Road Trip X, Days 29-32, Kentucky to Missouri to Kansas to Colorado to Wyoming: Forget Scenery, Just Get Us Home, Please

We’ve never had a road trip where all we do is drive. But we’ve never had a road trip during a global pandemic either.

The day we left North Carolina, making Big Left Turn #2 to head for our island home on the opposite end of the continent, all things basketball died. We were shocked, but still spent that first night enjoying the scenic beauty of eastern Kentucky’s Carter Caves State Park…

Apparently they have caves there. But the natural bridges were enough for me!

Even cooler from below.

The limestone just weeps little waterfalls everywhere.

A magnificent beech…one of the trees I do miss, out west.

Next day, we started driving, listening to CNN, and to the sound of most of our road-trip joy being sucked away. We determined not to visit the friend we’d hoped to visit in Louisville. Ditto Milwaukee, the Twin Cities, Denver, and Yakima. We’ve probably already visited too many dear ones.

Just get us home. This isn’t fun any more. Too much is out of our control.

Which explains why I have NO pictures from Missouri, even though I did enjoy a pleasant walk-jog through a park in Columbia. Kansas? This is my only pic, shot out the car window to let Son Two know that it was still winter where we were.

What you see is what you get.

I wish I could say something encouraging about western Kansas, but…it’s an awful lot like eastern Colorado, which, guess what? I also took no pictures of as we zoomed through. Home, home, home. We exercised in the motel’s fitness room and passed up all of Denver’s bike paths. (Sour grapes: it was awfully windy anyway, though much warmer than we’d feared.)

I did celebrate the last of the Traveling Hollywood Oranges, though:

Like a month of travelin’ sunshine! Thanks, Cousin Susi!

In Wyoming, I snapped this shot just to let my mom know that Wyoming seemed to be about done with winter. But we didn’t stop.

Balmy!

And then the rocks got cool enough to want their pictures taken. From the car.

I’d hike in there. Just not now.

And now, here we are in Rock Springs, Wyoming, just 30 miles or so from Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area…and we’re not going. It’s out of our way, and we’re focused on mileage. Home, home, home.

Instead, I’ll leave you with a picture of one of my trademark Noodlebag Dinners*,

Even better than it looks.

*Noodlebag Dinner = pasta pre-cooked & put in bag w/ olive oil & salt, to which all kinds of yummy things can be added before microwaving in a motel room for a cheapo gourmet meal

How are all of y’all coping in this new reality? Any of you fellow travelers (literal ones) changing your traveling routines? Singing that alphabet song as you wash your hands after every truck-stop transaction? Avoiding dropping by friends? Stay healthy out there, everyone…

Road Trip X, Days 25-28, Durham/Chapel Hill NC: Tarheel Fever + Covid19 = Perspective

I’d planned this post to be the acme of wry grumpiness. I was going to muse, kvetchily, about my earlier assumption that having our beloved Tarheels suffer through such an epically SUCKY season (talking 40+ year-worst) would cause me to feel some much-lacking empathy for fans of teams who regularly suffer—both fans and teams, I mean. All those folks who wait desperately to get into the Big Dance as a 16th seed, only to lose at Game One.

But no, I was going to say. I am NOT empathetic at all. I hate this feeling and I just want it to go away and never ever come within my Tarheel sight.

But I was still gonna celebrate Mama Dip’s chicken and Allen & Sons BBQ.

That’s what I was GOING to say. And then  I was going to assuage my hurt soul by posting pictures of my parents’ animals, here on the little scruffy farm where I grew up. Meet Erda the Norwegian elkhound…

Treat?

…Hank the goat…

Hi!!!!!!

and the World’s Sweetest Ass, Stevie.

And as a bonus, meet my amazing mom! (Not pictured: amazing dad)

Hold up—can we get a little more Stevie, please?

Thank you.

I was also going to celebrate the fact that a dear former student from Tacoma is now living within an hour of my folks, and was up for a visit!

This is what’s known as “teacher pay.”

But mostly I was gonna be grumpy. 

Then: Covid19. And all its cascading effects. Still fresh, raw, scary, unknown, unfolding as I write this.

The day after our team’s ignominious end of season, all basketball ends. Suddenly the Mate and I, like everyone we know, are contemplating a very different world than the one we thought we were living in.

So, complain about sports? Nope. Inshallah, we can all go back to that in a year or so. But until then? Here’s another Stevie pic, for all of us.

Keep your chin up, folks.

 

 

 

Road Trip X, Days 21-24, Tallahassee to (sorta-)Savannah: Swamped by Unexpected Beauty 

I thought of titling this post “Sea to Shining Sea,” after touching the Atlantic the other day. I even thought about posing the Traveling Avocados, Oranges and Grapefruit on the beach, to celebrate their epic journey. But only a few oranges are left; all the rest of our gifted produce is eaten. And anyway, having already waded in Gulf of Mexico, it’d be more like sea to shining sea to other shining sea, right?

