April 23, 2012


David Ellis

WHEN the people of the little island of Saba in the Caribbean's Netherlands Antilles asked authorities in the 1940s for a road to link their scattered farms and hamlets with their tiny port township, officials in The Hague agreed it appeared a reasonable enough request.

But once their team of engineers got there to assess the job, it didn't take them long to realise that Saba was not just any old island. It was a jumbled collection of high and rugged peaks that rose from suicidally tortuous valleys and craggy coastal cliffs, and certainly was not the kind of country you could build a road through – even if the whole island was just eight square kilometres in size.

So on their return to Holland the engineers sent word back to the Sabans: "Nee – a road is impossible."

After digesting this reply, the entrepreneurial Sabans decided that if Holland's top engineers reckoned they couldn't do it, then they would build their road themselves.

A 40-year old carpenter, Joseph Hassel was their main inspiration, and because he knew nothing of road making, enrolled himself in a five year course in the subject… by correspondence.

Then he and Saba's just-1000 other residents planned out their road to villages, isolated farms and communities, and agreed unanimously that every able-bodied man, woman and child would contribute set hours of voluntary road-work every week – armed with little more than picks, shovels, rakes, buckets and spades.

They took and extraordinary twenty-five years to build their concrete masterpiece – the road The Hague engineers said "was impossible."

In most places the tortuous artery rises and falls at up to 35-degrees, and U-turns almost double back over themselves – so that from the sea or air it cuts a similar line to China's Great Wall, and thus is dubbed The Great Road of Saba.

Nearly fifty years after it was opened, the road – that's never been given an official name beyond The Road – links the little port of Fort Bay with its diesel power station, souvenir shop and a couple of dive shops, with The Bottom (the village at the base of the largest mountain,) picturesque Windwardside, Hell's Gate and the airport.

Today there are still just 1600 people live here in delightful gingerbread houses that all have white-washed walls, red tile roofs and green window shutters – enforced by law.

And old-timers will recall how, before The Road was built, to get from their wharf to their homes they used a series of ladders with over 900 steps from sea level to link with mountain walking tracks and trails to their farms, homes, shops and businesses.

Everything from groceries to furniture and farm goods was hauled-in (and out) via these ladders and tracks, including with the help of dozens of locals, a local musician's full-size grand piano.

Saba gets around 25,000 visitors a year who either come by ferry, a few small cruise-ships, or by air… although you've need of a stout stomach if flying in: once again when told it would be impossible to build an airport on the island, the Sabans simply said "No" to "Nee," carved the top off one of their hills, pushed it into the sea, and laid a runway across it.

The Sabans don't encourage large cruise ships for fear of damaging their environment and being "over-run by gawkers," and happily point out that, anyway, they've no beaches, no duty-free shops, and virtually no transport beyond the few taxi-vans.

But they do have some of the Caribbean's most spectacular diving, extraordinary scenery, quaint little stores selling hand-made souvenirs and exceptional lace goods, a museum in a 160-year old house, little cafés with wonderful island/Dutch cuisine including mouth-watering local lobsters and "Dutch Tea" (Heineken Beer)… and the opportunity to climb 1064 steps to take-in the kaleidoscopic vista from the highest peak.   

There are also a few small hotels and guest houses – and if they're all booked out, Saba Police Station's two cells have never housed a prisoner so the entrepreneurial police officers have turned these into an emergency peak-season Bed and Breakfast.

See travel agents about Caribbean Island ferry services to Saba and small holiday vessels like the 112-passenger SeaDream I and SeaDream II (www.seadream.com) that visit as part of Caribbean itineraries from November to April.   



[] MOUNTAINOUS with The Road zippered to 35-degree hillsides and U-turns that almost double-back on themselves.

[] AN easier section of The Road.

[] PICTURESQUE mountain community not seeking "to be over-run by gawkers" from big cruise ships.

[] SABA's Police Station: its two cells double as a B&B in peak season.

[] ONE of the few cruise ships to visit Saba, SeaDream Yacht Club's SeaDream II is welcome with an average of just 100 guests.

(Photos: David Ellis)


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