Peter and Martha’s Excellent Aldabra Adventure, Part V: Bash-Your-Own Shark Stew

We now continue where we left off, with Gretchen’s intrepid parents, Martha and Peter Klopfer, voluntarily marooned on Aldabra Island, back in 1976. In this section of their journals, Mom and Dad began taking turns narrating. I can easily tell one’s written voice from the other–can you? Enjoy…

19 December

The long delayed rainy season has arrived.  First we had a short shower, with lots of wind.  During the night we thought we might emulate Dorothy’s trip to the Land of Oz, but luckily our tent was well moored and canvas strong.  Lots of lightning activity, too, scary on an open island. [Having been terrified of lightning as a child, this part of their story paralyzed me with fear back then.]

Today’s goat walk had us along the beach at high tide, so we were able to see Aldabra’s famous blow holes in action. Very dramatic. The holes are often some distance back from the cliff edge, as much as 20 meters or so, and the great roars or hisses and the towers of spray and mist they emit, often to heights of 3-4 meters, seem unrelated to the sea’s movements. Better spectacle than the geysers of Yellowstone!

Our campmates have now all departed, except for Meg and Harry, our Seychellois factotum. It’s rather pleasant to have the island more or less to ourselves. Tomorrow, first thing, we will depart, too, moving to Meg’s second study site, on the island called Dune Jean Louis. We still hope we can return to Main Station in time for the turkey dinner planned for Christmas, the turkey having accompanied us on the Nordvaer [the rusty freighter they journeyed in on].

20 December

We’re now sitting in the shade of the thatched hut at Dune Jean Louis, an extensive expanse of sandy dunes, trying not to disturb a sunbird whose nest hangs from a piece of thatching about a meter over our heads. We reached the camp here from Middle Camp by puttering across the lagoon in a small rowboat equipped with outboard. One can hike around the eastern of Aldabra and get here on foot, but that takes a couple of days, while the boat ride takes but an hour, provided one calculates the tide correctly, there’s enough water in the lagoon, and the engine does not malfunction. The longtimers here all of tales of times when they had to hoist shirts on an oar to sail by, or to to row. Wading in water that is too murky to allow a lookout for the many sharks while pulling a heavy boat is not an option. [So…have you noticed the lack of spelling-bee words and Latin phrases? This is Mom narrating. 🙂 ]

Their hut–complete with tortoises, who also appear to enjoy the shade. You can see Martha’s back inside.

DJL [Dune Jean Louis] is one big sand dune. It’s the highest point on Aldabra, though that’s only about 20 meters. From the lagoon side of the dune one can see the the mass of coral against which the southeast trade winds have built the dunes, quite different from the densely vegetated Middle Camp. Upon crossing the lagoon from Middle Camp, we cruised through a wide band of mangrove, a tidal area that becomes a mud flat at low tide. When the tide is out, the substrate appears as fine white clay.  It looks as if it would make excellent chinaware.This is followed by a narrow band of Pemphis, then a stretch of flattened coral and assorted scattered shrubs.  It’s an open area, that allows sight of goats from some distance. Our thatched shelter sits on a patch of closely trimmed grass, the lawn mowers being the numerous tortoises that inhabit this area. Just now, with the sun high in the sky, the tortoises are lined up along the shady side of our hut, dozing under the edge of the thatch. The hut has a stout fence across it’s open side, to bar them from entering. Sunbirds, yes, but no tortoises.  There are no flightless rails on this section of Aldabra, though we do have some flightless ibis, who generally share our breakfast with us. They do like oatmeal. [I mean, who doesn’t? Also, this blog has gone on long enough without recipes–time to remedy that. Back to you, Mom.]

Late in the day, Harry and P. went hunting for dinner. The hunt began with the collection of a couple of burgher crabs, which were then pulverized and mixed with with sand, excepting for a few of the larger bits. This mixture was formed into balls which were cast into the surf, reached by wading through rocky shallows swarming with moray eels – not for the fainthearted. The larger bits were used to bait hooks, which were launched once the sharks, blacktipped sharks mostly, had been attracted. After the first shark snapped up the bait and cut the line, the fishermen retreated. They then chased a school of tide pool fish, 20-30 centimeters long, into a corner of a tidepool, built a coral dam of loose bits there were at hand, and used the dull side of a pongo to stun and collect their prey.  It made for a good stew.

