An Island to Oneself
Suvarov, Cook Islands
Alone At Last
Now I was alone on my island I began to take stock. Since Anchorage is roughly tongue-shaped, and measures only three hundred yards at its widest point, I could take most of it in at a glance as I stood on the beach watching the Mahurangi disappear.
From the broken-down pier, where I had waved good-bye, I could see stretching back from the beach a profusion of coconuts, pandanus trees, vines and a mass of tauhunu - a shrub which has a habit of shooting up to twenty feet or more into an impenetrable bush. Dwarfing them all were five huge tamanu trees whose ponderous limbs jutted out from massive trunks twenty feet or more above my head. The trunks were forked and twisted like any ancient English oak, and it must have been one of these trees to which Frisbie had lashed his children during the hurricane. They certainly looked tough enough to withstand any storm.
Driven by a sudden impulse I decided that before doing anything else, I would walk right round the island, either along the beach or in the shallow waters of the fringe reef. It was not meant to be a pleasure stroll. I wanted to see something of the island, find out where the best coconuts were growing, discover the whereabouts of the best topsoil for my garden, examine the shallows with an eye to the best pools for fishing.
It was a beautiful morning, so leaving the old pier behind me, I set off up the coast - the lagoon side - for the northern tip of my new home, walking at first along a beach so white and blinding that it almost hurt my eyes. I hadn't gone far before I came upon a clump of coconuts shading the beach like a canopy, their slender trunks bent by the prevailing wind so that they leaned over at an angle of about forty-five degrees. It was not their beauty, however, which struck me, but the more prosaic fact that the height of the trees did not look too intimidating for climbing. I could see there were plenty of nuts, many of them low enough to be got at with the short pole which, in my mind, was already equipped with an iron hook.
Behind them, the ground rose to fifteen feet, the highest point of the island, and here the trees were taller. Moreover, a mass of tauhunu, which thrives on sandy atoll soil (and shares the coconut's gift for withstanding the salt driven in from the sea), looked so thick that I knew it would be difficult getting near many of the nuts. There was a lot of pandanus about, too; a thin-leafed ;palm looking quite different from a coconut tree, and which Frisbie once described as "gawky-limbed."
This was the only hill n my island, and it was not very large, and as I walked slowly towards the northern tip, the ground slopes down until it was barely three feet above sea level. At times I was able to walk along a stretch of beach but at others the coral gave way to rock and I would paddle through the shallows as I skirted some miniature "headland." It was a very clear day and along the reef stretching north of Anchorage I could see several of the lagoon's islets - Whale, Brushwood and One Tree Island, with its single palm like a toy tree stuck on a piece of cardboard placed on a sheet of glass.
It had taken only a few minutes to walk from the pier, half-way up the west coast, to the northern tip of the island, for the distance was hardly more than four hundred yards. Now I turned back and made my way along the white sandy beach of the east coast which stretched ahead in a series of gentle curves for half a mile to the sound end of the island. I could see no evidence of bees or insects, no reptiles; nothing more dangerous than the coconut crabs, and an occasional rat.
Some fifteen-foot miki-miki trees were growing almost out of the bare rock at the water's edge, and I made a mental note about them; I would find their hard branches invaluable, for they make the best sticks in the world for husking coconuts. A few yards father on I spied some young paw-paws fifty yards inland and decided to give them a closer look. I had almost reached them when a violent flurry in the undergrowth scared the wits out of me. Almost before I realised what had happened, I had a glimpse of a wild pit lumbering away with astonished speed. By my me momentary fear quickly be way to anger when I realised I had disturbed the brute in the very act of tearing out the green young shoots of some paw-par - one of the fruits on which I would have to depend. Those pigs presented a real problem.
The rest of the paw-paws appeared to be flourishing, but nearby some old banana tress seemed to be in a sorry condition, and I could see that if I wanted any bananas I might well have to rely on the two suckers I had brought with me - and devise a means of protective fencing to keep the pigs out.
Skirting the overgrown bush, I followed the curving beach until I reached a point half-way down the east coast. Here I re-discovered a little cover, marked on the charts as Pylades Bay, where I had swum on my first visit.
This natural bathing pool was deep, and the water was blue, clear and enticing. Pylades Bay would certainly be my private swimming pool. Behind it, the ground was covered with hibiscus trees and densely matted tauhunu, and from the beach I could see several uprooted coconut trees, the long, slender, dead-straight trunks lying just where they had crashed. I remembered Frisbie telling me, "The most awesome thing in the hurricane was watching, actually watching, the wind take an old coconut tree eighty feet tall and tear it out of the ground."
These must have been the ones he had referred to when describing the hurricane of '42. I scrambled towards them, making my way past the impenetrable tauhunu along the patches of gravel here and there - some carpeted with fallen hibiscus blossoms, others bare, but covered with bird droppings, which delighted me, for I knew what that meant. This must be a nesting place for terns, which prefer to lay their eggs on bare rock in November and December. I could see the prospect of scrambled tern eggs for tea when they started to lay in three or four month's time.
The fallen coconuts were big fellows, and the way they had been strewn haphazardly made me think incongruously of a giant spilling a box of matches. They were overgrown with vines, and I some cases the roots had been torn out of the ground in their entirety.
Looking idly around, I saw a vaguely familiar object embedded in one enormous, spreading, upturned root, and with some difficulty I managed to dislodge it. It was a brick, apparently made from fire clay and in perfect condition. As far as I could see, it had never been used, and must have lain buried under the coconut palm for fifty years or more. No doubt it had been left there from the days when Lever Brothers were growing copra on the island. I tucked it under my arm, for everything can have a use of an uninhabited island.
The southern part of the island had obviously fared worst in the hurricane, and I had only to look around me to see the reason why, for though the northern end was protected by the barrier reef, the gigantic waves which had pored through the pass must have hit the south end of the island with their full force, so that near the southern tip a depression sliced its way across ht island where heavy seas had swept right over "Anchorage. This savage onslaught had eon some good, however, for it was here that I now discovered a large amount of topsoil. Picking up a handful, I felt its gritty, fine sand and knew it was exactly what I wanted - though at this stage I did not even contemplate how I would transport it to the garden, a quarter of a mile away.
The day was so clear that looking across the lagoon I could even see Motu Tuo, where Andy and I had picnicked, and I remember on that first warm morning that hardly a breeze was stirring the coloured patchwork of the lagoon. And I can remember, too, standing ankle-deep in the shallows, looking at my own palm-tree skyline of Suvarov and saying to myself "Well, Neale, here you are after all these years - and it's all yours."
During the next few days I was so busy getting straight that I never seemed to have time to cook or even think about meals. But this didn't worry me because I knew a more settled time was coming when I had established a routine. And meantime I just seemed to sink naturally into this new island life. After all, I had had more than half a lifetime of preparation. My succession of jobs in the engine rooms of a dozen different island vessels had taught me how to handle tools. Indeed, I was used to coping with any practical problem that turned up, whilst my jobs on share - clearing bush, planting bananas, even storekeeping - had taught me the hard way of fending for myself. I was the handyman incarnate. I knew four different ways to thatch a roof; I could spear fish; I was able to light a fire with a magnifying glass - not that I ever needed this trick for by now I knew exactly the kind of wood which smouldered but never burst into flame, so that I was able to keep a fire dormant all through the night.
I was immensely happy during those first few days. Before starting to unpack everything, I cleaned out the shack thoroughly, scrubbing the floors and washing down the walls. Then I spent three or four days hard at work tearing down the creepers and vines from the roof of the shack and hacking them away from the shed with my machete. I finished plaiting the veranda roof and had to nail up two of the shutt3ers which had become loose. There seemed no end to the work, but before long I had made a shelf in the bath-house and then I fixed up a clothes line between two hibiscus trees at the bottom of the yard, and high enough to hang out my bed linen.
All this took a long time for I had to fish for the cats (and myself!) and though I did very little cooking at first, I had to make a fire and this meant collecting firewood from all over the island. But I was determined to clean up the place before I did anything else, and only when this was done did I set about sorting out my supplies.
One of the first tasks I had to tackle was unpacking my sack of sugar and storing the contents before it became damp in the empty screw-top jars I had brought along with me. I put these jars with the rest of my bulk food in the old refrigerator, except for the few items I knew I would need daily.
The old fridge was a real blessing for I decided my kai room was one place that must be both spotless and tidy. I suppose it is a relic of my Navy days that I like to stow things away in their proper places and keep them shipshape. One of the first things I did, just to remind me that dirty plates had no place on an idyllic island, was to fetch a length of wire and two nails and string up a line above the kai bench for my dishcloths and teacloths. I can tell you that from that moment on I always washed up in hot water and invariably kept a spare teacloth in reserve. And when I sat down to my meals I laid out my plates and cutlery - or maybe some large green leaves instead of plates - on the table linoleum I had brought for just this purpose.
From the day I unpacked, I used the top shelf of the food safe for storing the food I knew I would require daily - a jar of sugar, a tin of jam, a little tea and coffee, and so on - while on the middle shelf I kept my plates and cutlery. The bottom shelf was reserved for the small tins of cooking aids like salt, curry powder and my coffee-grinder.
I was equally meticulous about my tools. I unpacked the smaller ones - saws, chisels, hammer and so on - into a convenient box which I kept on the veranda where I could get at them easily. The bigger ones and my pick and shovel I stored in the shed in the yard, where I also had a shelf for my packages of nails, screws and bits of wire. The cook-house did not present much of a problem, and though I dumped my volcanic stones in a corner, there was no time yet for the laborious business of making a native oven, and I contented myself at first with finding two suitably shaped stones on which to rest my bars of iron for simple cooking over an open fire. In another corner I kept a box of wooden chips and some kindling wood.
The only thing I missed was a good, wood-burning stove, like the one on which I had cooked in Moorea. They are simple to use, economical with wood, and make it much easier to keep the cookhouse tidy. I knew, almost as soon as I settled in, that this was one purchase I should have made in Rarotonga, even if it had meant sacrificing some luxury. Had there been any good volcanic stones on the island, I might have built a stone fireplace of sorts, but there were none.
Once I had unpacked, firewood was one of my top priorities, for I wanted the shed filled with a good six months' supply. In a few weeks the hurricane season would start, and that could mean a spell of heavy rainy weather. I had no intention of being caught without dry firewood. It was a hard job. Some of the shrubs and trees had dead limbs which could be severed with a couple of strokes of the axe. But otherwise it was a business of solid, backbreaking sawing, and I relegated all other priority jobs until I had accumulated an impressive woodpile. It took me nearly two weeks to fill my shed with wood, but later, when the rainy season came, it was to prove a boon.
Kindling wood I kept separate, mainly relying on tauhunu which, when more or less rotten, would smoulder happily on my fire. I always had a couple of pieces quietly smoking on the fire in the cook-house, and found them thoroughly reliable because when I wanted to get a blaze going it was only necessary to push two smouldering ends together, pile on a few chips from the box I kept handy, and in no time at all there would be a splendid blaze going. Indeed, this system worked so well that it was very seldom that I had to use a match, and as time went by it became almost a point of honour never to have to reach for the box.
