Thursday, May 26, 2016

North Side of South

As I continue to shamelessly squeeze this South Caicos sailing trip for all it's worth.

We really got into the swing of being anchored at Cockburn Harbour.  It didn't take long for life on the hook to settle into a very comfortable routine. All the little worries of sailing our floating home to an unfamiliar place faded as we became accustomed to the next new normal.   I'll twist an old proverb a few letters here and say that in this particular case, at least, familiarity bred content.

We had plenty of elbow room in the anchorage.  We had fantastic sunrises and sunsets. The water was so clear it was surreal.  It was  almost like hovering  several meters over a natural aquarium  with no water to distort the views.  We had a great weather forecast, and really good holding. And for  any non boaters who might have stumbled into this blog, 'good holding' means that the sea bottom is soft enough that the pointy parts of an anchor will stick into it firmly and stay put.   The staying put part is the important bit. Even if the boat starts rattling its chain.  Good holding keeps the boat from drifting away and hitting something regrettable. This secure feeling contributes to a good night's sleep.  Not like that hideously annoying 3 AM wake up in Sapodilla Bay one windy night when the anchor  unstuck itself from the bottom. Why do these things always happen at 3 in the morning? But that old anchor sure did let go.  It went sliding along the bottom chasing our boat downwind toward two other boats.  Got our heart rates way up in the triple digits there for a while.  That never happened here at South Caicos. We   moved the boat several times and anchored in three different spots.   We never had to reset the anchor even once.

We spent a lot of time on these idyllic days at Cockburn Harbour taking it easy and just enjoying the whole experience. We  had great internet connectivity. We were comfortable.  Everything we needed was within walking distance from the dinghy dock.    So after a few days with no panic attacks we got bored and decided it was time for us to go explore the  interior of the island of South Caicos.  

 Velma  at the grocery store/gas station/ marina told us that there were a few rental vehicles available at the resorts. Velma (aka Pop) was extremely helpful during our entire stay.  She made a phone call to her brother at the resort and we had a car rented for the day.  So we left Dooley the Disgusted to  either nap or guard Twisted Sheets and  took off for several hours of exploring. We wanted to  take a look at the old abandoned US Coast Guard station on the north end of the island.   But we also wanted to just get a general look around.   One easy day was more than enough. It's not a big island.   Only 8.2 square miles, (21.2 km sq.)  in total.

Here's something we don't see over on Providenciales much.  Horses roaming around the neighborhood.  And this is not like the joke about why the chicken crossed the road.  Nope.  Motive is easy to spot with horses.   The grass is always greener on the other side of the pavement.  That's the second proverb I've mangled already in this post.  I'll try to rein it in.  Along with the bad puns.

I've read how vital the  larger-than-average airstrip here has been to South Caicos over the years, for a variety of reasons. It was an international airport for years.  The US government built it originally in 1944 in support of an anti-submarine post. It's got a 6,000 ft. runway. That's big enough to handle fairly large aircraft.  Queen Elizabeth visited here in 1966.  There's a lot of history involved in this little hunk of limestone. There are only two ways to get here, and the airport is one of them.  A boat is the other, of course. It's pretty well isolated that way.

We'd also read some time ago that the TCI Government had committed to putting some money into upgrading the South Caicos airport.   So we were expecting, well, something a little more finished than what we actually found. The computer generated "photos" in those advertising brochures always look so crisp and clean, don't they? This is what the new terminal building actually does look like at the moment.  It's still an unfinished concrete block structure like so many half done projects here.  Sitting in the sun, open to storms, livestock, critters. Block walls go up fast, like Legos. It's the finishing work that seems to take forever.  It looked to us like nothing had been done here in quite a while. The weeds in the doorways are a big hint.  I think these things get done in spending phases.

We stopped the little rented Toyota  for a photo of the 'new' control tower building.  It's about at the same stage of arrested development as the rest of it. Still, it looks like it will be a very nice airport facility if they ever get the funds and inclination to finish it.   It looks really nice, if you've got the imagination.

