When Nicolas Pike, the first US Consul to Mauritius, and more importantly, the avid naturalist, landed on Round Island, he described a hair-raising adventure, where he faced a treacherous sea, with swells of ten to twelve feet. In fact, he wrote: “I once saw that what had been told to me of the difficulty of landing was no exaggeration… if our little craft had struck her bows on the precipitous ledge, she would have been hurled to Davy Jones Locker, and all in her, in a few seconds.”
Gerald Durrell, the founder of the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust and the infamous naturalist, describes his journey to Round Island on a calm clear day. As he approaches Round Island, he describes the forbidding terrain. Upon approach he was unable to “spot a single place suitable for setting ashore anything less agile than a mountain goat”.
As we travelled to Round Island, I was engrossed in thought. For years, I have read about the flora and fauna of the closed nature reserve set 22.5 km from mainland Mauritius in books written by known conservationists and naturalists, and now I too had the chance to visit Round Island.
Although it has been some years since either Pike or Durrell has been on Round Island, the landing has not changed in that it is as formidable as ever. Over the years, however, the method for landing has evolved, and is now done by swimming to the island from a boat, while carrying ashore supplies and personal effects stored in (ideally) waterproof barrels.
Incredibly, the day I departed for the island started much like Durrell’s when he visited Round Island; my alarm went off at 4 in the morning, and it was sobering. However, my excitement for the upcoming journey propelled me out of bed. I had to ready myself, finish packing my personal belongings and supplies, as well as do a final quarantine of them before departing.
The arrangements for our trip onto Round Island started far before the morning of. Days of shopping and preparation went into accumulating supplies for our time on the island. Every item taken is required to be painstakingly quarantined and checked for any potential invaders, for example seeds and insects. As the restoration of the island is the primary goal of the team working there, exceptional care is made to not introduce any additional invasive species.
Once the supplies were prepared, the ongoing island restoration team and I set forth for the harbour where we would be taking a boat to the shores of Round Island. The journey was breath taking. In “Golden Bats and Pink Pigeons”, Durrell beautifully described the islands surrounding Round. I was now able to see the neighbouring islands for myself; silhouettes of green softly smudged blue and purple in the morning light against a bright blue sky and deep navy sea.
As we arrived to the shores of Round Island, I more than understood the feelings of foreboding that Pike and Durrell described during their landing. The shore is rocky and sea worn, and the terrain does give one pause for thought. The island seems to rise vertically from the ocean. As we came up to the island, the warden pointed out where we would be landing, and indicated the route we would be taking to the field station. We were to ascend a sheer stone slab before reaching a fringe of palms and making our way across to the field station. Although the journey seemed daunting, I felt at ease given that I was with an experienced crew. Prior to our arrival, the warden explained the process of the changeover. As such, arrangements were made skilfully and changeover took place with surprising fluidity. Members of the team ferried barrels of supplies to and from the island by swimming back and forth. Barrels were passed by those still on the boat, and were accepted by team members on shore, prior to the ongoing crew swimming to shore, and those coming off swimming to the boat.
Once on Round Island, I was overwhelmed with the life that the island was teaming with. Tropicbirds were flying above like white crosses, interspersed with the dark silhouettes of petrels and shearwaters. Skinks seemed to be appearing from every nook and cranny, shimmering in the sun as they moved smoothly along the ground. Geckos were pressed against the underside of almost every palm frond, camouflaged against the bright green. Given the devastation that the vegetation of the island faced due to the introduction of grazers (rabbits and goats) in the 1800s, it is remarkable to see the richness of flora and fauna now present on the island after their removal. This is solely due to intensive conservation efforts. Round Island is one the longest-running island restoration projects in the world and an extensive a collaborative effort between the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation, Durrell and the National Park and Conservation Service. As amazing as the wildlife currently is, I did pause to wonder how extraordinary the wildlife on the island would be had rabbits and goats not been introduced.
Looking over the ocean, still lost in thought, the profile of Mauritius was still discernable, blurred dark blue. I thought of all the adventures and experiences had by all of the influential conservationists and biologists who had set foot here before me. I am so fortunate to be following in their footsteps. As I took my first steps on the island and prepared to carry a barrel of supplies to the field station, I thought of all that I would learn and experience on Round. I look forward to the next few weeks working on the restoration of the island so that I too can contribute to this long-term and amazing conservation.