Away From It All

A weekend on a deserted cay is the ultimate escape.

Story & Photos By John Galleymore

Every year, tens of thousands of visitors come to wind-down and vacation in the beautiful Turks & Caicos Islands. For those of us lucky enough to live here, it’s easy to assume we live in a permanent state of relaxation. Unfortunately, work and school schedules, daily chores and general “busyness” often get in the way.
That said, where would a Providenciales resident go to “get away from it all”? The obvious answer would be a less inhabited island such as North or Middle Caicos or Salt Cay. And if even those were considered “too busy”? Then the only option is one of the many uninhabited cays that are part of the Islands.

I was recently granted permission to camp out on privately owned Cotton Cay, an offer I could not turn down. The cay lies between Grand Turk and Salt Cay and is comparable in size to Salt Cay, but has no salinas.
My adventure began with the short, but always awe-inspiring flight to Salt Cay from Providenciales on Caicos Express Airways. Flying just a few thousand feet over the Caicos Banks is truly wonderful, and I have heard of people booking a round trip just to see the Islands from the air. After a few minutes detour to Grand Turk, we touched down safely at Salt Cay’s tiny airport. It was late afternoon but incredibly hot. The breeze that I had so little appreciated on my recent whale-watching trips here was non-existent now! I was met by my dear friend Debbie Manos, who has operated Salt Cay Divers for some eighteen years, and was the person I owed thanks to for getting permission for this trip. (Cotton Cay is a private island, and Salt Cay Divers holds exclusive rights to bring visitors to the cay on tours.)
My wife had accompanied me, but preferring hot showers and wine with dinner, she would once again enjoy the tranquil beauty of Salt Cay while I was on my two day/one night adventure. Debbie showed us to the Villas of Salt Cay, where we enjoyed a dip in the pool before joining Debbie at her bar and grill for sunset drinks and dinner. We arranged an 8:00 a.m. meet at the dock the next day for the short boat ride to the cay.
RAIN! And lots of it! That’s what we awoke to the next morning! It looks like this trip might be over before it even started. I met Debbie and her captain Richard at the dock and I said that rain would not affect my camping but if they felt it was unsafe to cross I would leave the decision to them. After some weather checking on the Internet along with Debbie’s local knowledge, we were good to go.

The privately owned cay includes some of TCI's largest sisal plants.

The privately owned cay includes some of TCI’s largest sisal plants.

The ride across took about twenty minutes. On the way, the rain cleared and Cotton Cay came into view. It looked kind of wedge shaped, with the end facing Salt Cay rising up into a small hill, maybe one hundred feet high with spectacular ironshore cliffs dropping to the sea. Along the western shore is a beautiful sand beach where the surrounding vegetation is only a few feet above sea level. With some expert navigation, Richard dropped me and my supplies right on the beach, barely getting my feet wet! We confirmed pick-up times and also our emergency procedure and off he went.
This is the best part for me. As the boat leaves, it seems to take with it all the stress, hustle and bustle, and worries with it. I am alone. Truly alone.
The feeling of utter isolation is not for everyone; indeed few have probably even experienced it. For me it brings a tremendous buzz of excitement where I am transported back to the days of early explorers, adventurers and the like, setting foot on uncharted faraway lands. For these two days I am a schoolboy once more.
I set up my camp which is basically a pop-up, one man tent and some cooking supplies. I have water for six days which is my normal procedure. (My military training always kicks in with the “worst case” scenario.) And I set off to explore.
It must be human nature, and I am sure the sailors, pirates, and explorers of the past thought the same—head for the high ground. I climb the hill and am totally amazed that amongst the waist-high bush are patches of Turks Head cactus larger than any I have seen before. Many are over two feet tall and hugely fat! As well, I was told that the sisal plants on Cotton Cay are also among the largest in the Islands.

Remains of a former dwelling are off limits.

Remains of a former dwelling are off limits.

