Scarf enlightenment

We scoured the city from the plane as it came in to land, looking for signs of the snow that we hoped would be there, but there wasn’t much to be seen. Not that it wasn’t cold enough. A thin draft of icy air blew between the plane door and the aerobridge as we alighted and reminded us just how far we had travelled from Belize.

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Toronto at night

The train from the airport to Union Station in downtown Toronto held us in its artificially warm embrace and it wasn’t until we had to leave the station and make a dash for the subway that the cold had a chance to bite. We donned what coats we had, inadequate as they were, and stepped into the city at night.

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Bracing for the cold

It was only 50 metres until we were indoors again, but that short dash was enough to confirm that this was not winter as we know it. This was the big league, a proper chill, a chest freezer on high. I loved it as soon as my cheeks started to sting. It’s been 20 years since Emma and I last spent a winter in Toronto and the unaccustomed cold was just as much of a novelty now as it was then.

We made our way through the metro system to Broadview Station, our disposition diametrically opposed to the commuters who have seen it all a thousand times before. At Broadview we skipped across the road and were warmly welcomed back to Jill, Anthony and Jackson’s (Emma’s cousin, husband and their son) place where we checked into our regular suite on the third floor.

Toronto survival gear (coats, scarves, gloves and mittens) were issued while we scoffed down grilled cheese sandwiches to make up for the meals we had missed while flying that day. I don’t need a scarf I thought. A coat… of course I’ll need a coat. A toque… (beanie) of course I’ll need a toque. Gloves… of course I’ll need gloves. But a scarf… I’ve never seen the point.

The next morning was a little over two weeks before Christmas and there was a tree to be procured to help make the season bright. We donned the afore mentioned Toronto survival gear and ventured forth for a stroll down the Danforth, a trendy street in inner Toronto lined with specialty shops and restaurants. Jill and Anthony had put in an order for snow in anticipation of our need for a white Christmas and almost on queue little white flakes were wafting from the sky. I zipped my coat as high as it would go. It was snug and I was warm but a cold draft slithered down my neck.

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Taking the tree for a walk on the Danforth

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This is how they water the tree in Canada

After collecting the tree, hot dogs needed BBQ’ing for lunch. Volunteers though were hard to find despite Jill’s insistence that BBQ’ing in the snow is a Canadian tradition. I agreed to take on the task because it was a good excuse to stand outside in the falling snow. I clad myself in Anthony’s bogs (big winter snow boots which he occasionally insisted belonged to him), my coat, toque and tongs and stepped out into the freezer where a cold draft ran down my neck.

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And maybe he should have done up his coat?

After lunch we all took Roscoe (Jill and Anthony’s cocker-poo) for a walk. I’ll try the scarf I thought. Snowflakes the size of dinner plates kept on coming and the grey city was beginning to look like the winter wonderland one imagines when singing Christmas carols. It was a delight and the scarf around my neck kept the minus eleven-degree air from where it wasn’t supposed to be.

‘Scarves are beginning to make sense to me’, I commented to Jill.

‘You should call your next blog scarf enlightenment’, she replied.

Amy, Oliver and Jackson made snowballs and threw them at each other before discovering that of the adults I yelled the least when errant missiles headed my way. Scarves, I discovered, are especially useful in a snow fight, though they don’t do much for your face.

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Look out!

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Maybe goggles next time?

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Snow selfie

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Dog walking in the snow

By the time we got home sufficient snow had accumulated for shovelling. Amy and Oliver set to but without any clear intent of clearing the walkway. A snowman was the real objective though Anthony declared it to be the wrong kind of snow. ‘It’s not packing snow’ he said and he was right. It was all fluffy and soft and wouldn’t stick together like a snowman should.

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Shovelling in the snow

The next day was a more sombre occasion. Emma’s grandma Evelyn passed away earlier this year and with ourselves and other Australian relatives scheduled to visit at this end of the year, her memorial service was held over until our collective arrival.

