Parents Gone Feral: Peter and Martha’s Excellent Aldabra Adventure, Part III

Welcome back to the next installment of my parents’ goat-research adventures in the winter of 1976-77. When we last left Martha & Peter, they had just been dropped onto the tiny island of Aldabra, one of the Seychelles, a coral atoll in the middle of the vast Indian Ocean. The research crew already in place were happy to see them, as they’d heard their freighter had been lost at sea. I’m throwing in this Wikimedia Commons map to help you visualize.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

So now…take it away, Dad. (Just a reminder for those of you new to Wing’s World, or Peter Klopfer: the man is a walking thesaurus.) 

14 December

We’re now settled in a small, airy cell, next door to Meg (Meg Gould, a Phd student from P.’s lab, who is here for a year). The housing conditions are simple, but clean and adequate, along with decent quarters for scientific work, including air conditioning. There are 18 scientists and technicians (including a couple of meteorologists) aboard, along with about two dozen Seychellois laborers and their families.  Half of the scientific staff are at the two field camps on the far side of the atoll, sites that are difficult to reach because of the high tides and reefs, so travel from one side to the other is only possible at intervals of several days and at particular times. The Seychellois have their own village a few hundred meters distant from the main station, which includes several small wooden buildings, principally a dining and assembly hall and the laboratory building. Usually the techs are in the majority, a situation which, with our arrival, has now been changed.  Meg is hoping that table-talk will now revolve about topics other than auto races. 🙂

The birds here are incredibly tame, and several species have become flightless. Of the three dozen or so endemic species, we’ve already, in our first few hours, encountered about a third, including a kestrel nesting by the door to our room, coucals, drongos, fodys and sunbirds. Avian photography could not be easier: the birds all but pose for their pictures.

Or let you grab them to take their picture!

As to our plans for the days to follow: we will leave tomorrow to Middle Island for a week or two of goat tracking, hoping to return to Main Camp for Christmas. At this time, tides don’t allow us to simply cross the lagoon, so we will need to use a large dinghy with outboard motor, pass seaward of the reef that surrounds the atoll, and hope for calm seas during the several hour trip to the far side of Aldabra.  After Christmas, we’ll head for another of Meg’s sites, on South Island.

The main problem everywhere on Aldabra is water shortage. There is a solar still at the Main Station, but it has not been functioning for some reason, and the rain catchments are empty: lots of rain all around the atoll, but none on shore. Bathing must be done in the sea, for which we’ve been issued saltwater soap, and hydration depends largely on beer.  Since the staff here are largely Scots, there is fortunately no shortage of beer and other spirits (and, as we noted when the supplies were unloaded, alcohol comprised almost half the cargo).  The problem is serious, however, as there is absolutely no alternative water supply.

When he gets going on the physical description, however, my dad loses the scientific tone and waxes downright poetic:

Apart from a lack of water, this place appears to us to be a replica of Eden. After unpacking, we jogged a kilometer or so down the pebble strewn beach from Main Station, where we found a 20 meter swath of pure white sand, while the tide was out. It was slow going in the soft, deep sand, but we persevered to the end of the strand where the beach gave way to a 2 meter high coral cliff that had been undercut by wave action and whose face, at low tide, was full of small caves filled with marine creatures. From there seaward, to a fringing reef, was a shallow lagoon, less than a meter deep, crystal clear, except when an occasional wave breasted the reef and broke onto it.  We stripped off our clothes and sported about like a pair of porpoises in the warm (30C) water, savoring the white sand, black coral cliffs and, all around us, tiny fish, some transparent, others brightly hued.  We did have to keep a sharp lookout for the moray eels, which abound, for though we’d been told that they were not dangerous their appearance and behavior seem to say otherwise. Overhead, a frigate bird attacked a booby, while a group of pied crows chorused from behind the coral cliff.

The vegetation here is exotic to our eyes, but still bears some familiarity to that which we know from home. There is a grove of what appear to be pine trees above the coral cliff, but are actually casuarinas, an ancient plant related to the horsetails. The ground beneath the trees is covered with needles and cones, and, except for the absence of pine scent, could be a pine forest. The wind sounds the same in the casuarina’s jointed needles as it  does in pines. The scrubby growth elsewhere on the island has much the same quality as western chaparral, but there’s no manzanita or sage brush here, just lots of other plants that look similar but we’ve never seen before nor heard of. All of it is thorny and sharp!

15 December

We’ve just completed our first 24 hours in the field, which has led to our developing enormous respect for Meg.  Work began at 5 am, and did not end until after 8 pm, and involved climbing through the roughest terrain in the hottest clime imaginable. [Yes, he really does use words like “clime”. Welcome to my world.] The landscape is entirely composed of old, dry, emergent coral, knife-sharp edges ready to slice through shoes (and skin), and covered with a thick scrubby vegetation, the notorious Aldabran pemphis. But, now, the next morning, we are relaxing while awaiting for the teapot to boil, watching several dozen sharks cruising about the lagoon, some 10 meters distant. Swimming does not appeal.

Yesterday, we did take a short run down the beach and followed it with a brief dunk in the ocean, breakfasted, and then towed our gear in a large dore [dory?] for the 2 ½ hour ride to Middle Island.  Except for the push through the reefside surf, the trip was smooth, enlivened by schools of porpoises, with frigates and boobies accompanying us overhead.  We cast fishing lines astern, and, after a half dozen barracuda, began hooking a great variety of brightly colored beauties. “c’est bon”, said our creole boatman, smacking his lips, and “c’est tres bon” for one particular one.  Two tuna were also landed, but our prize was a 40-50 kilogram kingfish, over a meter long!

A storm enveloped us as we beached, first rain, badly needed, which was captured in a large tarp and fed into an old drum cistern.  In a few hours time all was clear again, and we had a stewpot bubbling away with a fine creole fishstew.  Mid-afternoon we left the others (our companions included a pair of ornithologists, an assistant, and two laborers) and, together with Meg, commenced a goat stalk, which continued until dark.  Supper was not until after 8 pm, and was immediately followed by an exhausted, and much too brief, sleep.

Our field camp here consists of a 3’sided corrugated tin shed, 2 x 4 meters, where food and gear are stored and whose roof provides a water catchment.  Tents on the small sand beach in front of the shed serve as our bedrooms, which are surrounded by coral and mangrove.

From ocean to lagoon there are four distinct zones into which the 800 meters of the islands’s width can be divided.  The shore at this end of Middle Island (the shoreline differs greatly from one area to the next) is marked by casuarina trees, thus resembling a temperate pine grove, with needles on the ground, clear trails and cool breezes.  Crabs scurry everywhere and grunting tortoises are also everywhere one looks.  Early and late each day, the trees are festooned with awkward looking frigates, like oversized Christmas tree ornaments. [I love this.] But 20 meters further inward inward, the “Platen” beings, flat, weathered coral, with fairly open 1-3 meter high vegetation, allowing for moderately easy walking.  But, then comes the Pemphis, a wall of shrub 3-4 meters high, and so dense as to be totally impenetrable without a machete (known here as a ‘pongo”).  Visibility is less than one goat length. [🙂 !!!!!!!] Meg has had a single trail cut through this forest, and is building a second, our only hope of accessing the interior.

The final zone is the mangrove, only a few meters wide, a tangle of roots arched by broad-leafed crowns, beyond which lies the lagoon, some 15-20 kilometers wide,  with its mushroom coral columns.

Mushroom coral. Or coral mushroom.

In next week’s episode: Tortoise Tickling! See you then.

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