by Andrew Foote
Despite full stomachs, a tiring day and a few glasses of wine, I was woken instantly by a loud knock on out cabin door.
"Mister Simeon, you must wake. There is danger for your boat!"
I staggered from our bed, waking Aruno in the so-doing.
"Coming!" I yelled.
I threw on a pair of shorts and went up top only to see both boats making a graceful, if dangerous turn.
The ebbing tide had caught our sterns, and if allowed to continue, there was a likelihood we'd either run aground and have us keel over, or run into the rock face causing God only knows what damage.
I much preferred the rock thing, believing what damage was caused might just be superficial.
Aruno surfaced, and sending him below to fire the main engine, port generator and hydraulic power-plant, I looked for things I could use as fenders.
We had fenders-proper, but then I searched out long-since redundant lobster pots – anything that might cushion the impact.
Rob and Cathy appeared wearing not very much by way of clothing, and telling them to do much the same thing, but to pass their fenders across so I could use them.
We were to their starboard side meaning we were the ones who would hit, with them in open water, but if we went down, we'd take her with us.
A manic half hour, and with the lines to our bows payed out, and their stern line slackened, we drifted effortlessly up against the rocks, safe enough for now, but mindful that an incoming tide would have the reverse effect, sending the Marion inshore, dragging us with her.
With hardly a ripple on the water, we had been very fortunate. To come all this way only to sink due to our own stupidity, was something I couldn't contemplate, and I didn't sleep for the rest of the night as a consequence.
I walked the shoreline in search of somewhere more suited, but either the water was too shallow or the depth meant it became impractical. Ideally we needed somewhere with around ten or twelve foot of water at low tide, wide enough and long enough to accommodate two boats so we could bury a length of chain in a large block of concrete, attach a mooring buoy to the other end, sink the concrete block so making it much the same as we had back in Tresgillith. A big ask.
Sunrise on this island was spectacular. From where I was standing, it came up from behind one of the higher peaks, and the higher it rose, the peak split the light hurting my eyes, but on the beach, it cast a shadow right the way down to the water's edge, then as the sun moved around, it gave the impression that the beach wasn't flat but rather it had a long indentation almost from the base of the hill to the water and about thirty feet wide. I made a mental note of where I was standing then ambled back to prepare breakfast.
Today there were two tasks that needed our attention. We had to work out how best to secure our boats and I wanted to see if the Landrover still ran, so after we'd eaten and tidied up, Rob and I went up to where the boats might end up as they drifted on the incoming tide.
Again, the beach disappeared into about four foot of water until the colour of the water changed from a light green giving way to the inky blackness of the deep.
Using a long stick, we got as close as we dared to the point where it shelved, then using a Pyrex oven bowl, looked into and over the edge.
"A sheer drop, with glass-smooth sides, and bloody deep!" was Rob's interpretation. "We should be safe enough for now, but we ought to find somewhere better. It'll be a pain in the arse if we have to keep on swapping the fenders from one boat to the other on every change of tide."
I then walked back to the point where I'd been standing earlier, and again I could make out that slight indentation in the sand. This time the shadow had passed, so any thoughts of it being merely an optical illusion had me exploring it further, but this time, it was obvious that the colour of the sand was different to the rest of the beach, and on treading on it and almost losing my flip-flop, I realised that the sand was wet – not just damp, but soggy.
Later that morning, and having discovered that the battery on the Landrover was shot to bits and needed replacing, I asked Aruno to explain why that sand was wet.
"About five years ago just before the WWF set the island as a protected area, the Government sent a team of geologists to survey the place.
Because it used to be volcanic, they thought there might be something worth mining such as precious stones. They found nothing, but decided that during the Ice Age, the valley between those two peaks was formed by a glacier.
During the rains, the water drains off the mountains washing away the sand back to the river, but then the winds blow it back once the rains stop, so I think that as the rains only stopped about a month ago, there's still water draining off keeping the sand wet."
"So, how deep and wide is it during the rains?"
"I think about twelve feet deep and around twenty yards across, but it's silt and water so it's hard to be sure."
"I wonder if it's possible to dredge it?"
"A lot of work Mimi-Cu, and then as fast as you clear it, the winds will fill it back in again."
"I could work out a method of clearing it, and if we were to build wind-breaks……?"
"I will speak with the elders and if they're agreeable, it would be a good place for the boats."
"Do your persuasive best otherwise we might have major problems."
The following day, rather than sitting around waiting, we went out for our first exploratory fishing run. Our crew consisted of Aruno, Rob, Cathy, Tanbae and me.