Almost without noticing it, I slipped into the routine that was to become my life. Early morning had a familiar sound for I was regularly awakened by a rooster just before dawn. I would lie there relaxed for a little, thinking how lucky I was to look forward to a day which was going to bring me nothing but satisfaction. And then, as it grew light, I would get up and fill the cast-iron kettle and light a fire. Usually the embers were still warm. Once the kettle was on and the fire going, I invariably made for the "House of Meditation" for I have always been a creature of regular habits.
Close at hand was an old tin with the top cut off. Filled with ashes, it served as a practical alternative to modern plumbing. Then off I went for a quick wash before breakfast; only a cat's lick since I reserved my "shower" for the end of the day after hard work in the hot sun. Back in the kai room the kettle would be boiling and the cats impatient for their fish (which I had saved from the night before). And whilst they ate I would get down a pound jar of coffee which I had ground from my supply of beans and brew myself a couple of cups to accompany a Suva biscuit or two, with butter and jam - though later, when I was more settled, I baked scones and, later still, would often have eggs for breakfast.
I rarely ate a substantial lunch. During those first months there was so much to do that I could not bear to waste time on cooking until the evening. I could easily find drinking nuts, and if I felt a pang of hunger around midday, I would chew some uto - the inside of a young sprouting coconut, which can be eaten either cooked or raw. (I shall have more to say about uto later on.)
My dislike of cooking (only because it wasted time) amounted almost to a phobia at first, because I could not really adjust myself to the tempo of this new life, to the fact that I did not really need to hurry. Instinctively I wanted to get any job done as quickly as possible, and at times I would be spurred on by melancholy thoughts that I would never get my garden started or build a run and raise the fowl population. After work, I would catch some fish in the early evening, cook it and then, if the weather were fine, take a bowl of tea down to the beach and sit there on a box-chair which I had made so I could watch the sun go down - one of my favourite "pastimes."
Then I would "explore" something very different from my daytime activities - the books left by the coast watchers. These wee a mixed bag, I must admit, and if I describe my own taste in literature as catholic, I don't know what denomination to use in describing theirs! I decided that half of them were not worth reading at all - a decision I reversed after a year when I was only too glad to read anything. But there were some gems among the trash, including several books of which I had never heard.
During the first weeks the problems of settling in occupied most of my time, but I did make a tentative start on some of the more long-term projects I had in mind. Though the prospect of eggs for breakfast seemed remote, I tried to cajole the fowls by scattering grated coconut at the far end of the yard. I had plans to tame them and collect them all into one run and after the first couple of weeks I noticed they were a lot less hesitant about approaching the shack. Unfortunately, my gifts of grated coconut also attracted the wild pigs; five large and destructive animals whose feverish passion for uprooting everything in sight made me acutely conscious that my plans for a garden were not likely to come to fruition with these menaces about.
Nonetheless, the garden was a necessity. What was left of it was about forty feet long, and eventually I knew I would have to fence it in. But since I certainly could not cope with this task just then, I contented myself meantime with trying to preserve the breadfruit tree which stood near the cook-house. I managed this by sawing off four equal lengths of coconut log from some fallen trees and with them I constructed a sort of frame around its roots. Every day after this I tipped in a mixture of old leaves and scraps of food, fish the cats had left and even fishbones, all stirred up to make humus which would nourish the roots and ensure me a regular and invaluable supply of breadfruit for my table.
At one end of what was left of the garden I planted the two banana suckers I had brought. Although I tended them in just the same way, there was a year to wait before I enjoyed my first bunch of bananas. Once the trees had started, however, they never looked back. I managed to fit in these jobs between my daily routine and I was lucky in that the weather contrived to remain almost perfect during those first few weeks. so much so that the first month went past so rapidly I could hardly believe it when I came to enter up my diary for November 6, and discovered this was my birthday. I see from my journal that I noted this Friday "a beautiful warm day, the breadfruit tree is doing fine. Took my tea down to the beach after catching fish for the cats. Cooked them on the beach just before dusk and watched the night fall on the lagoon." And then, because the date took me back into an existence I had half forgotten, I found myself adding, "Fifty-one years ago today my mother was having a tough time."
I found it difficult to believe I had actually spent a whole month on the island. Does this sound impossible? Believe me, it did not seem so to me. Every day had been so full, what with my simple endeavours to get my roots down and establish myself on the island, that the time just seemed to have disappeared and I was sometimes so busy I would even forget my resolution to shave every Wednesday and Sunday, or boil my bed linen once a week. And now here I was in November with the hurricane season due any moment, so that suddenly I had to turn-to and get down to definite measures which would ensure my survival.
Since the shack was why my home, its preservation became my first thought. I knew I had to evolve a scheme which was going to make it stand up to whatever the winds could do, so I decided to pet it down with guy ropes made from the wire left by the coast-watchers. I started by digging three holes on each side of the shack, holes designed to anchor the wire I planned to rig right over the roof. T thing was to make good strong "anchors" for the guy ropes as any normal method of pegging would never stand up to a big wind. For each of the six holes I had dug, I dragged up fifty-pound squarish lumps of coral, dumped them on the edge and wound them round and round with wire, leaving a big loop of wire sticking out from each one.
Then I lowered the stones into the holes, and filled them up so that only the loops remained above ground. Next I cut three long lengths of wire off the roll and slung them right over the roof of the shack. All I had to do now was fasten the two ends of each length through the loops on either side of the shack and tighten the wires by twisting them with my pliers. This major job took me quite a few days but when it was completed I felt much more secure - though I didn't flatter myself that my efforts would outlast a hurricane of the calibre of '42. But for ordinary storms, I reckoned I could hold my own.
There was one final precaution: I dug a hole about five feet long and three feet wide in the shed to hold my survival kit which consisted of my box of tools, to which I added three boxes of matches in a tin sealed with sticking plaster and a spare pair of rubber shoes. And from now on I practised a "drill." Whenever my barometer indicated a severe storm coming up, my box went straight into that hole. Without it, I knew there was little chance of my survival.
FISHING, COOKING - AND IMPROVISING
Miraculously, the storms left us alone. There were sudden squalls which blotted out everything five yards from the shack but these were shortlived and indeed were welcome, for they not only cooled the island but replenished my water tanks. *I did not count them as "bad weather," however, and during the first autumn there were no signs of the hurricanes I had feared.
It was just as well, for during he next few months I began to work harder than I had ever done before in my life. and yet this was something I never resented because everything that cropped up seemed to come as a challenge and every time I managed to find the answer, it was a new step forward that seemed tremendously worthwhile. Often after a hard day I would imagine myself back in Rarotonga, where I might have been waiting impatiently for Friday's pay-packet. But here mundane things like that had no significance. Instead, I would relax in the evening and, if the weather were fine, I would brew myself a bowl of tea and carry it down to the beach. There I would sit with the faint sigh of the trade winds rustling the palms which bent like a canopy over my head. Sometimes I would light a small fire to cook the cats' supper, and later Mr. Tom-Tom or Mrs. Thievery would jump up on my lap and purr contentedly.
On some evenings the air would be so still I could hear my own breath; at others, my little world would be filled with the screams and sounds of birds wheeling above me, mostly the terns (which I watched patiently, for I knew they would soon start to lay) and frigate birds, which nested on the islets in their thousands, knowing they had no humans to fear. I never ceased to be fascinated by these ugly brutes with a wing span of up to eight feet and scarlet ouches below their bills. They are born bullies. Four or five would start chasing one poor little tern until they had forced it to disgorge the fish it had just caught, and then, with an incredible dexterity on the wing, would invariably catch the fish before it struck the water.
At least they provided drams during those moments between day and night - made all the more inviting by the absence of mosquitoes or flies. Night fell around us with starting tropical swiftness, so that one moment the lagoon would resemble a patch-work quilt of colours and the next would become a black satin bedspread - yes, that is what it looked like, a giant's bedspread, with he white foam of the reef like the tops of the sheets and pillows. I was entirely content. Nothing cold seem more perfect, and as the embers of my fire died down, the cats came closer to me, as though reminding me that this particular day was over, and now it was time to sleep and gather strength for the new day ahead.
And when the new day dawned, there were always two vital necessities which seemed to dominate every other plan I had in mind. They were fishing and cooking and it did not take me long to discover the most likely spots where my staple food was waiting to be hooked or speared, for the pools in th3e shallows along the reef abounded (and I use the overworked word deliberately) in all kinds of fish. It was only a question of choosing between the small ku, parrot fish, eels, cod or crayfish. Nor was I worried by sharks, barracuda or other dangerous fish, which rarely penetrated as far as these shallow waters (though I did have two encounters with sharks later on).
One of the simplest fish to catch - and one of the tastiest - were cray, on the barrier reef at night on a rising tide. Often I could see their feelers sticking out of a crevice, and since a cray invariably faces outwards from the hole in which it hides, I was able to catch hold of the feelers with my right hand, slide my left into the crevice, grab him and start pulling. The cray is quite difficult to dislodge and I had to keep up a steady strain. Once he tired, however, it was easy. When I got him out, I would give the tail a quick twist to kill him. Quite by chance, I discovered a crayfish "reservoir." Walking along the reef one morning I came on a pool about eighteen inches deep with a white coral lining showing clearly through the water. At that very moment a cray scuttled like a flash from one crevice to another.
I thought I had spotted where it had taken refuge and poked after it with the shaft of my spear. For a few moments nothing happened and I supposed I had stuck the shaft into the wrong crevice, but just as I was about to pull the spear out, I felt a curious vibration in my hand. And that meant a cray was hiding in the hole, for long ago in Moorea I had learned from the native fishermen that if you happen to touch a hidden cray a vibration travels up the pole. The cray doesn't actually move - at least, I don't think it does; it must be the fishy equivalent of a shudder of apprehension! Whatever it is, the vibration is so marked that I could always feel it if I were holding the spear shaft in my hand. Once I had got this one out, I tried another crevice and sure enough there was a vibration. I want on poking around until the whole pool seemed alive with cray. Indeed, it proved a fertile larder and I came back to the pool for weeks until I had exhausted the entire natural supply.
If the crayfish ;panicked out of sight, the parrot fish ;panicked in full view. Vivid blue or light reddish in colour, they lay in the small pools or depressions along the reef. Sometimes I would walk into a pool and disturb several of them - each between a foot and eighteen inches long - and then they would dart about frantically until finally, ostrich-like, they would make for some cranny in the coral and hide their heads so that I could spear their bodies easily. The parrot is a fleshy fish from which I could usually cut a good fat fillet, and I dined on them in the early days because they taste best when eaten raw, and I was in no mood to waste time on too much cooking. Since the days when I lived on Moorea, I had become used to eating them in the Tahitian style, raw and marinated in lime juice, but as there were no limes on Suvarov, I soaked them in a little vinegar and chopped onion, which could be used over and over again.
