Barbuda

For the dedicated into-the-heart-of-nature diehard, Barbuda is heaven on earth. It is a low island whose highest point is only 125 feet above the sea. It is large, over half the size of Antigua with a mere 1600 inhabitants, who live around the village of Codrington. Barbuda has so many miles of brilliant turquoise shoal water that as you sail toward it, you can sometimes see a blue-green reflection in the clouds long before you see the land itself.

The area is dotted with coral, teeming with every kind of fish, and is excellent for snorkeling. You have a good chance of spotting decorative eagle rays, often swimming in pairs, or gently moving sting rays. There are endless pale pink beaches with nary a soul on them. The largest is unbroken for over 11 miles. Ashore wild donkeys, horses and deer roam free and there is an unusually large frigatebird rookery (as large as those in the Galapagos). Frigatebirds are masters of the air. At two to three pounds, they have the greatest wing area in proportion to their weight of any bird. This comes at the cost of being ungainly on their legs and they are unable to take off should they land on water. They have to scoop their food from the surface of the sea, and have become past masters at letting other birds do the fishing, then harassing them till they drop their catch. Thus their name “frigate” or “man o’ war” bird. During the mating season the males display by blowing up huge bright red pouches under their throats. They start mating during the late summer, lay one egg per couple, and most of the chicks have taken off by about the end of May. George Jeffrey, our guide, told us he once saw a frigatebird fall in the sea and then watched two others come immediately, one on either side, to lift it back into the air. Frigatebirds return to their nesting sites and Polynesians used them as homing pigeons.

The Barbudan people were originally imported as slaves by the Codrington family who leased the island from England, beginning in 1685, for one fat sheep. Unlike most Caribbean islands, Barbuda was never a sugar plantation. The Codringtons used it mainly for growing livestock, and root crops for his estates in Antigua, and as a hunting ground for the Codringtons. Consequently, the Barbudans were not closely supervised and retained a tough independent spirit. They came to terms with the island environment, existing through cooperative efforts in fishing, subsistence farming, and hunting. When emancipation came, they stayed on the island, living in a cooperative way. Land is held communally and there is so much that no one fights over it. It has also been the key to the Barbudans keeping control over their own island. Since there is no individual land ownership, land cannot be sold to outsiders. England railroaded a reluctant Barbuda into joining Antigua when the two islands became independent. Since then there have been several ambitious projects to develop the island and “bring it into the 21st Century,” an idea strongly resisted by many Barbudans, who see no benefit to changing their traditional life-style for one of being dressed up and employed to wait on tourists in exchange for the dubious benefits of better roads, more cars, and Kentucky Fried Chicken. Barbudans often have to fight schemes dreamed up without their approval. One battle involved a plan to put in a big desalinization plant. Work started, but the Barbudans, fearing possible damage to their pristine, fish-filled lagoon, called a halt. Another time, the Antigua government allowed a huge hotel project to begin on Spanish Point. Mobile construction offices were erected. The Barbudan people wanted to keep this land as a park. They went en-masse to the project and shoved the offices over the cliff. It will remain a park. Many people would love to get their hands on Barbuda’s beachfront real estate, but the Barbudans are objecting strongly. It is difficult to know how long they can resist McDonaldization. I’ve noticed a slew of fancy new cars over the last four years. The island has existed in part by selling sand, but that cannot go on forever, so the pressure for some income-earning development will become great. The community land ownership rule puts the local council in a position to direct and control such development for the good and profit of the community. To date they have proceeded cautiously; I wish them luck.

To get a feel for the island, take a bike or cab to Two Foot Bay. This bay is at the edge of the highlands. The road ends at an area of sculpted cliffs, huge boulders, and deep caves on one side and on the other is a fabulous white sand beach. A small, path leads back to just where you see some bougainvillea. Follow this and you enter a large cave, climb up through it, and emerge 100 feet above on the flat top of the highlands, with magnificent views in all directions.

Another attraction is the Darby Sink Hole, a 45-minute walk from the ruins of the Codrington Estate house in the Highlands. The walk is surprisingly shady. Many of the plants in this dry area are 8 to 15 feet tall, enough to give a fair bit of cover. Darby Sink Hole is round and crater-like, about 100 yards in diameter, and about 100 feet deep. For the most part the sides are sheer cliff, but there is one place you can scramble down. It is covered in dense tropical vegetation, unlike the dry scrub above. Tall, wavy basket palms reach to the top. Inside it is cool, shady, and pleasant. The overhanging walls include the dramatic shapes of stalagmites and stalactites. While in Barbuda you will see many horses and donkeys, which are allowed to run free, are completely at home in the landscape, and look magnificent. Some of the donkeys are wild, but all the horses are owned.