Living in the Community – Lunch on the pass

The pathway was a very sensible one, in fact.  It worked its way through the lowest point in the Kuru Hills around here and kept in the shade, for humans much more useful than being out in the open and having the burden to climb extra altitude.  For us it was nothing short of frustrating.  There was not even a good view on the west side through those trees.  We stopped just where the trail dropped steeply away again and again all we had in front of us was the canopy of some very large trees.  We decided to have some lunch before we headed back.  We had carried up some baguettes we had bought from a local shop in Fintonia, and was using up a couple of tins of corned beef and tuna from Freetown; we had also purchased some tomatoes from a woman on the road side.  With our drinks it was a humble but enjoyable meal – made wonderful by being immersed in the forest and the feat of the climb.

We stumbled our way back down the pathway; apart from the noise of the chimps, we had seen little wildlife.  It is often the way when you walk about in the middle of the day.  I’d observed hundreds of different plants, and marvelled at the huge buttress trees that clung to the sides of the escarpment, some with knobbly spines, others with silky smooth bark.

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Wonderful bark – but watch where you put your hands

Living in the Community – Kuru Hills – The Ascent

We parked the car under some shady trees in the village of Moria which, although it was probably not known to Tolkien, did have a sort of Middle Earth air about it (acknowledged it was not subterranean).  It made Fintonia look like a metropolis.  It was a group of a hundred or so huts in amongst the trees; there was no real centre.  Where the road stopped was at the edge of the village and to reach our path up in to the hills we had to navigate through a series of people’s backyards.  It was already mid morning and many villagers were in their fields or away on errands.  A few young mothers were cleaning up their houses, sitting chatting in the shade of their compounds.  A couple of very old men were sat in wooden chairs on their porches, mostly oblivious to the world around them and certainly to this foreign party passing through.

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The Ascent   – and Kofi’s colourful shirts

We started to climb through some fields behind the village but as the gradient got steeper the cultivation stopped and we were in the usual scrubby woodland of all this area.  It was a glorious sunny day and the climb was hard work for all of us.  We would get glimpses of the escarpment ahead and I wondered just where this path made the ascent to get us to the top.  These mesas are common in this part of the world.  The Guinea Highlands are a series of plateaus in the interior of west Africa and form a continuous belt separated from the coastal lands by almost sheer cliffs.  In the coastal plain itself there are vestigial pieces of these highlands standing proud above the plain.  The Kuru Hills is an example of this.  On a map it appears like a pick axe with a swollen head at the northern end and a long shaft heading southwards.  We were climbing the handle.  Our purpose in exerting so much energy was to see what was on top of these mesas.  Being elevated, they had markedly different vegetation from the rest of the region.  Just what that vegetation looked like was difficult to determine from the satellite imagery.  All we saw was more green colours reflecting back, and much of it uniform.  That told us that much of the area had much higher rainfall than the surrounds which may have extended into the dry season, keeping the vegetation in leaf much longer but whether this was forest or grassland was difficult to spot from the imagery we had to hand.

So up we went, and the walk helped to identify layers of vegetation at different altitudes too.  From the scrub forest we passed another of the small rubber plantations.  Gray had read that the British had experimented with rubber in Sierra Leone.  It had never really caught on but these old plantations still existed.  It looked like the locals did not tap the sap here, but did use the trees for timber and fuel.  Beyond the rubber the undergrowth got very tangled and dense and we could not see far as we plodded up the steep path.  The lack of air circulation made us intolerably sweaty and overheated.  It was too much for Kofi.  I’d always been amazed how this slight, urban man from Ghana had coped with the village work out here in the most remote parts of Sierra Leone, but cope he did.  Although never looking like he was enjoying the experiences of mosquitoes and mud and scratching seeds and grasses, sweat and humidity, he never moaned, and usually had this impassive tolerant air about him.  But on this slope he was defeated.  His reasoning was he saw no reason to kill himself trying to get to the top of the hill.  He said he would head back to the village.

Walking the Beaches – throbbing feet

We walked the last couple of kilometres feeling numb below the waist, and just plodding one foot in front of the other.  In our minds, though, we were both quite chirpy. We came to another incised estuary, but were happy to turn inland this time as it was our stopping point for the day, after over 10 hours of slogging.  We skirted along the edge of a wood above this river valley as we wanted to avoid the sugar plantation buildings just to the left of us. It brought us out at the track of the old railway, and we headed back along it parallel to the main road to the old plantation buildings at Savannah.  The plantation itself was not working, but some of the buildings had been converted to intense stocksheds; chickens and pigs.  The remaining parts of the plantation buildings had been preserved in part ruin and, like in many of these old estates, the surrounding land was landscaped as a pleasant open park, mainly palm trees.

