Northeast of the Caroni Plains and right at the end of the Churchill Roosevelt Highway, stone pillars at the edge of the tarmac mark the entrance to the former American airbase at Waller Field. The hangars, barrack blocks and control rooms are long gone, though the old runway is used for regular drag racing meets. The main draw in the area, however, are the 18 square kilometres of the Aripo Savannah Scientific Reserve, Trinidad’s last remaining portion of savannah land, which was given protected status in 1934. In 1871, author Charles Kingsley wrote that the area “filled me with more admiration than anything I have seen in the island”, and it’s still a startlingly beautiful place, vast, eerie and empty despite its proximity to the Northern Range and the clamour of the East–West Corridor. The emptiness is deceiving, however; the area’s sensitive ecosystem provides a home to 260 species of birds and 243 documented species of flora, many of which are rarely (if ever) seen elsewhere on the island. Among the plants are parasitic vines, wild calabash, ground orchids and the endemic carnivorous sundew plant, while savannah hawks, red-bellied macaws and fork-tailed palm swifts (among innumerable others) are more easily spotted here than elsewhere on Trinidad. Each savannah is divided by impressive galba-palm forests and palm marshes including abundant moriche palm trees, while the disused bunkers and wells are a legacy of World War II, when the Americans leased 1600 acres here to use for training exercises.
The signposted entrance to the Aripo Savannah Scientific Reserve is at Cumuto, about 5km south of Waller Field. The best time to visit is at dawn, when you will be rewarded with a spectacular aspect of the palms glowing in the light, along with the birds’ enchanting early morning chorus.