Harry prepping his delicious stew.

21 December

Goat watching at DJL is of the stationary sort, often from an elevated platform, so it does not entail much exercise.  What with Harry’s good stews to work off, we jogged some length along the coast, though there were intervals where we had to crawl and stumble across the jagged coral. Upon our return, the tide was out, allowing us to cut across exposed sand flats, though after several brushes with fair-sized moray eels, we took the cowardly, slower path on the heights. [I’ve never met a moray except behind aquarium glass, but after these descriptions, I never wanted to.]

Crabs were around us by the hundreds, and this morning there were also flocks of plovers, along with other shorebirds we were unable to identify: we had no binoculars along.  Also spotted a cat, thin and black.  We were wishing we had a firearm so as to shoot it. There are but a few left on the islands, dropped off by passing fishermen in past decades, and they have devastated the populations of flightless birds.  Every effort is being made to make the island cat-free.  Norway rats are another imported pest, but they are so numerous that their eradication is out of the question.  Presumably they’ve been here for so long as to have attained some sort of equilibrium with the other species with whom they interact.

We also came upon some green turtle nests, though as yet no hatchlings.   These turtles evidently nest all year around, to the evident delight of the pied crows, master scavengers, who are able to totally wipe out a nestfull of hatchlings that make the mistake of emerging in daylight.  But, of the goats we were seeking, no sign.  After lunch, we’ll head inland towards the lagoon so see if we can evidence of them there.

22 December

Still no goats to be seen. We hiked west after our watch, and found lots of feces, some fairly fresh, so tonight we’ll move down the coast.  There’s lots else to watch.  Last night we came upon a mammoth green turtle digging her egg pit in the sand, and this morning a second fresh pit was in evidence as well. Meg then found some green hatchlings emerging and rescued them from the pied crows that were awaiting them.  Very likely the sharks off shore ate them instead – very few young survive.

This PM Meg saw two green turtles copulating, after which the male was stranded, the price of amoureux [are you kidding me, Dad? Not just French, but plural?!] on a receding tide.  With all three of us straining, we succeeded in hoisting the hind end of the 200 kilogram beast and wheel-barrowed him into a tide pool. There, we covered him with seaweed for insulation from the sun until rising waters should bring him release.  We can now have a cup or two of green turtle soup with a clear conscience, as we’ve saved several this way – (turtles are a forbidden food). [Okay, this rationalizing is almost as hilarious to me as the wheelbarrow turtle image.]

And then we found a newly hatched giant tortoise, all of four centimeters long!  It looks ridiculous alongside the one and a half meter long adults that litter our camp ground.  And, yes, they can be ridden. [Ah, such joy at this thought!]

Our assistant, Harry, today introduced us to the latest in gourmet specialties, Aldabra style. Herewith the recipe for “satinee”: [ooh, another recipe! This blog’s getting downright mainstream.]

Remove shoes; enter surf to knee depth (not more!), kicking vigorously and keeping a sharp watch. The highly aggressive white-tipped sharks will soon appear.  As they close in, bash 1 or 2 with a heavy knife, such as a pongo, grab the stunned animal by the tail and flee the surf. Then, filet the sharks, cutting the meat into 4-6 centimeter chunks, wash several times, boil till the meat falls apart, then wash in fresh water and press dry. Fry the meat lightly with freshly pounded pepper, caraway, vinegar and curry.  Serve with rice. The meat is light in color, fine in texture, and as mild as the best white tuna, once the urea has been washed out. [I was with you until the urea part.] Marvelous!

It’s a good thing that Harry is a competent provider, for we are running out of provisions: the last of the rice was used today, so we’re now reduced to British army “ration biscuits” and tea, with a small serving of tinned corned beef once each day. The last party at this site neglected to report the inventory, so we had expected full food lockers, which was not the case. We also had to spend more time here than planned due to the lack of goat sightings. Travel is complicated by the extremely high tides at this site, up to 3 and ½ meters, so the channel on which we can cross the lagoon is often bone dry for a distance of over a kilometer.

