Arriving in Trinidad and Visit to the Pitch Lake
We start for Trinidad in the early afternoon exiting the cozy little anchorage at Secret Bay, Grenada with a sudden squall. 35-knot puff full of rain pushes us from behind just as Fata Morgana makes her way through the narrow channel between the reefs. But it lasts only a few seconds. We release the pressure in the sails and ride it. Then everything is back to normal. We sail south; the wind is coming from east at about 20 knots, the regular trades.
Soon darkness descends. We take turns at the helm, Ivo and me, every 2-3 hour. We sail all night watching the radar and the AIS closely for any more sudden squalls and for other vessels. Trinidad is an island just a few miles off the coast of Venezuela and we have heard many horror stories lately about pirates boarding boats, robbing and even killing their crews. Pirates from Venezuela. Everyone has told us to be very careful sailing in these waters.
When a small fishing motorboat starts heading directly towards us full speed in the middle of the night Ivo wakes me up worried. I only have time to hide my most treasured possessions- the computer in the oven and the photo camera under the sink, in case pirates will be boarding us. The fishing boat approaches us very quickly, flashes a strong light in our direction and two men wave at us. We wave back. They keep going. We keep going. We are safe.
A few hours later we see two glowing spots in the distance behind the horizon, natural gas platforms. We are in the Hibiscus Gas Field, 30 NM off the north coast of Trinidad, the country’s main gas field. The coastal waters around Trinidad and Venezuela are rich in oil and natural gas thanks to which Trinidad and Tobago, the leading Caribbean producer of oil and gas, is also one of the wealthiest and most developed nations in the Caribbean, listed in the top 40 of the 70 High Income countries in the world. Its GDP per capita is one of the highest in the Caribbean. Since 2011 Trinidad and Tobago is no longer in the list of Developing Countries.
We pass very close to one of the gas platforms sticking out of the sea illuminated like the Empire State Building. There are a few big tanker ships roaming about and they make us feel safe, not alone. It’s only a third of the distance left, less than 30 NM. Soon we will arrive.
The tall rocky shores of Trinidad slowly emerge from their slumber with the first light of dawn. Seabirds are already busy skimming the waters for breakfast. The wind dies. The channel between the small Monos Island (The Monkey Island) and Trinidad, with tall rock walls on both sides and affected by strong tidal currents, is notorious for its lack of wind, impossible to sail through. In the times before the engine, ships would wait for long periods outside of the channel for wind before being able to sail across. Eventually, they built a land road linking the north shores of Trinidad with the main ports on the south shores so that the ships wouldn’t have to wait for days outside the channel.
If the timing is right, a boat can ride the tide and go through the channel very slowly. But we are out of luck. The tide is in the opposite direction and the only choice left for us, after struggling for an hour outside the Boca de Monos, is to turn on the engines and motor for about 4 miles.
We arrive in Chaguaramas, a busy commercial port with lots of weird-looking yachts. It’s also the dirtiest anchorage we have ever been to (and we have spent time in Rio Dulce, Guatemala and in Luperon, Dominican Republic). But we love it! The bay is calm, surrounded by tall cliffs covered in vegetation. We are soon overwhelmed by the sounds of birds. Parrots fly overhead screaming, pelicans rest on the sidebars of the anchored boats, herons like statues wait near the shores, and flocks of black vulchers like dark kites patrol the skies. The mornings are spectacular with the water still like a mirror.
After a day of rest we grab a small minibus to Port of Spain, the capital of Trinidad, and we are left completely surprised by the city and by Trinidad in general. We honestly didn’t expect to find a rich country with huge highways, shopping malls, and giant residential houses.
