Friday, August 12, 2011

Giant Loop riders: Motolombia's Mike Thomsen and Film Maker Ben Slavin - "The New World Ride - Pilot Episode #1"

Cool to see Giant Loop Great Basin Saddlebags on tour company Motolombia's motorcycles in Colombia!

Found on the Internet: Article I Wrote in 1996

Published in EcoTraveler magazine - and circulating on the Internet for more than a decade after the magazine folded. -hoc

Trinidad and Tobago: Jewels of Nature

Above my cabana, bulbous nests of woven grass dangled a yard below the flowering tree branches on which they were built. The sun stirred sluggishly beyond the horizon, casting the ghost-gray glow of predawn, but already the masquerade pro cession of the forest marched forth. Birds, costumed in colorful blazes, greeted the day with riotous song. The corn bird, great blackbird of the tropics cackled, spraying its saffron tail feathers while in flight.

I awoke to this mad cacophony of birdsong and a cool wash of fresh mountain air at Asa Wright Nature Centre in Trinidad's Central Range. Once a cocoa, coffee and citrus plantation, the Centre is now a 480-acre forest preserve, lodge and research facility . It is also a bird-watcher's paradise and the island's premier eco-tourism destination. My partner in adventure, photographer Wolfgang Kachler, still slumbered as I slipped out of our shared room to explore the mist shrouded forest trails that surround the center.

I poked along the first path still immersed in half dream, legs propelling body automatically, without conscious thought. I floated past hibiscus shrubs polka-dotted with pink blossoms; hanging grape like jade flower clusters; gnarled knobs of monkey's ladder vine stretched from forest floor to canopy. A sharp popping sound, like fingers snapping, pulled one down a side trail where white-bearded mannequin birds, mouse-sized harlequins dressed in black and white, stirred close to the ground. I quietly settled into this private open-air theater, reveled by a ritual dance performance.

With percussive beats the males clicked tiny wings behind their backs while hopping from low growing tree branches into dart-board size rings they cleared from the leafy litter of the forest floor. It's a courtship display not unlike the local dance that would make club goers back home blush.

I left the mannequins to do their wild thing in private and returned to the lodge for tea on the verandah. An odd flock of European and North American bird-watchers fluttered about the overlook, busily tallying new additions to their "life lists" of species they'd seen. It's said that even serious birders can double their lists during a single visit to Trinidad and Tobago. No joke - Trinidad and Tobago claim more than 430 resident and migratory bird species in an area smaller than Delaware.

"Jewels of the forest," is how Wolfgang described the unparalleled collection of radiance in flight. Purple honey creeper, green honey creeper, tufted coquette hummingbird, copper-rumped hummingbird, blue-crowned motmot, bearded bellbird, blue gray tanager, silver beaked tanager, boat-billed flycatcher, golden-headed mannequin, black-tailed tityra: Although I'm not a keeper of scorecards, in a few hours of exploring trails, perching on the verandah and with the help of Sheldon, one of Asa Wright's professional rangers/guides. I observed more bird species than in all of the previous year— including a trip to Costa Rica.

We had heard fantastic stories about Caroni Bird Sanctuary, a mangrove swamp oasis surrounded by nondescript grass marshes near the airport. The evening fly-in of the national bird, the scarlet ibis, so great in number, we were told, that as the blood-red chicken-sized waterfowl took roost in mangroves, the green forest slowly turned red. Wolfgang licked his chops at the photo prospects and broke out an arm-length lens for the occasion.

A rain fell as we waited in a dingy palm thatched gazebo at the sanctuary's entrance for our boat ride, and Wolfgang offered silent prayers for the sun to break. Finally, the rain slackened as the outboard puttered our battered wooden craft into a narrow tunnel-like channel through the stilt rooted mangroves. Odd four-eyed fish rippled the surface of the brackish water.

An osprey dive bombed and swam away with its catch. Then we saw it - our first scarlet ibis, shimmering red in an emerald tangle. "Red" doesn't do this supernatural beast justice, the color so intense that you'd swear It's generated by some mysterious internal electronic mechanism.