We took out just the one boat, Conqueror, not knowing what we might come across and how much effort it might take to haul a catch on board.
Tanbae pointed us in the direction of what we now call the Twin Peaks where he thought we might meet with some success. Open waters stretching out into the northern South Atlantic might provide us with something worth catching, and he was right.
We trawled for Tuna and were rewarded with a sizable haul which I would ship to the main island the following morning, land the catch and find somewhere to buy a battery for the Landrover.
The money raised would be divided up with operating costs deducted, a third of what remained I would bank in the villages savings account with the rest shared out equally amongst the crew.
That short expedition brought in R$ 2450 or around £500, so there was money to be made.
I got back hoping for news about the old riverbed, but there was none.
Aruno explained that nothing happened in a hurry. Things were under consideration and that I had to be patient, so I concentrated my efforts on getting the Landrover to play.
This didn't prove an easy thing to achieve. The engine turned over but it refused to fire, so out with the toolbox.
Goo in the injector pump, stuff that back in England we referred to as Diesel Bug caused through letting the vehicle stand for prolonged periods in damp conditions, so I stripped it out and blew it through with an airline before reinstalling it and going for the injectors.
Also blocked with the same contamination, so these I removed and cleaned thoroughly in paraffin.
I changed the fuel filters, which actually looked okay, so satisfied that the full tank she was shipped with would also be alright, I bled the system and hit the start button.
First try and the old lady coughed, second try, much the same result, but on the third attempt, she burst into life filling the container with thick blue exhaust fumes.
I left her to warm up and ran back to the boat, soaked an old tea-towel in water and wrapping it around my mouth and nose, went back, selected four-wheel drive and pulled her out and on to the sand.
She was running rough, almost like a choked petrol engine, so I switched her off and took a look at the air filter.
Quite obviously the container wasn't water-tight as the filter was saturated, so this I replaced and tried again.
My good old Landy still sounded like a heap of shit, but a heap of shit that I recognised as being a Normal heap of shit!
Naturally, this brought the kids out in droves.
Most of them, unless they'd visited the main island, wouldn't have seen a vehicle up close except for grainy images on their black and white TV, so turning off the engine and remembering to take the keys from the ignition, I let them climb all over her. She was falling to bits anyway, so what more damage could they do?
They didn't let it rest, as the next morning a canoe on wheels was sitting behind her, and no small canoe either as it had seating for ten people.
The children attended their school in the morning where they were taught fishing skills, building of huts and the traditions of their culture, but come the afternoon they were back asking me to drag their canoe over the sands.
This was hilarious! No outriggers meant it turned over at the slightest provocation, spilling them onto the floor, so by the next morning, outriggers had been lashed in place which meant I could go faster…… well, ten miles an hour faster!
They never got bored with it, and I was happy to indulge them, they were lovely kids.
Five days on and I got the nod from Aruno – the elders had decided to allow me to clear the old riverbed of silt.
"I'm sorry it's taken so long Mimi-Cu, but they are old and set in the past – something I have to address.
Do whatever is needed, and if you need help then ask for it.
These first weeks will be busy for me, so please don't be angry if I'm not around?
There is much to sort out, much to put right. Things here have been neglected and now I have the responsibility to make the changes."
"I could never be angry with you, so please, just do what you need to do. Just come back to me every night."
He grinned at me! "Never fear! I need you too!"
I felt guilty not being out fishing and generating some income for both us and the village, but we needed a safe mooring because without one, we might lose the boats.
Our priorities were plain to see, so we sat down over a beer in Marion's mess deck and devised a plan of action.
"Marion is seaward of Conqueror, so it might be an idea if you and Rob take her out and reverse up-river, then turn towards what I think is the entrance to the tributary and make depth soundings – one or other of you on the bridge, the other up front with a hand-held to guide them in. I'll come up with the inflatable and when it gets too shallow for comfort, I'll take over using a scaffold pole as an indicator."
"Doable, but why do you need a scaffold pole?"
"If what I believe is correct, then the depth of water should be much the same, the only difference being sand and silt settling on the floor at the point where there's little or no water flow.
Whacking the pole into the water should tell me if I'm hitting sand or rock. If it's rock, then we might just as well abandon the idea…… but, if I hit sand and I mean seriously deep sand, we're on a winner!"
Cath reached for the cooler and took another beer. "Sounds good to me. How about you, sex-machine?"
Rob made a grab for her drink, but she was too quick for him.