If I did feel like cooking, then I would fish for ku, some six to nine inches long, with a delicate flavour not unlike mullet. I could easily catch half a dozen in a few minutes, using a hook which I usually baited with a feather. I used to fry them straight away, with the heads and scales still on and once they were cooked the skin would peel off easily. Since they have a lot of bones, I seldom ate them on a plate. Instead, I used fleshy leaves from the breadfruit or paw-;paw tree, which were as big as plates and obviated the necessity of washing up since I simply scanted the remnants around the roots of my breadfruit and banana trees.
My only worry when frying ku was that my supply of dripping was strictly limited, so before long I decided that I must cook them in a native oven, a process which involved spending much more time in the cook-house, as every meal entailed building an individual oven from volcanic stones. There was just no escape from this chore because a native oven has no permanence in the sense one thinks about ovens in a civilised world. One meal - however delicious - and you've got to start rebuilding your cooking stove all over again. It's no a job I would recommend to the average housewife anxious to produce a tasty "little something" within a few minutes.
Let me tell you how I went about it. First I made a shallow hole in one corner of my cook-house, with my pile of volcanic stones handy nearby. In the hole - little more than a depression - I lit a fire, and once it was going well ringed it with the larger stones and then carefully covered the fire by building up a sort of pyramid of the smaller stones over the burning wood, rather like putting coal on a fire started with chips. As the fire burned down to embers, the stones soon absorbed the heat so that after an hour or so the inner ones were glowing dull red. When the fire had finally burned itself out, I levelled the stones with the butt end of a palm frond and my oven was ready. I knew the stones would retain their heat for hours and I had ready several dozen fat green leaves picked from the breadfruit tree and tied in bundles of then. These were to form the "lid" and could be used over and over again.
Whilst the stones had been heating, I had got the fish ready, well wrapped in leaves and now I laid them on the stones gently covering them with a top layer of more clean leaves. On top of this I placed the breadfruit "lid" which I now finally covered with old mats and sacks weighted down at the edges with stones. Does it sound complicated? I can assure you that the result was really delicious and, what's more, I could leave my meal cooking slowly there for hours. Indeed, I would often go away on another task and return much later, confident that when I lifted the lid my dinner would be awaiting me cooked to a turn whatever time I came in.
But as the weeks went on, the actual time spent in "creating" each individual oven began to irk me. "This may seem strange on a desert island where time is generally supposed to have no significance, but for me every moment lost in cooking was time wasted for more vital projects. Yet I could cook ku no other way without losing my precious dripping. (I was secretly saving it to fry my first eggs!) Ku were too small to be boiled and they were too tender and bony to make a fish stew. How I missed a real stove! I could have kicked myself for not having brought one, but then each new week brought fresh evidence of my lack of foresight when shopping in Rarotonga. I had really believed my list was complete, that after all the experience gained during my years of batching, nothing had been left to chance; and I often reflected ruefully on the remarks of the salesman when I was buying my rubber shoes: "Let's face it, you've always been near a store."
Well, there were no stores on Suvarov and this was only one of many problems I faced, including another when I used the multiple barbed spear which a friend in Rarotonga had given me, for it tore the flesh of small fish so badly that after a few weeks of trying to eat torn and mangled fish, I decided I would have to set about constructing a single-pronged spear from one of the eighteen-inch lengths of round iron I had brought with me. I needed an anvil to fashion my new spear and fortunately there was an old piece of ballast I had discovered on the beach which must have weighed fifty pounds. I knew that in order to sharpen the tip I would first have to heat the iron bar over a fire, then hammer it to a point on the anvil, but only now did I realise I had never thought of buying a pair of blacksmith's tongs with which to grasp it when the heat from the tip began to creep up the bar.
To get over this, I wrapped the end I had to hold in layer after layer of the large cloth-like dead leaves which you always find attached to the base of a coconut palm frond. They are brown in colour, and very soft and pliable, and in fact look and feel rather like sacking, so they suited my purpose very well. Once I had got a good fire going in the cook-house, I found it fairly easy to hammer the iron to a point, and when it had called off I filed the ;point down with my coarse file until it was really sharp. Then I heated it again until it was bright red, and plunged it into water several times to harden it. After I had picked out a suitable sapling for a shaft, I cut a slot four inches deep in one end, fitted the spearhead into it, then bound the whole with wire. Though fishing and cooking - and, I suppose, improvising - occupied a great deal of time, I had to do something about the fowls and the garden. The fowl fun which I hoped to build could wait, for more and more terns were wheeling overhead by now, and I knew that it would not be long before they started to lay. On the other hand, a garden was an absolute necessity. I could start to make a fence but my real problem lay in transporting the topsoil I had discovered by the depression at the southern end of the island.
I set off on several occasions, armed with a shovel and a sugar sack, but it would take me an entire morning to carry one sackful to the garden. I did make a start by sifting out three sackfuls which I put into shallow boxes so that I could at least start growing seeds, though whether I would ever be able to transplant them was another matter. My first attempts at separating the fine soil took me several days - simply because I had not thought to buy a sieve in Rarotonga. I did, however, have a small tea strainer, and I sieved enough fine soil for six seed-boxes, using only this wretchedly small implement.
How I missed a boat! I would look wistfully at the wide cracks in the upturned boat on the veranda, gaping at me as though to say, "I'll sink like a stone." Why hadn't I brought some caulking material? Then I could have mended her, hauled her through the shallows, loaded her up and pulled her back. but the boat looked impossible to repair - unless I could think of something; and I seemed to have so many other things to think about. During this time when there was no chance of ever tasting an egg, I lived almost exclusively on fish, breadfruit, paw-paw - and uto, without doubt the most nutritious of all indigenous foods on Suvarov. Uto is formed when a coconut has fallen from a tree and is left on the ground until it starts sprouting. At this moment nature begins a fascinating metamorphosis. Miniature coconut leaves sprout out, while inside the nut milk and meat are gradually transformed into a white spongy substance. this is uto, and you can eat it either cooked or uncooked, though over-indulgence in the latter leads to indigestion.
I discovered there was plenty of uto on the island, but once again I ran into cooking problems. In fact, it seemed as though every time I tasted a new fruit or caught a different kind of fish, I had to devise a new way to cook it. I started by cooking uto on a native oven but it was unsatisfactory because you can't easily regulate the heat and overcooked uto is uneatable. I wasted so much time that I would find myself eating it raw to save the work of building the oven - and that, I knew, would in the end lead to stomach trouble. It did. I had such a bad bout of indigestion I vowed never to eat raw uto again. But neither did I want the chore of making a native oven. I looked around for a way out, and eventually decided to tray and make a special cooker for uto.
The coast-watchers had left several empty forty-gallon drums on the island. I rolled one up to the shack, and first of all cut about eighteen inches off the bottom of one so the drum resembled a giant cake tin. (It proved too tough for my tin snips and I spent two laborious days working on it with my cold chisel.) I made a hole deep enough to take the tin in a corner of the cook-house so that the top stuck out six inches or so above the ground. Next, I made a lid from the other end of the drum, though I had some difficulty as it would not fit over the top of the "cake tin" because, of course, it was exactly the same size. However, I cut slots with my hacksaw every nine inches around the edge of the lid making it just pliable enough to bend outwards a little, so that it would fit over the other section. I punched two holes in the lid and made a handle from a piece of wire.
I lit a fire inside the "cake tin" and when it was going well, threw in some volcanic stones. As soon as these grew hot, I popped in a couple of dozen husked uto nuts, with the eye-end carefully turned down - a necessity because there is little meat near the eye-end, so the uto cooks more quickly. I jammed the lid on, covered the cooker with old sacks and let the uto cook between three and four hours, timing the operation carefully. This, by the way, was virtually the only time I ever used by clock on Suvarov.
My cooker worked perfectly, and once the uto was cooked I kept it in a special box and often ate it cold with coconut cream for breakfast. It tastes remarkably like a coconut scone, and has a consistency which resembles Yorkshire pudding. It is very sustaining. If I were suddenly hungry I would go to my store, break open a cooked nut and eat the uto as one might eat an apple or a piece of cake between meals. My basic diet, however, still continued to be fish especially as I was hoarding my "special" supplies like a miser; I suppose instinctively I was guarding against a rainy day - literally a rainy ay - when fishing might be impossible, or I could be confined to my shack.
Sometimes I would eat one of the coconut crabs which I found in small numbers on Suvarov. But I never rally cared for them. They were ugly, brutal creatures, at least a foot long, with a pair of claws strong enough to crush a finger. Some of the islanders I had known considered their tails to be a great delicacy, but I found them too rich. Besides, coconut crabs are scavengers who will eat anything. They would have eaten me had I died! I roasted one occasionally when I really felt a need for a change of diet. Their claws were good, but my dislike for these repugnant creatures tended to spoil my appetite, so that when the cats and I got heartily sick of ku or raw parrot fish, and were desperate for a change of flavour, I preferred to go after larger fish.
Trevally, a predatory fish weighing six pounds or more, prefer live bait, but having none I constructed a lure of white feathers backed up with a strip of red material from an old pareu. Quite often I would hook a trevally with the first cast from my big rod and as a great treat I would use a little dripping and have a couple of well-fried fillets for supper, though more often - especially if I caught a bigger one with coarser flesh - I would stem the had, stirring some coconut cream into the water. If cooked properly, it made a really good fish soup.
Every fish in the lagoon seemed to queue up for my table (except, curiously, turtles, which were rare). Perhaps the easiest to catch was the reef cod which lay motionless in the pools as I approached. They never even moved until my spear was within six inches of them, and once I had them quivering on shore, I carried them back to the shack and steamed them in salt water in my aluminium pan over a fire beneath a piece of flattened old iron roofing. Both trevally and cod had to be cooked over the open fire which I kept going under my firebars resting on two lumps of coral. but more and more I was wondering how I could build myself a proper fireplace as the substitute for the stove I so sorely missed. The coastwatchers had left so much junk behind - like the fuel drums which had been so useful for making my uto cooker - that I searched everywhere in the hope of finding other things I might turn to good account. I also searched along the beach, for flotsam of one sort or another was always being washed ashore.
I collected it all. Once I found a child's ball. Empty bottles were washed up regularly, and one day I found several flat, yellowish blocks, nearly a foot square and three inches thick. As I picked up the nearest piece, I noticed some small stones partially embedded in its underside. These stones puzzled me until I realized that the substance must have softened under a hot sun and then hardened again. And then I thought of the paraffin wax my mother always used to seal the top of her jam jars. It was an odd find and in all there were half a dozen chunks of wax, weighing about twenty pounds.