Unfortunately, no pics of turtle-wheelbarrowing, so here’s another look at Harry.

Do Peter and Martha run out of food? Do they get tired of satinee? Does Harry get tired of cooking it for them? Do they rescue more tortoises stranded by sex? Tune in next week…

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

To catch y’all up…in my last post, I gave my parents’ narration of why they were abandoning leaving their daughters behind, in the winter of 1976, to have themselves dropped onto a tiny island in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Here they are now, aboard a rusty old freighter on their way to their new island home. Know what? I’m just going to let them tell it. But I can’t resist adding a few of my own reactions along the way. 🙂

11 December – aboard the Nordvaer

Our crewmates appear to number about a dozen, of all possible shapes, ages, and hues, most from the Seychelles, some from Africa, one Indian. Their common language is a Seychellois French-Creole, though a few speak a bit of English. They and their ship , when not under charter to resupply the Royal Society station on Aldabra, mostly ply a route between East Africa to Mauritius, Reunion and the Seychelles.

The favored occupations of the crew appear to be fishing and drinking, and the condition of the Nordvaer attests to both sports. Shipshape is indeed a relative state.  🙂 At least the fish were biting this morning, Bonitas for the most part, which were then filleted, dried, and salted for later sale or consumption. For some hours the fish were hooked as quickly as lines were thrown overboard, but now the school seems to have passed, and all is quiet. Sad to say, we saw none of the catch at meals: the fare is English at its worst, mostly tinned stew. Even the coffee does not pass muster, being mostly water of a faintly brown color. Still, we’re enjoying the lazy, loafing seaboard routine, enlivened by the presence of lots of albatross, flying fish, and ever distracting cloud sculptures.

Our exercise is limited to running in place, much to the bemusement of the crew.  [They’re marathoners, remember?] Fortunately, our cabin is air-conditioned as the engine room heat below deck is fearsome. It’s breezy and pleasant above deck, but the available spots to perch are few and not conducive to long sojourns. The only chairs are on the aft-deck above the fantail, where the two lifeboats (whose davits are so rusted as to make it unlikely they can ever be launched) block the view of all but the fishing lines off the stern.

12 December

Flying fish in abundance this morning. We first thought them to be low-flying birds, they covered such great distances, changing the angles of their fins as they “flew” for up to 10 seconds at a time at a speed no less than ours.

Our shipboard lethargy is growing, with even arising for breakfast taking a major effort. And sight-seeing has become less interesting: no atolls to be seen, and very few birds other than an occasional Booby or Gannet. [yes, those are real bird names]

13 December

Breakfast had just ended when a deckhand beckoned to a distant horizon: Aldabra, visible a full day sooner than expected. The spirits consumed by the crew evidently had accelerated our progress. Or perhaps the absence of a First Mate increased efficiency. 🙂 At any rate, but two hours later, we were climbing down a rope ladder into a waiting dinghy and ten minutes after that were on our island home. The Aldabrans were as surprised by our premature arrival as were we. Somehow, they had gotten word that the Nordvaer had been lost at sea.

Home, sweet home…?

Tune in next week…

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

Having colorful parents who raised you and your siblings in unorthodox ways is considered, these days, a piece of literary luck. Hey, look at you—you have memoir material! (Thinking Jeanette Walls’ Glass Castle, Tara Westover’s Educated, or, casting farther back, My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell—which my own father read aloud to us.)

Don’t worry, this isn’t a pitch to buy my memoir; I’m not writing one. But if I did, the Aldabra Winter would fill a good chapter. And since it really is a good stand-alone story, what better place to share it?

I’ve blogged about my marathoning, Civil Rights activist, lemur-studying, poetry-writing, horse-riding, Quaker school-founding—oh, heck, colorful parents before. But I’ve never written about the Aldabra Winter of 1976-77, when my parents abandoned my sister and me for ten weeks to disappear into the Indian Ocean.

Okay, that was unnecessary drama. I just enjoy thinking of the story that way. In reality, I was 15, my sister was 17 (with the all-important driver’s license), and we had both a Duke student living with us and my grandmother living adjacent. Hardly “abandoned.” But still. These were the days LONG before internet, and Aldabra did not do phones.

