Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Christmas presents arrive!

My Christmas presents arrived today!  Never have Christmas presents been so eagerly anticipated – and gratefully received!  Thanks to Simon for Christmas pudding and Panettone and David & Nicky for a lovely warm jumper and socks - sent in October when it was really cold.  Not to mention all the Christmas cards with nice messages inside. And a special consignment of food, kit and a copy of The Economist – the first newspaper I’ve seen in 5 months – kindly put together by my cousins Sandy and Ali in Cape Town. Thank you all very much!  One present remains in transit somewhere – I’ll let you know if and when it arrives!
Carex insularis - one of only two Carex (sedge) species found on Tristan.

Actually the presents arrived sometime last week, but we’ve been out of town on an eight day expedition and are just back.  Such long camping trips are only possible with the help of islanders.  We are only able to carry food for about four days - as well as our camping and recording equipment.  We take cameras, hand lens, binoculars, GPS, handheld PDA (miniature computer), batteries, solar panel charger and recording forms.  The weight of the rucksack makes difficult terrain even more difficult.  So it was great to have a food drop to our remote 900 metre campsite on Soggy Plain.

We live on spaghetti and mince, meatballs or corned beef, and make enough each night to have for lunch the following day. Breakfasts are Weet-bix, sultanas, condensed milk mixed with boiled water.  Treats include crisps, chocolate and a few apples.  Tristan is a severe test of camping equipment.  Two nights it got down to freezing and there was a dusting of snow on the Peak (remember it’s mid-summer). Another night there was storm force winds and it rained torrentially.  And one day it was so wet, windy and foggy that we just stayed in our tents! 

Soggy Plain (we camped by the pools)
Despite this we covered a lot of ground. Difficult ground. And made some exciting discoveries – big but local populations of the rare ferns Dryopteris wallichiana, Hypolepis rugolusa and Asplenium insulare.  And new grass and sedge species which don’t seem to have ever been previously described for Tristan – as far as we can tell.  But it is always hard to know what the natural range of variation is for each species.  Grasses and hook-sedges (Uncinia) continue to be difficult at altitude as many have yet to flower. Several pairs of closely similar species are being particularly difficult to separate, such as Grammitis magellanica and G. poeppigiana, and Elaphoglossum campylolepium and E. succisifolium (all ferns). Eagle-eyed Lourens spotted yet another population of the rare endemic rush Rostkovia tristanensis this time actually on Soggy Plain.  (Prior to our project its only Tristan record was ‘above Soggy Plain at 1100 metres’ by the Norwegian Survey Expedition in 1938.) 

Peak Berry, Empetrum rubrum
We had a few mishaps. I slipped 20 foot into a deep water pool, skinning elbow and leg and soaking my camera.  I was OK. More than I can say about the camera. In a separate incident we lost the GPS. Intensive searches were unsuccessful and we were almost benighted on the long circuitous return to camp. We keep the GPS on at all times to record our tracks, and download them to the mapping program Memory Map Navigator on our return to record our precise routes.  So the main loss was the track data for 7 days and not the machine itself (though that was bad enough).  We also rely on the GPS for the UTM 1km square reference and as a back up when the less sensitive PDA GPS fails to lock.  Then there was a near-death incident involving the machete which I won’t recount as just thinking about it still makes my toes curl!

Gamochaeta thouarsii, better known as Cow Pudding Grass!
Our return to the Settlement was equally exciting.  It was hot and sunny with storm force winds and big waves. This made landing the rowing boat tender very tricky and our return on the Wave Dancer slow.  Family and friends gather at the harbour to welcome their menfolk home.   Once the boat is unloaded, winched out of the harbour for safety and the work is done, the men go round the houses celebrating their safe return with a drink or two.  It quickly gets boisterous and women flee when the men invade.  About six houses (and hours) later we end up in The Albatross.  A good day after an eventful trip!

