the sunken old ketch. However, both of us were mindful of the time/light and we struck back for the island. I must admit that I was pretty apprehensive while paddling back to land across open Caribbean Sea, and this was compounded by the fact that Sally was probably even more scared than I was.
All of a sudden, the water in front of us became cloudy with stirred up silt - there was a something lurking below, and I knew it. I turned to look back at Sally who was following me oblivious to the terrifying monster up ahead. I shouted a warning at her, and as I turned back, the creature came into view on the ocean floor. It was the most enormous Southern Stingray I have ever seen. As I floated above it, I realised that if I stretched out my five foot three frame, I couldn't cover the full diameter of it. Now this is what eco-tourism is all about - seeing a magnificent creature like this grow to its full potential because of the lack of human intervention in the area. It was truly a magical experience, and Sally and I watched this mammoth beast for a good twenty minutes before it glided off into deeper water. Its something I will never forget.
With the week coming to a very damp close, myself and Sally were given the weekend off to explore the mainland. We had been told about Cotton Tree Lodge, an eco-hotel deep in the Belizean jungle where they introduce their visitors to the culture and natural beauty of the jungle while minimizing impact on the environment. The lodge is run on solar power, batteries, and a generator, and the sewage system has been created in such a way so as not to disturb the delicate ecosystem of the nearby pristine Mojo River. They have also applied a reforestation program to the area, planting teak, mahogany, cacao and fruit trees.
These trees are planted on land that was previously cleared of jungle by earlier settlers who farmed the land, and has attempted to repair the damage. Many of these trees have been donated as a part of Sustainable Harvest International's program, who have established an organic garden on the property, where visitors can participate in farming workshops. They are a non-profit organisation that teaches sustainable agriculture techniques to Central American farmers. Any donations towards SHI go towards projects, such as reforestation, which offsets the carbon footprint of visitor flights to Belize. It was exactly what I was looking for.
The island had been brilliant, but due to the poor weather, we had participated in very little conservation work or diving. I still had another week there before trotting off to Guatemala to sightsee, so I was in no rush. The lodge is set out in such a way that all visitors are encouraged to spend time together - trips are organised together, and dinners are spent round one table eating produce grown on the premises (chocolate ice-cream to die for!!!). The accommodation was sheer luxury after the island - individual tree houses connected by boardwalks, with comfortable dry beds, no cockroaches and gallons of hot water. Bliss! They even had a separate tree-house which was half a mile from the main lodge complex in dense jungle, which had one wall replaced with netting for nocturnal wildlife viewing.
There were jaguars in dem there woods, but I was far too scared for such an adventure. A nice little tree-house next to the bar with lots of hot water suited me just fine! The first day I went horse-riding through the jungle with the guide, but the second day all the guests were invited to a hike to Blue Creek. I have to say this was truly magical. We hiked through dense jungle to the mouth of Hokeb 'Ha Cave where the Mojo River flowed out of the side of the mountain.
From there we were each given headlamps and floatation jackets, and beckoned to jump into the river and follow it upstream. The river wasn't shallow - in fact in most places I couldn't touch the bottom, but it truly was an amazing experience, especially when about a mile underground, we all turned off our lamps to engulf ourselves in absolute, dense blackness. Its like nothing I've ever experienced. On our return to the lodge, Sally and I decided to take advantage of the last 2 hours of daylight and took some canoes down the Mojo River. It was truly amazing - being miles from civilisation and floating down a remote jungle river in a canoe.
The feeling of peace I had on that river that day was like something I've never had before, and the photograph I took of it says a thousand words to me. That day had been Sally's 40th birthday, and all the guests met at dinner to celebrate with her. Dinner turned into cocktails, which turned into a game of dares. For her birthday dare, Sally was told to walk down to the jungle tree-house by herself with just a flashlight, and take a picture of the front door. This would mean walking through the jungle alone in the dark. I offered to go with her - it was her birthday after all! We must have gone about ten steps down the boardwalk into the jungle, when we started to hear roars. We later found out that these were the calls of Howler Monkeys, but at midnight after a few mojitos, we were convinced they were jaguars. We turned and ran, screaming.
I have always been a clumsy person, and in the dark I lost my footing on the boardwalk and slipped off the side. Something went crack. Ooops. I had broken my leg. Well of course being in the middle of no-where, at night and half-drunk didn't help. The security guards and some of the other guests carried me back to my tree-house and gave me some aspirin to help me sleep - I wouldn't be seeing a doctor till the next day.
My eco-vacation was over. I had to fly home with my leg in plaster to have it pinned and plated, but considering that while sitting in the bar after I had been plastered up by the lovely doctors at Punta Gorda Clinic, we felt the ground begin to tremble - the tremors from the terrible Haiti earthquake had hit us also. I had clearly got off very lightly.