People play with dolphins, laze around with gorillas and hang out with chimps. But here in this area of the Bahamas, it is the pigs that are the main attraction.

“Your passport should take about two years”. Such was the hospitality of this Bahamian island that the locals had decided to keep us. Jan Norman experiences some surprising swimming companions and new highs in the warmth of the welcome.

No visit to the Exuma Islands is complete without a visit to the famous swimming pigs. Yes, other people play with dolphins, laze around with gorillas and hang out with chimps. But here in this area of the Bahamas, it is the pigs that are the main attraction.

These lucky porkers have their very own island. It is called Big Major Cay and they spend their days rooting around Pig Beach. Back in the day of the first settlers, an entrepreneur from nearby Staniel Cay found that the unpleasant odour from his oinking live-stock was causing some olfactory discomfort in his tiny hamlet. He hit upon the cunning plan of relocating his pigs to a nearby deserted island, one of many in this outer-Bahamas archipelago.

So these little piggies were moved to their own neighbouring retreat where they could be “harvested” as the need arose for a roast and some streaky bacon. The pigs learnt that while the sight of the oncoming boat may mean the loss of a family member, it also signalled the arrival of food. After a few decades, the pigs were declared protected and pig farming ceased. The descendants of those original hogs remain here today, providing a unique tourist attraction.

These smart babes have gathered that whoever swims out to the visiting boats first is the most likely to score snacks from the day-trippers. As we glided in on our boat, there was no sign of the pigs at first, then the low scrubby bushes at the back of the beach began to move and emit grunting sounds. The pigs leapt onto their trotters, the grunts gave way to squeals and they hurled themselves headlong down the beach! Plunging into the water, they swam furiously towards us using their snouts as built-in snorkels. Now was the time for us to belly flop overboard and swim towards the shore, surrounded by a motley coloured crew of swine. Surprisingly calm and respectful, there was no snapping or biting or snatching. The only lurking danger were the bobbing poop parcels.

In the Exuma Islands we experienced a friendly sincerity that seemed even warmer on account of our South African-ness. We were offered condolences upon the loss of Nelson Mandela, we were invited to dance, to drink, to eat and share and even to sing at the vibrant gospel churches. But once the locals got to know us and it was clear that we were staying for longer than a week, their attention turned to how to keep us.  A piece of land was proposed, a job or two was offered and we were solemnly assured “Your Bahamian passport will only take about two years”.

The Bahamian people feel specially connected to post-apartheid South Africa having been vigorous crusaders against the previous regime. In 1985 the Nassau Accord was signed in the capital city by the Commonwealth leaders and the former Prime Minster Sir Lynden Pindling (who took a leading role in this initiative). The Accord called on the government of South Africa to dismantle its apartheid policy, start negotiations with the country’s black majority and end its occupation of Namibia. One of Nelson Mandela’s first foreign trips after his release from prison was to the Bahamas where he thanked the people for their role in campaigning for change in South Africa.

The Exuma Islands are a district of the Bahamas and comprise 365 small islands and cays (one for every day of year as you will hear almost every day). Scattered in a gentle croissant-shaped curve, they bask in continual sunshine, unspoilt and relatively undiscovered. Shallow waters deter the big cruise iners, so mass development has mostly side-stepped the Exumas. They have been left almost casino-less, club-less and are low in large-scale resorts.

This is the secret bolthole of yachties-in-the-know, publicity-shy celebrities and the non-packaged genre of traveller.  Previously and even relatively recently these cays were ideal hideaways for a wide variety of dodgy characters from pirates to modern-day drug dealers. You can even snorkel around a sunken drug plan in just 20 foot of water.

The committed chiller will find no shortage of opportunities to chill, but the mothership of chill-out spots must be Stocking Island. If you are without your own marine craft, Captain Elvis is the ferry man to take you there. He can be found at the George Town harbour with his water-taxi, complete with onboard bar and laid-back music. Stocking is a dot of an island but all of life’s necessities can be found here, including a beach pub (called Chat ‘n Chill, of course), AJ the master chef of conch salad, visiting dolphins, giant rays of the marine-kind and even a flip flop repair shop. Reggae tunes and rum cocktails will let you forget all of your real-world worries, just don’t forget to catch the last water-taxi back to base.

If you do make it back to George Town (located on Great Exuma, the largest of the cays) and if it is a Monday, it may be Rake ‘n Scrape night at Eddie’s Edgewater Restaurant and Bar where even white people find some inner rhythm. It’s one of the coolest and most authentic island bars here, and undoubtedly the best place to catch some local vibes. The pulsating tunes of the scraping carpenter’s saw and banging goatskin drum deliver compelling dance music that makes for a memorable night of island-style partying. Sugary rum cocktails help with the dance moves.

A late dawning the next day brought more hazy horizons as we headed off to rest our elbows on the bar at Santana’s Grill Pit near William’s Town. An early lunch found us hydrating with the local beer, Kalik. Mary arrived; a local carrying her own thermal-insulated sippy cup.  The J&B appeared. The mug was filled to the brim and May’s health was enquired upon. “Well, I woke up. I wasn’t pushing up no daisies so I must be fine”. Appreciation is a fine trait so we took heed and indulged in lobster, grouper and conch fritters. Along with another Kalik of course.

A beach is a beach is a beach in the world of island holidays but when it is layered with warm hospitality, colourful culture and some hogs of the high seas, it is altogether something else.  A place worth returning to…with or without the passport.

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