Infinity Pool with the sea 2,000 feet below.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

The Peak

Just back from a four day trip to a remote part of the island.  We camped on the Base at 1000 m above sea level, on the boundary between Island Tree (Phylica arborea) scrub woodland and short sward Blechnum penna-marina (a fern) and heathy Empetrum rubrum (similar to our Crowberry, Empetrum nigrum). We pitched the tents in a small clearing amongst Island Tree for shelter, pegged well down and guys tied tightly.  Necessary because of near galeforce winds for much of the time. But weirdly warm, sunny and very humid. Quite nice in sheltered ravines (gulches) and in scrubby woodland. And it was great waking up and finding you’re above the clouds!
Sooty Albatross chick line-up...
It is not easy to describe just how difficult the terrain is.  One kilometre on the Base can take anything between one and three hours. Every step and handhold requires a calculation on how much weight it can take. Nothing is certain. Even the rock is unreliable (but rarely exposed). The uneven spongy peat surface is covered by dense leaf litter and prostrate branches. All of which are hidden by ferns.  Amongst the scrubby tangle there is much deadwood which despite looking solid enough snaps instantly.  Green wood is more reliable but surprisingly brittle.  At times all-fours is the best way to squeeze through the tangle of branches.  It is just as well my work partner, Lourens, is adept with the machete!  Unwooded slopes are climbed by grabbing handfuls of vegetation. I’ve just about figured out how much you can trust different species, but there is a lot of trial and error (and cuts and scrapes).     
The bottom of a small gulch
The main question is ridges or ravines. Exposure sometimes makes ridge vegetation more open. There are also short peaty paths made by Mollys (Yellow-nosed Albatrosses) to commute between their sheltered nest sites and exposed launch-pads.  But otherwise they can be almost impenetrable.  Ravines (gulches) are often better for covering the ground as there is less rank vegetation and the rivers are usually dry unless it is actually raining.  (Few streams flow constantly on Tristan as the terrain is porous.)  But gulches are invariably steep-sided, deep and have periodic dry waterfalls - some hundreds of feet high - that are only bypassed with difficulty. 
The gulches are certainly much more interesting botanically.  For example last week we recorded 65 species in each 1km square on the days spent in gulches. But only 35 on a 1km square in which we ridge walked.  We have only ever found the rare endemic fern Asplenium insulare once so far on Tristan – and then a single population with just a few plants. So it was good to find a second much more extensive population.  It likes humid and sheltered conditions – so gulches are perfect. Especially narrow, sheltered ones with overhanging edges.  Its constant associate is Trichomanes angustatum – itself a rare endemic.  The secret appears to be to find the right habitat then look under other bigger ferns.  
Dryopteris wallachiana
These gulches are home to other rare endemics such the buttercup Ranunculus carolii, the starwort, Callitriche christensenii, and the Floating Sweet-grass, Glyceria insularis.  Amongst the bigger ferns we occasionally encounter Athyrium medium and Hypolepis rugulosa but the real surprise was to find the biggest population of Dryopteris wallachiana seen to date. This is a lot like our Scaly Male-fern (Dryopteris affinis agg.) and produces splendid yellow-green frond shuttlecocks. That is not to say that wooded ridges are without interest. We saw more of the rare endemic and well-named Bootlace Fern (Radiovittaria ruiziana) than ever previously. But generally they are less diverse, and you don’t cover as much ground.
However the highlight of the trip was an ascent to the 2,060 metre peak. This carrying our camping gear and surveying as we went. (Another day that would make SAS training seem easy!)  The peak has concentric vegetation bands that change with altitude.  The Blechnum/Empetrum sward quickly gives way to a heath dominated by Empetrum and the moss Rhacomitrium lanuginosum;  vegetation very similar to that found on the Scottish mountains, but rarely in such fine condition with so little sheep trampling and grazing damage.  Around 1200 metres, my eagle-eyed work partner Lourens spotted another population of the rare endemic rush, Rostkovia tristanensis.  (If you remember this had not been recorded since the 1938 Norwegian Survey Expedition.)  
The summit plateau
The spongy Empetrum-Rhacomitrium sward becomes increasingly patchy with altitude. Eventually the ground becomes too unstable, loose and dry for any but the hardiest of mosses. This is the Alpine desert cinder scree zone.  All plants at this altitude form dense mats or tight cushions – adaptations which create a (relatively) warm and humid microclimate that helps to minimise water loss.  We find the highest flowering plant at 1970 metres, just above Crater Lake – Empetrum rubrum again!  The view from the top is spectacular. Its like looking out an aircraft window on a brilliantly sunny day - down on distant clouds and blue sea. Closer in the Base looks surprisingly extensive and several other water-filled crater lakes are evident. But no where is the coast visible due to the steep escarpment. We have a quick dip in crater lake - a beautiful and sheltered spot - before continuing our survey on the descent to the settlement.
Crater Lake
After a few day's specimen pressing, data entry, battery charging - literally and personally, cooking, shopping, clothes washing and with a good weather forecast we are getting ready to go on another camping trip early tomorrow morning..