This might have been of little value but nonetheless, I carried it all back to the shed in the yard - and then forgot about it, for my mind was still fixed on building a stove or fireplace. Since the beach yielded nothing, I next turned to the fuel drums left by the coast-watchers and tried to flatten one, thinking that I might possibly build a stove out of sheet metal, but Id did not have the tools. I even toyed with the idea of trying to dislodge a large slab of concrete embedded in the ground near the shack, which the coast-watchers had used as a platform for their generator - but that too proved impracticable and I left it where it was. How infuriating to consider that one clue to building a fireplace remained right under my nose for weeks without my realising it - until one morning I went to the woodshed to get my broom which I had made out of palm fronds.
I wasn't thinking as I stepped inside the shack, and then yelled with pain as I stubbed my bare to on a large stone. Angrily I bent down to pick it up and throw it out - and my hand grasped not a stone but the brick I had dug out of the coconut root on my first day alone on the island. A brick! If only I had some bricks I could build the world's finest fireplace. I didn't give another thought to sweeping out my bedroom. That brick had been left by Lever Brothers fifty years ago. Why on earth would they leave just one unused brick? Might there not be some more somewhere near the spot?
Instead of the broom, I grabbed my pick and shovel, called in at the shack for a cooked uto - which, with a drinking nut, would have to suffice for lunch - and set off to do a day's digging. I spent five whole days - in which I abandoned every other activity but fishing - one of my most back-breaking jobs; but my hunch was right and in the end I was rewarded by unearthing twenty-one bricks. I knew exactly how I was going to use them, and I carried them back to my cook-house where my couple of firebars were still resting across two large stones. This was my normal cooking spot when I did not feel inclined to build a native oven; two ordinary stones which, now I had the bricks, looked so thoroughly outdated that I hurled them outside. Soon I was building a proper fireplace with a base of bricks and two sides so that I could place the firebars across them. It was neater, more serviceable and more economical than anything I had had before, and I found myself casting an almost contemptuous glance at my old friends, the volcanic stones heaped in a corner.
By December - while I was still waiting for the rains, which were unaccountably late that year - I had my first omelette since I landed on Suvarov. Thousands of terns had arrived on the island by now and the time came when they started flying around in circles, making a terrific noise. Once I saw this, I knew that they were about to start laying - and I know, too, that those eggs would be laid in spot where there was little or no undergrowth, or even on the bare rock.
The tern is as big as a pigeon, though its black and white body is of slighter build and its food comes exclusively from the sea. Despite this, as I knew from experience, their eggs never taste fishy - in direct contrast to hens which, when fed with fish, produce very fish-tasting eggs. Before long, they were laying in their thousands, and terns seem to lay again and again, like fowls. Knowing their habits and being anxious to secure fresh eggs, I constructed a sort of egg trap by clearing a patch of scrub. It worked, and soon I was collecting eggs there every day. Just to make sure, I dipped them one by one into water, knowing that if the egg were fit to eat it would lie on its side at the bottom of the glass. It is an old trick. Once incubation had begun an egg will stand on end, whilst an old one can soon be spotted since it simply floats to the top.
For a month I had eggs every day, and fed the rest of my daily haul to the cats who loved them, or as sure "bait" in my gradual struggle to tame the fowls. as a matter of fact, the hens loved them, especially after I had hard-boiled them and mashed them up with the shells still on. It is amazing how almost any bird or animal appreciates a change of diet. Not to mention myself. I used to eat them ten at a time, sometimes hard-boiled, sometimes in a very gaily coloured omelette, for tern eggs have slightly pink yolks.
They were the best omelettes I ever tasted.
The Killing of the Wild Pigs
Early in January the first heavy rains drenched the island. Three months of back-breaking work lay behind me, but now at last I could begin to see some results, for I had settled down to a happy, easy, solitary - but never lonely - life. I kept my shack spotlessly clean; I had built a small lean-to on the beach, roofing it with plaited pandanus (which lasts much longer than a coconut roof) and there I sipped my evening cup of tea at the end of each day's toil. If I could not chalk up a success in my efforts to tame the fowls, at least I felt they were slowly becoming more friendly, lured on when I started offering them tern eggs. I had also begun to make a garden fence, and I had sown my seeds in shallow boxes. The breadfruit tree was flourishing; so were the two banana shoots in their squares of coconut logs. Even the cats seemed to be more contented than ordinary cats, and when the barometer started to tumble, warning me of bad weather on the way, and I buried my tool chest in its safety hole, I was able to reflect, almost placidly, that I had dry wood enough to keep a fire going for six months.
I had made careful preparations against bad weather. Two weeks' supply of uto was already cooked, and in its special box. I still had plenty of bully beef, coffee, tea, sugar, and a fair supply of flour - though it was going a bit wormy, and I had to sieve it through the invaluable tea-strainer. In truth, I had been awaiting the rain almost with impatience, not because we needed rain (for Suvarov is blessed with regular, short, sharp tropical storms) but for an entirely different and almost comical reason. Bad weather would give me my first holiday!
Does it sound ridiculous to want a "holiday" on a desert island? Believe me, I had been going at it so hard that I was even behind-hand with my reading, nor did I ever seem to have time to repair odds and ends around the house, or even to do a little mending - not clothes, but a tear in a sheet needed attention with needle and thread, and one of my canvas shoes wanted stitching; a cupboard door was loose, the books should have been taken down from their shelves and thoroughly wiped clear of mildew. Yet I never seemed to have the time. With the rainy weather, however, my outside activities would be brought to a standstill - for when it rains in the Pacific, it really does rain - and I must say I awaited the break with the excitement of a schoolboy approaching the end of term.
For over two weeks, heavy rain lashed the island, while high winds tore shrieking through the trees, and coconuts rattled on the tin roof of my shack. There was never any serous danger of hurricanes that winter, but even though I was snugly protected from the rain, nothing - not even the shield of the low jungle - could keep out what Frisbie described as "the ungodly roar" of the wind, or the twang as it sang through the taut we ire guy-ropes which shuddered each time the shack trembled.
At times the wind was so fierce that when I ventured outside the torrents seemed to be driven almost horizontally. At night, particularly, I could actually see the rain through the frenzied tops of the smaller coconut trees, glittering against a thin moon, and it was hard to believe that all this water whipping past came from the heavens, for it was almost parallel to the ground, as though it spurted from some distant hosepipe with a gigantic spray.
Even though the shack didn't leak, everything seemed to be damp. Clothes, sheets, even blankets had that faint, uncomfortable feeling. The walls were wet inside as well as out, and day after day I had to wipe them down.
Outside, pools of water, with the rain dancing in them, covered the yard. The hibiscus trees by the shed had been stripped of all their blossoms, which lay at the foot of the trunks like a soggy, multi-coloured remnant of silk; the low, scudding clouds raced across the tops of the palm trees whose long fronds, writhing in the wind, looked alive and trying to escape. Even the fat, juicy paw-paw leaves, glistening with rain - my dinner plates! - were strewn over the yard like broken crockery. From time to time the clouds would lift for an hour and then a miserable but persistent sun would turn the yard into a sauna bath as the steam rose from the ground. Then the curtain of rain would come down again.
I did not go out much, except to run across the yard for some dry wood, or to get paw-paw and an occasional breadfruit, for I have never been one for indulging in unnecessary discomfort. If I did have to go out, then I made no bones about it, and did what necessary - even though it meant getting soaked. But there was no point in going for a "pleasure" stroll when I had a comfortable shack, an extra blanket (for when it started to get cooler), a covered cook-house, plenty of food and an assortment of books. I was much better off than the city dweller who has to make his way through rain and sit in his office all day in wet trousers.
Fishing was out of the question most days, which I found almost a relief, and in fact I hardly ever went to the beach - partly because there was no point in doing so, partly because the sea was the real danger, for as the winds whipped the waves into giant combers, the water came surging through the pass and over the reef with the speed of a mill race and was quite capable of rushing across Anchorage, which stood right in its path.
So, as I could not influence the angry moods of nature, I stayed indoors. I read a great deal during those days - and nights. Conrad's Lord Jim kept me occupied at first, especially when the screaming wind prevented me from sleeping. And then amongst the paperbacks I discovered an ancient copy of Oscar Wilde's De Profundis which absorbed me each evening until an accident stopped my nightly reading in bed.
It happened when a violent shudder rocked the shack, about three o'clock one morning. I thought the place was going to collapse on top of me and I jumped out of bed, fumbling for a match to light the lamp. In my haste I knocked over a tin of kerosene. It shouldn't have mattered, for the tin, of course, was unbreakable, but for some reason, in a moment of carelessness, I hadn't screwed the cap on properly. Before I could strike a match to see what I'd done, my precious kerosene was pouring out all over the floor. It was a disaster, for already I was using my second tin out of the four I had. From that day - until I devised an alternative way of lighting the shack - I gave up reading in bed.
On the other hand, the bad weather did me one good turn. During the second week, the rain virtually stopped for just one evening and I seized the opportunity to go fishing. I had to keep very close to the beach on the lagoon side of Anchorage, for heavy seas were still pounding and charging through the pass. But I managed to catch nearly two dozen ku in under an hour.
I tried some for supper, but thee was a good deal more fish than the cats or I needed and I knew they wouldn't keep fresh until morning unless they were cooked. Yet I just couldn't face the prospect of laboriously building a native oven. I was wet and cold, and everything was clammy to the touch.
On the other hand, it seemed a pity to throw away such good food, so when I had given the cats a large portion for their supper, I wrapped the rest in leaves and laid them on my new brick hearth. I don't really know what prompted me to do it - except that for once I had more fish than I needed, so instead of throwing them away, why not experiment?
The fire had gone out whilst I was fishing, but the bricks were still warm, though I could touch them without being burned, and although I was doubtful whether there was still enough heat in them, I thought the idea worth a try. It was about seven in the evening, I wrapped the fish in leaves, as usual, covered them with the "lid" of breadfruit leaves, put the two sacks on top (folded double) and weighted down with stones, and left them.
Next morning I opened up the leaf wrapping. to my surprise I found the fish were perfectly cooked and tasted far better than anything that had ever come out of my native oven. It was the continuous low heat which must have kept them moist and juicy. Indeed, they were so tasty that I made a hearty breakfast, watched by two reproachful cats.
After that memorable meal, I always used my brick fireplace for cooking fish in native style. Nor did I ever allow the fire to go right out. I often lit a cigarette from the fire and in the evening livened it up for my meal, leaving it so that the bricks would keep hot whilst I was out fishing, and when I returned all I had to do was gather up the ashes and embers with a piece of tin, place the fish wrapped in leaves on the bricks, cover them and leave them for the night - and my breakfast cooked itself.
On the sixteenth day the sun was shining when I woke: the whole island steamed as it dried and when I went down to the beach the combers were already beginning to flatten out. The "holidays" were over, and it was time to get back to work.
During the rainy weather I had had plenty of time to think about the problems which still lay before me, and I decided that above all I must do something about the wild pigs, especially as during all these months the garden had never been far out of my mind. For a start I worked on a fence, an affair of stout but splintered pieces of wood which now enclosed the site awaiting its topsoil. Before I went any further, however - before I even transplanted a single seed - I knew that I must deal with the pigs.
