Saba: Day 1: Arrival

I promised you a travelogue - so here we go.

Getting to Saba meant first flying to St. Maarten (the Dutch side of the little island has the airport) in a perfectly respectable 757 or something similar. The St. Maarten airport starts at the sliver of a beach and ends in shacks on an isthmus. There's just enough land for a full-size runway - big enough to accommodate the daily Airbus A350 and 747 flights from France - and an airport with 5 jetways. It's small, but it didn't take long before it felt spacious in retrospect.

The next step was to fly or ferry to the Island. The prices are nearly identical and the flight is only 12 minutes. So why wouldn't more people fly? First, there's the small aircraft - a short take-off and landing prop plane with about 20 seats known as the DeHavilland Otter II. It is as old as it sounds. There is 1 digital dial in the whole cockpit.

And as cramped as it sounds. We took the front two seats and had a view almost as good as pilots'; no surprise there, given that a quick step on the breaks would land me in their laps.

These airframes aren't pressurized and Islands are hot, so the pilots have $5 plastic fans above each seat. The rest of us squirmed and sweated a little in the padded folding seats until we got off the ground, when vents directed a tad of the outside air in.

It didn't take long for Saba to appear in the windscreen. They just pointed the plane at the rock, ascended to around 1500 feet and ride on in. Even from this far out, you can already see that Saba is long-dormant volcano. The nutrient-rich lava flows are now covered in rainforest green. Even thousands of years later, the sloping mountainside don't meet the water as much as dive beneath it.

We got closer and made a tight left turn. The view started me sweating again.

Saba's is the shortest commercial runway in the world. There has never been accident there in 50 years it has had an airport for the same reason you don't hear about many people falling off of 2,000 foot shear cliffs that have no guardrails.

That's 1300 feet of runway - less than a quarter of the usual length, and even this short landing vehicle has to creep up, hit it's stall point just where the asphalt starts, and slam the propellers into full reverse. The ballet was well choreographed out front, I assume; the pilots' arms were a flurry of activity close in, and my eyes were fixed past the nose to the fast-approaching edge of the runway. We stopped right where were were supposed to - 15-20 feet from the edge.

The airport is a room and 2 patios. One patio is the departure "lounge." The other is a bar. We had to wait until the flight left before we could collect our bags, so we skipped outside to see a takeoff. You'll have to wait to hear that description in a few days.

From there, it was into a cab. A cabbie we'd come to learn was named Garvis guided his Nissan minibus up 20 or so concrete switchbacks. Past "Hell's Gate" - maybe 100 people - and through Windwardside - perhaps 300 more. In 5 minutes we were at 1000 feet. In another 10, we were at El Momo cottages (http://www.elmomo.com/) on the diametric opposite of the island.

Iguana cottage at El Momo is 1 room. No air, no fan. There is a separate hut for the shower. Water comes from a rain-fed cistern, so you're advised not to drink it and to conserve it as much as possible. There is a boat-style head instead of a toilet. Ah, but if only I could transport you there, you'd think it was heaven. The Island is usually cool and has a cool breeze floating through owing to its isolation and structure, so air conditioning is just needless. Here's the view from the windows in our shower:

And up to Mt. Scenery: (you can see the shower window on the far right).

We took Saturday off and climbed it - 1064 steps from forest, to rain forest, to cloud forest. More on that, El Momo, and diving tomorrow!

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