When I told my friends that I was going to Guana Island, they were not overly envious.
One of them quipped: “Harvesting guano, are you?”
Another declared, “Better you than me, mate.”
They were doubtless thinking of the Guano Islands of Peru, desolate, sun-baked specks of land composed primarily of bird droppings.
Maybe they also thought that some geographer interested in gender equality had given one of these islands a feminine suffix.
My friends can be forgiven their ignorance.
For Guana, a high, rugged island in the British Virgins, is not among the better-known Caribbean destinations.
It has no resort action, unless you consider a game of croquet resort action.
And, rather than nightlife, it offers wildlife, possibly — according to biologist Skip Lazelle, an authority on Guana — the “richest fauna” of any island its size in the world.
This richness is due mostly to the fact that Homo sapiens, a species known throughout history for its destructive habits, has left Guana more or less alone.
Some of Guana’s fauna, I might add, is quite unusual.
On my first day on the island, I climbed to its highest point, Mount Sugarloaf (elevation: 242 metres), and saw what appeared to be a dinosaur basking on the summit.
Later, on the jasmine-scented terrace of the
island’s only facility, the Guana Island Club, I encountered another of these giant reptiles dining on papaya handouts.
Actually, the reptiles in question were stout iguanas (Cyclura pinguis), an endangered species that can reach a length of two metres and weigh 70 pounds.
Approximately 100 of these docile monsters inhabit the 340-hectare island (the only other place they’re found is Anegada, also in the British Virgins).
In fact, Guana derives its name from a local rock formation that looks exactly like a giant iguana.
Being rather docile itself, the island goes to sleep early, or maybe it’s just been sleeping all along.
The loudest sound I heard at night was not a boom-box or a faulty muffler, but the male whistling frog advertising for a mate. Indeed, it was the only sound I heard at night.
So how did Guana escape the mania for development that’s beset so many other Caribbean islands?
For one thing, it’s always been a private island and thus outside the radar of resort-minded developers.
For another, its owners have always been eager to keep it in a largely natural state.
For instance, it was owned from 1935 to 1974 by Beth and Louis Bigelow, well-to-do New Englanders whose primary interest was bird-watching, an activity that does not typically leave heavy footprints on the environment.
After purchasing Guana in 1974, the current owners, conservationists Henry and Gloria Jarecki, made the island a wildlife sanctuary.
They also decided to restrict the number of guests at the Guana Island Club to no more than 30 at any given time. For large crowds of people might disturb the locals — i.e., the fauna.
And for two months of the year, August and October, they close the island to everyone except scientists studying this fauna … studying not just the more charismatic examples of it, like the iguana, but also moths (Guana boasts more than 300 species), reef fish (over 100 species), and a blind, legless lizard called an amphisbaena.
Remote from the public eye, Guana is a sanctuary for celebrities as well.
Stephen Spielberg, Goldie Hawn, Bill Cosby, and Robert Di Niro have all been guests here.
Or perhaps I should say Steve, Goldie, Bill, and Bob, since in the interests of anonymity surnames tend not to be used on the island.
Not to be outdone, I identified myself as Mel and casually mentioned my forthcoming biopic about the life of John the Baptist.
“You can do great decapitations with computer graphics,” I added.
“Mel Gibson doesn’t dress like he’s just escaped from an almshouse,” one of the club’s guests observed.
“I’m dressed to go hiking,” I declared.
Which was true.
An hour later I was following an 18th-century stone wall across the island.
Apparently, this wall was constructed by two Quaker families who hated each other so much that they built a wall to separate their respective properties.
Somehow the idea of hostile Quakers struck a familiar note with me, since I’d lived through the administration of Richard M. Nixon, another hostile Quaker.
The next day I met Dr. Liao Wei-Ping, the island’s resident naturalist, and we began hiking toward a place called Grand Ghut (Ghut is a local term for ravine).
First off, however, we scrambled up some boulders to a cave-like amphitheatre and watched a colony of fruit bats cool themselves with a palpitating motion of their wings.
After a while, the bats grew weary of our voyeurism, and the entire colony took to the air with a series of exasperated squeaks.
As we hiked, large soldier crabs — not the most agile of creatures — kept falling out of trees and hitting the ground with dull thuds.
What if one of these plummeting crustaceans landed on me? I imagined the following newspaper headline: Man Brained by Crab on World’s Most Peaceful Island.
Just as we reached Grand Ghut itself, a brown-colored snake reared up and spread its neck laterally like a cobra … except that it was no more than a foot long.
“There are no poisonous snakes on Guana,” said Dr. Liao. “Actually, there’s no poisonous anything here.”
Soon I began wondering whether I had in fact been knocked senseless by one of the crabs, for I seemed to be in some sort of Caribbean Never-Never Land.
In front of me was an undulating green coastline with neither houses or roads on it; ancient loblolly and tamarind trees filled with birdsong rose up all around me; and a shiny turquoise-coloured lizard skittered past my feet before disappearing into the bush.
My reverie was interrupted by Dr. Liao’s voice.
“Beautiful bird,” he said, pointing to a bridled quail dove.
I gazed at the quail dove. Its rather portly shape and unhurried manner made me think that it wasn’t only us human-type beings who were enjoying the good life on Guana.
Later I found myself sitting on White Bay Beach, a half-mile expanse of sand usually empty of people.
But now I saw a zodiac on the beach and several people from a yacht anchored offshore relaxing in the afternoon sun.
I fought back an urge to wander over to them and find out what had happened in the world — what leaders deposed? Wars declared? Volcanoes erupted? — since I’d stepped off it.
Lawrence Millman is author of many travel books including, Our Like Will Not Be There Again, Northern Latitudes, Last Places, An Evening Among Headhunters, and Lost in the Arctic.