So I am surfing through Facebook one fine mid December afternoon and I notice that I am tagged on a post from 99s sister,
Erin Seidemann. Seems she was lobing a Hail Mary to see if she could find a pilot to go with her because her travel buddy
backed out at the last minute. Long story short - I have never been one to pass up an opportunity. SO when Erin made the date
work with both of our time schedules we sealed the deal. Erin spent the next few days preparing the plane and the paperwork
for Belize while I was assigned the duty of flight planning and weather. Our launch date is Sunday, December 17th. Stay tuned!
December 17, 2017 - Belize Bound: My first leg
of the Belize trip began by car. Erin had flown into Key West on Saturday to meet some friends and enjoy the Key West holiday
spirit. Since I gave a survival seminar Saturday, I was unable to join her until Sunday morning. The sunrise over the runway at Tavernier was beautiful with the first waves of color peeking out
beneath the clouds that stretched across the sky. The air was still cool and the humidity was low so I knew we would get out
of Key West under VFR condition.
I had a leisurely drive to Key West.
I had not driven down that way since the storm and I was curious to see how much - or little - progress had been made. As
I approached MM 40 the signs of the storm became more evident than in the Upper Keys. There was much debris still piled along
the highway, boats were still laying cockeyed in the water and buildings were still in a major state of disrepair. I was happy
to see that many buildings did survive. At least from the vantage point along US 1, the Middle and Lower Keys are open for
Arrival in Key West was uneventful. I stopped at the Winn Dixie
to pick up water and a little more cash, just in case, then headed to the airport to meet Erin. We did our last minute flight
planning, loaded and launched. The skies were relatively good with lots of decorative clouds tossed about like someone rolling
dice out of their hands. We managed to avoid all of them on climb-out and settled in a 8000’ nicely above the clouds
and in smooth air. In no time at all we left behind all traces of land.
This was the
first trip Erin and I have taken together. We have known each other through the 99s but not well. We met several times including
in Fort Worth when both of us got to fly the DC3. I read Erin’s book, Postcards from the Sky, and k ew she has
a great sense of adventure and loved to travel. Hmmm .... pilot, 99, adventure seeker, traveler: the makings of a great travel
For the next 2 hours 50 minutes we chatted and discovered our similarities
and differences, especially since we were sharing a hotel room. What as really cool about Erin is that for all of the differences,
we already had solutions worked out so we ended up with no real issues at all. Then we saw our first land! Our discovery chat
turned into travel chat. After a long stretch over water land is a welcome sight!
ATC was, for the most part, understandable, with minor exceptions like the controller who rerouted us because part of
the airway was something-or-another. We took the rerouting and moved on to the business of planning our arrival. Forecasts
were 1300’ overcast so we listened to ATIS and studied the approach plate for the ILS DME VOR 7 approach. As Erin flew,
I tried to locate it in the GPS. There are 3 ILS 7 approaches: ILS 7Z, ILS DME 7 and ILS DME VOR 7. Looking in the GPS, ILS
7Z was easily identified but finding the correct ILS DME VOR 7 took a little more work. After a bit of futzing I located and
loaded the approach and we were ready. ATIS noted some sort of clouds at 2100’ but other than that we could not understand
if they were few, scattered or some sort of ceiling. We assumed a ceiling and prepared for the approach.
As we got lower, we could see land and managed to avoid every last cloud. At 8 miles out I called “airport
in sight” and we were cleared for a visual approach. Erin landed with ease and we taxied to our designated parking space
as far away from civilization as they could possibly park us. Welcome to Belize!!!
Having received little instruction, we sat in the plane for a bit and took the time to make notes and gather our stuff.
Soon enough 2 men came out in a cart. They asked if we had a handler and Erin said we did not. My job was flight planning
and weather and Erin handled everything. I knew she had talked to folks here but did not know she had not hired a handler.
We were told with the handler, the immigration, customs process would be quick but without we would be here a while. We hired
the handler - $75 in and $75 when we left. Cash. OK. Oh, and did we know there were overtime fees: $80. Cash. We knew about
that. ..... and the arrival fee of $25. Fueling would b when we were ready to depart. They only take cash for Avgas. After
“agreeing” to the fees they left us to fetch a handler. Another fellow came to “inspect” the plane
after we unloaded. He left and told us to walk with our bags to immigration “over there past the tower”. We had
wanted some exercise after the long flight but that was a little much. What I had thought to be as easily carry-able load
was anything but.
We began our trudge toward the tower. About half-way there,
after what seem like the eternal walk, a kind man in a lawn mower with a cart picked up up and hauled us to the immigration
terminal where the handler, Clinton, was waiting for was, paperwork in hand. We filled out the necessities and were directed
to Immigration. As we rounded the corner we saw a line, actually 6 lines, packed with people waiting their turn. We were a
bit surprised that this was the “express” treatment that a handler bought us. After a few minutes, Clinton came
running over. He had been looking for us. He saved us from eternal Immigration and ushered us through the remainder of the
process. He also hired a cab for us to get us to the ferry dock for our trip out to Caye Caulker.