Still: Hello, North Atlantic!

But today’s theme waved me down as soon as we holed up in Tallahassee. That town isn’t a long drive from our previous night in Alabama; we had no business there, knew no one, didn’t check out Florida State or even ride our bikes along the terrific trail we’ve ridden before. All we were doing was making sure we didn’t die in a tornado waiting out some nasty weather. Doing laundry. And (one of us) making some headway on the novel.

And even with such meager expectations, Tallahassee offered us a good reminder of northern Florida’s lovely topography (NOT flat!) and relatively undeveloped landscape (hardly any billboards, even on I-10). And a wonderful bakery, and a  gorgeous sunset (not pictured) and this giant live oak in the motel parking lot.

Ooh, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

Next day, the storm having blown through without tornadoes (thank you!) we headed to a brand-new destination: Little Talbot Island State Park, just north of Jacksonville.

In the middle of a swamp. Yes.

There we discovered not only a long, pristine beach–for people who love long, pristine beaches…

Augh! must…count…all the different…varieties! Make it stop!

…but also a boneyard of silvery drift-stumps…

Just as satiny as it looks!

…and the COOLEST trail through the dunes…

With tortoise holes! (Not pictured–sadly: tortoises)

…into a mixed forest of gigantic pines, palms, and live oaks, the latter dripping with ferns and Spanish moss.

Ooooh…

Question: WHY are epiphytes so ridiculously compelling? Is it a) the way they humanize the trees, calling to mind beards and long tresses? b) the way they soften the harsher, sharper lines of the forest? Or c) the fact that I was clearly a swamp rat in a previous life?

Ahhh…

The campground was one of the nicest ever, in terms of space and light and vegetation. Its only downside: the road was too close, so traffic noise was very present until late at night.

Would just one nighttime armadillo be too much to ask?

And we didn’t get any armadillos. But hey.

“That’s too much Spanish Moss!” said no one ever.

One more glorious bike ride in the refreshingly cool morning, on a LONG bike trail.

Way to go, northern Florida!

Along the way we took a sideline to the beach, to visit with some crumbly-clay tidepools…

Different! No wee fishies, unfortunately.

…and one more gorgeous silver drift-log installation.

World’s coolest jungle gym.

Heading north, we passed this irresistible sign:

How can I have never run into this pun before?!

And then on to Savannah (sorta). Our friends live on the outskirts, which should really be called the outswamps. Question: Is that why they named the town after a sea-of-grass ecosystem? Anyone know?

Since our purpose was reuniting with old friends, we skipped the downtown Savannah tour. Instead, we were gifted with one over-the-top, unexpected cool thing after another. We got to watch the Carolina-Duke game with true fans, drowning our sorrows in bacon-wrapped scallops and homemade pizza (not pictured). We got to cuddle with the sweetest, silkiest Labrador.

Forrest loved the Mate.

We thought our friends’ backyard view was just fine–hey, nice swamp ya got here!–but then next the morning, THIS happened.

Okay then.

Finally, our friends served us a lil’ ol’ Georgia breakfast: eggs, cheese grits, sausage, bacon, fresh fruit salad, and fresh sweet rolls. Still full from the night before, I made a superwoman effort and ate everything.

Woman’s got to do what a woman’s got to do.

So…feeling a little swamped right now. Thinking that when we find beauty and goodness in unexpected places, it means even more. And feeling a bit grateful that Spanish Moss doesn’t grow in mountainous areas. Because if it did? I think my head would explode.

More, more!

 

Road Trip X, Days 18-20: Gettin’ Cushy in Louisiana & Alabama

No one should EVER feel sorry for me & the Mate when we complain about weather on our road trips. That’s what we get for road-tripping in February and March! So I’m not looking for pity when I whine about not being able to camp due to snow or lightning or dust storms or ice or…blah blah blah. It’s just fun to whine.

Which is why these last couple of days have really called our bluff. Monday we left Galveston on a cute (and completely free!) ferry

Our ferry’s double, passing the other way.

and drove the length the peninsula on the bay’s other side,

Anyone else think that ocean is awfully close to the road? No? Just me?

back to the interstate and into Louisiana. We hit a perfectly nice campground in the Louisiana bayous–Lake Fausse Pt. State Park–on a perfectly nice (if a little humid) day…and opted out.

Why? Because the ranger said it probably would rain overnight. And while there’s nothing wrong with rain outside a tent when you’re in it, stuffing a wet tent into a small Subaru with all the rest of your belongings is the opposite of fun. Still, we might have gone for it if we hadn’t learned about the cabins.

We could stay in there?!

Each one perched OVER the bayou, with perfect screened porches.

We’re staying in here!