Leaving the airport we quickly came upon the big body of water known as Bell Sound.  This is a beautiful bay, or sound, just immediately to the north of the airport.  See that gap in the distance under the thickest part of the clouds?  That's actually our destination.  It's called Plandon Cay Cut.  This is not a big island.

We'd heard about Bell Sound and Sailrock estates back when we were investigating properties for sale away from Provo. Here's a link to a nice writeup on the area that will tell you more than I'm going to write here in this little blog post.

The water here is clear, calm, and  too shallow for anything much bigger than a flat bottomed skiff.  I'm sure this all worked well for the salt industry back a hundred or more years ago. Shallow water warms up a little more in the sun than deep water. So starting with slightly warmer water would be good for people interested in evaporating the water entirely. There are still remnants of the structures built by men for controlling the flow of  the sea water all those years ago. The salt industry here got started relatively late in the game compared to the rest of the Turks and Caicos. What happened was that they were in a boom period for salt in the 1850's, and looking for new places to create the commodity. So South Caicos jumped on the bandwagon. Or the salt cart, to be more accurate. I guess my point is that these old walls and sluices predate the little Union/Confederate conflict that started the USAd in the 1860's. We've seen other old salt works from that time period over on West Caicos.

We turned north toward the far end of South Caicos. We pulled over at one point to take some photos of one of the wild donkeys descended from the salt mining days, and I was intrigued by this little island just off the coast.  That's rock, with enough elevation to handle the storm surges that come through here. I thought this was a really nice location for an off-grid cabin. My own imaginary Gilligan's Island day dream. I could get one of those little flat bottom aluminum skiffs they sell in hardware stores in the US to get back and forth to this point near the road. A canoe would do it, too.

Oh, yes, I did mention the donkey.   These are running wild all over South Caicos.   Their donkey ancestors were brought to the island originally to pull carts full of salt from the drying pens to the loading docks.  The salt industry dissolved  as salt often does,  the donkeys were set free, and their descendants now roam around a tropical paradise munching on the underbrush and posing for the (rare) tourists. Like us.

They seem adept at finding nice shady spots to stand in. We were all excited to see one.  "Oh boy!" we thought.  "We got to see one of the wild donkeys!" we chortled to ourselves, pleased at our good fortune.  Well, later on we discovered the down side to all that donkey munching. These animals are quite common here. And that vegetation they munch all day has to end up somewhere.   I'll show you one of those locations a little later in the program. He's picked a nice spot to gaze out at Bell Sound, though, don't you think?

The road skirts the southern and eastern edges of Bell Sound  and then we found ourselves  heading north.   No signs, and not much indication of  traffic. We were encouraged by the sight of the intact electric power lines running along the road, though.  That's become one of our little mantras when we're trying to locate a place.  Follow the power lines. They usually lead somewhere.

I realized that my attempts at descriptive verbal meandering was probably going to get confusing at some point  so I turned to my old standby Google Earth  to give you an overview of this area.  Most of the rest of the photos in this blog post were taken from somewhere on this image of the north end of South Caicos.  The small group of buildings and structures were the goal for the day.  We wanted to explore the old US government station here, and we figured that those power lines in the photo above should lead us right to it. There's nothing else here.  One of the nice things about being lost on small island roads is that it really doesn't last for very long.

That little slider box in the top left hand corner of the Google Earth image is a history slider.   I wanted you to see that, because I talk about it again later at the end of this post.  The most recent satellite photos of this area had part of the island obscured by cloud cover. By going back to an image taken in 2013 I found an earlier image of a day without clouds. I did compare the 2013 image to the latest one, and couldn't really find any significant differences.  Things are pretty static these days at the old South Caicos Coast Guard Station.

There are basically three main buildings here along with a number of pump houses, switch houses, cisterns, and various other small concrete block structures.   This is where the road ends at what appears to be the base operations area.  This building seems to be largely intact, with no windows and locked doors.   More on that in a minute.