Erin has read that the dock was “walking distance” from the airport but we soon discovered that
was not the case. The ride was easily 30 minutes and another $25. Cash. We had 10 minutes until the next ferry departed so
we dashed to the ticket counter for our round trip tickets to Caye Caulker. Thirty dollars cash. We boarded the ferry for
the hour long ride. We finally had some time to catch our breath and reflect on the inordinate amount of cash we were going
through and we had not even been in country for an hour. I was happy to have grabbed the extra $100 because we needed it.
Upon arrival in Caye Caulker we needed a hotel. There were many options within a block
or so. We selected a basic hotel that met all of our needs - including accepting a credit card! At last the cash hemorrhaging
has stopped ... for now.
We headed out for dinner. It was just past 5
pm central time and we had not had a meal since breakfast which, for me, was 4 am eastern time. Erin had snacked
in Skittles and M&M’s while I noshed on grapes and an apple during the flight but we were both pretty hungry for
real food. We found a nice place for dinner that had good food AND took a credit card. *whew*
We wandered around the island after dinner to explore and digest. Nearing the hotel we passed an ATM machine
and Erin decided to get some extra cash - just in case. We had calculated about the amount of cash we would need for fuel
and tucked that back for safe keeping. I am sure there will be another ATM along the way if we needed it but best to make
sure, at least, we had fuel to get home.
When we got back to the
hotel, Erin got on the internet and made the remainder of our reservation for our stay here. She had not wanted to book in
advance because of the cancellation fees and not knowing if she would actually get to make this trip, especially as our going
was a hail Mary anyway.
December 18 - Marine Sanctuary excursion:
In the quiet of the morning hours I was able to relax a bit, catch up on internet stuff, eat breakfast and wander about
the island as the sun rose. The morning is cloudy so the full sunrise was initially a bit obscured. It is a breezy morning
and a bit cool for me although most Conchs would find it a refreshing change. I know Erin is happier when it is not blistering
The “downtown” was quiet with few people, bicycles or golf carts bustling about. I found the lone vehicle on the
island owned by the Caye Caulker Village Council picking up rubbish - it must be trash day. The roads are all dirt with a
unique “speed bump” fashioned out of heavy marine rope. While there are street names, signs to identify them are
few and far between ... not that you really need them. Everything is walking distance from the hotel just outside the heart
Walking from the far east to the far west of the
island took less than 10 minutes. At the western side was the island power plant consisting of 3 semis housing massive Caterpillar
diesel engines - generators, I assume - all connected with a massive amount of heavy electrical cables. It was good to see
the power plant only because we tend to take electricity for granted in the US and do not think about the electrical grid
when we travel.
We departed on our snorkel trip promptly a
10:30. Before leaving, I decided to take some motion sickness medicine as I was not sure if I would get in the water or not.
The wind had been up in the early morning hours and I did not have a high degree of confidence that the water would be warm
enough for me. Hopefully, it was all a shallow protected area.
Our first stop
was to see seahorses. I had only once before seen a seahorse in the wild. This was opportunity number two. In a small protected
cove filled with sea grasses and an old heavy fish net, the seahorses thrive. They are not strong swimmers so they have a
hard time navigating big currents and rough waters. This was a perfect spot for them.
From there we headed to tarpon cove where hundreds of tarpon hand out near the mouth of the cave. Both of these were
sightseeing portions of the tour. We headed out toward the breaking waves for the reminding snorkeling portion of the
trip. Almost immediately upon leaving the protection of he Caye, the first rougher water and rollers started. Someone
called out “dolphin” and the boat swung around quickly so we could ride along side of these graceful creatures.
The next stop was the manatee zone.
I was surprised that the
manatee were in such open waters but there they were. The group, minus me, sprinted toward the sighting spot and spent quite
a bit of time admiring the gentle giant. Thy drifted down wind quite a bit so it was a long swim back. Glad I was on the boat.
Next was the relatively longer ride into the marine sanctuary to see turtle,
the coral gardens, shark and eel and the channel reef. At shark alley we stopped for lunch and to chum the sharks over using
nothing more than the boat engines. Since we were in a sanctuary, feeding is prohibited but the sharks associate the sound
of the engines with food. They obliged and gave us quite a show.
Our last stop
was the barge wreck that was grossly overloaded and sank near the breakers that come over the barrier reef. The barrier reef
runs 185 miles, basically, the whole of the Belize coastline and then some.
In the end, it was a great day with Erin pulling her customary once per trip sickness (as she mentions in her book).
She made sure this trip was no exception. We came back the afternoon so she could rest up a bit from the snorkeling. The current
was strong, the waves were large and I was happy to spend the day on the boat.
We headed out on the town for an early evening dinner. Food has been really good on the island. I have enjoyed fresh
caught fish while Erin has found the jerk seasoned foods that she really enjoys. We will leisurely depart Caye Caulker
tomorrow back to Belize City to fetch a car and explore more of this beautiful country.