Monday, 23 September 2019

Unscheduled night up a tree ...

John gets lost on the remote island of 'Eua

There are only a handful of sign-posts on the Tongan island of 'Eua, and these are in pretty poor state after the 2018 tropical cyclone Gita, which damaged most houses on the island. On the vast majority of the island that is uninhabited jungle and farmland, there are no sign posts at all.

I had set out in the morning for the Fangatave cliffs and caves on the north-eastern tip of the island. I had done this hike a number of times, and on this occasion, as so often before, I was picked up by a Tongan family returning from church, and given a lift to the end of the Houma Road. After that, it is about a three hour walk through jungle and farmland to the spectacular cliffs and caves looking out to the Tongan Trench - the second deepest point on earth.

'Eua sign-post
It had been raining for the previous few days, and when I scaled down the cliffs to the cave system using a series of fixed ropes, I found myself stuck. Rain sluicing through the caves had made them slippery and dangerous, and any attempt to navigate them without a fixed line would result in me being spat out through caves to a ten-metre drop onto the rocks below.

I reluctantly turned back, because Fangatave Beach is pristine, deserted and miles from habitation - a truly beautiful location. It was late afternoon, and as I made my way back through the jungle and farmland, I noticed that logging of the forests had changed the topography, and paths I had previously recognised had gone. And then it began to rain.

I was clad in shorts, parka, and hiking boots, and soon my GPS smartphone got wet, and stopped working. After an hour or so, I realised I had taken a wrong turn and when my GPS briefly sputtered into life, I could see I was far to the south-east of my destination. Night was coming on, and no matter how much I looked for a track to take me to the west, I was drawn inexorably away from towns, to the uninhabited coast of the island.

Night time temperatures, mid-winter, on 'Eua had been about 17 degrees, and as the rain was getting stronger, and I didn't have a tent, the situation was looking unpromising. In the last half hour before darkness fell, I would need to find shelter. I had with me a bottle of water and a can of tuna. I would save the tuna for breakfast. The smart thing to do meanwhile was to wedge myself up a tree, away from the soaking ground, and trust the canopy to protect me from the relentless drizzle.

Top of the Fangatave cliffs
As night fell, I thought how rare it is to spend time in pitch darkness. In urban life, there is always a glimmer of light. In a forest, if there is no moon, the darkness is absolute. You cannot see your hand in front of your face. So black, that if I got out of my tree, I might not find my way back up it. So I wedged myself between the branches, and settled down. It was 6pm. Dawn would be in twelve hours.

Because I was wet, I curled into a ball. A drop of as little as two degrees centigrade in the core body temperature can be dangerous: Exposure is the biggest risk to wayward hikers. I also knew that I wouldn't be able to sleep; by moving all night, my muscles would generate heat and prevent my core temperature falling.

The first few hours were spent in an obsessive review of my situation … How had I been so stupid? Why hadn't I brought waterproof leggings? What would my buddies back at the Ovava Tree Lodge be thinking? It was a hike I had done many times before, so I hadn't even told them my destination.

Hotel 'Eua
I had only a few minutes of battery life left on my smartphone, and wanted to conserve that for a GPS reading in the morning - assuming it had dried out by them. But by midnight I knew that my friends at Ovava would notice my absence. I also knew they rarely answered their phone: A very 'Eua way to live. I reluctantly called 111, not because I wanted a police search - they would never find me - but because they could visit Ovava Lodge and let my friends know I was OK.

111 rang for a long time, then a woman's voice, with a thick Chinese accent said: 'This line is under maintenance. Please call back at a later time.'

I burst into laughter. I could imagine a Chinese company, contracted to supply emergency services, late in receiving kick-backs, deciding to withdraw services until whichever official in the local bureaucracy was responsible paid up. Tongans had told me the government is riddled with corruption.

Around 2am in the morning, I entered a trance-like state; a kind of meditation, in which I was detached from an anxiety that otherwise might have exhausted me. The next four hours were spent in this reverie, interspersed now and then with violent singing of tunes I composed specially for the occasion.

The keys I invented for my songs were new to mankind, and I hope never to hear them again. Small animals in the forest ran away in terror. My songs included a passionate hymn of praise to the sickle moon (which finally emerged around 3am); an appreciative song for the tree I was in - its bounty and gracious hospitality; and a wild and tuneless ditty about the importance of taking a sanguine view of things.

My biggest concern, aside from exposure, was that I would be too disoriented by sleep loss in the morning to find my way to the coast. An hour or two before dawn, I got out of the tree and lay on the soaking ground and tried to get some sleep.

Light flooding over the horizon at dawn was the most beautiful sight I could imagine. I carefully ate my can of tuna, using the lid as a spoon. Before it abandoned me, the GPS had signaled I needed to move due west ... I knew that if I started out at dawn, with the rising sun directly behind me, I would have a true compass direction.

After half an hour of dead ends, but having enough mental freshness to retrace my steps, I began to make steady progress westwards until I topped a ridge, and saw the sea – the 30km strait between ‘Eua and Tongatapu.

Moving towards the ocean, which was about three kilometres away, I came to successively bigger tracks, like tributaries. Finally I stumbled upon a workman’s hut, with oily abandoned overalls in it (warm clothing!). The sense of exhilaration I felt was indescribable - a surge of joy so deep, I felt giddy.

Buddhists say: 'Live with the Prince of Death at your shoulder at all times.' We should think about death daily, because only through this familiarity will we truly live each day in the present. While far from death, I had had enough of a glimpse of my own mortality to unleash in me the most profound gratitude for being on the earth - and simply breathing. I knelt down by the workman's hut and kissed the damp, sweet-smelling grass.

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