Martha and Peter’s Excellent Aldabra Adventure, Part VI: Drunken Christmas and Tortoise Sex

I decided to give my mom top billing from here on in. Got to see the folks safely in from their adventure 43 years ago.

In case you’ve forgotten, the whole point of their self-marooning on Aldabra Atoll was to collect data on feral goats. Take it away, Mom.

23 December

Another disappointing pair of watches.  Last eve, we flung ourselves down the beach, one of us on each of the three major dunes.  Visibility was great but naught in the way of goats was to be seen. [OK, guess it’s not just Dad who uses words like “naught”.]  P. arose at about 5 am this morning, well before it was light, and stumbled back to his dune outpost to catch a glimpse of any caprine early risers [This scientific lingo is really rubbing off on her!]. An early lightning storm reduced visibility for a while, but by 6:30 it cleared enough that  P. could confirm the absence of goats.  There was no sign of them in the Pemphis either.

Have we described the Pemphis?  It’s a particular association between shrubs and substrate. The former grows to a height of up to 2 meters, very dense and brittle, with twigs from the ground up, small oval leaves, and tiny white blossoms year around.  It is so dense that visibility through it is no more than 1-2 meters, and sunlight cannot penetrate. It grows in rough, unweathered coral, which also houses a multitude of other shrubs, some herbs and occasional scattered groves of casuarinas or small palms, usually pandanas.  The height of the foliage is generally below two meters and it’s patchy – there’s lots of exposed surface. On the coast and around the lagoon there is campignon, the very rough, jagged, razor sharp coral that derives its name from the  giant mushroom shape isolated pieces we assume.

This stuff, right, Mom?

24 December

We’re now back at Main Station, following an uneventful two hour crossing of the lagoon.  We saw several rays and a green turtle en route, but the rays were unimpressive, merely 1½ meters tip to tip. [Oh, is that all? Y’all are getting kinda jaded.]

The sights and sounds of civilization, pop music and loud talk, are not attractive to us after the near solitude of our camp.  We find ourselves even resenting the presence of other people. Not exactly conducive to a proper Christmas spirit.

Tomorrow, the Seychelloise workers will unite everyone for a service in their chapel.  It will be Catholic, more or less, though there is no priest or other clergy on hand.  The overall atmosphere is definitely colonial, a condition which is resistant to change as the workers insist on addressing as with “Massa”, and refuse to eat until the Europeans have finished. [Yikes.] Shades of the 19thcentury. This will surely change when the next generation arrives here, and Meg has already observed signs of this. [Phew.]

25 December

Happy Christmas. Ours has certainly been unusual . We’d found the return to base jarring, what with loud, unremitting pop music tapes playing constantly, much alcohol, and silly talk, all dominated by the meteorologists, the met-men, and technicians who are in the majority here. The scientists are clearly subordinate, inasmuch as they spend most of their time in the field and only occasional days for R and R at Main Station. [Do I detect a note of self-pity? :)] The food here is also a comedown after fresh seafood stews: mostly tinned stuff, though fresh bread was a welcome change from the British army biscuits, our usual source of carbohydrate (the reserve rations in the field are world war II army ration boxes – cheese, biscuits, chocolate, and some kind of meat paste). We escaped the hubbub briefly with a  mile run down the beach [they’re marathoners, remember?] on the west coast, and a swim in the seaside lagoon, here largely shark-free, thanks to a clear and unproductive sand bottom and a reef 300 meters seaward.

The evening celebration was a drunken bash, held, as a mark of courtesy, at the home of the Seychelle headman. There was much dancing, animated and drink inspired.  As women here are a small minority, Martha was called upon for heroic performances. [Oh –clearly Dad has taken over narration again. Given how different they are as people, I enjoy how similar their prose becomes in this narrative.] Though drunk, the men were still polite and respectful. Often, P. would first be asked for permission, then M. formally asked to oblige. The dancing involved a sedate two-step, which frequently froze for some moments, after which it would resume, leaving M. with the rather thankful feeling of being quite uninvolved, even forgotten for a spell, just a necessary factor on the dance floor. Some of the faster music inspired a few more lively gyrations – no contact, but one could just shuffle around and still be a good enough partner. [OK, take it back–this must be Mom talking after all. Wonder if they can even discern their different pieces themselves?]

