A truly wild is­land


Canadian Geographic - - CONTENTS - Story and pho­tog­ra­phy by Liz Bed­dall

Bonaire is renowned as a div­ing and snorkellin­g des­ti­na­tion, but in­land from all its surf, sand and scuba is an un­tamed is­land un­like any other in the Caribbean

Now, turn off your lights, kick your legs and look down.” It’s ap­proach­ing mid­night when the dive guide gives this com­mand to the 15 snorkeller­s float­ing five kilo­me­tres off the west coast of Bonaire. If they were on land, they might have al­ready re­tired for the night, along with the oth­ers who come to this tiny is­land, a spe­cial mu­nic­i­pal­ity of the Nether­lands in the Caribbean about 80 kilo­me­tres north of Venezuela, to loll in the sun and ex­pe­ri­ence some of the best div­ing and snorkellin­g in the world. But here they are, their wa­ter­proof flash­lights dots of bob­bing light on a patch of ink-black sea, ready to prove that no wild place re­ally ever goes to sleep. The lights switch off and 30 legs be­gin to kick, at first ten­ta­tively then more vig­or­ously. In re­sponse, thou­sands of crus­taceans called os­tra­cods ex­plode with bi­o­lu­mi­nes­cence, trans­form­ing the water into a shim­mer­ing can­vas ri­valling that of the star-strewn sky above. When the spec­ta­cle is over, the snorkeller­s clam­ber aboard the dive boat and mo­tor back to­ward Kral­endijk, Bonaire’s cap­i­tal and the site of its first dive oper- ation, which opened in 1962, ef­fec­tively herald­ing the be­gin­ning of tourism on the is­land. The div­ing in­dus­try grew slowly at first but be­gan to boom in the 1980s, fu­elling the pro­lif­er­a­tion of shops, bars, restau­rants and re­sorts that to­day line a good por­tion of Bonaire’s west coast, from which most tourists tend not to wan­der. Yet be­hind Kral­endijk’s bub­blegum-bright aes­thetic and away from the beaches and dive sites of this lee­ward side lies a lesser known Bonaire, one filled with ter­res­trial ex­ot­ica — feral don­keys, sweep­ing cac­tus-filled plains and tow­er­ing pyra­mids of salt, to name but a few — that most wouldn’t as­so­ci­ate with a Caribbean is­land. When paired with its marine trea­sures, these dry-land de­lights help make Bonaire a truly wild is­land that punches well above its weight in a re­gion that’s packed with holiday-des­ti­na­tion heavy­weights.

IT’S MORN­ING, and the lan­guorous breeze waft­ing through Kral­endijk makes it easy to imag­ine that not one of Bonaire’s 18,000 peo­ple is rush­ing any­where. Boxy cars, some with “I Love Salt” bumper stick­ers — a ref­er­ence to the salt

Be­hind the bub­ble-gum-bright aes­thetic of Kral­endijk and away from the dive sites of Bonaire’s lee­ward side lies a very dif­fer­ent is­land.

flats at the is­land’s south­ern tip — cruise along the nar­row down­town streets, their pas­sage un­fet­tered by the ab­sence of stop­lights. Up the road from the vi­brant blues, pinks, yel­lows and lime greens of the build­ings in Kral­endijk’s oth­er­wise hum­ble cen­tre, a group of tou­sle-haired divers mills around a self-serve scuba sta­tion, chat­ting in the morn­ing glow as ni­trox fills their tanks and the an­tic­i­pa­tion of an­other day of dawn-to-dusk un­der­wa­ter ex­plo­ration builds. They and hun­dreds of oth­ers are head­ing for one of the is­land’s 63 of­fi­cial dive sites, each of which are marked by a bright yel­low rock along the coastal road. There are an­other 26 dive sites on Klein Bonaire, the small un­in­hab­ited is­land just off Bonaire’s west coast. With 89 dive sites in to­tal, more than 350 species of fish, three of the world’s seven species of sea tur­tle (green, hawks­bill and log­ger­head) and 57 species of soft and stony coral, all in some of the Caribbean’s most pris­tine wa­ters, it’s no sur­prise that the is­land is such a draw for the scuba-and-snorkel set. “I think we have the best coral reef in the whole Caribbean,” says Daniël Mole­naar, manag­ing di­rec­tor of dive op­er­a­tor Aqua Fun Bonaire. “That’s why this place is so pro­tected.” How pro­tected is “so pro­tected”? For starters, all the water sur­round­ing Bonaire and Klein Bonaire from the high-tide mark to a depth of 60 me­tres is safe­guarded as Bonaire Na­tional Marine Park, a 27-square-kilo­me­tre area with a strictly en­forced no-an­chor­ing pol­icy and leg­is­la­tion for­bid­ding the removal of coral, dead or alive, from the water. Then there’s Bonaire’s long-stand­ing com­mit­ment to con­serv­ing marine life. Sea tur­tles have been a pro­tected species here since 1961. Spearfish­ing was pro­hib­ited a decade later. Seven years af­ter that — and one year be­fore the marine park was es­tab­lished — Bonaire was the first place in the world to in­stall per­ma­nent moor­ings at dive sites, which helped avoid an­chors dam­ag­ing the coral.

Goats and don­keys roam among the gnarled bushes and cacti, eye­ing the igua­nas that skit­ter across the dusty ground in front of them.

