Lots Wife Ponds

Lot, is a huge pillar of rock, shining silver and emerging like Excalibur from the surrounding brown earth. Lots wife, is the nearby wife of Lot, a smaller pillar, eroded at the base such that its top appears as though it could topple at any moment. The ponds are the sheltered natural swimming pools that have formed on the wave cut platforms below Lots Wife, protected from the wild Atlantic ocean by huge walls, a seam of hard wearing rock now forming an impenetrable barrier to the relentless waves. Lots Wife Ponds were also the destination for Bev and I, on our first twenty four hours on our own, without the children, for over six months.

Good friends and regular babysitters Suzanne and Mike have become something of life saver to us, looking after our boys on a regular basis when we both dive or, in this case when we need to find some time for us, to remember that we are a couple, in love and not just here as servants to the needs of our children, (or employers). And so in quintessential Tyson style instead of resting, relaxing or some romance, Bev and I took to a 9km round trip across rugged terrain in 28C heat to find the ponds, a much talked about beauty spot of the Island.

The walk to Lots Wife ponds features in the post box walks, a series of tourist trails across the Island, graded for their difficulty in both effort and technical difficulty. Having tried some low grade walks with the boys, Lots Wife Ponds sits at the upper end of the scale, with a  grade of 6/10 for effort, and 8/10 for technical difficulty. And such we set out, across the wide flat dry river bed of broad gut and up the zig zagging path of and old cart road across the steep sided scree slopes beyond. Broad Gut, the Gates of Chaos, Frightus Rock and other aptly named peaks, ridges, valleys and gorges form the Sandy Bay National Park, an area that inspires awe as the Mars like landscape, scarred into volcanic rocks rises in reds, oranges and purples to the lush green slopes of High and  Diana Peaks and the central ridge. Formed during volcanic eruptions some 14 million years ago this now dry and barren  surface was once green with trees and plants found no-where else on earth. The arrival of goats on the Island in the late 1500s led to severe deforestation and hundreds of years of rain and driving Atlantic winds have scoured sharp ridges like daggers across the unprotected rock, forming a  Lord of the Rings landscape.

Start of the walk up from Broad Gut

Start of the walk up from Broad Gut

Our route, upwards!

Our route, upwards!

The path is well marked from the feet of other intrepid explorers, and of countless years of fishermen and donkeys and leads us upward, winding across steep valley sides ever on to a ridge we can see in the distance. As other parents will know, when you have children and have the opportunity to relieve yourselves of them for a day you have to take your chances, and as such we pressed on in the less than ideal conditions. Dry and extremely hot, the winds blowing up from the blue waves below us provided welcome rest bite from the burning afternoon tropical sun. As our car disappeared into the distance and the blue waters of Sandy Bay became obscured by rocks of red and orange we finally arrived at our highest point, a ridge providing extraordinary views of Broad Gut behind and the rocky cliffs of Asses Ears, Gorrila’s Head, Man o’War Roost and of course Lots Wife loomed high above us.

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Gorilla’s Head is the square shaped rock on the right hand side, with one of the Asses Ears above it


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Descending from the ridge we encountered our first “technical” section, a narrow, loose path with a steep drop to our left. Although not overtly daunting, the presence of a fixed rope at this point is welcoming, reassuring to know that we are on the right track, and that the reportedly difficult final section may be equally well protected. As we descended, clear white lines of guano could be seen on the finger ridges that slope off from the main cliff side peaks. Sitting below the ridge where Bev and I had the great pleasure of helping to tag and record Booby nests some months before, we found ourselves on the lower ridges, where the secondary team had worked that day. We pass by a nest and chick now almost fledged and a far cry from the eggs and newly hatched fluffy grey chicks we had encountered back in October. By this time of the day booby’s can be seen returning to their nests, bringing food to hungry chicks from a day’s foraging. These striking white birds fly like a red arrows display team in acrobatic lines to various white target points marked upon the red rocks.

Masked Booby and chick,

Masked Booby and chick,

Bev looks on at the chick and its parent.

Bev looks on at the chick and its parent.