The main coast road between Souillac and the airport cut through this area and we had arranged that Mike would head down this way after work in Port Louis.  At this time though, half the country’s population would be trying to escape Port Louis, mostly on the same M1 as Mike, so we knew we might be in for quite a wait.  We shared the remains of our provisions, biscuits, juice, squished banana.  Jeremy, as was his wont when given a spare moment, would light up a cigarette.  I spied a fast flowing stream running through the palms.  It most probably rose in the hills of the tea estates some ten to twenty kilometres away and had been channelled to run down the side of the cane fields to this point before spilling in to the larger river we had met at the end of our walk.  It was encased very neatly in granite walls and floor, the minimum resistance another reason why it was so fast flowing.  With as much flexibility as I could muster I bent over and washed my hands in it.  It was icy cold.  I splashed it up over my greasy, sweaty, dirty neck and smeared my face.  I then took off my trainers, pealed my wretched white socks from my clammy feet and swung my legs over the streams wall and into that fresh, bubbling, arctic balm.  It instantly froze my feet, but I did not care.  It was a good numbness that took away the pain of all the blisters, sore feet, overheating that the last thirty kilometres had put on to them.  I lay back on the soft grass and smiled an enigmatic smile of one who is glad something challenging has been completed.

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End of the walk

It was a good hour before Mike swung the pickup truck across the gravel of the plantation yard, we still had to head back to Gris Gris to grab the first vehicle, so we used the journey to try to explain to Mike the range of weird and wonderful secrets this coastline contained, and pick out along the way the corresponding land from the road side.  Of course when we were in the midst of the Frenchies’ playground, taking photographs was the last thing on our minds, so now our stories of ring tailed lemurs, giant tortoise, gorgeous water features and luxurious holiday homes sounded a little like embellished travellers’ tales.

Walking the Beaches – Costly Detours

To our left we could see a complex of low buildings.  Our track fortunately dropped into the woods before reaching them and we were back near the sea on the clifftops.  I say fortunately as we were not entirely clear on our legitimacy at this point.  Two things were in our favour; we were working for the Mauritian Government, and we knew that if you were on the beach you were on public land.  This walk up the valley and back, though, had placed us firmly in private plantation land.  Many Mauritians seemed to use the cane tracks as public rights of way across the island, but we were also heading into the woodland that was pays geometrique and we had no idea who was leasing these lands.

The complex of buildings turned out to surround a sizeable fish farm, the lowest of its ponds we walked past on the cliff edge.  We entered the familiar parkland that Mike and I had explored a few weekends before and I was back on firmer ground again, knowing that locals were using this area for recreation and farming.  As we passed the holiday chalet with the turtle rock  in the pine trees the track turned inland once more and below us we could hear the gushing of a furious river deep in another gorge.

This time we were not so lucky; the gorge was deep and covered in a thick brush including bamboo and other tall grasses.  We kept walking inland, knowing every step this way meant another step the other to return to our work task.  On our way we noticed an open mausoleum ; a series of graves, one topped by a tall column with an outsize urn, no doubt for one of the plantation owner’s family in the late 1800s.

On we trod.  Eventually we saw a well metalled canetrack; it was in fact the course of the old railway line down to Souillac.  As we approached we spied several trucks thunder along spitting up a dusty trail behind them.  When we reached we realised the track crossed the gorge by an enormous iron girder railway bridge.  The view was spectacular on both sides, the lively little river gushing down a series of cascades.  Sitting precariously on a huge bamboo shoot was a monkey, preening itself and generally taking in the view for himself.  At the foot of the bridge was a rather untidily dressed man, a tall Creole guy with a beard, washing his CD collection.  He seemed oblivious to us watching him from above, but he was meticulously emptying a bag of CDs and dropping them into a pool of clear river water, then brushing them down before laying them on a sun drenched rock to dry.