"Eight tomorrow morning…… so long as I still have enough energy!"
Seven-thirty and with Aruno gone for most of the day, I took a hand-held VHF radio and a litre bottle of mineral water and lowered the inflatable into the water, then minutes later, I saw movement on the Marion then heard her main engine start.
Time to get moving and check out our possible mooring.
I beached the inflatable and watched as Cathy manoeuvred Marion upstream, then turned slowly towards me.
Rob was up front with his radio.
"Gently does it Cath…… that's fine…… that's good. What are you seeing babe?"
"I'll read out as I go…… ten foot, twelve, ten, eight, ten, ten, ten and…… I'm backing away. Getting too shallow for comfort."
I shouted her. "Job done well, and thanks. I'll take over from here if you want to head back."
"We're gone, and we'll have something to eat on the table once you're back."
"Nice Simeon. I mean that could really work, but I have reservations about its practicality."
"You mean the amount of work it'd take?"
"There's that, although that wasn't my main concern. I was thinking more about the amount of water that comes off the mountains when it rains."
"I know, and that has me bothered as well. What quantities would be sufficient to move that amount of sand has to be huge and how we might divert it…… I just don't know, but what else is there? If we sit tight where we are, we're going to cop it from everywhere, not just from that tributary, it'll come down-stream from every valley – every gorge on the island. Right now is problematical enough, but come the rains…… forget it."
Rob finished speaking, and Aruno looked thoughtful, studying his drink before he spoke.
"I'm too young to remember what happened, but I do recall there being pastures beyond that river. Our people used it to rear cattle and buffalo but then something happened that stopped them.
If you look North-East, you can still see what remains of the buildings…… all that land was verdant and productive land when I was a child."
"A flood plain perhaps?"
"Maybe. I'll have to ask those who might remember those times."
"Please do that. I don't want to go upsetting the eco-system for the sake of decent moorings."
I had been invited to a meeting of the elders. Aruno wasn't going to be there as he thought it a good idea for me to familiarise myself with them and the protocol involved.
Not only was I an Incomer, new to their culture, I was the Chiefs bonded one which meant I had a standing within the community, but none-the-less, I had to deport myself accordingly without strutting around as if I owned the place.
"Just be yourself Mimi-Cu." Were my instructions.
I will admit I felt nervous, but I was welcomed and I immediately I felt at ease in their company.
One elder had been nominated to speak about that dried up river as his knowledge was far superior with his family having farmed it some years back, not only that, but his explanation was simple and made a lot of sense.
"In the time we farmed there, at the foot of the mountains there were trees and dense foliage at the floor. This diverted the river-flow during the rains, flooding our land meaning we had to move our livestock. This was very inconvenient, with much hard work, and sometimes we would lose animals to the floods, so my Grandfather – not an educated man, felled the trees to keep our land dry and allowing the river to take its intended coarse.
As you can see, his thinking was wrong, and our land became dry and unproductive, but by this time, replanting was not possible; no time for the trees to grow strong enough to withstand the waters, so we were forced to abandon the land. I cannot know how you can make the river safe for your boats as the flow is strong when the rains come."
"Couldn't we dam it? If we were to allow some water to enter the river but divert the rest, wouldn't that work?"
"I'm sure it would, but what would we use for such a dam?"
"A naturally occurring resource…… rock. Build a dense wall, leaving gaps to allow the existing flow to the river, then the rest would be encouraged onto your land and out to sea."
He nodded his head and smiled.
"I thought your thoughts Simeon, but rock is heavy – too heavy to move in the quantities necessary. Our men-folk would be too exhausted to hunt and fish, and all because of some land."
"Did you see me towing the children in that canoe on wheels? They have to have weighed more than two or three large boulders and my vehicle took it very well, so what if we could fashion something to carry rock?"
"But the cost to you……?"
I stood up and decided to assert myself.
"We didn't come to your homes with the intention of leaching on society. We have money enough, and the technology, things that can make things better for you without spoiling your way of life – something we would never do.
As to the cost? What cost!
My Landrover is old but strong, we have fuel enough, knowledgeable about keeping it running and also, we have the enthusiasm of youth on our side to make a difference.
What are the alternatives? We try and fail, spending a few Reals (Brazilian currency shown as R$) along the way and no further forward, or we succeed, we reclaim productive land, have safe and secure moorings, men and boys are paid…… everyone wins."
Again he smiled at me. "You speak wise words Simeon, and on acceptance of my fellows, I agree to this undertaking."
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