Great Inagua is not just an ‘out there’ island, it is a ‘way, way out there’ island of the Bahamas. Some call it the outback of the Bahamas, the country’s second largest island which lies about 55 miles from the eastern tip of Cuba.
On a clear day (which is most days) you can actually see the mountains of Cuba from the Great Inagua lighthouse which stands at 121 feet.
The island encloses several large lakes, most notably the 12-mile-long Lake Windsor (also called Lake Rosa) which occupies nearly a quarter of the interior. The island’s population stands at around 1,000 humans and over 80,000 West Indian flamingos, the national bird of the Bahamas.
I first visited the island in the early ‘80s on the crawfish (lobster) vessel Dreamer, and again on an adventure looking for ambergris. Ambergris is basically whale puke – a waxy substance that bobs through the water after the mammal disgorges it, then it hardens over time.
In its purest form, ambergris usually has a marine, faecal odor, though, over time as it hardens, it takes on a sweeter, earthier scent and usually ends up on some remote beach. The selling price for ambergris can reach thousands of dollars for a single ounce. What? Whale vomit is worth money? Yes indeed; high-end perfumes from houses such as Chanel and Lanvin use its properties to affix scent to human skin.
Fifty–five mile-long Great Inagua has an abundance of empty beaches free of human footprints, condos and jet skis. The land is barren – low and hot with the exception of white crystalline hills. In such backwoods, one would expect to run into Crocodile Dundee instead of flowing pink clouds on the horizon which, in fact, are not cumulus, but flocks of flamingos flying in formation. Their loud, noisy honking is a dead giveaway that you are not watching the folded colours of a day’s-end sunset.
The island’s capital and only harbour is Matthew Town, which is also the main facility for the Morton’s Salt Company that produces around one million tons of sea salt a year, providing the island’s number one industry. Inagua is perfect for salt production because the climate is mostly dry. The sun and wind provide the energy that evaporates the water and produces concentrated brine.
Morton’s cinder block buildings, heavy equipment machinery and hills of blinding white sodium chloride are not the dreamy images you may find in a typical tourist guide book. However, for lovers of nature and solitude, the island is ideal. Inagua’s National Park is home to the largest flamingo breeding population in the western hemisphere. The salmon-coloured waders scrounge for shrimp in the brackish water while egrets and herons perch in the mangroves and parrots and ducks dash about pecking crabs or dragonflies.
I do not claim to be any sort of ornithologist or bird watcher weighed down by binoculars and a bird guide book, but I am a huge fan of mortal-free solitude. A thousand honking flamingos is better than one honking “I’m-in-a–rush” driver at a traffic stop light.
The citizens of Great Inagua are some of the friendliest Bahamians you will find in the entire 700-island archipelago. In my many years of travelling, I have found that there is a direct correlation between the level of friendliness and population size of my ports of call. Though Matthew Town itself holds no great sightseeing interest, the waters surrounding the island are the classic turquoise of the Caribbean and the fishing is superb; hand-line fishing, that is. Expect no huge charter boats with the latest electronic sonar depth and fish finders.
On Inagua, a small skiff bartered from a friendly local (for some Kalik beer and cigarettes) is easier to find than accommodations. Here, rental rooms are few and far between, but where there’s a will, there’s a way. The official Bahamas tourist website lists a few lodging possibilities; however, take it from a well-seasoned traveller, when arriving by plane or ship at such faraway places, head for the nearest pub or tiki bar, buy a round of drinks, and before long you will have a room, boat and new friends.
Warning: Great Inagua is not for everyone. If you are a finicky, demanding traveller, best not stop there. This is a place for tropical nomads.