The next evening I explored the south east quadrant. Again I weaved through the tight streets to start with, and found that the buildings rapidly changed from the usual mix of apartments, offices and shops and were high walled industrial units. All the functional parts of a city were packed in here; the electricity generating station, various storage units, the odd factory. And I found what could possibly be the highest point in the whole Maldives. Behind a high concrete wall, a mountain of refuse towered above me, at least 10m high. I suppose like anywhere else, 100,000 people had to find a place to put their waste.
I emerged on the coast once more and crossed the busy road. But instead of the usual harbour crammed with boats I found an open area of water surrounded by flags. About twenty men were stripped down to shorts or trunks and were messing around in Male’s open air swimming pool. In a breach in the tetrapods the sea was sploshing in recycling the water in the pool. Even though it was starting to go dark, it was obviously a popular pastime. As I walked east along the promenade I realised I had come across the main recreation area of the city set around a series of squares, gardens and open spaces. In one square seats were laid out in the open facing a large cinema screen. When I reached the corner to head north again, I found a patch of open beach; the first time I had seen anything approaching natural coastline in Male. A few people were on the beach sitting talking, a scattering of eager surfers were riding a narrow set of waves in a small bay biting into the island. It was so strange after days of seeing the coast as a long concrete esplanade protected by high walls or tetrapods to see a bit of exposed coast. Then I stepped in something wet.
We said our farewells and sat back in our cruiser. It headed back out and we watched the procession of resort, uninhabited, settled and functional islands. Of the last two I noticed there was an island that was used as the fuel storage depot – nice idea keeping it separate from the heaving metropolis of Male. We passed by one of the resorts you see in all the brochures. A long line of chalets on a pier, everything on stilts so you can sleep above the ocean. Two things would concern me staying there – I’ve never found ocean noises that soothing. I can put up with lap lap lap of gentle waves; it is quite sleep inducing, but everything else, the bird flapping on their roosts, the fish gurgling at the surface and the hiss and froth noises with anything beyond the gentlest of swells have never been calming. I was OK in Tortola where my apartment was 900 ft above the waves, but to be sleeping right on top of it? And second, if you dropped anything down the cracks or over the side of the chalet it would be so much more of a fag going hunting for it amongst the coral than just rootling in the undergrowth. I wondered if they had chalet maids with snorkels for just that possibility.
The boat traffic increased again as we drew closer to Male and we could see the urban skyline grow in front of us. We were earlier than expected as we drew in between the small beacons marking the entrance and once Mohammed had said farewell and headed back to his office, we decided we needed a drink. On the top floor of a nearby building was a large cafe and we headed up there; the air being cooler up there than in the packed streets. Once the menu was put in front of us we realised we were also very hungry, not having eaten at all on Thulusdhoo so we ordered some sandwiches and looked around. I found it bizarre to stare across the channel to the next island and see the huge tailfin of an Emirates Airbus poking up from behind the palm trees as it sat waiting at the airport.
The Airport from the mainland
The more I saw, the more I worked out how you could live on a bunch of tiny islands in the middle of the ocean. Each island seemed to have a function, whether it be nature reserve or fuel depot or airport. The people did not see each coastline as a limit, the shallow seas in between were as much their gardens, their recreation areas, their farmers fields, even their living space, as any piece of dirt.
One other noise occasionally broke the tree frogs’ chorus; a loud caterwauling, indeed like a cat having an argument with a neighbour. Scriber pointed a finger skyward “the mountain chicken”. He had a slot on his field datasheet to record this, positive contact but without a sighting. Although we could get some idea of the direction of the call – the terrain and the complexity of the forest meant we could not find the actual callers themselves.
We heard several mountain chicken calling across the valley to each other, but we did not see any amphibians save these tree frogs. I was rather disappointed. My time on Montserrat was limited and there was no chance of another evening transect while I was on island. Scriber was also disappointed for me and said “We’ll go over to another transect where I know we shall find one”. We carefully picked out return route to the vehicle and headed along the main road past the top of Brades and the airport and over to the east coast. Although the road zigzags in much the same fashion as on the leeward side of the island, there is little habitation. The road used to head all the way down to Plymouth past several villages and the old airport, but this northern section, being on the more exposed windward side of the island, had barely been developed save for the odd quarry. We parked up and headed up into the Centre Hills for the second time that evening.
Not a Mountain Chicken – but what is it?
While I was walking I asked Scriber how he got his name. It turned out that he had a second job. He was a poet and a writer as well as a conservation officer and tour guide. He’d been told at school that he seemed to have a talent for making complicated things simple and he was a “Describer” which became in this modified form, his nickname. He’d got into the habit of writing some of his descriptions down and was quite a legend amongst the local community. Over the course of the time I was in Montserrat he told me a few about the turtles and the national bird, the Oriole. But it was still mountain chickens I was hunting here.
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.
