A photo shoot in Haiti: Pointe-Ouest, Tortuga Island

Gilles Hudicourt

In 1996, a survey team from Condé Nast Traveler had seen the Pointe-Ouest beach from an airplane and wanted to include it in a survey of the 10 nicest beaches in the Caribbean. When the photographers and writer arrived in Port-au-Prince on a tight schedule to take the pictures, they found out how difficult it would be to get there: first, renting a Jeep to go to Port-de-Paix (a trip of 8 hours if it didn't rain, several days if it did), then chartering a boat for the 20 miles ride to Pointe-Ouest. They just could not fit such an expedition into their schedule so they left Haiti for their next shoot.

After they left, Walky Bussenius, owner of Hotel Mont-Joli in Cap-Haïtien heard about this and involved Maryse Pennet, then Minister of tourism. They contacted Condé Nast and asked if they would consider returning if they got help getting to Pointe-Ouest. They agreed and a date was set for their return. There had been at Pointe-Ouest an old grass airstrip built around 1970 by an American company who attempted to lease the area from the Haitian government in order to build a resort there. The project had fallen through. The airstrip had not been used in years and was covered with grass, brush and a few small trees. Walky contacted a Canadian priest who lived in La Tortue and asked him to drive over in his four-wheel drive vehicle (several hours) and hire a crew to clear the strip. He did that.

Walky hired me to fly over to Jamaica and fly the Condé Nast crew into Cap-Haïtien first, then Ile de la Tortue. The day before I was to do that, I decided to fly over to La Tortue to make sure the strip was ready. There was no communication between that area and Walky, since there is no phone, no radios, no cars, no electricity, not even a town there, just temporary huts where fishermen from St-Louis du Nord come to fish several weeks at a time. I was operating a 1957 Beechcraft E18-S, with a tail-wheel and huge main wheels, perfect for rough strips. The flight to Pointe-Ouest from Port-au-Prince took about 45 minutes. I circled the strip several times and did a low pass at 80 kts that I timed, in order to have an idea of its length. It seemed pretty short. The timing indicated about 1400 feet. People from the area, mostly the workers that had toiled on the field showed up running from all sides as I circled.

I landed, stopping just 10 feet short of the far end, with all my weight on both brake pedals the whole time. When I got out, I pulled my GPS from the panel, installed a portable antenna, and paced the strip to measure it with the GPS. It was only 800 feet long. I talked to the people and asked them to continue. Walky had promised me 2000 feet. They said the money was over and that to continue they needed extra money. I had no idea what arrangements had been made with or by whom but I told them I needed extra length to bring the photo crew back the next day. I took off using the whole runway to the very end, but I was very light and the sole occupant of aircraft with minimal fuel. As I circled one last time, I saw the crew get to work on the end of the strip. Little did I know they would all go home as soon as my plane disappeared over the horizon.

On the way home I noticed that one of my engines did not give full power. I flew back to Port-au-Prince and informed my mechanic of this. He quickly found the problem : there was a dead bird inside the engine's air intake located on the bottom of the cowling. The feathers had spread all against a protective screen, partially blocking the air intake. It was fixed in 5 minutes. That evening, I was informed by someone at the Ministry of Tourism, that I was to pick the Condé Nast crew in Kingston, fly them to Cap-Haïtien to clear customs, fly them back to Pointe-Ouest for a rough survey, fly them back again to Cap-Haïtien for the night, the fly them again at dawn to Pointe-Ouest for the real photo shoot.

The next day, I flew to Kingston to pick up the Conde-Nast Traveler crew. There was a writer, a photographer, his assistant and lots of luggage and gear. It was all right roomwise since the old Beech was a 10 seater but I needed to be as light as possible to fly out of that strip. In Kingston we were delayed by customs and air traffic control by about two hours. En route I quickly realized there would be no time to fly to Cap and clear customs before going back to Pointe-Ouest and do the survey. Neither Pointe-Ouest nor Cap-Haïtien (Haiti's second city and airport) had runway lights for night operations. They only way to do the job was to fly straight into Pointe-Ouest from Kingston, which we did. That would have been highly illegal in normal times but this was a government chartered flight, so I gave myself the right to do it. As soon as we got overhead, it was clear that nothing had been done on the strip since I left the previous morning. I did my lowest and slowest approach and touched down just a few feet from the threshold and stood on the brakes after that but it wasn't enough. We rolled past the end about 200 feet into waist high brush with rocks. I tried to look as though it was normal and did this every day but I don't think I did a very convincing job. I made a 180 turn and taxied back to the cleared part of the strip.

I told the Conde Nast Crew they had 45 minutes. The writer got out and paced the area while the photographer and his assistant virtually ran around the area, scouting for the next day's photo shoot. They all came back to the aircraft exactly 45 minutes later in sweat. We took off again, but this time we were 4, had a couple hundred pounds of luggage and equipment and several hundred pounds of fuel. I probably overran the end and into the bush by a few hundred feet before succeeding in nursing the aircraft into air. We arrived in Cap just before sunset and cleared customs, inbound from Jamaica.

That evening, the Minister of Tourism official called me and informed that President Rene Preval would show up in a Canadian Forces (UN service) helicopter during the photo shoot to emphasize to Conde Nast the importance of this article for Haiti. I told the official about my decision to land in Pointe-Ouest without clearing Haitian Customs first. He told me I had done the right thing.