Family and friends gathered as families do, in Oakville, to farewell one of their own and I pondered whether our sadness was because someone we love had died or because we who remain are poorer for their passing. Probably it’s both and probably the point is moot. The emotions we experience when we say goodbye strip away the day to day, remind us that our day is coming too and nudge us to hang on that much tighter to everyone still here.

An early Christmas back at Shirley and George’s (Emma’s aunt and uncle) after the service was the perfect way to do just that. I haven’t got the words to describe how great it was to see family from home that we haven’t seen since January and family from Canada we haven’t seen for much longer than that. Neither do I have the words to describe the happy contentedness that came with sitting in their company while the afternoon wiled itself away.

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Uncle George with Kathleen and Isaac

It would have been nice to all spend a few more days together, but there were so many visiting Australian’s that George and Shirley’s house was bursting at the seams. We returned from Oakville to Toronto along with Jill, Anthony and Jackson and got back to some serious touristing while they got back to school and work.

Jill and Anthony and Shirley and George had given us Toronto City Passes and so we headed off to the Science Centre one day and then the aquarium with Brendon, Kathleen and Isaac the next. Later we also visited the Royal Ontario Museum and took a trip up the CN Tower for the second time in a matter of months, this time for the winter views.

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Crazy static hair at the Science Centre

The aquarium was unexpectedly excellent and had me happily snapping away at jellyfish, clown fish, seahorses, rays and other curiosities. It took us hours to get through, though that may have been because our progress was stymied by happy chatter and a quest for the perfect selfie with a shark.

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Not sure if they got the shark but the saw-fish is there

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In the tunnel with Isaac

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Clown fish everywhere

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This could be Oliver’s signature pose

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It was fun to visit with our Australian cousins

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Looking out from the covered Skyway, walking indoors is gooood

At the end of the week the family was reunited for an axe throwing party. It’s what Canadians do to let off some steam I suppose. In a big warehouse in a seemingly abandoned part of town we gathered, regaled in our best lumberjack shirts, to compete for the title of trans-continental axe throwing champion (yep… I just made that up).

Axe throwing is like darts… with axes. Not full axes, but little ones. Hatchet sized, not that the smaller size makes it any easier. ‘The trick’, Anthony told me, ‘is all in the follow through’. I believed him because he was the reigning transcontinental axe throwing champ. I endeavoured to study his movements as he demonstrated how to do it in kitchen one morning while preparing a batch of ‘world famous scrambled eggs’.

To throw an axe you lift it up behind your head and fling it forward while simultaneously lunging forward and sticking your chest forward and swinging your arms down past your side. Easy right? Not so much as it turns out. It’s tricky to get the axe rotation right and a foot placed slightly forward or slightly back from the mark can be all it takes to turn the rewarding ‘thock’ of a hatchet lodging in timber into the frustrating ‘ping’ of metal as it rebounds and skitters across the floor to land somewhere near your feet.

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Double bullseye!!

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The concentration

Fortunately there were coaches on hand to help us through it and after the warm up I was feeling quietly confident. My confidence however was misplaced as it quickly became apparent we were in the company of some skilled practitioners. Uncle Ewan and Uncle George are the true lumberjacks and their age should fool no one. Their consistency left me trembling in my boots, and the more I trembled the more my axes behaved like boomerangs. Anthony too, the reigning champ, was having a bad day.

We went round for round in an action-packed tournament until scores were added up and the final eight revealed. George was minor premier and unquestioned favourite for the title but in an unexpected turn of events he was upstaged in the first round of the playoffs. Ewan threw consistently while George suffered an uncommon bout of the hee-bee-jee-bees.

At the end it was Ewan, and Anthony’s nephew Nick who played off in the final and they went axe for axe until someone called out, ‘Bring out the big axe’ (a full size axe used to break deadlocks). The threat of the big axe broke Ewan’s mojo and his next offering pinged off the target like a basketball off a backboard. Nick capitalised on the error and a new transcontinental axe throwing champ was crowned.

