Walking the Beaches – Fishing and Surfin

The spit of land extended about half a kilometre into the lagoon, and we had to double back a long distance to traverse the muddy inlet behind.  The water at this time of day was just too deep to walk across, although as we walked around several branches of the lagoon, the tide fell away to reveal large sandy banks.

We heard some splashing and giggling nearby.  Five teenage girls and one slightly younger boy with two dogs emerged from the wood.  One was carrying a white bucket (which probably held paint at some point in its history) and two more were carrying a large green net.  They waded straight into the water then spread out, unravelling the net between them as they went.  We watched them trawl through this shallow inlet, heading upstream to the shallowest part.  As they reached the exposed sand at the end, the net was alive with silvery fish battling to escape its clutches.  Still laughing and chatting, the girls set about picking away at the net and dropping the fish into the bucket.  They then reversed their walk and trawled out to a sandy bank and out of our view.

As we took the next headland the Morne revealed itself in all its glory.  We could see ahead for the next five kilometres of our walk – the kite surfers in the far distance looking like little sand flies biting at the ankles of the World Heritage Site.  We noticed that despite the lagoon being expansive here, wave energy across the shallow rubble platform must at some times be very high as here and there along the high water mark was evidence of erosion, or of trees being brought down and ripping up the sand as their roots disengage.  These events must be short in duration but severe and targetted as most of the beach was accreting sand.

 As we approached the first of the resorts that day, the kite surfers were racing up and down close to the beach.  Kite surfing at that time had just reached IN status.  Users were revelling in the flexibility in the water of being on a surf board, not at the total mercy of the rollers that an ordinary board would be, nor weighed down by a sail, but still plenty of control to move around on the water and perform tricks.  I’d once taken a lesson in windsurfing in BVI and completely exhausted myself hauling myself out of the water every time I tried to turn a corner.  I’ve never had the upper body strength to lift my own soggy weight.  Kite surfing looked similarly difficult to one who had had very little sporting coordination since the days of tripping over his football boot laces in primary school.

On various windy beaches around Mauritius, it was the South Africans who seemed to be the most experienced kite surfers.  Some tourists giving it a go for the first time at best looked nervous and hesitant to build up speed, at worst they were gung ho and I saw several examples of people being blown by the wind up on to the beach and into the nearest coconut tree.  In the hands of an expert, though,  the artistry as superb.  As Jeremy and I walked along the Morne’s beaches, a teenager passed us, kicked his board high in the air, looped himself round, turned his kite 180 degrees and forge ahead at exactly the same speed, all in one smooth and impeccable movement.  “Show off” we said simultaneously but in fact we were just plain jealous.

Capturing the Diversity – The Rat Pack

With the cats gone, the worst of the introduced mammals were the rats.  A programme of rat eradication was impossible on an island the size of Ascension, there are simply too many hidey holes and their reproduction rate is phenomenal.  Rats, like anywhere where humans exist, were everywhere.  The small Environmental Health division of Ascension Government was almost completely taken up with their control.  They would do house to house eradication, they routinely tried to keep numbers under control by laying bait in key areas round the settlements.  And they worked very closely with the Conservation Department to try to keep them at bay from key biological concerns.  The bird colonies were prime target for intervention, but they also maintained a network of traps up on Green Mountain, as rats are omnivorous and enjoy a nibble on endemic vegetation as well as eating eggs.

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Greggy and his map of rat baitings

I tried to get to understand the work these guys did and had many meetings with Greggy and his supervisor, Charles, who also happened to be  the father of ‘Tasha, one of the long term sgtaff at Conservation.  Both really nice guys who I shared several beers with over the years, they loved a laugh but could also be methodical about their work.  One time I wanted to walk with them to find out their field craft, they were getting help from the Administrator’s son, Ash. Charles, Greggy, Ash and I piled into their Land Rover pickup and headed up the mountain.

Heading up the mountain is always a thrill, both the never ending series of zigzags as you reach up a very thin ridge to reach the upper elevations, and the way the vegetation changes as you rise.  As usual it was a lot cooler at the car park at the Red Lion than down in Georgetown, but the cloud level was low.  We were aiming to walk two paths.  I would join Ash on Cronk’s Path, Greggy would do Rupert’s alone.  Charles was going to drive down the mountain and round to the east to pick us up where the two paths joined.

Ash and I started across a manicured lawn which led past two bucolic cottages that were rented out by the Conservation Office (one of which Andrew and Phil had been renting).  The process here was similar to the cat scat trails.  You walked a few metres and would come across a dark green box.  There was a small hole where a rat could get in (but hopefully no cat or dog or small child’s fingers).  Inside would be some poisoned bait.  The rat would eat it, and fairly quickly expire.  On the sides of the box were firm spring clips that allowed you to access the inside, check the bait and replace it if necessary.  Sealing the box, it would be replaced at the side of the path.  Ash would then record what he found against the number painted on the box.  If he saw some of the bait eaten he recorded P for partial, T if the total amount of bait had been removed and 0 if none had been disturbed.  He also noted the number of dead rats in the vicinity, although that was rare as often or not the ill rat would have wandered off into the undergrowth before expiring.  The numbers had been painted on by Greggy when the route was laid.  Starting sequentially from the beginning of the trail at one, they had not only proved useful in recording the data, but you could keep track that you had seen all the boxes.  Being green they were camouflaged by the undergrowth.  They were set out at roughly 50m intervals so it was rare that you walked too far without seeing one.  If you got to a number that was one or two above what you expected to see next it did not take too much time to head back and search for the missing ones.