Friday, May 25, 2012

Angry Birds: Christmas Island Edition

by Jess Conroy

Hard at work labeling samples in the field.
The plan was simple: Rent a mighty truck, drive to the remote south side of the island, and do some scouting and collecting of fossil coral material. And camp overnight on the beach. Fun! However, our execution of this plan was far from perfect. Luckily for y'all, our adventures should be entertaining to read about.

We had previously rented a truck from a man living near the Captain Cook Hotel. He didn’t take a liking to us after our first rental, perhaps because we ran over his volleyball net. But, he agreed to rent us the truck for our camping expedition, at the price of $70 a day.  He dropped off the truck for us on Thursday as promised, but parked a good quarter mile away from Dive Kiribati, so while he snoozed in his truck, we were clueless about the location of our vehicle and the feasibility of the day’s plans. But, being eager young field hands, we drilled a large Porites coral in the yard of Dive Kiribati while we were waiting. Thankfully Anami spotted our truck while out on an errand, and we finally loaded up our gear and set off around 11:30 AM. So much for an early start. And then came the first obstacle: none of us had ever applied our immense brains to the task of driving stick shift. So, with some trepidation, I climbed into the driver’s seat of the Aussie-made truck. And I did it!  I drove through town, braving speed bumps and shifting gears, on what for me seemed like the wrong side of the car on the wrong side of the road. I owe many thanks to Anami for teaching me, and also for taking over when the roads got brutal.

Our route to the south side was based on a red dotted line on a tattered map Diane was smart enough to bring along. Our first attempt at finding this road led us to some amazingly old-looking Porites corals lining a lagoon laden with red gelatinous bacterial mats. Since we were pretty far inland, the presence of these corals implies a higher sea level at some time in the past. Perhaps the Last Interglacial? We excitedly geeked out over our discovery.

Hussein hauling a fine specimen to the truck.
Shortly afterward, we came to our first road closed sign of the trip (many areas of the island are often closed for environmental reasons, like seabird nesting). We turned around, headed out to the main road, and found the only other road cutting across the island. We turned onto it, into the wilderness of Christmas Island. The road was exceedingly narrow, and mangroves and other shrubs were beginning to reclaim their territory. As the truck forged ahead, those of us sitting in the back were whacked repeatedly, and a constant, painful screeching sound made us wonder how irritated the truck owner would be when we returned his vehicle covered in scratches.

We finally emerged, and made the executive decision to take the long route along the edge of the island back to civilization. This road appeared nicer on the map, but would add about 2 hours or more to our journey. But now it was coral time. We started combing the rubble fields, taking a water sample here and there. We found plenty of samples, but the material seemed much more weathered and beaten down, hinting the fossils were much older than the assemblages on the other side of the island.
Diane in her mosquito net. Note ominous rain clouds in background.
Toward the end of the day our truck became infested with some sort of mangrove-dwelling insect. It was getting creepy, so we grabbed our gear and set up camp on an empty expanse of beach. Diane and Anami were eager to sleep outside, so Hussein claimed one tent and Liz and I set up in another, while Diane and Anami rigged mosquito nets. We then dug through our cooler to find dinner, finding a cornucopia of processed meat products to indulge on—hot dogs, vienna sausages, and spam. Liz was incredibly fond of the ‘vienner sausages’, but I’ve decided they should be reserved for the apocalypse. Later in the evening as we sat around the fire, Liz and Hussein taught Anami such great American traditionals as ‘Milk Shake,’ ‘Love Games,’ and ‘Get Low.’

We enjoyed a great fire prior to the deluge.
We were keeping our fingers crossed that the skies would remain clear, but it was not to be. As soon as we got comfortable, the rain came. Diane and Anami booked it for the truck, and poor Hussein shivered in the fetal position in his leaking tent through the night of storms. We were a sorry sight in the morning, but we got down to business, collecting samples from three more sites as we moved up the beachside road toward home.
Or so we thought. After driving about an hour or so on the only road traversing the south side, we came upon a terrible sight: a road closed sign. We debated our options: ignore the sign, and keep going, or turn around, and attempt the bushwhacking road again.

One should always obey road signs on Christmas Island.

We ignored the sign. About five minutes down the road, we began to realize why the sign was there. The sky became black with seabirds. They seemed angry. And then the truck stopped. Hussein climbed out, and with a look of terror, said “There are birds sitting in the road.” I peered over the side of the truck. The road was dense with birds. Now we were down to one option. We backed up and booked it in the other direction. I got a sinking feeling in my stomach, thinking we would soon be too low on gas to get home.

Birds. Lots of birds.

But thankfully, we made it home with all our rocks. And we were able to buff out most of the scratches on the truck. Disaster averted.