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Ewan and Nick prepare for battle

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What a fierce looking gang

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Post axe-throwing party game of farkle was almost as intense

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Post axe-throwing tobogganing with Toronto skyline

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I’ll bet Brendon wished he had a scarf

We got up to lots of other things during our second stay in Toronto – too many to describe. They included a day of indoor mountain biking, ice skating at Nathan Phillips Square, tobogganing on the slopes of Riverdale park, a day trip to Niagara Falls and time spent wandering the malls of the city looking for Christmas presents.

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Oliver at the indoor bike park

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Skating in down town Toronto – cold toes

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Niagara Falls

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Tobogganing with Roscoe

In between times the wine and laughter flowed freely at Jill and Anthony’s place as we sat around listening to old vinyl, playing Mario kart with Jackson on the third floor, watching The Eagles and Led Zeppelin in concert in the basement, playing a dice game called Farkle, and on Christmas day… racing wind up reindeer across the kitchen floor.

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Christmas lunch

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Much appreciated new shirts for all

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High stakes racing

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Awesome photo by Amy with her new camera

 

Alas all good things come to an end and on the 27th December (Emma’s birthday) we packed up our things for the second last time and eagerly awaited the arrival of our friends from Ottawa to whisk us away for our ‘Grant’ finale. Just one week separated us from the end of a year roaming the world, and what a week it was, but that’s another story.

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Posted in 2016 Trip | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Can chairs look longingly?

There are two routes from Placencia in the south of Belize City further north. One goes way inland first, the other is the Coast Highway. Google said we should take the Coast Highway and I had no problem with that. Google knows everything there is to know. It’s the closest thing there is to omnipotence.

After refuelling our Renault Duster at the only petrol station in the country outside of Belize City (or so it seemed) Google, via Emma, directed me to turn right. I would have. I mean I meant to and all, but the road where Google thought we ought to go didn’t show any outward indication of being a highway. The road where Google thought we should go was dirt and rock and potholes, so I drove straight past it.

One should not argue with omnipotence however and Google soon made known its displeasure at our lack of obedience. The dirt and rock and potholed road was the Coast Highway and we were being directed to drive it. So we did a U-turn, lest google become upset and withdraw its services as a form of retribution.

Onto the Coast Highway we went. Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending upon your perspective, our journey along the inappropriately named highway was not as exciting as I have built it up to be. It was 60 kilometres of bumping along, crossing bridges that looked like they would fall down the moment we added the weight of the Renault and of wondering who had stolen away all the other people of the world.

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The smooth section of the Coastal Highway

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The best bridge

It would have made for a better story if an errant rock had ripped a hole in one of our tyres, the spare tyre was flat, and we had to traipse through the jungle in search of friendly locals to help us make our way out of the Belizean wilderness. But that didn’t happen. We got to the other end safe and sound and I imagined Google sternly reprimanding me for my lack of faith.

At the northern end of the highway, just thirty minutes from Belize City is the Belize Zoo. The Belize Zoo says the Belize Zoo is the best little zoo in the world. So we stopped in. There were lots of cool Belizean animals, all in very natural looking habitats and all rescued from unnatural early deaths rather than plucked from the wild for anthropocentric amusement.

The coolest critters were the tapirs, Belize’s national animal. They are the cutest, ugly, animal and very personable despite warnings that fingers poked into their enclosure may not remain attached to the owner’s hand. When we showed up the tapirs came over to say hello, long protruding snouts circling in the air like mini elephant trunks and giving their mouths the appearance of grinning inanely. There were also jaguars and a different toucan to the ones we spotted in Guatemala with a fantastic bright yellow beak.

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Isn’t it cute??