We couldn’t wait to eat dinner out on the porch. But first it was time to go for a walk around the swamp.

Ahhhh…

Have I ever mentioned that I love swamps? Just show me a cypress and I go all weak in the knees. (sorry)

I have no idea what this is. Red iris? Anyone?

The forest offered plenty of variety all on its own…

Don’t mind if I do.

…so when I did see a gator, it was simply a bonus. And the baby gator in front of the mama? Bonus bonus.

See the baby? So stinkin’ CUTE!!!!

That evening, the Traveling Avocados teamed up with some Gulf shrimp and that amazing screened porch for what’s probably going to earn our Best Meal of the Trip Award.

With a rocking bench!

Next day we drove across Mississippi–just about 100 miles at its base–and into Alabama. We had a date with another state park (thanks to this excellent book on state parks), way down past Mobile in Alabama’s teensy lil’ slice of the big ol’ Gulf Coast pie. Appropriately enough, it’s called Gulf State Park. And it’s big. And lovely. With 28 miles of bike trails, are you kidding? Made for us!

Only problem? This park boasts over 400 RV sites, and eleven tent sites. The Mate and I took one look at the teensy tent sites crammed in between RVs and quickly backed away. All the way away, to a Motel 6. Then we drove the few miles back into the park and took a big, happy chomp of those delicious bike trails.

Come for the biking. Stay for the biking…but only if you have an RV!

No lie, this bike path instantly vaulted into our top 5 anywhere.

Only a half-mile further, a new forest.

The terrain keeps changing, oaks to pines to dunes to swamp to…wait–is that an…?

Why yes indeedy.

A nice heavy deluge that night made us feel even better about not camping. Even worse weather ahead of us in Florida encouraged us to slowwww down, so we spent another $70 to stay on at the Motel 6. Next morning, we tried some of those trails on foot.

Any gators down there?

I LOVE whizzing along on a bike, but you do miss stuff. Like these funny puffball-shaped clumps of reindeer lichen.

Cue the lichen puns.

Why this shape? Because, I realized, they’re not growing on the sand; there’s nothing for them to live off. They’re growing on individual sticks and leaves on the sand. Clever things!

We didn’t see tortoises, but we did see their holes.

Anybody home? Love the wild rosemary landscaping!

The only thing I wished for in this park was more dirt trails; they’re nearly all paved. But I understand the reasons for that. And it was clear, from the number of benches dedicated to folks passed away or to groups like “Michigan Snowbirds,” how beloved this park is to folks from colder places–mostly the midwest, it seemed. Maybe that explains the tongue-in-cheek speed limit signs:

NOT 27. That would be crazy.

The weather’s supposed to be so wacky tomorrow that I have no idea where we’ll be tomorrow night. NOT in a tent. But given the terrible destruction up in Nashville this week, I can only give thanks for the safety and security of being able to whine about a little rain.

And speaking of giving thanks: one more gator? Yes please!

We learned the locals named this one “Lefty.”

Road Trip X, Days 14-17, Fort Stockton to San Antonio to Galveston: Dear Ones in Texas

In this blog’s travel morph, I’ve never made a secret of my lack of love for Texas. I’m sure I’ve said some unkind things. That attitude, of course, comes back to bite me when I see a travelogue like this through the eyes of folks I love who happen to live there. So I’m going to avoid my negativity for once and just write about what’s been great about the past few days.

Hold up. Let me first get this out of my system: Fort Stockton contains no one I love, AND it doesn’t have a single bike path. So I’m not going to try & emphasize the positive about Fort Stockton, other than to say it offered us a comfy motel at the end of a long day’s drive from Arizona. If you’re reading this and you’re from Fort Stockton, please chime in with something cool about your town.

OK, on to San Antonio.

My older sister and her husband live on the outskirts, far enough away from the Riverwalk that we’re not tempted to go there. We’re family, not tourists. (And my sister’s dining room is the best restaurant in town anyway.) Along with catching up on family stuff and playing music with my bro-in-law, I’m always happy to cuddle their super-fluffy cats.

Starved for kitty love.

And THIS town has a bike path! Boy, does it ever.

Curvy and swoopy and green…A+.

Also, thanks to my sister’s tree, we are now the Sisterhood of the Traveling Avocados, Oranges AND Grapefruit! (not pictured ’cause I’ve been eating them in the car–sweeet) But here’s another cat picture instead.

Such…fluffy…feeeeet!

We only stayed one night in San Antonio because we’d timed our trip to Galveston to coincide with our friends’ weekend there.  We usually visit them in Dallas where they live (in Oak Cliff, Dallas’s cool side), but they’re just putting the finishing touches on a new condo in Galveston, the childhood Happy Place of one of them, and they invited us as inaugural guests.

Galveston? Where the heck is that anyhow? (asked Gretchen, about a month ago).

