ON THE ROAD TO TREASURE BAY
At any rate we were not now about to undergo the great toil, thirst, and danger that I had experienced during my former visit, for I at least knew some of the places to avoid, and this was a matter of importance. As we clambered along the edges of the mountains, looking for the pass, I was able to condemn at once as false passages several promising-looking routes, the vain trial of which had exhausted myself and my companions on my previous expedition.
For instance, there was one long slope of volcanic debris of a ruddy colour which appeared, from where we stood, to join on to the green hills below and so to lead to the sandy beaches. The doctor was anxious to attempt this easy-looking way, but I knew the deceitful place too well of old. It tempts one farther and farther down, ever getting steeper, until one suddenly finds oneself at the edge of a frightful precipice, invisible from above, which compels one at great risk to retrace one's painful steps to the heights.
In the course of my first exploration we made so many false descents of these ravines and slopes, all terminating in precipices and driving us back again, that at last, finding no water, we were completely worn out and nearly perished of thirst. The heat is intense on Trinidad, especially at this season of the year, when the sun is vertical, and to climb these hot crags through the suffocating air is the most completely exhausting work I have ever undertaken. No other place within the tropics that I have visited has such an oppressive climate. I therefore determined to make no foolish experiments on this occasion, and not to attempt the descent until I was certain of my pass.
We crawled along the cliff-side for a long way, looking over at every point; but I could see nothing like my old ravine, and soon got fairly puzzled. At last we had followed the mountain ridges almost to the north end of the island, where the plateau of treeferns ceases and where the mountains fall nearly perpendicularly into the sea, and culminate in needlelike peaks, affording no soil for vegetation of any description. So I knew that we had come too far and had passed the entrance to the ravine. We accordingly retraced our steps. We had now exhausted our bottle of water and were suffering from thirst. My old experience taught me never, if possible, to be far from a stream while wandering over Trinidad. To toil among these arid rocks produces an insatiable thirst, and one's strength fails if one is deprived of water even for a short time. Therefore, as we saw below us a ravine that looked like a watercourse and which bore some resemblance to the one I was in search of, we decided to explore it. We lowered ourselves down from rock to rock for some way and soon, to our delight, found a small issue of cool water. But this was not my ravine, for, on descending farther, we came to the edge of one of the usual precipices, and we had to clamber up again.
We attempted yet another ravine, which I did not recognize as the one, but which might prove to be it nevertheless, for I had to confess that I was quite at sea. This in time led us to a sloping shelf of rock overhanging another precipice. This shelf was extremely slippery, for the stream flowed over it in a thin film and it was covered with a short moss. This, too exactly corresponds with a description in Frank Mildmay, that excellent guide to Trinidad, and what is said about the spot in that work may serve as a warning to any — if such there ever be — who may meditate a tour on this island. Two of Mildmay's sailors had been lost while goat-hunting, so he sets forth in search of them. "I was some yards in advance of my companions," he says, "and the dog a little distance from me, near the shelving part of a rock terminating in a precipice. The shelf I had to cross was about six or seven feet wide and ten or twelve long, with a very little inclined plane towards the precipice, so that I thought it perfectly safe. A small rill of water trickled down from the rock above it and, losing itself among the moss and grass, fell over the precipice below, which, indeed, was of a frightful depth. This causeway was to all appearance safe, compared with many which we had passed, and I was just going to step upon it when my dog ran before me, jumped on the fatal pass — his feet slipped from under him —h e fell and disappeared over the precipice! I started back — I heard a heavy squelch and a howl; another fainter succeeded, and all was still. I advanced with the utmost caution to the edge of the precipice, where I discovered that the rill of water had nourished a short moss, close and smooth as velvet, and so slippery as not to admit of the lightest footstep; this accounted for the sudden disappearance and, as I concluded, the inevitable death of my dog." Later on, far below, he found "the two dead bodies of our companions and that of my dog, all mangled in a shocking manner; both, it would appear, had attempted to cross the shelf in the same careless way which I was about to do when Providence interposed the dog in my behalf." The adventures of Frank Mildmay and his crew on Trinidad are recorded with such realism and with — as I have before said — such accuracy of local colouring that I suspect Captain Marryat in this portion of his work is recounting his personal experiences.
So, foiled once again, we reascended the ravine and walked along the edge of the mountains, till we came to a projecting rock that commanded an extensive view over the cliffs. Here we sat down and discussed the problem before us. I assured the doctor that my ravine was certainly close to us somewhere, but that I altogether failed to identify it among the ravines before us, though I carried in my mind's eye a very vivid picture of its appearance.
"Perhaps it has disappeared," suggested the doctor.
This seemed scarcely possible, but it might, I acknowledged, have been so changed by landslips as to be unrecognisable.
Being people of logical mind, we reasoned that, if the ravine still existed, we ought now to discover it without any difficulty by a simple process of elimination. There was only a limited number of even possible-looking ways down the precipices. Of these we had now tried two in vain. Again, there were several others which I remembered well to have attempted at the time of my previous visit and to have found impracticable. It followed that we had now to confine our attention to any remaining possible routes, and of these there could be very few.
