By Omilla Mungroo. Camping ‘Down De Islands’ with my family was always so refreshing and full of surprises. Chacachacare Island held us captive with its own charms, and I will never forget what happened on our first trip in 1996 when we went hiking. Planning these trips evoked excitement every time and we vowed to make it an annual visit.
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Camping and fishing gear for Easter Weekend
The bustle would start about three weeks before the actual trip. Everything needed to be organised; the boat taxi, our groceries, the truck that transported our camping and fishing gear and other necessities, and cases of water, drinks, and the children’s sports gear.
It was an Easter weekend; the second day of camp. The dawn broke clear and bright. Everyone was up and about – my two brothers, my sister, and her boyfriend had already gone fishing on the other side of the island. My aunts were preparing lunch while my young cousins played near camp under the watchful eyes of my uncle, who liked that job more than anything else.
Ghost stories haunting the island
Then the three of us, all strangers to one another, sat on the jetty, a stone’s throw from camp, and joked about the scary ghost stories we had heard haunting the island. We were lazing, reclining on the concrete curb on the jetty, getting to know one another; the blue waters quiet and flat in front of us, and the wind cold and salty.
We had been daring one another to break away from camp and hike to the old abandoned nurses’ quarters which lay in ruins about three miles from our campsite. We had learnt that there was once a leper asylum on the island but we missed out seeing it on the first day of camp when everybody else hiked across to find it.
Roasting fish and sitting like a circus trio
The three of us missed out, I guess, because we were busy roasting fish and, although Brent and I had met before, we did not really know each other well. We were busy arguing about who can cook better than whom. Matthew was new, fresh, never camped in his life and it was our first meeting. So we sat there like a circus trio waiting for the next act.
Devil in disguise and the attractive mixed race guy
Brent, with his piercing brown eyes and shrewd look, struck me as the devil in disguise. He was somewhat taciturn, handsome, sort of, yet he had the knack of making me feel stupid at times by saying a few words.
Matthew, on the other hand, was eloquent, intelligent and cultured. Apart from his full lips, and medium, muscular build, his mixed racial background gave him a universal look. One could not decide if there was more Chinese, African, Indian or even Spanish in him. He seemed very attractive, to me at least. It was because of these two 19-year-olds that the older members of my camping family thought that something must be wrong with me for tramping off into the unknown with them.
Big black corbeau on the jetty
The island was pretty. However, undiscovered territory meant bush-covered trails. There were old, unrecognisable roads interwoven throughout, with nameless trees staring at you from all sides. Strange brown, big-eyed birds could be seen frisking from tree to tree and they were the only type which could be seen, apart from the big black corbeau which greeted us on the jetty when we arrived, and then disappeared.
Hiking to the nurses’ quarters
As we sat looking out to sea, two yachts rested quietly on the waters. Our campsite was sprawled in the open plain and the old nurses’ quarters could be seen nestled in the hills to the far right of where we sat. The actual hospital ruins which housed the lepers lay to the left of the island though, forsaken and out of sight. To hike to that spot would be almost impossible. But the group had made it there and back. We finally agreed that the nurses’ quarters would be our first hike, despite the amount of bush as high as the walls of Jericho, I thought, but we were eager and determined to find our way to it.
Without further yarns, we went to the campsite and put our gear together. My aunts and uncle were now chatting whilst watching the children at play near the water. Brent took a cutlass. I packed some sandwiches, and three bottles of water, and Matthew carried his pride. He was the greenhorn and wanted to prove us wrong.
The hiking trip began. It wasn’t long before we climbed onto the old dirt road that was supposed to lead straight to our destination. A huge rock wall greeted us at about half a mile from camp and we were not sure where to turn. Brent cleared the big bush to find the broken track, which meant we had to climb up the rock. It was the first time he did something friendly. He actually held out his hand to help me up, although I was sure I could climb it with no assistance.
Meeting an ancient road
On reaching the top of the rock while hiking, it turned out to be the real road, only it was so very ancient, one could hardly recognise the clumps of asphalt broken up in patches, with deep sunken drains in the middle of the roadway. Tree roots jutted through here and there. But it was a road all right.
