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Want an Island to Yourself?

November 29, 2011
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Castaway Beach
Castaway Beach Matthew Miller

“Bring a mosquito net,” advised an inhabitant of a nearby island. “And have you thought about food?”

Actually, no. I hadn’t. And then David Hocher, owner of Staniel Cay Yacht Club – home of the Exumas’ happiest happy hour, where I will not be drinking cold Kaliks this afternoon – drops me off on my island. Or at least close enough so I can wade to it. In front of me is a sun-blazed white beach straight out of a middle manager’s corporate-office daydream. David motors away, leaving me standing in water up to my thighs with the sun already burning my neck.

For the next 26 hours I’ll be alone with a pocket knife, a fishing pole, a hammock and no way home. I squint at the beach and the boat’s disappearing wake. What if he doesn’t come back? What if I fall in a blue hole? Are there snakes in paradise? But I have work to do. I have to explore the island for the best hammock-hanging trees and set up a sun shade.

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Thomas Cay
Thomas Cay Matthew Miller

And I need to find something to eat.

Nine hours later I’m standing on a tide-worn cliff, muttering. “Take the hook. Please?” There’s no one around to hear me. I know there are fish. Earlier, near my beachside campsite, a big parrotfish swam past me without fear, along with snappers, jacks and other delicious creatures. I should’ve fashioned a spear from a palm frond. Now the fish nip at the bait – tap, tap, tap – teasing me.

The hook comes up empty again. I pull another whelk (sea snail) from my damp hip pocket and impale it on the hook. All along I steal glances across the channel separating me from the next cay north. Is that island inhabited? Maybe by chefs and bartenders? Is it worth swimming over there to find out? I contemplate what’s in the water and wonder if it (whatever “it” is) is as hungry as me.

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For a change of scenery, I climb the cliff and peer over the sandstone cornice at another wild beach beyond. Scrub-palm jungle runs a mile down the length of my island. Somewhere out there are feral goats and pigs I might eventually chase down and eat. The incoming tide below floods the pools where I found the whelks. So the five I have left are it for today. Back to the water.

“This is my last cast,” I swear to the fading horizon. If the fish like the taste of my whelks so much, I might just eat them myself. But then I feel the taps again. The line goes taut. The rod wiggles in my hands. “Oh!” The gratitude hits me. “I caught a fish!” I’m going to eat it.

Thomas Cay
Thomas Cay Matthew Miller

The sun is setting as I run back to camp, careful not to fall and cut my hands on the jagged rocks. I build a quick fire out of driftwood and long-neglected lessons – teepee of twigs, cabin of kindling, ignited with a waterproof match. This is fresh fish, five minutes from sea to coals. I pull the meat loose with my fingers. It tastes good. I try the whelks too, a cross between clams and rubber bands. I have no lemon sorbet to cleanse my palate.

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As the daylight dies, mosquitoes and sand fleas attack, biting me a dozen times before I’m done eating. The half moon casts enough light to see by as I climb into my hammock, unbathed. I wrap myself in a sheet against the insects, covering my face like a mummy. “Paradise!” I declare, my voice muffled by surf crashing on the shoreline – my shoreline. Still, it would be sweeter if paradise had chocolate-chip cookies and fluffy pillows.

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