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Mike Fay’s Pitcairn Journal: Slopes, Goats, and Roads

By Mike Fay, NG Explorer-in-Residence 6 April 2012 Slept for about 11 hours last night. If I get into the outside mode my body immediately goes back to being a human again. I get sleepy just after dark even though I have a headlamp, and I wake up just as it is getting light. I...

By Mike Fay, NG Explorer-in-Residence

6 April 2012

Slept for about 11 hours last night. If I get into the outside mode my body immediately goes back to being a human again. I get sleepy just after dark even though I have a headlamp, and I wake up just as it is getting light. I feel good; my mood is not emotional, stressed. I have energy; I am not tired. This is what humans are meant to do. So much is tied in our bodies to night and day, sleep and health.

Long Ridge

It rained most of the night last night, it’s raining again tonight, and this is the Pitcairners’ dry season. They do not get rain in these months and yet it has been raining since we got here. Without a guide, this would make for a pretty dangerous walking situation. Fortunately Bren knows these hills, and knows which ones you can walk on in the rain.

She showed up around 8 and decided to take us to Long Ridge (which is not the longest ridge on the island, but rather short-looking on the map). I am camping at Highest Point, so we went downhill to the west to pick up Long Ridge, which leads to the northwest of the island. Just below the crest at the entrance to the Tedside road is a little entrance and we popped right on to the ridge.

Right away you have a clear view of the valley between here and Gannet ridge. You also can see what they call Wata Valley and its road, the one that Mike has his bee hives on. This, Bren tells me, is the road they mean to expand and probably pave to provide access to the western port, mainly to enable cruise ship passengers to arrive when Bounty Bay is no good weather-wise. Humans have this incredible capacity for wanting to completely mold their environments to make their lives easier, even when it’s nowhere near necessary. It’ll take 2.1 million Euros to build this port. If you ask people on the island they would probably tell you that it is not the highest of priorities. I would say before you build any more roads get those you have in order.

Slopes and Goats

We started down the ridge. It was steep and slippery with slick algae, soft rock, and hard clay. I slid on my butt in several spots. In others we hit patches of the lantana which covers large portions of this island.

There were goats in the hills on both sides of the ridge. Whenever we see them in the open spaces, we think that’s the only place where they are, but that’s really just where they’re easier to spot. We counted almost 20 here and there. I have been trying to get an answer about when the goats were brought here, and it would seem that there may have only been one introduction, with the Bounty. If that is true then the breed on this island is a few hundred years old, isolated from modern stock, and just enjoying a pampered life. Various people have goats tied in their yard. Bren has six but she and Mike don’t do anything with them except use them as garbage disposals. The billies have these massive long racks with in some cases two turns in the spiral horns. We spooked them as we went. You could hunt them easily, maybe not with a spear, but certainly with a bow.

Tonight Only! Muddy Waters and the Landslides

It took us an hour or two to get close to the bottom where we headed east into Wata Valley. There is a stream they call “The Line” that you can see with pools and a waterfall at the end. Bren says it is a perennial creek, but the five small landslides we counted are clearly the beginnings of bigger slides that will someday fill this valley like all those I’ve seen on the north side.

When we reached the falls the water was somewhat murky from the slides—not what you would expect from a paradise creek on a mountain island deep in the southern sub-tropical seas. There were 5 goats there too, sharing the view. The wind filled the sea with white caps but there were only a few small swells hitting the shore. As usual, I was trailing slowly behind Bren. These sandals I have really suck, and I am constantly slipping and sliding. I couldn’t see her when I got to the bottom, but she showed up real quick with two green coconuts. Bren can wield a machete with the best of them and whacked the tops of the coconuts off and cut a little oblong drink hole. The cool liquid inside was just sweet enough, just creamy enough to blunt my thirst and make me feel completely satisfied. We carried on up the creek valley and came upon a small grove of bananas (the little stubby ones). Bren carefully whacked the stem a bit and the regime came slowly down to her hand and just a few minutes after our coconuts, we had all the food we needed for a couple days. There were also breadfruit, taro, and guavas, growing wild here, as well as several native trees including huliander.

