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.

 

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?

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…

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

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

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

17 December

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

[Ohhhkayyy…]

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

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

[Aha! Science!!]

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

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

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

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

Welcome back to the next installment of my parents’ goat-research adventures in the winter of 1976-77. When we last left Martha & Peter, they had just been dropped onto the tiny island of Aldabra, one of the Seychelles, a coral atoll in the middle of the vast Indian Ocean. The research crew already in place were happy to see them, as they’d heard their freighter had been lost at sea. I’m throwing in this Wikimedia Commons map to help you visualize.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

So now…take it away, Dad. (Just a reminder for those of you new to Wing’s World, or Peter Klopfer: the man is a walking thesaurus.) 

14 December

We’re now settled in a small, airy cell, next door to Meg (Meg Gould, a Phd student from P.’s lab, who is here for a year). The housing conditions are simple, but clean and adequate, along with decent quarters for scientific work, including air conditioning. There are 18 scientists and technicians (including a couple of meteorologists) aboard, along with about two dozen Seychellois laborers and their families.  Half of the scientific staff are at the two field camps on the far side of the atoll, sites that are difficult to reach because of the high tides and reefs, so travel from one side to the other is only possible at intervals of several days and at particular times. The Seychellois have their own village a few hundred meters distant from the main station, which includes several small wooden buildings, principally a dining and assembly hall and the laboratory building. Usually the techs are in the majority, a situation which, with our arrival, has now been changed.  Meg is hoping that table-talk will now revolve about topics other than auto races. 🙂

The birds here are incredibly tame, and several species have become flightless. Of the three dozen or so endemic species, we’ve already, in our first few hours, encountered about a third, including a kestrel nesting by the door to our room, coucals, drongos, fodys and sunbirds. Avian photography could not be easier: the birds all but pose for their pictures.

Or let you grab them to take their picture!

As to our plans for the days to follow: we will leave tomorrow to Middle Island for a week or two of goat tracking, hoping to return to Main Camp for Christmas. At this time, tides don’t allow us to simply cross the lagoon, so we will need to use a large dinghy with outboard motor, pass seaward of the reef that surrounds the atoll, and hope for calm seas during the several hour trip to the far side of Aldabra.  After Christmas, we’ll head for another of Meg’s sites, on South Island.

The main problem everywhere on Aldabra is water shortage. There is a solar still at the Main Station, but it has not been functioning for some reason, and the rain catchments are empty: lots of rain all around the atoll, but none on shore. Bathing must be done in the sea, for which we’ve been issued saltwater soap, and hydration depends largely on beer.  Since the staff here are largely Scots, there is fortunately no shortage of beer and other spirits (and, as we noted when the supplies were unloaded, alcohol comprised almost half the cargo).  The problem is serious, however, as there is absolutely no alternative water supply.

When he gets going on the physical description, however, my dad loses the scientific tone and waxes downright poetic:

Apart from a lack of water, this place appears to us to be a replica of Eden. After unpacking, we jogged a kilometer or so down the pebble strewn beach from Main Station, where we found a 20 meter swath of pure white sand, while the tide was out. It was slow going in the soft, deep sand, but we persevered to the end of the strand where the beach gave way to a 2 meter high coral cliff that had been undercut by wave action and whose face, at low tide, was full of small caves filled with marine creatures. From there seaward, to a fringing reef, was a shallow lagoon, less than a meter deep, crystal clear, except when an occasional wave breasted the reef and broke onto it.  We stripped off our clothes and sported about like a pair of porpoises in the warm (30C) water, savoring the white sand, black coral cliffs and, all around us, tiny fish, some transparent, others brightly hued.  We did have to keep a sharp lookout for the moray eels, which abound, for though we’d been told that they were not dangerous their appearance and behavior seem to say otherwise. Overhead, a frigate bird attacked a booby, while a group of pied crows chorused from behind the coral cliff.

The vegetation here is exotic to our eyes, but still bears some familiarity to that which we know from home. There is a grove of what appear to be pine trees above the coral cliff, but are actually casuarinas, an ancient plant related to the horsetails. The ground beneath the trees is covered with needles and cones, and, except for the absence of pine scent, could be a pine forest. The wind sounds the same in the casuarina’s jointed needles as it  does in pines. The scrubby growth elsewhere on the island has much the same quality as western chaparral, but there’s no manzanita or sage brush here, just lots of other plants that look similar but we’ve never seen before nor heard of. All of it is thorny and sharp!

