The kingdom of the crystal skull
Past Man-O’-War Caye, we cross a mangrove lagoon enclosed between two sandy crescents. It is filled with manatees, giant sea mammals that were supposedly mistaken for mermaids by the sailors of yore. The manatee is a noble beast but, with its sunken eyes, bloated cigar-shaped body and lumpy face, it is not the prettiest. Those sailors had not seen a woman for a very long time. Finally, we reach Tobacco Caye, the same tiny sandstrip where Mitchell-Hedges broke his journey south from Belize City to Punta Gorda. These days, it is home to a cluster of cabanas for snorkelers, divers and kayakers.
Belize is famous for its dive sites, particularly the Great Blue Hole – a perfectly circular sinkhole, as wide as the Eiffel Tower is tall, set in the middle of Lighthouse Reef. Plunging to 120 metres, the hole is a favourite lurking ground of sharks, and was made famous by Jacques Cousteau. Even for the casual snorkeler, there are plenty of thrills to be had, and Tobacco Caye is an ideal spot to start having them: the reef starts just a few yards offshore. If you can persuade Captain Buck to take you out to a channel, you can jump in amid eagle rays, turtles, tarpon, barracudas and even whale sharks.
The temptation of the exotic
Mitchell-Hedges was more into battling giant fish than appreciating them, and he spent his time on Tobacco Caye alternately big-game fishing and scouring the islands for Mayan ruins. He found lots of fish, but no Mayans. As the sun begins to dip and the sky fades from azure to violet, my inquiries about crystal skulls don’t get very far either. Kirk, the barman at Tobacco Caye Lodge, looks confused: ‘Crystal who?’ I explain. He gives me a pitying look and a piña colada.
The piña colada – rum, coconut milk, and fresh pineapple – brings to mind a very different aspect of Mitchell-Hedges’s adventures. Once, he claimed to have been presented with exotic fruit by an admiring tribe of female Amerindians, who hoped he might be the answer to their acute shortage of husbands. Manfully, he resisted, with the immortal words: ‘Personally, I refuse to be seduced by pineapples.’ If pineapples test your fortitude, you could be in trouble. Piña coladas made fresh on the beach, with authentic Belizean fruit, are shamefully seductive at the end of a hot Caribbean day.
Back on the mainland, we head south, through the eerie primeval swamps of the Cockscomb Basin. Trekking along muddy jungle paths, we follow a trail of fresh jaguar paw prints. The cat does not want to be found. Instead, it leads us to a ghostly sight: the rusting chassis of a high-wing aircraft, crashed into the trees many years ago by some zoologists. They survived, but left the wreck to be eaten up by the jungle.
Few tourists make it further south than Placencia, a glitzy peninsula inhabited by Belize’s celebrities, but that is a huge mistake. Southern Belize’s little-known Toledo district is outstandingly beautiful, and a true wilderness: 1,700 square miles, 26,000 people and only three petrol stations. No big resorts befoul the coastline, and the only airport is a landing strip, accepting nothing much larger than a 16-seater plane. With a local expert, such as guide Bruno Kuppinger, you can have a true travel adventure.
After a few years playing the stock market in New York, Mitchell-Hedges complained that he had been ‘sidetracked into a counterfeit jungle of counterfeit excitement when I should have been rollicking down the trail of adventure in the primitive, unspoiled wilds’. Similarly, Bruno was a successful businessman in Germany before he got fed up with the rat race, and moved to Belize to live in a tent.