Oh! Okay. Thanks, Wikipedia.

According to our friends (also Wikipedia), it’s an island in the Gulf of Mexico, 27 miles long, no wider than 3 miles. It was practically wiped out in a hurricane in 1900 which killed over 6,000 people. More recently, Hurricane Ike did a ton of damage, but Galvestonians are a resilient bunch, and they love their town. One of my favorite parts of our stay there (other than walking on the endless beach) was biking through the old town, stopping to take pictures of pretty houses.

Ooooh.

The sunrise view from our friends’ condo:

Good morning!

The giant ships entering the harbor, bound for Houston, reminded me of the ones we used to live with during our 20 years in Tacoma. Here there are so many, they line up along the horizon waiting their turn to unload. At night the whole Gulf looks like it’s ringed with stars.

Big ship, and big pelican! I love those things.

Biking around, I kept thinking about seeing Ciudad Juarez across the Rio Grande as we’d passed through El Paso a couple of days earlier. Yes, the Mexican streets and houses look poor, in some places desperately so. But they are so colorful! Pink and green and blue and purple–as if to say, “C’mon, America–why you gotta be so DULL?” Well, Galvestonians are NOT dull.

Wish I had the nerve to paint my house that color.

Mardi Gras was last week. I kept running over beads with my bike wheels, and lots of decorations were still up.

The day was overcast. Imagine how this home would look in bright sunshine!

Must’ve been quite a party.

Take that, Nawleans.

Galveston also hosts a thriving fishing industry. My friend took this picture as I waited in line for gigantic shrimp. Moments later, when she stepped outside, they brought out the two-man-sized fish.

The day’s smaller catch.

If I were more of a beach person, I would have taken more pictures of the beach. Maybe. The best thing about THIS beach, for me? Walking and talking and sitting and talking and drinking wine and talking with my friend. (not pictured) So here’s another jaw-dropping house:

Daaaaang.

Our friends went to Mass on Sunday for the first time here (they’re still getting to know their new town) and came back jubilant at having discovered a vibrant, extremely multi-racial, multi-ethnic congregation. Another warm fuzzy for Galveston. Maybe I just need to spend more time in all Texas’s towns? Well…all the ones with places to bike in, anyhow.

I don’t feel bad about the opinions I have about Texas which are related to its history and current dominant politics. I do feel bad if anyone I love who lives there feels like I love them less because they live there. And for those other loyal Texans whom I don’t know…please tell me more cool stuff about where you live. I’m trying not to have a Texas-sized ego about this. 🙂

Road Trip X, Days 6-10, Oakland to LA to Joshua Tree to Tucson: Making the Big Left Turn

Along with the color green, we tend to front-load our road trips with family and friends all down the west coast. In fact, in our first week we somehow visited with 18 different dear people, some just for a meal, some for a hike, some for a night or two, and some for all of the above.
Then comes the Big Left Turn from LA, and it’s just the Mate and Red Rover and I heading out across the desert.

So let me catch up a little before that desert becomes my be-all and end-all. Because I don’t like to violate my family’s privacy, I won’t show any pictures of our adorable six-year-old twin cousins. But here’s the late valentines they left on the door for me when I went for a walk.

I’m mellllting…

After two days and nights of walks and drawing and playing and reading aloud (grandparent practice!), not to mention enjoying our adult cousins’ excellent cooking chops (literally and figuratively), we headed for SoCal. Google kept asking if we didn’t want to save an hour by taking I-5, but we had a date with a certain bike path in Santa Barbara.

Suck it, I-5.

Then we spent the night with our dear friend Rhonda in the Agoura Hills, marveling at her Phoenix-like rise from the ashes of the Woolsey Fire, which I documented last year. It was nice to hear someone with good things to say about her insurance company. (Not pictured: Rhonda’s rebuilt house.)

On our last day in LA, we met our adventure buddies Tom & Kate for a hike in Malibu. Usually Tom & Kate meet us somewhere further from home, like Moab or the Rockies, but this year they only had the one day. We made it work.

So much prettier when it’s not on fire!

Who knew these dry hills still cling to a few waterfalls?

Don’t worry, little waterfall. I’ll never give your hideout away.

Since we are crazy people, though, the absolute highlight of that hike was this guy:

Hey, big guy! We don’t have any of y’all where we live, so thanks for the thrill.

Our visit with our next set of cousins (my side of the fam) was brief but sweet…and as in years past, yielded not only a bag of avocados from Cousin Elias and Helen’s giant tree, but also another bag, full of oranges from Cousin Susi’s equally ancient backyard tree! So this trip can now celebrate the Sisterhood of the Traveling Avocados AND Oranges!

Much as we love our cousins and friends, after four days we were DONE with driving through Californian cities.

Left Turn!!!! Bring on the brown signs! Specifically, Joshua Tree National Park.