15 December

We’ve just completed our first 24 hours in the field, which has led to our developing enormous respect for Meg.  Work began at 5 am, and did not end until after 8 pm, and involved climbing through the roughest terrain in the hottest clime imaginable. [Yes, he really does use words like “clime”. Welcome to my world.] The landscape is entirely composed of old, dry, emergent coral, knife-sharp edges ready to slice through shoes (and skin), and covered with a thick scrubby vegetation, the notorious Aldabran pemphis. But, now, the next morning, we are relaxing while awaiting for the teapot to boil, watching several dozen sharks cruising about the lagoon, some 10 meters distant. Swimming does not appeal.

Yesterday, we did take a short run down the beach and followed it with a brief dunk in the ocean, breakfasted, and then towed our gear in a large dore [dory?] for the 2 ½ hour ride to Middle Island.  Except for the push through the reefside surf, the trip was smooth, enlivened by schools of porpoises, with frigates and boobies accompanying us overhead.  We cast fishing lines astern, and, after a half dozen barracuda, began hooking a great variety of brightly colored beauties. “c’est bon”, said our creole boatman, smacking his lips, and “c’est tres bon” for one particular one.  Two tuna were also landed, but our prize was a 40-50 kilogram kingfish, over a meter long!

A storm enveloped us as we beached, first rain, badly needed, which was captured in a large tarp and fed into an old drum cistern.  In a few hours time all was clear again, and we had a stewpot bubbling away with a fine creole fishstew.  Mid-afternoon we left the others (our companions included a pair of ornithologists, an assistant, and two laborers) and, together with Meg, commenced a goat stalk, which continued until dark.  Supper was not until after 8 pm, and was immediately followed by an exhausted, and much too brief, sleep.

Our field camp here consists of a 3’sided corrugated tin shed, 2 x 4 meters, where food and gear are stored and whose roof provides a water catchment.  Tents on the small sand beach in front of the shed serve as our bedrooms, which are surrounded by coral and mangrove.

From ocean to lagoon there are four distinct zones into which the 800 meters of the islands’s width can be divided.  The shore at this end of Middle Island (the shoreline differs greatly from one area to the next) is marked by casuarina trees, thus resembling a temperate pine grove, with needles on the ground, clear trails and cool breezes.  Crabs scurry everywhere and grunting tortoises are also everywhere one looks.  Early and late each day, the trees are festooned with awkward looking frigates, like oversized Christmas tree ornaments. [I love this.] But 20 meters further inward inward, the “Platen” beings, flat, weathered coral, with fairly open 1-3 meter high vegetation, allowing for moderately easy walking.  But, then comes the Pemphis, a wall of shrub 3-4 meters high, and so dense as to be totally impenetrable without a machete (known here as a ‘pongo”).  Visibility is less than one goat length. [🙂 !!!!!!!] Meg has had a single trail cut through this forest, and is building a second, our only hope of accessing the interior.

The final zone is the mangrove, only a few meters wide, a tangle of roots arched by broad-leafed crowns, beyond which lies the lagoon, some 15-20 kilometers wide,  with its mushroom coral columns.

Mushroom coral. Or coral mushroom.

In next week’s episode: Tortoise Tickling! See you then.

Sisters Weekend. Not Pictured: Sisters.

You would think my two sisters and I don’t get along. Not only do we live in three of our continent’s four edges–Michigan, Washington and Texas (also equally distant from our parents in North Carolina, whom we also like a good deal, by the way)–we stay in touch only fitfully, rarely calling or emailing or, now, texting. 

Can I just say we’re not a very touchy-feely family?

But we DO get along. We like and admire and enjoy each other. And, as the youngest sister and the designated Sentimental One, I borrowed the idea from a friend of mine of the Sisters Getaway, to honor the occasion of our 60th birthdays, one at a time.

Our agreements: the getaway did not have to be on the actual birthday. Convenience was paramount. So was sun (especially for my winter-stricken Michigan sister). And we would gather in a place none of us knew well, so that no one had to play host.

Two years ago, we spent three days together in San Diego. This year, our middle sister picked Denver. Denver in May–hurray! Bring on that Rocky Mountain sunshine!

Or…not.