Looking west from the small , crumbling, overgrown parking slab we saw a part of the installation that finally solved a small mystery in my mind. Maybe it will help if I put another Google Earth satellite image in  here at this point. This one is a closer look at the old base itself:

Now, see that large rectangular area on the western side?  I had been looking at this image and wondering just what the heck that is for quite some time now. It's too short to be an airstrip,  and way too big for a parking lot.  I had wondered if it was a heliport, but a heliport wouldn't have made much sense here back in the days when helicopters had a very limited range. I was puzzled until we stood here for the first time and gazed upon that structure. in the flesh, so to speak.  Suddenly, it made sense.

The concrete is on a slope with a huge gutter at the bottom, all oriented into the prevailing winds. With two big storage tanks and a pump house nearby.  Of course. "Eureka!" thought I with a nod to the donkey droppings,  "It's a massive rainwater catchment system." Duh.

Now, back at the building that I've labelled Operations  we looked at two satellite dish antennas that actually look a lot newer than the 1990's, when this place supposedly closed up.  And there are cables from the dishes into the building.

"Wow" thought I. "This place is surviving the climate unattended a lot better than I would have thought.  Going on 30 years and these things still look operational."

And looking around a little closer, we noticed that there are still complete air conditioners installed in the side of the building here.  I would have thought that unattended air conditioners would have developed legs and walked on down to town some time ago. And security cameras, too.  Still wired up, still unvandelized.  I was amazed, quite frankly.

Electrical circuits are still running to the building.  A little bit rare in these days of copper stealing vandals. Maybe the remote nature of the site itself has prevented people from finding and stealing air conditioners, video cameras, and copper wire. Makes sense, I guess.

The doors are steel, well maintained, freshly painted, and securely locked.  Steel doors still functional and unrusted thirty years after the last Coastie left.

I was impressed.  I'd like to find out who manufactures this 30 year old paint, for example. I could use some of that.

Just across the little parking area are three large fuel tanks.   I would assume that these were to run the power generators back in the day.  Now,  looking at the state of the paint and rust on the metal fuel tanks I see the deterioration that I would expect from things abandoned this long in this climate. Flaking paint, rusty holes, crumbling concrete, overgrown by local plant life.   Perhaps plant life doesn't like satellite dishes as much as it likes fuel tanks?

Well, at this point I was starting to feel like one of those conspiracy nut cases one reads about from time to time.  And the clock was ticking on the rented automobile, so we decided to walk on out to the northern point of the island just to see what was up there. The trail was easy to spot.  We could tell that it had been a road wide enough for a wheeled vehicle at some point, but these days it's just a sandy footpath  heading away from the station.

On the way we paused to look out to the west over the expanse of Bell Sound, and out onto the shallow part of the Caicos Bank.  We thought the view was somewhat exceptional.  It was a world of whites and blues and turquoise, mixed in with the green of the many small islands.   My own interest in this particular photograph are the piling remains of a dock that was once built here.  I've marked this location on the satellite image, too.

Speaking of pilings, we encountered a number of these  hollow wooden posts.   It was obvious to us that they were originally power or light poles.   But now they're hollowed out all the way to the ground.   Spikes driven into the outside of the poles are still there, almost meeting in the middle.  We wondered if this was some kind of elaborate punji trap experiment, but after a few minutes  thinking about it, we came up with the explanation.

We think that these had been pressure treated or possibly creosote coated when they were installed back forty or fifty years ago.  This is common with wooden telephone line poles. What we think happened was that the poles were either cut or broken off.  This exposed the fresh interior wood to the elements and local bugs.  The protective coating had soaked into the outer few centimeters of the pole, but had not penetrated all the way to the interior core.  So over the decades this island climate had its way with it.  Or quite possibly termites.  Leaving only the poison exterior.   This is a pretty place, but it's a harsh one as well.

Here's another view of that area with the old pilings where we think there must have once been a boat dock.    That island across the little channel here instantly became our newest fantasy island to build a cottage on, too.  It's bigger than the other one near the donkey, with deep water access to the open ocean. Doesn't hurt to dream. Or at least it shouldn't . Usually.