We carried on a bit higher and came to the pools. They were murky too. It looks like this used to be a pretty healthy creek, but all these landslides are filling it up fast. The first slide was a large chunk of earth that had slipped from the flat surface of the rock above. It was probably only a couple of hundred cubic yards, but the impact could be huge. This is a perennial creek that depends on a good thick soil base for water storage, and this fine volcanic soil takes hundreds of thousands of years to develop; it is precious stuff.

The bed started to get cliffy so we went side-slope up a couple hundred feet. There we hit a rock slide. Each boulder was the size of a barrel or three and one was still precipitously poised to fall into the creek. The others had rammed into a giant tapau tree and stuck. Shows you the value of a tree that is several hundred years old. This rock slide had opened up a slash of soil that will now become a watercourse and will probably slide again. There was no obvious reason for either of the slides we saw, other than the fact that they occurred shortly after a drought when the struggling vegetation would not have offered much cover. We came back into the creek bed and there was a dense forest of tapau on the west side that had all its roots exposed, probably from long-term surface erosion. It formed a beautiful network of tubes on the forest floor and being up out of the mud made the going easy.

On up we went until we got close to the Tedside road where the forest became a pure stand of rose apple, which is a great provider of nectar for honey yet an aggressive weed. We heard a quad coming along the road. It was Mike who had come to tend his bees.

You Thought the Jersey Turnpike Was Bad

It was already 2 pm and we’d walked for 6 hours, time when most people would call it a day, when Bren (ever the explorer) said from here we could drop back down to the bottom, traverse a while, and take another ridge back up to the top. Off we went down the Tedside road only to climb the mountain for a second time today.  The road down had been redone since we were here last, with the addition of a nice fresh coat of thick soil. The trouble is that the rains of the past several days have washed that soil back down the hill. The inside ditch was deeply ravined, with one of the culverts plugged and looking like it was ready to blow. This is the very road that they would expand to get to Wata Valley for the West Port project. I would think that part of the conclusions of any environmental assessment by the EU to start this major project would be to get the existing roads on the island outsloped and sized properly before you could go forward with building another road that will only add to the erosion burden and degradation of the soil base. I took a picture of the backhoe that would be the perfect tool to really start fixing the roads. I think it would need to be augmented with a hoe that has a further reach to get into the beds of creeks, but it could easily be done.

We headed side-slope along the coast, came to a ridge, and headed toward the sea. A squall had come in and I found myself being almost blown off the cliff in 40-knot winds that Brenda apparently did not notice. She was shouting to me that if I looked over the edge that was Christian’s Point and described how we could get there from here. I took her word for it. It is amazing how this little island continues to confuse me with its ridges and valleys. It would be so nice to see a high resolution picture of this place back in 1790 before the mutineers started to cut forest and set off the pattern of degradation that is so evident today.

Secrets of the Slippery Slope

We headed up the razor edge. Seems like a lot of the south side ridges are like this: they have severe erosion mostly on the east facing slope, which is usually much steeper. There tends to be vegetation on the crest of the ridge, but not just above these eastern cliffs. So in order to avoid the hard walk through the brush, the temptation is to do like the goats and walk slightly closer to the cliff side, which (when there is a 500-foot drop straight down and the ground is slippery, unstable, muddy clay) is extremely dicey. If you are Brenda Christian and are barefoot and have been chasing goats on their terms just for fun since you were a kid, then you are comfortable doing such crazy things. I walked in the brush a lot of the way up.

The forest on the west-facing, more gentle slope was one of the healthiest tapau and mountain oak forests I have seen. It went a long ways down the slope as well. Some places were also heavy in pandanus. We had a single goat keeping ahead of us the whole way, looking down at Bren from 50 feet or so.

After today’s walk I am upping my estimate of the number of goats to over 200. It would be possible to get a good count in a relatively short amount of time through a capture-recapture plan, but I think you would find between 200 and 300 goats. Because of their impact on the vegetation, and the impact of that on erosion, it would be good to reduce the number down to 60 or so, if not eliminate them all together, though I would retain the breed. I was thinking you could even sell buccaneer safaris for those big old billies. I am sure some collectors would love to put a “Mutiny on the Bounty” billy on their wall.

We had to bushwack a bit as we got high up. Soon I could see some pine trees and then we popped right out on Highest Point, right where we’d started in the morning. That was a grest way to end the day.

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Meet the Author

J. Michael Fay
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.