Hunting for wasps and chickens- Battles in the garden

Matt had procured a fantastic villa for the project.  Although not far as the crow flies from Brades, it was round a circuitous road that hugged the contours.  Just beyond the sprawling village of St Peter’s you dropped off the main road and round a small estate of widely spaced houses and our compound was right on the waterfront.  It was made up of a large house with an enormous open plan living room and kitchen area, and two bedrooms, and a separate smaller house which Matt took.  In between them was a huge swimming pool and below all this a large grassy lawn spattered with shrubs and trees leading to a low stone wall.  On the far side the land dropped steeply as a huge boulder scree into the gently lapping Caribbean Sea.  It was, …yep… idyllic.


Postures in our garden

We shared the garden with a whole host of iguanas.  The green iguana , as in many islands, is a common sight in Montserrat.  Here they acted out a veritable soap opera on the lawn.  In the early mornings they would start to emerge and find the best basking spots to heat up their blood.  Once alert they would look around for food – insects mainly it seemed – but the prime activity for the day would be posturing.  They would work on a series of intricate rituals with their cohabitants; standing in a particular position at a particular distance from a rival or potential lover and going through a sequence of stare offs, bobbing movements or tail twitching till one got bored or decided not to chance their arm.  I say rival or potential lover – it was impossible for a layman like me to know what the true meaning was, and although I watched mesmerized day after day when I should have been typing up notes of designing databases, it was hard to distinguish between the sexes and even the ages.  There were obviously some alpha males around; much larger with craggier head gear and muscular legs and tails, but pursuit of females looked almost the same as fighting off interlopers.

There were battles for high spots in the garden, or just for a scrappy piece of worn out sand on the lawn; there seemed little rhyme nor reason to it.  And in fact the actual drama was usually short lived and the rest of the time they just sat on the grass, heads pointing skyward, like tropical garden ornaments.  I never knew temperature regulation could be so complicated.

Living in the Community – Our home in the community

There was still an hour or so of road to go before we reached Fintonia so it was pretty much dark when we emerged in to the village and drew up almost immediately.  Here on the right hand side of the road was a small house, with a small veranda, very similar to almost every other house around.  Our driver went off along the road and returned with a lady a few minutes later who held up a bunch of keys.  After a bit of twiddling she managed to get the main door open.  We could not see the detail of the house exterior at present as the light was almost gone, but we offloaded the vehicle and placed it all on the terrace, retrieved our head torches and explored the inside of the house.  It had obviously been shut up for several weeks, it was baking hot inside and had a musty smell; a mix of animals, dust, possibly bats and the past sweat of many other villagers.  There was one large room at the front with a table and chairs, behind there was a row of rooms, three bedrooms and a couple of wash rooms.  The bedrooms looked as stark as the main room; the one I chose had a small broken wooden chair and a large bed with a plastic mosquito net draped over it.  My closest wash room was even more rudimentary, a small narrow space split in two.  The area nearest the door had a similar mud concrete floor to the rest of the house and was packed with several large plastic buckets, but on the other side of a row of bricks covered in tiles, was another concrete area with a drain at one end; basically a small hole in the wall that led out to the garden behind.  This was to be my shower.  There was no toilet indoors.  The caretaker showed us where a small key was hung on a nail in of the rafters, then led us through a small metal back door and round to the right.  There was a small shack made of four corrugated metal sheets.  She unlocked the padlock on the hinged sheet at the front and opened it to reveal another concrete floor.  In the centre was a small triangular hole.  That was all.  This was to be our latrine for the next week.


Our new home

We thanked her for the tour and went back to take all the goods into the house.  Everything more or less ended up on the floor – there were no cupboards or drawers.  A few of the more precious food items we put on the table , but my suitcase, all the maps in rolls and other work materials were stacked in various corners on the ground.

Our caretaker introduced us to another lady who lived in the next house.  She was to be our cook for the week and had got our evening meal ready.  She humbly came in with a series of dishes; some plates and knives and forks, then two large metal pots with lids.  Under one lid was a mountain of rice, large and sticky; under the other was a chicken stew… a rather scrawny chicken with more bone than flesh, but mixed with a number of onion, okra, spices and sauce.  After eight hours in the passenger seat it was still welcome and filling.

The Ankle Deep Sea – Cotton Bay and the Priority Zone

The meals at Cotton Bay were not brilliant, though they did have some signature seafood dishes, and I was glad of a cold Phoenix after the rollercoaster travels I had come through in the last couple of days. We discussed our plans.  I had to visit the government departments in Port Mathurin and see what data existed.  Like on many islands, the mapping of Rodrigues was not great – part of the problem is no-one had ever really worked out a good map projection of the island and now everything was going digital, you could not fit one map over another easily.  I also was to sit in with SHOALS, our key collaborators in Rodrigues.  As opposed to the Ministry of Environment on the mainland, SHOALS of Rodrigues are a small  NGO trying to look after the huge lagoon that surrounds the island; they do an incredible amount of research with support from UK universities, as well as community outreach and education.  They were to be our partners for the marine and land surveys that Jeremy and I were to manage. They were based in a small shed adjacent to the little estuary where many fishing and other boats moored up in Port Mathurin.  Because of the lagoons, we could not always use the SHOALS equipment, but had to hire fishermen from our launch sites.