Occasionally I had caught a glimpse of them, but as I had no gun, there was little I could do about it. Every time I had tried to catch one, the brute would show such a turn of speed despite its cumbersome proportions that I had been left standing. For a while I toyed with the idea of constructing some sort of trap with a rope and a slip-knot, with which I could lasso them; I spent hours thinking about a deep pit covered with dry coconut fronds and leaves. But always I came back to the realisation that even were I able to snare one, the strength in those shoulders would break any rope I possessed.
It became a simple problem of survival. After a great deal of thought, I decided the only thing to do was to kill them one by one.
But even after I had made this decision, I was troubled by the best way of going about it. In the end, I decided my best hope was to spear them and the more I thought about it, the less I came to relish this gory job. Certainly I have never had any qualms about killing meat when I am hungry (and this was a great deal more serious because my whole survival seemed at stake), but whatever the reasons, the prospect of eliminating those pigs filled me with gloomy foreboding and struck me as having all the elements of being a thoroughly messy business.
Since, however, there was simply no other alternative, I started making my preparations, and during the rains I had painstakingly filed a broken machete blade until it was as sharp as a razor. This is no idle figure of speech - I could have shaved with it, and no bread-hunter ever possessed a more lethal spear head. After examining it carefully, I lashed it to a stout pole.
So now I found myself equipped with a spear boasting some eleven inches of naked steel. I had the weapon, I certainly possessed the necessary determination, but now that the fine weather had returned, the problem seemed to be to lure the pigs into range one by one. From experience, I knew that a hog is seldom in the habit of looking up. So, fortified by this knowledge, I spent three days in building a platform about twelve feet up in a palm. The next couple of days I was busy hacking a clearing around the foot of the tree.
It was very simple. All I had to do now was lure the pigs. Knowing my quarry's passion for food, I waited for a bright moonlit night before opening a dozen coconuts and spreading them around the base of the tree. I then climbed into the tree and settled myself on the platform where I waited, patient but a trifle apprehensive. My machete was close beside me. The spear shaft I gripped in a sweaty palm.
But nothing happened; not a grunt disturbed the silence. Night after night I seemed doomed to a vigil amidst a tracery of fronds black against the moon. It was romantic enough, despite my grisly preoccupation. for four nights, as no pigs arrived, I had only to turn my head to see the lagoon, the breakers on the reef, and beyond that, the immensity of the ocean, with the moon dancing on the water as though millions of needles were cascading on the surface. It was warm and comfortable in my tree, with the south-east wind purring gently, and the only noise the jumping of mullet or the ripple of a trevally chasing small fish in the lagoon.
Below me the moon etched eerie patterns on the ground where the coconut crabs, some weighing up to eight pounds, executed a grotesque dance, their huge claws weaving and ghoulishly ripping at the white meat of the opened nuts. A little atoll rat - one of the few spared (so far) by Mrs. Thievery - came scampering out of the trees, sniffed suspiciously for a moment and began nibbling at a nut with his two long front teeth.
And then, on the fifth night, a dark shadow loomed silently out of the tangle of creepers and vines at the edge of the clearing, so that the little rat scuttled hurriedly away into the outer darkness.
Approaching the first nut, the pig sniffed quietly, wary and suspicious, because of the knowledge that an enemy was now on the island. There was a sound of chewing, another grunt, and then the boar moved on to the next nut, coming slowly closer and closer to the foot of my tree.
Normally I am a peaceable man, yet now I felt a savage sense of anticipation, and as he moved on towards the foot of my tree, I was actually trembling. My hands were aching on the shaft, the muscles on my arms were so tense they seem3ed to be part of the spear. Directly below my tree, the pig paused with a deep, suspicious sniff. Instinctively I knew he had sensed me. Aiming just behind his neck, I plunged the spear downwards with all my strength. The razor-sharp metal sank in up to the shaft, and the pig gave a horrible squeal.
There came another half-human scream and the spear was wrenched from my hands. Spurting blood in the moonlight, the pig swung round with the heavy shaft sticking out of his back. As he staggered off heavily towards the thicket, I scrambled down from my platform and chased him, machete in hand. I caught him before he reached cover and slashed my machete down across his spine. Again there came a horrible scream and as he rolled on his side, I cut his throat with one savage stroke, so that the blood flowed out to stain the coral.
Staggering back, spattered with blood, I thought for a moment I was going to be sick, but once the gurgling and thrashing stopped, once the heavy body slumped into dark shadowed immobility and I could see it lying there, I was suddenly overwhelmed with a sense of melancholy. I suppose it was the reaction. All at once, I was no longer a hunter, I was just an old man of fifty-one, alone on an atoll. I walked home slowly, deciding that I would bury the animal the following day. Nothing on earth could have induced me to eat any part of it.
As the months began to stretch out into 1953 and my garden was still in its infant stage, I was always haunted by a reluctance to dip too heavily into the meagre stores I had brought. I was desperately concerned to make them last and would only occasionally allow myself a treat like a tin of bully beef. Between these treats I simply lived off the island except, of course, for my cups of coffee and t4a and the occasional pinch of curry powder or a dip into the beef dripping.
Suvarov, however, was an island capable of constant surprises. One day I came across a patch of arrowroot growing wild. It was the sort the islanders prize, since it makes better starch than any of the packets you can buy in stores. when I dug it out, I found it had a bulbous root which went nine inches down into the sand. Out of this root sprouted pale green hollow stems, with leaves rather similar to those of a paw-paw. The leaf withers when the plant matures, and this is the right moment to dig out the bulb. The ones I found on Suvarov varied enormously in size. 'Some were the size of small apples, whist others weighed up to three pounds. I used this arrowroot to make poi, a very popular native dish in the South Seas. At first I mixed it with paw-paw, though later, when the garden was producing, I was to vary this with bananas or pumpkins.
It was quite a business, preparing this dish. After washing the bulbs I grated them, and then came the big operation. Earlier, I had put four pegs in the ground, not too far apart, and each about two feet high. Over these I had stretched a bit of sheeting and placed my wash basin beneath it. On top of this sheet I piled the grated arrowroot and then poured cold water over it, stirring it with my hand until the water strained through. At first the water which drained into the bowl was milky, but with each subsequent can of water it became increasingly clear so I knew that all the starch must have been washed into the bowl leaving only a remainder of fibre on the sheet, which I threw away. When I picked up the bowl, the starch had sunk to the bottom. I poured the water off, then put the intensely white, very fine, starch into the sun to dry.
Once dried, it was easy to pound up and when I had done this, I picked a couple of nearly ripe paw-paw and diced, boiled and mashed them before mixing them with the arrowroot. I wrapped the resultant delicacy in banana leaves (making sure these wouldn't crack by drawing them over the fire to toughen them) and after that my native oven did the rest - producing a delicious pudding which I ate with coconut cream. I depended a great deal on paw-paw before the vegetables in my garden were ready. Often when I was peckish I would cut one in half, take out the seeds but leave the skin on, then place it on my brick fireplace. Once cooked, I ate it with coconut cream, spooning it out of the shell. I remember writing in my journal that it tasted just like stewed peaches. Coconut cream which accompanied most dishes like these was easy to make. I simply split a mature nut, grated the meat as finely as possible and then wrapped it in a strip of cloth, twisting the ends until the "cream" was squeezed through.
Before long, my cook-house began to resemble a galley. In one corner stood my native oven (rarely used now), in another the uto cooker, alongside my brick fireplace with its iron bars. But all had a most necessary part in my life because the food I ate on Suvarov had to be cooked in so many different ways. Breadfruit, for instance, was always roasted on an open fire. Now the breadfruit I found on Suvarov were seldom larger than a child's football and once I had picked one from the tree all I had to do was place it on open fire, ringed with a circle of stones to keep the wood in position. After half an hour, I turned it over so the other end could cook. It is rather hard to describe the flavour, but I am very fond of it, and had eaten it regularly when I lived in Tahiti and Moorea, where it is a staple of the Tahitians. I preferred it hot, with my own specialty, cooked coconut cream.
This was a variant of my ordinary coconut cream and I made it quite simply by filling a half coconut with cream and then dropping in a small red-hot volcanic stone which I had heated on the fire. (The bent mid-rib of a coconut frond made a serviceable pair of tongs.) The hot stone made the cream hiss and bubble, thickened it and gave it a particular piquant flavour which always seemed to go especially well with breadfruit.
Although I shed every day, there were only two occasions when I encountered sharks. The first time was near the north end of the island, where I had noticed a big pool fed with a continual flood of sea which seemed to well up from a gap in the reef.
It looked a likely place for fish and I took a couple of steps into the pool, rod in hand. Without a moment's warning, three sharks were charging towards me. Each looked about three feet long - the type which thrives in comparatively shallow water. For a moment I was almost paralysed and then instinctively I backed hastily out of the pool, banging the water furiously with my rod. It was only a matter of two or three steps, but those seconds seemed a long, long time. Fortunately, my desperately thrashing rod seemed to scare the sharks, who turned away. After that, I took care to cross the pool where the water was only ankle-deep.
The second occasion was a great deal more dangerous. One moonlit night I was standing in two feet of water fishing for ku with my bamboo rod when a big fish took the lure in a whirl of spray. I had no idea what he was, but slowly and carefully I worked him to the edge of the reef, and when I realised he was well hooked, I leaned forward cautiously to grip him by the gills. My hand was within six inches of his head when some instinct made me hesitate. Even now I do not know what it was, other than some subconscious mechanism which must have warned me of imminent danger. That second saved my life. While the big fish was still struggling on my line, a great grey mass rushed on me like a torpedo. there was no time to move, in time even to panic. Before I could draw my hand away, a smashing blow whacked me across both legs, throwing me over on to my back.
I jumped up, gasping for breath and spitting out salt water. The fish was gone. The lure had vanished. I could see my bamboo rod floating in the water. The shark must have missed my hand by inches as it took the fish, and in passing had hit me with its tail. I walked slowly back to the shack. The skin on my left leg was as rough as if I had rubbed sandpaper across it.
By the late spring of 1953 I had killed the last of the pigs. It had taken all that time because I'd had to wait for moonlit nights. I was forced to repeat the horrible business four more times - perched in my lonely tree with the moon rippling peaceably over the lagoon, and my lethal spear in my hand. Each time the same macabre scene was re-enacted, sometimes swiftly, sometimes after an infinity of waiting. I hated those gory nights so much that I had to force myself to climb the tree, and I would breathe a sigh of relief when occasionally dark clouds obliterated the moon and made it impossible for me to keep my vigil. But at the end of it, in the weeks following the finale of the whole brutal business, the change was astonishing. Wild paw-paw shoots sprang up everywhere, seeded from the trees the pigs had been unable to kill. The wild bananas began to flourish. And it was then - fortified with the knowledge that any garden I made now would be safe - that I finally decided I must try and mend the leaky old tub of a boat the coast-watchers had left, and which still lay on my veranda. I might well have left her undisturbed for years had I not urgently needed topsoil for my garden. Since this lay in plenty at the south end of the island, there was just no choice. I could not face the prospect of carrying sack after sack on my back a quarter of a mile to the garden.