The guides took the lead and from a bucket they held above the water they took some small squid and first placed it gently on the surface. A ray immediately approached , covered the squid and when it had moved on the sea was empty again. Next the guide carefully held another morsel a few inches under the surface, and the ray came across. We were invited by the guide to do the same. Sometimes the ray would suck it up as it passed, other times you could hold it up and it would reach up to snatch it from your fingers.
The squadrons approach
Amongst the rays
the sting rays are habituated to the visitors
The rays passed close by and with both the water’s clarity and shallowness you could see every detail. There was the gentle motion of the wings as they propelled the fish through the water, and the long tail with the nicely shaped hydrofoil at the tip to steady to do the steering. And if you looked closely (but not too closely) you can see the groove in the tail where the ray stores the sting which gives it its name. It did take a little convincing amongst some of the party to accept that sting rays are very passive creatures, and the safety briefing aboard the boat had set out how we should act in the water to prevent the sting ray from being disturbed and causing it to defend itself. No sudden movements, let the creatures come to you not vice versa.
We were told we could stroke the sting rays, but not actively. If we put our hands in the water you found the rays would come right up to and run their backs through your fingers. They were keen to investigate these curious pink and black creatures that kept on turning up every day. While I would be looking at another squadron of fish heading our way, I would feel the tender soft touch of a ray’s wing fondling my knee. Softness is the sensation, it was almost affectionate the way they would be so tactile with you – not merely brushing against you as they passed but staying close to you for a while and rubbing the wing up and down your skin.
The guides encouraged you to hold the rays, put both hands in and they would steer themselves onto your forearms. You could lift them gently up out of the water, maybe put your face close to their pointed fronts as if to kiss. I could see that while they tolerated this it was not their favourite game, and one so manhandled in this way would usually decide he wanted some space and swim away from our group.
The conference over, there was a little free time the next day before we needed to head for the airport and several of us who did not have high level meetings to attend or other business on Cayman thought about how we might spend it. Top of the list was Cayman’s number one environmental hot spot , more known that even the Turtle Farm. To reach it we had to head out on to the water and into that major lagoon that Grand Cayman surrounds. The launch spot for this trip was not so far from the hotel and we all boarded a powerful cruiser and pulled slowly down the channel between the mansions and villas. Beyond the mangroves, the captain threw down the throttle and we surged out into the North Sound. It took less than ten minutes to reach our spot, a sandy bar not far from the lip of the lagoon where it hit the coral reefs and the Caribbean Sea beyond. It was so shallow here, the turquoise water was as azure as…. well more like topaz, but I’m not a specialist on precious stones. And for some curious reason a crowd of a dozen tourists were standing still up to their thighs in water, some barely up to their knees.
Boarding our boat
Why are these people standing in the sea?
We were about to do the same thing. The boat had been brought to a steady slow cruise as we approached the sand bar and now it was stationery, a small anchor locked into the sand beneath to keep us in the same position. We were given instructions by the crew and one by one we lowered ourselves down the ladder astern and stood in the water waiting for things to happen.
It did not take long – from across the sand came a squadron of dark rhombus shapes. They swooped in fast, decelerated as one and broke formation to disperse amongst the tourist groups. We were now completely surrounded by about a hundred sting rays. Despite their name and fearsome reputation, they were the gentlest and most inquisitive fish I have ever come across.
We inadvertently sent some of the world of La Gaullette into the sheltered world of the Mauritian tourist. We completed the walk at a long concrete jetty near Case Noyale and caught a local bus back to where we had left the vehicle. The survey had only taken a couple of hours and it was around mid morning, so we decided to treat ourselves to a bit of a touristy afternoon ourselves. We drove up the hill at the back of le Morne, past the gorgeous village of Chamarel to one of the high class restaurants perched on the side of the mountain, with incredible views of the banana and sugar plantations down to the south coast. We wandered in and asked whether we could just get a coffee. The Maitre De looked at us in our ragged clothes and thought – hey ho , they are white so they must just be eccentric millionaires. He wanted to put us on a small table near the kitchens but we insisted on a terrace view – it was only morning and they were not yet busy, but a coach party had just turned up for an early lunch. He ensured we were down the other end from their tables. We really only wanted a nice cup of coffee, a glass of water and then we would be on our way. We were so used to each other looking like a pair of tramps it hadn’t really crossed our minds that anyone else might find it us a bit odd. As we sat there sipping our cappuccinos, I sniffed. I sniffed harder. Jeremy could smell it too. Our feet were still covered in hard baked sewage and when we looked across their cool dark tiles, you could see our footprints right across the floor.
Great view from the restaurant
We quickly paid and left and then roared with laughter as we head up the hills. The rest of the day we acted just like the tourists, we looked at the sights from the top of Black River Falls, visited the Alexandria Falls, the temples at Grand Bassin, and drove back through the little lanes of the tea estates and sugar plantations to Calodyne. Where I promptly got a bucket, filled it with warm water and toilet duck and doused my trainers overnight.
Aftermath of walking through the sludge