We could not stay long, so crossed the remainder of the bridge and turned right.  The cane track, like its parallel one on the other side of the gorge, was far from straight and this just added to the frustration about the amount of time we were taking just reaching our study area.  In amongst the fields and hard up against our boundary track was a securely fenced compound.  Again we were a little nervous approaching it but it was fairly obvious we were at the rear and would not be confronted by any gatekeepers.  It was hard to make out what it was; we could see various things inside the chain fence with its barbed wire securely affixed atop.  There seemed to be brightly coloured play areas and we wondered if it were a facility for children, in some way.  But surely having barbed wire around the outside would be both dangerous and a bad image for any child facility.  There were single storey buildings, difficult to tell what they were for although some were obviously offices.  Then we saw something which solved the riddle.  A lady in a white coat emerged from one of these anonymous buildings and was leading a monkey on a leash to the play area, which we realised was securely caged in.  It twigged in my mind that this was a facility I had read about, which was keeping wild monkeys captive.  Caught from the wild in this southern part of the island, they were eventually sold to research labs, mainly in Europe but also in North America.  Mauritius remains the second largest exporter of monkeys for research in the world.  I had heard of the trade and knew there was a centre; now I had seen the location with my own eyes.  I have mixed feelings about the use of animals in research; mostly I believe that there is merit in their use in the whole cycle of medical science, but no for other purposes.  I am human centric in my view – well after all, I am only human…  But I see no reason for unduly harming animals (or for that matter plants) when alternatives can be used.  And the idea of shipping off populations of monkeys half way round the world seems ludicrous.

It was over an hour from when we had left the coast that we found ourselves close to it again – again able to see our original track barely 300m away across the gorge.  We realised that we could not afford another diversion like this and next time, we should aim to try and get down on to the beach and ford the river.  Now another challenge emerged.  As we approached the pas geometrique, we noticed a large pickup truck pulling away – we were not alone.  We were not spotted but we cautiously approached the wooded area.  It was firmly fenced in, and the fence was at least three  metres high.  There were tracks going in but they were blocked by locked gates the same height.  We could not see the sea.  There was nothing for it but to continue eastwards and hope we could get through.  With luck, it was not too long before we saw a gap in the fence and we clambered in.  We really felt like breaking and entering now, but once inside we calmed down as we were in yet another enchanting parkland with thick lush grass.

Walking the Beaches – Striding out

When we described this to Jeremy when he arrived, we believed that the whole length of this coastline was like this – a thin wooded strip of land beyond the end of the cane fields maintained as a public, yet very intimate park.

We bit the bullet early one morning.  Even the drive was logistically a challenge – being about as far from our house in Calodyne as you could go on dry land.  We set off before sunrise and the grey cloud was still quite gloomy as we approached the aptly named Gris Gris.  We were both a lot fitter from both our walking of the coastline and some evening strolls around the Calodyne area but we knew this was to be a long day.

The first stretch was familiar to me but it was surprising how quickly we got through it (Jeremy was a lot younger and fitter than Mike), and we reached the corner of the wood where I had turned back in less than fifteen minutes.  It was here we had our first setback of the day.  We knew from the images and maps that several sizeable rivers tumbled between the cane fields and spilled out in to the ocean along this stretch of coastline.  We had hoped to ford these at the coast itself, but at this first river, we realised there was no easy way down the cliff, with its loose rocks and muddy vegetation.  The alternative was no easier – it was to follow the cane tracks up the side of the gorge until we could spot a safe and sensible way across.  We started walking, hoping the elusive ford would not be too distant.  No such luck.  In fact no track crossed the river until very near the main road, by which time we would be a couple of kilometres inland, with an equally long walk to regain the coastline on the other side.  In the end we took a gamble and cut a trail through the undergrowth at a point where we could see a way back up on the other side of the valley.  The gorge was not too deep here and although we had to wade through several inches of water to get through, we escaped relatively unscathed. Then we had the soul destroying walk back along the other side, along where the cane fields met the wooded gorge, and still being able to see where we had walked nearly half an hour beforehand across the valley.

The Other Mauritius – Worth the climb

We rested there for a while, both exhausted from the efforts.  We realised we were equally drained from the adrenalin and a kind of fear of what we had got ourselves into.  Then we both smiled at each other and burst out laughing.

We had emerged about half way along the lions back and the pathway formed the ridge.  We got glimpses down the far side of the hill, and the roar of the ocean bashing against the barrier reef was prevalent.  This ridge was relatively level for a few hundred metres, but then it started to rise again.  The pathway became more exposed and as we reached the lion’s neck we were once more clambering rather than walking.  There was no shelter up here and the wind ripped across the bay onto the path.  We found a little nook where the pathway negotiated a boulder and we dropped down behind it to have some snacks and water.  The wind was too strong to stand up and look at the 360 view, but we could see looking back down the lion’s back that there was a squall of rain rushing straight towards us.  We realised the pathway above us was open to the elements and we would be blown off or drenched off the hillside.  We’d had enough wild experiences that day already.  So we decided we would crouch down as best we could behind the rock, let the shower past and then descend the traditional route.

