Beating off the waves – The tapestry of the harbour

I walked the whole north coast that evening.  From the bustle of the ferry terminals with shuttles heading out to other islands every couple of minutes, I passed the relative calm of the Male coastguard boats, and close to the most ceremonial of locations in the city.  Under a huge Maldivian flag was  a series of small squares and gardens.  Children were playing amongst the pigeons while parents looked on adoring their every move.  I saw several grand buildings behind the trees including the Islamic Centre with its massive gold dome.  I wandered through the area, the Republic Square, for several minutes and then rejoined the harbour wall and headed west once more.  The scenery changed almost immediately as I was aware of a massive street market selling all the fresh fruit and vegetables for Male.  Where this produce came from I did not ask, but assume it came from far and wide through the North and South Male Atolls to feed these hungry citizens.  There must be few places to grow fresh produce in Male – the odd rooftop garden, a windowbox here and there maybe.  Maybe a corner of a few of the wealthiest people’s garden plots, but what was on display in front of me was on a massive scale.  Orange coconuts, bananas, root crops, vegetables.  On the other side of the harbour wall here the water was crammed with an array of fishing craft, small to large with different gears to harvest the myriad of environments around the Maldives from the shallowest coral shelf to the deepest ocean trench.

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One of the many fishing and cargo boats

I sat for a while on the breakwater and watched the activity.  Not only were the boats used for fishing, but many served as small cargo vessels.  I saw several packed with crates and bags of all shapes and sizes, often with several people perched on top to give the impression it would sink if someone aboard sneezed.  Again I was seeing how the average Maldivian never saw the coastline as the limit of their realm; they accessed and used the sea without batting an eyelid.  But it made these harbours essential nodes in everyone’s lives.  Whether commuting, migrating, travelling to sell your produce or wares or just enjoying yourself, the coast was a vital location, and attracted others to catch the ever passing trade.

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Days and Nights of Freetown – The villagers join us on the beach

An impromptu market spring up on the shore as several of the big mammas who were catching the fish in their bowls were passing them on to others on the shore lines.  It was not clear but it looked like several of these women were managing the sales of the fishermen and ensuring that they got their cut even though many were still out in their boats.  But there was the odd opportunistic guy who dipped a single bucket into the water to get enough food for his week.

The concentration of fish in this little area had caught the attention of much of the bird life in the environs and they were swooping in on the catch, or  stealing the odd fish from the periphery of the market place.  Some of the fish were being cleaned right on the beach there and the entrails were picked up by birds and by the lucky crabs who lived just where we were standing.

We watched for a while as the final stragglers of the catch were brought up and the remaining net tidied up into one huge pile ready to be loaded on to a cart and taken back to the village to be repaired and prepared for the next haul.

We bade our farewells to this village, privileged to have been included in a huge community ritual and started to walk back to our resort.  At this point I realised just how far we had travelled and it took over 30 minutes to get back.  We’d been away a couple of hours but it did not seem to bother the rest of the group who had been reading, drinking and doing a bit of pottering of their own.

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The tide was completely out now and only a trickle came from the lagoons and the river.  Laziness had taken over the whole world, whether it was the sun, the beer or the palm wine.  Kids who had been playing now leant on a nearby wall and said a seldom word to each other.  Dogs had half buried themselves in the sand to cool down and probably relieve the tics or fleas.  The sun was setting over the ocean and turned the bay a distinct purple grey hue.  Reluctantly we packed up our belongings and headed back to Freetown and work.

Days and Nights of Freetown – Lunch in the Garden of Eden

We thanked the man for all his help and edification, and we returned to the vehicle.  All our assorted stops en route had taken up both the morning and a good part of the afternoon and I was getting hungry.  Jan had already decided we were to stop for lunch at another resort not far from Kent and I was eager to get there.