Trinidad and Tobago’s economy, depending almost entirely on the petroleum and gas industry with tourism and manufacturing in second and third places, has transformed the country into a regional financial center with a growing trade surplus. There is an excellent infrastructure too, with an expanded international airport and an extensive network of paved roads and six lane highways. There is an excellent public bus system (one way ticket costs the equivalent of 0.20 $US), private taxis and minibuses (cost per person- 1 $US). The cost of a rental car for a day is 25 $US and the fuel prices are ridiculously cheap. You can drive all day and spend less than 5 $US for fuel…
So we share a rental car together with our good old Aussie friends Caryn and Mel S/V Passages (we call them the Caramels) and our first destination is Pitch Lake on the far southwestern corner of the island, about 100 km from Chaguaramas. It’s an epic car ride. We experience traffic jams around the big cities, which amuses us, as we haven’t been in a traffic jam for years! At one point we take a “short cut” to avoid the traffic and we end up driving on a dirt road through forests and fields. Driving through the island is the best way to see a big portion of the countryside and residential areas. We are amazed at the massive colorful houses the people of Trinidad live in.
Finally we get to the lake. It’s raining. There is a park service providing information and guides for a small fee, but the lake is not private, there is no entry fee and guides are not obligatory.
The Pitch Lake near la Brea area in Trinidad, once considered to be the 8th wonder of the world, is the largest natural deposit of asphalt in the world covering about 95 acres and is reported to be 75 m deep, although its depth is impossible to measure and confirm. Its original name was „Tierra de Brea“ or the „Land of Tar“ and pitch is just an archaic English word for tar, or emulsified asphalt.
The first inhabitants of the island, the indigenous Caribs and Arawaks, believed that the Pitch Lake was created by the gods as punishment and had the power to swallow an entire tribe if they ate humming birds, because humming birds were the souls of their ancestors.
In 1595 Sir Walter Raleigh „discovered“ the lake of black gold and began caulking his ships with the tar, proclaiming it „most excellent good“, and much better than the tar being used in England. He even brought some of the black gold home with him, where they paved Westminster Bridge for the opening of Parliament. Unfortunately the raw pitch melted in the sun and everyone and everything that passed on the road got “caulked”.
Today, tar from the La Brea Pitch Lake is being used to pave streets with high grade road asphalt in Trinidad and Tobago, all the Caribbean islands, and in over 50 countries including the USA, England, India, Singapore, Egypt, and Japan.
The lake is being mined by Lake Asphalt of Trinidad and Tobago and asphalt is being exported to many parts of the world, mainly China. It is estimated that at current rates of commercial extraction there is enough tar to last for 400 years.
We walk across the hard surface of the lake. It almost feels as if we are walking on a huge abandoned apocalyptic parking lot overgrown with patches of grass. The hard surface of Pitch Lake is made of separate plates of semi-solid asphalt similar to the tectonic plates of Earth’s crust, in constant slow motion. Where they meet soft petroleum seams and lubricates the shifting plates, supplying sulfur to the ribbons of water that section up the lake. The local guides call these soft parts „the mother“.
Our guide tells us some incredible stories. How a guy once fell in a soft spot and almost died. His girlfriend ran to the village to call for help. They pulled him out of the tar, took him to the hospital and saved his life. He also explains that nothing from the outside can stay forever inside the lake; the tar eventually spits it out. Hundreds of years old fossils of trees and all sorts of objects have come out of the lake. The lake is boiling in small motion and objects emerge from the bubbles.
He also complains that the roads and houses near the lake crack and sink, as the entire La Brea region is unstable due to underground fissures or fingers of asphalt and volcanic activity.
Another interesting fact is that a study of The European Space Agency‘s exploration of exposed hydrocarbon lakes of Saturn’s moon Titan, discovered that microbes live and breed beneath the surface of the tar in the lake. A discovery that may one day help answer the question whether or not life exists on other planets.
A walk on Pitch Lake is a unique journey, like nothing we have experienced before. We are like ants treading upon the black wrinkled skin of a huge dark monster slumbering under the tropical sky, breathing ever so gently.
We try not to disturb him. In the pools of rainwater accumulated at its edges, covered with water lilies, swim tiny fishes, fresh snacks for the white egrets roaming around, stepping gently, like thieves.Share