Martha and Peter’s Excellent Aldabra Adventure, Part VIII (Final Installment): Nightmare Crabs and Sybaritic Cuisine

And here we are at last: the final installments of my parents’ journals from their 1976-77 self-marooning on the tiny Seychelles island of Aldabra to study goats. What’s weird is, the journals simply stop. I’m not sure if that’s because they got tired of writing right at the very end, or if, in the excitement of leaving, those pages were lost, or if they’re still kicking around somewhere in the family attic.

Luckily for me, I can ask my folks that. Because, as you’re reading this, I shall be (inshallah) hiking with Martha and Peter in the Canadian Rockies. Because I have been blessed with parents who are not only intrepid, but who are also ridiculously healthy, now in their mid-upper 80s.

So if there are more journals, they’ll let me know. Till then…take it away, Dad.

8 January

What a day! Yesterday, after supper, while we were completing plans for an early expedition to DJL [Dune Jean Louis, part of the island atoll] to search for Meg, she herself arrived, hot and weary.  She also brought details on tides, which indicate that we will need to depart sooner than planned, or remain considerably longer.  With food in short supply here, and the Nordvaer due at Main Station on the 20th, when we must depart, we elected to accelerate our activities and, since it will take two tides to return to Station,  depart for Malabar on the 10th.

One of the planned activities was to catch a goat for a barbecue (the ban on killing animals excludes the occasional crab and goat), so, after dark, lanterns in hand, off we marched. The goats weren’t yet asleep, however. The first group we encountered, two dozen, a mile or so from camp, crashed along the coral into the shrubs. Chris dashed after them, while the rest of us remained on the beach to see if he would succeed in turning the animals to us. He did not. Nearly three quarters of an hour later, I was about to propose reverting to a piscorian diet [otherwise known as fish…sigh], when Chris’s lights reappeared. As he neared, the moon rose and we saw he had sprouted a second, horned head. Somehow he had singlehandedly outraced a young goat over the dark coral spiracles, roped it, raised it to his shoulders and now was bouncing back to us, lantern still intact.  [Yep: field biologists can and do sometimes eat their subjects.]

9 January

Remember to visualize this ancient coral as you read the next paragraph. Yeow.

The rescue mission for Meg aborted, P. rose at 3 am, and raced north to Point Hodoul. By 5, the turf underfoot gave and to coral and the was reduced to a slow stumble. By 5:30 it was panicky scramble. Only at the very edge of the coral ledge could a way be forced through the dense shrubbery. Shoe were in ribbons, skin shreds. But, just at daybreak, P. rounded a corner and the dramatic sight of Terre Cedro greeted him: a perfect 100 meter crescent of the whitest sand, translucent blue-green water licking the shore, 8 ibises patrolling along a cool looking grove of casuarina trees that shaded the sand, and a pair of green turtles cavorting in the gentle surf: probably like a waterbed to them. [I love this image.] There was only time for a few minutes rest, as, without food or water, it was necessary to return before the day’s heat set in. the return was a  hard slog inland, due south to Basin Flamant, then southeast. Some of the way was open, but much was swampy, or, worse, more of the dense stuff that had characterized the coastal route.  It tore off the remnants of clothes and still intact patches of skin, but P. did reach food, water, and a bed by 10 am.  M., meantime, had been helping to complete the plant transects.

Goat barbecue this eve. Meantime, we fill up on cheese and ration biscuits.

8 or 9 January. – somehow, dates have become confused.  [gee, can’t imagine why]

Whatever the true date, this is the morning after the barbecue, which, despite P.’s jaundiced attitude about eating the subjects of a study, was a great success. Harry had chunked the meat into mouth-sized cubes, barbecued them to a crisp on an open wood fire, them mixed into a peppery onion sauce. This was topped off with rhubarb and strawberries (tinned) served over rice. Sybaritic end to a long day. [I had to look that word up, and I used to be an English teacher. Means self-indulgent or luxurious.]

Today’s planned early start was delayed until dawn, when fugitive clouds made a covering shadowed our once strong full moon – too little light to go by. So, we returned to bed, sleeping until a lazy 6 am. We then ran westward to Takamata , with Meg following more sedately with canteens and and camera. We had time for a leisurely bathe until Meg joined us for the hike inland to the lagoon, along Takamata Grove, a few large trees, almost a meter in diameter  at breast height, and 20 meters tall. We passed Wilsen’s Well, the site of an old tortoise-collecting station. We’d hoped to continue back to camp inland, parallel to the coast, but after an hour and a half of crawling and beating our way through thick brush, conceded defeat and retraced our steps to the coast. The 4 miles we covered had taken 7 hours! [Remember that coral “rock”?]

