Friday, January 23, 2009

Thanksgiving Weekend in Tobago

Thanksgiving weekend in Trinidad and Tobago

We had decided a few weeks back that we would celebrate Thanksgiving by joining the Trinidad and Tobago Field Naturalist Club (TTFNC) on their annual outing to Tobago. Thanksgiving isn’t a holiday in Trinidad, it’s a regular work day. I had a night class Thursday so we hadn’t planned on doing anything to celebrate until the weekend. That night, Rich met me at my class around 8 pm and we walked home together. I’d left my car lights on Wednesday night, so the car battery was dead and we were hoping one of our neighbors would still be up and about so we could get some help jumpstarting the car. When we came through the gate, we found our community courtyard packed with cars. Our American neighbors had invited everyone they knew over for a Thanksgiving party. They not only nicely helped us get the car started; they then plied us with turkey and other tasty foods and drinks. We are definitely blessed with terrific neighbors.

After a hectic morning at work on Friday, I came home around 3 pm and we threw some gear into our bags hoping we hadn’t brought all the wrong stuff and headed to the airport to meet with our TTFNC friends. TTFNC usually takes the ferry to Tobago but one of the ferries is currently out of service and the other was booked up weeks in advance so we switched to plan B and flew. Shortly after 4 pm we loaded up the car and headed for the airport only to get stuck in gridlock traffic. One of the bridges on the highway was washed out in last week’s floods. It has been replaced with a temporary Bailey bridge, which is somewhat narrower than the original. This was enough to bring traffic to a dead standstill. It took us a full hour to go a little more than a mile from campus to the bridge. We arrived at the airport to find the trip organizer pacing and fretting about us as well as others who had not yet arrived. Luckily, he had planned for the group to meet two hours before the flight so although we were late for the rendezvous, we were still in plenty of time to easily make the flight.

It only takes 20 minutes to fly from Trinidad to Tobago and it took only a few minutes after landing to collect bags and pick up the rental cars. The Tobago airport is located at Crowne Point near the southwest tip of Tobago and we were headed to Charlotteville, which is as far from Crowne Point as you can get without leaving the island. Tobago is a just small island, but the roads are slow and winding so it took us a little over an hour to make our way up the Atlantic coast to the northeast end of the island. (Tobago is bordered by the Atlantic on its southeast side and the Caribbean on the northwest side). Unfortunately, it was long past sundown so we didn’t get much chance to see Tobago on the drive. After reaching Speyside where the road along the Atlantic coast ends, we crossed over to the Caribbean side on a steep winding road that must exceed a 20% grade at points and then dropped down into Charlotteville.

Charlotteville is a small fishing village located on Man of War Bay, which is one of the few natural deepwater ports in the region. The Atlantic conveyor belt splits around Tobago, which made the island an important strategic location for European sailing ships coming from Africa during the colonial era. The bay gained its name because it was one of the few bays deep enough for Man of War ships.

We stayed in the Man of War Bay Cottages which are located directly on the beach within a former cocoa estate that is now owned by the Turpin family and managed as a nature preserve. We stayed in a 3 bedroom cabin with 4 other field naturalists. Our cabin was located about 100 ft from the Caribbean Sea. We are told that Man of War Bay is usually very clear and calm, but weather was not in our favor. The sea was quite choppy, so we went to sleep to the sound of waves rolling onto the beach.

I woke up early and went out for a walk along the beach at sunrise. The skies were mostly cloudy but there were clear patches off to the north and a golden glow in the clouds as the sun came up. I saw a blue heron alongside one of the small streams that enter the bay and watched a few of the local fishermen heading out in their small boats. While I was out strolling on the beach, some of our TTFNC friends were watching two squirrels pick almonds off the trees near our cabins.

The plan was to leave at 8 am for a hike up Pigeon Hill, so after breakfast Rich and I decided to take a quick swim in the bay. The combination of rough water, recent hard rains and dredging efforts on the stream that comes into Charlotteville made the usually clear bay, quite brown and muddy. We are told that there are two small coral reefs right out in front of our cabins but the water was so murky that we quite literally couldn’t see our own hands in front of our faces.