Since we were in this exact same spot exactly one year ago, I was able to compare the effects of greater or less rainfall. Last year, I took more pictures of wildflowers than rocks. But this year?

I’m okay with just rocks, thanks.

And let’s not forget JT’s legendary palm oases. This one’s called Lost Oasis, and requires a round-trip 9 mile hike.

Worth it.

You don’t have to walk 9 miles to see palms, though. These beauties are right by the parking lot.

In the midst of the desert, you can see why these things are so godly.

The ranger told us that desert tortoises had been active in the area, so we got our hopes up. But this was the only tortoise we found.

And now you’re just as sad as we were. Sorry. 😞

Back at camp, I had to race the sun to get dinner out before dark. Cue the avos and oranges!

Don’t judge my atrocious presentation—I was in a rush!

We love Joshua Tree, but this trip we were saving our linger-longer desert days for another special place…and one that’s a lot less populated. But I’ll save that for the next post. We spent an uninteresting night in Tucson (not Tucson’s fault, we just needed a down day), but as always felt gratitude for its bike paths (not pictured, sorry).

For now, I just want to say, Thank you, California, for your glorious diversity. No thank you for your traffic…but I can’t blame folks for wanting a piece of you. On to the glorious Chiricahuas!

 

Ironman, Shmironman: New Zealand’s Coast to Coast World Multisport Championship

This is THE weekend. As I’m writing this, the countdown clock for the start of the Coast to Coast is down to 2 hours something. It starts on Friday, Feb. 7. Today is Thursday, Feb. 6. So it starts in two hours–how??? Oh yeah–New Zealand time. Already tomorrow there. No wonder those buggers are so quick.

Photo by Diversions.nz

Actually, the race that starts Friday is the “easy” race: competitors take TWO days to race across the skinny part of NZ’s South Island, from Coast to Coast, on foot, bicycle, and kayak. And by “easy” I mean “less insane.” Here’s the C2C’s own description of the race course:

Competitors leave on foot from the black sands and lush windswept landscapes on the West Coast, running 2.2km inland to their waiting bikes. They then follow the Taramakau River 50km to the foothills of the Southern Alps where they switch their bikes for runners and the first true test of the course.

Photo by Eventfinda.nz

The 30.5km run is mainly off trail with the rocky riverbed often the only direct line up the valley. Competitors encounter multiple river crossings with frigid crystal clear water and an elevation gain of nearly 800m on their way to Goat Pass and the start of the descent.

Photo by NZ Herald

With the very fastest athletes taking nearly 3 hours the run is as much a test of co-ordination and strength as it is outright speed.
A short 15km ride follows before the second jewel in the course. The mighty Waimakariri River. 70kms of braids and a stunning gorge, the river section is for many both the highlight and the crux of the race. The water flows swiftly in places and mixes long calm sections with rapids up to grade 2 in size.

The racer I followed in 2017, Josie, finishing the 70k kayak portion (my photo)

It takes competitors from the heart of the Southern Alps out on to the Canterbury Plains where just one final 70km ride stands between competitors and the finish on the East Coast at the New Brighton Pier amongst a vibrant beachside festival.

Map by NZTourismGuide.nz

Got that? Run to ride to run to ride to paddle to ride. For a total of 238 kilometers. That’s over 147 miles. The actual World Multisport Championship part of the C2C doesn’t start till Saturday–at 0:dark-thirty. That’s the race they call The Longest Day. And you can guess why.

I first learned about this race when my family and I spent a year in New Zealand, back in the 1990s. I came to see multisport racing in general, and the Coast to Coast in particular, as emblematic of the Kiwi approach both to sport and to life. (Notice how much those two are entwined? Yeah, all those cliche-spouting coaches are pretty much right.)

Which is why the novel I’m writing is set in NZ, and features a race much like the C2C. And why my heart is now with the athlete who let me “ride along” with her crew, back in 2017, so I could see and feel the race up close. You can read that story here.

What, you thought I was going to DO the Longest Day? Do I seem that crazy tough athletic to you? (If yes, ummm…thanks? But no thanks!)

In 2017, Josie, the athlete I followed–a mum with two daughters–finished the Longest Day in just over 15 hours, fourth woman! This year, Josie’s going for it again! Over the course of her Saturday, our Friday, I’ll be checking in with the course-tracker app to follow her progress up and over the mountains, through dark of night, fording crystalline streams…

…Sorry. Easy to get carried away. I’ll just stop here with: Go, you crazy racers! GO JOSIE!

Now back to my nice, comfy laptop…

Josie’s finish in 2017. Have a beer! (Photo by C2C.nz)

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.