After meandering along the path for a few hundred meters we were in sight of the north end of South Caicos.   This is the view looking up at the south end of East Caicos.    We spotted a couple of guys fishing from a conch boat in the channel. One  stayed with the boat while the other was diving down looking for conch. We know it must be conch, because the only other thing to dive for here is lobster and lobster season is now closed and so that would be illegal.

I was glad to have my little pocket Nikon with me, the new one with the 20x optical zoom.   Here's the boat, and if you look carefully you can see the diver's snorkel as well.

I'm not going to overload you with the dozens of photos we took here. I'll just pick a few that are representative of this absolutely beautiful spot.   I think between the two of us we took something over 400 photos in total.  It's not easy to edit that down to the handful I'm uploading.   Here's a view as we approached the edge of the ledge.

Standing right at the top edge of the cliff,  I have to admit to  feeling of some small internal flutterings. You know that spacey feeling you can sometimes get standing at the edge of a high open space?  Well, I kinda enjoy those. I looked down and realized that I was seeing large hunks of what used to be part of this cliff that I was standing on.  They had cracked and fallen into the ocean over the years.

La Gringa was yelling at me to get back away from the edge.  She's like that, sometimes.  Maybe part of the reason I'm still around. I've learned to listen. Usually.

So I backed off from the edge, as requested.  The idea of riding a few tons of broken limestone down into the ocean just wasn't all that appealing.  But oh the view.

This is a small cove on the west side of the peninsula.  I could see  an old overgrown path down to a spot where it would be easy to access the water here.  But we didn't try to go down the overgrown trail in shorts and sandals. We've learned a few things about the bush here.  It will hurt you.  The bushes here like to get under your skin. Even the soft looking flexible branches will scratch blood if you're careless.  There are some soft things here.  The water. And the sand. But not the vegetation. It has donkeys trying to eat it.

Here's another view, looking over that little cove above, and back toward the old pilings and our new favorite Gilligan's island.

This deeper channel runs all the way down to the southern end of it.  A really great place for an off-grid cabin and a small skiff.

Looking to the northwest, up along East Caicos with Middle and North Caicos way off in the distance.  See what I mean about the turquoise water?  This place just blew us away.   This has to be an absolutely incredible bonefishing paradise.

We spent quite a bit of time just walking around taking in the scenery.  Other than the two fishermen in the boat we were the only people around.  This is one last shot of the channel between South Caicos and East Caicos, before we turned back to the south and trudged our way back to the old base.  This is a continuation of that view above, but looking a little more to the north.  The 55 acre ( a little over 22 hectares) island between here and East Caicos is called Plandon Cay.   Like everything else in sight here, it's totally undeveloped and uninhabited.   Makes me wish I had a boat with us.

This is the eastern, or beach side of the peninsula.  Tough place to be stationed during the '60's  but  I'm guessing it beat the heck out of Viet Nam as a duty station.  At least for someone who liked quiet beaches, good fishing, and solitude.  And not getting shot at. Well, except maybe for a few years there in the late 70's.   This stretch of beautiful sand is called Plandon Cay Cut Beach.  If you followed the link above, you've already read about it.

This is the view on the open Atlantic side, looking  south toward the buildings of the base.   You can see the still uneaten electric poles in the distance at the old station there. I wanted to get down to the beach and take a look at the little natural cave under that rock formation in the middle of the photo.

The trails might have been groomed and raked by US Government labor some decades ago, but these days they're just overseen by the ocean storms and the tide. This is the trail down to that rock formation on the beach. That I wanted to go see, for some reason that escapes me now.

This is a jumble of assorted driftwood that has accumulated at the base of that rock formation.  So much of what washes ashore here and survives is hardwood that has been smoothed by the ocean and blowing sand. So much of this turns into beautifully grained  pieces under a tung oil or other finish. There's enough here to build a small shack, if one just had the time and inclination.

This is the cave I had seen from the distance.  Up close it wasn't as impressive as it looked in shadow from a few hundred meters away.  Oh, there's still a cave there but not big enough to go into without being on hands and knees.   We would have sent Dooley in to investigate, but we'd left him out on the boat for the morning. Never can find a good terrieriest when you need one.