While the larder was well stocked with European brand spirits, on this occasion we sampled the local home brew, “kalu”, which we’d earlier observed being made. It’s derived by fermentation from the sap of coconut palms, which is collected from the base of new fronds high up in the trees. The only thing to be said about it is that it smells far worse than it tastes, which is bad enough. [OK, but they might say the same about gin, right?]

After the festivities began to die down, a procession, still inebriated, wound its way into the small, attractively decorated chapel  for a R.C. service, improvised, monotonous, noisy, but still providing a fascinating glimpse into the lives of a people trapped between two different worlds and centuries. The old mourn the passing traditions and English colonialism. The young, we’ve learned through fragmented discussions, are developing rather considerable hostility towards the remnants of the colonial rule the Royal Society here represents.  For all the smiles and “Bon jour, Massa, Madam”, an underlay of hostility is evident.  [No shit. Remember, this is 1976.]

The workers’ contracts specify a fixed food ration and wages, but no family supplements.  A man with his family here must buy additional food and pay rent, with no hope of ever being able to save any money, as the prices are high, fishing is restricted, hunting forbidden, and wages low. In the Royals’ defense, it should be added that conditions for workers in Mahe are no better. Jobs everywhere in the Seychelles are scarce. On Aldabra, however, the contrast between the workers’ plight and the conditions of the Europeans is particular stark. The logic of our killing animals for study while forbidding them to be killed for food escapes the Seychellois  (me, too, for that matter). [Tell it, Mom. Or Dad.] We suspect the Royals’ presence here will not be long term. Aside from the impending labor unrest, the Seychelle government seems eager to develop Aldabra as a tourist destination, along with the Amirantes to the northeast, as part of an Indian Ocean island tour package.  Aldabra may then sink from the weight of tourists on its shores, after having been saved from the RAF’s bombing practice after WWII. [Note to self: look this up. How IS Aldabra these days? Sunk?]

26 December – Boxing Day

We rose early for a solitary run and swim.   By the time we returned for breakfast, some of the workers were staggering about trying to kill a pig for tonight’s feast. Poor pig: we’d have offered to dispatch it humanely, but the Seychellois were too drunk to understand us, so we had to stand by as they banged it with their pangas. Later, we hiked back to the beach to watch the butchering of a green turtle which the workers had been granted permission to catch for Christmas.  Afterwards, we lazed about in one of our most private beaches, a small bit of sand with an overhanging coral ledge bordered by coral cliffs that one can pass only at low tide. Lovely. Once there, you must remain until the tide retreats again. You can be sure that we’ve memorized the tide tables: with tides of up to 4 meters, one doesn’t fool around, especially as the tidal currents can attain speeds of up to 6 knots.  We returned to Main Station singing all the Christmas songs we could think of, along with a few favorites from work camp days.

This afternoon was devoted to reading and napping, in preparation for a big BBQ, this time  with the Europeans hosting the Seychellois.  A traditional turkey dinner is planned, the bird having been brought over with us on the Nordvaer [their freighter transport].

The party in the evening was rather more sedate than that of the previous eve, the most potted of the workers having stayed in their settlement (all had been invited, but admonished to come sober). The food was sumptuous and we gorged to a degree that more than compensated for the deprivations of the field. [OK, gotta be Dad again.]

This photo doesn’t seem to be relevant to any of the narrative, and I want to know why. Is that a giant bat?!

27 December

We’d expected to be off to Dune Jean Louis this morning, by ourselves, with Meg going to Middle Camp, but our boatmen needed another day recover from their three day orgy.  We’d beaten them in a soccer match yesterday, an annual affair between the Sechellois and the Europeans, and one which the latter had never before won.  I suspect this also influenced their refusal to work today, as they did not lose graciously. [I’ll bet!]

Also, yesterday, we had the staff/scientist Christmas dinner and party, a jolly and surprisingly sober affair. It did make the language differences between us evident, viz Scots vs Welsh, to say nothing about such as us!

[Sad to say, no pics of any holiday festivities, drunk or sober.]