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This jaguar was the only one awake – he was handsome

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The Belize national bird – the flying banana

Post zoo, we dropped off our hire car and headed for the Belize Express ferry terminal for a journey to Caye Caulker. We scoffed down left over bagels, cream cheese and a tomato for lunch before boarding a brightly coloured ferry which we strongly suspected had less than half the number of lifejackets required. This however did not warrant dwelling on. If the ship went down, at least the water would be warm.

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Civilised lunch?

Forty-five minutes later and without cause to test our theory on the lifejackets, Caye Caulker came into view with its brightly coloured low lying buildings, myriad of jetties, palm trees, and waters displaying the appropriate shades of turquoise and blue. We were picked up in a golf cart, the fastest and most powerful vehicle on the island, and driven through a maze of sandy roads.

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The ferry terminal on Caye Caulker

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Caye Caulker transport

Some places you go are unpolished and rough around the edges and they are unpleasant as a result. Other places other unpolished and rough around the edges and they are charming as a result. What makes the difference is beyond me, but Caye Caulker was charming from the outset and kept my camera snapping.

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A typical street

Our apartment was up the end of the island, right next door to a tiny airstrip where a Cessna sized plane landed or departed maybe once or twice a day. Our hosts showed us how to operate the Netflix which we later availed ourselves of to watch Toy Story, Star Wars and the Karate Kid and handed us a bottle of oil which they promised would help stop the sand-flies from making a meal out of us. It didn’t, but perhaps it made it better than it would otherwise have been.

The events of the following four days are now something of a blur but generally entailed rolling out of bed in the morning when we felt like it (I am going to miss that next year), schoolwork, exploring the island on bikes with seats so low your knees felt like they were spinning around your ears, swimming and eating pasta with red sauce and a salad because it was the only complete meal which could be assembled from the local supermarkets.

Our preferred swimming spot was on the back side of the island just around the corner from what is known as The Split. It’s called The Split because it’s where a hurricane literally split the island in half.

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The Split

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Our preferred swimming spot – the camera stayed dry too

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Velvet waters at The Split

Here there is a rustic old jetty which sags and slopes and which to outward appearance was constructed progressively in the absence of any masterplan and is therefore imbued with character which cannot be consciously created. Upon the jetty sat four or five equally rustic chairs, with peeling paint revealing grey and weathered wood. The chairs looked longingly over glassy tropical waters.

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Can chairs look longingly?

We often made our way here late in the afternoon. We would lock our bikes beneath a palm tree on the corner of the sandy road, walk out upon the jetty, strip off and dive in. The water was neither too warm nor too cold and looking back to shore was to look back on old barnacle encrusted boats, palm trees and a little old thatched roof shelter, all illuminated in the golden glow of the late afternoon.

As we swam the sun would drift slowly toward the horizon and afternoon turn to evening. Amy and Oliver would climb all over Emma and I, and leap off my shoulders and it sometimes occurred to me as all this went on that I felt happy. I realised, without meaning to, that I was where I wanted to be and with whom I wanted to be there and it was all just so perfect that there was no point contemplating the past or fretting about the future.

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Happy kids

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Walking on water?

Of course, it didn’t last. ‘This too shall pass’ goes the old adage, and so it did. Someone got hungry, or someone got tired or the light dipped just below optimal signalling it was time to go. We would dry off on the old jetty, unlock our bikes and pedal back through town, picking up pasta, red sauce and salad again for dinner.

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Caye Caulker scenery

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Jetties some functional, some not

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Functional for sea gulls

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A perfect spot

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A really awesome DIY catamaran in front of crazy jetties

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A few miles out you can see the waves crashing on the reef

On our second day we signed up for a day’s snorkelling on the reef with ‘Carlos Tours’. I was most pleased when it turned out that Carlos took his tours out on his forty-foot catamaran and not a ten-foot bathtub with a ten-year-old outboard like all the other tour operators. I have developed a phobia of old outboards, particularly when I am reliant on them to transport me multiple kilometres back to terra firma.

