Beating off the waves – Manhattan in the ocean

I sprawled in the back and looked around me.  I now got to see the interface between water and land from another angle.  As we gently pulled out and turned to head north, I could see the modern office blocks backing the harbour and a long row of these bus boats along the harbour.  I keep saying harbour, but in fact all this was a long pool protected from the open sea by sea defences.  and I could see how boats of various types occupied different parts of it.



Once out in the open water, our captain opened up the throttle and the cruiser tilted to about 30 degrees and pushed hard against the sea.  As we accelerated, I kept glancing back and saw the bizarreness of Male further and further revealed.  It was like Manhattan in the ocean – every inch crammed with tall apartment and office blocks.  Its inshore waters were divided up into the different activities to keep such a maritime city running – I could see a larger container ship on the north west corner of the island.

As we pulled out I could see both ends of the main island and the obviousness of its limited landmass.  Nearby I could see several other islands, the one holding the airport of course, but also several others which seemed to have larger populations too.  Not just were there evidence of rooftops and the occasional higher rise flats, but also the various masts for communication and entertainment.




Beating off the waves – A different sort of commuting

Next morning we had to be up early to travel to Thulusdhoo, a populated island to the north east of Male.  We crammed into a small taxi with our field kit and inched our way through the morning traffic, across the main shopping street and almost back to the wharf where I first embarked from the airport.

It was there that I got the first jolt against my presumptions of living on small Maldivian islands.  Many of the people who work in Male do not live on Male.  From several directions we could see bus like boats crammed full of commuters.  They slipped into the harbour with ease and discharged their human cargoes on the already crowded streets of Male.  There was no pushing, squabbling, hardly a noise save for the low whirr of the boats’ engines; but still hundreds of people at a time, dressed smartly in shirt and trousers, suits, dresses, saris and burqas, would stream off the gangplanks in a serene harmony.

We were waiting for our local project manager, Mohamed, to arrive, and also waiting for our own boat to Thulusdhoo.   The boat was obvious; from the north a large white cruiser entered the harbour and made straight for us.  They had clearly been told to expect three Brits and since we were the only (relatively) tall and white people on the hard the helmsman headed the boat straight for us.


All sorts of commuters

Mohamed, a young, quiet but authoritative and knowledgeable man turned up soon after in light blue trousers and an open white shirt, cool shades and a fresh haircut.  He had a satchel slung across his shoulder and he greeted each of us in turn.  Within a few moments we were aboard our cruiser – four of us spread over three rows of seats at the rear of the boat, and we were being steered out to the open water.

A tale of two swamps – Short cruise down the river

When at last the fisherfolk association themselves came this same issue was one of their key concerns.  We met on the enclosed veranda of one of the fisheries buildings and learnt so much about the management of the fisheries.  In general the pressure on fisheries in the upper reaches was low, but these niggles of being taken for granted by the electricity generators, plus feeling remote from the department of Fisheries in Chilanga, were ripe topics of conversation.  As we listened to the conversation, with occasional translation by Alphart, my eyes wandered around the veranda we were on.  Half way up the wire grill covering the windows I spotted the most beautiful praying mantis, a luminous green colour, its heart shaped head alert to any activity from flies caught in the veranda.  Then I jerked back and refocused on the debate.

The meeting was useful, but we had to curtail it as we were already late for another appointment downriver.  We made our way to a covered aluminium boat on the riverbank with some of the fisheries staff and pulled away downstream.  We made rapid progress along the wide Kafue River, and once more I was aware how life and the landscape here was dominated by water.  The land was a distant green line occasionally punctuated with spreading trees.  Much more immediate was the blue ripples of the river, the reeds, the fishing tackle and aquatic species.  We spotted a couple of the fishing villages I had seen on the map – the round huts peeking up above the reeds lining the Kafue’s banks which in turn would occasionally thin to reveal a landing site filled with dugout canoes.

As we came round a large meander I saw the ferry crossing which was to be where we were to hold out next meeting.  The ferry itself was a simple flatbed boat but it had two small engine rooms on either side.  Some donor had provided this mechanical device to improve over an old hand drawn version that had served the community for many years.  Unfortunately the operation could not afford the fuel and the engine had seized up with lack of use.  This meant that any vehicles now had to travel over 70km west to the dam to find the closest crossing.  Sometime old technology works better than new.

We drifted in alongside the ferry to a small landing site.  The boat ran aground still in open water and we had to leap across the last couple of feet to dry land.  In front of us several tracks and paths converged on the ferry but the closest village was on raised ground about half a kilometre to the north of us.  The only buildings on the shore were an open shelter that was to be our meeting room, and a small grass hut that served as a store.  We bought a few peanuts and a drink and waited for our participants to arrive.  As usual it was a slow process and I took the time to sit on a small wooden stool next to the store and soak in the scenery.  It was so peaceful there; we could hear distant voices chattering away in the village.  One of the fisheries officers headed up to the village to find out what was happening.