Our Priority Zone for this area was the east coast.  Several new hotel developments were planned along the cliffs.  The reef was limited as it was on the more exposed side of the island – I was a little surprise it had been chosen. It was an area where less research had been done by others, so we were balancing out areas of focus for SHOALS, I suppose, but it did not really move our work forward much.

Mike, Jeremy and I wandered along part of the coastline; not as part of the formal survey but to gauge some of the issues along here.  There really were none.  The coastline here was predominantly a hard limestone rock falling as a cliff into crystal clear waters full of coral and fish and other life.  Yes the coastal vegetation was degraded by overgrazing and the drought, but this was by no means irreversible.  There was no pollution to speak of, and if there were any it was quickly broken up by the energy of the sea.  No developments had compromised either the land or the sea.

The resulting landscape had probably not changed for generations and was a fabulous mix of small sandy coves in amongst the hard rock bluffs, and a well developed reef that was pummelled by natural forces but had learnt to survive them.  The local population obviously revelled in these locations – we saw a bunch of fishermen stripped down to their briefs trying to trap large pelagic fish in one beach.  Another bay was perfectly fan shaped – its narrow entrance managed to deflect most of the ocean’s energy away and only a diluted diffusion of waves spread between the two high limestone cliffs.  I snorkelled in here quite safely, although with the energy of the sea and the sandiness of the bay there were only a few shoals of fish to observe.  The waves undercut the cliffs and formed small caverns.  It was perfection.  If it were almost anywhere else it would be a highly prized touristic site, but this was Rodrigues where such natural beauty was almost taken for granted.

We walked back to the beach where we had left our rented pick up and, next to an enormous spider’s web, managed to assimilate this wonderful coastline and start thinking how it could be protected, and yes, exploited, for the good of Rodrigues.  Exploitation is a dirty word amongst conservationists, but we needed to find a way where people would healthily conserve this pristine environment and showing them a form of exploitation for them was the only way forward we could find, sustainable exploitation.  We had to persuade them that by keeping it almost the same as it is – with a little ecotouristic enhancement  – they could exploit people who came to experience the same life enhancing  moments we had for free.

The Highest Country in the World – What a temperature range!

I’d travelled to do some volunteering with a colleague.  I was invited back a while later under my own company to do more work, and a third trip occurred later on.  Based on the MapAction experience we were able to extract all the locations of different agencies and based on type and service make a map on Google Earth.  There was to be another angle which was to identify how many children needed what help – so called case loads.  I never was able to see it through but the plan for looking for demand for services and showing where current supply was to be a great tool for all people helping OVCs.

I could focus more on this, but there are plenty of places to look at the work done by Sentebale and Letsema, and since my assistance in Lesotho both programmes have moved on a long way.  I prefer to focus in on the last trip I did where I had the chance to get out and see more of Lesotho than just the capital.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Maseru.  On my first trip I stayed in The Lancer’s Inn, a motel very close to the main street, Kingsway.  While the reception and dining area were your average brick buildings, the guestrooms were all rondavels.  The beds were covered in layers and layers of sheets, blankets and spreads, including a cowhide.  I soon was grateful as on the first evening the temperature dropped to -9 degrees.  I had to have the heat pump on full; first time I had used one of those things in Africa to heat up the room instead of air condition and cool it.  My colleague, Chris, and I had five layers of clothing on for breakfast. But hour by hour, with the sun out, the temperature rose and a layer came off.  By 2pm the thermometer was reading 26 degrees and we were just in t shirts.  But then it dropped like a stone again and the clothes came back on.


Our rondavels at the hotel – and Chris in mid morning clothing layers

As far as you can go – Living and Working in Jamestown

On my first trip I was in splendid isolation up in my house in the woods, for the other two trips, Edsel and I were given a house at the back of Jamestown.  When we arrived without luggage we were able to  simply walk up the main street, behind the tourist office, drop down into a small courtyard and enter our abode ten minutes after leaving the port.  After a 6 day trip it was the simplest of endings.

The house was large enough for our needs, downstairs was a lounge decorated in a way which would have looked outdated in the 1970s in the UK.  A small kitchen at the back and upstairs a couple of bedrooms and bathroom set on the creakiest wooden floor.  The back of the house was dark as a steep hill and other buildings crowded in.  The front was not much better as it was in a courtyard of several other houses and next to a car mechanics.  But we did not need much and since we were mainly based out of either the National Trust or the Legal and Lands Department, both just a short walk away.