We parked up in the Mama Beach Resort in the appropriately named area of Eden Park.  It was a usual mix of chalets and function rooms spread under the shadiest of trees.  It had obviously been existing for years but was going through the final stages of a thorough overhaul.  With great pleasure we sauntered through the gardens and by the pool and ordered some food from the bar before asking for a table to be set up on the beach below.  While waiting for food I had a saunter around the beach.  The tide was low so I was able to traverse the little estuary of a river that poured from the forest and walk across the flats beyond.  Having turned onto the south side of the peninsula, we were partially protected from the Atlantic swells and this was a calm oasis of water which a few fishermen were taking advantage of in their dugout canoes.  They had to angle way out as the water was so shallow.  I looked to the south east and saw just the fringes of the coast as it headed towards Liberia.  It reminded me that the Freetown Peninsula is very special in the whole of West Africa, it is the only place that mountains of any size come down to the sea.  The coast to the south looked so boring and flat, and was probably a maze of mangrove swamps and mud flats, whereas this was a tropical oasis.

We had fresh fish with rice and vegetables washed down with a couple of Star beers.  Thoroughly relaxed I was not too keen to head back to Freetown but the start of another week was beckoning and turn back we had to.

A tale of two swamps -simple poached fish

We returned to our own hotel for one last night.  I was due in Mansa this weekend for more meetings and to start making my map, before I would head back alone on the Proflight (literally the only passenger on the Mansa-Ndola leg this time) and to spend most of the next week locked away in my motel room next to a large new Chinese shopping mall in central Lusaka.

All very different and modern compared to the quiet simplicity of this lakeside hotel.  I soaked up the last sunset, the light reflecting purple of the lake, almost placid again after the winds of the rest of the trip.  Out in the lake a few dugout canoes contained fishermen setting the night’s nets.  My name was called from along the way and I ambled over to find Ian and Mainza tucking in to the tilapia that had been bought near the Luapula Bridge.  Here was the resource that we were studying, making regulations about, mapping the area where it would be protected and managed for everyone.  It was just a fish, simply grilled and presented, but it was a symbol of the Bangweulu Swamp

We shared the one plate, picking the meat from the bone with our fingers; separating out the spiny exteriors and leaving behind a classic cartoonish skeleton of the fish.  It was the best meal I had in Zambia that trip.

A tale of two swamps -At the fish market

We were due to have a cruise across the lake and into the swamps to meet villagers that lived amongst the reeds, but the previous night’s wind had left current wave action too strong for the shallow bottomed aluminium boat fisheries planned to use.  So instead we got in a couple of vehicles and drove round the southern part of the lake to a market village called Chikuwela near the start of the Luapula River.  The road, a well graded dirt track, skirted the thin marshland area next to the lake, riding on a low ridge that separated the wetlands from the dryland cropping to the south.  Almost the whole length was populated with farmsteads, the occasional store or school – living close to the lake was an obvious advantage.  At one point we crossed a canal that had been dug by the Dutch to link Bangweulu and a second lake ; Kampolombo.  Chikuwela was on a dry peninsula between this second lake and the Luapula River.  Still with farmsteads running along the roadside, only the increased activity and larger number of stores indicated we had reached some sort of village centre.

It was a hive of activity.  Several bars were already in full swing, dishing out the beer bottles and playing music powered from solar generated electricity. Other stores were retailing essentials like clothes and plastic household goods, and as usual here fish were being sold everywhere.  We parked up and while we waited for the Fisheries Officers to find the headsman, we ambled down between some houses and to the riverbank.  On a firm but muddy beach, there were a few canoes and a number of bags, and several people were sitting in little groups close to the water.   Some appeared to have baggage and were awaiting a lift to one of the more remote villages deep in the swamp; others looked like they were waiting for laden boats to arrive so they could take the pick for selling in markets.  From this landing site, a thin blue channel cut into the reeds to reach the main river in the distance.  Every so often we would get a glimpse of boats passing up or downstream.  We wandered back up to the village and spied some bundles on the road next to a large truck.  Behind the truck was a low flat building which had once been painted blue but so many flakes had come off it was now more two tone.  We were invited inside and met with a pile of similar bundles – thick canvas bags pulled tight in a trellis of bamboo and rope.  We were told that inside would be packed with fish and ice – and the weighty wrapping was meant to keep the fish fresh.  While we were talking a fully loaded lorry headed out of the village.  Where were they going?  Mainly the Copperbelt and central towns; a considerable journey for such perishable goods.  Iced fresh fish were being preferred to dried fish these days though and the processing chain was having to become more sophisticated to respond.