"Neale," I told myself firmly one day, "what you need now is a boat."
Would the old tub stand the strain? I decided it was worth a try. Quite aside from the fact that if I got her afloat I would be able to ferry loads of soil for the garden, I knew that once she was seaworthy I could sail to Motu Tuo, six miles across the lagoon, or any other of the small islets in the fifty square miles of water inside the reef.
I looked her over carefully. Frankly, she was not impressive - ten feet long and three feet wide, a most ungainly, flat-bottomed craft. her sides were in fairly good shape, but her keel of three-inch thick twelve-inch long planks showed gaping quarter-inch cracks between each pair of planks. However was I going to caulk her? What a fool I had been not to bring some oakum! I suddenly remembered a length of two-inch thick rope which I had found after the Mahurangi sailed and had stored away in the shed. Getting it out, I found it to be about fifteen feet long, and I cut it into yard-long pieces which I teased strand by strand until I had something which resembled a supply of oakum. I made a rough paint brush with another bit of old rope and got to work on the ruin. Working on the veranda, I doused the open seams with plenty of green paint and then caulked them with my8 home-made oakum, taking care not to drive it in too hard, since that would have been fatal at this stage.
Once my handiwork was dry, I turned the boat upside down and filled the seams on the outer side with more thick layers of green paint. Then I nailed on two ten-foot lengths of wood I had cut, again well painted, so they entirely covered the seams. The next thing was to turn the boat the right way again, and now I used one of my flat pieces of iron as a caulking tool and hammered the caulking down as tightly as I could, topping it up with more alternate layers of paint and oakum until the seams were entirely filled. Finally I painted that seams over again and puttied them whilst the paint was still wet. I must have done a really good job, for once I launched her she never leaked, and once I was satisfied she was seaworthy, I named her in red paint on her stern the Ruptured Duckling in memory of an old friend in Tahiti whose canoe had borne the same name.
The Ruptured Duckling, ungainly and difficult though she was, proved invaluable; and soon I was towing her through the shallows to the south end of the island where I would spend a day gathering soil. I could haul a full load back in an hour or two - a load which would have taken me days to carry on my back. But the Ruptured Duckling also opened up a new world to me. For now if I felt like a change I could row over to one of the islets where I indulged in my favourite hobby of looking for flotsam. I found all kinds of things; odd Japanese rubber shoes - the sort with a piece of rubber or plastic to stick between the toes - bottles, tins, bits of iron ballast.
One day I came on something which indicated a vessel must recently have been very close to the island. The sight of a green coconut lying among the stones on Brushwood Islet gave me an odd feeling. Picking it up, I discovered one end had been cut off - the wrong end, where the eyes had been. "That must have been the work of some poppa," I said to myself, using the native dialect for European. No native would open a drinking nut like this at the eye-end where the husk is thickest. I could see the work had been done clumsily too, with a blunt knife. When I opened the nut there was still some soft clean white meat. It could not have been in the sea for more than a couple of days and must have been thrown overboard from a vessel passing very close to the island.
"Why didn't they call in?" I wondered. It would have been pleasant to see a friendly face and I remember thinking that I might have been able to swap some island produce for a tin of kerosene - and start reading in bed again, for that was a pleasure I really missed. I cannot remember how my thoughts remained on the subject of reading in bed after I'd seen that coconut, nor can I say why one day some weeks later it suddenly occurred to me that I might be able to make some candles out of the chunks of wax I had found months previously. Perhaps, after all, it had nothing to do with finding that coconut, but when one day I broke a few bits off one piece of wax and discovered they would melt at a low heat, it seemed quite feasible to make candles. Nothing could be more welcome since I was always frightened of running out of kerosene and used it to sparingly that I usually moved around at night without any light at all.
Candle-making did not prove all that difficult, but I needed bamboo, which did not grow on Suvarov. From time to time, however, I picked up broken pieces on the beach which must have been washed ashore, presumably thrown overboard from Japanese fishing boats. Selecting one, I cut it into sections into which I could easily pour the melted wax. What troubled me now was what to use for a wick. I solved this problem by boring tiny holes, spaced six inches apart, into a piece of old planking, then I threaded a piece of string through each hole, knotting each one so it could not be pulled right through.
I stood a section of hollow bamboo over each hole. The string I now drew through each piece of bamboo was meant to be the wick but I had a real job keeping this sufficiently taut, especially as I had both hands occupied holding the bamboo and pouring in the melted wax. After several abortive attempts to keep the "wick" in the centre of the hollow bamboo, I tied the top of each piece of string to the middle of a nail. When I laid it across the top of the empty bamboo the string was centred and then, by turning the nail, I was able to tighten the string and keep it in the centre, while I poured in the melted wax - not quite to the top, so that some wick still showed.
It took nearly half an hour for the wax to set, once I was sure it was hard, I cut the knots under the wooden board, carefully split the bamboo I half - and there were my candles.
After this, I never had occasion to use the table lamp again. I was able to keep my precious kerosene for the hurricane lamp which sooner or later I knew was going to be vital when the time came again to go outside in bad weather.
Those candles lasted for years. And the very next evening I started reading in bed again.
Gardening - and a Chicken "Farm"
Once the pigs were out of the way I was able to start on my garden in earnest, for I had decided I must get it ready and plant out my seeds before I even thought of building a fowl run. The fence was finished and I had already started bringing up a little topsoil from the south end of the island. I knew exactly where the best soil was. Each morning I rowed to the south end of the island, beached the Ruptured Duckling and started inland, carrying my shovel and some sugar bags.
Getting this soil for the garden was one of the most laborious tasks I ever had to tackle. Quite apart from the back-breaking work of digging it up, sacking it and rowing or pulling it back in the boat, I discovered that the stuff was very patchy and contained so many coral pebbles that I was forced to sieve it.
Obviously this had to be done on the spot where I dug out the topsoil, so I constructed a sieve by tacking a double layer of half-inch netting to a rectangular wooden frame about two feet long and eighteen inches wide, with sides about six inches high. This looked solid enough, but the weight of stones quickly threatened to knock the bottom out, so I fastened two pieces of baling wire, drawn taut, from corner to corner diagonally, and crossing in the centre. After that my sieve never let me down.
I scraped rather than dug the soil - if you could call it soil - into small heaps, which I sieved a couple of shovelfuls at a time and packed into sugar bags. I counted it a good day's work if I were able to fill four or five bags, which I then carried down to the boat. Over the next few weeks I collected more than a hundred bags of topsoil from this part of the island, each one of which I had to lug to the boat. Next I had to row or pull the heavily-laden Duckling back through the shallow water, unload the bags and carry them one by one to the garden. It was on one of these topsoil expeditions that I noticed a wild duck, perched on a mushroom of coral and looking very bedraggled, as indeed she had the right to be after what must have been a journey of at least two hundred miles.
I was astounded, for apart from frigates, terns and a few boson birds - lords of the Pacific with their scarlet tails and white plumage - no living thing had ever alighted before on Suvarov whilst I had been there, and I can remember the tingle of excitement as I set down my shovel and sacks and started to walk towards here. In a way I was surprised (knowing myself only too well by now) that I was not in any way impelled by a hunter's instinct. It never entered my head to ponder how good (if slightly fishy) she would taste after a few hours in the stewpot. Looking on that first moment - from which a long and curious friendship, complicated by a strange mixture of trust and temptation, was to develop - I cannot imagine why I felt such a tender interest in that bird. I like animals and birds well enough and hate the casual cruelty which seems so prevalent towards them in the islands. But just the same I was hardly the sort of man to start investing them with the human attributes which seem to have become so fashionable since Walt Disney started putting words into their mouths.
As far as I am concerned (up to that moment, I mean) animals or birds had always been things to be kept in their proper place. In other words, if I were hungry, the unfortunate creature destined for my pot would be killed with as little compunction as a Chicago meat packer might kill a heifer and yet be a sidesman in church each Sunday. But the wild duck was to prove quite different. As I stepped to within some fifteen paces, she became frightened and flew off twenty yards or so, then perched lonely and forlorn, observing me suspiciously. When I slowly approached her again she waited until I was exactly the same distance away, then slowly flew off another twenty yards or so. I returned to my shovel and sacks, and continued scraping the thin layer of topsoil into small heaps. And then, for the time being, I forgot her, and rowed back to the garden which was sited just behind the house. The coast-watchers must have chosen this spot for two reasons. Firstly, it was sheltered from any wind; and secondly, the paw-paw tree had been growing there for some time. It was a pleasant place, the square of earth now fenced in and shaded by a few tall coconuts and the spiky leaves of pandanus trees. Once I had got things really under way, I planned to have my fruit and vegetables growing close together.
The seeds which I had set out in boxes were now growing so quickly that they were almost ready for planting and I had quite a race to bring in the last of the topsoil. Now that the pigs were gone everything thrived outrageously. Even before I had finished the garden fence I had planted paw-paw shoots around the inside at ten-foot intervals, and these too were shooting up at such amazing speed that I wondered whether the gardener would eve be able to keep pace with his plants. My journal of those days is filled with passages which even now I fancy hardly give an idea of the enormous amount of work I had to put in. There were so many incidental jobs there never seemed time to relax. And in the months which followed, time seemed to slip away; for my day-to-day life had long since settled into a sort of rhythm and pattern, starting with my early morning breakfast and ending with tea on the beach and a read in bed.
All sorts of unexpected incidents kept cropping up. Do you remember the splutter of amazement my friend in Raro had given when I insisted on taking my bicycle pump to Suvarov? Well, it came in very useful, for as I noted in my journal, "Nobody would think there would be a use for a bicycle pump on the island, but I used one with, I hope, good advantage today. A young breadfruit tree, about ten feet high near the garden is badly infested with Whit4e Aphis or Mealy Bug, and the black rust mites (a sooty-like deposit); true name unknown to me. I sprayed it with about three gallons of soapy water which I used this morning to boil bedclothes. The bicycle pump made an excellent spray."
Or there was the inevitable moment on the home front when I noted "There was a case of incest today as Mrs. Thievery and Mr. Tom-Tom are, in fact, mother and son. I shall have some drowning to do as two cats are enough to keep down the few rats." There were uneasy moments too. Unexpectedly, I went down with a minor bout of fever - "Last night after turning in, I felt chilly and a pain started in my right groin, so I dosed myself with Sulph. Thiazole and sure enough it turned out to be a fever. Have been in bed all day. I'm sure the fever was caused by a fishbone I stepped on a couple of days ago. Still feel pretty shaky and have eaten nothing today."
