Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Liamuiga - The Fertile Land

Liamuiga is the old Amerindian name for the island of St. Kitts and on first glance it certainly seems that the island lives up to this name.  The mountain range that makes up the spine of the oddly whale-shaped island rises to a massive height of 3,792' and almost constantly wears a cap of heavy cloud, although we considered ourselves very lucky to have a view of the top of the peak and the volcanic crater as we sailed down from St. Barts.  The central mountains plummet down in a beautiful green curve to the ocean, seemingly just to slip calmly into the seas.  Only at the southern end of the island are there significant cliffs that provide one or two sheltered bays.  From the distance, the slopes are a patchwork of varying shades of green, most prevalent the emerald fields of sugar cane.

At one time, the majority of the arable land on the island was cultivated with cane fields, originally worked by an incomprehensible number of slaves, but then in modern times the government got into the business and when sugar prices fell in 2005, they exited leaving the fields for the most part to return to nature.  Today as we drove around the island we saw some cultivated fields and a few small-holdings with various fruits and provisions being grown, but for the most part St. Kitts has turned it's face toward off-shore banking and tourism as a way to make money.

The history of St. Kitt's is primarily a history lesson in the struggles between the French and English, at times the two nations living with strained peace on the one island and at other times involved in all-out warfare.  Basseterre, the capital, was our arrival point on Monday afternoon and after checking in with customs and immigration we had a quick wander around town.  The town centres around "The Circus", a roundabout with a small clock tower but beyond that it sprawls along the waterfront, somewhat squalid in the town centre and giving way to only slightly more affluent homes at the outskirts.  It was a super-busy time of day with parents picking up their kids from school and heading home from work.  The old buildings appear somewhat dilapidated and most structures look like they could do with some repair or a new coat of paint, giving the whole town a somewhat shabby air.  The other thing we noticed is that other than a very small number of tourists, there were absolutely no other non-blacks on the streets or in the stores.  We're used to feeling in the minority these days but it was noticeable here in Basseterre that among the well-heeled business people, stall vendors, taxi-drivers, shop keepers, government officials and all others, we didn't see a single white person.

Tuesday, we picked up a hire car for the day to tour round the island.  Navigation is easy here, there is only one road so the choice comes down to whether you want to circumnavigate in a clockwise or anti-clockwise direction.  We picked the first, and headed up the south-west coast to our first stop at the Wingfield Estate and Romney Manor.  Here, the Earl of Romney oversaw a massive plantation with a sugar mill and built an estate with extensive gardens that are now on show.  The old manor house is no longer there, but a small batik dying outfit now occupies the site with workshop demonstrations and a gift shop.  The gardens are serenely beautiful, culminating in the spreading limbs of a 400 year old Saman tree.  Given that much of the history on St. Kitts has succumbed to fire, earthquake and/or hurricane, it is mind-boggling that this massive tree has managed to survive.
At the base of the chimney for the steam engine, built from locally quarried stone and ballast stone from the sugar-ships.

The old steam boiler with the ruins of the separating room.

Like the tree, the chimney has survived all these years and now plays host to bromeliads (air-plants).

Originally the sugar mill was water-driven with water diverted from the river - obviously this had challenges in the dry season which is when sugar cane is harvested.

The arching limbs of the Saman tree.
The only remaining bell-tower on the island.  The bell towers signalled time to the slave workers and were destroyed at the time of emancipation as a symbol of the control the plantation owners had over them.  Earl Romney was seen as more benevolent, so his bell tower was left standing.

A little batik demonstration.

The more colours used, the more expensive the batik cloth - these ran in the $60-range!

Absolutely beautiful none-the-less.

Henry taking a moment before we moved on.
From the gardens we headed further north-west to Brimstone Hill and the old british-built fort that is now a UNESCO site.  This extensive and massively built fort sits atop this strategically situated hill on the south shore and apart from a short period when the French prevailed, has been held by the English throughout it's 300+ year history.  When the French did manage to breach the walls of the fort in 1782 they allowed the remaining British soldiers to surrender and leave with honour - how gallant.  However, the English were back in less than a year and took what they had learned in their defeat to strengthen the fort even further.  Today it has been beautifully restored and we explored the site, often being reminded of Fort Henry, Fort York and Quebec City back in Canada.  Interestingly there are a lot of parallels in the two countries' histories and even today, we hold the same status within the British Commonwealth.

Even after driving up to what felt like the top of the hill, this steeply stepped ramp led to the garrison at the top.

Thick walls, gun emplacements, numerous canon and strategically placed firing stations, all designed by the Royal Engineers and built for the most part by slaves.

No chance of slipping by unseen with views like these - unless in the dark of night!

Looking north along the coast, Dutch-owned St. Eustacia on the horizon.

Massive cannon cover all approaches.

The deepest interior of the fortress.  Notice the drains running down to the centre?  Rain water collection and waste management was of paramount importance.

Protected by canon but open to the skies above, with stunning views in all directions.
We continued on around the island stopping occasionally to catch a glimpse of an old sugar mill and enjoy a refreshing shower on the north end of the island.  For just a few miles, the landscape was significantly greener, attesting to the amount of rain that falls as the clouds pass over the mountains.  If we were staying longer, we would most definitely arrange to hike up into the rainforest but as this can only be taken on with a guide, will have to wait for a return trip.

Young sugar cane growing around the ruins of an old sugar mill.

Funny story about our rental car.  As we reversed out of the parking lot, the hub-cap fell off.  I retrieved it and put it in the back seat, then closed the door as I got back in the car.  Another clatter and out I went again to gather up the plastic from the back of the side mirror, which joined the hub-cap in the back seat.  Guess it pays to drive with your windows open so you can hear the parts as they fall off your car!

Looks okay from here :-)

Finally, to round out the day we headed to the south to what looks to me like the whale's tale when looking at a map of the island.  The locals call the area outside of Basseterre that we had just travelled through, "The Country", and it is pastoral with numerous little towns of varying degree of shabbiness dotted along the coast.  As we passed the airport and crested Bird Rock, we looked down upon the extensive resorts and golf course and now understood where the money has come to roost on St. Kitts.  All compressed into a low lying triangle of land that gives way to a narrow rugged pass that brings you down to the very southern end of the island.  It was along here that we finally spied some Green Vervet Monkeys that now live all over the island.  Boy are they fast!

I took about six fast-action shots to get one of this guy zooming through the trees.

Cockleshell Beach at the southern end of the island gave us a beautiful view of Nevis, the other island in this Federation and our next stop down the chain.

Nevis, just two miles away across The Narrows.

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