Costa Rica, Part 1: ¡Que Sorpresa!

Would you put this in your mouth?

Alien egg? Tree gall? Exotic cocoon?

How ’bout now?

EWWWWW.

If these images gross you out, you probably wouldn’t have enjoyed the kind of Costa Rica tour The Mate and I just went on, led by Son One, as a beta-test of his budding ecotour company, Liana Travels. Some of what we did required…let’s just say…trust. But in every way, our trust was repaid. Like putting that weird glop in my mouth, which just happens to be passionfruit, and just happens to taste…

…magnificent.

Tangy, sweet, magical–ok, still a weird mix of gloppy and crunchy, but that flavor! Later, when we saw passionflower vines in bloom, I fell even more in love.

Encantada

So I decided that passionfruit was a pretty good metaphor for Liana Travels. Go ahead, take a bite. First comes the surprise, then the reward.

Some of those surprises, I have to admit, were NOT pleasant, but those had to do with travel during COVID, not with Son One’s planning. Example #1: Upon arrival at San Jose airport, we stood in the Immigration line for 2 and a quarter HOURS, because there were only four clerks processing many airplanes’ worth of travelers. (I was certain we were catching COVID every moment we stood there. We didn’t.) Example #2: While waiting for our required test results to exit the country, our flight was cancelled. But the stress of those surprises was made up for by watching Son One’s calm, competent responses.

Nuestro guia

In upcoming posts, I’ll give a more conventional travelogue. But as an intro, here are two more surprises. #1, have you heard of the famous invasive Cane Toads of Australia? Turns out they were imported from Central America! I hadn’t known that, and found the information as fascinating as the huge toads are ugly.

also nocturnal

And #2, how about this flower? Here it is closed up:

…ohhhhkay…

And here it is open. I asked Son One its name. His answer: “They call it Butthole Flower.”

Well alrighty then.

Watch this space for more on our off-the-beaten-path Costa Rican adventures. ¡Puravida!

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 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.

 

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?

Road Trip IX, Days 23-26: The Appalachian Ocean

Consider this post a small gravel-chunk in the stretch of road that constitutes the travelogue of Road Trip IX. The Mate and I just spent four days and nights in Appalachian Trail country—northern Georgia, western North Carolina—and I want to capture my musings on these mountains before we arrive back in Tarheel Territory the Piedmont and give ourselves over to a week of screaming at the TV, eating BBQ and fried chicken, raising our arms for luck on free throws catching up with old friends over the ACC basketball tournament.

Amicalola Falls State Park, Georgia…near the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail.

Fellow native east coasters, I must confess to you: since moving to Washington in 1990, I’ve become a horrible Western Chauvinist. One of those people who comments that the tallest mountain in the east—Mt. Mitchell, 6,683—comes up to less than halfway up our Mt. Rainier (14,110).

Shame on me.

Height doesn’t matter.

Four days of hiking and riding around the Appalachians has reminded me of this simple truth: you can’t compare them to western mountains.

Western mountains are formidable ranges, awesome volcanoes, places of raw wilderness and dazzling danger. But the Appalachians are a sea.

Sometimes a sea of fog.

There are two reasons for this contrast, two interconnected reasons. The great age of the Appalachians has subjected them to forces of erosion and plate-stretching that have created mountains in the shape of waves.

Waves at sunrise (taken through the window of Amicalola Lodge)

A wave is a crest and a trough. In the Appalachians, the myriad valleys and hollers are as much a part of the mountains as the peaks…because people can live there. They’ve been living there for millennia. Even European settlers have been there for over 250 years!

Waves at sunset

Of course people live high up in the Rockies and the Cascades, here and there. But the very steepness and height of those ranges rendered them inhospitable to permanent settlement back when Europeans first got there. That’s why they have no equivalent culture, identity, or musical heritage to Appalachia. (Sorry–John Denver doesn’t count.)

Here’s where I ought to have some pictures of good ol’ Appalachians doing good ol’ Appalachian things like playing bluegrass or drinking ‘shine. But since I wasn’t thinking about a blog post when we were hiking and biking and driving through, all I have is pictures of The Mate with some friends.

“Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” anyone?

So thanks, Appalachians, for slapping me upside the head with this reminder. If they’re lucky, all those gorgeous western mountains will look like you in a few million (billion?) years. 

Till then–stay warm!

Thanks. You too.

“In The Woods We Return to Reason and Faith”

…says Ralph Waldo Emerson, and I’ve never doubted it. This week not only woods, but also craggy peaks, wildflowers, gray jays, marmots and mountain goats worked their magic on me, and I finally feel like blogging again.

It’s been a month since I last posted, not that anyone’s keeping score. A month since I decided, y’know what? I don’t have the heart for this right now.