Tomorrow we’ll leave Cing C. for our first site, Middle Camp, on Malabar.  From there, we hope to shoulder packs and continue on foot to another site at Anse Malabar so as to avoid the crowd.  We’re eager to get as far west on Malabar in any case.  The trail ends at Anse Petit Grabeau.  Trail  cutting there is forbidden in order to protect the last remaing Brush Warblers, which nest there.  This is the only native bird we’ve not yet seen.

Middle Camp, where we will go, will be shared with Meg and Barry, congenial enough company that we won’t mind the interruption of our solitude.  How long we stay there depends on a messenger from Station who due on the the 13th, with word as to the next likely arrival of the Nordvaer. There are rumors that we may leave on a D’how (newly reconstructed in Panama and on a round-the-world trip with its Italian owner), but when and wither bound no one knows, [ah, gonna miss that archaic syntax of yours, Dad] nor how the rumor reached here.

10 January

This was not planned to be a writing day, but weather has overruled all.  Rain is heavy, unremitting, wet and cold.  We began the day lazily and late; a slow, short run, then a stumble with packsore backs through the mangrove swamp that borders the lagoon creek where our dinghy, (My Fwanwy – a Welsh name) was anchored.  Then, tediously polling against the tide, we had a 90 minute ride across the lagoon to lovely Middle C, which had been our first Aldabran campsite.

We stayed just long enough for tea, then headed west, to Anse Malabar, stopping once, briefly, to shed excess clothes and then gasp at a school (20 or more) of sharks snorkeling about the shallows just offshore.  No swimming here.  There followed a 2 and 1/2 hour walk on the coral ledge just above the sea, abominably tiring with the constant ups, downs, dodges and stumbles the coral imposed, but a trail had been cut through the brush and seaward view was grand.

[This next section is for anyone who ever considered marooning themselves way out in the middle of nowhere.]

Then came those long delayed rains, refreshing at first, then an annoyance, finally, as the wind rose and temperatures fell, a pain. We were glad to reach our camp, on a lovely crescent beach, one of the very few on the northern shore, complete with thatched-walled, tin-roofed hut and well supplied with provender. Except: no can opener and a broken seal on the primus’s pump!!  Grrr. We were desperately cold and hungry, so, after demolishing several jars of mincemeat, jam, peanut butter, mango chutney and ration biscuits, which really stimulated our salivary flow, we pried cans open with a knife, sealed the primus with lard, and cooked tea, sausage, and carrots for our main course. Our bedding had, of course, gotten wet, but we have hopes that our gas lantern will dry things. There is nothing to do now, but to sit out the rain, though it could go on for days. Cheerful thought. P.’s shoes are so torn up, they are scarcely useable – we use almost a pair per week – except when we’re on sand, when we can go barefoot. The plastic sandals we use in water or grass can’t carry one over coral, so those shoes will have to do for the trip back to Middle Camp, planned for the morning.

Our site is noisy…There is the surf, of course, plus a whooshing blow hole; then there’s a group of boobies roosting nearby – a booby hatchery, evidently – and, finally a veritable army, dozens upon dozens, of claw-clicking, squabbling, investigating burgher crabs.They are enormous, 20 centimeter diameter in some cases, and steal anything they can carry, including our shoes. And, of course, there is the mosquito symphony. Time to duck under our nets. [Can I just say: yuck!]

11 January

At 4 a.m. we gave up the battle with bugs and crabs, the former biting, the latter swarming over the hut, seizing clothes, dishrags, rattling saucepans.  The end came when desperate howls from the kid [baby goat they had rescued], still alone in the bush, led to the discovery that it was being eaten alive by the crabs.  M. gingerly rescued him and we’ve just completed a second feed. The kid is in sorry shape, however, as are we. If only it stays dry.

9 a.m.: it has not stayed dry, an irony since we’d have delighted with the water just a few days earlier. At least one problem has been unexpectedly solved. 10 minutes ago we heard a dry bleat. We prodded our kid to wakefulness, and he replied. Minutes later, his mother appeared, walked within 3 meters of us, nuzzled him, and the two trotted off together. Where had she been since his birth? [Well, let’s hope for a happy ending for the baby goat, at least. Those crabs sound nightmarish.]