While we were eating breakfast preparing for the morning hike, David Rooks, one of Tobago’s top naturalists and long time member of TTFNC came by to visit. His niece and a Dutch woman who is living in Charlotteville and doing research for her wild life management degree joined us on the hike. About the time we headed out for the hike, it started to rain steadily and 3 members of our group decided they’d rather go bird watching. The trail to Pigeon Hill starts just a hundred meters or so down from the turnoff to Flagstaff Hill, on the Charlotteville side. A red flower known as Deer Meat was growing right at the trailhead. While Dan, our hiking guide, was telling us how the plant was both edible and palatable, Rich, our environmental chemist, pointed out the nearby empty 55 gallon chemical drum and the white residue on the plants and suggested that perhaps eating these particular plants was unwise. The first section of the trail is an old dirt road and which had been recently cleared so it was in very good condition. After climbing easily for about a kilometer we reach a lovely viewpoint of Man of War Bay. There were two magnificent hardwoods growing near the viewpoint, a Caribbean Cedar (Cedral Oderata) and a Cyp. Not far past the viewpoint, Steven, our reptile guy, spotted a black and yellow snake known locally as Bahbelle Chenen (Leimadiphos melanatos neson) but it zipped off under the brush before the rest of us got a look at it. A bit further up the trail there is another viewpoint looking off toward Englishman’s Bay on the Atlantic side of the Island but by this time the storm clouds were thick enough that our view was of lovely mist rolling up the hillside rather than the sea below.

As we proceeded up the trail, the rain got progressively harder which wasn’t conducive to bird watching but did bring out a large number (we estimate at least 15) mountain crabs that were scurrying up and down the trail. After about 2 kilometers, the trail became more overgrown and Dan had to use his cutlass (Machete for you Yankees) in places to clear the way. Up higher the trail enters rain forest and we saw number of notable plants including Climbing Palm, Rubber Tree, and Tropical Stinging Nettle, which is a truly vicious plant. Aside from the fact that it stings, this plant bears no relation to the stinging nettle that grows in temperate regions.

Roughly an hour and a half into the hike, the trail met a large ravine rushing with water from the ongoing rain. Dan informed us that the trail had been rerouted up a steep hill and that it was no more than 10 minutes from where we stood to the top of Pigeon Hill. While we waited for some of the group members to catch up the hard rain turned to a genuine deluge. It was raining hard enough you could tip your head back and get a drink. That may be an exaggeration but only a very small one. We were holding out our cupped hands and in only a few seconds we’d have enough fresh rainwater to drink. One of our team members cut us all excellent hiking sticks while we waited and then, once again assured that it was only 10 minutes to the top we headed up the steep, muddy slippery hill. After an hour of climbing up the exceedingly steep muddy track that was rapidly turning into a cascade as the rain got even harder we finally reached the top of Pigeon Hill. We were rewarded on the climb by finding and catching a small purple and greenish clouded snake (Sibon nebulata nebulata) and seeing much beautiful rainforest vegetation.
The rain slowed as we descended the trail and a few birds began to come out. We spotted the usual corn birds and orange winged parrots and watched a male rufous-tailed Jacamar who was perched a few feet from the trail.

By the time we reached the road the rain had stopped and the clouds were starting to lift. David Rooks happened by on the road just as we exited the trailhead. While we were regaling Mr. Rooks with our adventures and regrouping we discovered a beautiful iridescent gold beetle that neither Mr. Rooks nor any of our experts recognized. We were all drenched to the skin and covered with mud from sliding down the steep trail sections so we walked back to our cabin and sent someone cleaner and drier back for the cars.

When we met up with the bird group, they informed us they needed to be renamed “the reptile group”. The hard rain wasn’t conducive to good bird watching but they did see a Boa Constrictor crossing the road. They reported that the deluge that had soaked us to the skin had caused considerable mayhem on the roads below. The river that comes into the Bay near Speyside was out of its banks and several sections of road were temporarily blocked by mud and rock slides.

Our plan had been to spend the afternoon snorkeling but the hard rains had filled the bays with a great deal of silt and the water was very murky so we enjoyed a walk around Charlotteville and a meal of fresh caught kingfish and chips. Toward evening, the clouds lifted and we went up Flagstaff Hill for a view of the island and then scouted out the roads that had been flooded earlier in the day. That night, Mr. Rooks and Mrs. Turpin joined us in the cabin and shared tales of natural history of Tobago, shark fishing and pirate hangings in Pirates Bay.

The next morning, the weather was much clearer and so we went off to snorkel in Pirates Bay. During the night the water had mostly cleared so we were able to see the brain coral and plenty plenty fish including the queen angel fish, the french angel fish, several types of parrot fish and many others whose names I really need to learn.

After a lovely morning of snorkeling and sand, most of our group went in to Speyside for lunch. Since this was our first trip to Tobago, Rich and I decided we’d rather spend our time outside so we went up Flagstaff Hill to enjoy the view and then walked back to the cabins to meet up with the rest of the club by midafternoon. We drove the scenic route down the Caribbean side of the island back and arrived in Crowne Point in time to watch the sunset from the beach before our plane ride back to Trinidad.

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