Hello Bonaire, a tiny Caribbean island known for its pioneering role in the preservation of the marine environment and for its excellent scuba diving and snorkeling. Above water, its saltpans host thousands of bright pink flamingos and the unhurried pace and laid-back attitude make it a terrific place to relax and lie low for a while.
Geographically there’s something very strange about Bonaire, as if the island has a split personality. The southern half is flat and bare, with salt pans allowing vegetation no chance of survival. The northern half, in contrast, is hilly and green with bushes and cacti. The two parts exude a completely different atmosphere; it’s hard to believe they are both part of the same island.
“You have to see Bonaire as Yin and Yang, the two opposing elements of the universe”, says Boy, the merry vagabond I meet sitting on the curb in the village of Rincon. He has been an addict for as long as he can remember but, like all the other characters you meet on the island, the chollers (drug addicts) are of the friendly variety.
“The salt pans are the Yang, the masculine aspect of the island,” says Boy. “They sizzle in the heat, wanting to be left in peace. Here you sense danger; it is like swimming in a river with crocodiles. The north, the National Park, is Yin, the feminine aspect. She is opulent, hospitable and fertile. This is somewhere you feel comfortable – where you go to picnic and barbeque, but watch out, she is also prickly. Hah, just look at all those cacti.” He stands up and gestures. “Shall we get a beer?” It is eight o’clock in the morning.
I am on my way to Yin, the feminine Bonaire. The Washington Slagbaai National Park is a nature reserve of 6,000 hectares. Instead of a beer, I invite Boy to be my guide. No sooner said than done. He takes being a guide very seriously. At every brightly colored parrot, iguana or wild goat, he cries “Stop!” and we leap out of the car to stalk our prey, camera in hand. Unfortunately, a noisy junkie jumping from a speeding car cannot stalk most animals.
However, he makes good by being a walking encyclopedia of information; from the history of Slagbaai, where goats were slaughtered and sent to Curaçao, to the difference between bol and zuilcacti. He knows about the warawara, the bird of prey officially known as Kuif Caracara, that chases its prey on foot and the hexagonal columns of basalt, formed hundreds of millions of years ago on the ocean floor (which are now visible above the surface of the sea at Juwa Pass). Boy knows everything. While visiting the bocas, the rocky inlets with their spectacular crashing waves, he can’t resist pointing out the feminine charms of the park.
Scantily clad young women are printed all over the beer cans
On the way back we have a drink together, standing in a snack bar with that unavoidable beer. Scantily clad young women are printed all over the blue cans. Boy tells me he is named after Boy Nayil, the son of the ruler of the gods, who takes the form of a silver snake. “The Indians named the island Boy Nayre, the house of the silver snake and it was the Dutch colonists who made this into Bonaire”.
I ask Boy how he comes to know so much. “Because I’m so smart,” he says. “So smart that society can’t accept me.” And I believe him. Early the next morning while driving towards the salt pans, the masculine Yang of Bonaire, I experience a strange tension; Boy’s words have had their effect.
I leave the built-up area of Kralendijk behind me, pass the pink Flamingo Airport, the luxury homes of American and European celebrities, then I’m suddenly alone. To the right there’s the bright blue sea, to the left the shimmering Pekel Lake. The salt mountains break the monotony of the horizon, in the same way as the pyramids of Giza do when seen from the Sahara. The view is breathtaking, much more impressive than the friendly north. “Weird” and “moon-like” are how I hear it described by two American tourists in the City Café later. Indeed.
There are only a few fallen palm trees along the coast and a temporary road marker pointing out directions to Paris, San Francisco and Melbourne. A flock of flying flamingos add a splash of color to this bleached white, light-saturated scene.
I do something I shouldn’t – something that many tourists do, I later discover. I drive into the open empty terrain just past the salt factory to see the salt mountains and lakes more closely. Salt extraction forms an important part of Bonaire’s history. In the days before refrigeration, the salt trade filled a major need for preserving food to store and transport. The salt caravans of Africa attest to its role in history and we even derive the word “salary” from the Roman word for salt, such was its importance in paying the soldiers of its empire.
Slaves were put to work under harsh conditions
In 1620, events during the Eighty Years’ War forced the Dutch Republic to look further afield for salt after Spain cut off supplies. They captured Curaçao, Bonaire and Aruba in 1633, in retaliation for the Spanish taking St Maarten from them, and immediately began exploiting the island’s rich salt plans, as well as growing maize and cutting woods used in dyeing cloth. Native people, convicts from other colonies and a few African slaves were put to work under harsh conditions and the salt industry grew rapidly, absorbing more and more slaves. Squinting against the bright glare of the sun reflecting off the white pans in the blazing heat, I shudder to think what conditions must have been like for the men, women and children forced to work here.