These bouts were to return but, fortunately, this one cleared up quickly and within two days I was back at work again. I must have made a fairly rapid recovery, for the day after I left my bed I made my biggest catch on the reef so far - four crayfish and a cod. Two of the crays were big and one had such enormous legs that I had difficulty in pulling him out. I noted, "A sea broke over me and if I hadn't been washed away. As it was, I nearly lost the spear. The big fellow was in a smooth, round cavity under a ledge, otherwise I'd never have got him out."
I had not seen the wild duck for some days now although the place where I first encountered her was where I always went to collect the best topsoil, and I was often down at the southern tip of the island gathering soil. One day, although I can't remember how it came about, I had put some scraps of uto in an old cigarette tin after feeding the fowls, and now, after beaching the Duckling I noticed the tin in the bottom of the boat. Subconsciously I must have brought it for the wild duck. And there she was; almost as though she were waiting for me, or so I flattered myself, and I realised then just how anxious I had been to see whether or not she had flown away from the island. At the time I never thought that my behaviour was in any way odd. Looking back on it, I imagine it must have sprung from a loneliness of which I had never been aware until this minute. It was hopeless trying to get up close to her. I spread out the uto, and walked up to the patch of topsoil and began sieving and shovelling it into the sugar bags. Out of the corner of my eye, however, I watched her every movement.
I had half an hour to wait. All this time she remained there motionless. Then she slowly waddled over to the uto and began to gobble it up. It must have been at that moment I made up my mind that providing she did not fly away, I would not rest content until I had succeeded in taming her. I had other pressing tasks to attend to and did not return to the south end of the island for some days. Indeed, there was so much on my mind that I had temporarily forgotten her and was astonished when she appeared in the yard one evening. I noticed her over in the far corner where there were some clumps of grass with seed heads, and she was running her bill over them to extract the seeds. I stood there for a moment, watching; then I walked towards her. She watched me until I was about twenty paces from her before she half-turned and waddled obliquely away, still eyeing me all the time.
For some time now I had been splitting half a dozen sprouting nuts every evening to encourage the fowls to feel at home near the shack. I had not yet started to build their run so they came and went just as they pleased. There were several of them about now and the next evening the wild duck joined them. She still refused to let me near her so I walked away. Every evening the same thing happened. She would came into the yard, watch me suspiciously - and then, after a week or so, she was starting to waddle among the split uto and nibbling at them. She seemed to be a little wary of the fowls squabbling among themselves as usual. I started spacing the split nuts farther apart, then stood at a good distance, watching. So it went on. I was unable to get anywhere near taming her for quite a while, despite the fact she now seemed to be making herself quite at home. Then one evening I decided to grate some coconut, put it in an old butter tin, and place a tin of water beside it. I had noticed that though she obviously liked uto it was always difficult for her to extract it from the nut because, unlike a hen, she couldn't peck at it.
She made straight for the two tins - almost as though she had been expecting them - and with an almost comical meticulousness she drank from the water after each mouthful of grated coconut. Now each evening I positioned myself a little closer to the tins. If progress at taming the duck was slow but sure, everything else seemed to move with remarkable speed, and by the end of spring the garden was at last ready. It had taken months to bring up all the topsoil but now the final load had been spread out and I had manured it with humus from the three tree boxes, working it into the soil with a rake made out of palm fronds - or rather a series of rakes, for they did not last very long. In the new layer of soil I planted out some sixty tomatoes, three rows of shallots, some rock melons, water melons, pumpkins, cucumbers, Indian vine, three rows of kumeras (or yams). How all I have to do was await my first crops. Or so I thought.
For some weeks I had been getting increasingly annoyed by the stupidity of the fowls, and now that I had planted out my garden, I decided to set about taming them and providing myself with a regular supply of eggs and roosters for the Sunday stewpot.
Searching for eggs, taming the fowls, and constructing a run were three vital but time-consuming activities which went hand in hand, but with such eventual success that by the time I left Suvarov the fowl population had increased to forty strong, despite inroads for my larder. Indeed, my "flock" became a blessing and a standby later on whenever it was difficult to obtain uto or paw-paw - or, on stormy days, fish - for then the fowls and their eggs were all I had (apart from coconuts) to keep me alive.
But that was all in the future. Meantime, I was still having a major headache finding any eggs, for the birds had been running wild for years now and nothing seemed to delight them more than cackling loudly once they had removed themselves as far as possible from the spot where they had actually laid. Like a schoolboy going bird's-nesting, I would spend hours during those first months stealthily racking my hens in a determined effort to discover their nests.
Living on a motu as small as Anchorage, one would have thought that no nest could remain hidden for long; one might have thought, too, that a bird the size of a hen might have experienced some difficulty in making itself invisible. But this did not prove to be the case and my fowls seemed to look on egg-laying as so intensely private that they went to extraordinary lengths to keep their affairs secret. The roosters, too, on whom I had designs for my cooking pot became remarkably elusive. Three entries from my 1954 journal show I was succumbing to a disease which was obviously endemic on Suvarov. I called it "egg-frustration."
"... Wasted time following the hen that lays away. She went in a wide semi-circle and finally eluded me. I waited for half an hour to see if she would return. Not a sign; nor did she cackle again. She was in the yard when I returned. Am determined to find her nest, besides now I've got to show something for the time wasted looking ...."
"... Tried to follow the same hen but a young rooster upset her. I chased him and only managed to scare the hen. She wouldn't go straight to the nest but hung around in the bush. Couldn't waste any more time so vowed I would put that young rooster in the pot. don't like his crow anyhow. Caught him when his back was to me. He was too busy to notice me ...."
"... At last discovered her nest with ten eggs. This morning she had started making a noise so I followed her. Suddenly she disappeared. I couldn't believe my eyes, so waited a bit longer and investigated a coconut stump about ten feet high. Damn me, if I didn't see her head sticking out of a hole four feet from the ground. Talk about pigs not thinking to look up - I'm as bad! A lot of writing about nothing, but I feel I've achieved major victory ...."
Of course, it was not a "major victory" at all and the unending waste of time soon convinced me that the only way to triumph over these elusive fowls was to build a good strong run and pen them in; as a matter of fact I had already made a tentative start whilst preparing the garden. There was no point in completing the fowl run until I had succeeded in luring the birds to the spot I had selected in order to make them feel at home. Otherwise, even with a brand-new run, my whole plan would collapse since I'd never manage to round them up and drive them in. Week after week I set about this lengthy task. I laid out all the split uto in the new spot. The birds were bright enough to come and get it and seemed to thrive on these young sprouting coconuts. But at first the exasperatingly stupid creatures did not seem to grasp the idea that their meals were being served up at regular times. One or two near at hand would come clucking and running when I turned up, but the others would stay pecking about in the undergrowth, scratching for food, quite oblivious to the fact that a feast was served, and ready to eat, almost under their beaks. I tried coaxing them with a fine range of farmyard sounds, but he stupid birds did not seem to understand English. I tried to get behind them and shoo them towards the food, but as soon as I did this, off they ran, squawking protests, in the opposite direction. There is nothing so frustrating as an old hen.
Eventually, I hit on a solution so ridiculously simple - and so much more appropriate for humans than hens - that it still makes me laugh when I think of it. I banged a gong for breakfast and tea! It was as simple as that. Morning and evening from that moment on I scattered the split uto nuts on the square of ground where the run was to be built, and then banged lustily on the old iron crowbar made from the transmission shaft of a Model T Ford I had acquired in a Raro junkyard. The result was really extraordinary. Up till now I had spent weeks unsuccessfully trying to cajole the fowls into a regular feeding time. Now, within a week, they were recognizing the familiar sound of the beaten crowbar, and came running as fast as they could, determined not to miss a good feed. They brought all sorts of surprises with them, too - in the shape of at least clutches of chicks which I had no idea even existed. Although this achievement did not immediately solve my egg-collecting problems, at least I was able to keep track of the island's hen population, and now I started building the chicken run in earnest.
Firstly I made a rough shelter and thatched it over with coconut fronds. Then I fixed up some perches inside, and used some pieces of flattened-out old corrugated iron to fashion a tray underneath them which would collect the droppings to make splendid manure for my garden. Next, I built a fence. This was a laborious job, for I had to gather hundreds of fallen coconut fronds and strip off their leaves with my machete before I could cut their mid-ribs into six-foot lengths. These mid-ribs are widest at the base so, using bits of old balling wire, I fastened them together alternately - one base at the bottom, one at the top - to make them fit more closely. The next step was a gate made from odd bits of wire netting lashed on to a wooden frame, and binged with more wire anchored to a solid post. Building the fowl run took me several weeks, and all this time I was occupied with other jobs which were vital to keep me going. Sometimes bad weather would hold me up for days, but however difficult things seemed, I never lost sight of my purpose.
There was another reason too. The hens had grown to hate the wild duck. On several occasions I had noticed them waiting for her to come into the yard and, as though according to some pre-arranged plan, they would attack her. I never really discovered the reason for this jealousy - perhaps it lay in some strange animal awareness that she was always free to fly away. If hens are capable of thought (which I doubt), I suspect the real reason was her intrusion into the yard they now regarded as their private domain. During these last weeks I had come a long way towards taming the duck. By now she would allow me within five paces of her - maybe because she had become so dependent on her evening meal.
"The wild duck is making herself at home all right," I wrote. "I still put grated coconut in a tin and a tin of water alongside. She takes a mouthful of nut, then dips her bill in the water - does it with every mouthful. Her wing feathers look a bit the worse for wear, so I expect she's not young. She spends the greater part of her day in the shade, standing on one leg, with her head thrown back, sleeping, but with one eye open; then disappears just before sunset. Mr. Tom-Tom has stalked her a couple of times. I've had to speak to him sharply about that." I often wondered where she spent the night. Until now I had never seen her fly away, but one evening I had just left the bath-house when I noticed her waddling towards the lagoon. Instinctively I senses she had some definite purpose. I stood and watched.
As soon as she had reached the ode of the clearing where the ground sloped down to the lagoon, she took off, flying low - a few feet only above the ground - between the coconut trees towards the beach. From then on she changed course, heading out over the lagoon and making for Whale Islet, three-quarters of mile away. A few evenings later I saw her do the same thing again - and she never varied this habit, but flew precisely the same course through the trees and over the water. I must not give the impression that I thought about the duck all the time, but I did wonder occasionally how I could tame her. It's hard to explain why I should have thought about it at all, for I can imagine no duller pet than a duck - and, after all, I did have my cats. I suppose it was another challenge - something as simple as that. I was already beginning to get eggs, the garden was growing, and possibly (though I didn't realise it at the time) I did not now have to work quite so hard. Whatever the reason, I did - from time to time - toy with the idea of making a more positive attempt to tame her.
