Jungle business

PUBLISHED: 16:51 10 March 2008 | UPDATED: 21:36 15 June 2010

To anyone but Whimple couple Kate and Ian Morton it seemed an impossible dream. Create a guest house out of 20 acres of jungle in Belize? Surely not!

To anyone but Whimple couple Kate and Ian Morton it seemed an impossible dream. Create a guest house out of 20 acres of jungle in Belize? Surely not! Yet, sitting in her parents' home four years ago, amid the final throes of preparation before flying out with their worldly possessions and their three dogs, they couldn't wait to get started."We recognise it's going to be hard work," Kate said at the time. "But once done, we can look at something and say 'Wow, we've achieved this'."They most certainly have. Their eco-friendly guest house, Hickatee Cottages, is a three-cottage complex grounded on stilts, a restaurant and bar, their own house and a poly-tunnel vegetable and fruit garden.Created from the jungle land they bought for £8,000, it is now well and truly on the tourist trail, consistently rated the country's top B&B.Very, very hard work, yes. But not an impossible dream after all."Knowing them, we didn't think it would be," says Kate's mother, Anne Jones. "We did wonder how on earth they'd ever manage it. But Kate is a goer. She had the determination to see it through and, with Ian, they work together extremely well."Anne and husband Don, with letters and photos sent by Kate, have compiled a scrapbook of the development from start to finish. They went out soon after Hickatee Cottages opened in 2006 and helped with painting and the garden. They were amazed at the little haven the couple had carved out of a jungle wilderness while at the same time preserving it."Absolutely dumbfounded," says Anne. "What they had created was so beautiful. When we got to the gate we didn't know what to say."Each of the spacious, en-suite Caribbean cottages is immaculately furnished in local, hardwood furniture, with ceiling fans and an adjoining sitting area or private verandah to enjoy the tropical gardens and wildlife.There's a plunge pool and free bikes to explore the nature trails.The enterprise, however, was no sudden decision. Kate and Ian did their research. Keen travellers, they met in San Francisco in 1991 at the start of a six-week 'Green Tortoise' bus journey through Mexico. At journey's end Ian asked Kate if she'd like to go to Belize with him. "What's Belize?" she asked. They stayed six months and liked what they saw.They returned for a three month stay, managed a jungle lodge, took a course in building design and constructed a two-room house. Meanwhile, a settled life beckoned back in England. They bought a house and, according to Kate, lived a nice, comfortable country lifestyle with conventional jobs, she as a marketing manager in Exeter, Ian as a manager with the Devon and Cornwall Housing Association.The point that finally turned them towards Belize came in May, 2003, on a package holiday to Cyprus. Kate remembers it exactly."We were sitting in a restaurant saying 'We've had enough of this. Let's cash in our equity on the house. Let's go.' she recalls."It wasn't so much disillusionment, as wanting to work for ourselves. We couldn't afford to do that in England and, as for escaping the rat race, unless you change completely, you're still a rat, even in Devon! We'd always had this dream of Belize. Now we had the money to achieve it."The rest is written in the blood and sweat of creating Hickatee Cottages on jungle land in the Toledo district of southern Belize.The biggest hurdles, writes Kate, were learning new skills, researching and installing their generator and solar panel electricity system, tackling the plumbing and the wiring, drilling a well and installing septic tanks."The rest, all the clearing by hand, raking, burning, building, painting and varnishing was just damned hard work," she says. "We've had to learn to work with or adapt what is available and also learn about the environment. We don't have re-cycling, so it's no good saving plastic containers. You learn not to buy them in the first place. "As for planning menus like any normal restaurant, forget it! We go to the market, buy what's available and create a menu around that. Need new curtains? Buy the fabric and make them!"The bar is named Charlie's Bar in honour of their dog which died after being bitten by a poisonous toad. That, reports Kate, has been the only heartbreaking incident. Otherwise, their two other dogs, Moses and Dexter, love the life with parrots to bark at and lizards to chase.Of course, they miss family and friends and they confess to pangs for the English seasons, the joy of Spring, the long summer evenings, the barbecues, a blustery autumn or a cold winter's day. Other than that, life is pretty simple in Belize and they miss very little. There's no television - probably no bad thing, says Kate - though her father sends recordings of programmes while, occasionally, they listen to Terry Wogan on the internet and chuckle at him, the traffic and weather reports."Belize can be very challenging, but as long as you can be open-minded and flexible it works," she says. Basically, it's a pretty fabulous lifestyle. We've learned to appreciate things far more than we did in the UK and we work hard, damned hard, with up to 18-hour days at times. "But we are in control of our business and our work and the rewards are immense. The sense of achievement when we step back and look at what we've done so far is incredibly rewarding."We are only just into our third year and already rated the top B&B in Belize as well as recommended by four other guides as well. "Open air living is a lot more healthy and the wildlife is amazing. We wake up to the sounds of parrots, toucans and howler monkeys and get paid to socialise with a fascinating bunch of diverse guests. We've had such a range of people from the Governor General of Belize to bat researchers, orchid bee collectors and composers."l For more information about Hickatee Cottages see www.hickatee.com

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