Oh, silly girls. Denver in May does what it likes.* Luckily for us, we had decided in advance that we wouldn’t be doing any serious hiking, since one of us is in the process of setting a date for hip replacement surgery. (Did I mention we are all getting older? Funny about that.)

*I did, however, prevail on my sisters to swing by the local REI so I could plunder their sales rack for a warm extra layer–having seriously under-packed.

So what should proceed now is a montage of of us out enjoying the sights of Denver, right? Group selfies, snapshots of delicious food and drinks. Glorious, happy vacation pics.

But my sisters are more private than I am, and that is only one of the things I love about them. So I won’t be sharing any of the pictures I took of us. I could have taken a picture of the living room of our Air B ‘n’ B house, which is where we spent most of our time. Or of a Denver bus–we rode them all over town. Or of the interior of Union Station, which, it turns out, is an extremely cozy place where you can hang out for hours for free, just gabbing and people-watching, as long as you don’t lie down on the couches.

But again…sorry. This getaway was about each other. The only real touring we did was of memory; the only real exploration of feelings; the only real adventure was peering into our mutual futures.

Still, I’m blogging about it, so SOME pictures would be useful, eh? We did wander through Denver’s not-exactly-downtown Downtown Aquarium, which was exceedingly noisy for an aquarium, but also yielded some extraordinary beauty.

Mesmerizing.

I’ve been in many aquariums. (Aquaria?) Never saw anything like this anemone before.

Another slow wander: the Botanical Gardens. (See, we do know how to tourist!)

I think these crazy giants are from South Africa…

And for good measure, one quirky photo from downtown:

I completely support this statement.

But that’s it. That’s the whole post. What I’m saying here is–love your family in your own way. Do it with, and for, the camera if you want to. Or don’t. Call or text or email, or don’t. But love ’em. Life is short. One day you’ll turn around and be 60. Or, if you’re so blessed, 80.

Me, I hope to re-post this when we’re celebrating each other’s 90th. Inshallah!

A Writer’s Greatest Gifts: Time and Critique. So Why Not Writeaway?

Taking the ferry home from the Orcas Island LitFest last weekend, I could not get to my notebook fast enough. Twenty hours of writer-panels (I wasn’t able to attend the full weekend) had left my brain so full of ideas and challenges for my own writing that I could hardly speak to anyone. Now, a week’s worth of hard writing work later (journaling, deep character background, pitch practice, scene revision, and everything in between), I am so grateful for the chance to have attended.

And I want to remind my fellow writers of what a self-gift it is to stop, drop and enroll in SOMETHING every now and then, just to realign the wheels (and unmix the metaphors). Literary festivals are great for this. Writing conferences, even better.

But best of all…if you can afford it…is a Writeaway. Keep reading, and I’ll tell you why you can afford it.

First of all, what is a Writeaway? It’s a Writing Getaway–the brainchild of my friends and fellow writers, Mimi Herman and John Yewell. In the words of their website, “We provide writing instruction, fabulous food and company in beautiful places, and a safe place for you to take a writing vacation with your muse, and maybe a good friend.”

Yes, you read that right: Writing instruction. Fabulous food. Beautiful location. Support, personalized critique, a new writing community. Time to work…and do all those things my own brain needed to do after only 20 hours at a LitFest.

In case you need some creds: Mimi & John are better than good writers; they are passionate teachers of writing. (Big difference, right?) Mimi is the 2017 North Carolina Piedmont Laureate and a Kennedy Center Teaching Artist. Since 1990, she has engaged over 25,000 students with her warm and insightful teaching. A Warren Wilson MFA alum, her writing has appeared in The Carolina Quarterly, Michigan Quarterly Review, Shenandoah, Crab Orchard Review, The Hollins Critic and other journals.John is a writer and editor with an MFA in fiction from San Francisco State University and twenty years of experience in journalism.

John & Mimi: ready to read, write & listen (and drink wine)

The shiniest, most awe-inspiring Writeaways of Mimi and John are held in castles in France and Italy, like these:

OK, you can close your mouth and get back to writing now. Dinner’s at six.

But they also offer domestic Writeaways in North Carolina, where they live.

Carolina-ish enough for ya?

Don’t live in North Carolina or feel like flying there? Mimi & John also offer the best choice of all (in my opinion): a Build-your-own Writeaway. 

“Have you ever dreamed of getting away to your favorite place to write – with friends and family, your writing group, your book club, high school pals, or colleagues from your creative writing program? Choose your own adventure and we’ll arrange housing, workshops, conferences, and fabulous food and drink for you and four or more of your favorite people. Let us know a little about yourself, and we’ll start planning.”

