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Mike Fay’s Pitcairn Journal: Final Ascent and Farewell

By Mike Fay, NG Explorer-in-Residence 11 April 2012 This was the last day on this island; blast off at 17:00. My objective in coming back to Pitcairn was to travel slowly in a zig-zag fashion from the east to west climbing every ridge and traversing every valley on the south side of the island.  The...

By Mike Fay, NG Explorer-in-Residence

11 April 2012

This was the last day on this island; blast off at 17:00.

My objective in coming back to Pitcairn was to travel slowly in a zig-zag fashion from the east to west climbing every ridge and traversing every valley on the south side of the island.  The weather has been tough.  It has rained pretty constantly.  I have been camping at Highest Point in a shroud of fog.

Many on the island are probably wondering why I have come to their island to live outside.  It is about solitude.  With solitude comes the ability to focus, to interact with a place in a way that allows you to reach a level of understanding that comes with hearing the natural sounds, feeling and smelling the squalls as they envelop the island, experiencing the same things the birds, trees, soil and rocks do.

Over the days, one by one, Bren has led us from the top to the bottom on routes that, even in this small place, are only occasionally traveled.  There are good reasons.   They are extremely steep and the wet clay is often covered by a thin mantle of algae that makes it as slick as ice.  The geology is such that no hold is firm, no footstep sure.  It is aggravating, but it also gets the adrenalin flowing which only deepens the connection with the island.


The Last Romp

Today we were going where days ago I would not have ventured.  It is called Middle Ridge, the one between Long Ridge and the one that goes down to Christian’s Cave.  We would travel down to just above the sea on Long Ridge to one of the few creeks on the island that flow for many months in a good year.  We descended first through a dense patch of lantana and then I slid on my butt over the nose of Long Ridge; standing was impossible for me.  Bren at every turn had to wait for me to catch her.  She never seemed frustrated or impatient, but concentrated on stones, goats, and landslides, happy to be rambling.

We reached the fork in the ridge.  I scanned Middle Ridge with Bren, asking her about the spot that looked particularly impossible to get by with a close-to-vertical wet area that had a drop of about 100 or so feet below it. She smiled and said we could just follow this fine vein of vegetation and reach an area where we could climb a face to the next level.  I agreed that it was not possible to deem it impossible until we got there.

We descended the western ridge reaching the bottom after a steep side-slope traverse over red volcanic rubble with good grip.  There were about ten goats in the valley; the grass was clipped to about half its length, not apparently overgrazed.  The water was running fairly clear in the creek, the vegetation natural other than a large patch of rose apple in the headlands, and there were no apparent slides in the entire watershed.  It was also visually quite beautiful, encased in a deep ravine of white and brown cliffs and yellow meadows of crabgrass, with a cascade that was visible most of the way to the top.  Brenda noted that the last time she was here the grass was not bermuda but grab-a-leg (Cenchrus ciliata).


The Benefit of Bare Feet

We set off up the hill.  Rain was menacing, which would make the climb much more difficult.  We hit the first spot that I thought was going to be impassable.  Bren took the exposed rounded rock face.  I opted for the more vertical but stepped ascent.  Immediately it became evident that like everywhere else on this island depending on a handhold here to hoist yourself up to the next level was perilous. Rather you had to apply no more than slight pressure and use friction to glue as much of your body to the face as possible.

Climbing up is always hugely less scary than down so when up is scary, down is terrifying.  By the third or fourth small face I knew that retreating was not going to be an option so I prayed that we didn’t have any technical maneuvers above.

This kind of climbing is not particularly satisfying because you feel like you can’t depend on your climbing skills—but I only had to watch Brenda to know that it was just that I needed a different set of skills.  She found the climb without the least difficulty.  Hard, bare feet are a huge advantage: you can feel the texture on every step, so you can deal with it.  I just plodded on sometimes using my knees instead of my feet because they had better grip.  I felt like a paraplegic so useless were my feet for much of the ascent.  Toward the top the ground was drier and climbing became relatively easy.  I could see the Norfolk Island Pine on top coming into clear view now.

Just before 11 we reached the top.  This was the one remaining ascent I had wanted to make and at last it was done.  I could go home now.  Bren was smiling, because the burden she was carrying was secure.  She laughed, probably trying to make me feel better, and took a pair of boots out of her backpack, saying that if the grab-a-leg grass had been real bad that even she would have had to resort to shoes.


The Victory Lap

We still had one task to accomplish: drive all the roads on the island so I could GPS the track and map them.  Otherwise it would not be easy to distinguish where I had walked on the road system and where I was off trail.  Bren fired up the quad and we were off in a flash.

Sitting side-saddle riding on those quads is kind of like being on a bucking bronco.  We went down the Tedside Road first where they will build the western port road.  I saw tracks on the road that didn’t read goats and then we ran into Mrs. T the tortoise hiking up the hill. Brenda said nobody had fed her bananas in days so she was grazing her way up the hill.  Her legs must be unbelievably strong to be able to carry that enormous mass up that hill.  The road is in bad shape below with huge amounts of loose, fresh soil that has washed down from where the Pitcairners have used it to fill the ravines.

Back up on the hill Bren sped over the road network like a rally driver.  In just over an hour we were done with that and back at her house.  I felt like I had been in those hills for a long time.  I had grown to feel at home out in the mist.


Farewell to Pitcairn

At 5 PM the entire community of Pitcairn showed up at the port.  The long boat went into the water and about half the people jumped on board to see us off.  Once all of our belongings were handed up to the Claymore I found myself hugging Bren with a long embrace of the kind that only comes with the pain of departure.  We had become accustomed to the life here, so removed from the world at large that you forget about it—it becomes trivial and completely unappealing.  I could see myself spending the rest of my years on Pitcairn.



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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.