I can’t promise how long Nature’s “cordial of incredible virtue” will last. But while it does…please, allow me to share some of her bounty, in the form of Goat Rocks Wilderness in southern Washington. All photos are by my Ironwoman goddaughter and adventure buddy, Allison. (Apologies for the haze–parts of the Cascades are on fire.)

Heading in

Above tree line on the Pacific Crest Trail

Paintbrush gardens everywhere

Up above 7,200 feet–still plenty of snow patches

This section’s called The Knife

 

Goat! (Allison’s camera has a great zoom)

A whole goaty family!

Goats + Rocks = Goat Rocks

Larkspur thriving under the harshest conditions

Goat Lake, far off but calling to us…

Smoke from fires further northeast just made us grateful to be there at all.

Y’all come back soon, hear? (Yes, please.)

Road Trip VIII, Days 43-45, Page, AZ to Provo, UT: (Lake) Powell to the People?

I have always hated Lake Powell. But it was my idea to meet our Adventure Buddies in Page, Arizona, because it’s such a great jumping-off spot for nearby red-rock wonders. And one of those wonders is that dammed lake…the one that drowned a canyon every bit as grand as my beloved Grand Canyon.

What the Colorado is supposed to look like, running through a canyon.

I know all the arguments in favor of the dam, which is almost as old as I am (1963—though it took the lake another 7 years to fill completely). It protects cities like LA and Phoenix from the ravages of drought. It provides jobs. And it provides close-up access to the beautiful canyon walls, otherwise accessible only by hiking or rafting.

But should LA and Phoenix ever have been given the illusion of water security enough to grow as they have?

Could Glen Canyon not have provided jobs in its natural state, like Grand Canyon? (They’re really the same super-grand canyon. Only the dam gives them two names.)

And as to that access argument, I keep thinking about that old anti-dam slogan from back when Glen Canyon was still a fight: “Would you flood the Sistine Chapel in order to let people have a closer look at its ceiling?”

Close enough to touch. Except this wall should be hundreds of feet above.

So we went straight into the belly of the beast. We took a boat tour on the lake.

Talk about conflicted feelings!

Look at all these people having fun, I thought. Most don’t look like hikers; this could be their only glance deep into this red-rock world.

Shouldn’t everyone have access to this? Why does this view make me so sad?

Look at the Navajo Nation, running a marina full of million-dollar houseboats. Better than a casino, right?

LOTS of houseboats.

Listen to the tour recording. It’s telling about Navajo (Diné) History, about the Long Walk—their terrible forced removal in the 1860s. Would boatloads of people learn about this on their own?

But throughout the tour, I couldn’t stop thinking about the Colorado River lying drowned, 500 feet below our boat. And wondering…what would have been so terrible, to have left it alone?

Dam.

Road Trip VIII, Days 36-38, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Salinas, Kansas: Bike-Pathing Across America—Thank You, Trail Link!

Planning a drive across the country? Planning on staying in shape as you go? Does this look like a nice break from the highway?

Pedestrian/bike bridge on the Louisville Loop

Consider this post a full-on advertisement. Luckily, it’s for a non-profit organization. Also I’m not being paid. I just want anyone out there who travels across the US with a bike, or with a pair of good legs which like to stretch themselves on trails, to know about Trail Link.

Trail Link is a service provided by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, “a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating a nationwide network of trails from former rail lines and connecting corridors to build healthier places for healthier people.”

For a small subscription you get access to a website with an incredibly well annotated national map of trails, everything from small nature trails to strolls in parks to converted rail trails stretching hundreds of miles. Here’s an example:

One of our favorite trails ever—it goes through tunnels!

Clicking on any of those icons gives you directions to parking, plus more info, although Trail Notes sections are already as thorough as any well-written guidebook, complete with photos and reviews.

The Mate and I are dedicated Trail Linkers. When possible, we plan our routes through areas with inviting trails. Often we find these in out of the way places like Susanville, California—one of our favorites—but also near quite urban places like Atlanta.

Susanville! A destination trail. And the town’s pretty cool too.

The reason? Trains go everywhere, and when they are retired and organizations like … get on the case, then the trails go everywhere too. It’s a beautiful thing.

Our most recent example: the terrific Louisville Loop, a series of wonderfully curvy, hilly, bridge-studded trails that will eventually encircle the entire city by connecting its greenways. Easy access, a fantastic workout, your daily hit of natural beauty—what else does a road-tripper need?

Just look at those whoopy, swoopy, woodsy curves!

Here’s one from last year’s trip—a trail along the Illinois River.

Ahhhh…no pavement.

We’ve even found trails in Canada using Trail Link, like this amazing one around a lake on BC’s Sunshine Coast:

LOVED this trail.

Just because you’re driving purposefully without a lot of time to meander, does not mean you have to sacrifice your needs for exercise, beauty and adventure. Check out the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy for yourself, and happy riding/walking!

