If you want to kayak in the Bahamas, the Exumas Islands are you best choice. A string of 365 cays stretching from east of the capital Nassau on New Providence Island and arcing southeast for 150 miles, the Exumas are comprised of numerous inhabited and remote coral islands along the eastern side of a gigantic sand bank. Except for San Salvador, where Columbus first stumbled into the New World, there is only 4000 miles of blue Atlantic ocean to the east. The water that flows onto the shores of the Exumas is as clear as anything in the entire open ocean. The result of this clear water over top the dazzling white sands of the Great Bahama Bank is a display of turquoise and green unmatched in the eastern hemisphere.
The best choice for kayaking anywhere in the Bahamas center around the Starfish Kayak outfitter in Georgetown on Great Exuma Cay. Most outfitter trips that you see listed are affiliated with this provider. Instead of signing up for one of these trips, such as Ibis tours, we decided to have a go ourselves. For groups of 6 or more they have a discounted rental program that includes rental of boats and equipment, a shuttle to and from the put in, some advice on camping locations and attractions and arrangement for lodging in the Georgetown area. We found their service to be friendly, informed and a good value. Both the U.S. stateside help before the trip and the local couple actually running the operations in The Bahamas were friendly, knowledgeable and very helpful.
We left early on a Wednesday morning, 3:30 A.M., from Baltimore Washington International, connecting with a long layover in Miami. Out of Miami we rode and American Eagle Turbo prop, the first non-jet plane of size that I had been on in many years. We left Miami International airport flying immediately over the Atlantic ocean just north of Biscayne Bay where I had been kayaking just this past December. Another 100 miles on an ESE course and we crossed over the middle bight of Andros Island. Past there the deep blue Tongue of the Ocean began and on its eastern side the marching underwater sand dunes of the Great Bahama bank presaged the appearance of Great Exumas Island where we touched down.
We arrived to find Mrs. Marshall awaiting us. The guest house was on the inner shore of the Lake in the center of Georgetown, next to the gas station and just a few doors from the market. We were assigned rooms and we dumped our luggage down. Then it was off to the market and liquor store to see about supplies for the trip. Georgetown is a very small place and it is very easy to walk everywhere from the guest house.
Our trip schedule was still a little up in the air with some of our part wanting to do more miles per day and some wanting to do less. After some spirited discussions we compromised on the second plan we had put together before leaving home, in spite of the warnings from the T.D. that no one had every made it that far north before in a week long trip. We planned to do 6 to 8 nautical miles each day for three days. That would put as at Big Farmers Cay within easy distance of Little Farmers Cay where we could get additional water. But due to our uncertainty on whether we could make it that far is conditions were harsher than anticipated, we decided to take all our drinking water for the entire nine days so that we would not have to rely on getting to Little Farmers Cay for water. That meant that each of us would need at least 27 liters of water - two 10 liter Dromedaries and one 6 liter. Our boats would be very heavy.
The small menu was further shortened by what was actually available. But the choice was wide enough to be satisfying. I had grouper, a local reef fish. It was delicious. Everyone was satisfied with their orders, from fried chicken for $12.00 to steak for $15.00 to $20.00 for the grouper. There was a good selection of sides. I and most of the others had peas and rice and a green salad. We asked if they had plantains. They said no, but they could get some. When our dinners arrived we each had a small portion of perfectly fried plantain. We were not charged anything extra. I give this restaurant 4 forks. We were just served when the other members of our little group arrived, pulling up chairs to join in the festivities.
After dinner we headed back to the rooms to begin sorting out the gear that had exploded all over our rooms.
Despite the poor feeling that the waitress engendered, we had a good discussion with T.D. and Brittany and let them know what our plans were. Final arrangements were made and a time of 9:00 o'clock selected for pick up. This would allow the others who had come in on a later flight the night before after the store closed to pick up some supplies. Exuma market is opened 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM. But the liquor store did not open until 9:00 A.M. so it was more like 9:30 before we got rolling on the Starfish bus up to their office north of Georgetown. We piled all our luggage into the back of the bus. Starfish would keep our extra luggage at their place after we packed up the kayaks. After a forty five minute ride north along the length of Great Exuma Island we came to a small bridge crossing over Odi Creek to Barre Terre Island. A strong current was running through the small steel tube passage under the road. Clearly we would have to portage around this if we came back this way. The other bridge over Smith Creek had been less ominous but would still prove impassable with an adverse tide. Forewarned with information we continued on the The Bonefish Lodge along the Northeast coast of Barre Terre where Starfish kept their equipment.
From two little sheds we also selected our accessory gear. Most of it was above average rental standards. The spray decks were in good condition. Made by Seals, a quality vendor, these all nylon spray skirts were just a couple of years old and still in good condition. We had some trouble finding our spare paddles as many of the take apart paddles were stuck tightly together and would not budge even after applying WD40 and a two person full court twist to the joint. Eventually we found two units that would operate well enough. We checked out the two burner steel stove and propane tank. it seemed to be working well. Rick filled his gas containers with white gas from a separate shed. We picked out a large pot for the stove and a few needed some mugs and bowls for kitchen gear. Most of us did not need any but there were a large quantity of well maintained dry bags available as well. The paddles were average fiberglass shaft plastic bladed sturdy rental paddles. A few of us had brought our own paddles.
