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

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

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

I’m mellllting…

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

Suck it, I-5.

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

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

So much prettier when it’s not on fire!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m okay with just rocks, thanks.

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

Worth it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Wing’s World Goes Mobile: Let’s Get Ready to Rrrrrrrrroad Trip!

It’s that time of year. In our little corner of the Northwest, the ditches are running full enough to kayak in, sun is a tantalizing memory, and anything with wings that migrates is starting to do so, in reverse. Including these Wings. Except, being bipedal and 4-wheeled, we go EAST. This year: Road Trip X.

“What route are you guys taking this year?” ask friends who know about our annual pilgrimage to North Carolina.

My standard answer: “Head to L.A. and turn left. After that–the weather’s in charge.”

Sometimes the weather’s in charge even on the very outskirts of LA.

I-5, Tejon Pass

And of course we don’t head STRAIGHT there. Along the way, we stop to visit dear friends, family members, and trees.

Prairie Creek Redwoods, CA

And even in the sunny desert, we’re reminded that THE WEATHER IS IN CHARGE.

Saguaro National Park, Tucson

We spend time with rocks. Grey ones…

Chiricahua National Monument

…red ones…

Arches National Park, UT

…and brown ones.

Natural Bridges State Park, KY.

We spend time with mountains, western…

Guadalupe Mts. National Park, TX

…and eastern.

Appalachians, NC.

Sometimes we imbibe a little “culture.”

Mardi Gras in Dallas

…and history.

Vicksburg, MS

ALWAYS, with our Tar Heel Tribe, we celebrate our team (God knows they need our love this year!) with lots and lots of food.

Pie Day, 3.14

We spend quality time with my parents…

Dad’s bike’s electric now. But he’s 89 1/2, so, yeah.

…and the woods where I grew up.

Trout lily

If weather allows, we camp–and celebrate the Sisterhood of the Traveling Avocado (from our LA cousins’ tree).

Chiricahuas

If weather doesn’t, we fall in love with cute park cabins.

Land Between the Lakes, KY

As always, we seek the Perfect Bike Path.

Katy Trail, MO.

As always–did I mention this? The weather’s in charge.

I-70, CO

As always, we are thrilled to see this sign after 6+ weeks on the road:

Says it all!

And as always, we are even more thrilled to be HOME at the end of March. (Flaming sunset’s just the cherry on top.)

Home Sweet Lopez Island

So, friends–please wish us buen viaje, bon voyage, safe travels, and Go Tarheels! Be safe yourselves; stay warm & dry. See you on the road.

Red Rover just can’t wait to get on that ferry & hit the rowdy road.

See Otter? No–SEA Otter! (So What?)

You know those times when you get so ridiculously excited about something you just have to blurt to the first person you see?

(If no…I gotta say, congrats on your self-restraint, but really? Try it sometime.)

I had one of those the other day. Rushing back down the path from the gorgeous portion of National Monument that is my backyard, I met a stranger walking my way. “I saw a sea otter! Keep an eye out for it!” I blurted.

He gave me what felt like a patronizing look–and I should know, having given plenty of those myself. “Those are river otters,” he said, kindly enough. “They’ve taken over the marine habitat, but they–”

River Otter: cute! (photo by R.A.Killmer, courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

“No!” I interrupted. “I mean, yes, I know–you’re right, I’ve never seen a sea otter in these waters, but I just did!”

I went on to describe what I’d seen through my binocs (after zooming home and zooming back out again–don’t usually carry binocs on my walks): big creature, almost as long as a seal, floating on its back, flippery hind feet sticking straight out of the water, front paws on tummy, as though it were making itself into a floating tray. Silver face.

Sea otter: CUTER! (photo by Brian Wotherspoon, courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

The guy switched to Interest Mode and hastened down the path.

We don’t get many sea otters in the Salish Sea. In fact, in ten years of several-walks-per-week, I’ve NEVER seen one. Special as I felt, I wanted to find out exactly how rare they were. Here’s what I learned from an article posted July 2018 by Rob Ollikainen in the Peninsula Daily News:

Most sea otters are spotted off the Pacific Coast at places like Destruction Island and Cape Flattery, said Erin Gless, a naturalist with Island Adventures Whale Watching.

“A few individuals, however, seem to be exploring more inland waters,” Gless said in a Monday news release.

“While it’s too early to determine what’s bringing these sea otters in from the coast, their presence is encouraging.

Turns out the otter I saw–all by its lonesome, and it probably was, ’cause sea otters are super-social creatures–has already been adopted by some who’ve spotted it. According to this article and a couple of others I read, this guy is either “Ollie the Otter,” first spotted near Victoria in 2015, or else “Odin,” a one-eyed male seen more recently off San Juan Island. Since that’s much closer to me, I’m guessing Odin’s more likely–but I couldn’t quite see its eyes through my glasses. As for a close-up shot?

Let’s just say I’m considering buying a zoom lens for my phone.

By the end of the article, though, my excitement got its comeuppance.

Anne Shaffer, executive director of the Coastal Watershed Institute, which studies the ecology of the nearshore near the mouth of the Elwha River, said the recent sea otter sighting was interesting but not unusual.

“There are otters that are off our shore, off the central Strait, one or two a year,” Shaffer said Friday.

A semi-resident sea otter was known to be living off the San Juan Islands for years. An adult male was living in the south Puget Sound, Shaffer said.

“There certainly transit our shoreline but they’re not abundant,” Shaffer said.

“It’s an interesting observation but not necessarily ecologically astounding. But they’re cool animals.”

Well, excuuuuse me for being astounded. Cool animals are welcome to do that to me any day. I’m also constantly on the lookout for ANY good ecological news, and I reserve the right to receive this otter as exactly that.

