The Exumas in the Bahamas are always listed as a "top ten" kayaking destination, and after our seven-day kayak camping trip to this beautiful string of islands we can confirm that this location richly deserves its' reputation.  Although our most often repeated exclamation was "Wow, this is just so incredibly beautiful," it was closely followed with "Where is everyone?".  The Exumas are blissfully uncrowded even during the winter high season.   We had our own island every night of our seven day, 70 mile paddle.

Planning

It may seem initially intimidating to do this trip, but it can be easily accomplished for a reasonable cost.  Hopefully we can provide you with the necessary information to make it easier.  The first question that every kayaker is going to ask is "How the hell do I get my kayak there?"  You don't.  Out Island Explorers outfitters, owned by young couple Dallas and Tamara Knowles, has a large number of single and double sea kayaks for rent and can give you as much or as little assistance as you want.  If you check out their website, you'll discover a wealth of information, including a nicely done Google Earth overlay of trips and places to land and camp (translated into Garmin or GPX).   It's not exhaustive, but it's a superb starting point.  They do guided trips as well as simply rent you what you need to do your trip.  Depending on how you want to do your trip you can rent pretty much everything you need from them.   They'll answer any and all questions knowledgeably and accurately.  They also have a solid support boat that can haul several kayaks and gear.   We chose to just rent and go it alone, but they have several guided trips available.   Many of the cays in the Exumas are privately owned, but almost just as many are still Crown land, meaning that you can land and camp on the beach.  Essentially, if the cay isn't marked as private on your chart and there are no signs on the beach or signs of private ownership, you can freely use the space.   There isn't any area where there's more than a five or six mile paddle between public cays, so you always have somewhere to land and camp.

Outfitting

For single kayaks you can choose from a selection of rotomolded Necky kayaks: Looksha IVs, Looksha Vs, Eskias, and Elahos.  All are ruddered, beamy boats.   We chose a pair of Looksha IVs, which are not like sliding through the water in my NDK Explorer, but they work great and can haul a large amount of equipment, which is perfect for the environment.  The boats are well used, but function fine and come with Seals Tropical Tour sprayskirt, paddling PFD, Aquabound Stingray  fiberglass paddle (more on that later), splash jacket, charts, and pump/paddle float (if you request them).  Basically, if you really need it, Out Island will have it.  We've attached our packing list for reference, but if you check out the Out Island website, you'll easily be able to choose what you want to bring, and what you want to rent. 

Getting There/Getting Around

This is pretty easy.  You need to fly into Georgetown Airport (GGT), on the island of Great Exuma.   American Airlines has jet service there through Miami and allows you two checked bags to the destination without charge, which works perfectly.  If you're thinking of taking your folder (I thought about it), forget it, once you get through paying extra fees on the thing, it will end up being cheaper to rent from Out Island.  Out Island is also your safety backstop in some ways, so going down there without the relationship with them I think detracts from your potential support network significantly.   We found it easy to get to Georgetown airport and to get around by foot once we got to Georgetown.   Once you get to GGT, you'll go through Bahamian immigration and customs (no fresh food, keep everything in original packaging), and there are plenty of cabs ($30.00) to the center of Georgetown.   In terms of hotels, you have two major choices from what we saw: Marshall's Guest House ($105 a night, cash only (242) 336-2328 (the Bahamas uses the United States Dollar)) , and the Peace and Plenty Hotel (ranges, but about $165 or so a night).  We arrived at Marshalls and spent about 35 minutes just trying to find someone to check in.  The family doesn't run the place in an organized manner, so if you stay here, be prepared to deal with some frustration.  Although we had both booked several months out and called the day before to confirm, upon our arrival, we couldn't find anyone, and then they had no idea that we were coming.  We figured it out eventually, but it wasn't fun.  The same thing happened on the way back in.  We went to the Peace and Plenty for some meals and it seemed to be a very nice place with a good social life centered around the beautiful bar area that overlooks the harbor.  There are plenty of places to eat (see overlays).  You can expect to pay around $12-$15 for breakfast, $12-$20 for lunch and from $15-$40 for dinner depending on where you eat.  Most places are cash only besides the Peace and Plenty.  There is a decent grocery store as well (see overlay), where you can augment your packaged food with some fresh items, but everything is very expensive.  We took pretty much all our food from stateside and then bought some fresh fruit.  I highly recommend that you get the Explorer Charts for the Exumas as a reference.  You'll get a copy from Out Island, but it's nice to have the most recent version with the tides and for planning purposes. 