The next day we all got up in the dark and drove to Cap-Haïtien airport and took off for Pointe-Ouest at the first light of dawn. The photo shoot went very well. Around 11 am, two Canadian Forces Bell 212 helicopters painted white with big UN letters landed on the beach and out came President René Préval along with Minister Maryse Pennet. The Condé Nast crew was stunned. Why was the President going out of his way for just a photo shoot? They later asked him if he would pose in the water. He said no, had no bathing suit. The writer mentioned that one of the greatest pictures of all time was of Mao Tse Tung crossing the Yang tze. President Preval said he also remembered that of Idi Ami Dada crossing his swimming pool, nearly drowning his ministers in the process. He then agreed. The photographer's assistant had a spare bathing suit in his suitcase. I ran to the airplane and got it. I provided the towel that was used to shield President Preval as he changed. He went for a swim, at the photographer's delight.

Pointe-Ouest made the cover of the Condé Nast Traveler of November 1996. It was the first time in ages a travel magazine had mentioned Haiti. - G.H.

Haiti, Ile de le Tortue. René Préval, President of the Republic of Haiti, helicopters in to inspect Hâkan Ludwigson's photo shoot and is persuaded to take a swim for the cameras.

This second column is excerpted from Condé Nast Traveler (11/96)

While the Dominican Republic's tourist industry shows every sign of prospering, that of its island neighbour, Haiti, is still in a most primitive state. It has-as photographer Hâkan Ludwigson and I found-deserted beaches of sensational beauty, yet no resources either to transport tourists to them or to accommodate them once they are there. What few hotels exist are concentrated in Port-au-Prince and Cap-Haïtien, a day's bruising jeep-ride away from the prime beach areas.

The one practical means of travel is by air, but this too has its hazards. The only plane that Ludwigson and I could charter was a battered forty-year-old twin-prop Beechcraft with double tail fins that looked as if it had flown straight out of the last scene of Casablanca. It had a teddy bear mascot dangling from the windscreen (at least we would know which way up we were), and a pilot wearing jeans, a T-shirt, sneakers, and a week's stubble on his youthful face (his name was Gilles, and he turned out to be a brilliant flier).

Our destination was a beach we had been told about on Ile de la Tortue (also known as Tortuga), an island just off the north-west coast of Haiti. In its day, Tortue was a famous pirate hangout occupying a strategic position next to the Windward Passage, the main seaway connecting the Caribbean to the Atlantic. A rough airstrip had been hacked out of thé scrub behind Tortue's beach but hadn't been used since 1991. The local fishermen, in anticipation of our arrival, had been offered money to clear the undergrowth, but as we circled before landing, we could see that only the first 600 feet had been cleared (2,500 feet is the length an airstrip should be). Gilles had no hesitation; he pushed down the stick and went in. It was the scariest landing of my life. For the last fifty yards we were bumping through thigh-high scrub. "If this had been a modern plane," said Gilles, presumably to reassure us, "the tricycle undercarriage would have torn off. But these old tail-wheel aircraft have a different landing geometry and bounce safely along a difficult landing strip." He sounded so assured you had to believe him.

The photo shoot went brilliantly: The day was intensely blue, the sea a fierce turquoise, the beach broad and white. From time to time, fishermen from the little village of thatched huts at the end of the beach sailed by, hoping to earn a dollar or two by getting themselves in a shot. They, however, weren't the only Haitians keen to get in on the act. The day before our departure for Tortue we had received a brief message to say that René Préval, the president of the Republic of Haiti, was proposing to visit the beach himself and watch us at work. We speculated on the reason for his visit. Tortue is 150 miles from Port-au-Prince, a long way to go just for an outing. But Haiti, with its advisers from the UN, had been working on a national development plan and had chosen tourism as one of the possible ways ahead. An eight-step program had been drawn up, and maybe the president needed a few symbolic gestures to get the tourism bandwagon rolling.

We heard the low thrum of the two UN helicopters long before they came into view. They put down on the beach immediately in front of us and discharged a posse of men in dark glasses and bulging suits followed by the beaming, casually clad figure of the president himself. It was very hot. The president took one look at the beach and made straight for the nearest shady tree, where he sat surrounded not only by his entourage but also by the local villagers, who proved to be surprisingly eloquent at listing their grievances (at least that is what I presumed they were doing-I could pick up only an occasional word of their patois). The president never for a moment allowed his affability to slip. Could this relaxed, pleasant, modest, smiling man really be the holder of the world's most turbulent political office? Of Haiti's countless presidents, few have died in their beds: Papa Doc was a rare exception.

Ludwigson was provided with a helicopter so he could take aerial shots of the beach. The photograph we really wanted, however, was of the president taking a swim, but he was reluctant to go in the water. Gilles, our pilot, found him some new swimming shorts, but still he declined. Then I had a brainstorm. I reminded him that perhaps the most famous news photos ever of a head of state were of Mao Zedong swimming in the Yangtze. If Mao would do it, why wouldn't he? The argument was decisive, and the president, smiling as determinedly as a synchronised swimmer, spent several minutes performing in the sea.

If I had to bet which of our ten great beaches will still be unspoiled and intact in ten years' time, my money would go on Ile de la Tortue. There have been several attempts to develop it, but all have been a casualty of practical problems (such as water resources) or of Haiti's volatile politics.

For myself, I would be happy if Tortue remained forever just as it is. To find anywhere in the world a beach of this quality without a building, without a road, without even an excursion boat, is a rare treat and worth all the alarms of getting there. The only thing it lacks to achieve utter perfection is a little beach bar made out of driftwood, with an affable and talented barkeep. - R.H.