If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to commandeer an open-top Jeep and tour around the countryside of an authentic tropical paradise, look no further than Grand Bahama Island in the Bahamas.
Arriving at the Grand Bahama Nature Tours compound around 9:30am, heavy rain clouds loomed in the distance. Several 4.0L Wrangler Sport Jeeps were scattered around the property, waiting to be taken by the cloth-draped rollcage and shown a good time. Our guide, Tony, assured us that it was going to rain. It was quickly shaping up to be my kind of tour.
Sure enough, before we could even finish being debriefed, the sky closed in and we all scrambled to our vehicles for cover. “If at any time any of you feel unsafe or need to stop, just let me know,” the radio crackled and hissed with Tony’s voice, then went silent. And with that, we were off.
Hot & Heavy: Inside a Rumbling Jeep During a Torrential Downpour
The vehicle itself was just what you’d expect, nothing more, nothing less. Nice enough steering wheel, albeit mega-powersteering allowing even the daintiest of pinky fingers to flick the vehicle into a roaring tail spin. Twitchy acceleration that would send the RPM gauge up and the vehicle forward before you even realized you’d touched the pedal. And a humming engine that aggressively reminded you that you are indeed still alive, if only for that moment. Combine all of that with a squeeling CB radio and a steady flow of rain washing out the roads and windshield and you have yourself an authentic Jeep safari experience.
Navigating Toronto’s 401, the busiest highway in North America, during biblical rain, snow and ice storms while surrounded by other cars is something I’ve grown accustomed to. With the visibility being so poor, I kept checking my mirrors and blindspots expecting to see other cars tucked in behind or close to me. They never came. Our convoy of 4 Jeeps was alone on the empty streets of Freeport. Fortunately, the rain let up almost as quickly as it came down and I found myself unzipping my flappy plastic window for some much needed fresh air.
The Dead Forest: Not Your Typical Morning Commute
Having only driven on the nicely paved and underused roads, it was time to break out and get the tires dirty. We slipped off the grid at an inconspicuous area only to find ourselves right in the middle of a forest. The bare limestone trails we followed had been worn down over years of trail blazing so it wasn’t exactly tough going, but the big puddles that accumulated were fun to slash through with our 4x4s.
The radio crackled to life. “Grand Bahama Island is made of solid limestone so what you see here are trees that have grown through this stone,” said Tony in his thick Bahamian accent before adding, “unfortunately, these trees are all dead.” As we drove down the limestone path, we were surrounded by thousands of dead Caribbean pine trees as far as the eye could see.
As it turns out, the excessive wind generated by a hurricane isn’t the only devastating factor. It’s what that wind carries with it that has killed this entire forest. Salt water, from the nearby coast. So much salt water in fact that the entire forest floor was at one point covered with a few feet of it. This salt water then penetrated the ground, was absorbed by the roots and killed just about every tree for a few square miles.
Mangroves: Where the Wild Things Are
Mangroves are a unique and indispensable plant. They thrive in saline water, sometimes water that’s more than two times saltier than regular ocean water, and are home to massive ecosystems of fish, birds and other wildlife. Many of the ocean’s creatures start their life in the mangroves and then eventually make their way out to the big show, only to return to lay their eggs and spawn a new generation.
There is a separate Kayak tour, also available from Grand Bahama Nature Tours, that actually takes you through the mangroves. It’s an incredible experience that, given the right company, could be very romantic. The two-person kayak brings you up to, in between and underneath these amazing trees, requiring teamwork to navigate through the beautiful scenery and avoid low hanging branches occupied by spiders and crabs. On second thought, maybe romantic isn’t the word – the entire experience can make or break a relationship.
Past the Mangroves: Gold Rock Beach
On the other side of the mangroves is Gold Rock Beach, the idyllic tropical beach you’ve dreamed of. Seeing any more than a handful of people on the beach at any time is rare so private and remote is an understatement. If perfect white sand, gin-clear water and a vast unobstructed view of the aquamarine horizon is up your alley, Gold Rock Beach is that and then some. Get there at low tide and you’ll find sand bars 50 yards out that you can claim as your own private island to lay down and relax on.
As if on cue, the sky opened up and we ate lunch on the beach and relaxed under the blue sky for more than half an hour. After a couple hours of driving on and off road, this was a much needed break.
From the Beach to the Burial Cave
One thing you’ll quickly discover, not only with Grand Bahama Nature Tours, but all of the tours and people of Grand Bahama Island, is that everybody is deeply connected to their culture, environment, history and each other. It’s a very warm and welcoming island. While certain historical aspects may vary from person to person, they all tell the same stories of their island in their own unique way.
One common story is the history of the Lucayans, the indigenous people of Grand Bahama Island. Prior to Christopher Columbus’ arrival, the Lucayans were an estimated 20,000 strong and operated a conch farm, salt raking facilities and their own trade routes. Slavery, disease, hardship and ritual suicide are all believed to be contributing factors to their virtual extinction. Some believe the Lucayans migrated south to the Caribbean to places like Guyana and Trinidad & Tobago. Some believe they were killed off by the Europeans. Whatever happened to them, they didn’t leave much behind. They did, however, use one cave in particular as a burial ground. This cave also happens to be right across the road from the mangroves that take you to Gold Rock Beach and it’s fittingly called Burial Cave.
A True Island Experience
If history and nature are your thing, this tour has it all. The rugged, untouched beauty of the island is perfectly demonstrated every time you look out the side or open roof your Jeep. Thankfully, you’re not entirely on your own. Despite driving your own Jeep, your guide maintains radio contact with you at all times and you travel in a pack so you can’t get lost. All guides are extremely knowledgeable and personable and their only strict policy is that if you have a question, you have to ask it. No matter how stupid you may think it is. They’re truly there to share their island with you and let your experience speak for itself.
All photos © Travis Snelling All Rights Reserved.
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More photos from the Jeep Safari Tour with Grand Bahama Nature Tours