Waiting for the meeting to start

A tale of two swamps – Leaving proves difficult

Despite the view of this village being a sylvan human-controlled environment, the wild was still out there nearby – wildlife will naturally want to take advantage of such a bountiful, water rich region.  We saw one example as we waited to board out boat to leave the village.  Another dugout canoe was punted past by a young man, a piece of tarpaulin covering the front left hand side.  It was explained to us that a few weeks back, a hippopotamus had taken a chunk out of the wood there while he had been in the middle of the lake collecting his nets.


Ever had a chunk taken out of your boat by a hippo

Our large party settled back into the aluminium boat, but we were too heavy to shove off the mud.  Several of us had to get out while the captain got the boat floating, and then we gingerly stepped across from a small headland at the entrance to the harbour and sat down as fast and safely as we could.  We carefully navigated around the sides of the village, avoiding a small fleet of boats carrying goods back from the landing site we had visited earlier in the day.  It was sad to leave this beautifully adapted little habitation and as we retraced our path along the main channel through an avenue of trees I kept glancing back to see the tarpaulins and grass roofs gradually shrink and disappear in amongst the reeds; as if it had never existed at all.


Supreme confidence

As we headed back across Chunga Lagoon we could see many fishing operations going on, mostly at this time of the day collecting in nets, and as the afternoon was now progressing and the temperature starting to cool, the birdlife was increasing again.

A Tale of Two Swamps – Entering the village

The clump of trees had resolved itself into a cluster of houses.  Well I say houses.  From this distance they looked more like Mongolian Yurts.  Our boatman cut his speed as we approached the first of these and we chugged past these as the  channel extended deep into the village centre.  After seeing a few isolated huts; probably store rooms, I realised the village itself was on a raised muddy island in the middle of the flooded grasslands.  Perched on slightly higher grasses, but still with their feet in the water, hefty cattle obviously content in water ambled in front of the boat and peered at us with dull eyes.  While the majority of the village was in one large island and densely packed, we made our way to a second smaller island with just a small cluster of buildings, and I clocked there were several of these smaller “suburbs” dotted around the plain.

Here we were to meet out main contact in the village – a guy who works as the local liaison for the Fisheries Department and is secretary of the local fisherfolk association.  We had to cut the boat’s motor to reduce our wash, but there were eager people nearby who were willing to tow us in.  Unfortunately the one that reached us first was the town drunk; at least he was amiable but he both had a problem keeping upright waist high in water, and also wanted to talk extensively.  This might have been OK but his English was very limited and the conversation kept heading towards money and alcohol.  Eventually the other visitors prised his hands off our boat and we were safely delivered at the secretary’s house.   We were immediately invited in to his house – a long substantial reed walled house with tarpaulin roof.  Inside was one large room, subdivided with low walls into a sleeping area.  On top of all the clothes that the family owned – piled high as if ready for a jumble sale, was a reed mat covered in very small fish.  The smell in the house was also piscine; I supposed it mattered little that the odour must work its way into their garments as these villagers ate, caught, dealt with, sold, and of course excreted fishy products.  The smell of fish must be as normal as pot pourri in other houses.

As well as the fish stacked on the clothes, above the cooking hearth at the back of the hut were trays of more fish being smoked and cured.  They shrivel up so much as they dried that they look most unappetising, but in the absence of ice boxes and fridges in many villages this is often the only way to keep fish edible for more than a day.  The ice that ends up in the village is expensive and is preserved for use in selling valuable fresh fish to distant urban markets; where opinions about what food should look like are more sensitive than in rural Zambia.

A Tale of Two Swamps – Out on to the lagoon

The market was still going full pelt when we realised if we did not get going soon we would miss our appointment with the headman and his fishers at the little village across the lagoon, so reluctantly we weaved our way back to the Fisheries mooring site and piled in to a small aluminium flat bottomed boat.

A couple of the fisheries staff donned lifejackets but I saw the lake was near still, so just soaked in the scene of an almost dead flat landscape pricked apart by occasional stands of trees.  We picked our way backwards into the open water, then the captain opened up the throttle.  It was good to feel the wind against you at this late morning hour.  We navigated straight west across the lake, passing a few pirogues heading to and from the melee at the landing site.  For many minutes we crossed open water, but then I started to spot little clumps of grass poking above the lake surface.  Despite us being so far inland, the waves generated on the lagoon became choppy and the fisheries officers were happy they had their lifejackets on.  The grassy “outcrops” became much more frequent and higher and I noticed that I could see a layer of grass just a couple of feet below the surface of the water – indeed a couple of times I could hear grass scrape the boat’s bottom.  We spotted plenty of birdlife out on the open water and resting on little grassy islands in the lagoon – in some cases the islands were wholly nests.