We arrive at our next way point, an arrow marking the way to, “Lots Wife Ponds” in stones on the ground. Curiously, pointing in the opposite direction we find marked the words, “Fizzled me”. Although curious and with a strong desire to be fizzled, we continue our path to Lots Wife Ponds. Further on and still some 50m above sea level we came to the curious white sands of a former beach, apparently blown up the valley gulley’s and deposited up the slope. A beach that over millennia had become compressed to form rock, sandstone, was now being eroded and weathered back to whence it came and  into a beach.  After fifty minutes of walking, we reach the post box, a white tube containing a visitors note book and a stamp to mark our trail book as proof that we had completed the walk._MG_0015

At this stage we were a little underwhelmed by the technical difficulty of the walk. Having spent many good times amongst the infamous ice covered ridges of Crib Goch in Snowdon, I am perhaps not an average walker, but in comparison to our other low grade walks I was still expecting something more of a challenge from our grade 8’er. Perhaps the “optional extra” beyond the post box and down to the ponds themselves would provide the challenge. Alas we would remain disappointed, undoubtedly a  bit of a nervous scramble under normal conditions, the last two steep descents are provided the safety of strong and well placed ropes giving secure hand holds to counter any loose footsteps.

And so it was we reached our destination, Lots Wife Ponds. A huge pillar of rock greeted us to our left, the gap between it and the cliff face providing views of an elevated and tranquil pool. To our right, waves surged into a gully, racing up and increasing in size before spilling over into a second, lower, and somewhat turbulent pool. The sounds of huge waves bellowed against the rock wall that had now become apparent at the edge of this rocky platform, holding back the Atlantic on one side, and holding in our tranquil swimming pools on the other.

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The more choppy of the two ponds. The rock wall which holds back the Atlantic can be seen on the left of the image, but the wall has been breached on the right.

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Water surges up the gulley through the gaps in the natural barriers.

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Knowing we were short on time we stripped to our swimwear and waded into the most still of the two waters. The water appeared cloudy, and green, our became feet sore with sharp snail shells under foot was we crossed the rocks to reach the waters. Was this the beauty we had been promised? As I moved into the water the sandpaper rocks gave way to soft velvety algae covered slopes, rounded by years of waves splashing ashore and softened by a thick layer of cushion soft seaweed. The water was warm, incredibly warm, like walking into a bath. I could see fish further out, but wondered how they could be surviving in such unusually hot conditions, easily 35C plus. As I moved further into the pool the answer became apparent as my feet suddenly felt a severe chill, enough to make an involuntary squeal come out of me. The hot sun beating down on the pool had created a thermocline, a sharp transition from hot, saline water above to cooler water below. Donning my mask I dived out and down, across to the deeper part of the pool and down through the hazy mirage of the thermocline and into the cool, clear waters below. Reversing the previous experience, my feet now warm and head cold, I delighted like a small child in this amazing experience with fish swimming all around me, trapped to the bottom of their pool by the warm waters above them.

Having not seen a single soul on our entire journey, and feeling secure that we would not be disturbed, I longed to remove all my clothes and enjoy the freedom of skinny dipping in our own slice of paradise. Nerves and British restraint however got the better of me, and the five finger fish, parrot fish and surgeon fish were all saved any embarrassment, and starved of a potential meal. We moved to the second, lower and cooler pool, bouncing up and down with the waves that crossed the waters as each new breach from the Atlantic squeezed its way through a gap in the wall in the distance. In no danger we swam amongst the fish and revelled in the pools and gullies.

With time running short we dried off, regrettably having to leave our little Eden behind. But not before I ventured onto the rock wall to witness the Atlantic below. Very aware of the spray shooting upwards some 20ft and the deep, bellowing of air being trapped and squeezed upon this natural barrier I cautiously climbed up the wall and poked my head up above the parapet. Gaining in confidence I could see the concave wall, worn away at its base and now forming the curve so commonly seen in man-made breakwaters. Waves hitting the base of the wall were deflected in a huge curve back out to sea. The power was extraordinary, 15ft waves booming and shaking, punching at the wall and then sucking back, as if trying to pull the wall down, angry, determined and relentless, and yet the unyielding wall stood firm, protecting Bev and I and stopping the waves from cutting down yet more of St Helena’s cliffs.

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We had to leave, we packed our bags and once more started to climb the steep sides of St Helena’s Southern Cliffs. The sun was setting, lights streamed through gaps in the rocks, creating striations of black and orange. The green slopes on the central ridge came into view in the distance, like an oil painting of colour, the greens of the peaks framed by deep blue above and orange, purples and reds of Sandy Bay amphitheatre below.