 

 

Martha and Peter’s Excellent Aldabra Adventure, Part VII: Blistered Bottoms and Happy New Year

Welcome to the penultimate (as my dad would say, instead of second-to-last) installment of my intrepid parents’ Aldabra Journals. It’s been fun for me, re-reading these after 43 years, but I’m starting to feel eager to take my blog back to the present. With that in mind, I’ve edited the final two weeks of entries, cutting longer sections about goat-watching to highlight those which portray most vividly life on a tiny atoll.

See if you can spot my Martha and Peter’s evolving attitudes! (I may have left a few colorful hints.)

30 December

We rose before dawn to retrace our steps to where we’d spotted goats last eve…Now we can have breakfast and then try to catch some fish, a chore that Harry made seem easy but for which we are clearly less capable. Tides are such as to preclude pool fishing, and fear of sharks keep us from surf casting, so P. balanced his way out to an out-hanging shelf of coral from which a line could be dropped into the water. Between the very small fish, which merely nibbled the bait to bits and the giants which swallowed bait, hook and all, then spat out the indigestible portion, P. made no contribution to the dinner pot.  And the swarms of moray eels did not encourage a consoling, cooling dip either. Frustrating. M. wisely kept cool with a book in the hut.

31 December

Just now we’re dressing wounds – coral cuts on feet and ugly burns from the blister beetles, a flying cockroach-shaped beast that is attracted by smoke and releases a highly caustic, inflammatory (and then infectious) substance when squashed or smitten. Once done, we plan to jog around our clearing or perhaps use our jump-ropes: dune running is too strenuous for us just now, besides which it accelerates dune erosion.[Remember: marathoner parents!]  As you may divine, we are slowly succumbing to tropical lassitudinitis. Fortunately there is no excess of either dainty snacks nor alcohol, so we hope to avoid the otherwise inevitable tropical belly.  We do have one bottle of rum along, for medicinal purposes, of course, and will use it this evening as an excuse for some kind of rum punch.  

Just back from a 5 hour search that produced no goats, but, as usual, no small number of other sights. First, a green turtle hatchling that was headed into the sand.  We turned it surfward a meter from the water and watched it swim off, hoping it would avoid the large shark which was patrolling the beach. Next was some feces that was from a carnivore, confirming fears that a beast we’d spied earlier might have been a dog. The last sighting was two years ago, so we’d hoped none remained. Then, while standing on a ledge overhanging the water, we watched two large rays, white spots on their sleek black wings, cavort, like playful aquatic butterflies. Probably they were mating, or do rays play? Graceful creatures, for sure. [Nice to see some of that awe still flowing.] Finally, we watched a trio of giant green turtles, 10-15 meters off-shore, two of them copulating while the third tried to intervene. A miracle that the female did not drown. We held our breaths in sympathy. [:) ]

Supper now, and, late as it is, to bed after. No New Year celebration this year, but, then, we’ve not stayed up until midnight for a quite a few years. Happy New Year. [1977]

Dad goat-watching on Dune Jean Louis

1 January

Today has been a maximally lazy one. Our plans to beat the bushes for goats were shelved when M.’s morning watch from our tower was rewarded with a sighting of one of Meg’s herds. Rather than risk spooking them, we elected to see if they were back to stay, a decision reinforced by the excessive heat.

The sky is cloudless and this year’s rainy season has yet to materialize…That means no fresh water bathing, and  drinks are foul-tasting, even when disguised with tannins, caffeine and alcohol. Bathing is also discouraged by the blazing sun as M. has a badly blistered bottom: it was unaccustomed to exposure (P. had passed through the blistered stage earlier).

We’ve passed the day dozing, reading, and timing the incubation intervals of our resident sunbird, now with two eggs. The male, who’d helped with nest construction, now no longer enters the hut, though he accompanies the female on flights around camp whenever she leaves the nest (which is often), and sings from atop our nearby tent or clothes-rack bush. The nest, a hanging, globular affair was badly attached and had we not secured it with twine would surely have fallen. Perhaps this pair is inexperienced. [says the very married man]

2 January

We lay abed an extra 30 minutes this A.M., not commencing our watch until 6.  Even so, it was darker than night, with heavy black clouds blotting the lagoon. It did finally lighten and we saw some goats at a distance. Then we breakfasted, and as we afterward started on a fishing expedition, were submerged in a long overdue deluge. Wet and cold, we returned to our hut for shoes and exploited the cooler temperature for a run. M. took off on an 800 meter circuit across the tortoise -cropped turf, which winds its way around coral fragments, while P. took advantage of the tortoises being a good height to practice hurdlers’ strides. [I adore the image this presents!] Once the shower ended, we used the older water, now too foul to drink, for a luxurious sponge bath. “Clean” is relative, but by Aldabran standards we are now squeaky clean, even if still sandy.