News Snippets:
  • The island went back to work on Monday – after the three week summer holiday.  This meant the Island Store re-opened for the first time since Christmas. I’d only run out of cereal and coffee but was also running dangerously low on beer supplies.
  • The MV Edinburgh is due to arrive from Cape Town tomorrow – hopefully with my Christmas presents that didn’t make the last ship.  And with some emergency supplies that my cousins, Sandy and Ali in Cape Town have kindly bought and despatched.  How exciting!
  • Simon is in Edinburgh this week catching up with friends and family. Unfortunately the Alfa Romeo is playing up - I think through lack of use!
  • Mum is making a great recovery, after breaking her leg in October.  She is able to drive again and can now get to the shops and to her normal full program of events and meetings.     
  • My sister, Catherine, and her family are coming over from America to see mum and help my brother, Peter, on the farm with the lambing this spring.

Monday, 9 January 2012

Old Year’s Day and the Okalolies

I had an excellent Christmas Dinner on Tristan at the UK Government Administrator’s Residency.  Sean is a great cook and kindly invited the ex-pats round for a delicious Christmas roast dinner with loads of vegetables and Christmas pudding.  A visit to the Residency is always eagerly anticipated – it is by far the biggest and poshest house on the island; warm, bright, comfortable and with deeply plush armchairs.  The Tristan equivalent of Buckingham Palace, I suppose.  (In return Sean and his charming wife Marina came round to my humble abode for dinner last week.  Just the impetus I needed to spring clean the house and cook a nice meal.  French onion soup and home-made bread, Roast Chicken and potatoes, peas & cabbage with lovely red wine!)

New Year plans were a bit uncertain, but it developed into one of the best I can ever remember.  Though to be fair, I only have a hazy recollection.  I visited and met loads of people throughout the day, evening and night.  And there was a fair bit of drinking too. In fact from 10am on Old Year's Day (the local name for New Year’s Eve) right through to the small hours.  The highlight was another visit to the Residency for drinks and nibbles. Folk stood around in the garden and chatted in the warm summer’s evening.  A Rockhopper penguin surveyed the scene from the corner of the garden rather disapprovingly.

It is an Old Year’s Day custom on Tristan that young men dress up in frightening disguise, wearing horrible masks and go from house to house terrorising the islanders.  Women and children are locked up for safety by their men folk.  But the Okalolies, as they are known, are devious and have been known to go up into an attic in one house and down through the hatch into the next! Anyone caught out can expect a prank to befall them: like being thrown in a paddling pool or at the very least squirted by water-pistol.  Initially I thought the penguin in the Residency garden was yet another Okaloly prank. But no. Rockhopper penguins leave the sea at this time of year and head to higher ground inland to molt.  This one just happened to gatecrash the party!

The next stop is Prince Philip Hall for the Chief Islander’s party. It is traditional that only men are invited. Well, except for the women who serve the food.  Then it is off to one of the many braais around the settlement, with an unscheduled stop to ask for directions.  I am invited in and treated like a long-lost friend, and eventually lead to my destination by my torch-carrying host.  The barbequed lamb and beef is well marinated in some delicious concoction, probably involving Mrs Ball’s fine chutney.  The heat from the braai is welcome as the evening begins to cool. We visit other braais, with more delicious food, drink, and convivial company.

Suddenly its quarter to midnight and we make for the Dong, where a large group has already gathered.  At midnight we take turns to hammer the Dong – an empty gas cylinder (well I hope it is empty!) that is more usually used to signal a fishing day.  Sean invites everyone back to the Residency (fantastic – another visit!) to continue the New Year celebrations and there is much chatting, music, drink and dancing - right through until morning.

Happy New Year everybody!