Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Steel Rat

August 24th to 28th

The road ends in Panama. Literally! There is no way to ride through the Darien Gap to Colombia in South America so we investigate options. There used to be a regular ferry service running between the two, but for reasons shrouded in mystery it no longer runs. This has lead to a thriving industry for privateers making the run on small boats ranging from oversize motor boats right up to large sail boats. Some have a nasty reputation - tales of drunken captains sleeping off hangovers through the voyage or worse still drug runners masquerading as tourist transport abound. If caught with drugs, all are assumed to be guilty and innocent fare paying tourists get to see the inside of Panamanian prisons along with the guilty crew. It pays to do research and unfortunately, this is not our strong suit!

Fortunately we do know other people who take the time to find out all the best information and so, we have heard of "The Stahlratte" which by sheer fluke is sailing just when we need it. It's one of the bigger vessels making the run and has an excellent reputation. It is also the boat taken by Anna and Ali and also Danny who I rode with in Bolivia so we relax and look forward to a safe passage.

It's a 4am start for a 5am pick up. The grumpiest man in the universe arrives at our hostel and his mood nose dives even further when he realises we have bikes. He had not been told. We had not been told that he has another five travelers to collect, plus all their gear. It's an extremely tight squeeze in a 4x4 pick up, along some immensely 3 dimensional roads.

We enter Kuna territory.

The Kuna are an indigenous tribe who are fiercely independent. They have remained separate from the rest of Panama maintaining their own lands, laws and culture. Passage is strictly controlled and passports must be shown and an entry fee paid to the official in a small hut at the roadside. To get to Stahlratte we take small Kuna piloted canoes through their river system and out to the open sea where we get our first glimpse of "Stahlratte" - The Steel Rat!

She's a 100 foot steel hulled, twin masted sail boat with an interesting history. Once a floating commune with a loose mission to sail round the world, once a sister ship to "Rainbow Warrior" and part of Greenpeace she is now captained by Ludwig a German who has been with her for 17 years. There are 20 passengers including us and the table is already set for a feast when we arrive!

We get the run down of the boat from Ludwig, a list of do's and don'ts, sign up for the roster to help out in the galley and the ship gets under way past tiny Kuna islands and their fishing canoes....

We are escorted through Kuna waters by a flotilla of bottle nosed dolphin - 'gay sharks' or 'pigs of the sea' according to Ludwig....

It's about a three hour trip under The Steel Rats chugging diesel engine to paradise.

We anchor up, pinch ourselves and gaze, open jawed at our new surroundings....

It's a bounty advert! Like stepping into one of those impossibly perfect holiday brochure pictures!

That island over there is our own personal little playground for the next day and a half! Just when you think life can't get any better, the bar full of ice cold cans floats out to meet us....

We snorkel amongst huge schools of iridescent fish and there are colourful parrot and angel fish. The coral is close to the surface and is a stark, vivid red. Someone spots a whale shark, we see an octopus maybe a metre long, all liquid limbs as it flees and hides in the dark places.

There are hundreds of these islands all dotted along the Caribbean Coast of Panama and it's easy to see why the Kuna seek to keep them private. Some are tiny - just golden mounds of sand, some have a single or maybe a pair of palm trees. Others are larger and have villages of densely packed palm thatched houses. There are schools and workshops where traditional clothes are weaved by hand. The villagers are really friendly, rowing out to our island to greet us and to invite us to visit their island village....

We see a canoe leave a neighboring island and I am amazed when they drop a line and instantly pull out a five pound fish! But that's nothing - for a minute later there is a struggle - one man in the water, one on the boat and suddenly they land what must be a 50 pound red snapper. Horns blare and a cheer goes up as the islanders celebrate their catch. We dispatch a dingy, negotiations take place and suddenly the fish is ours in exchange for $30 and a dozen cold beers. Ludwig sets about filleting the monster and it doesn't get any fresher than this....

The evening is spent on OUR island with a BBQ whilst the crew get to know each other....

Paradise Island by moonlight....

We spend the next day just hanging out with new friends - snorkeling, swinging on the boat's rope swing and swimming to other near-by islands. It's a pretty mixed bunch from Ireland, Sweden, The States, England, Switzerland and Canada; a couple travelling overland by car, three on motorbikes, us on bikes and the rest by bus. I had some reservations about being trapped on a small boat with a bunch of boring strangers, but everyone gets along amazingly well and it's a real laugh!

I'm on galley duty and learn how to crack open lobster. They are done in a delicious sweet papaya sauce, plus there is the fresh snapper! There are no complaints about the food!

Next morning we wake to the rhythmic sound of the engine and we are under way. It's sad to leave this gorgeous place behind, and it's a completely different atmosphere on the boat as we head out into the open seas. Crossings can be rough! The boat starts to rock and roll and we're glad to be on one of the biggest boats plying this route. It's much rougher on a smaller vessel and much more claustrophobic to boot. Sue takes a sickness tablet and disappears below deck for the rest of the day. I'm feeling fine until I try and use my laptop. 30 seconds later I'm feeding the fish over the side. I put the laptop away....

The crew prepare a stew, some eat... some just avoid the sight and smell of food at all costs. By all accounts it's a pretty calm crossing, but most of us landlubbers would disagree. The wind picks up a bit and the crew hoist the mainsail. It's a fine sight, but unfortunately the engine stays on as it's only a light breeze....

Going to sleep that night is a strange experience. The sound of the waves, the rhythmic swaying of the boat and the reassuring heart beat of the engine gently lull you down, down into deep slumber.

Interrupted when the engine suddenly stops!

It's 6am and people start to emerge from below decks into the sunlight. It slowly dawns on me that Central America is no more.... and that the coastline I am now looking at is South America! It's an odd way for us to cross a border; by ocean, and still thick with sleep it takes a moment for it all to sink in.

The harbour, the boats and then, beyond that - the skyline of the next leg of the tour! This is where we begin our adventure in South America - with the old city of Cartegena....

Thanks to Rachel Pook for the Kuna women and group photos and to Valerie for Stahratte's sails. Thanks to the rest of the crew for making it such a great voyage - good times!


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