I reach the ruins of an old settlement atop the hill. Most of the walls are still standing, although the once- cleared areas of garden are now thickly overgrown with bush. The walls are a type common to the TCI—hand- dressed local stone with a plaster/render over the top. These are only missing the roofs and all the walls seem in good order.
There appears to be a couple of main buildings and the walling, which I assume encompasses the worked land and runs for miles, some of it being up to eight feet tall. I can only imagine what it took to not only build walls in these remote conditions, but then work the land. I made my way down to the eastern shore, past a small salt pond. This is only one hundred feet across and very shallow. It’s in a low lying area and I think it must be ground water, as I can see no connection to the sea.
The eastern shore is typical of beaches worldwide, and despite my isolation I find myself looking at the washed up detritus of mankind. Trash of all sorts litters the beach; as distasteful as it is to view, though, it can’t diminish the beauty of this place.

Patches of large Turks Head cacti.

Patches of large Turks Head cacti.

On the walk back to base camp, I spot an array of wildlife—tiny hummingbirds flit between the trees, huge hermit crabs seem to race each another in shells of all assortments. I can hear birdsong from the bush although the birds themselves remain elusive.
I have been walking all day and get back to my beach in time to cook some food and enjoy a hot drink as the sun sets. I watch the sun dip beneath the horizon, and I know as I spot the Green Flash that my wife will be watching it too, albeit with a chilled glass of Chardonnay to hand—I am ever so slightly jealous!
Night camping is not about luxury, but the wow factor for me kicks in about midnight. I often get up at this time to watch the most fantastic light show the universe can offer. The stars here are beyond comprehension. I remember my first night on Provo, how bright they were. Then I went to Salt Cay and was amazed again. Here it is even better, as I have an uninterrupted view of billions of years of history. Surprisingly I am shocked at the extent of the light pollution emanating from Grand Turk.
Morning brings fresh damp air and the blissful silence. I dozed off to sleep to the gentle sounds of the surf and awaken to birdsong—and goats! Richard had mentioned goats on the way over, but I didn’t give it another thought. But here they are, two adults and a kid, standing three abreast just staring and chewing, not knowing what to make of me—I don’t suppose they get a lot of visitors here. They scatter soundlessly as I walk the beach, coffee in hand—does it get any better than this? I think not!
After climbing to the ruins again, I spot a huge cruise ship in Grand Turk and am thankful again for my isolation from the crowds. I decide to pick my way along the ironshore cliffs. These are littered rock pools and small caves and are great for exploring. I am reminded of a story from the movie “The Bahamas Passage,” filmed on Salt Cay in 1941. It followed a family of salt rakers and featured the White House as the central location. During filming, the two leading stars of the day, Madeline Carroll and Sterling Hayden, took a sloop to Grand Turk but failed to arrive. A chartered plane spotted them on Cotton Cay and it seems they stopped en-route to explore an underwater cave and were then cut off by the tide. The director was so enthralled by this tale, he filmed a similar scene to include in the movie.
With no pirate treasure found and only three goats for company (who now seem to be following me around contentedly), I head back to the beach and spend the next few hours swimming and snorkelling. Lots of coral heads just off the beach make this a fantastic experience and it’s a chore to force myself out of the water so I can break camp as the pick-up deadline approaches.
Richard, the consummate professional, is on time to the minute. I check the area and, happy that I have only left footprints, I wade out to the boat and climb aboard. I allow myself only one glance back as we head across the flat sea to Salt Cay, as I feel a little sad leaving.
Heading back to reality makes me sigh heavily, but the thought of re-joining my wife lifts me up with a smile. And germinating in my head is a little seed of an idea for the next trip.

Editor’s note: Cotton Cay is a private island, whose owner chooses to keep it as a bird and nature sanctuary.
The owner is founder of the Salt Cay History Preservation Society. The Turks & Caicos Preservation Foundation was created as a Charitable Trust to raise funds for preservation in the Salt Cay historic district, including: restoring Government House, the Benevolent Society building, a typical salt raker home, and a salt pond to produce salt. Visit

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Henry Coe
Jul 22, 2014 16:38

John Galleymore , describing his overnight camping visit to Cotton Cay, not only captures the essence of these wonderful TCI uninhabited islands, but does so with the spirit of a small boy off to his next adventure alone. John writes from the heart, directly and with an eye for detail that carries the reader, silently along as if hidden in his backpack. Thanks John, for allowing us to share in the adventure. We look forward to your next.

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