A day on goat island
I was planning an all-island trip around Jamaica, and travelling from New York City, I knew immediately that Goat Island had to be included.
On this trip, I was in search of exciting but lesser-known attractions; places not yet overrun with jam-packed tour buses and in-your-face tip baskets.
My enthusiasm was partly driven by the Chinese interest in Goat Island. But another part of the excitement was rooted in a challenge. I have lived in Kingston for many years, and although I had visited Lime Cay a few times, I can't recall hearing much about Goat Island. So, one way or another, I was determined to set foot on that island.
I did the research and made the necessary arrangements. The plan was to meet with the rest of the party at a gas station across from the Spanish Town Hospital, from where we would head to Old Harbour Bay to begin our adventure. I wanted to get to the island early to take advantage of the pretty morning light for photographs, and thanks to the new highway, we were at portside in Old Harbour Bay in no time and ready for the ride.
Our boatman and guide for the trip was 72-year-old third generation fisherman and long time resident of Old Harbour Bay, Charles 'Junior' Moodie. He greeted us warmly and invited all five of us to board as he pushed the canoe closer to the dark-sand fishing beach. Once we were all on board and seated, he balanced the boat, evenly distributing our body weight across the four rows of seats. We were fitted with life vests, then he started the engine and we were on our way. It was abundantly clear that Moodie was a fisherman of great wisdom and experience, who knew many of the secrets of the sea, and many of the secrets of Goat Island.
As we ploughed through the gentle waves towards the island, he pointed out a number of landmarks, including Port Esquivel, the Jamalco bauxite plant, Portland Point, Galleon Harbour, Pigeon Island, Pelican Cay, Half Moon Cay and the western side of Hellshire Hills. He pointed out too, that what is generally called Goat Island is actually made up of two islands, Little Goat Island and Great Goat Island. Both are connected by a network of mangroves.
After a 45-minute ride and circling the island to see its spectacular natural beauty, we dropped anchor by an inlet for our first stop. As we carefully climbed out of the canoe, we were robustly welcomed by a choir of bleating goats. "Oh, so that's why this place is called Goat Island!" said one member of our party. Moodie nodded in agreement. But, somehow we never actually saw any of the wild goats because as we followed a path inland, they quickly retreated to the impenetrable interior, to be heard but never curried.
"So, what other animal life is here?" I asked Moodie. "Mongoose, exotic lizards, rats, snakes, an assortment of birds including White Wing, Bald Plate, Pea Dove, Brown Dove and Nightingale," Moodie replied. "People say crocodiles lurk in the mangroves but I have personally never seen any." After walking around for a good half-hour examining the unusual trees and shrubs, we arrived at a clearing next to a man-made well. With no National Water Commission in sight, why would a man-made well be located on a deserted island?
We were astonished by the answer. Our guide pointed out that Little Goat Island was occupied by American armed forces between 1938 and 1945 during the second World War. During that period many installations were built on the island, including a makeshift hospital, a ground level aqueduct, an extensive sea plane landing strip, an ammunition house and a port. After the war, the Americans abandoned the island and everything was uprooted and brought to mainland Jamaica, save for the concrete landing strip and the aqueduct.
Oops! We forgot to bring bottled water. But we're in Jamaica, mon, so no problem. A light morning breeze cooled us down. We walked around inhaling the clean, rejuvenating air and exploring by foot the various sun splashed shades of green on the island. Some members of the group wandered off to take pictures but we mostly stayed close to Moodie who cleared away new paths for further exploration with his machete.
What an exhilarating adventure, chopping away bush to make our way inland! Had we brought along food, this clearing would have been the perfect spot to jerk some chicken or fish. Eventually we moved on to our second stop and we made our way through a mangrove-lined pathway to another clearing. This time, our arrival was announced by the sweet melodies of chirping birds. On this stop Moodie told us that both islands are an important breeding sanctuary for birds, and, not unlike tourists, some of the birds there travel from as far away as Canada to spend winter in the Caribbean.
We watched a few colourful birds scurrying around tree tops. Moodie highlighted the important role the mangrove plays protecting the island against flooding, and other environmental safeguards too. He taught us that there are three types of mangrove, the black, the white and the red, each with different root systems, with the red used for making dye.
Our third stop was the sea landing strip that was used by the US armed forces. This area is vast and could accommodate a party or a carnival for hundreds of people. It is still intact and we are reminded that the islands are sometimes used by Jamaicans for recreational purposes.
Donnie Dawson, deputy director of tourism for North America recently told me that as a teenager growing up in Kingston, he would visit Goat Island on Saturdays in the 60s and 70s, travelling from Port Royal by boat with family and friends. "Back then, Goat Island was indescribably beautiful as I'm sure it still is now. We would picnic, do spear fishing, and we would also catch crab and lobsters," Dawson recalled. "And you could actually smell the ram goats from afar," he added.
Jamaicans still travel to the islands for recreational purposes, but in some parts, fishing is strictly prohibited now as certain areas are designated safe breeding ground for fish and other marine life. In those designated areas, government warning signs are clearly posted.
We relaxed in this peaceful spot in quiet conversation, still learning more from Moodie about the variety of plant life on the island that includes coconuts planted by the Americans, and cactus, cassia, mustard, rosemary, guineps and sweet sop. But beware! Not all the fruits found on the island are edible. We ran into the fairly obscure, delicious-looking but deadly poisonous manchineel fruit that is sometimes described as earth's most dangerous tree. It is so toxic that most birds won't go near it.
As morning turned to afternoon and we combed the island, our attention was drawn to the sign of intent, posted by the Chinese, announcing their development plans. We collectively pondered the implications.
Our final stop before heading back from this amazing Goat Island experience was by a pristine and inviting white sand beach protruding from one end of the larger island. This location is perfect for a swim any time of the day but unfortunately we ran out of time and had to head back to shore. As we soaked up the lushness and took the last set of photographs, Moodie stressed the great importance of the islands in protecting the shoreline of St Catherine and parts of Clarendon in storms, hurricanes and high tides. "Some parts of the shoreline are at or below sea level so the islands act as a buffer from catastrophic flooding that would otherwise wipe us out," he divulged.
As the debate continues about whether the islands should be used for a logistical hub, Moodie sees value in both protecting the environment and generating economic growth. "At the end of the day, I hope the decision will be made in the best interest of Jamaica and the Jamaican people," he said.
If you wish to visit Goat Islands you are required to secure permission from the Urban Development Corporation (UDC) at (876) 922-8310.