3 January

Our last full day here alone dawned darkly, and thirty minutes after stationing ourselves in our watchtower, 3 meters high, lightning frightened us down. We lasted a bit longer atop the dune, but saw no more more goats. Then, the rains came, but lightly enough that P. had a run, while M. decided to laze about until low tide. Our fish expedition this time was successful, 4 beauties hand-caught in tide pools, so M. is now prepping them for a mid-day curry, an attractive prospect on an unusually grey, though still relatively dry day.

Incidentally, ibises, at least the sacred sort, like cooked oatmeal. Turnstones don’t.Tortoises like anything, from margarine to fish soup. [Stop the scientific presses!]

Not actually sure where this is, but the photo’s too dramatic not to use

4 January

Another squally morning, strong winds, though now shifted to the SW. Impossible to see goats, even had they been present. Now, sun and rain are playing a chasing game, and it remains muggy and uncomfortably hot.

Meg was to have arrived this am, with fresh supplies, but has not materialized. Our coffee will be gone by tonight, and many other stocks are nearly gone. Worst, both primus stoves are on the fritz and totally nonfunctional. There’s too much wind for a wood fire. So, we will take inventory and pack tonight, knock down the tent at first light tomorrow, and head east to Cinq Cases. Should there be no tent or hut space for us there, we should still at least be able to get some food to tide us over. The tidepool that has produced most of our fish has been exhausted. Other pools are shared by Moray eels of considerable size, so we left the fish in them to the eels. It’s too great a distance for a simple roundtrip to Cinq C. for food: about 12 miles, but the maximum speed possible on this terrain is about 2 miles/hour.

Hard to imagine a more ordinary/extraordinary afternoon than we’ve experienced: M. lolling in her chair, book in lap, coffee to hand; P. at his desk, coffee (imitation, actually) at his side, too. Our beasties are grazing the pasture by the door, or napping in the shade. The shade, however, is not provided by proud Piedmont oaks, but fronds of Pandamus palms, which are the roof and walls of our hut. And, M.’s chair is a single canvas sling, while P.’s desk a crude board with stool. The floor of our “office” is sand, fresh and white, and the grazers are not our usual equine pets, but those ungainly giant tortoises.  How we would like to bring some back home with us!  [Oh yes! Please, daddy, please can we have a tortoise?] The “chandelier” over our heads is a sunbird nest, the female now on two eggs peering down on us.  less  functional than the chandelier at home, but much more entertaining. It’s all very bucolic, quite what we’re used to, but somehow the matrix for these ordinary activities, reading and writing, has been transposed.

I want one!!!!

A shift in the wind has produced high surf and rough seas. If this continues, we’ll not get off the island even if a ship does come.There’s no way our dinghy could get through the surf, a complication we’d not taken too seriously during the calm of the past weeks.

5 January

Last evening’s goat watch provided us with more and closer contact than all previous watches combined. It was hard to stop for supper.  At midnight, the watch was inadvertently resumed when we were roused by odd moaning noises, quite unlike any we’d heard before.  A bright full moon revealed eight goats just outside our tent, apparently conversing in an alien caprine dialect. [speaking of dialects, father…]  A few hours later, when we arose to start the day, we were startled by an apparent sunrise to the WNW.  The sun itself was cloud-occluded, and the full moon was to the north of the where the sun normally set. It was quite disorienting, and we still don’t understand any of this.

Our hike eastward began with an unsuccessful effort to rescue a green turtle that had been marooned by the outgoing tide.  She was too heavy for us to move, so we had to leave her with hopes that clouds and rain would protect her until the next tide.  Then came two hours of agonizing balancing on sharp champignons or stumbling through loose coral and deep, soft sand.  The occasional stretches of turf were just enough reminder of normal walking to add frustration.  The final three hours went more smoothly, though an ill designed and badly fitting back pack made for maximum discomfort.  We did reach CC, finally, about an hour after Meg and her party made it. Engine troubles had delayed them, which was why Meg never reached us at DJL.

This camp is crowded: five others, besides Meg and us, and the place resembles a shantytown of the most impoverished sort. Can’t wait to get away. The immediate surround is a wasteland – coral cliffs and sea to the east, and a vast expanse of largely barren and heavily fragmented tumbled loose coral to the west. The mangrove and biologically more active areas are a ¾ hour walk away, but we will go shortly. The one amenity here is the desk at which this is being written: it’s built within the low enveloping branches of a Guettarda tree and shared by dozens of tortoises.

6 January

Up early for a spiritless jog along the coast, so different from DJL. We felt most unambitious, a feeling accentuated by the hot, sticky air. However, we also felt the need for breakfast, so with a brief bathe in the sea spray (tide was too high and the surf to rough for immersion), we returned to camp for our tea and ration biscuits (World War II British army food), peanut butter (viz, groundnut) and marmalade.  Supplies are in good shape here.

There is an ample supply of relatively fresh (though foul smelling) water here, which may explain why there is a much higher incidence of twins among the goats here than at other sites.

