Walking the Beaches – More surprises

While the day was more of the same; the job itself was very easy.  Where I could I would peer into the water to determine what was going on.  It was mainly rocks with the occasional scraps of reef; hardly any seagrasses.  Here or there white sand had become trapped but often as not the wave energy was too strong for any deposits to stay fixed.  And in other areas the waves were so intense that both on the satellite imagery and in reality, you could not see below the water for all the foam and spray. Similarly on the landward side, there was very little to monitor.  There were no coastal protection features; the cliffs did a good enough job anyway, and for the most part there were no pollution problems.  The worst pollution we saw came from a fast flowing stream coming down from one of the cane factories on the hillside way inland which was black and thick with charcoal residues from where burning had taken place.  It flowed into the coastal woodland and settled in a gloopy swamp before the stream disappeared into the rocks and fell off the cliffs.  We could see the small plume of black discharge out in the sea but the high energy waves soon dispersed it.

We approached an area where there was more human activity again, but it was what we could term artisanal.  There was evidence that people came down to fish off the rocks, or borrow sand, hold barbecues and leave litter.  There were even more open areas of pasture in amongst the wood and cattle grazing.  We passed very close by a rudimentary farm – at least accommodation for a stock watcher, and associated barns to store some feed and allow the cattle to shelter from the worst of the weather.  Outdoor grazing in Mauritius is a rarity, most being held in enclosed pens and barns and it was a shock to smell the long forgotten odour you get from manure and livestock after so many months of living next to sugar cane.  Even this enterprise seemed half hearted.  At one time there had been a series of paddocks divided by thick tall stone walls, but now many of these walls were broken down, only the tracery of their course discernible in the undergrowth.  How long this area had been wooded was difficult to determine.  The trees looked small but given the buffeting they received from the south eastern winds hitting the coast, it was likely they were partly dwarfed and very slow growing, so could have been there for over a century.

The quiet, slightly decayed beauty of this whole coastline was also faintly disturbing, and I never felt at ease in it.  That feeling was amplified when we heard not one or two but a whole pack of dogs barking, a hundred metres or so to one side of us.  We were used to cane dogs, they were frequently seen in the cane tracks around Calodyne.  Most of them were timid feral mongrels, half starved and disease ridden, but if they occurred in packs they gained significant courage.  As I’ve said, I always carried a few stones in my pockets in case one or two of them thought they would have a go at me.  Here we jumped up onto one of the more complete wide stone walls and picked up a few of the loose pebbles from the top.  We heard the dogs crashing through the undergrowth, but never saw them and eventually felt secure enough to move on.

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A rare piece of grazing land near the coast

Capturing the Diversity – Where The Atlantic comes ashore

The next stage was to traverses one of these lava flows.  I was getting used to crossing these but this one was remarkable.  We had to climb a considerable way to get up on top of it – obviously it had been a thick coating of molten rock which had come down the mountainside at some stage.  It was relatively thin, but as I paused atop it, and looked first up and down, I was astonished to see it looked black in one direction and white in the other.  The lava field had been used as a nesting colony for hundreds, maybe thousands of years, but the birds sheltered on the uphill side of the outcrops of rock, giving them some shelter from the punishing south easterly winds.  So as you looked down, you saw all the guano from the ghost colony, looking uphill all the guano was hidden and you saw the true colour of the rock.

We were trying to make our way to South East Bay now, but again the most direct route was not the easiest, and we instead started heading north west.  I could see how much we had descended from our starting point.  I could not see the NASA site, but you could see the massive lump of earth that it sat on; and it towered above us.  While we plodded along on the surface , it did cross my mind that whatever more walking we did down here, we still had to somehow climb all the way back up there.

South East Bay is one of the most dramatic places on Ascension Island and can only really be seen in its true glory from the top of the cliffs.  From the NASA site, it appears a beautiful collection of coloured rocks and a sweeping bay of frothing water, but only from down here do you get the full impact of just how superlative the terrain is, and how dramatic the full force of the Atlantic Ocean coming into contact with the cliffs really is.

The first thing to strike me was a curious hill on the far side of the bay.  It had a steep white cliff, which had a funny little promontory of white rock sticking out the front.  The white rock was capped by a carpet of lava, this time a deep rusty red colour.  The lava coated the whole backside of a rounded hill.  The effect was to make you think you were looking at a giant white hedgehog with red spines.  It was not a surprise to hear that it was called Wig Hill.  In the centre of the bay, where it more or less turned right angles from the south coast onto the extended peninsula of the Letterbox, another lava flow, another black one, poured down into the sea.  It was obviously  relatively recent and the sea had yet to erode it back to a natural coastline; instead black rocks extended well out into the bay.  But the sea was having a good go.  Massive rolling waves came into the bay at high speed, bashed against the solid rock and sprayed up, some coming higher than the cliffs themselves.  Time after time these waves would crash in, and the spray and froth would fizz and shimmer for many seconds after the undertow had sucked the water back out of the bay.  I certainly would not want to be in a boat down there – you would be smashed to smithereens hundreds of times.  Death would be a mercy.

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Stedson, Simon and Tara monitoring the noddy nests on the cliffside

The main reason for coming to this cliff edge on the western side of the Letterbox was to monitor its noddy colonies.  I was still feeling a bit tender on my ribs, and I had already seen noddy nests, so I volunteered to look after their bags while Simon, Tara and Stedson went down in amongst the nests.  I got another sense of vertigo as I looked down.  Tara said – once you are down there it is not so bad, but I watched those big waves crashing below us, and did not want to chance having more mishaps.  So for about ten minutes I just sat there mesmerized by the strength and beauty of the ocean as it came ashore.