I can kind of, SORT of, imagine what it might be like to read the above and NOT think: HEAVEN! Yeah, I suppose some writers are the solitary type–and bless them. 

But if your Muse comes alive with a little stimulation BEFORE the necessary writerly solitude…oh, my. Why wouldn’t you consider a Build-your-own Writeaway?

Because of the cost, you say. Of COURSE there’s a cost. But Mimi & John are so passionate about what they do, they’re willing to work with writers to keep the budget as modest as possible. No castles. No fancy digs. Homemade meals. Whatever it takes to get you there. The time, expertise and inspiration is what you’d be paying for. If you’ve ever gone to a writing conference and come away thinking, “Well, about half of the workshops were worthwhile,” the Writeaway is the perfect answer, because it’s all tailored to YOU.

So I encourage you to check out this Writeaway Link for yourself. (And just in case you’re wondering, no, I’m not being paid to advertise. I’m just a big Mimi & John fan.)

If you do end up doing yourself the favor of signing up, though–please drop my name! We’ll all be thrilled. 

Road Trip IX, Days 41-43, Moab to Lopez Island: Home! (And the Sisterhood of the Traveling Avocados)

After missing us for six weeks, our home was so happy to see us, it lit up its own windows with sunset.

Aww…we feel the same way!

19 states. 72 close friends/family members.  I’ve lost count of hikes and bike rides, but I can trace our route through the generosity of my cousins, who sent us on our way from L.A. with a bagful of avocados from their tree.

Thanks, cuzzes!

As the traveling avocados ripened, they graced our meals, most of which I managed to capture before gobbling. We started with leftover Vietnamese food in a motel in Mesa, Arizona:

Gluten free!

Next up: our avocados went camping in the Chiricahuas of SE Arizona.

…like camping NEEDS avocados, right? Turns out, it does!

Then they accompanied a salad at our friends’ in Dallas,

…making up in advance for all the greasy food we intend to eat in North Carolina!

and enjoyed a night in a sweet State Park cabin in Alabama:

Quick, before the squirrels show up!

Our avocados reached their culinary zenith at our friends’ in Asheville; Ben cooks the best food on the planet, and the guacamole just went along for the ride.

You have no idea.

So numerous were the avocados, they lasted into our return trip, where they appeared in a cameo on some curry in the Land Between the Lakes of Kentucky.

Thanks, cuzzes!

I did, of course, pay attention to more than just food on this trip. And now that I’m home, instead of playing my traditional game of “Best Of,” I’m just going to share some random Discoveries.

Discovery #1: Even when you’re going somewhere sunny and southerly, that white stuff can still follow!

approaching Los Angeles

Sunny, snowy?! saguaros in Tucson

Discovery #2: Disasters are much, much worse on the ground than they appear on television.

remnants from the Woolsey Fire in Malibu

Discovery #3: Apparently I am so immature, I can find delight in another athlete’s shoe explosion in a big game. (Oh, don’t worry, Zion Williamson is just fine!)

Photo credit–and cake credit!–to my friend and fellow Tarheel fan, Cynny Scott

Discovery #4: the Organ Peaks of Las Cruces, NM!

Where have you been all these road trips?

Discovery #5: The Oak Cliff neighborhood of Dallas has an ADORABLE Mardi Gras parade.

Aww…they probably ran out of time to finish decorating, but hey–viva recycling!

Discovery #6: the Missouri Bluffs section of Missouri’s Katy Trail

the Mate meets the Mighty Mo

Discovery #7: I thought I didn’t care for llamas. Turns out I care a lot for BABY llamas!

OMG, those eyelashes!

I won’t list “there’s no place like home” as a discovery, because I already knew that. And it remains just as true as ever. Thank you, Red Rover, thank you friends & family, and thank you, my Mate, for all that driving!

Home.

Wing’s World now morphs back into its regular, irregular, non-travel-blog self. Please keep visiting!

 

 

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

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

This stuff!

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

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

11,000+ feet, 20 degrees…and 55 mph!

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

“The Devil’s Kitchen”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sun started disappearing. Scenery stuck around.

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

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

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

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

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

You–keep walkin’.

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

No room at the inn for these ol’ lovebirds.

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

One last morning hike before we have to go… 😦