Return to Cayman – On the Mastic Trail (2)

We decided we did not need to wait around and continued along.  Fortunately the National Trust left their botanist with the Kew Gardens contingent and other keen plant taxonomists and they were able to revel in their natural habitat without recourse to the main group.  Indeed we decided that they should get a lift back some other way so they did not hold the minibus up later.

So we were able to enjoy the trail at a brisker pace.  This was still a leisurely stroll which in the close humid air in the scrub was necessary.  And we did not miss the key species.

The trail is named after the mastic tree.  Mastics are a common name for families of trees across the tropical and Mediterranean type climates that produce various well known products – resins or putties that we commonly use around the house.  Cayman has two main species, the yellow mastic which can be found elsewhere and the black mastic, which is found only on Cayman itself.  Both are critically endangered – victims of their own usefulness.  Like many good trees in these dry climates, they grow very slowly, but produce thick hard wood perfect for serious furniture construction.  Unfortunately this meant that when spotted they were cut down.  Regeneration takes so long and other species can grow more vigorously and shade out the trees, hence they became scarce.  The mastic trail is one of the few places where they can be found.

The start of the trail is close to the highest point on Grand Cayman, a heady 20m above sea level.   Here the coral reef had been uplifted to form the pitted limestone geology.  We had to be careful putting our hands out to steady ourselves, the rocks that jut out here are as razor sharp as the original coral had once been.  It was incredible that any vegetation at all could get a foothold here but soil builds up in the pits, and rainfall can get trapped in the depressions and holes for long enough to be sucked up by the plants.

We descended as we walked southwards and the need for oxygen masks reduced.  We marvelled at the epiphytes dangling mid air on the branches of trees, or affixed to bare rock.  It was late morning and the wildlife was scarce, until someone observed a small snake in a rather curious curling position.  It appeared at first sight to be that it was eating itself, but then a couple of our crew got a closer look and realised this creature was consuming another even smaller snake head first, and it was coiled stiffly around the remaining body of its victim.

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It took a while to untangle what was happening here

The walk finished at the edges of the central swamp which fills the middle of the island.  It passes through the upper reaches of the swamp and the mangroves are out of water more than in, with the specially adapted roots which point skywards out of the mud to excrete excess salt from the plant.

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.