Four fingers of dark rum and a dinner of cracked conch at Cambridge Villas in Gregory Town eased the stress of a day's travel that had taken me to the Bahamian Out Island of Eleuthera. I had come to Eleuthera with the geologic oceanographer A. Conrad Neumann of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, called the Father of Bahamian Geology, and Paul J. Hearty, a geologist from the College of the Bahamas, whom we'd picked up in Nassau.
Neumann and Hearty were here to map the geologic history of the island. Invited to join them on this year's expedition I had come along for the adventure, hoping to learn something about geology and the people of Eleuthera along the way.
Harcourt Cambridge, proprietor of Cambridge Villas, sat down with us. We asked about something we'd seen at Glass Window, the narrowest point on island, on the drive down from the airfield: 50 feet below the right side of the road a pick-up truck submerged on its roof in the pale green Bahama Bank.
Out the left window I could see the horizon of the blue Atlantic. We had stopped and listened to waves thundering against the wall of a cliff we couldn't see, “That was what we Bahamians call a 'rage,'” said Mr. Cambridge, a stout man whose quiet voice carried an understated air of authority. “It happens sometimes when the sky is clear. Far out at sea there's a storm stirring up big waves. Here, it's a pretty day. Then a wave washes over Glass Window -- out of nowhere -- washing anything on the road over in the water. That man driving that truck, I know him, he was lucky to get out alive. It's a dangerous place. When I was a boy the women told us if you were crossing at Glass Window and saw a wave wash over, count to10 first and then run like hell.”
Glass Window was only one of the natural wonders of Eleuthera, a sprung fish hook 110 miles long and barely a mile wide. In the north its eastern shore is a line of dramatic cliffs the blue Atlantic incessantly pummels, traveling uninterrupted along the Tropic of Cancer from West Africa.
Toward the middle of the island these cliffs play out into beaches that provide some of the best surfing in the world. Farther south the reef-protected shore is calm and largely empty. Eleuthera's western, lagoon coast is a line of low ledges and sandy coves where snorkeling and diving are spectacular. Gregory Town in the north was a village of pastel-colored houses scattered on a hillside. Not only was it beautiful, Gregory Town's people were the friendliest I'd ever met. If our second-story apartment at Cambridge Villas had locks on the doors, we didn't know it. Once, I left the keys in the ignition of our rental car, the Bahama Mama, and my wallet on the seat. Both were there the next morning. You felt boorish if you didn't wave at people you passed on the road.
Eleuthera, thankfully, was not the Bahamas of glitz and gambling. It was the quintessential tropical paradise: remote but easily reached, gorgeous and relatively undiscovered, authentic and affordable But it was also an outpost in the third-world. Postcards I mailed in Gregory Town hadn't arrived in the States a month later; in places the Queen's Highway was a differential-smashing moon field. There was virtually no medical care available in Gregory Town.