 I was close to the front and saw a wall of long grasses poking up above the water – we were heading straight for them.  I could see no way through but as we approached a significant channel opened up- wide and clear and aiming away from the lagoon towards a distant clump of trees.  As we entered this channel,  I noticed there were carpets of white water lilies in amongst the grass, like a fantastically large ornamental pond stretching as far as the eye could see.  In a few places they clogged up our channel and we had to cut our way through hoping the outboard motor did not snag in the roots.

A Tale of Two Swamps – Where is the boat?

We were met with a scene from the Marie Celeste.  The tents were there and we saw the guys’ personal belongings strewn around; we saw fisheries and boat gear everywhere; upturned pirogues and a small metal boat in the swollen waters of the lagoon below us.  And on almost every surface were fish; some big but the majority juveniles.  They were being sundried on mats, across canvas tents, even on the bottoms  of upturned boats.  Ian took a good look round to get a feel for the different species; nothing really surprised him except the sizes – there were so few larger fish, and some looked as if they might have been caught with below-regulation mesh size nets.

With all the fish and old wooden boats; two things were missing, the modern aluminium boat and the captain to drive it.  We waited round for about twenty minutes but with no mobile masts or radio sets, we had no way of getting in contact with them.  We deduced that our delays at the hotel first thing and the lengthy meeting at the park compound had meant the captain had decided to go off without us, or else there was some emergency that had taken them away.  There was nothing much else to be done.  I took a wander out to the edge of the lagoon and watched some ducks waddling to the water’s edge.  I say edge, but like many of the lakes here, the water flowed up over the vegetation so it was difficult to say exactly where the border between land and lake occurred.  I watched a flock of storks fly over the lagoon and peered off into the glassy lake just in case a speedboat was heading towards us.  It wasn’t.

We returned a little down to the national park centre compound; and to make use of the time we had I the day,  Ian asked if he had any data on stock and catch, a so called Frame Survey.  We were driven round the compound to a row of offices and were given a tour.  Considering the remote location with only generators for sustainable electricity, there was a lot going on here; large ledgers containing sample fish sizes – length and width – just as I remembered from my days at the Fisheries Department in the British Virgin Islands.  There were a couple of laptops from which Ian was able to glean lots of data – none of it analyzed to any extent but carefully collected, and we saw some laboratory equipment where testing of fish was going on , and several specimen species and posters showed at least a reasonable level of knowledge of the local fish stocks was being cleared.  At least we got some useful information even if we did not meet the villagers that day.


Plenty of birds – but no sign of a boat

It seemed like one of our precious days in the field was going to miss a major element – the community meeting with the villagers on the river.  We wandered a little way along the lakeshore and found a hard gravelly area with one or two boats moored up – the clearing of the weeds showed that this was a fish landing site – where catches from the flats were brought by boat to be transhipped to lorries that carried catch to market in Lusaka or further afield.

The Ankle Deep Sea – Out in to the lagoon

The next day, Jeremy and I worked with SHOALS to show them how to survey the marine resources.  We met them at their shed in Port Mathurin and drove back close to Cotton Bay where we hooked up with a fisherman who was to provide his boat to look at the northern part of our area.  He had arrived on his moped to meet us and continued to wear his helmet while he readied out boat.  His little blue pirogue contained two SHOALS guys, a couple of students from the University of Mauritius, Jeremy, myself and this little man in his helmet.  We managed to work around the choppy Baie De L’Est for about half an hour, then the outboard motor gave out.  As we drifted towards some ominous rocks the captain pulled out an oar and dug deep down.  He found some purchase and pushed us back.  There was no way we could continue our survey under these conditions so suffered the ignominy of being punted back to our port of embarkation.

Next day we travelled to Port Sud Est – a fairly sizeable community that relied on fishing in the lagoon and as a fairly high class residential area.  With another boat we were able to access the southern part of the pressure zone.  The problem was that the boat was over a kilometre from the main land.  The solution was provided by the nature of the lagoon; water is never that deep in Rodrigues so we started to wade.  And wade, and wade and wade and wade.  After about fifteen minutes we hauled ourselves into the boat, but the water was still only knee deep.  We managed to reach out across the lagoon very quickly and to be honest , it was pretty boring.  Yes it was crystal clear water and every natural habitat was amazing.  But there were no issues, it was a perfect, undisturbed natural environment.  Shh, don’t tell anyone, but Rodrigues was perfect.