My first visit had identified that there was a need to build an inclusive GIS of all the environmental agencies and also look at it as a prototype for a island wide GIS.  The Legal and Lands Department had a GIS already, and some capacity in the shape of a fabulous young man called Len Coleman.  I’d not met him the first time I had visited; I think he had been away on a training course in China.  When Edsel and I walked into the office for the first time he was so happy to see us – he had been asking for ages to get some more GIS experience and organise the data properly and from what he had read of our work in Anguilla and Ascension, he was excited by our visit.

Aside from the Castle, Legal and Lands had one of the most prestigious government buildings in Jamestown, Essex House.  It was a grand four storey building, although two of the storeys were below the main street level.  Going up an elegant staircase you entered a large wooden panelled entrance hall with a glass panelled reception area.  If you went upstairs you met the surveyors , including the chief man at the time, Gavin.  Len had a large room at the back of the house overlooking a small courtyard garden.  At the far end was another substantial building housing the Legal Section.  People visiting there could gain access through a small subway from the street under the main building.

Like many buildings in Jamestown, Essex House was indeed built with some grandeur, but lack of money and maintenance had let it fade considerably.  Despite this Edsel and I were very happy working here.  GIS was at the heart of the room; there were maps up on all the walls; Len and his colleague Gina were working hard on a project to scan all the property titles for the country and add them to a massive database, massive by small island scales anyway.  The contrast with the other two main offices in which we had worked were strong.  I loved Scotland with its outward bound style offices, but it was often shrouded in a dank cloud and cold.  I loved working  in the National Trust Office in Jamestown; the different ladies who ran the show there each had their own characters and  I always felt looked after by them, in particular the indomitable and always bubbly administrator, Phyllis.  But here with Len we had found the beating core of what we had to do and someone who knew what GIS was about.

As far as you can go – A tour of my accommodation

It was remarkable fortune that for the duration of my trip this house was available.  The matriarch of one of the most influential families, Miss Thorpe, had recently decided to downsize.  The intention that the house was to be let long term, but while they were waiting to sign someone up, they were happy for me to use it for a few weeks.  Rebecca enthused about the house as one of her favourites on the island and I soon saw why.  Stepping across the lawn, I saw the huge double fronted face of a two storey house, the main door up some steps behind a glass porch.  We did not use the main door, but entered through the kitchen at the far end of the house.  Beyond the kitchen door was another house – two bedrooms.  Rebecca said I could choose which one to live in!

I took my case in  and dumped it in the kitchen.  Rebecca showed me round briefly, and told me to relax for the rest of the day, but then come over to her place for dinner.  She pointed out the location on the map and left me the most humungous pumpkin that had come from her vegetable plot.  With that she drove off and I was alone in this isolated little paradise.

I had that mixture of energy and fatigue that often accompanies me after a long trip.  And this had been the longest – three days from the last stop.  So I tried to explore and unpack but also was quite happy to flop out from time to time to try and rest.  This house was amazing though.  Let me take you on a tour.

The kitchen extended the full width of the house and while it was large and airy, with a shelf of old porcelain dishes and glasses around the outside, it had been substantially modernised in the 1970s.  While a little ugly the units were functional and it served me well once I got the hang of the Calor gas cooker.  Round the corner was the washing machine and freezer tucked into a utilitarian corridor.  At the back was a door to a long corridor whose floorboards creaked ominously with every step.  It was furnished with dark polished wooden cabinets, sideboards, chairs of all shapes and sizes, the odd bookcase.  The next room on the left was an exquisite dining room – heavily varnished table set surrounded by showcase cabinets stuffed with collections of china and glassware.  After the austerity of Ascension Island and the practical nature of the ship, this simple show of finery was a surprise.  It must have been collected over several generations and looked after with intimate care.

A short but wide hallway contained a series of paintings, mainly of St Helena, and a big cuckoo clock.  The heavy front door was in front of me and to the right a door into a light airy living room, containing generous sofas, and a slightly chintzy decor.  At the north west corner of the house and perched up over the valley to the north, this was the sunniest and most cheerful of rooms in the house and I spent most of my leisure time in here.

A set of stairs wound up to the second floor at this end of the house to another corridor running along the back of the house, containing more chairs and occasional tables, a small TV area and lots and lots of book cases.  There were two substantial bedrooms up here and I found it hard to choose which one to remain in.  In the end I took the double bedded room.  And then at the south end of the house, round a corner, was a remarkable little open air room.  It was under the main roof of the house but two sides were open to the weather.  I found the air a little fresh at this time of year to stay out very often but it was a delightfully comfy place to lie on the sofas and read the day away.

Looking out from this end room I got a good overview of a carefully tended garden.  Immediately outside the house were formal lawns and borders, which led to more hidden gems to the south and on into the wilder wooded areas below me.  I put some shoes on and went to explore, past the “granny flat” and along a grassy path lined with rich borders of succulents, shrubs, trees and flowers.  Against a whitewashed shed climbing roses were just finishing flowering, and the garden ended at a barbed wire fence which looked up the valley at a verdant pasture land.  When I looked back I could just see my home through the trees; it was so secluded and hardly anybody ever came down this secret valley.