28 December

It would be overly dramatic to compare our lot to that of Robinson Crusoe, but, relative to our survival skills, and for a limited time, there were similarities. The main difference was that we elected to be marooned here in order to try to unravel the mystery of the whereabouts of over-abundant but invisible goats.  Harry had raced across 20 kilometers of lagoon early this morning in order to be able to return to Main Camp before the tide turned. But, rough water and a headwind threatened so there was no alternative but for us to depart our boat before we reached our planned disembarkation point, bid Harry adieu, hoping he’d not be stranded on a sandbar. We shouldered heavy packs -all sorts of gear, telescopes, rain gauges, tinned and dried food, along with personal stuff. (The tinned food ultimately proved to be dead weight, as almost all of it had spoiled). 😦 Then, we slogged through deep, soft clay, teetered over broken champignon, to finally arrive at our camp on the Dune.  Now we were entirely on our own, no radio contact and tides precluding a rescue for at least 10 days.  Our companions were a dozen or so  giant tortoises straining against the fence across the front of our thatched hut, a pair of sunbirds whose nest hangs from the entrance just at M.’s head height, and tame pair of sacred ibis, flightless on this island.

On our way across the lagoon, we rescued a water-logged tortoise, about 500 meters from shore. Evidently they can swim, though this one did looks as if he’d intended to do so. [Now THAT sounds like a study worth marooning oneself for!]

Our plan is to watch for goats each morning and evening, when they are most likely to be active. During the day, we’ll hike along the coast, seeking fresh spoor. Meg, meantime, will be at Malabar, doing her regular rounds. She’ll be ferried over to us on the 4thor 5thand then we’ll all hike eastwards to Camp Cinq Cases, on the eastern tip of Grande Terre. Tides permitting, we then hope to catch a boat back to base on the 10thfor R and R. All of this is quite tenuous, so we are not fretting about schedules.

29 December

A long weary day! Yesterday had ended later than planned when we discovered ants nesting in the timbers of our canvas shelter. With but one mosquito net for both of us, we abandoned the shelter and raised a tent by moonlight and improvised some padding for our tired bodies. We were up early and walked westwards to Dune de Messe. Though only 5 kilometers distant, our steady walk took a full 2 ¾ hours, which should tell you something about the terrain. [Seriously.]

The return trip took even longer, both because we finally spotted goats and because we more often forsook the  goats for a slower plod on soft sand: the prevailing winds bend the sharp spikes of glass towards the west, so the return trip had us impaling our legs and shins, a good reason to opt for the slower route.  It was getting cooler rather than hotter by then and as we grew more fatigued, the southwest breeze brought us some rain from a nearby storm, even while the sun warmed our bare backsides: we are now tan enough to dispense with clothing almost all day; evenings millions of man-eating mosquitoes compel us to dress. [I can attest to this: when Mom and Dad returned home, they were a nice, even brown–no tan lines anywhere! Very Adam & Eve-y, before the whole figleaf thing.]

Scenes viewed en route included a puzzled green turtle repeatedly patrolling “her” beach: the turtles return to the beach of their birth to lay their eggs, it is presumed, but what happens when the beach is only accessible at high tide? The highs this week are only 2 ½ meters, compared to a maximum of nearly 4!

Also seen, two giant tortoises in copulo, the male grunting loudly, then collapsing in an exhausted heap while the female sedately wandered off, grazing.  [In copulo, seriously? Take a moment to imagine what my dad’s version of “the birds and the bees” talk to his kids must have sounded like.]

Unlike the west coast beaches, and the few small ones to the north of Aldabra, the southern beaches have much debris, carried there by the southeast trade winds. Mostly this is ship’s timbers, including what appear be masts and yards of ancient sailing ship material decomposing slowly here. Next most common are fishnet floats, mostly plastic, but some of glass, and flip-flop sandals everywhere.  Well congealed blobs of oil occur every now and again, too, of course.

I know, that was a bit of an anti-climax after the “in copulo” tortoises. Whoops–did not intend that pun. Or did I? 

Tune in next week for the second-to-last installment. What other exciting phenomena of Nature can my dad describe in Latin?

2 thoughts on “Martha and Peter’s Excellent Aldabra Adventure, Part VI: Drunken Christmas and Tortoise Sex

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