The Dutch West India Company, then the Dutch multinational AKZO and finally US company Cargill have all worked the salt. Not much else has changed over the centuries. Seawater streams onto the shallow salt pans, the sun evaporates the water, the salt is left behind and can then be collected.
What is new is the protected status of the flamingo reserve on the salty Pekel Lake. Thousands of the birds can now breed here in absolute peace. This status is important as this is one of their last remaining breeding colonies, and of course, Bonaire treasures its national symbol. It is closed to the public, but with a good pair of binoculars it is easy to watch the birds from the road. Besides the flamingo, Bonaire has more than 170 other bird species.
After I have rubbed my hands among raw salt crystals the size of ping-pong balls, I take my leave and drive further south. There I find the infamous slave huts: a physical reminder of the exploitation that was regarded as completely normal and legitimate for centuries, but now fills one with horror. The setting of the huts on the outermost point of the island is, ironically, superb but the isolation is palpable. There are only the wandering souls of the thousands of slaves who lived here and worked the saltpans to keep you company. Perhaps this is what Boy meant by inhospitable atmosphere?
Crystal clear water, warm shallows, hardly a wave, snow-white sand
I’ve seen the two faces of Bonaire in the north and south, but now the west and east reveal two surprises – perhaps you could describe them as the island’s beautiful ears? Bonaire is not blessed with vast stretches of sand; the few beaches that it does have are littered with large hotels. Sorobon on the lagoon of Lac Bay on the east coast is an exception. In this windsurfing paradise you can find the most hospitable beach café/surf shop imaginable. You really get that holiday feeling here: crystal clear water, warm shallows, hardly a wave, snow-white sand.
There are two restaurants where you can eat, or drink a mojito, with your feet in the sand. The BBQ is fired up every evening and the wahoo and dorado placed on the grill. This usually marks the start of a spontaneous beach party that goes on till late into the night.
Further up the coast you can spot local families by the Nissan or Daihatsu pick-up trucks parked on the beach. Chilly bins (cool boxes) of meat and beer are on hand as they enjoy the national pastime of doing (almost) nothing very slowly. Windsurfing brothers Taty and Tonky Frans, world-ranked freestyle surfers, are often to be found here. Each spectacular move is accompanied by loud shouts of encouragement from the hundreds of spectators on the shore. The bay is also interesting for nature lovers because of the impressive mangrove swamps and the green sea turtles and The Mangrove Information Centre organizes kayak and electric boat excursions.
The western ‘ear’ is the deserted island of Klein Bonaire which is part of the National Marine Park and sports the kind of pristine white sand beaches the rest of the island lacks. In the 1970s, Bonaire made the both clever and progressive decision to give a large part of its underwater world protected status . The island now welcomes more than 60,000 tourists every year. I’m staying at the first diving center on the island, the renowned Captain Don’s Habitat, alias the home of diving freedom.
The descent into another world
After checking in and being checked out for my certification, I am soon ready for my first dive amid the familiar ritual: the struggle to find hired gear that fits comfortably, the banging of metal tanks, the checking of airlines and buoyancy aids, the spitting into masks. Then the plunge into the deep blue sea, a welcome shiver of deep ocean chill after the hot, sweaty day. The first nervous breaths of metallic air through the regulator, the popping of ears, the descent into another world where you realize you are an alien invader. I work to calm my breathing, too loud in my ears, and settle back into the reassuring routine.
However, down here, disappointment awaits: much of the coral has been damaged in recent years due to the many hurricanes that have gone off-course. Is this really one of the best diving destinations in the western hemisphere?
That same evening in City Café I meet a group of experienced divers just back from the sites at Karpata and 1000 Steps. Stories of barracudas, sea turtles, swarms of jellyfish and sea horses abound. “You just had bad luck,” says Ben, a portly Canadian. “Bonaire has hundreds of dive sites, half of which are great, and certainly ten of which belong to the absolute top.” I can’t hide my disappointment. To console me he shouts “Hey, have a beer!” and tosses me a blue can. I look at the half-naked lady in a seductive pose and quench my thirst.
Tomorrow is another day. Now it’s time to chill.