The cay after tomorrow

Paddling among pristine islets, floating above coral forests, plunging over waterfalls: These are the days of Lyn Hancock's watery journey in Belize

Saturday, November 12, 2005 Posted at 5:32 AM EST

Santa Teresa, Belize — 'There's Tobacco Cay, our first paddling destination," said Omar, our Belizean guide, as he pointed to a flat smudge of coconut palms on the horizon over two kilometres away. "We'll practise our wet exits when we get there."

Most of our group of 13, ranging in age from 9 to 70 and mostly Canadian, had never kayaked before and knew nothing about wet exits. But with the help of our guides, we picked up our paddles, put on our spray skirts, and eagerly launched our two-person sea kayaks into the calm, emerald waters inside the 265-kilometre-long Belize Barrier Reef.

We had chosen Vancouver-based Island Expeditions' Ultimate Adventure because it offered a variety of activities in multifaceted Belize (formerly British Honduras), a tiny Central American country wedged between Mexico and Guatemala.

Instead of a typical winter vacation lying around the pool of an all-inclusive resort, we wanted to dive into adventure — and dive in we did. During our nine days in Belize, we would kayak in the sea, snorkel above coral forests teeming with life, observe seabird nesting colonies, paddle down rain-forest rivers and plunge over waterfalls. But first we would gaze at the remains of Mayan human sacrifices.

On the first day of our Belize adventure, we had waded into the cool waters of Actun Tunichil Muknal, a recently discovered cave a 45-minute drive from San Ignacio, used by Mayans for religious rituals between 300 and 900 AD. To get to the cave, we waded a river three times, hiked jungle trails in between, watched a poisonous fer-de-lance snake from inches away, then donned headlights and caving helmets to swim, wriggle and clamber along the underground stream that wound through the five-kilometre-long cavern. As a dramatic climax, we photographed the skeletal remains of human sacrifices surrounded by red clay pots and obsidian blood letters used by the Mayans.

Now, on our second day, we were paddling from one picture-postcard island to another through a clichéd tropical scene of white sand ringed by emerald and azure water, hammocks swinging between the coconut palms and warm trade winds. Then a sudden tropical squall changed everything.

White fluffy clouds turned into scudding grey fog and Tobacco Cay disappeared. Huge raindrops as big as hailstones pelted our kayaks and bounced off the water like balls. I angled into the wind-crested waves to prevent being sideswiped as we rode the burgeoning swells. The smudge ahead disappeared and reappeared as the squall continued.

And then, as suddenly as it started, the rain stopped and we sloshed ashore in front of a thatched beachside bar. It wasn't surprising to find that in this remote part of the reef the bar was closed. No matter, within the next 20 minutes, the rest of the kayakers straggled in, bubbling with pride that they had survived their first open-water crossing. To celebrate, the guides produced a fabulous lunch complete with Belize's famous Belikin beer.

Belize is blessed with 200-odd cays, or small islands, that lie in relatively shallow water both on and inside the barrier reef, extensive mangrove swamps with abundant birdlife and innumerable patch reefs. Fortunately, the government and private agencies treasure its pristine wilderness and has protected 36 per cent of its land and water for conservation and tourism.

You can stay in a luxury resort hotel on the biggest island, Ambergris Cay, and take boat tours to the most popular diving or snorkelling spots, or you can paddle your own kayak to cays of your choice, the smallest being a mere mound of sand topped by a couple of coconut palms. The cays to the south off Placencia and Punta Gorda are the most secluded.

Or, like us, you can take a private water taxi out of Dangriga and head for a base camp beyond the barrier reef on one of Belize's three atolls — Turneffe, Glover's or Lighthouse Reefs — which are ideal bases for kayaking. The last two are largely uninhabited and are known for their exceptionally clear, calm and unpolluted water, their rich marine life and prolific bird-nesting colonies. The central lagoon of an atoll is almost completely surrounded by coral forests, and contains small islands and myriad patch reefs for daily exploration.

On this trip, we were visiting Island Expeditions' base camp on Southwest Cay just inside Glover's Reef Atoll, which is commonly regarded as one of the richest tropical marine environments in the entire Caribbean. Alex Usher, whose family owns the island, drove us to the atoll from Tobacco Cay via Man O' War Cay Bird Sanctuary, where he idled the boat's engine while we photographed blue-footed boobies nesting in the mangrove trees and male frigate birds puffing out their red throats in mating displays.

He landed us on Middle Cay and, while we lunched on the dock, Andrew pointed out the sleeping nurse sharks beneath us, sharing our shade. Our next challenge was to sail our kayaks almost five kilometres to a camp on a peninsula of Southwest Cay. We hoisted our bat-wing sail from the mast hole on our decks, and Omar led us downwind along the protected side of the reef.

For the next few days on our island paradise, we learned why people do not want to leave Glover's Reef and often add, as I did, a three-day extension. There are 700 or so patch reefs inside the atoll. We paddled to the closest ones, tied our kayaks in a line to a buoy, then slipped overboard. Sometimes we drift-kayaked, snorkelling between pillars of coral pulling our kayaks with one hand. Other times, we followed our guide to deeper water above steep canyon walls just outside the reef. Among the most spectacular residents of Glover's sunlit underwater forests were schools of blue tangs, steel-scaled tarpons, comical bug-eyed squid and a multitude of colourful wrasses.

Our destination after leaving the reef was the headwaters of the Moho River in southern Belize's rainforest near its border with Guatemala. The Moho is a pool-and-drop river, characterized by rapids and small waterfalls followed by calm pools. In our three days paddling the Moho in inflatable kayaks, we survived as many as 40 drops in 19 kilometres. Andrew, our Canadian guide, told us to expect drops of one to five metres. We would be launching our kayaks off ledges and riding them down waterfalls.

Was he serious? It sounded impossible, but we were in good hands, literally. As one river guide took us to the brink and gave us tips, the other two would wait in the pool below ready to throw us a lifeline, shove our kayaks into the best channel, or pluck us from the water if we fell out.

My first drop was the worst. I couldn't see over the edge, but I could hear the screams of those who had launched before me. Margo, my partner behind, pointed our double-seat kayak into the vee of the fastest water, I hung onto the sides to keep us balanced, and down we catapulted. The bow buckled up and my body submarined. Surprisingly, we surfaced in a moment and found we were still in the boat.

Just before our take-out point near the village of Santa Teresa, where our guides had invited us for a final lunch, a dugout full of giggling, brown-faced, bright-eyed children paddled toward us and stopped long enough for me to snap their picture. We were paddling the Moho in modern inflatables, but I still felt a degree of kinship with those kids in their dugout.