As were traced our footsteps I knew I had to return, I needed to witness the light streaming up Sandy bay and waking up this extraordinary Island at Sun Rise. I shall return, I shall return with my camera and, at 5am, perhaps without my swimwear

Half Term Hell

So, half term has been and gone, and you know what, it really wasn’t as bad as I thought it may have been. Bev booked a day of leave in the middle of the week, and worked a little flexibly around that, and between boobies, rock pooling, searching for insects and walks I, the boys and the family got on just fine, who’d of thought it.

St Helena is renowned for its walks. Back home many wonderful hours were spent on the hills and mountains of Snowdonia. Extreme scrambling and ridge walks are a particular favourite and I intend to tackle every walk, long and short, difficult and easy whilst here during the next two years. The first real walk I tackled since our arrival was the walk to South West Point, a relatively easy introduction to Island walking and one quite achievable with the children in tow.

Invited by some friends to occupy a half term day, I spent a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon taking in the spectacular views North and South across the Island as we worked our way along a narrowing peninsular. With lots of other children with us, Oliver, whom loves the outdoors was in his element, and Charlie, at just three years old tackled his first full walk, all three hours of it, spectacularly well, leaving me very proud of his efforts.

Oliver, in normal stance with walking stick!

Oliver, in normal stance with walking stick!

Charlie, normally terrible with walking any distance was utterly brilliant.

Charlie, normally terrible with walking any distance was utterly brilliant.

The kids reach the end of the walk.

The kids reach the end of the walk.

Our usual Friday night at Donny’s bar was finished off with a walk along the water front to join some locals fishing in the clear blue waters. Flying fish a plenty were being caught whilst younger members of the fishing family attempted to catch needlefish. Oliver and Charlie were of course fascinated, and fishing rods are now on the Christmas list. Myself, I can think of few better ways to spend an evening than in the warm sheltered cove at the wharf, deep blue waters shimmering under the moonlight and fishing boats at anchor in the bay bobbing gently with the ways. A few cool beers, some fish for tea, and reportedly the odd dolphin making an appearance, come to think of it those fishing rods may not last until Christmas!

Purple and blue sands dominate as we pass through Blue Hill

Purple and blue sands dominate as we pass through Blue Hill

Although I have said this before, summer is now definitely just around the corner and the season has begun to change. Wildlife around us has been our first sign of the warming weather. The thistle like nargie weed has died off, losing its bright orange flowers and green stems and turning brown. Other plants turn to flower, and leaves appear on trees in our garden that we previously had thought were dead. Most notably I have tan lines, the first of which for many, many a year.

Lots Wife

Lots Wife and Sandy Bay.

Along with the changing season is an increase in the number of ants, given that it seems our home is on top of an ant nest. Now for most people ants are a nuisance and better off gotten rid of. For Bev and I they present an unusual dilemma. Clean, and not carrying any disease, I greatly admire the work of the humble ant. Functioning in unison, each with specific roles,  together in simple robotic co-ordination to achieve extraordinary feats of engineering; I believe the human race could learn much from these little autonomous beings. Instead of wishing them ill I find myself hypnotised by the continual lines or marching ants, carrying off spilt crumbs and other food items across the Himalaya’s of our kitchen cupboards and concrete steps.

Another change of the season is evident in the clearing night skies and the arrival of a bright new moon. The thin atmosphere and non-existent light pollution means the moon is bright, very very bright, the likes of which I have never seen before. Stepping outside in the middle of the night one would imagine it is early morning, and driving is possible in the dead of night without the use of headlights, such is the illumination provided by the moon beams. (I only tried this for a short distance!). Looking out at the moon and the false daylight makes me grateful for the shared experience with my family. It is not possible to describe the night sky here, you may read this blog, I could post pictures, and when we return home I will doubtless tell friends and family of the crisp dark shadows cast by the midnight sun. But it is only Bev and the boys who will truly understand when we return home, just what it is to step out at night to see the earth bathed in this white glow. I feel blessed that in years to come I will have people that will remember and recount with the same enthusiasm I will have, the wonderful experiences that we are collecting here on this incredible Island.

Looking back from Southwest point with St Helena out in front of us.

Looking back from Southwest point with St Helena out in front of us.

Lots wife and Sandy Bay Panorama from the Start of the Southwest Point walk.

Lots wife and Sandy Bay Panorama from the Start of the Southwest Point walk.