But this stead­fast ad­her­ence to main­tain­ing the un­tamed is ev­i­dent on land, too, and per­haps makes it­self most no­tice­able while trav­el­ling into the desert land­scape of Bonaire’s in­te­rior and to­ward Wash­ing­ton Slag­baai Na­tional Park at the is­land’s north­ern tip. “The first thing that comes to mind when peo­ple see this part of Bonaire is that it’s a dry, thorny is­land,” says Quir­ijn Coolen, gen­eral man­ager of Echo Bonaire, a con­ser­va­tion or­ga­ni­za­tion lo­cated just out­side the park that works to en­sure a sta­ble and grow­ing pop­u­la­tion of the yel­low-shoul­dered Ama­zon par­rot, in part by restor­ing the dry-for­est habi­tat of the bird. “But that’s not all I see,” adds Coolen. “I see the re­silience of the veg­e­ta­tion through­out the year. I see birds you would never be able to see through the thick trees of a rain­for­est en­vi­ron­ment.” It’s a sen­ti­ment that rings true at Goto Lake, a salt­wa­ter la­goon sur­rounded by low val­leys dense with mesquite and cacti where it’s easy to spot fiery-pink Caribbean flamin­gos — the avian world’s ver­sion of a sun­burnt tourist at the beach. Bonaire is one of only four places in the re­gion where this pro­tected species breeds, and watch­ing the gawky-look­ing but grace­ful bird preen­ing or dip­ping its long S-shaped neck into the water is as mes­mer­iz­ing as any­thing spied through a dive mask. But it’s not just birds that can be seen in the in­te­rior of the is­land. Around the vil­lage of Rin­con, for in­stance, goats and feral-yet-friendly don­keys roam among the gnarled bushes and cacti, eye­ing the igua­nas that skit­ter across the dusty ground in front of them. Scenes such as this might make the in­te­rior seem like a ghostly ex­panse com­pared to the buzz and colour of Kral­endijk, but that’s part of the ap­peal. “There is a pure quiet­ness in na­ture here, and a real sense of freedom,” says Ju­lianka Clarenda, co-owner of Rin­con’s Posada Para Mira restau­rant. Over a lunch of iguana stew — spicy but de­li­cious once a com­pli­ca­tion of tiny bones is over­come — Clarenda gives her in­sider’s ad­vice about the one thing vis­i­tors shouldn’t miss: the lit­tle-used hik­ing paths around the re­mote in­let of La­gun on the east coast. The rough wa­ters make div­ing there a no-go, she adds, but the views of open wind-whipped sea and break­ers rolling in along the jagged shore­line are ex­traor­di­nary. It’s the wind­ward side, to be sure, but it’s no won­der lo­cals also call it the wild side.

THE SUN LOW­ERS to­ward the hori­zon, and off the coastal road that leads to Bonaire’s south­ern tip, wild meets world-dom­i­nat­ing in spec­tac­u­lar fash­ion at vast salt flats op­er­ated by global agri­food trad­ing gi­ant Cargill. Here, on land that com­prises about 13 per cent of the 290-square-kilo­me­tre is­land, huge con­i­cal piles of fist-sized crys­tals sit next to fuch­sia-tinted ponds

At Goto Lake, it’s easy to pick out fiery-pink Caribbean flamin­gos — the avian world’s ver­sion of a sun­burnt tourist at the beach. of pumped-in sea­wa­ter, the colour of which has been al­tered by the tiny brine shrimp that thrive in the highly saline en­vi­ron­ment. If the pas­tel shade of the ponds looks fa­mil­iar, it’s be­cause it’s a muted ver­sion of the flam­ing pink of the Caribbean flamingo, which feeds on the shrimp and can be found by the thou­sands in the Pekelmeer Flamingo Sanc­tu­ary, a pro­tected area that’s lo­cated within the salt flats but not ac­ces­si­ble to the pub­lic (the birds can, how­ever, be seen quite well from the road out­side the sanc­tu­ary). Driv­ing back into Kral­endijk af­ter sun­down, one can see the dive sites marked by the yel­low rocks have gone dark. No bon­fires or parked cars are per­mit­ted along Bonaire’s beaches, and the only lights on the water are once again com­ing from snorkeller­s’ wink­ing flash­lights. They shine their lights down, sweep­ing them from side to side. None will be think­ing about go­ing ashore — how could they be when they’ve come to the is­land to be trans­fixed by dart­ing bar­racuda, translu­cent jel­ly­fish and un­du­lat­ing oc­to­puses be­neath their flip­pers? But what awaits there, not far be­hind the water­front ho­tels, bars and restau­rants, is a land that’s as un­for­get­tably un­tamed as the sea that sur­rounds them now. See more of Liz Bed­dall’s spec­tac­u­lar photos of Bonaire at can­geo­travel.ca/fw18/bonaire.

Liz Bed­dall ( @lizbed­dall) is a pho­tog­ra­pher and writer whose work has ap­peared in the Toronto Star, the Globe and Mail and on va­ri­ety.com.

Clock­wise from ABOVE: Colour­ful down­town Kral­endijk, Bonaire’s cap­i­tal; Goto Lake, a salt­wa­ter la­goon at the is­land’s north­ern end, is sur­rounded by a dry, hilly land­scape; one of Bonaire’s wild don­keys, which are known for be­ing cu­ri­ous and friendly; the azure wa­ters of the is­land’s west coast. PRE­VI­OUS PAGES: A snorkeller ex­plores the Bonaire Na­tional Marine Park, which en­cir­cles Bonaire and its smaller sis­ter is­land, Klein Bonaire.

RIGHT: A plate of iguana stew at Posada Para Mira restau­rant in Rin­con. BE­LOW: A cac­tus keeps it cool with a pair of sun­glasses at the Plaza Beach Re­sort Bonaire in Kral­endijk.

Clock­wise from RIGHT: The salt flats at the south­ern tip of Bonaire; some of the colour­ful marine life that can be found in the is­land’s wa­ters; a flamingo in the Pekelmeer Flamingo Sanc­tu­ary.

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