Mike Fay’s Pitcairn Journal: Mrs. T and Tedside

By Mike Fay, NG Explorer-in-Residence

Torrential rain gave me a chance to shake off a bit of my sea legs in the morning.  Once the storm broke Brenda asked, “Want to go to Tedside?”  Barely able to absorb and remember even the most notable of the countless named landmarks, I just said “sure” having a vague notion that it was up and over the central ridge of the island.  We hit the road on the quad up a dirt track that went right up the slope and in a jiffy we were at the crest.  There was a plywood “public toilet” there which kind of blew my mind, but this is after all the British Empire, right?  Tedside was straight on, Gannet’s Ridge to our right.  We decided right, took to foot up a little stairway that lead out of the rose apple bushes, and there we were skittering across the razor-sharp top of the west side of the island.  South 1000 feet down, north 1000 feet down.  The razor back was solid rock and if you kept your eye on the thin path it was kind of fun, kind of.  The wind was coming out of the south, I could see for the first time the jagged valleys of that part of the island.  It felt like if I dived I could probably hit the water.  There were no signs of the Masked Boobies that once nested on this ridge.  At one time eggs and birds were a valuable food source to the islanders.

At the end of the ridge we sat several hundred feet above Christian’s Cave.  The drainage going down to Adamstown had a fresh blow out, the vegetation was gutted and a 20 foot bank of exposed red Earth was stark against the green of the forest. To the right were Matt’s Rocks in the iridescent blue ocean surrounded by a white halo of crashing waves.  To the left down along the coast, the area known as Rachel Coconuts was nestled in a lush hallow.  And 360 degrees around there was nothing but ocean for hundreds of miles just to get to the next islands cut off from the world most of us live in.

We rejoined the track down Tedside.  We cruised through forest that Brenda called tapau.  You could tell that these used to be large trees, maybe 2 or 3 feet in diameter that dominated this side.  Now there were coppiced shoots about 6 inches that were dead from the last drought and leafy sprouts coming from the base.  The rose apple, a tree brought to the island less than a century ago, looked to be fast replacing the tapau.  On the way down we grabbed guavas from the bike and Brenda cut a regime of ripe bananas.  Two hundred years since the Bounty came here there are over 250 plant species that have been imported to the island, bringing bounty to islanders but severely stressing the native vegetation.

Brenda Christian with the octopus she caught. Photo by Mike Fay

We went through a small gate and I realized why we brought the bananas—there was a giant tortoise poised on the road, neck extended, like a dog that doesn’t bark greeting its master.  This was Mrs. T, brought to the island in the 1950s with four other Galapagos tortoises.  People forget that before aircraft Pitcairn was a crossroads between the Galapagos, Easter Island, and Tahiti.  She must have weighed at least 200 pounds and by the looks of the plates on her carapace she must have easily topped a century.  The fence kept her from helping herself to people’s gardens on the other side of the island.  Brenda has known this creature ever since she was a small girl.  Mrs. T had no problem gobbling one of the small bananas with a single gulp.

The road continued almost to the beach.  Brenda hopped across pools lined in basalt and volcanic pumice.  She said normally between the rocks was white coral sand but since the storm there is a foot or more of orange clay.  Her next move was right down to the water and she came up with an octopus on her arm.  She said locals call them catfish.  People who are in tune with the place they live off of can find food where others can’t.  I could see that if Brenda was the last person on the island she would never miss a meal or cry a single tear.

I pitched my tent on the coast under a lone coconut.  A frigate bird roosting above kept me company for the night.

 

 

Changing Planet

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Mike Fay has spent his life as a naturalist—from the Sierra Nevadas and the Maine woods as a boy, to Alaska and Central America in college, to North Africa and the depths of the central African forest and savannas for the last 25 years. He has worked for the Wildlife Conservation Society of the Bronx since 1991. In 1996, Fay flew over the forests of Congo and Gabon and realized there was a vast, intact forest corridor spanning the two countries from the Oubangui to the Atlantic Ocean. In 1997, he walked the entire corridor, over 2,000 miles, surveying trees, wildlife, and human impacts on 12 uninhabited forest blocks. Called Megatransect, this work led to a historic initiative by the Gabonese government to create a system of 13 national parks, making up some 11,000 square miles (28,500 square kilometers). In 2004, he completed the Megaflyover, an eight-month aerial survey of the entire African continent. He logged 800 hours and took 116,000 vertical images of human impact and associated ecosystems, many of which are now visible on Google Earth. In 2008 Fay completed the Redwood Transect, a new project to learn more about the redwood forest. He walked the entire range of the redwood tree, over 700 miles. Since then he has participated in the 2011 BioBlitz at Saguaro National Park, and is a regular team member of fellow NG Explorer Enric Sala's Pristine Seas Expeditions, recording the life and land above the waves.