This is the view from that rock back north up to the bluff where I had been yelled at for standing too close to the edge.  If that puts it in perspective for you. The bluff, I mean. Not the yelling part. The beaches here are stunning, and not another soul in sight.  Or any evidence that there had been any people on this beach in recent memory.  This is Plandon Cay Cut Beach, again.   That would be a mouthful on a t-shirt, but there could be some cute graphics with the "C"s.

We worked our way back down the beach to the old station. La Gringa recognized  the remains of another dock  that had once been  here on the ocean side of the base. You can just make out the old road to it in the foreground of this photo. That long building to the left is the old barracks or accomodations building.  It's in completely different condition than the operations area, as you'll see in a moment. The little separate building to the right seemed to have served as an overall administrative function to us.  I labelled those as accomodations and administrative on that Google image up above.

Here is where the path went down to the remains of the dock installed on the ocean side of the base.  These rocks must take quite a pounding in a storm, and it's really no mystery to us that there would be very little left of a vulnerable structure like a wooden dock. All that's left these days are the eroded road, some jumbled up concrete pieces and old pilings.

Here's another view, showing some pilings and concrete footings that haven't yet been retaken by the sea. We thought we could also see some other structures out just under the surface of the water, but we didn't go down to take a closer look. It would have had to be a fairly beefy structure to survive here at all. This was a calm day. Not all days here are calm. Let me amend that to not many days here are this calm. We were getting a little frazzled by this point and could have appreciated some breeze.

A closer look at two wooden pilings that were implanted in the limestone rock.  These haven't been hollowed out yet.  Maybe termites are on a low salt diet.

We'd made the big loop to the north at this point and were back at the base where we'd left the car.   We were conscious of the clock ticking on the rental and yet we still wanted to get a look at the rest of the base. This is an access road that ran to an old parking area at the far end of the accommodations area. That pole thing in the right foreground is a swiveling flagpole.

Engraved in the concrete base of the old flagpole are the dates "1958-1959".    When I looked up what little info I could find on this base, I saw that these were the years that the Coast Guard Loran portion of it was built.  About the time I started the second grade.

I mentioned the small building earlier. We went inside to look around. It consists of a sitting area, and this office space. There is still a desk there, and an old electric typewriter. And paperwork.  The desk still has a number of hanging files in it, and there are quite a few more scattered around. They didn't seem to be really vandalized in any way. I would suspect that they were left sitting on the desk and the wind got to them.

There is still a ribbon in the typewriter, which gives us an idea of the vintage.  Again, I was a little surprised that a typewriter sat here on this desk for almost 30 years without being stolen or vandalize.

We didn't spend a lot of time looking at the paperwork scattered around. There are old invoices,  operations manuals, and time cards.  The most recent ones we saw were from  January, 1994.  Twenty six years ago. I wonder if Wendell got paid for this week.  His time card was apparently  not signed.  tsk tsk.

The accomodations building is just a few steps from the little administrative center. Of course we had to take a look inside to try to get a feeling for what it must have been like to live here in this isolated place. Unlike the sealed up, locked, and functional looking operations building, this building has been mostly stripped. The windows, doors, furniture, fixtures and just about anything of value are long gone. Well, almost anything of value.  Would be tough to put a price on that view, but on Providenciales it would start at about a half a million...

Remember earlier when I was talking about the donkeys that roam the island?  Well, as these brownish piles of second hand vegetation would attest, they like to hang out in the BOQ.

And that makes sense. It's always shaded, and being masonry it's cool inside. The view is phenomenal. It's quiet. There are plenty of open doors for access.  We saw signs of a lot of donkey activity here, but no donkeys. I think they're generally unruffled by automobiles, but they shy away from people on foot.  This is my theory, anyhow. Because some of these piles were very fresh. We didn't actually see any of the animals while we were outside of the car roaming around, but I would bet that they saw us.