And in the end it came about quite by chance, without any thought, without any planning. One day she was distant and suspicious, th4 next she was eating out of my hand. And to this day I cannot explain why or how it happened. I can only assume that it was a question of time which had built up her confidence in me. Almost without thinking, I held out my hand one evening with a little grated nut in my palm. She came up to me without the slightest hesitation and immediately started feeding. To my amazement, she now seemed completely unafraid and after that I fed her every day, with the result that she became so used to this routine that she would become quite angry if I were a few minutes late!
"I really had to laugh today," I wrote, "for I was a bit late reaching the shack to prepare the duck's food and she came toward me with one solitary disapproving quack." After that there was always a disapproving quack if I should be late with her supper. Never two quacks - just the one. Soon she would follow me up to the veranda, almost lie a dog. She was a creature of precise habit, and never appeared in the yard before feeding time. Never once was there a note of disapproval so long as I was on time. At other times I saw her on the beach and sometimes I caught a glimpse of her thirty or forty feet out in the lagoon when it was calm, asleep with her head tucked under her wing.
My work on the fowl run was rudely interrupted by another gout of fever, which prostrated me in a matter of hours after I had scratched my foot on some coral. Nothing could have been more frustrating. Since I had been on the island I had never even had a cold or a runny nose, despite often being soaked to the skin and chilled at nights when the weather changed unexpectedly. I felt sure my immunity was due to an absence of germs on the island. Now I come to think of it, I had read somewhere that the Americans living at the South Pole never caught what is called "the common cold" except when a parcel from a relative in the States had been parachuted down to the tiny camp, accompanied by unwelcome germs.
The fever was a very different matter. I had had touches of fever in the Islands before, so when I was struck down by this attack I was not unduly worried and simply staggered to the safety of my bed. Sure enough, it passed off after a day or so, leaving me a little weak, but with no serious after-effects. Nonetheless, it was not exactly pleasant. And lying there I recalled the jagged coral spike which had penetrated the heel of my shoe. It was nothing more than a twenty-four hours, here I was with a raging temperature. It had been almost all I could manage to crawl shakily to my bed and lie there. I would have to be careful - otherwise I might get a really bad bout. Once the fever had burned itself out, I remember I staggered down to Pylades Bay for a swim as though to restore and cleanse myself in its warm, clear water. And on the way back, I stopped to look at my garden; for during the weeks I had spent building the fowl run, I had also tended the plants assiduously, staking out the tomatoes which were now three feet tall, and stringing up the other plants as they started to blossom. Though I had lost one or two plants from crabs which managed to claw their way through the fence, the rest had grown with astonishing speed, with foliage so thick and dense I had to trim all the lower leaves. I walked back to my shack well satisfied. Within a very short time I could expect my first fruit and vegetables, for everything seemed to be going splendidly.
And then I was threatened with near disaster. The fruit refused to set! Plants I had confidently expected to see loaded with fruit produced nothing more than a couple of small tomatoes. I noted gloomily in my journal, "the rock melons and the kumeras I have planted are growing vigorously and are full of flowers, but the fruit won't set; it just forms, then turns yellow and drops off. The same goes for the water melons. Must be the lack of bees. Hardly any of the tomatoes have fruit. If all the flowers set they would be loaded. I picked two today that had started to ripen. I shall soon replant the kumeras. So far they have been a failure."
The only things which grew well were my shallots, but even here I seemed to be dogged with bad luck, and it is quite a while before I had the chance to taste one because they simply vanished. At first I couldn't understand it. A young shoot had only to appear above ground in the evening to be mysteriously gone next morning. Night after night I kept a close and suspicious watch on the hens. But it wasn't in character; they were too frightened, and certainly too dim-witted to have forced a way through the f4ence. I wondered about the coconut crabs, but there were hardly any on the island by now, and in any case they were far too big to et through the fence. Shortly before tea one evening I was walking along the garden when I smelt a strong scent of onions. Not baby shallots, but a really strong onion smell. I went to investigate - and found my answer. rows of my precious plants were lying uprooted on a bare patch of ground near the onion bed. And round the plants, scores and scores of hermit crabs - some as tiny as a thumb nail - were having the fest of their lives.
Here was the secret of the vanishing onions. The crabs sere so tiny they could get through any fence; the bigger ones, lured on by the tantalising smell of onions already uprooted, were actually capable of climbing slowly and painfully over the fence.
There was only one thing to do. Fortunately, hermit crabs tend to stay in one spot and they cannot move quickly. Next evening I laid out coconut bait near the onion bed and when I went down there towards sunset with an old tin, I pounced on and collected over a hundred victims - which I left in the tin until morning, when I took them down near the southern tip of the island and threw them into the bush. there was no point in killing hem, they were too far away ever to return. Each night for ever a week I repeated this performance until there were none left.
At least I had a few shallots, but the rest of the garden was such a miserable failure that I could have wet with despair. All that painstaking work had been for nothing. All that topsoil I had carried so laboriously from the south end had produced nothing more than a few pitiful blossoms which yellowed and died without producing any of the fruit and vegetables I needed so badly The curious thing is that - though I am supposed to be a handyman - it was some time before it struck me that instead of sitting back and moaning about ill-luck I might be able to pollinate the blossoms myself. Why not? I had never been a gardener for the simple reason that more than enough of everything grows wild in the South Seas; but one of the few fascinating paperback books left by the coast-watchers was an abridged edition of Darwin's The Origin of Species. I had read it with enormous interest, and now remembered the passages in which he had described how the bees and other insects had pollinated flowers.
There was only one thing to be done. Since there were no bees, I would pollinate the blossoms by hand - and I set about it the very next day. It was not a difficult as you might imagine, for there were usually more male than female flowers, and I could distinguish them easily as the pollen-bearing stamens in the male blossoms were usually longer. All I had to do in most cases was break off a male flower and rub the pollen on to the female flower. The easiest of all were the pumpkins, for the male flower had extra stamens and the female flower a definite orifice into which I could push the pollen, up and down, to make sure of fertilisation
The tomatoes proved the most reluctant. I took a matchstick and bound some very fine, almost hair-like feathers of a bosun bird with cotton on to the end to make a miniature brush. Since I found it virtually impossible to distinguish the female from the male blossoms as they hung in clusters on the plants, the best I could do was to brush from flower to flower without taking off any blossoms. I went over the whole tomato crop two or three times, first one way, then another, and it worked. Once I had fertilised the blossoms, I enjoyed some excellent crops. In three months I was picking tomatoes; in four months pumpkins and wonderful melons, both cantaloupe and rock melons. And now everything seemed top settle into place, as I had always imagined it would. Soon the fowl run was "inhabited," and once the garden was yielding and the hens laying, I became almost self-sufficient. From this moment I had more fish than I needed, plenty of fruit and vegetables and a regular rooster for the pot.
Nonetheless, I never succeeded in rounding up all the fowls inside my run. In fact, I never pushed this too far because hens are stubborn and some of the more independent-minded might have become actually unhappy in their new surroundings and consequently gone "on strike." But the others seemed happy enough and inside the run a new batch of chicks was growing at full speed. Every afternoon I let out my new flock to forage for greenstuffs. In no time they had discovered worms and insects, and often chased - frequently catching - small island lizards. Fowls need greenstuffs to remain healthy and different from the anaemic yellow of the "merchandised" eggs shipped from New Zealand to Rarotonga. But though the eggs tasted good, I must admit I hardly enjoyed the roosters. It was essential I should eat them to give me a balanced diet, but thinking back to those days, I feel I never want to eat a rooster again. What hours I spent cutting them up for the cooking pot; what countless times I ate those tasteless, insipid birds merely because I was even more bored with fish.
At first it was snot too bad. I had flour and fat, so I could make a passable "Southern Fried Chicken" if I felt so inclined. 'but once these tasty additions were all used u there was only one way to cook it. I cut the wretched bird into pieces, put it in the pot and added two or three shallots from my garden for flavouring. Although they added something to the taste, it is not a recipe I recommend to the wife anxious to prove the way to her man's heart is through his stomach. Unlike me, Mr. Tom-Tom and Mrs. Thievery loved their weekly chicken. Since their normal diet was solid fish, they soon came to recognise the smell floating out of the pot. Sundays for them were different in the only way that matters to cats, and both of them exhibited an uncanny sense of timing, even on the Saturday they sensed a rooster was due to be killed. From then on they were constantly in evidence around the cook-house, even sitting unblinkingly by the box where I kept the rooster, patient in the sure knowledge that sooner or later the time would come for Sunday lunch.
My First Visitors
On August 4, 1953-ten months after I had landed - I welcomed my first visitors. It was unexpected because I had long since stopped wondering whether one day I would wake up to discover a strange yacht or schooner anchored in the lagoon. I rarely gave a thought to the outside world.
They were very happy days. I was never lonely, though now and again I would walk along the reef wishing somebody could be with me - not because I wanted company but just because all this beauty seemed too perfect to keep to myself. That August day happened to be particularly beautiful. A light easterly breeze was blowing and around two in the afternoon I took my spear and sauntered out along the reef not really to catch fish, but more for the walk. After I had strolled a little way, the day struck me as so especially calm and perfect that I stopped and turned round to look along the shoreline.
There, in the shimmering distance, was a sail. I stared in momentary disbelief, but there it was, one of the most beautiful sights the Pacific can ever offer - a ship in full sail edging her way through the blue waters. She was plainly making for the entrance to the lagoon. It was so long since I had seen a sail that it took an appreciable time for the reality to sink in, for me to realise that in an hour or two I would actually be talking to other people; men, perhaps women; talking to them, instead of to myself.
Once I was over the initial surprise and excitement, a practical but prosaic thought came into my mind. It was not "I wonder who they can be?" nor "Will they be planning to stay?" On the contrary, as I walked back to the shack, the slender link still tethering me to civilisation had grown suddenly stouter and tighter so that I thought "I wonder if they've come from Rarotonga and if they've brought any mail?"
"Don't think you've
licked it," Peb told me towards the end of their stay. "You'll never lick it
till you see a doc." Not unnaturally, I had been giving a great deal of
thought to the future, for I was really frightened about the state of my
back. The memory of that morning on One Tree motu still disturbed me as
vividly as the occasional twinge of pain, and I knew Peb was right. I would
never recover until I had some sort of medical attention. I might be able to
carry on for a few months if I were careful, but what sort of a life would
it be for a man hundreds of miles from any sort of help, perpetually forced
to walk gingerly, think twice before daring to lift a spade or chop down a
nut? I was in no doubt now that it was exertion that brought on the
crippling pain; a sudden jerk, the quick instinctive tensing of muscles even
before the message had passed from brain to limb. A disability like this was
obviously an impossibility on an island where physical effort was vital in
order to keep alive. I had to face it. This serious weakness would not only
make life impossible, but little short of suicidal into the bargain. Had I
had a companion, a Man Friday, I might have been tempted to remain, for
Peb's constant help had proved that a companion could quickly get me into a
sitting position, and unlock the muscles I would have been powerless to free
alone. But there was no companion, and soon even Peb would be on his way.
Farewell to the Island
Farewell to the Island
Six Frustrating Years
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