 

Road Trip VIII, Days 19-23, Nashville to Asheville: Don’t You Westerners Start With Your “These Ain’t No Mountains”

We’ve made it to North Carolina, my home state. But not, as yet, to my hometown. For once we aren’t fleeing weather on this trip, which means we’ve been able to slow down and enjoy time with friends in the Blue Ridge.

That means lots of walks and hikes on steep, rocky pieces of earth which, to me, are most definitely mountains, thank you very much, but to my Californian Mate…not so much. Please ignore him. These mountains are old, they’re beautiful, and they’re full of old, beautiful music, songs full of references to valleys and hollers, songs I can’t get out of my head when I’m here. I love these mountains.

Sunrise from the front porch, up on Butler Mountain

But I’m not about to set up a head-to-head beauty contest between them and my beloved Cascades or Olympics. I mean, let’s be realistic, okay?

So on our hike yesterday, I went small, ignoring huge oaks and laurel thickets and waterfalls for something subtler…and also very welcome, after all the desert we just crossed: fungus.

The first I came across are what’s commonly known as a British Soldiers. Usually their heads are bright red; I’ve never seen pink ones!

Maybe they’re all wearing their Pussy Hats!

Then there were these beauties on a fallen tree:

Who knew decay could be so lovely?

And this little guy, doing a good impression of a tide pool creature:

Sea slug? Chiton? Nope—fungus.

Finally, on our way back, these fragile white fans:

I know, I know. We have pretty mushrooms in the northwest too. But let the east shine for now, ok?

Since I mentioned Nashville in the heading I should mention that, yes indeed, the Mate and I paid our respects to Music Row, and ate some kick-ass ribs at Acme Feed and Seed (which I did not take a picture of ’cause I already felt conspicuously touristy).  But neon and cowboy boots are not our thing. I’m happy for those who love Nashville and all it stands for, but we were just as glad to get back to our motel and watch the Tarheels play. 😊

And speaking of Tarheels…next up, Durham, Chapel Hill, and the ACC tournament! And…where will Traveling Avocados #5 and 6 find their destiny?

Road Trip VIII, Days 10-13, LA to Arizona’s Chiricahuas: Hidden Treasures and the Sisterhood of the Traveling Avocados

Is anything more satisfying than seeing or experiencing or eating something hardly anyone else gets to? I think that’s why we humans love secret hideouts, bragging about buying stuff on sale, and scarce foods like truffles (not the chocolate kind, which are much less rare and infinitely more delicious).

I’m writing this from a special place which has been, in fact, a historical hideout—for the Apache leader Cochise, and also for Gerónimo—and which is so little known as to count as a hidden treasure. The “town” is named Portal, but it’s the portal to the Chiricahuas, a region of such grandeur it belongs more in the class of the Grand Canyon than in the obscurity of this southeasternmost corner of Arizona. One side of the mountains is actually a national monument; we’ve camped there before but I never blogged about it and don’t have those pictures accessible. But no worries: the non-monument side, where we’re staying in a cabin (since it was starting to snow, no camping)…THIS side manages to be just as spectacular.

How to describe the Chiricahuas? Soaring rock towers in gold and orange…

caves and hoodoos carved by wind…

…presiding over a deep valley of scrub oak and sycamore.

I also was startled by several javelinas, aggressive little wild piggies that burst out of the brush and give you a heart attack. Alas, I wasn’t able to grab my camera in time, so I had to settle for this picture of their diggings next to this barrel cactus:

Desert riparian: that’s the term for the rare phenomenon of streamside vegetation in the midst of drought. And along with the sunrise-colored rock, that habitat is what makes this place so special.

The only people we’ve met who have heard of this place are birders, and for good reason: as a little island of Sierra in the midst of the Sonoran desert, the Chiricahua offers a familiar haven to birds usually found only in the mountains of Mexico. Birders from all over the world congregate here every spring to “bag” rare species of hummingbird, and that most prized of sightings, the Elegant Trogon.

We aren’t birders. Also, it’s February. So we make do with what we can spot: turkeys!

But what about those avocados?

Getting back to the joy of rare things: our cousins in LA have a 100 year-old avocado tree, a huge beauty that bears fruit like green butter. When we left them, they gifted us with half a dozen, which we have been ripening serially as we travel. So, Avocado #1 went into a quesadilla in a motel outside of Joshua Tree National Park, where, sadly, a freezing windstorm was filling the air with dust and blasting our hopes of camping.

#2 met a similar fate in Tucson, where, still stymied by wind and dust, we holed up with map and weather reports and figures out where we could find some clear air to recreate in.

So Avocado #3 had the honor today of gracing an arugula salad…and the front porch of our cabin. Thanks, cousins!

Where will the next Traveling Avocados end up? Stay tuned.