Day 1

Dallas and Tamara picked us up at Marshall's at 7 in the morning on a beautiful Wednesday.  Dallas remarked that the windless, sunny, 80 degree day was atypical for winter weather and more like Bahamas summer weather.  We found this to be very true later on. They had to make a run well north to Staniel Cay to re-supply a group, so they offered to drop us off at Lignum Vitae Cay vice having us start our paddle at Barraterre on Great Exuma.  That seemed like a great option and we loaded up everything on the boat and motored out in the perfectly clear turquoise water, spotting a brilliantly colored lost flamingo on the way.  After about a 30 minute trip we pulled up to the cay and offloaded the boats and our luggage onto the beach to commence packing our boats.  After pulling out all of our pre-packed dry bags we gave our luggage back to Dallas and they continued on their trip.  It took a while to get the boats packed and adjusted.  We had brought our 4-piece Eagle Ray and Manta Ray Aquabound touring paddles, which we had purchased for travelling with our folders.  The Out Island paddles were one pieces, so we decided to use our break-down paddles as spares since spares aren't part of the package.   We pushed off from the beach, marveling at the clarity of the water (VIDEO) and gasping at the almost overwhelming beauty that ranged from rugged, naked, craggy rocks rising like pyramids from the turquoise water, impossibly white sand beaches, and huge breaking waves in the narrow cuts between the cays (VIDEO).  The cuts between the cays have strong currents, breaking waves, and are generally not a great place to put a kayak.  They also have a tremendous effect on water conditions, and we'll discuss the "rage" later in detail.  As we paddled through a narrow channel by the Darby Island research station three huge stingrays flew beneath us in the narrow water.  We made a stop by the shallows next to Musha Cay (David Copperfield's resort) to re-adjust the unfamiliar boats and broke out our 4-piece paddles, which with their bigger blades and lighter weight, made for much easier paddling and checked out some of the huge red starfish that were feeding on the bottom.  Big Farmer's Cay was our first destination and there were several great options for camping on white sand beaches along this beautiful island.  In the end, we paddled to the protected bay at the northern end of the cay, across from the small settlement and yacht club on Little Farmer's Cay.  After pulling up to the protected beach we unloaded the kayaks and set up camp (VIDEO), boiling some pasta and making a delicious sauce and storing the leftovers in a plastic bag for the next days lunch.  After a snorkel to the small reef stocked with fish and living coral at the entrance to the cove, we tried taking a walk to the top of the hill behind us to look at the ocean side, but, a word to the wise, don't try to bust your way through the thicket of vegetation, it's pretty much impenetrable and anchored into rock that's pointed and very sharp.    There is a Bahamas Telco tower on Little Farmers Cay and there is good reception in this area.

