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?

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?”)

 

 

Road Trip IX, Days 27-32, Durham and Chapel Hill, N.C.: Country Roads, Make Me Run

I’ve written before about my father’s passion for distance running, and the way that passion shaped our family. Nothing like being back on the “old home place” for a week to bring back powerful memories of my baptism and rearing in the Church of the Holy Workout.

See, once my dad learned, in the mid-sixties, about the long-term health effects of distance running, I think he must have settled on the logic that, quod erat demonstrandum, NOT running would probably kill you quickly.

My dad, at 88 and a half, on his bike–he finally switched to an electric wheel a few years ago

At least that’s how it seemed to my 8 year-old self back in 1970. My sisters and I were, ahem, encouraged to run one mile a day, and three on Sundays. Most of that running involved the country roads near our house—some recently paved, some dirt.

But quite a lot involved the vehicle-free gravel roads of Duke Forest, maintained by Duke University’s School of Forestry (which I admire and love equally as much as I despise and loathe its men’s basketball team 🙂 ).The scenery was pretty. And the hills were STEEP.

Every year since we moved away in 1990, I go back to those forest roads, thinking, “they can’t really be as steep as I remember them.” And every time I rediscover—oh. Yep. They are.

Hard Climb Hill–putting the “mont” in Piedmont

The jury’s out, in my opinion, on whether making running mandatory for your children is a good idea or not. As it happens, I still run, thought I’ll never know if that’s despite, or because of being thrown into the deep end of the track (to mix sports metaphors). But since I’m lucky enough to have grown up entirely in the same house, it’s pretty cool to imagine how many miles I’ve logged over the years on those humble paved and unpaved roads.

I imagine Atticus Finch musing, “You never really understand a place until you consider things from its country roads…until you pull on your running shoes and run a few thousand miles around its hills.”

I’d show an even steeper hill, but I didn’t feel like wading across New Hope Creek

Or spot its wildflowers. I can’t complete a description of my childhood running routes without celebrating the subtle wildflowers of its woods in early spring.

Like the Trout Lily. Spot one…and suddenly they’re everywhere!

About as showy as they get…hiding in some invasive periwinkle leaves

Bluets, or Quaker Ladies. These always reminded me of my mom.

And while we’re at it…all praises be to good ol’ New Hope Creek itself. Humbly beautiful, and quite shockingly free of garbage considering it’s right smack in the middle of the Hillsborough/Durham/Chapel Hill Triangle.

Thanks for all the miles I’ve run past you while you were running past me!

I find myself wondering…what versions of my country roads do y’all share? What routes, walked or run or skated over a million times, make up the soul of YOUR childhood?

Who Doesn’t Need More Lemurs in His/Her Life?

Proud daughter + lemur-lover = another update on my dad’s research.

Really, this isn’t new. It’s just a look at how popular culture is becoming (understandably) attracted to the idea of lemurs one day helping humans with things like medical breakthroughs or space travel.

So here’s a cool article & video from my hometown, Durham, North Carolina (home of the Duke Lemur Center). I couldn’t get the video to copy separately, but if you click on this link, you can watch it:

http://www.wncn.com/story/26669493/dukes-lemurs-may-hold-key-to-extended-space-travel

(Not actually the lemur in question, but be honest: this is what you think of when you hear "lemur," right? Courtesy Duke Lemur Center.)

(Not actually the lemur in question, but be honest: this is what you think of when you hear “lemur,” right? Courtesy Duke Lemur Center.)

Can’t get enough lemurs? Click on this link, Duke Lemur Center, to get your fill. 

Coming soon: the latest on Book Two of the Flying Burgowski trilogy, Headwinds. But until then–enjoy the lemurs!

 

Lemurs, Suspended Animation, and My Dad: No, I’m Not Making This Up

When the fat-tailed lemur becomes the most famous animal in the world, you can say you read about it here first. Unless you read it in Slate.

I got an email from my dad the other day, which turned out to be forwarded from some random person who had sent him a link to something else random. He does that a lot, so I almost deleted it. Then I saw the word “Slate” and “lemur.”

Slate? As in the online magazine? Hip and savvy and mainstream? I clicked. The title said:

Do Lemurs Hold the Secret to Suspended Animation?

What we might be able to learn from our closest hibernating cousins.

Sure enough, Slate had run an article on my dad’s research.

