Wednesday, 28 August 2013

We have gone Dutch!


Welcome to the Dutch Caribbean! Bonaire is 400M west of Grenada and 50M north of Venezuela. First impressions are of a Dutch town, the style of buildings, the layout and ordered arrangement of things, quite a contrast to the Eastern Caribbean with its slightly chaotic and mixed development. The feel here is very European; the majority of people speak Dutch and Papiamento (the local patois). English is widely spoken together with a spattering of Spanish from those of South American descent.

Bonaire is another volcanic island, the whole of the east coast is a national park and fringed with a coral reef. This makes it a diver’s paradise with many shore and boat dive sites not to mention the island of Klein Bonaire with its own reefs.

The weather here is pretty dry even for the ‘wet’ season, the wind blows from the easterly quadrant most of the time and while we have had a few showers it is mainly dry but occasionally cloudy but very warm, 32 degrees during the day only dropping to 28 at night so no relief in the evening from the heat of the day.

By chance we are moored opposite a dive centre so it is a 2 minute dinghy ride to get our cylinders filled. There is no anchoring anywhere off Bonaire, you must use a mooring, even to dive from your dinghy. There are moorings provided by the National Park Authority at all the dive sites and they are free to use. A yearly diving permit is charged of US$25 per person to dive in Bonaire, it costs US$10 to swim or snorkel.

View from the boat

While we are here we will have our wind turbine fitted and hopefully solve our lack of battery charging. We also want to tour the island which reminds us of Lanzarote with the arid landscape and cacti. Almost forgot we plan to dive a bit too!

Having taken a few days to get ourselves organised, we arranged a scooter hire and took a tour along with another couple we had previously met in St Lucia.

Born to be mild!

The history of Bonaire is all about salt production and piracy. The early settlers built the first town of Rincon inland so the town couldn’t be seen from the sea (avoiding being attacked by pirates). Rincon is a small town, the main town is now Kralendijk, but the people of Rincon consider themselves the ‘true’ Bonairans! The latest new attraction there is the Cadushi Distillery where a Dutch couple now make the cactus liqueur. They also do whiskey, rum and vodka and we had a few tastes. We preferred the liqueurs to the spirits.
Old church Rincon

 Later, slaves were imported from Africa to work in the salt producing industry. Salt is still produced here on an industrial scale with large salt pans and piles of drying salt waiting loading onto the ships waiting offshore for a berth on the dock. The salt pans provide a rich feeding ground for Flamingos, Black winged stilts and other wading birds.


Slave hut
We felt sorry for the slaves who had to walk from Rincon to the salt pans in the south. It was a 10 hour walk so eventually they built themselves huts which in the 1800’s were replaced by the huts we see today. The salt was graded into different qualities and coloured obelisks informed the ships where to load the quality they required. The obelisks were red, white, blue and orange (very Dutch).
How it was done in the old days!

After a very sunburnt day on a scooter we had seen most of the island. The south is very low lying and windswept, the beaches on the south and east coast are littered with driftwood and other debris from the sea. As we travelled further north the vegetation was thorn trees, scrub and tall thin cacti. Cacti is cut by the locals to make fences, also you can make cactus soup and now of course the cactus liqueur.  Further north are the hills of the Slaagbaai national park (referred to as mountains by the locals!).

The hilly north

The Park is only accessible by 4x4 so we will do that another day.  Feral goats and donkeys roam everywhere which is part of the reason that the island has such poor vegetation. The islanders are trying to find ways of restricting the animals to help the trees to re-establish themselves. Now and then there was a fenced off area and the difference was marked with bigger trees and more lush undergrowth.
Island vegitation
There are beautiful green and orange parrots and parakeets that fly overhead, calling raucously, even right in town. As we drove around we would see them sitting on top of the cacti – a strange sight as one usually associates parrots with lush jungle. I have not yet got a photo because the roads are quite narrow and winding, so we did not feel safe stopping except in the occasional passing places or viewpoints.

Windmills - of course!
The dive sites here are all marked by a yellow painted stone with the name on and there are over 60 on Bonaire and another 30 or so on Klein Bonaire. Most are accessible from shore so everywhere there are parked pick- ups (Bakkies) with divers in and out of the water. You do not have to dive with a guide here, so once you have paid your Park fee and had a little lecture on marine conservation, you are free to dive as much as you like. Many people go self catering, hire a vehicle and dive, dive, dive! There are dive centres all over the town so air fills are easy. We paid $107 for 20 fills (in advance) and have a card at Yellow Sub, ”our” dive shop.

We have been diving off the back of the boat or going by dinghy to different dive sites. There is usually a sandy area close to shore where the moorings are laid in about 5m then the reef begins and drops off to about 30m where there is sand again. So you get to see a good variety of life. The reef is all wonderful, huge corals and sponges in all different shapes and colours. There are so many different fish rushing around that we can no longer record all the fish we see on a dive. Now, we just mention the unusual ones. Meter long parrot fish, French Angelfish the size of dinner plates, schools of blue and brown Chromis, Creole wrasse racing each other in apparently mindless circles, Bar jack hunting and hundreds of Damsel fish are now dismissed as “all the usual reef fish”. We note Hawksbill turtle, lionfish, spotted scorpionfish, different eels, spotted drums, soapfish, Sand tilefish, Fairy basselets, Hamlets , Moharra, and anenomes with their different attending shrimps. All the creatures seem unbothered by divers and we can approach them closely. As we are diving on our own we go slowly and have time to watch trumpetfish using parrotfish or angelfish as cover, juvenile Spanish hogfish and other fish at cleaning stations and tiny gobys peeping out of holes in the coral.

We have seen Tarpon about 2m long, 1m Tiger grouper,1.5m Black groupers and a great Barracuda, about 1.5m, swam past me about 30cm away! The dive shop told us yesterday where a frogfish (purple!) has been found, so that will be our next dive. It is under a boat, 3 moorings away from us! Not even an official dive site. Quite often we hear the bubbles of divers going up the side of the boat and many evenings we see the lights of night divers around us. That is another dive we still have to do!

If I had my camera I would have had some amazing shots. Hopefully we will come back.

The town, which is a dinghy ride away for us, has pretty buildings, a lot of construction and many resorts and hotels. There are lovely shops, some very upmarket, because cruise liners call in and Gio’s does delicious ice cream, coffee and iced coffee. There are many restaurants with cuisine from all around the globe, Happy Hours and live music at the weekends.

There is a supermarket in town, and just outside is Van den Tweels which is a Waitrose type shop. They provide a complimentary bus from the marina and back on Tuesdays and Fridays, so new all go in and buy things we have not seen for a while – ready cut up stir fry, fresh Tapenade, great beef sausages for the braai (BBQ), grapes and cherries. The local laundry will also collect you whenever you like and bring you back again at no charge, so its all nice and organised.

We will stay here until the beginning of September when we will sail to the nearby island of Curacao (about 40miles). We have been told that Curacao is very different to Bonaire with more development and industry. We will see. We will leave the boat in a marina in Curacao for a month while we fly back to England to visit family and friends and pick up the inevitable boat parts we always seem to need. It will then be a rush to get ready for the start of the sailing season proper.

Where we go from Curacao really depends on the wind. There is often a ‘wind reversal’ which would allow us to sail back east, if not we will sail north, the beauty of cruising!

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