Day 2

We awoke the next morning to a rainstorm inside our tent;  we learned that using the tent without the fly led to so much condensation that the water just "rained" into the tent.  Using the fly solved the issue.  After a quick paddle to the Little Farmer's Cay Yacht Club, we took about 30 minutes to find the proprietor and grab a breakfast of eggs, bacon, toast, and coffee.  It was the perfect start to another day of nearly perfect weather.  We paddled past the long a beautiful Great Guana Cay, which has incredible white beaches, the longest of which was our lunch stop just south of White Point.  The white sand beach there is nearly a mile long and there are dunes above it.  We didn't camp there, but it would make a phenomenal place to spend the night.  After polishing off our lunch we continued on our way, deciding to make camp on Gaulin Cay South, which looked like a nice white beach from a distance.  There were some beautiful white cliffs on the cay and the narrow cut on the northern side was literally roaring as the water rushed through at a tremendous rate.  As we unpacked the kayaks I walked up the beach to read some signs that showed that pets were banned on the cay.  I also noticed some very strange tracks on the beach that puzzled me until the Rhino yelled out "It's iguanas"! (VIDEO) The beach was full of scampering iguanas that kept emerging from the thicket.  These native species are endangered and each have a number painted on the side of them for tracking purposes.  After we set up camp we took a walk to the northern end of the island (VIDEO 1, VIDEO 2, VIDEO 3, VIDEO 4, VIDEO 5, VIDEO 6) to check out the narrow cut we had seen.  It was impressive, with what looked like shallow rapids coursing through at a rate that made us sure that if we stepped into them, we would be smashed against a rock with the remains out to sea in seconds.  We made our way up some of the sharp rocks to look at the ocean side, which stood in stark contrast to the calm lee side we were staying on.  That night we decided that rather than do an out and back trip, we wanted to push further north.  With at least one day of bad weather on the horizon, we called Dallas that night and arranged for a pickup the following Wednesday on Staniel Cay, allowing us more time to explore.  With absolutely nothing in sight except for islands and ocean being on Gaulin Cay felt like we were marooned on an island in the middle of the ocean with no one within hundreds of miles.  During the past two days of paddling we had seen only a handful of sailboats and yachts.  The Exumas seem relatively free of tourists as you cruise north.  It may be that most people head to Nassau on New Providence Island or the that there are relatively few visitors spread over a large area, but regardless the overall effect is one of blissful isolation.  Dinner was delicious curry and rice and we went to sleep for the night after watching the breathtaking sunset.

Day 3

The wind had started during the night, and even on our protected beach, we could see that the shallow waters were pretty well stirred up.  Over the next few days we learned a lot about the weather and wind in the Bahamas.  The winds that come with the winter weather tends to clock around the compass in a regular pattern, but blew primarily from the east/north east.  The "sweet spot" for barometric pressure was from 1013mb to 1015mb.  Any lower than that presaged a storm, and any more than that brought high winds.  On the third day the wind was blowing from the SW, so the cays provided no protection and the waves were large since they had a nearly unlimited fetch along the lengths of the Exumas chain.  We learned that you can't just decided a route without truly considering the effect of the wind and the depth of the water, since deeper water is definitely your friend when during high wind since the shallower water produces steep breaking waves.  Since there's no ocean swell to lend regularity to the waves, they break on top of each other and are very unpredictable.  As soon as we pulled out of the slight protection offered by Gaulin Cay we were immediately hit broadside by four to five foot breaking waves and a howling wind that was blowing in the 25-30 knot range.  