Mount Alvernia/Como Hill (206 ft) – Roof of the Bahamas
Eric and Matthew Gilbertson
January 7, 2013
“Ooooh, staying at the Atlantis Hotel are you?” the Bahamas customs woman asked us, looking up from our immigration form. “That’s the fanciest one on the island you know.”
“Yes ma’m, we’re treating ourselves well in the Bahamas,” I replied, trying to keep a straight face as I glanced over at Matthew. The customs woman happily stamped our passports and let us by. We proceeded to walk out of the airport, crossed the main entrance road, and ducked into the nearby woods to find a good place to camp. We don’t usually like to lie to a customs agent, but we had no intention of spending hundreds of dollars just to sleep in the Bahamas one night when there was a perfectly good set of woods just outside the airport. If I’d written on the form that we really intended to sleep in a patch of woods we’d seen on satellite images she likely wouldn’t have let us by. I had just accidentally chosen to write down one of the fanciest hotels in Nassau.
We had just climbed the country highpoints of the Netherlands (Saba Island), Dominica, St Lucia, St Kitts and Nevis, and Jamaica over the past week and the Bahamas was last on our list for our Christmas vacation. After searching around the palmetto and pine tree forest for a few minutes we finally found a flat spot with no glass or metal shards and threw out our tent for the night. You would usually have to pay a premium to sleep so conveniently close to the airport – just a 5-minute walk away – but our spot was free! In fact, in our travels we’ve only found one other international airport that provided stealth camping opportunities as close to the terminal as this, and that was way up in Roviniemi, Finland.
The Bahamas highpoint is probably the second easiest in all the Caribbean, after Barbados. Unfortunately it’s not on the same island as the main international airport, Nassau, but can be accessed with another short flight and some road walking.
We rose early Monday morning and walked back to the airport. By 9am we were on a Sky Bahamas plane to the highlands of the Bahamas on Cat Island, about 100 miles southwest of Nassau. We landed at The Bight after about an hour, and were greeted by one of the smallest airport buildings I’ve ever seen. It was basically a one-room glorified shack, with a few chairs for people to sit in and a bathroom. The airport only gets a couple flights a day, all from small planes, so I guess they don’t need any major facilities.
We’d given ourselves 24 hours on the ground on Cat Island, so had plenty of time to walk the 5 miles from the airport directly to the highpoint. Cat Island is a long, narrow sliver of land with just one road running north to south, so we simply got on the road and started heading south. The day was already getting hot at 10am, even though it was early January. As we left the airport we noticed there were very few houses around, just pine and palm-tree forests as far as we could see. We would definitely have no trouble camping on Cat Island tonight.
In Freetown settlement we saw a small general store, and stopped in to buy some water, food, and sunscreen. We kept walking along the road past a few old churches until we saw a small hill in the distance with a building on top. That had to be the summit – Mt Alvernia.
At Doud’s Settlement we turned at the police station up a road heading toward Mt Alvernia. After passing through some small farmers fields and walking up a few hundred feet of trail we found ourselves on the roof of the Bahamas. The summit of Mt Alvernia is capped with a curious stone structure that looks like a cathedral from a distance, but is really a hermitage built by a catholic priest in the mid 1900s. There’s a tiny one-room church, a 20-ft tall observation bell tower, a bedroom, a shower room, and an eating room. The priest must have been pretty short, because all the rooms have very low ceilings.
We climbed up in the bell tower and got amazing views of Cat Island, seeing the ocean on both the west and east sides. A couple from India soon hiked up to the top, looking for some morning exercise before hitting the beaches. We all admired the views for about an hour, then started heading down.
“It would just be wrong to come all the way to the Bahamas and not even touch the beach,” Matthew said as we were walking down.
“Yeah, that’s true,” I replied. “At the very least we need to be able to say we swam in the ocean once on our Caribbean vacation if someone asks.”
There was a postcard-perfect white-sand beach just at the base of the mountain, so we quickly jumped in and cooled off. It was refreshing, but there were no waves to body surf, and we got bored after about ten minutes.
Based on our map of the island the east coast was completely uninhabited, and it might be a fun adventure to make it over there somehow. Plus we could then camp right on the beach and nobody would care.
We dried off and starting walking back up the main road, then cut east on the first side road we found. The road deteriorated soon, but eventually we reached the east coast and cut through the woods to the beach. This beach was obviously untouched by tourists. We found huge conch shells in the sand, and interesting debris washed up from the ocean.
Farther up we found the coolest beach items – coconuts. We’d never actually seen coconuts in the wild, only in grocery stores.
“I’m sure we can find some way to crack one open,” I replied.
There was conveniently an old board with a nail sticking out nearby, so we pressed this against the coconut shell and hit it with a rock. It poked a smooth hole inside. Matthew eagerly pressed his lips to the hole and leaned back to let the milk trickle out.
“Ewwww!” he exclaimed, spitting out the liquid and hurling the coconut back into the ocean. “That’s disgusting!”
“Maybe that one had been floating in the ocean for a bit too long,” I guessed. “Let’s try to find a fresh one.”
We saw some palm trees back in the woods, so walked up to those and indeed found some fresh coconuts on the ground underneath. We performed the same operation to open them up, and this time were rewarded with sweet, fresh coconut milk. We actually opened up enough coconuts to fill us up for dinner that night.
Once it got dark we pitched our tent right on the beach and were treated to the pleasant sound of waves breaking all night. In the morning we rose just before sunrise, walked back to TBI international airport, and started our journey back to Boston.