This seems to be a gathering place, or recreation center down at the southernmost end of the accomodations building.  The plants have all but taken over the outside here.   I found evidence of a photographic dark room, a secure area for stores, and what I believe are two lockable cells for a brig.

I wanted to make one loop outside to see if I could find anything of the old LORAN tower that once was here. LORAN was a radio based Long Range Navigation system that was in use for ships back before  GPS made everything else obsolete. The USCG was in charge of maintaining the LORAN sites, and that was one of the major functions of this base during its later years.

I  went stumbling out through the underbrush, despite knowing better, and found a number of old structures. Much of it is  now camouflaged by plant growth.  Here's the remains of a native stone wall along with some rusty steel pipe.  No clue what this was part of.

I was looking for tower specific pieces, though.    I used LORAN on a number of survey jobs myself back in the 70's and knew that the towers were fairly large. I thought that certainly there must be some sign of this one here in the bushes, on the high part of the base.   Eventually I spotted a square concrete pad in the distance.

Once I had one of them located, it wasn't all that difficult to see where the others would be.  These must have been footings for the base of the tower.   At first I thought perhaps they were anchors for guy wires to support the tower.

But then I started seeing these cable anchors oriented toward the location where I suspected the tower was standing. The picture started coming together. If I had found these early in the visit I would have been all excited about it. But after having seen the magnificent scenery, finding the  tower remnants themselves was very much anticlimactic.

Looking downwind to the far hillside it wasn't to hard to find the actual remnants of the tower itself.   It's retired now.  That once tall, imposing, strong structure is now spending it's remaining days rusting away in the tropical climate, looking out over the beautiful clear waters of the Turks and Caicos. Hey, that sounds a little too close to a description of me, come to think of it.

There wasn't much more to see at the base. We know there is a caretaker because we met him on the way in.  He unlocked a chain across the entrance for us, once we assured him we only wanted to look around and take some photographs.

If you decide to go here, I would caution you to be very careful walking around.  There are a number of hazards to look out for. Holes, sharp bits of rusted metal. It would be east to trip over these hollowed out sections of former power line poles. There must have been quite a few of these at one time. The remnants are all over the place now.

I also found several in-ground cisterns that would be a definite hazard to step into.   Wouldn't want to go traipsing across here in the dark. You can see the kinds of hiking hazards I'm talking about here.

We were burning daylight, and still wanted to see more of the island of South Caicos so after I finished finding the tower parts we decided it was time to head back toward town. We wanted to get some  more shore based photos of the town  and also wanted to try lunch at a new resort here. And we wanted to take a look at some new homes being built as part of a place called Sailrock. This post has gotten long enough, so I'll do one more on South Caicos and include the rest of those subjects in the next one.  

I did want to point out one little thing I noticed, though, before getting off this subject. Remember that first Google Earth image I posted way back at the beginning of this blog?  I pointed out that there is a history slider control on Google Earth that lets you compare satellite images from different years. I chose a GE image from a few years back because the latest image has some obscuring clouds in the way. Well, while I was looking at prior years I found out that if you go back just a few you will get to the point where the edge of South Caicos that includes images of this base were obscured.   Blurred out. Now, this isn't that uncommon around islands. Google posts the sat images of surrounding water this way quite commonly when there's nothing to look at but open ocean.  No need to use fine detail. But I did find it a curious coincidence that a military base of no importance whatsoever was blurred out. Seems it would have made more sense to extend the higher resolution image just a couple hundred meters to the east.  This would have then included the entire island.

I'm sure it was just an oversight.

I'll do one more post to wrap up our time on South Caicos, and then we'll move on to whatever we're going to do next with this blog. We do have some decisions to make as we have a totally new direction planned for this coming cruising season. Big decisions. Like, for one example, how can we call it "2 Gringos in the Caribbean" if we spend the entire next season exploring the out islands of the Bahamas?

What are we going to do for comedic relief now that Dooley has Departed for wherever it is that good dogs go to next when they've moved on from here? See, these are some big questions.

In the meantime, I hope you are enjoying the South Caicos trip photos It's probably obvious that we really like the place. One of our favorite spots in the Turks and Caicos.