The waves were tough to handle since our beamy kayaks broached constantly and didn't ride the waves well.  We tried to take refuge in a cove at Bittter Guana Cay, which helped, and we decided to turn back to the more protected waters of Gaulin Cay to re-assess our situation.  After some deliberation, we decided that although the waves were steep, we could handle them (VIDEO)and push on to get lunch at the Staniel Cay Yacht Club on Staniel Cay, approximately 8 miles away.  The pretty much following sea was to our rear left quarter and waves broke over us constantly.  When we left the last protection of Bitter Guana, we were in five to six foot seas, but the waves were coming from one direction and we were able to handle the situation.  A rage happens when a strong opposing wind meets an ebbing current in a cut.  If you have a couple of millions of gallons of water a minute squeezed between a narrow, rocky space and then add a very strong opposing wind, you get very steep breaking waves in all directions, creating a dangerous situation for a kayak.  We hadn't really looked carefully at the Explorer charts to understand the phenomenon and paddled directly into a rage between Bitter Guana and Staniel Cays, which are also dotted with small, rocky cays that roiled the water even more.  Picking our way through the rocks and waves that came from all directions and angles was exhausting, but there was no question that if we capsized, it we be difficult to perform a rescue.  We continued wending our way towards the protected bay by the Yacht Club, and I made the mistake of getting too close to shore, where the shallow water magnified the waves, and surging water almost capsized me near a rocky point.  After about another mile, we got into a more protected area and landed on a protected beach beneath a bright blue sea wall next to the Yacht club.  We pulled our boats up on the beach past the high water mark, took out our valuables and garbage, although I doubt anyone would have touched the kayaks, and took the short walk to the clubhouse.  The yacht club isn't a stuffy place, it was relaxed and friendly and offered a nice menu for lunch.  Since they weren't going to serve lunch for a little while we walked around the very small settlement, which has some stores, including a grocery.  We had some fresh catch fish sandwiches that were incredibly tasty along with some Cokes, dropped off our garbage, and got some extra water (.50 cents a gallon).  Our next stop was Big Majors Spot, where we wanted to check out the famous swimming pigs.  A short 1.5 miles away we pulled up to find a family of pigs (VIDEO) on the beach that immediately swam towards our kayak, looking for food.  We back-paddled in a hurry since we were pretty sure that the enormous porkers would climb aboard and capsize us.  This protected bay actually has quite a few sailboats and yachts at anchor.  Our campsite was on Thomas Cay, which is in the protected area called Pipe Creek, bordered on both the east and west by cays that provided shelter.  The cay is a beautiful island with a nice beach and a great trail that runs to the ocean side, providing spectacular views.  As we made camp several sailboats kept pulling in and anchoring in some of the deeper water to the southwest of the island, which was a pretty good clue for incoming bad weather.  Coincidentally, if you need a weather report, you can always ask any of the sailboats that you come across, they always have the up-to-date forecast.  We checked daily when we could find someone to ask.  After setting up camp we followed the trail through the brush, past some huge termite nests, across a dry salt marsh (where there was enough standing water to make us glad that we were taking malaria prophylaxis) and up some rocky, sandy hills until we were treated to a view of the wide open Atlantic crashing on a small beach.  We noticed that the trail continued down the island and resolved to take the trail if we had time.  That night the barometer dropped to 1009mb and storm clouds started to move in, pushed in by a strong wind.  That night the wind was howling around the island and I actually tied the tent off to surrounding trees to make sure that the stakes didn't get pulled from the sand. 