It was only a short shower, but it was cold and penetrating.  It chilled my skin and made me sneeze, and the following wind cooled me further.  We had to move to stop me getting hyperthermia so started down. The pathway was now made more difficult by being wet and slimy.  I don’t remember seeing the actual place where we had first emerged on to the path; Martin and I kept trying to remember whether we had walked on some sections to gauge where we turned off.  It was obviously a longer way down than we thought; indeed it must have been only just before you turn over the lower haunches of the lion and start the steep descent.  We found the concrete steps; not in perfect condition but very firm and walkable.  The white strip of concrete was laid out in front of us in a straight line right down the ridge.  We should have thought this is how the pathway could be easily placed rather than try and scramble up a side scree.  The last step fell short of the ground and we had to jump down, but it was right on the fence and below us was the sugar cane fields.  We could see the course of the river that we had followed on the way up marked by large trees over to our right, and saw a cane track that led straight over there.  indeed if we had taken the second of the forks ,it would have been a very short walk over to the mountain bottom and we would have avoided all the stress of scrambling up the scree.  And to rub salt in it when we looked back to where we climbed up was only a couple of hundred metres away from the proper pathway.    Just goes to show how disorientated you can be in cane fields.

Capturing the Diversity – The long slog back

Next goal was the top of Wig Hill and again we were clambering up and down multicoloured rocks – another noddy colony in the cliffs above us at one stage, several more booby nests.  We must have covered 40 or 50 individual nests that day as well as all the cliff monitoring and  colony counts.  But when you get down this way you make sure you do the maximum amount. It would be wasteful to have to make two trips.

From the peak of Wig Hill we could spy more noddies along the cliffs to the west.  This south coast was one of the key areas for several species; Tara told me they tried to count more from the sea when they were on their way to their Boatswainbird Island trips as some of the colonies were so well tucked in to the cliffs.

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A real sense of isolation

Then the time had come to return to the Land Rover.  Wig Hill had already been a climb, but ahead of us was a massif that towered three times the height, and to rub salt in the wound, we had to go down this hill first before tackling it.  We had been walking for over seven hours now, tired and footsore.  But we had to get back. So it was one foot in front of the other, no heroics, sheer stupidity to put on a spurt of speed, but just slow, slow, steady progress.

I stopped looking upwards as it would just demoralize me.  But looking back from time to time was useful.  I’d make sure I would stop before turning.  Wig Hill looked even more like a hedgehog from this angle, and I could see the western part of the Letterbox in all its glory. And each time I looked back these features were indeed getting smaller.

Stedson, a good 15 years older than the rest of us, struggled up that hill.  But he had the stamina of a pack horse and just kept a steady if slow pace.  It was clear that stop start was unhelpful – if you stopped both your mind and body told you that that was the end, and it was a tough job to tell them to start again.

Eventually we reached a col just near where our original path this morning would have taken us off the track round Cricket Valley.  Simon, Tara and myself paused there to let Stedson catch up.  I looked at Simon.  He could not say a word, he was so shattered, but he did permit himself one of those smiles of achievement .  My clothes had been drenched in sweat, and blown dry again by the wind.  It was all worth it for the recovery of the bird populations.

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A shattered tiredness but a sense of achievement

The Letterbox on The Letterbox

We were on an almost flat surface, a red billiard table of fine gravel.  Stedson pointed out a number of small depressions.  These were not some volcanic features from centuries back but in fact the result years of target practice by the military.

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The curious crater

I looked around nervously in case a fighter jet came screaming over the horizon.  Stedson laughed -” it’s not done now”, he said.  On the edge of the cliff we came across more military hardware, this time in the shape of three frigate birds.  They were not animals but wooden decoys and apparently the navy would sail around this side of the island and crew would shoot at them to improve their aim.  Nearby , Stedson had some of his spurges that he had planted out and he checked them as we passed.  They were kept in cages to reduce the amount of cropping any passing herbivore might attempt.  Why a rabbit would head all the way out to this desert when there were rich pickings up on the mountainside was beyond me.

The weather had turned gorgeous as the morning had progressed and as we reached a real live Royal Mail letterbox that is the end of the “Letterbox” walk for Letterbox, we dug into our sandwiches, soaked up the sun, and eased our aching feet, and in my case, my aching rib cage.