So where is Aldabra, and what were Martha and Peter Klopfer doing there? For that I’ll turn to my parents’ Aldabra Journals, which they kept back then, written longhand, and which my dad is now digitizing one by one, a kind of 42-years-later blog. Take it away, Dad.

“Among students of animal behavior, it is commonly believed that if one concentrates ones studies on a particular species, one comes to resemble it.  Doesn’t Konrad Lorenz remind you of an arrogant gander, Niko Tinbergen of a graceful gull, and Karl von Frisch of a preoccupied honey bee?  Given such Noble [Nobel?] examples, we could be forgiven for accepting this belief and thus diversifying our interests so that, by switching from ducks to deer to damselfish, we could avoid a resemblance to the goats which had been our primary subjects.  However, insofar as the U.K.’s Royal Society was concerned, we were still goat-people, so when they and the Smithsonian decided to deal with the depredations of the goats on Aldabra Atoll, we were the ones they called.  The goat population on that isolated island had increased considerably in the past several decades and the fear was that this would adversely impact the large land tortoises, a threatened species, that shared the atoll.

We had been looking at the process by which newborn kids bonded to their mothers, a process that depended on events that were limited to a very short period of time: if bonding did not occur within 5-10 minutes after parturition it would not take place at all. We had reasons to believe these events were mediated by the pituitary hormone, oxytocin, but caprine oxytocin was not commercially available, and we were unwilling to sacrifice animals merely to obtain extracts from their glands.  But, if the goats of Aldabra were due to be slaughtered anyway, harvesting their pituitaries would be a sensible act.  The Royal Society proposed to allow this if, in return, we would document the impact of goats on the tortoises.  With Meg Gould (now Dr. Meg Burke), a doctoral student who was prepared to spend a year in the field, we agreed to undertake the task.

Aldabra is a fly speck in the Indian Ocean, some 400 kilometers northwest of the giant island of Madagascar.  The atoll resembles a flattened doughnut, 30 kilometers long, its width varying from 5 to 10 km.  Most of the interior, the doughnut hole, is a shallow lagoon that connects to the sea through three channels that dissect the rim of the doughnut, dividing it into 4 separate islets.”

Dad and Mom, ready for some serious goat-watching action

Let me take the mic back here to explain, in case you haven’t picked up on it: my dad is an academic, and both his speech and his writing tend toward the, shall we say, multi-syllabic. So let me zip through this next part to say that simply getting to Aldabra was an odyssey in itself. Starting in December of 1976, they left from L.A.–three hours after completing a marathon race!–flew to London, then Nairobi, and finally to Mahe, the main island of the Seychelles. Can you imagine how cramped and sore they must have been? Then they discovered their luggage was missing. OK, back to Dad.

“10 December. – Mahe

The day began with a desperate search for clothing to replace what was in our lost luggage, a search that was largely unsuccessful as local stores only offered sizes appropriate for the local population, who are considerably smaller than we.  But, miraculously, before the day was out, our wandering suitcase was located and we could turn our attention to confirming the arrangements for the final leg of our journey, a three day boatride on the freighter that, twice each year, resupplies the garrison on Aldabra.

The boat in question was an ancient 500 ton tub, the Nordvaer, which plies the Indian and South Pacific Oceans.  We clambered aboard and were escorted to the Captain.  “Sorry”, was how he greeted us, “my First Mate is sick and must be hospitalized.  Maritime law in the Seychelles forbids freighters lacking a Mate to carry passengers”. With the next available trip a full six months distant, we were stunned.  Somehow, in the lengthy discussions that followed, someone came upon the idea of enrolling us in the seamans’ union and then signing us on as members of the crew.  We dashed to the relevant maritime offices, signed various forms, and were officially listed as “supers” aboard the Nordvaer.  The title seemed a bit exalted to us, until, later, we learned “super” stands  for “supernumerary”, and meant we need not stand watches nor handle the engines, but at least we could ignore signs that read “no admission except for crew”.

Mom with the freighter Nordvaer

Stay tuned for the next installment of Aldabra Journals! (Or, as I like to call them, “Where In The World Are Peter And Martha Klopfer?”)