As half term passed by the boys went back to school with surprisingly little fuss. After his first couple of days Oliver came home excitedly asking me if we could buy a puppy.  With much babbling I came up with some excuses as to why we could not get a puppy and enquired where and who was selling them. “The school” was his reply. As is customary for Oliver if one parent says “no” to a given request, the other is always worth a try and so it followed that Bev was also asked if we could have a puppy, this time however Oliver added the detail that the puppy costs just 10p, and they need the money in school tomorrow. It transpires of course that puppy’s cost more than 10p, and they are not available through the local school; poppies on the other hand are, much to Oliver’s disappointment when we worked out his mistake, one borne either of not listening properly or confusion with the saint accent. Either way a poppy was of course fine and after a little talking down, Oliver took his 10p to school the following day.

As the children return to school and Bev returns to normal working hours, my groin injury is still keeping me from my physical exertions. Football, badminton and Jacob’s ladder have all been off the agenda for some weeks now. However, far from going back to feeling empty with nothing to do to help me pass the time I am finding that my days are filling up rapidly. I spend as many hours as I can working on my photography, (don’t forget my images can be purchased from the gallery) and preparing my thoughts for the blog. The tourist office are working with me and using my images when and where appropriate, I have regular tagging expeditions with the marine team and other exciting opportunities and photography projects are on the horizon.

World War Two Cannons sat at Ladder Hill, Stunning Views.

World War Two Cannons sat at Ladder Hill, Stunning Views.

So, half term has passed, and you know what it was indeed not hell. There were of course times, like all parents, that I couldn’t wait for the boys to go back to school. But there were also moments when I was grateful for their company, and felt that maybe, with the right balance and positive thinking I could survive the forthcoming Christmas holidays which are now be just a stone’s throw away. A holiday no doubt made easier by the soon to be usable swimming pool, now looking bright blue and ready to be filled as the paint and correct brushes evidently arrived on island last week.

Sunshine, swimming and the sightings of the first Whale Sharks in the bay herald the arrival of the next chapter in our story, bring it on!

Boobies

I will never forget the hard work, sweating through the Gates of Chaos, making our way to Lot’s Wife, to be rewarded by the amazing site of boobies everywhere, sitting motionless waiting for me hold them, measure them and record their vital statistics. With my wife alongside me, just as eager to join in, it is a day I will never forget.

In this story, the Gates of Chaos is a steep sided, dry valley running inland from the coast, an offshoot of St Helena’s own Grand Canyon. Twisted, folded rocks, cracks in fissures define the edges of these deeply eroded cliffs, the red brown earth punctuated by patches of bright lime green of the endemic plant Baby Toes.

Looking back down the Gates of Chaos. The Large rock in the distance is called Lot. Husband to Lots Wife!

Looking back down the Gates of Chaos. The Large rock in the distance is called Lot. husband to Lots Wife!

Lots Wife is a huge pinnacle of rock, a plug of larva which rose up through conduits in the existing rock forming pillars of the weather resistant rock trachyte and phonolite. Phonolite so called because of its resonance when struck, sounding like metal tubes as rocks fall upon one another.

Walking Up to Lots Wife, Graham leading the way.

Walking Up to Lots Wife, Graham leading the way.

Boobies (Sula dactylatra) are of course magnificent Seabirds, (what else would they be?). A diving marine bird, feeding on fish, a key indicator species for the health of local fish stocks and as such the subject of ongoing tagging and monitoring to assess population trends. They are also the reason that Bev and I found ourselves sat on a high ridge, with extraordinary views of Sandy Bay, Lots Wife ponds, the Atlantic Ocean and ever present Diana’s Peak, feeling like David Attenborough on the BBC’s latest big budget natural history documentary.

I love the piecing eyes of the Masked Booby. Perfectly designed fro predators.

I love the piecing eyes of the Masked Booby. Perfectly designed fro predators.

Masked Booby St Helena

Birds cant sweat, so to cool down they pant rapidly.

Birds cant sweat, so to cool down they pant rapidly.

Maskd Booby with two eggs St Helena

Our morning started with a drive down the infamous road to Sandy Bay, having earlier and gratefully dropped Oliver and Charlie children off with a friend (Thank you Lindsay). The roads on St Helena are extreme with steep inclines and descents being the norm. Sandy Bay Road however is something else, and as the only road on the Island that has a Warning Sign such is the angle of its incline its notoriety is well deserved.

