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Mike Fay’s Pitcairn Journal: Archaeology and the Biggest Landslide Yet

By Mike Fay, NG Explorer-in-Residence 8 April 2012 Last night, Bren decided to camp out up at Highest Point with me.  She set up her tent and we were all set for a barbeque of the fish we caught. Bren split the fish in two, brought lemons and oil, also some potatoes.  We made a...

By Mike Fay, NG Explorer-in-Residence

8 April 2012

Last night, Bren decided to camp out up at Highest Point with me.  She set up her tent and we were all set for a barbeque of the fish we caught. Bren split the fish in two, brought lemons and oil, also some potatoes.  We made a fire, worked up some nice coals, and threw the fish on.  Mike brought wine and we had cucumbers, so this was a meal for a king.  I had half of the fafaia with the backbone in.  It was grilled nicely but I found the meat to be a bit slimy and kind of watery.  Living in Alaska, maybe I am just spoiled with salmon.

After dinner talked about where we would romp today. I asked Bren if we could go down Red Ridge then into where the giant slide was, up and over the next ridge into Tautama, and climb up and over from there.  She thought about it for a while and said, “Yes we can do that.”  When Bren has to think about something you know you are in for an adventure.

In the morning we had our coffee, some biscuits, and took off down the road to the beginning of Red Ridge.  Like all these ridges it looks like you are going to drop off into the abyss below, but when you look at the details it is just that you are almost going to drop off into the abyss below.  It isn’t like it doesn’t happen; many people in the history of Pitcairn, many more sure-footed than I, have dropped to their deaths doing just what we were doing today.


Bren Makes a Discovery

We got to a bank where we were about to drop hard and Bren said, “You just asked me five minutes ago if I have ever found the perfect piece.”  (She is constantly looking at the ground and picking up pieces of basalt that may be stone tools or pieces of one, or just flakes.)  I got to where she was and I saw this absolutely perfect adze: about 6 cm of blade and tapered to a point for attachment to a handle.

Immediately we were both transported back in time to when whoever it was lost his adze.

This thing was beautifully honed on both sides. It had a perfect curve to adze out a canoe or other piece of wood.  It was not broken or chipped and had probably been sitting in this bank for some 700 years.

We thought about the people who would have come in small dugout outrigger canoes to this place known from Easter Island to Tahiti for its valuable stone.  Our destination Tautama had been a quarry site and factory for hundreds of years and its stone has been found far and wide in the Pacific.


The Walk Continues

Down we went on Red Ridge.  It is bare now with a bit of lantana on top.  Bren said that ever since she was a child this ridge had been bare.  I expect that it had a forest of lata when the Bounty arrived here.  It has already lost probably several meters of soil and is down to very dense clay that is just being sorted out of the rock.  Below we could see the enormous slide that came down on the 4th of February.  There is an enormous cauldron-shaped scar at the top where the earth let go and sent a debris torrent ripping down the hill taking every bit of vegetation and many tons of soil with it.  Today we would see it all up close.


What Not to Wear

There were a few goats when we reached the nose of the ridge and started to bail off to the side. This was going to be the steep part.  Unfortunately for me I was wearing the only footwear I can find in the sandal department that is half decent, Chacos.  But if you know Chacos you know that they are made in China now and the soles are made exclusively by Vibram and they are hard and slick as ice.

My feet were useless to me.  Every step I took I just slipped down the slick mud.  I used my walking stick at every step to create the stability I needed.  I pushed it in and went on my butt when it got real slick.

This is the kind of place where if you slip, you go sliding very fast down about 400 feet vertical with plenty of bum busters on the way down.  I wasn’t wanting that to happen today.


Biggest Landslide I’ve Ever Seen

About an hour of that and we were down on the slide.  The torrent had come down to the edge and you could see how it hit a rock bank and had gone up about 50 feet of rock face as it slipped past a bottle neck and went right over the cliff to the rocks on the beach.  They still had some thousands of tons of clay on them still waiting to contribute to the red plume in the ocean that has been there since long before we arrived here a month ago.

Bren climbed up the slide for perspective. It was at least 500 m in length from where it had let go on the hill.  At the point of origin was a 50-foot high bank that is surely just going to keep coming down and creeping back until it reaches the top of the island.  I took photos and Bren was like a little dot up there.  This was the biggest landslide I have ever seen, and I have seen some doozies on Route 1 in California.

I climbed up to meet her and from there we could see that the slide we had seen from above was not a second slide but where this debris torrent had been split in two by a hill.

At the landslide’s point of origin was a 50-foot high bank that is surely just going to keep coming down until it reaches the top of the island. Bren was like a little dot up there. This was the biggest landslide I have ever seen, and I have seen some doozies. Photo by J. Michael Fay


We could see clearly that on the east side it was even bigger than on the west side.  The torrent had hit a wall on this side as well and went about 100 feet up the hill, an unbelievable distance.  The trees at the edge that were still intact had mud on them up to about 8 feet.  When it came down, this enormous avalanche of red must have hit that rock in the middle so hard that it ripped off about 15 feet of vegetation and soil from around it and then went right up the slope on either side before careening over the chute that is almost closed at either side.

We kept on looking back up the hill thinking about the actual slide.  I then looked up to Red Ridge and wondered to myself how in the hell did we get down that slope.  It looked like it came straight down.  Oh well, we had already done it so I didn’t have to worry about it now.  If someone was on top asking if they could come down with me though, looking from the bottom and knowing how slippery it is I would have said “hell no.”


Down to Tautama

We climbed up on to the next big ridge and over the other side we could see the lower, flatter, tree-covered area of Tautama, site of the prehistoric stone quarry.  We kept going up this ridge so we could find a place where we could get down.  Tautama has a mixed forest of Homalium, Meterisideros, Hibiscus, and some Pisonia and Celtis.  There is also a large patch of bananas and a significant percent cover of pandanus.  We found one of those spots where even though it is pretty much straight down there is so much vegetation that you think there is no way you can fall.

We started kind of lowering ourselves from branch to branch through the veg. We also had to do a bit of sidesloping that was a little dicey, but a fall would have only been 30 or 40 feet with some bumps, so survivable certainly.

We crossed a few valleys and ended after about two hours of bushwacking in the banana grove.  Brenda cut a nice regime of ripe bananas and had picked up a bunch of guavas along the way so we had lunch.

We settled down in the old quarry site which has a lot of the somewhat hard claystone rock that you see in big blobs that seem to have been extruded during the volcanic process somehow.  There was rocky debris everywhere.  You could see that this site was fantastic for stone tools and ok but not great for agriculture.  As opposed to being a major village, it was probably only settled by the people making the stone tools.  Today there is one nice big Banyan tree right in the middle of the whole thing as well as a forest of some of the tallest Homalium I have seen on the island.


The Final Stretch

We headed up the normal trail which people usually consider hard but after today’s walking it seemed a cake walk.  We kept going right up to McCoy’s Valley and checked out that site for a myrsine bush but after we went through the forest Brenda said that it had slipped off the road cut and must not have survived after Pitcairner Jay Warren replanted it.

We got back to Highest Point and I have to say I was bushed.  Bren and Mike made a great campout meal once again and we listened to a strange bird that is in this camp at night.  It makes this kind of high pitched whirring sound, like a dive-bombing nightjar and then chatters at the end.  Maybe it’s a fairy tern.  I can’t seem to get a recording.  The Claymore arrives tomorrow.


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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.