 

 

That’s Dirt, Not Blood on My Hands–But Yes, I Perpetrated a Mossacre :(

If you are about to de-moss your roof, OR about to read Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses, please, by all means, go ahead and do either one. But for your own sake, I beg you not to do what I did: both simultaneously.

It all started innocently enough, with me trying to keep up with The Mate and pull my weight in outdoor chores. With our barn roof doing its best to become a forest floor, I joined in on the de-mossing project, 100% committed.

Committed to getting rid of THIS.

Of course we didn’t use any chemicals to remove the moss. Our only tools were a sort of vicious, giant metal ogre-toothbrush, and our own muscles.

Like so.

At first the job was actually pretty fun. Hard work, and–way up high, in a harness–a little scary, but fun.

Can’t call myself brave ’cause I’m not afraid of heights. But I did move…let’s say…cautiously up there.

But then, on Day 2 of Project Kill the Moss, I happened to pick up Dr. Kimmerer’s book on a recommendation. Dr. Kimmerer, as I mentioned in my last post, is a Bryologist–a moss expert. In the opening pages, I realized she was opening my eyes to a world I had always admired but knew NOTHING about. 

The “moss” is many different mosses, of widely divergent forms. There are fronds like miniature ferns, wefts like ostrich plumes, and shining tufts like the silky hair of a baby. A close encounter with a mossy log always makes me think of entering a fantasy fabric shop. Its windows overlow with rich textures and colors that invite you closer to inspect the bolts of cloth arrayed before you. You can run your fingertips over a silky drape of Plagiothecium and finger the glossy Brotherella brocade. There are dark wooly tufts of Dicranum, sheets of golden Brachythecium, and shining ribbons of Mnium. The yardage of nubbly brown Callicladium tweed is shot through with gilt threads of Campylium. To pass hurriedly by without looking is like walking by the Mona Lisa chatting on a cell phone, oblivious. (p. 10)

That last line? She could have been talking about me. And I LIKE moss! I mean, mosses. Sorry.

You can tell where this is going, right? I stared noticing the different types of mosses I was murdering, wondering which was which. I realized the importance of names, as she mentions in a passage I quoted last post:

…Often, when I encounter a new moss species and have yet to associate it with its official name, I give it a name which makes sense to me: green velvet, curly top, or red stem. The word is immaterial. What seems to me to be important is recognizing them, acknowledging their individuality. In indigenous way of knowing, all beings are recognized as non-human persons, and all have their own names. It is a sign of respect to call a being by its name, and a sign of disrespect to ignore it. (p. 12)

Bad enough, I thought, to be scraping away at these works of Nature’s art, these tiny, persistent beings. But how much worse not even to acknowledge them by name!

Fare thee well, ye feathery and ye silky-fronded alike!

To make matters worse, around Day 4 of the project, I ran into this passage:

Allegedly, the moss rhizoids penetrate tiny cracks in the shingles and accelerate their deterioration. However, there is no scientific evidence to support or refute this claim. It seems unlikely that microscopic rhizoids could pose a serious threat to a well-built roof. One technical representative for a shingle company acknowledges that he’s never seen any damage by mosses. Why not let them be? (p. 95)

Wait, what? I’m perpetrating all this murder and mayhem and it might even be FOR NOTHING?

But I wasn’t about to talk myself into stopping 2/3 of the way through the project, let alone The Mate.

Coming for ya, whether you like it or not. Me–I don’t like it anymore.

I pushed on. But the joy was gone from the job. All I felt was guilty. Well, and a bit sweaty and dirty too.

But you tough little rhizoids? Kinda cheering for ya now.

The barn roof is free of mosses now, and if Dr. Kimmerer is right, it might be years before they’re fully back. When they are, I think I might argue to let them be this time. Meanwhile, as penance, I’m noticing their individuality as much as possible on my walks, and talking up Gathering Moss to whomever will listen.

And I’m thinking about the importance of names: how we name what we value, and value what we name.

Maybe, as part of my penance,  I could learn those Latin names. Or even, God help me, turn my attention to those other unnamed companions of my spring and summer walks…the grasses.

Oh dear God, not the grasses!

 

Road Trip IX, Days 38-40, Denver to Moab: Mecca’s Crowded–Who Knew?

