Ahmad Khan

Chef Ahmad Khan tends to dinner.

“Come out and fall in love with sweet, sweet Trinidad. Our destination has so much to offer. Once you get out and explore safely, following all the protocols, now is the perfect timing to discover our destination in all its fullness… Like the dinner sunset tour of Caroni Bird Sanctuary which is a meaningful experience for individuals, families and friends,” announces Heidi Alert, acting CEO of Tourism Trinidad Limited. In keeping with Tourism Trinidad Limited’s domestic tourism campaign to encourage citizens to spend their weekends visiting local sites and attractions, Alert’s words are the entrée to a new sunset tour experience at the Caroni Bird Sanctuary offered by Nanan’s Caroni Bird Sanctuary Tours.

I look at my jeans and shirt and wonder if I am dressed appropriately for a dinner sunset tour but as the boat leaves the mainland of Covid-19 checkpoints, the reality of the Caroni River sets in through the chirping serenade of birds. I am in the company of a mixed crowd of adventurers and media personnel as the boat wades through the water amidst a briefing on the Caroni Bird Sanctuary by Lisa Nanan. Nanan is co-owner of Nanan’s Caroni Bird Sanctuary Tours with her siblings, Victor, Allister and Dexter Nanan and she is the daughter of the late Winston Nanan, after whom the bird sanctuary was named in the year 2015. The Nanan legacy adds to the beautiful backstory of the Sanctuary which unfolds with each turn on the brown water as we get a tantalising taste of sweet, sweet T&T.

We are a few metres into the Caroni River as natural scenes straddle the framing swamp land. “Look it there, you not seeing it?” a woman says excitedly as we spot him. Camera ready with racing hearts, the other patrons and I wait for the perfect picture of him- the big snake wrapped snuggly around the mangrove branch. “This snake is a tree boa and it is not a venomous snake,” Nanan announces but a photographer sitting ahead of me, though intrigued by the resting reptile, prefers to keep his distance. “Gosh take care he fall on my head!” Nanan laughs at the natural response to the herpetofauna (reptiles and amphibians) which come with the 8,000-hectare wetland but she assures that all will be well.

Indeed the big snake is just the beginning of an excursion into the enthralling eco-elements of the Caroni Bird Sanctuary.

Before this blessed boat ride I knew some facts about the Caroni Bird Sanctuary. Protected under the Ramsar Convention as a wetland of international importance, the Caroni Brid Sanctuary supports a rich biodiversity, provides food and protection and is a nursery for a multitude of marine and freshwater species. Home to the radiantly coloured Scarlet Ibis (Eudocimus ruber L.), the national bird of Trinidad, it is the largest mangrove swamp in Trinidad. When approached to cover the Sanctuary, I was happy because ashamedly (I have been to other swamps and bird sanctuaries internationally but never to the one in my homeland) it would be my first time. To be honest though, the sites I see and the ambience of the evening far exceed my expectations and the experiences I had in other countries.

The mangroves wave to us as we pass their mysterious presence. Roots above the water entangled and enchanting, creating doorways for your imagination.

Childhood memories

Nanan remembers her childhood moments when she used to jump from mangrove to mangrove manoeuvring her way along the endearing roots. A short woman with glasses not far from where I sit remembers studying the mangroves of the Caroni swamp in her biology classes while a man with years of experience in culture and nature pays tribute to the tall trees. I have no mangrove stories; just pure respect for God’s beautiful creations.

“My father lived in this sanctuary for more than 60 years. Within this time, he learned about the mangroves and the ecology of the swamp so that he could educate others,” Nanan tells us. As the boat makes its way towards the red crabs traversing the mangrove branches (the red crabs serve as food for the scarlet ibis and give them their flamboyant red colour), we wet our appetites for the climax of the Caroni experience—the Scarlet Ibis in full flight. But it’s too early to see them in all their glory. Two or three of them hide in the shadows of the mangrove. Like red ladies modestly waiting until their moment of masquerade they lurk in the dimming light as the sun starts it’s descent for the evening.

“This place really beautiful,” a woman in a “Visit T&T” jersey declares. She is in awe of the unveiling sunset. “It’s like a scene from one of those Disney movies,” she continues as the epiphytes, occasional small birds, mangrove and mountains (you can see El Tucuche mountain from the swamp) create a portrait of paradise. Indeed, enlightening and enticing, the Caroni Bird Sanctuary is food for thought. Why isn’t this pretty place more popular amongst locals? Why are we not doing more to preserve it? And finally, why is the boatman stopping at this point?

“This is where we dock because the scarlet ibis birds will fly in soon towards that bank across there,” the boat man, Victor Nanan informs. This news comes like hot bread for a hungry man. We all start to chatter excitedly while the Nanan crew starts popping bottles of wine and the chefs for the sunset dinner, Rasam Restaurant, start dishing out gourmet food. Sweet and sour melongene, pumpkin soup, steamed lobster in garlic sauce; now I understand the extra allure of dining on the river. It’s like having an exquisite dinner date in the backdrop of a live landscape art piece… Speaking of live the birds begin to fly in.

Wow, look at those pretty birds. This is my best day ever. Hey, anybody getting Wi-Fi? (my “me-too” conk out!) How much are these bird sanctuary trips? What number do I call to book? The comments and questions fly out of my head as quickly as the scarlet Ibis fly towards the bank. It’s a once in a lifetime experience. Although I am the noisiest of the lot, everyone shares my enthusiasm and then to seal off the evening, when we finish our delicious dinner, a saxophonist serenades accompanied by a guitarist. Love fills the air. Love for nature, love for country, and unadulterated love for wildlife as I promise to bring my husband on a date to the Caroni Bird Sanctuary next time…

Regrettably, the time to part ways with the wonders of the Caroni Bird Sanctuary comes too quickly. A quick boat ride back to the mainland illuminated by a sexy moonlight and before I know it I am opening my van to make my journey back into land reality. As I drive home to conclude the day, I shake my head in agreement with Alert, as I too have fallen in love with sweet, sweet T&T.

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