Jeremy and I returned to Cotton Bay to report to Mike, who had had a busy day in Port Mathurin with the relevant agencies of the Rodrigues Regional Assembly.  He had also had a call from the Department of Environment staff wondering why I had been in the UK the week before, given I was supposed to spend the whole time in this country.  Mike had apparently put them straight, but the idea of quietly letting me visit my mum had dangerously backfired as it crossed this 90 day period limit.   As it was now sorted out, we spent a happy evening exchanging stories , sitting back in this tropical paradise and seeing how this was an example to the rest of Mauritius as to how to manage their coastal resources.  After several beers and a load of apocryphal stories, most of which both of my colleagues had already heard, I retired to bed, the windows open to let the Indian Ocean breezes in and the sound of the breaking waves send me to sleep.

The Ankle Deep Sea – Finally arrived

The ferry to Rodrigues takes 36 hours from Port Louis to the capital, Port Mathurin and goes a couple of times a week.  The plane takes ninety minutes and with only 50 seats each time there are only three, maybe four flights a day.  Considering these are the links between the two major islands, there is not a huge capacity for movement.  In fact the Rodriguans had long complained about this; there are no other flights from Rodrigues to other destinations.  And the Air Mauritius flight was incredibly expensive for a quick hop.


Arrival in Rodrigues

I landed in blistering heat of mid afternoon at Sir Gaetan Duval Airport at the western tip of the island.  The sun was blinding , the vegetation around me parched, and the peace and quiet audible.  It was the total opposite of the cold, dark, noisy environment of the UK that I had left behind only some eighteen hours before.

Jeremy and Mike were there.  They allowed me a cursory summary of my week in the north and the problems at Plaisance Airport, before spieling out their assessment of the island, the characters they had met and what our job was for the next five days.

Given it was Saturday, the island was almost deserted; we saw a few bodies under the shade of the few trees in back yards, the periodic vehicle heading along the road.  We took a circuitous route to our hotel, along the northern coast road, and the two of them pointed out various features.  We passed through the centre of Port Mathurin, almost deserted, and then drove over a big hill to the eastern flank of the island.  Livestock grazing is a massive part of Rodrigues life so, unlike the dense plantation fields of Mauritius, much of the island was taken up with huge open grasslands. Due to an ongoing drought the land was devoid of anything but the most hardy shrubs.  We descended towards the coast to a remarkable bay, the white sand fringed by palm trees and perfect size waves rolling in from the east.  Along a small sandy track we passed through an open gate in a high stone wall and we were at Cotton Bay Hotel. I was settled in to a first floor room overlooking a beach covered in filao and palm trees.

The Other Mauritius – A visit to the ark

When you take off for London you also get an amazing view – the plane almost always takes off north to south so shoots off the coast and across the reef before turning sharply to the left to run up the east coast.

As it turns you can see the whole scope of Grand Port Bay, including Lion Mountain that I had climbed,  and a series of little islands, and one larger one.  This larger island was one I made an expedition one Saturday towards the end of my first visit via a booked tour.  The Durrell Foundation supported the Mauritius Wildlife Foundation to keep Ile Aux Aigrettes as an ark for the endemic and highly endangered species from the mainland.  The arrangements seemed a little loose and despite my experience of timekeeping on small islands, I travelled down to Mahebourg early as no way did I want to miss the chance to see this spectacle.  I had been told to go to a small car park on the coast just south of the town centre.  It was metalled with shockingly white stones and at lunch time it was roasting hot to sit in the car, so I strolled around trying to find some shade or take a chance to peer off a low wall into the lagoon.  There was a small boat tied up against this wall bobbing about in the water and I could see the low profile of my destination out in the lagoon, barely a kilometre from where I stood.  But there was no office here, and no staff or other tourists at the appointed time.  I stayed around but started kicking the stones  in the car par and cursing how bad arrangements often go in these instances.

Then a jeep roared into the car park with a couple of young people and a family on holiday.  A very tall Creole guy introduced himself, reaching down to shake my hand and he went over to the boat to prepare the ropes for casting off.  Another guy from the jeep got in the boat and started it up.  A third young lady produced a clipboard, took my money and ticked a list.  It all suddenly became very active.  I was invited to sit in the boat; although it was not going to be a long crossing I sat up front to avoid the worst of the splash.  The boat gently chugged out from the jetty then roared into life across the lagoon.  The water was so turquoise, the sun so hot; it was perfection.  It was also nice to get away from the mainland.  For all I was working on a coastal zone project, on this first time to the country I had not managed to get out in a boat till now.  The Ile Aux Aigrettes, our destination, revealed more detail as we got closer and closer.  It seemed almost completely covered in a low dense scrub.  It is formed of coral reef itself, a relic reef that has become raised above the sea level, and hardened into a pitted but very solid piece of limestone.  I could see where waves in the lagoon constantly abraded away at the rock, but only up to where the highest tide came a metre or so above the current water level.  The waves had deeply undercut the limestone but such is the hardness of that rock that it easily supported these huge overhangs.