Indeed, after a careful survey along the edge of the cliffs, we found that there was but one such way left to us, and that looked very ugly. Everywhere else were precipices that could obviously only be descended by a means of progression more rapid than we cared to undertake.
This way seemed as if it might afford a passage to the beach, but it was not a ravine at all. The mountain on which we stood had fallen away, leaving a precipitous step some fifty or sixty feet in height, and from this step there sloped down to a depth, I should say, of quite 1,500 feet a great landslip of broken rocks, the debris of the fallen mountain. This landslip appeared to have taken place not long since. It was composed of rocks of all sizes and shapes, almost coal black, piled one on the other at so steep an angle that it was extraordinary how the mass held together and did not topple over. It was indeed in places more like an artificial wall of rough stones on a gigantic scale than a landslip.
The pass I was searching for was utterly unlike this. I remembered well that I had found a ravine extending from the mountain-top to the beach, which I described in my narrative as "a gloomy gorge with sides formed of black rocks piled on each other in chaotic masses, with a small stream trickling dowr it." We had experienced little difficulty in ascending or descending it. Before us were now a sufficiency "of black rocks piled on each other in chaotic masses," but no signs of a ravine or stream.
It did not look a tempting route, but we could see nothing else, so decided to try it. The descent was anything but easy and was certainly rather trying to the nerves. To begin with, the descent of the precipitous step I have mentioned was a very creepy business. Having accomplished this without accident we clambered down the giant staircase of black rock the best way we could, and also with as much speed as was consistent with safety; for the sun was low, the sudden tropical night would soon be on us, and as it would be, of course, impossible to proceed in the dark, we should be compelled to camp out in this very uncomfortable place if we did not hurry on.
We at last reached the foot of the landslip and were on the green down we had seen from above, and which slopes gently to the beach. All our difficulties were over.
These slopes on the windward side of Trinidad are overgrown chiefly with a sturdy species of bean. This plant creeps along the ground, throwing out long tough tendrils, whose mission it evidently is to climb up something for support; but in this they are generally unsuccessful, for nearly all the dead trees have been blown down on this wind-swept corner of the island. A few trees are still standing and these are overgrown with clinging creepers more lucky than the rest. The scene reminded me of countries I had visited where there are ten women to one man and where, consequently, the male is properly appreciated and made much of, while thousands of luckless old maids vegetate hopelessly with no one to cling to. When I imparted this simile to the doctor he implored me not to be sentimental.
The flowers of this bean are pink, and the pods are as large as broad beans. These the doctor at once pronounced to be edible, for, as he explained to me, none of these leguminosae are poisonous. This was a good thing to know, for they grow so thickly on these shores that we could have collected any quantity we pleased during our stay on Trinidad; and with these, the fish, the turtle, the birds and their eggs, all of which are procurable here without any difficulty, it would be possible for men left on this island to ward off starvation for any length of time.
When I speak of the slopes we were now on as downs, the reader must not conjure up a picture of the grassy downs of the English coast, pleasant underfoot and easy to travel on. To drag one's feet over the downs of Trinidad is a very weary business. There are large rocks and deep pits everywhere. One's progress is impeded by the extreme softness of the soil into which one's feet sink deeply, and this is made still worse by the burrows of the land-crabs, while the roots of the tall grasses and the trailing tendrils of the beans try to trip one up at every step.
Here, to our relief, we found water again. At the foot of the landslip a deep gully opened out which clove the down to the edge of the shore. At the bottom of this a little stream flowed for a short distance, being absorbed by the thirsty soil long before it could reach the sands below.
In order to avoid the entangling vegetation we walked down this gully, and an exceedingly unpleasant place we found it. For here an incredible number of large, fluffy white birds, a sort of gannet, were sitting on their nests with their young. They covered the rocks and the branches of the dead trees. They attacked us savagely whenever we came within reach of them, and the whole of the hot narrow gorge stank most offensively of the rotten fish they had strewn about. The different species of birds occupy different portions of this island, and this ravine is the chief haunt of this particular disagreeable tribe.
The whole scene now seemed strangely familiar to me — the ravine, the black rocks, the crowds of brooding white birds — and when at last we came to what appeared to be an old road of piled-up stones crossing the gully I stood still and cried in astonishment: "Why, doctor, this is my ravine after all! I remember this place well!"
Then I looked behind me at the mountain we had descended, and I began to understand how it was that I had been unable to find out my old route. As I have explained, the ravine I had travelled down nine years before extended from the plateau of tree-ferns to the shore. But since then a gigantic landslip had evidently taken place. The mountain-side had fallen away, and millions and millions of tons of rocks had rolled below, entirely filling up the ravine and destroying all traces of it, until far down where it appeared again on the downs beyond the hmit of the landslip.