I had to sign the book in the letterbox.  The aim of these walks is to allow people to have a target; you open the box to reveal a plastic bag containing pencil and paper so you can log your achievement and read the comments from other visitors.  There is also a little rubber stamp that you can put in a tourist guide to prove you reached the destination.  Most letterboxes are simple sealed boxes or even pipes, but this one was grand.  A proper UK style rectangular shaped red post box.  Like all post-boxes they are stamped with the initials of the monarch of the time.  This one was Edward VII Rex.  Considering he only reigned for about ten years, this is a fairly rare example.  The only other one I have ever seen was in …. Georgetown here on Ascension Island too.

After lunch we ambled over to the western side of Letterbox.  The land here was no longer a billiard table as lava flows had spilled over the underlying geology. But this was the area where the most successful colonies of nesting birds on the mainland of Ascension, save for the Wideawake Fairs.  Several species together flocked together in around 6 colonies, and Tara, Simon and Stedson estimated the number of birds individually and averaged out their findings.  Mostly masked boobies were present here although a few brown boobies were also mixed in.  The rocks around were white with guano and the smell was overpowering.

Capturing the Diversity – The missed step

After we had studied the spurge, I though walking was relatively easy on this ridge, and I was able to look around me as I stepped.  Big mistake.  I was looking at Boatswainbird Island as I tucked my boot tip under a piece of rock .  I  went forward, my foot stayed behind, and I was tripped.  But it did not stop there.  I went head over heels , my hands stopped my head from getting a gash from the ground, but instead the palms were badly grazed.  It must have only lasted a couple of seconds but I felt I would never stop turning; I think I somersaulted three times.  I came to a halt when my ribcage bashed against the ground.   I looked up and saw the other three looking at me helplessly.  Stedson shouted “Are you all right?”  I shouted back “Yes”, then stood up ….and winced.  I looked at my hands covered in blood and bits of grit.  I tried to move and my rib cage shrieked back at me.  But we were miles from the car, there was no way to just call a halt, so I had to put up with the pain and walk on.  As I moved more the first pain started to ease.  It would come back a day or so later, just as I was getting ready to head off to St Helena on a rolling rocking ship.

The Letterbox looked temptingly close, but to get there we still had to drop down into a wide ravine and up the other side.  We had several individual nests to check out as we progressed.  The masked boobies were not particularly perturbed by our presence.  One or two would move away from the nest as we approached, but hung around just out of arms reach.  Some would defiantly sit on the nest and it was quite difficult to determine what was underneath.

We could not take the straight route onto Letterbox which would drop us too low and make us reach a dead end against a cliff.  The Letterbox appeared like a fortress with sheer sides even on the landward side; our approach to it would be from the north west corner, which was a considerable hike from where we were.  Eventually we did climb on top and the unevenness and raggedness of the lava fields disappeared.

Capturing the Diversity – Stedson’s Spurge

This ridge was proving to be a marker for nesting success.  Over the last few years, there seemed to have been a expansion of nesting from the Letterbox area itself up this slope  We recorded the data and moved on.  Stedson started to get more interested and wanted to show me a little gut in the ridge.  Running steeply downhill, the gut cut a gully only a few feet deep, and at first sight was scouring away at the volcanic rubble here, but through a series of terraced steps some of the smaller washed material had been trapped.  This thin grey gritty soil had become the habitat for tiny plants, more or less the only greenery around this area.  This was a type of Euphorbia, or spurge, endemic to Ascension Island.  Stedson had been instrumental in both identifying it and building up its population.  He took out some polythene bags and collected the tiny seeds.  As well as a small number of very small natural populations over this part of the island, he was trying to find where to introduce them elsewhere.  Probably the only native which ever managed to colonise the dry lowlands of Ascension where there was hardly any soil or water and oodles of scorching sunlight and drying winds, this was a tough little plant.  Other more widely spread spurges do exist on Ascension Island, but this one has a gorgeous reddy stem, with the little bulbous leaves, storing away all that precious water it needs to survive within a thick plastic like skin.  And the tiny flowers are so pretty with their little white heads.  But all on a minute scale and unless there was a large carpet colony of them, most people would never even notice they were there.

Stedson was different.  He had an eye for spotting individual plants in amongst others or the empty terrain like here, and he had built up his own knowledge of their environmental niches, so much so he could more or less predict where you might find one of his precious endemics. I remember a tour he took around one of the uppermost paths on Green Mountain, Elliot’s.  While we were happy to see the mix of vegetation at different stages of the trail, he could spot the tiny collections of endemic ferns in a rockface or on a ledge.