So we slowed to catch our bearings and here Matthew challenged me to a race. He thought I was 17 years old then, and was talking so much about the technicalities of being a good athlete. He commented that my calves gave away the fact that I worked out often. I did not wish to spoil his fun so I did not confess that I was in fact 27 years of age. We were talking so much while Brent kept slashing the bush with his cutlass to the left of us. There was enough road for a fair race, we thought, so we sped off ahead. A cool 100-metre dash, I thought.
Calling out Brent’s name
As Matthew caught up with me where the road broke off again, a darker, quieter, damp atmosphere surrounded us. We suddenly felt thirsty and turned to find that Brent was nowhere in sight! He was carrying the backpack with the water and sandwiches. We called out his name while turning in all directions but instead, we were greeted with an eerie silence.
Here, there were trees of a darker green; lush thick vegetation all around as if the ground had some kind of rich fertilizer. Strangely though, we heard no birds, no tree leaves rustling with the wind, and no wind at all. No sound, no sight of the sea either. It just got darker all around and a sudden weird feeling enveloped us. Matthew’s back was against mine as I too tried to survey the place.
“Where’s Brent?” I asked, almost whispering in the dark.
“I don’t know. I thought he was right behind us,” Matthew answered, and he kept looking towards the direction from which we came. He looked worried and we continued to call Brent’s name out as loudly as we could, not daring to walk further into the bush and so dumb not to go back.
Where else would you find tombstones?
Then, as if some part of the earth opened up, we found ourselves sliding on wet grass. I was grabbing leaves and branches and thinking about snakes when Matthew fell off a sharp incline. I almost landed on top of him, as we were holding hands. We landed on what appeared to be a cemetery! I almost choked.
“What’s this?” I asked foolishly; my eyes staring wildly all around.
“Where else would you find tombstones, Leah? But wait, if the old hospital is on the other side, why a cemetery here?” Matthew mused.
We were in a hole, it seemed. This place was a little lower than sea level and there was bush all over. The hill we fell from was behind us and some old broken down stairs scattered to our right. I could smell the sea though and I thought the whole place was laughing at us.
“They were just stories people made up,” I managed to say, as if Matthew would know what I was thinking.
“Are you scared girl?” He started.
Brent on the top of some stairs
Then we heard a voice, loud and clear, and we both jumped in fright.
“So long the two of you take to get here?” It was Brent, halfway lying on the top of some stairs with the old ruins sprawled out behind him. We looked up to him from the valley we were trying to climb out of. He held a lighted cigarette in his left hand and the knapsack sat next to him with our sandwiches and water.
We walked slowly up the stairs whilst taking in our surroundings. I was staring at Brent and he kept staring right back at me with what seemed like gross indifference. What an enigma! No expression on his face, yet so calm and cool.
“Man! Where did you pass?” Matthew asked. Brent ignored him. So we sat on the stairs and had our sandwiches.
Nobody spoke for almost a half hour. Then I started to indicate that we should go back to camp.
Story of the pregnant nun
That was when we saw it. Covered in white from head to toe! The thing glided across the broken concrete slabs towards us and I let out a scream. Matthew got up to run and Brent just sat there with his cigarette. Yet he held on to my arm and sat me right back down beside him. The thing disappeared and Matthew was howling, “I am not coming back to this place again!”
It was said that one of the Sisters – the nuns who took care of the lepers – had gotten pregnant and committed suicide while on the island. We had been discussing it on the jetty earlier. But that was hundreds of years ago! I thought.
Have you seen a ghost?
We walked back to camp slowly, more tired than a normal hike would allow for. On reaching the camp we were greeted with questioning stares and disapproving comments from everyone. “Why you didn’t tell us where you were going? Where did you all go? Why is there mud on Matthew and me? Why do you look like you have seen a ghost?” The last question came from my brother and everybody started
It was then we saw my sister’s boyfriend, Riyad, walking into camp with a white sheet folded and hanging from his left arm. He was looking at us with the silliest grin on his face.
“Next time stick together when going on a hike!” Then everybody started laughing again. Even Brent.
April 2017 www.sweettntmagazine.com
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Hiking, hiking, hiking, hiking, hiking