Day 4

The next morning we awoke to a large storm that was blasting the area with high winds and horizontal rain blowing from the west (VIDEO).  With sailboats rocking even at anchor, we decided that paddling that day would be unwise, especially with thunderstorms projected for that afternoon.  The opportunity to walk around the only cay we'd seen with a trail system was too much to pass up and we made our way back to the ocean side of the island, where the wind was blocked.  We made our way down the island and found rocky and sandy beaches littered with the detritus of Atlantic storms, steep cliffs, and incredible views of the ocean (VIDEO 1, VIDEO 2).  Once we reached the end of the island, we decided to simply walk around rather than go back the way we came, which began one of the most arduous hikes we've ever taken.  A note to the wise, don't walk in places that don't have trails.  With the brush absolutely impenetrable, we had to make our way on a narrow rock ledge composed of craggy limestone that could easily tear the flesh off the bone.  This isn't an exaggeration;  the rocks are literally razor sharp.  As we rounded the bend we were hit with rain that was being driven so hard by the wind that it was painful.  We kept at this, picking our way carefully along the thin ledge of sharp rock with impenetrable jungle on one side and racing, boiling current on the other side (VIDEO).  It was exhausting work, but we eventually made it back to our campsite, giddy with having made it in one piece. 

Day 5

The next morning barometer had risen to 1019mb, which I figured was great and would bring nice weather.  This is not the case.  After a storm the barometer continues to rise, bringing with it strong E/NE winds that can blow for days.  All this is explained in the weather section of the Explorer Chartbook, and it the weather patterns seem to closely follow the descriptions of the patterns they describe in the book.  We really didn't want to spend another day at Thomas Cay, and the wind seemed to have moderated enough to make paddling safe, so we packed up and ventured out to O'Briens Cay, inside of the Exumas Land and Sea Park.  This was another gorgeous paddle, and the sun cooperated by coming out right as we began to paddle.  There is a long, exposed area during this paddle, and it was pretty well stirred up, but still handle-able.  As we reached the Rocky Dundas, two small, high islands pocked by sea caves that mark the boundary of the park, a motorboat with the Exumas Park Wardens pulled up to check on us.  Dallas had called them two days prior to let them know we would be paddling in the park and with the poor weather they wanted to make sure we were ok.  After a brief conversation we continued on our way to O'Brien's Cay.  As we reached the southern end of the island a large ocean swell from the southern cut gently pushed us north until we found a break in the rocky reef surrounding the island, which led into a channel that fed into a beautiful cove with dense vegetation and white sand flats.   After a quick bathroom stop we continued along the shoreline of the island until we reached the "u" shaped cove where we wanted to make our camp.  As we punched through some very strong currents from the facing cut we were stopped in our tracks by a breathtaking landscape of mangrove inlets, white sand flats barely covered by high tide and the clearest water we had seen yet.  We paddled into the cove and found a beautiful campsite (VIDEO).  The outgoing tide would eventually leave this area completely dry, with a small stream running by it that drained the inland cove.  The area of strong current we had paddled through has a reef called the "Sea Aquarium" (VIDEO) and we snorkeled in the area, which was replete with tropical fish, conch (which is mostly dead outside of the no-take area of the park) and a stunning variety of coral and plants.  On a side note, the Epic sports camera that I'd bought to the trip which would have been great for filming all this failed miserably due to a design flaw that causes the protruding lens to press against the waterproof case, scratching it to the point where the center of the image is completely blurred.  If you're looking for an small helmet camera type unit, don't buy this one. 

Day 6

The barometer remained high, so rather than push north, we decided to start making our way south to ensure we made our pickup at Staniel Cay since the wind was blowing fiercely out of the east.  We knew that this would be a tough paddle with the wind hitting us directly broadside during the long crossing near the Rocky Dundas.  In order to mitigate this, we figured that we would paddle well to the west of our original route, using the sparse cays to block the wind and sticking to somewhat deeper water.  This strategy didn't work well and as we paddled past Bells Cay an anchored sailboat asked us where we were going "just in case", which was the captain's way of saying "you're going where in those things in this wind?".  When we lost the protection of the islands we had the wind blowing both directly against us and also broadside from the east.  It was slow, difficult paddling and we pulled in the lee of a cay half-way already tired of paddling against the wind and bracing against the breaking waves hitting us broadside.  After a few hours of this we spotted a set of white sand beaches ahead of us and turned a bit to make a landing at what ended up being one of our most beautiful campsites on Pipe Cay.  Once again, we were completely alone with absolutely nothing and no one in sight.  We were treated to an incredible sunset with a classic view of some small rocky cays bordered by the limitless turquoise sea (VIDEO). 

Day 7

Our plan for our last full day of paddling was to go paddle to Staniel Cay for lunch and then camp at Big Majors Spot in anticipation of our pickup the next day.  With the barometer still hovering around 1019mb, we knew it would be windy, but with the prospect of Cokes and fish sandwiches we pushed through the wind generated waves, trying several strategies for blocking the wind, none of which worked.  Pipe Creek provided no help, and we saw a motor yacht that had run aground, presumably because it had dragged its' anchor.   Once again we battled a strong wind, but it was worth it when we bit into grilled mahi-mahi at the yacht club.  The protected harbor at Big Majors Spot was well-populated with sailboats escaping the wind, but after studying the chart we found a wonderful campsite on the other side of the island.  Once we landed we prepared to go for a snorkel at the reef near the beach, but we were temporarily distracted by a family of wild goats that appeared out of the scrub to see if we had any food.  This was a beautiful site, but exceptionally buggy, with tiny biting gnats.  Luckily they were very responsive to a good application of Sunsect (a combination of DEET at sunblock that works great).

Day 8

The next morning we packed up and headed to Staniel Cay.  We stopped by the Thunderball Grotto, but the tide was too high with a strong current, preventing us from making the snorkel.  After breakfast and wandering around the island for a while, we unpacked our gear, at which time the Rhino sliced her finger with one of our dive knives.  Luckily we always have a very well stocked medical kit and we were able to fix it up.  Dallas picked us up in the support boat and we pushed to Great Exuma.

 

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