Arriving at Sandy Bay we teamed up with Annalea of the Marine Conservation Team and Graham Sim, resident Jacques Cousteau  of St Helena. The Marine Team, under the Environment Natural  Resources Directorate (ENRD), have been monitoring this population of Boobies for a number of years, tracking their breeding efforts and populations as well as assessing their condition. The birds feed on fish in local waters and as such their population is a direct indicator of the health of local fisheries stocks. The work is important therefore in terms of both conservation of the birds themselves and in planning and regulation of fishery activities in St Helenian waters.

Graham led the way up Broad Gut and then into the Gates of Chaos and ultimately up a broad, scree covered ridge to the tagging site at Lots Wife. Graham Sim is, in short incredible. At 77 years of age he led the way up the extreme terrain, rising from sea level to 600 meters. Graham has been involved in marine conservation in one form or another for over fifty years, and was half of a pair of the very first people in the World to dive and explore St Helena’s waters.

Broad Gut, the Gates of Chaos and the South West Corner of St Helena are an incredible landscape, blending somewhere between the Grand Canyon and the foothills of Everest they are formed of volcanic eruptions and subsequent years of weathering and erosion from extreme flash floods. Now dry, we followed the scars of a river bed before veering to the left to ascend the scree slope that led to the Booby nesting grounds.

As we reached our summit I stood, wide eyed and smiling like a school child with a bag of sweets. Rows of nesting birds sat, protecting their eggs or young, watching our movement carefully, the sea breeze rose up the slope from the Atlantic Ocean cooling our brows and providing welcome rest bite from the sun.

Our first sight of a Masked Booby on her nest.

Our first sight of a Masked Booby on her nest.

When all members of the party had arrived the business of data recording began. New nests were tagged and recorded, previously tagged birds were recorded and the presence of eggs or chicks noted. Dividing into roles Bev found herself recording data, and myself tagging new nests.

The ridge in the shadow of Lots Wife lined with Masked Booby nests

The ridge in the shadow of Lots Wife lined with Masked Booby nests

Annalea and Graham of course set to the job of catching new birds, measuring morphometric data and applying tags to their legs. Itching to have a go, I was elated when, after some half hour or so Annalea asked if we wanted to have a go at holding the birds. Bev went first (I’ll leave you to decide if I was a gentleman or a wimp!) and once the bird was secured by Graham, Bev nervously manoeuvred herself to take hold of the bird. Body and wings held under one arm, with the head and more importantly the six inch, serrated blades of the dagger like bill held firmly, but gently away from the hands of Annalea taking the measurements. Once all the data is recorded, the less than straight forward task of releasing the bird, ensuring they and you remain safe takes place. Point the bill away, release the wings first and a split second later the bill, and be sure the bird has room to spread its wings without damaging them.

Bev holds her Booby gently but firmly.

Bev holds her Booby gently but firmly.

The moment of release.

The moment of release.

Soon after it was my turn, and I was asked if I wanted to catch the juvenile bird ahead of me. Slowly I moved round and gently and carefully lowered the net atop of the Booby. Once secured, I was able to handle the youngster, allow the measurements to be taken and a ring to be applied before releasing safely back to his nest. The placid nature of this young bird led me into a false sense of security and my next attempt was less straight forward. An adult bird being larger, stronger and more determined as it protected the eggs in his nest. I could feel my heart racing a little as the beak stabbed at the net, and then at me as I edged closer to try and gain a good hold and free him from the confines of the twisted mesh. Once in my grasp he continued to wriggle and squirm in an attempt to turn his sharp beak on me. Thankfully neither I nor the bird came to any harm and I released him promptly, leaving him to take off and ruffle his feathers.

Me, holding a booby!

Me, holding a booby!

After two hours of shear enjoyment sadly Bev and I had to depart, subjecting our friend to Oliver and Charlie for seven hours we considered to be quite enough. Leaving the professionals to it they thanked us as we departed and headed back down a new scree slope and onto the Gates of Chaos.

There was of course no need to thank us, as I remarked, “thank you, it has been an absolute privilege.”

An apparently unusual sight to see both parents at the nest.

An apparently unusual sight to see both parents at the nest.

Mother and chick.

Mother and chick.

They fly so fast, capturing one in flight was difficult. I think a dedicated trip may be needed at some point.

They fly so fast, capturing one in flight was difficult. I think a dedicated trip may be needed at some point.