On the other side of the narrow single lane road was a wooden rack of plastic kayaks. We pulled down several Looksha IV and V kayaks and tried out the fit and seating. The deck hardware was all in good repair, but some of the seats were a little buggered from abuse by careless clients. We soon had selected six kayaks with good seats that suited each of us. Steve and Mary selected one boat from several possible doubles that would make up the final entry into our little armada.
We carried the boats down to the concrete launch ramp on the side of The Bonefish Lodge. Then began the arduous and seemingly impossible task of putting all our stuff into the boats, not the least of which was the water. Some had more difficulty than others and a few items had to be left behind. Particularly onerous was the huge container for the human waste which was not going to go below decks anywhere and would have to be carried above decks in spite of its tremendous windage. Although the stove would go into a hatch it just sucked up so much room that there was no way it would go anywhere but on somebodies deck as well. The same applied to the smaller boom box and the seat. So several of the kayaks looked more like tenders from the waste water treatment plant than real kayaks by the time all this stuff was under the bungies.
Eventually everything was in order and we shoved off in a 12 to 15 knot SE breeze, a fair wind to our objective, Norman's Pond Cay some 8 miles to the Northwest.
On to Norman's Pond Key.........
ABout The Outfitter:
At the time of our trip, they had necky Looksha IV and Looksha 17 kayaks for singles and Wilderness Systems Northstars for doubles. The statistics on these boats are:
Looksha IV Kayaks (plastic) Length 17' Width 22" Weight 55 Cockpit 29.5" by 16" Aft hatch 16" x 9 1/2" Box hatch 16" x 9 1/2"
1 Wilderness Systems Northstar (note the rocker) Asynchronous 18' 6" 29" width Weight 94 pounds Cockpit 33" x 20" Aft hatch 20 1/2" x 12 1/2" Mid Hatch 13" x 23" Bow hatch 17 1/2" x 11 1/2"
They also had Seals Spray Skirts, 2 plus years old. They were all nylon - If you plan any rolling practice bring your own if it fits a Looksha IV as these skirts will leak around the coaming as all of this type do, but the skirts were in good condition and are of high quality. For PFDs they had Lotus Designs short body models of good quality and in good repair. I brought my own PFD however. They had plenty of dry bags of mixed sizes also of high quality. The water bags were Dromedaries, 6 and 10 liters with a mixture of three part caps and single piece caps. J.D. , the on site man for Starfish, knew of the problems with the three part caps and suggested that we select only the single piece caps of which there were plenty. We filled the bags free from tap water at their place prior to launching.
One is required to have a portable toilet while kayaking in the Bahamas. For our 8 person 8 day trip we had one large boom box and one small boom box. A single large box would have been enough as it turned out. The large box comes with a seat.
Part of the safety package is a prepaid phone card and a cell phone in a sealed water proof bag. Most U.S. cell phones do not work. Check with your cell carrier prior to departure to find out whether your phone plan/phone will work there or whether there is a modification to your plan that will allow you to access the Bahamian system. Watch out for expensive text message charges that some companies levy while your are out of country.
They will provide a few pumps for the group. We took our own as many rental pumps aren't worth carrying. They had good quality (real) sponges for every boat. They did not provide any float bags so bring your own
You can rent stoves of various types and they have white gas fuel available for purchase. We rented a two burner steel stove that used a five pound propane tank for $100.00. You can also rent backpacker stoves for $25.00 plus $12.00 for each fuel canister. They have Coleman stove fuel available and some gas canisters for sale also.
There are two grocery stores in George Town - think small with little selection and very expensive - Exuma markets is on the southeast shore of Lake Victoria, the pond around which Georgetown is arrayed. It is about one half block from Mrs. Marshall's Guest house where Starfish Kayaks arrange our lodging. There are a number of very good taxis and very accommodating taxi drivers in Exuma. Rates are set. One way from the airport to George Town is $25 for one or two; $5 each extra. The population of the island is about 6000.
MARSHALL'S GUEST HOUSE MRS. VERONICA MARSHALL 10 Tel/Fax: 242-336-2694
P.O. BOX 29027
Here is a partial list of some of the things that you must try (c’mon, at least once!) while you are in the Exumas:
- Kalik: the local, very tasty beer
- Conch (pronounced konk on this island): the firm, white, peach-fringed meat from a large type of ocean mollusc. Fresh, uncooked conch is delicious; the conch meat is scored with a knife, and lime juice and spices are sprinkled over the meat
- Souse: a soup unique to the Caribbean. It is a simple broth made with onions, lime juice, celery, peppers and meat.
- Ox tail or pig’s feet: most people have not tried these tender meats before and they add a rich, spicy taste to soups and dishes
- Coconut water: Not to be confused with heavier coconut milk. Try it blended with sweet milk and gin for a refreshing beverage
- “The Switcher”: a native drink made with limes that many people swear it tastes better than any other citrus drink
- Sky Juice a local drink that is a mix of coconut milk, coconut rum and gin, then shaken. It is very rich.