The lagoon also supplied more local needs and we wandered round the back of the main street to find a busy market place.  Outside there were the usual tomato sellers and clothes bundles spread on sheets on the ground.  But in one building were two parallel stone slabs piled high with dried fish of many types and sizes.  Ian was shocked that there were hardly any large fish being sold – few were more than 10cm long.  The smell was a little overpowering and I was glad to head back outside again.

Capturing the Diversity – a fatal emergence

I was drawn back to Long Beach morning after morning.  I’d arrive soon after sunrise to see the last straggling females making their way back down the beach.  It reminded me of the descriptions of the sea tanks in John Wyndham’s “The Kraken Wakes”.  They are either unperturbed by people taking photographs of them in the morning, or at least resigned to the fact they can do little about it.  In the daylight you see just how long and lumbering their walk is.  In the time it took me to walk from end to end of Long Beach and back, a turtle may just about make it from their nest to the sea.   If they are lucky they get a helping slide down where the waves have eaten into the beach.   Once in the water, though, and buoyant, they seem to give the land a final wave with a flipper and then skedaddle quickly into the deeps.

A colleague from St Helena, Nikki,  arrived on a flight from the UK while I was there and she joined me on one of these morning walks.  As well as a few adult females making their way back to the sea, we almost stumbled on a nest where hatchlings were poking out of the sand.  In the centre of the nest pit, a cluster of little black turtle heads were poking up.  We cleared the sand away and they started to vigorously flap their slippers and release themselves from the sand.  Some escaped and started to head off in different directions.  By brushing a little sand away we seemed to have started a whole mechanism going below the sand and now the area was erupting with 20-30 little turtles.

Neither of us were turtle experts so we just stood back and watched for a while.  Most of the babies were heading seaward but a few were rambling aimlessly up and down the nests.  Like little clockwork automaton, the legs kept on moving whatever they came across and often they tripped up on themselves and fell back down into the nest, or seemed to go round in circles when they reached an obstacle.  Nikki tried to help some of them reach the sea, but that was probably the worst thing to do. Waiting in the shallows were a shoal of the piranha like blackfish. Almost before a baby had learnt how to swim the shoal were on it, grabbing a leg each and the head and pulling the poor creature apart.  Frigate birds were also patrolling up and down the beach, and the crabs were not far behind.  Daytime is the worst time for a newly born turtle to try and make that treacherous journey.  At night you are still prone to a series of ravenous predators but at least you stand a faint chance. In the full daylight you were doomed.  I don’t think one of those turtles made it that day.

We were feeling rather hopeless as more turtles were still emerging from the nest, when I spied Jacqui Ellick and her dog.  Jacqui is the queen of turtle monitoring on Ascension Island; she has patrolled beaches for nigh on twenty years.  Her husband, Ray, is a senior manager for Cable and Wireless and Jacqui initially took up turtle counting as a hobby.  Over the years, mainly down to the continuity of her service, she has provided reams of very important data that help scientists like Brendan and Annette monitor the success of green turtles.

We asked her advice on our emerging hatchlings.  She had a kind of modesty that suggested she knew nothing, but you didn’t stay a layman after so much time on one subject.  She shrugged her shoulders and said ” I dunno, I suppose you might just cover them up with sand.”  We piled sand over the black bodies and they immediately went still.  Lesson learnt and more respect to Jacqui for her knowledge.  There are obvious trigger mechanisms in a nest which make the hatchlings move.  And if there is sand covering the top ones they stop moving.  The lack of motion means the pile of turtles underneath also stay inactive.  But if the top ones are exposed then they start moving and the action sends shockwaves right through the nest and they erupt.

On my final morning on Ascension Island, I arranged to join Jacqui on the next count on Long Beach.  Tasha came along too and we had a fantastic walk and logged some useful data.  I’d been working with Jacqui since the start making a simple database to log her counts and we’d refined it over the years, but this was the first chance in seven years that I had seen how she collected her data for real.