Why should you care? I’ll let David Casarett of Slate tell you:

You know all about suspended animation because it makes an appearance in virtually every science-fiction movie that’s ever been made. Usually it’s portrayed as a handy device for space travel. But what you probably don’t know is that suspended animation isn’t just science fiction. It’s real. And it could save lives.

Suspended animation is really just slowed metabolism, like hibernation. Think of it asartificial hibernation. When animals hibernate (and when science-fiction characters venture off-world), they’re in a state in which their cells have downshifted to low gear and they need very little oxygen.

That’s handy for intergalactic travel, of course. But what if we could use that trick in situations in which our cells—and particularly our brain cells—don’t have access to much oxygen? That might be the case for a patient who has suffered a cardiac arrest and who isn’t breathing. Or someone injured in a car accident, or someone with a serious gunshot wound. Or a soldier injured on the battlefield.

[Reprinted from Shocked: Adventures in Bringing Back the Recently Dead by David Casarett with permission of Current, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright (c) David Casarett, 2014.]

My dad studies lemurs that hibernate. So what? Don’t lots of animals do that? Not PRIMATES. There’s only one that does that: the fat-tailed lemur. What can it teach us about our own brain’s capacity for suspended animation?

In 2005…a German team of researchers collected the first evidence of prolonged hibernation in fat-tailed dwarf lemurs (Cheirogaleus medius). That discovery raised the very intriguing possibility that other primates—like humans—that don’t normally hibernate might be able to pull off the same trick. Lemurs are much closer to us, genetically, than other hibernating animals are. And that’s important, because if we want to understand how hibernation works in a way that might someday help people, it pays to study hibernation in an animal that’s as close to us as possible.

Mr. Casarett based this piece on an interview with my dad, Peter Klopfer, now an emeritus professor of Zoology at Duke University. Dad is also the co-founder of the Duke Lemur Center in Durham, NC, home to the largest collection of lemurs outside of Madagascar.

Lemurs are very hip right now. Forget the cartoon Madagascar movies–have you seen the IMAX film, Island of Lemurs? Whoa.

When I was a kid, my dad made repeated trips to Madagascar. My sisters and I took it in stride, never asked questions about what he did there or what it was like. It was his work, right? What kid is interested in their dad’s work?

There was that time he came home with malaria. That got some attention. But still, even as my sisters and I got older–research, ho-hum. Yeah, the lemurs are cute. Can I borrow the car?

Luckily, my sons were more interested than I was. First one, at age 16, then the other, at 19, joined his grandfather on one of those research trips. I learned what it was like, doing that hands-on research, speaking bad French with the locals, hearing the scary fossa chuckle as you walked the dark path through the forest to the outhouse at night. And I finally started paying attention.

Hibernating lemurs? This is pretty cool stuff.

The fat-tailed lemur my dad’s been studying doesn’t play much of a part in the movie. It’s no more dramatic than its name. But it IS cute as the dickens.

(Courtesy Slate.com)

(Courtesy Slate.com)

Mr. Casarett does a wonderful job of walking his readers through the science as my dad walked him, literally, past the darkened cages of the Duke Lemur Center, and back into the bright North Carolina sunshine. My sisters and I spent hours of our childhood at that center, back before it was a major tourist attraction, when there was no need to “sign in” at the front desk because there was no front desk at all, just a bunch of earnest researchers and keepers doing their work. When we could even pat the lemurs or feed them by hand if we wanted to–watching those sharp teeth, of course. When we had no idea that the place my dad had co-founded would one day be working on such…well…mainstream, high-interest science.

The article concludes with a wonderful sequence that captures both the interviewer’s curiosity and my dad’s character.

Klopfer and I are back in the parking lot now, standing in front of my rental car, when a thought occurs to me. We’ve spent the last couple of hours talking about the physiology of hibernation. So I’m wondering…

Do lemurs dream?

The question seems to surprise him. Klopfer strokes his beard, deep in thought. Under the hood of a rain parka that obscures his eyes, he looks a little like a wizard, if wizards dressed in Gore-Tex and track suits.

Finally he nods. “I would think so.” He grins. “Otherwise months of hibernation would be pretty dull, don’t you think?”

I agree. So there’s hope for us all. Not only might it be possible to put humans in suspended animation, but that’s a lot of dreams to look forward to. Let’s hope they’re pleasant ones.

Yup–that’s my dad. Kinda proud of him. Let’s consider this post my way of saying sorry for not being all that impressed when I was a kid.

Have you seen the lemur movie? Have any thoughts about the potential of this research? Or want to sound off about your own filial pride? Please share.