By now you’re probably tired of hearing me talk about sandstone. Too bad.  So far on Road Trip IX, I haven’t had the pleasure of talking about RED sandstone.

This stuff!

After zipping across western Kansas and eastern Colorado (please somebody tell me something interesting about western Kansas or eastern Colorado!), we spent the night with a friend in Denver. Full disclosure: this stop was in full Carolina Tarheel Fan Mode, not our usual Outdoor Adventurers In Search Of the Ultimate Bike Path or Hike Mode. Our friend is from Chapel Hill. Together we ate pizza and happily whooped the Tarheels into the Round of 32. Mission Accomplished.

Next day we braved the passes of I-70 through the Rockies, blessing the weather gods and Colorado DOT for keeping the roads clear, even though the roadsides looked like this:

11,000+ feet, 20 degrees…and 55 mph!

Safely on the other side, temperatures back in the 40s, we took a recreational stop at Grand Junction’s not-so-hidden treasure, Colorado National Monument. We’ve camped there before, and know that its red sandstone towers and hollows and who-knows-what-to-call-its are the equal of anything outside of Arches National Park. We didn’t have the time to go deep into the park, but a single swift hike through the very corner yielded this:

“The Devil’s Kitchen”

Inside The Devil’s Kitchen. The Devil has some cool appliances!

After that, we said goodbye and thanks to Colorado, and zipped on down to Mecca Moab, Utah.

Why do I call it Mecca? Because Moab is the holy city for people of The Mate’s and my religion, The Church of the Great, Dirty, Sweaty Outdoors. In Moab, every other car looks like ours.

Red Rover says, “Finally! I’m one of the cool kids here!”

Wheels, wheels, wheels! Granted, some are attached to monster engines on scary-looking jeeps and ATVs. But most are some form of bike. And even those folks who aren’t there to ride around on something are still there to play hard and get dirty.

These families are climbing this super-steep red dune to race and slide back down. That could be the definition of cheap thrills.

While patiently waiting for the Heels to play their Round 2 game, we delighted ourselves with bike rides and hikes in some of the most perfect, astounding, God-given terrain available to mankind. Now when I say bike rides, I do NOT mean this:

I’m sure mountain biking is fun. I’m equally sure that I would kill myself if I tried to do it.

I mean this–this amazing trail that runs all the way from the rim of the valley,

Yes!!!! 7% grade…but the scenery takes your mind off the grind.

through town, and along the Colorado for who knows how many more miles (I had to turn around before finding out).

Sun started disappearing. Scenery stuck around.

As for hiking, well…the entrance to Arches National Park was two miles from the campground we were staying in. And if you don’t know Arches…

…please allow me to introduce you! This is the famous Landscape Arch.

And this is Balanced Rock. Not sure where the name comes from.

Pine Tree Arch is one of my favorites, mostly because it’s off the main trail. We actually had it to ourselves!

My hope was, if the weather was decent, we could spend a night camping after having safely seen our beloved team into the Sweet 16. (Pause for wild cheering from Tarheel Nation.) But stupidly, I’d been so deeply enjoying the fact of all these other fans of the Great Red Outdoors, I’d missed the obvious: those fellow red-rockers were our competitors for camping spaces. And unlike us, they’d been smart enough to make reservations. Months in advance, probably. The Arches campground was, of course, FULL FULL FULL.

You–keep walkin’.

So much for my “Peaceful, Easy Feeling” image of “I wanna sleep with you in the desert tonight/With a million stars all around.” Yes, there are first-come, first-served BLM campgrounds scattered about, but you can camp in those for up to two weeks. What were we supposed to do, hang around all day waiting on the off chance of being there when someone pulled up their tent stakes? C’mon! We have trails to hike, basketball games to watch!

No room at the inn for these ol’ lovebirds.

So…Irony. The very thing that draws us to Moab–the joyous celebration of its dirty, sweaty beauty–prevents us from engaging in that highest of ceremonies, spontaneous camping. Yeah, I suppose we could’ve acted like our younger selves and just pulled off the road somewhere to pitch our tent. But in the Church of the Great, Dirty, Sweaty Outdoors, I guess these days we’re those Establishment types who claim front pews. Next time, if I possibly can…I’m making reservations!

One last morning hike before we have to go… 😦