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.


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 Other Mauritius – The Pink Pigeon

From the gorges view point the whole vast bowl of the Black River Gorges opened up to us, including the narrow corridor where the river headed for the sea.  From here we could see almost the whole of our walk and there was a sense of pride in having completed this much.  I estimated we had already walked over ten miles, and in the heat and with all the climbing it was already a remarkable feat, and it was still only mid morning.  We had the final drop to go back to the car park and we searched around for the path down.

It was a terrible path.  It was buried in the guava so you rarely got any view out as you went down the mountainside.  The guava was so packed that there was no wind at all and we were sweating buckets all the way down.  It did not help that the rainfall was not evaporating on this sheltered path either, and a slimy mud made the steep decline treacherous.  I was constantly slipping, having to put out my hands to grab the spiny vegetation on either side.  Martin was struggling even more than me.

But when we got back close to  the car park the pathway opened up to another forest track.  In the valley the forest had been cut in to gently curving glades, I suppose originally  to help build the environment for hunting.  As we came down round a hairpin into one of these I was amazed to see two large birds chasing a third.  They were obviously pigeon in shape but they were larger than even the wood pigeons which waddle around my garden in the UK.  And most curious was they had a distinctly pink hue.  I was so pleased to see them; they were not strangers to me.  Many years before when I was a teenager, I had picked up several of my father’s  books during the summer holiday and read them.  He had developed a taste for Gerard Durrell, the well known naturalist who had established Jersey Zoo to look at protecting some of the most endangered but often unknown animals on earth.  Small island species in particular are vulnerable; you just have to look at the dodo.  Durrell had written the hugely popular “My Family and Other Animals” but I found some of his other books even more fascinating.  Some were as much popular science as comic tales; he made an engaging case for restricting the size of cages in zoos in Noah’s Ark; saying that many animals are agoraphobic and would prefer to be contained in a safe little range that they can control and manage effectively.  He also wrote of his expeditions in Africa and Asia.  One of these was titled “Golden Bats and Pink Pigeons” based on his missions to Mauritius.  It was a simple little book talking of capturing many of the endangered animals, encouraging them to breed and then releasing them back into their natural habitat and protecting them.  And here was the results of all that, plodding around on the grass were three pink pigeons right where they ought to be in Black River.

As far as you can go – Trails in the mist

There were several walks you could do around the National Park.  Tracks led up from the tarmacced roads at the bottom (called “Diana’s Peak Ring Road” by many of the locals); they also followed a contour round the park, weaving repeatedly from  a descending ridge into a narrow valley where a stream took the cloud forest water away to the lowlands and back out to another ridge.  But the most exciting walk was to go up on to the central ridge itself and step from peak to peak.  Although not precipitous, you followed a narrow arête barely wider than the cut path.  Diana’s Peak itself was a slightly rounded knoll.  The first time I climbed it with Marje and Vince were surrounded by cloud.  While I did not have the sense of height, the mystery of this isolated spot subsumed me and the effect of the clouds on the mature tree ferns meant I would not have been surprised if a stegosaurus would have emerged from the gloom chewing on a mouthful of fronds.

I climbed it again on my second trip with Edsel in tow this time.  I was a little disappointed to see that the rain was falling as we parked up, and I was worried that the peak would be an anticlimax. As we stood next to the sign declaring the summit, the cloud swirled round me once more.  Edsel, a pioneer in taking selfies of himself across the world insisted we had a photo.  We were about to descend when I saw a chink in the cloud to the south of us, the base was starting to lift away from us and in a couple of places the valleys below came into view.  In the space of ten minutes there was blue sky in every direction.  And here was one of the few places where you could see how small the island was – there was ocean in view in every direction.  But that did not mean you could see all of St Helena from here, so much is tucked away down deep valleys or before other mountains that it was only a taste of its delights.

Capturing the Diversity – Fairy Terns and recolonising the island

Here round the eastern flanks of Green Mountain is one of my most favourite parts of the island, and that is saying a lot for an island which I love intensely.  The terrain is a little softer than Green Mountain itself, it is a regularly sloping plain (save for a few very steep drop offs).  It is a mixture of pine trees (casuarinas) and guava bushes, with a few other species thrown in and both the composition of the immediate landscape and the rolling views out to the coast make it especially charming.  But we had more to do, we headed back along the upper path to the car park, and headed out once more, this time up above  the Red Lion and the Bishop’s Path.  We drove the pickup through the small tunnel and parked up at the start of the path.  Its route was wooded for the first part, but openings gave us fantastic glimpses this time to the west coast -the populated part of the island.  All four settlements could be seen, as well as the airbase and the power station up at English Bay and dotted about the multitudes of antenna, seismographs, dishes and radar, as well as the wind turbines, that littered the western part of Ascension Island.  As the walk almost circles an old volcanic ridge, we moved on to the south side of the island.  With their shrill slightly haunting call, and the ghostly white of their plumage, a small colony of fairy terns that live here were soaring through the valley below.  The fairy terns, one of the most beautiful of Ascension’s creatures, are the only sea birds to nest so high up and away from the sea.  Although their numbers are small, they are protected somewhat from the rats and the cats by nesting on a cliffside in small pockets that each year are worn further and further away by their activity.

As to the other seabirds themselves, once the main predators  of eggs and chicks had been suppressed, they seemed to regain confidence in nesting on the mainland once more.  At this time they are restricted to just a few areas; some locations down near where the Wideawakes nested, little patches along the north west and north east coasts close to the huge BBC masts.  The biggest concentration are down in the south east corner  – the most distant from the human habitation and close to the largest set of stacks and islands from which recolonisation could take place.

Capturing the Diversity – exploring the Green Mountain trails

In between the monitoring it was another great way to explore the island and get some exercise in.  Most of the paths on Green Mountain were set up over 100 years ago by those who were experimenting to grow commodities and crops there.  They tend to reach a certain elevation and then wrap themselves around the mountainside at that level.  Some pass through tunnels and where a ravine gets in the way there are vertigo inducing bridges.

With the moist air up here in the cloud forest, these paths need a fair bit of maintaining.  Vegetation and moss grow everywhere and Stedson and his team have to strim the pathways regularly to stop them becoming completely overgrown.  Loose rocks need removing and the tunnels need checking to ensure that they are safe to pass through.  The bridges cause the most problems as the wooden parts rot and the metals parts rust.  Fixing those take more than Stedson and his team can do.  Fortunately, being a military island, various bodies pass through Ascension on the way to the Falklands or can use the island as an exercise area, so several bridges have been repaired by the UK Royal Engineers, and since they have access to helicopters, getting the raw materials in to these elevated positions is not the logistical problem it might have been.  But it is an ongoing task and one of the bridges Ash and I had to negotiate had large holes in the walkway where the rust had eaten right through and you could see the bush in the ravine way below.

We saw a lot of crabs that day; they often hang around the rat bait boxes; and although it is hard to guess a crab’s mood, apart from crabby, I guessed there were a tad frustrated they could smell food but not get their claws inside the holes to retrieve it.  Remember these crabs are about half again as big as a rat and not so flexible so the boxes tend to be proofed against their invasion.

Cronk’s Path is one of the lower trails and the vegetation is on the more Mediterranean end of the spectrum, more so at the far end as it lowers down to the ruins of the North East Cottage.  Greggy on the next path up had been visible several times to us and we had walked around the mountainside almost in parallel, so the two parties reached the ruins about the same time.