The others at this camp include an ecologist who is studying primary productivity, two entomologists who are surveying coxid beetles and the damage they cause, a tortoise counter, and a scientific assistant, the ever energetic Chris, who does lots of everything. [I can just imagine Chris. 🙂 ] There are also two Seychellois here, Harry, and another who is largely mute as he speaks only Creole. The seas have been too rough for them to fish and we have insufficient fuel for trawling, so there is little for them to do.

7 January

Days pass quickly here, and there are new sights daily.  M. spent last evening trying to puzzle through the southern constellations – someone had left starmaps  – until a bright harvest moon extinguished all but the brightest.  Meantime, P. got a fishing lesson from Harry and Bernard. Those guys are uncanny.  We walked 3 kilometers along the coast, while they scanned the sea, then headed to a coral bench some two meters above the water. Out went two handfuls of minced crab and sand, then a crab-baited line.  10 seconds later, they landed a 30-40 kilogram grouper.  Wow.  Now, a second cast.  This time it took 20 seconds before they landed a red snapper, about 10 kilos.

We hiked to Basin Flamant this morning, and were treated to an overhead view of flamingoes in flight, a glorious sight in the morning sun. They honk rather like Canada geese.

It is moist, and hot! Today’s been the worst – little wind, no clouds, no condition for an afternoon outing. We bathed at low tide on our return from the field at 1 pm, napped until 3, the present time, and will likely stay in the shade at least to 5, when we may check the goats again. We’re focused on establishing the sex ratio now. The predominance of males is striking.

We’re also on the lookout for Meg, who is now several days overdue and we’re beginning to worry.

A good reminder that there’s really no such thing as an island Paradise, appearances notwithstanding.

Gretchen here again: Keep in mind, during these weeks, my teenage sister and self were entirely cut off from our parents. Strange to think how very nearly impossible such incommunicado status is now, no matter how far away one goes.

OK. Thanks for being along for the ride. The next installment will be the final one, and then…oh my! I have to take the reins again. Hope I have something to compete with tortoise-hurdling.

 

Peter and Martha’s Excellent Aldabra Adventure, Part IV: Tortoise Tickling

Yep, you read that right. In 1976 my parents flew halfway around the world, then survived passage on a rickety freighter to be marooned on a tiny coral atoll in the middle of the Indian Ocean in order to…tickle tortoises?

Y’know, I can’t possibly explain it better than Peter. So once again…it’s all yours, Dad.

17 December

This day was devoted to tickling tortoises.  Meg had called our attention to the fact that the huge tortoises (similar to those on the Galapagos Islands) would respond to the presence of a flightless rail approaching from behind by rising up on all fours.  A similar response would occur if one took a straw and gently tickled the inside of a hind leg.  There is a controversy here as to whether this is to be viewed as a sexual response, or whether it is akin to the behavior seen among cleaner fish and their hosts, or crocodiles and the birds that clean food particles from between their teeth. Ectoparasites on the skin of the leg have been noted, so this is not unreasonable.  However, it is also possible, that the response is purely defensive.

[Ohhhkayyy…]

In case you suspect I might be making this up: here’s my mom, tortoise-tickling.

Our plan was to determine whether both males and females respond similarly, reasoning that if this was a sexual response, only females would display it.  So, Martha spent several hours tickling hind legs of mature individuals.  The first problem was to approach them without causing alarm, which leads to their withdrawing within their carapace altogether.  A second was to avoid having fingers rasped by their sudden movement, the solution to which was a longer tickling stick.  Finally, we had to determine the animal’s sex.  Males have a larger and fatter tail, and a more concave lower shell, presumably to aid in balancing on the the female’s back.  But, these traits are relative and, among the smaller, younger animals, not pronounced.  Many of the animals had identification numbers engraved ventrally, with their sex, as determined by tortoise specialists, entered in a log, but most of the animals were too heavy for us to invert so their sex remained a mystery.  However, given the proportion that responded to her tickles, we surmise the behavior is not sex-dependent.

[Aha! Science!!]

Visualize this ancient coral as you read the next paragraph. Ouchie!

Moving across the coral is hazardous, though the old-timers do develop a remarkable facility, so with time we, too, have become more more daring and are able to move fairly rapidly across the uneven terrain.  Just how competent we have come may be gleaned from the fact that last night we caught several goats for ear-tagging, which is done by cornering the animals on coral ledges overhanging the ocean.  These ledges are several meters above the shark filled ocean, and are composed of razor-sharp coral, with narrow pinnacles separated by deep, foot-grabbing crevices.  This is done in the dark, of course.  We survived unscathed, and scored a total of a half dozen goats, marked and measured.

[Oh, right…goats! The real reason for their long journey was goat study. So, tune in next week when we actually get back to goats.]