Anyone else got an astoundingly-cool-animal-in-your-backyard story to share????

 

What Rhymes With Snow? Let’s Go! And…Ego.

The weatherati predicted an “additional five inches” of snow last night–heady words for this part of Washington, where we get excited by one or two. Turns out they lowballed it by…well, about 5 inches.

Even though morning’s my usual writing time, I was 100% down with flipping my schedule, chomping at the bit to get out there at first light and view the majesty.

Turns out I got even more than I’d bargained for.

Oh MY.

Jeez, if someone had mentioned the SUN was due out, I’d have gotten up even earlier!

Me, not thinking about work right now.

Once I’d wrung the last drops out of that sunrise, I headed out onto the public lands and got on with the serious business of Walking In Snow. On craggy rocks along a blustery shore. I paid careful attention to where I put my feet. And then it hit me: the REAL reason I felt so compelled to be the absolute FIRST person out on the snowy national monument that was my backyard: FOOTPRINTS.

You can relate, yes? That deep, I’m talking childhood-level, never-gonna-grow-up joy of being the first to–well, let’s be honest: to mess something up.

After a good hour, I faced a choice: keep going around one more small loop, or turn around.

Me: Hey, I’m plenty exercised. Got lots of work to do at home. Wouldn’t it be nice of me to leave one pristine stretch for some other snow-walker to leave her mark on?

Myself: Yes. Yes, it would. But, I mean, another 3/4 of a mile would be even better, right?

Me: It’s not mileage you’re worried about and you know it. It’s…

Myself: …footprints, yeah, yeah, I know. Can we go make some more? Can we? Just look at that whiteness!

Sooooo tempting…

Myself won.

Sorry, not sorry!

On my way home, the lyrics of my song “Eight Snow Angels” popped into my head. I think you can see why.

Eight Snow Angels

The snow’s a crystal carpet laid upon my lawn—

man, it really must’ve dumped last night.

Nothing but perfection everywhere you turn,     

and the hillside is a tempting page of white.

 

Days like this, you can’t resist that elemental urge:

get those snow boots on your inner child.

She’s been holed up all this dark gray winter long;

send her out to play, set her running wild.

 

Chorus 1:

Feels so good, feels so good

Feels so good to me.    x2

 

Now the snowy hill reads itself back to me,

glowing dimly in the sinking sun:

eight snow angels and a dirty footprint heart,                   

and my initials trampled on the damage done.

Chorus 2:

But it felt so good, felt so good,

Felt so good to me.

Eight snow angels and a footprint heart–

It felt so good to me.

 

Bridge:

Icicles are mounted like trophies for the pure,

but I just want to break ’em.

 (Why do I want to break ’em?

You can only win one by resisting their allure,

but still we want to take ’em.

 (Why do we want to take ’em?)

Maybe if I’m lucky it’ll snow again

and all my trespasses will be forgiven.                                       

Maybe I’ll restrain myself and let that beauty be—

 or at the very least, stop angeling at seven.

 

Chorus:

’Cause it felt so good, felt so good

Felt so good to me.

Eight snow angels and a footprint heart–

It felt so good to me.

Eight snow angels and a dirty footprint heart–

It felt so good to me.

Anyone got a good answer as to WHY messing up snow “felt so good to me”? I’d love to hear.

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

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

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

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

8 January

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

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

9 January

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10 January

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

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

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

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

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

11 January

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

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

12 January

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

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

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

13 January

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

30 December

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

31 December

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

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

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

Dad goat-watching on Dune Jean Louis

1 January

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

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

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

2 January

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

3 January

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

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

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

4 January

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

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

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

I want one!!!!

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

5 January

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

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

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

6 January

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

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

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

7 January

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Time Has Come…Really? Or, Does Anyone Else Have This Hanging-On-To-Old-Stuff-Way-Too-Long Thing?

“I want to be thoroughly used up when I die,” wrote George Bernard Shaw. I think he was talking about my hiking boots.

Don’t laugh. They’re COMFY.

Seriously–stop laughing. The only thing wrong with them, for years, was ripped fabric up top–nothing a little duct tape couldn’t fix.

OK, a lot of duct tape. I mean, the duct tape on TOP did just fine, but the part that wrapped around the soles…well, you get the idea. But I was willing to sacrifice a few more feet of the silver stuff just to keep my boots doing what they were made for (walkin’).

But recently, they developed rips in the lining, which turned the simple act of pulling them on into a bit of a struggle. It was finally time to say goodbye–right into the trash. I know even our island’s Take It Or Leave It would revolt at taking these guys.

Then the very same week, while camping, I noticed deep cracks in the soles of my beloved Teva hiking sandals…whose Velcro I had long ago repaired. Suddenly their life span seemed to wither before my eyes. (It’s possible that the arrival of the REI Outlet Sale catalogue had a teensy bit to do with that.)

Might’ve used a bit more Velcro than needed, but man–it did the trick for years!

No, I am NOT trying duct tape on this.

And then, would you believe it? It happened again today: my ancient gear just gave up the ghost. I wore my special just-for-biking tights around town after riding into work, and noticed that I was shedding tiny bits of Spandex, or whatever the stretchy stuff’s made of. I knew the tights were the worse for wear–hell, they were a gift, I never would’ve paid for something so specialized–but turns out they were really COMFY and warm, which is why I wore them to literal shreds.

Et tu, biking tights?

So is this just me? It’s certainly not my Mate–he loves getting new gear for himself. “If it doesn’t work well, why have it?” he says. And I agree in THEORY…but in reality? I hate to let my old friends go.

So, two questions:

  1. Anyone else have this issue with stuff? 
  2. Where did I put that REI catalogue?

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?”)