This was one among other instances I can mention showing that enormous changes have taken place on this island even in the course of the last nine years. When this terrific fall of rocks occurred, it would have been a wonderful sight to one gazing at it in safety from the sea, and the noise of it must have made itself heard for many leagues around. It has certainly converted what was once a comparatively easy and perfectly safe road from the mountain-tops to the windward shore into an extremely difficult and dangerous one. So much so that the doctor and myself saw at once that it would be useless to establish a depot of stores at the pier, as it would be out of the question to lead the members of the expedition up such a perilous place as this. It was absolutely certain that lives would be lost if this pass were often attempted. No skilful mountaineering would avail against the treacherous rottenness of the precipitous step which surmounts the landslip, and which did not exist of old. There is no certain foothold anywhere upon its face, and we looked forward with no pleasurable anticipation to our enforced return by this way on the morrow.
The birds' eggs lay on every stone in this valley. We tasted some of them, but the flavour bore too much resemblance to the stench of rotten fish around us to be altogether pleasing.
The bank of stones which I had recognized in the ravine was of far too regular formation to be otherwise than the work of men's hands.
Some hundreds of years ago the Portuguese had a penal settlement on this side of Trinidad, and this, no doubt, was what remained of one of their roads. Some weeks later I explored the ruins of this settlement, which is a short distance to the north of this gully. I will describe it when I come to that portion of my narrative.
Before we came to the spit where the stream soaks into the earth we filled our bottle with water; then we walked down to the sandy beach, reaching it just before it became too dark to see our way. We were not long in selecting our camp. There was a large rock on the sands above high-water mark, whose hollow side afforded good shelter from wind and rain. In front of this we lit a fire of the wreck wood, of which there was no lack round us, and after a supper of roasted charki and biscuit we proceeded to make ourselves comfortable over our pipes and rum. We were tired, and would have slept very soundly with the sound of the surf on the reefs as our lullaby had it not been for the land-crabs, which would not let us alone, but pulled our hair or nipped our necks as soon as we began to doze off.
At last their conduct became unbearable, and our patience worn out, we got up, seized two sticks and slaughtered some fifty of them. Then we had a little rest, for the others left us alone for a while and devoured their dead brethren, making a merry crackling noise all round us, as they pulled the joints asunder and opened the shells. It was, as the doctor remarked, like the sound of many lobster suppers going on together at Scott's.
At daybreak, November 22nd, we started for South-west Bar. We had drunk all our water, and so were anxious to reach the bay, explore it, and be back to our stream as quickly as possible. While making this same journey nine years before, I had found no signs of fresh water between this and South Point. The streams that flow from the mountain-tops are absorbed far up by the slopes of debris and never reach the shore. Mr. A— did discover a small, but uncertain, supply near his camp at the head of South-west Bay, but we felt that we could not rely on this, and that the issue in the ravine above us, which we had left on the previous evening, was the only one we could fall back upon with certainty on the whole weather shore of the island.
We walked along the sandy beach, with the mountains towering to the right of us and the ocean swell breaking heavily on the reefs to our left. The beach was covered with wreckage — planks, barrels, spars, timbers of vessels with the corroded iron bolts still sticking in them — a melancholy spectacle; but I was unable to find one particular wreck which I had seen here nine years before — the complete framework of a vessel, partly buried in the sands, into which I had thought it might be worth while for our party now to dig, as some valuables might be lying in her hold. Either the sea had broken up or the sands had completely covered this wreck since my last visit.
We found traces of turtle on the sands, and we saw that the pools of clear water left by the tide were full of fish, while sea-crabs scampered over the rocks in quantities. The beans, too, grew in profusion on the downs above the beach, so there was plenty of food all round us, and, if there had only been fresh water, w e could have made ourselves very comfortable here. There were, of course, plenty of land-crabs everywhere, but one would have to be hard driven to eat these ugly brutes.
At last we came to a promontory of rock jutting out into the sea. We climbed up this without difficulty, and descended the other side by a steep slope of soft white sand.
From here we could see before us the Sugarloaf and Noah's Ark. The former mountain, as its name implies, is of conical shape — a stupendous mass, apparently of grey granite, whose summit is about 1,500 feet above the sea, and which on one side is very nearly perpendicular. Noah's Ark (South Point on the Admiralty chart) was so named by myself at the time of my former visit, in consequence of its resemblance both in shape and colour to the favourite toy of my childhood. It is of oblong form, with perpendicular sides and with a top exactly like the roof of a house. It is formed of volcanic rock of a peculiar reddish colour, and is about 800 feet in height. These two strangely shaped mountains are joined together by an apparently inaccessible ridge composed chiefly of the red detritus from Noah's Ark.
Our destination, South-west Bay, is bounded on its east side by these mountains; it was, therefore necessary for us now, being south of East Point, to cross the intervening heights.
The only pass I knew was just under the Sugarloaf. This we used generally to speak of as the Sugarloaf Col, so as to distinguish it from another pass which we afterwards discovered. Sugarloaf Col is the gap which divides the Sugarloaf from a jagged peak to the north of it, and which, in its turn, is continued by the steep downs which lie to the back of South-west Bay. The plan of Trinidad will explain these details better than any words can.
We crossed the sands, and then a small plain covered with a variety of bushes, which brought us to the foot of the Col. This gap is formed of rocks piled on one another, and is not difficult to surmount.
We reached the summit of it and then, looking down on the other side, we beheld, lying at our feet, Treasure Bay at last.