Sunday, 6 October 2013

Crabs, Concrete & Lager (three reasons to visit the Southern Seas).

A Guest Post By Our Special Atoll Correspondent.

Whilst trawling around on the internet recently, I chanced upon some photographs of the tiny atoll of Tematangi,  way down in the south Pacific ocean. The photos instantly reminded me that, way, way back, in another life,  I had lived there. Not for very long you understand, only a couple of months, but it now seems such a long way off (both in time & distance) that  now seems like a good time to share my strange and unique experience.

Tematangi (or Bligh's Lagoon) is "famous" for two reasons. The first is that it was discovered by Captain Bligh (of HMS Bounty fame) in 1792 whilst seeking out his mutinous crew who had holed-up somewhere amongst the Polynesian atolls & islands. The second is that it is the antipodes to Mecca, therefore the only place on earth that a Muslim could perform prayer in any direction and always be facing the holy city.
I was 22 at the time and (don't ask me how) found myself as part of a small working party of around a dozen, tasked with first digging, then laying concrete foundations and erecting various metallic buildings to be used as a weather station. To say that Tematangi is remote would be an understatement. It lies pretty much in the middle of the south Pacific ocean and it's highest point above sea level would be no more than 4 or 5 feet. As with all atolls it consists of a narrow band of sand and rock, probably no wider than a few hundred feet at it's widest, scattered with coconut palms with a deep lagoon in the middle and the wild open ocean all around you. Being close to the equator means that sun-up is around 6.00 am and sundown is around 6.00 pm, all year round. 

Tematangi shore

We arrived by ship, but there being no dock and the small issue of a treacherous coral reef surrounding the atoll, meant that we had to anchor quite a way off. We, our equipment and all of our stores had to be loaded into a large, wooden rowing boat, manned by two islanders who would, apparently,  row us over the reef in time with the ocean swell and hopefully not dash us all on the rocks. It was one of those moments in life when you have no choice other than to trust completely and implicitly the stranger your life has just been entrusted to. Needless to say, they knew exactly what they were doing and repeated the exercise many times until we and all our kit was safely ashore. I should mention though at this point that several weeks after our unforgettable arrival, whilst walking along the shore in the 40 degree heat, I chanced upon an un-opened bottle of Kronenbourg lying in the sand. This was very welcome, believe me, even if it was a bit warm. Over the following couple of days about half a crate of them had been washed ashore in total. My very own "Whiskey Galore" moment!  The beer had obviously gone over the side on some earlier arrival and was only now being given up by the ocean. How alarming that must have been for those poor workers, seeing their valuable ration of lager being swallowed up by the seas.

There was nothing really on the atoll besides some abandoned buildings and a small weather station. Once a week, the islander who ran the weather station would release one of those enormous helium balloons which would soar off on it's one way journey to the upper atmosphere. We had no electricity, we slept in a large open-ended tent, the cold showers used stored rainwater and the toilet was a shack on the beach under which we had dug a deep hole. This was also where about a million flies lived. The atoll was uninhabited, or so I thought. One morning we had gone for a run and after covering about 8kms or so came across a primitive village of around 40 people, living under palm-leaf shelters, families with small children. I was amazed. How could all of these people be living on such a tiny strip of land with no fresh water? They had come from other islands and were there to harvest the coconuts that covered the atoll. The men would climb impossibly high palm trees to hack the coconuts down which would then have their green outer shell deftly removed with a couple of machete swings and laid in heaps to dry. The by-product of this work was the valuable milk that each coconut contains. This was what they drank in place of water. When they weren't harvesting coconuts, they were paddling out to sea in their outrigger canoes (pirogues) to catch fish. These people were not just surviving, they were positively thriving. You'd be hard pushed to find a healthier looking bunch of people. Whilst we were there a Japanese ship arrived to collect their cargo and for several days the dried husks were loaded into rowing boats and ferried the half mile or so, over the reef, to be loaded into the ship's hold.

Tematangi Atoll

BinLlovin' Coconut Crab

The only other occupants on the atoll were crabs. I'd never really seen many crabs at that point in my life, just the ones you find in rock pools as a kid. I'd heard of hermit crabs, but had never actually seen one. Every night on Tematangi the hermit crabs came out and appeared to be crossing the atoll like an invading army. You could hear them moving en masse in the dark and if you walked anywhere during the invasion you would literally have to crunch your way through them, such were the number and density of them. Quite extraordinary. It was also home  to the coconut crab. Now these I had never even heard of, crabs that live in trees!   Whatever next.  They are massive and have claws that can comfortably crush bones and they also only come out at night. The islanders would catch these formidable beasts and hang them out in the sun to dry, whereupon they would be given a couple of coats of varnish and flogged off to tourists in Tahiti and Bora Bora. One of the saddest sights I saw however was a huge turtle that a couple of the islanders had caught whilst out fishing. It was dragged back to the atoll and rolled onto it's back in the baking sun and left to a similar fate as the coconut crabs. It was about the size of two bath tubs and an animal that large takes more than a little while to die, even in those conditions. The poor creature was there for days, gasping in the heat. I sat with it for a while one day, it was really distressing to see it. I remember wanting to release it, but this was how these islanders survived and it wasn't my place to tell them how to live or what was right or wrong. There's no doubt it would have been a high value item and as such would have been very important income for them. Why, you ask would they not make their end more speedy?  In order to preserve the shell intact is the answer.

In any case, no one could accuse the islanders of pillaging, as various colonial powers had already seen to that. They only took what they needed from the seas, nothing more.

The work was hard, especially in the heat. We had only two pieces of mechanical equipment; a concrete mixer and a dump truck. We made endless trips to the beach to shovel sand and gravel first into the dumper, then into the mixer. I don't know how many tonnes we mixed and laid, a couple of hundred I should think. We erected a couple of metallic buildings, something none of us had done before, but we soon got the hang of it. One of my jobs was to spray paint the buildings, green I seem to remember. Since it was so hot, only shorts & boots would ever be worn whilst working, so at the end of each day I would have to have a total body wash with diesel fuel as I was green-gloss from head to toe. On one occasion one of the guys slipped from his ladder, he wasn't very high up, 7 or 8 feet, but as he fell he caught his forearm on the corner of a metal cladding sheet and it opened his arm up like a sardine tin. I can still picture him clutching his arm and letting out a loud wailing sound whilst running off in the direction of the first-aid box, for that was all there was. He was lucky looking back on it. If he'd severed anything important it probably would have been curtains for him.
I spent many hours walking the shoreline, beachcombing. Other than the lager that washed up, I don't recall finding anything man made. The seas were heaving with life down there, I wouldn't go as far as to say that they were shark infested, but sharks of all kinds were a very common sight, occasionally catching glimpses of them as they swam through the breaking waves. Flying fish were common too and yes, they do actually fly! I've never been a keen swimmer, so it was no hardship not to go in as I'm sure it would have ended in some kind of personal tragedy.
So now, here we are, years later in deepest Dordogne, offering our punters the chance to get-away-from-it-all and asking them not to expect too much in the way of a mobile phone signal and I wonder if my south-seas adventures all those years ago may have shaped or somehow influenced the way I do things now?   Possibly.

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