Elated by this sighting we took up position in the swamp's central clearing tied to the boat to a mooring I the pole and waited for the fireworks. As the hour approached, first one, then a flotilla of other boats, filled with binocular and camera-toting travelers, emerged from the channel to join our previously tranquil vigil. "There's one," I said as Wolfgang's autowinder whirred into action. Then there were two more. Then ten flew in together. And another dozen. Soon the jade green mangroves were splattered with blood-red drops. There were a couple hundred of them when the flow slowed to a trickle... and then ceased.

Scarlet Ibis at the Caroni Sanctuary
Scarlet Ibis at the Caroni Sanctuary

Hundreds, but not the fabled thousands, of birds settled in for the evening here, their only nesting area in the country. Spectacular though it was, we couldn't help but feel disappointed.

"Where are all of the birds?" we asked Nigel, our guide and boatman. H is answer was all too familiar: Although designation of the scarlet ibis as the national bird provides it some legal protection problems with hunting persist, and there are too few wardens to enforce the laws. To avoid bullets, the birds take refuge deeper in the swamp or fly across to Venezuela. Water contamination and pressures from tourism and development don't help matters, he said.

Less than one-tenth the size of Trinidad and in inhabited by only forty thousand people, Tobago feels intimate, quiet and friendly with a slower, more rural pace. Its relatively unsullied Caribbean charm inspired Hollywood to shoot several desert island type movies here on its archetypal beaches. Scuba diving, snorkeling, surfing sailing, bird watching —these pursuits, more than Carnival or night life, draw visitors to the country's smaller, some say, better half.

The dual islands, David Rooks, Naturalist, explained as our van snaked down a winding coastal road, owe their natural abundance primarily to geography: The southernmost constituents of the West Indies, the islands broke away from South America a millennia ago, bringing much of the continent's flora and fauna with them.

Tobago separated more recently, so each island supports some unique and some common plants and animals. Situated just seven miles off the Venezuelan coastline, currents from the sprawling Orinoco River Delta affect tides on the islands and feed a rich array of marine life, including leatherback turtles, five hundred fish species and some of the world's largest brain Coral. Tobago also hold bragging rights to the western hemisphere's oldest officially protected forest. Main Ridge Forest Reserve, established by a British Act of Parliament in 1776. "About the time your founding fathers were dumping tea in Boston Harbour," Rooks said with a chuckle.

Despite the legacy, Trinidad and Tobago is also a country that's simultaneously promoting itself as an eco-tourism destination, figuring out (along with the rest of the world) what eco-tourism means in real terms, and balancing the need for conservation with fiscal limitations.

As we wander Tulpin Trace through one small corner of the protected rain forest that makes up Main Ridge, Rooks tells of the water cycle, of hurricanes and regrowth, of white virgin orchids and of the iridescent rufous tailed jacamar. Then there's the list of animals we probably won't see because they've been hunted to the brink of disappearing altogether: monkey, fox, muskrat, manatee, sloth, ocelot, white tailed deer, pecare and brocket deer. A national parks act that would establish a system of protected areas has been "gathering dust since 1980", Rooks explained. In the meantime, he said, many areas, as we witnessed at Caroni Swamp.

Rooks narrating all the way, we finally hit the fishing village of Speyside Trinidad and Tobago's dive capital. During lunch, we saw a black form, visible from our beachfront vantage, wing its way through the turquoise shallows. It was a manta ray, one of the area's prime attractions. A glass-bottom boat ride out to Little Tobago island offered a glimpse of more reasons to get wet - 100 feet of visibility, clouds of fish, enormous sponges and brain coral the size of a truck.

Thirty minutes of bouncing through three foot swells brought us to Little Tobago, a 250-acre sanctuary covered with rare tropical deciduous forest. The failure of sugar planters to produce a crop saved the island from development. "This is the same forest the first man who ever walked here saw," said Rooks. Resident seabirds - magnificent frigate bird, red-footed booby, brown booby Audubon's shearwater, red-billed tropicbird— filled the air, swooping, and circling cliffs that dove into the sea. Wolfgang's autowinder whirred away once again as he tried to capture a frigate bird stealing a tropicbird's fish mid flight. I sat and watched, caught up in this small drama, and marveled at how human failure can produce the greatest of successes.

Harold Olaf Cecil, like the fabled salmon, recently returned to the land of his birth, Bend Oregon, where he guides mountain bike trips and writes for a living.