They Gypsy Queen however was a sailing vessel and therefore had built-in propulsion redundancy and this pleased me greatly. Not to mention the fact that sailing is an inherently pleasurable way to travel. Perched upon the bow of the Gypsy Queen with warm winds billowing our sails was a hypnotic pleasure. The waters were not deep and the seagrasses, sand and coral of the ocean floor made for a swirl of colour beneath the swell.

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Hopping in

We stopped to snorkel three times during the day. The first time was just on the edge of a gap in the reef where the larger ocean swells swept into the inshore lagoon. The Gypsy Queen rose and fell on its anchor as we leapt overboard to snorkel just tens of metres from where the reef forced waves into crashing white water.

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Photo bombed!

The second snorkel of the day was a stop atop a seagrass meadow like the one we visited near the Silk Cayes. As the anchor was dropped a schools of nurse sharks, jack fish and rays swarmed the back of the yacht. There were masses of them. So many we had to jump in to the water a little to the side of the back of the boat to avoid landing directly on top of them.

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Crazy numbers of sharks

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It was busy in there

Like the Silk Caye trip, it was amazing to be in the water with so many sharks, fish, rays and turtles especially because there were lots more of all of them this time around. Our guides also had a thing for swimming up behind the big nurse sharks, giving them a hug and gently rolling them over onto their backs before massaging their bellies. They seemed to love it and just lay there totally relaxed as we came forward one by one to stroke them as well.

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Oliver with a shark

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They just relaxed in the guides arms

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The rays liked the sea grass too

When we were done, the sharks were rolled back the right way up where they seemed to wake up from a peaceful sleep and lazily slink off into the blue. We made a third stop at another smaller gap in the reef where we swum between corals overlooking a deep channel. A large green moray eel and multiple sea turtles including a loggerhead and a green were the best bits. We sailed back across the waters late in the afternoon as the sun slowly lowered itself.

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The moray eel – he was cool and a little creepy

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Eagle ray

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Greg and Amy watching a turtle

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Heading home

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Sailing girl

We left Caye Caulker after four days, returning the way we had come and still actively avoiding contemplation of the lifejacket situation on board the ferry. We were delivered to the airport in a hair raising and frenetic taxi ride where we perused the gift shops to use up every cent of our Belizean cash and changed into warmer clothes in anticipation of our arrival in the sub-zero temperatures of Toronto in winter.

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That’s us waiting in the airport

 

Posted in 2016 Trip | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Storm and sharks

‘Ahh Moses’, I said as I made up my mind. ‘I’m not comfortable with this. We’re going back to the island’.

Moses pulled his head up out of the water, looked around and nodded agreement, though he looked a little reluctant. Moses was our snorkelling guide and at the time we were about 250 metres off a tiny sand atoll known as the Silk Caye. Silk Caye was 26 kilometres from the mainland. We were on a snorkelling outing to Belize barrier reef.

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Trouble brewing in paradise

I wasn’t comfortable because a rain squall which had been looming off in the distance all morning had finally caught up with us. Bright blue skies had turned grey. Balmy zephyrs had become a stiff wind and glassy waters had become choppy and rough. Ten minutes beforehand I had looked up from the coral and asked if the approaching weather would be a problem. Moses didn’t seem to think so but instead of floating serenely over the reef we were now being bounced along in a one to two-foot swell with the occasional gulp of water splashing down snorkels.

Moses may not have thought it was a problem, but it wasn’t Moses’ children swimming in the middle of the ocean with a storm breaking overhead. We started swimming back to the island. It was hard going into the waves which kept slapping us about the face and pushing us in the other direction. It was better just to keep your head down looking at the coral where the wind and rain just seemed to disappear.

Our beautiful beachfront cabana back on the mainland at Placencia seemed a long way off. Placencia is a sleepy little town, accessed via a drive down a narrow sandy strip of land on a road with more speed bumps than the highways of Jordan.