12 January

The insect plague of Anse Mal seems to be island-wide. We abandoned camp before noon, too tired and sore to continue west to Petit Grabeau as planned, and eager to be gone before finding anymore abandoned kids. The threatening skies remained dry, though the air was hot, and muggy, and again filled with mosquitoes. We collapsed gratefully in front of the tea-kettle at an empty Middle Camp, and when Meg and Barry arrived a couple of hours later, were restored. A nap in a relatively insect-proof tent also helped.

The hot, wet weather has clearly produced wide-spread insect hatches. The only thing comparable in our experience were the clouds of mosquitoes and blackflies in Northern Ontario in mid-June. We recalled E.T. Seton’s census method:  clap your right hand over the back of the left. If, after an exposure of 5 minutes, the number of squashed mosquitos can be counted, your situation is still moderately comfortable.  A 5 second exposure  of a washed left hand had this morning produced a count of 27. We decided the hut was uninhabitable. [yuck, yuck, YUCK.]

Dinner tonight was a stewed grouper of close to 10 kilos. P. had fished from a ledge over the lagoon, and in minutes had hooked an enormous grouper, easily 20 kilograms, but could land him. As soon as he had begun raising him from the water, the hook straightened and he slip free. P. had waded around from the beach while Meg and M. held the line, thinking to support him from underneath, a when a large shark swam by, efforts of that sort were abandoned. The shark, fortunately, was a Blacktip, rather than the more aggressive and less common Whites.  But, minutes later, the 2cnd, smaller catch was made, which was a more reasonable size for our small party.  Grouper, however, are the least “bon” of the many fish we’ve had here, so next time we’ll move to the ocean side and try for snapper. But, as the Grouper was accompanied by fresh picked coconut, popcorn, tinned strawberries, and brandy, our dinner had to be rated as elegant. [Is it just me, or are they becoming more fixated on food? I get that!]

13 January

This makes a full month since our arrival. We begin to feel and resemble old hands, tan, slim, scratched, bruised and torn.  But, still less skilled than the natives, except for running over the champignon. Yesterday’s fishing expedition was frustrated by snagged hooks, then sharks which repeatedly cut the line. When P. moved to the lagoon side, it was met by 9 groupers, lined up side by side like so many trained seals. They rose in unison as the bait was lowered, their mouths protruding from the water, almost drooling. [Really?! Fish drool?] But, we did not want another grouper. After one of the smaller ones had twice impaled himself, been hauled out, freed, and tossed back, P. gave up hope of finding other fish. On the third time it took the hook, it went into the curry pot. However, that had been too heavily curried for M. and Meg’s taste, so P. did have to make one last effort, which resulted in the catch of an eight-o’clock, that was filleted sans curry.  P. and the crabs shared the curry pot’s contents.

It’s been a blank day, goatwise, with about 1/0 seconds of contact.  We’ll try again just before sundown. While Meg and M. were on their shifts, P. spend the afternoon constructing a proper, windproof fireplace and oven, which we then tested with a barbecue of sausage, mushrooms (tinned) and coconut, plus “dampers”, a flour and water dough rolled over sticks and browned. [Definitely ready to go home, I’d say.] Quite satisfactory. Tomorrow, we’ll try the oven, though the bread will either be raised by airborn yeasts or unleavened. There may even be time to fish again, which was not possible today as the tide was high while we were free to do so, and they don’t take our bait then. But bread, fish, and coconut  are all very good roasted.

And there the journals end–with food, not a bad last word! Nothing about the journey home. Which matches the equal blanks shared by my 17 year-old sister and 15 year-old self, waiting to hear from our parents. All I remember from that time is a phone call “patched through,” as they used to say, from Tel Aviv, where our folks stopped to visit cousins on their long trip home.

And then…they came home to boring ol’ Durham, North Carolina, and life went on. As it does. This adventure seems like a dream to me now, a secondhand dream. Wonder how it feels to them?

Mom, do you remember what this feels like? That tortoise probably does.

But lucky me: I can just ask. Thank you, powers that be, for my amazing parents.

 

 

2 thoughts on “Martha and Peter’s Excellent Aldabra Adventure, Part VIII (Final Installment): Nightmare Crabs and Sybaritic Cuisine

  1. And, Dear Gretchen, thank you for sharing your parents awesome adventures
    via their fascinating journals. Hope you are keeping notes on your ( and their)
    recent mountain escapades.
    hugs, Ann

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