Our cabana was a kilometre out of town, overlooking a large bay. It sat just metres from the water’s edge. Palm trees swayed overhead in the steady breeze and water lapped gently at the shore. There was a hammock hanging from the veranda and two chairs positioned with views up the beach on to the ever-changing hues of the horizon.

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Our cabana by the beach

The proprietors, Jacob and Tyrone, were super friendly and allowed us to use their paddle boards for free. Pleasant hours were spent paddling, swimming and clowning around in the calm waters between school work, reading books and writing blogs. The only downside was the world’s smallest sand-flies that munched us to pieces every time the wind dropped.

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Blogging, reading and waiting schoolwork

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Relaxing

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Kayaking

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Beautiful sunrises

Back out at sea, it took about twice as long to get back to the sandy Silk Caye as it had to swim away from it and without wishing to over dramatise the whole situation, I was relieved when we finally made the shallow sandy water where we could sit safely while the wind blew and the rain fell.

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Relieved we made it back to the Caye

How quickly things can change. The squall blew for another 15 minutes before passing over completely and the clear sunny skies returned. The boat which had delivered us 26 kilometres offshore to the Silk Cayes was nowhere to be seen. It was off on a scuba expedition with some other customers. Pelicans and ospreys fishing in the waters surrounding the island kept us entertained along with scores of hermit crabs which scurried here there and everywhere.

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Just a small hermit crab

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An osprey with a fish

When the sun was shining Silk Caye was the very vision of a tropical paradise. It was worth going out just to splash around in the green and blue waters as they swished upon the sandy shore. The atoll was surrounded by coral except at one end where sand made a friendly path out into the waters.

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Silk Caye

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Arriving in paradise

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So many awesome blues

On our first snorkel outing we circumnavigated the island taking about an hour to complete the lap. Amy has always been at home in water and this was no exception and Oliver surprised me with his ease and delight in exploring the underwater world.

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The underwater world

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Tricky family selfie

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No smiling – it makes your mask leak

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Looking closely at the reef

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Healthy coral

My favourite fish was a vicious looking barracuda who watched us pass as it sat motionless. Emboldened by its seeming lack of concern at our presence I swum a little closer. It reacted by opening its mouth wide, sharp teeth flashing and angling toward me. I backed off and hurried to catch up with the others while it disappeared into the hazy void.

Our boat returned to pick us up a short while after the bad weather had cleared and took us another mile seaward before dropping anchor seemingly in the middle of nowhere. The crew indicated we ought to don our gear and jump overboard. We did and landed in relatively shallow water.

The bottom was covered in sea grass, like a marine paddock. Fingers of light reached down to make the scene shimmer and shine. No coral here… but sharks everywhere. There were at least ten of them in view as soon as we hit the water. The spot is a regular stopping point for local fisherman to clean their catch and the sharks linger and wait for the home delivered meals.

They were nurse sharks and totally harmless but if you’ve never swum with sharks before, as we have not, it is a thrill to be suddenly in their midst. Some were big (two to three metres) others were smaller and they all glided silently around us and back and forward around the boat floating above.

Amy swum up behind me straight after taking the plunge, enthralled but full of nerves. Nerves however quickly became superfluous. Curiosity arose to take its place. It seemed we all wanted to know how close we dared to get without tempting fate.

Amy and her underwater camera were in full flight and the rest of us were keen to be featured in a picture with a shark (or three). Several eagle rays and southern sting rays also joined the scene and just when our time was up and we were being summoned to return to the boat a hawksbill sea turtle swam along and we were granted an extra 10 or 15 minutes in which to enjoy his or her company.

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Waiting for a snack

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The only sharks that can sit still

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Just swimming over some sharks

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Eagle ray

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Hawksbill turtle

Then, all too soon, it was over. We climbed back aboard our vessel and were whisked across the water back to Placencia. Another day done, another unforgettable experience.

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The ride home

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Nice

Posted in 2016 Trip, Belize | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment