Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Life on an island, Part 2

Arrh, it's happened again! Finding the time to sit down and focus on writing has become quite the problem. Being a father, husband and manager (and sometimes babysitter to a large group of staff ) all looking for a slice of my time, leaves me with precious little for my own pursuits. Fortunately, I have a few moments of quiet that I can refocus on the follow up to 'Life on an island', part 2.

Nevis is just like the image conjured up in all those glossy travel magazines. White sands, sapphire blue oceans and emerald forests (well, just during the rainy season) welcome you as you arrive. However, Nevis just like all the other islands is more diverse than just sand and sea. So let me take you on a little tour of our Rock!

For the newly arrived your experiences start at our international airport. Most tourist began their adventure to the islands navigating sprawling airports with multiple flights heading all over the world. Nevis has simplified this process by having just the one gate and keeping the clutter of flights to manageable few a day. Truth be told, the runway isn't long enough to accommodate big 'people movers' so most visitors to Nevis come through the bigger airport in St. Kitts. However, if fortunate to arrive directly here on Nevis, your transition from aeroplane to exiting the terminal is a simple walk with a few fellow passengers only stopping briefly with customs and passport control. That's the beauty of small airports!

Rush hour - Nevis style!
Once cleared to enter the island your first Caribbean experience starts in the parking lot. As airport carparks go, this one has ample spaces right up front. The experience I mentioned is the fact that the sheep and goats outnumber the  amount of parked vehicles. Its not uncommon to see them walking past the front sidewalk enroute to a new patch of grass to chew on.

Nevis is awash with roaming livestock of various kinds. The resident population of goats and sheep found at the airport can be seen all over the island foraging for food. Coupled with this, you'll find bigger cows, horses and now feral donkeys that were once the prefered mode of transport before the arrival of cars. Rarely, you might catch a glimpse of an old timer riding up the mountain on the back of a mule, but these days it's mostly done inside the airconditioned cab of a truck.

From the air, Nevis looks like it rose on the back of an old volcano come out of the depths of the ocean. Though true, Nevis Peak is an impressive 3232 ft, we have a total of seven very much older, smaller and extinct volcanoes that make up the island. Nevis Peaks elevation helps in providing much needed rain by stopping the clouds that have traveled the Atlantic so relieve themselves of excessive evaporative moisture. It's worth pointing out that locals don't see rain as a negative but instead refer to a rainy event as receiving 'Blessings'. This is because the Caribbean is classed as the dry tropics with an average rainfall of around 50 inches with temperatures fluctuating in the 80's (fahrenheit) yearly.

Nevis Peaks dominating presence was part of the reason Nevis got it name. Columbus was one of the first europeans to lay eyes on the island while traveling to the new world. Before Christo traveled through these parts the native Carib Indians called this island 'Oualie', translating into "land of Beautiful Waters".  However, when Christo did travel through in 1493, Nevis appeared on following Spanish maps as "Nuestra Senora de las Nieves", which translates to 'Our Lady of the Snows', for the cloud covered peak that can look like a snow capped mountain.

The cloud covered peak enables the chain reaction of cloud to rain to happen. The racing winds that have moved those clouds across the Atlantic decides where the rain should fall.  For this reason our island has many diverse ecosystems and plants that thrive only in these environments.

The east side of the island faces the open ocean and is as dry as many deserts. In fact, the rock strewn landscape has a lunar look, with the occasional cactus poking up through foreign Acacia's that have naturalised across the island from there original african homes. The powerful Atlantic wind has carved the plants in these environment into interesting and tortured shapes. Boulders lend some protection to plants, but their growth is restricted to the shadow of these rocks. For this reason, the plants growth can undulate, mimicking the waves that crash along the coastline.

Further inland, the wind begins to give way and trees start looking more like trees than the tortured specimens most bonsai fanatics would lust for. Rain is still limited but with the wind beginning to be dispersed, moisture has a chance to percolate down to the roots.

However, things beginning to get interesting when you reach the slopes. Through years of rainfall and runoff, deep canyons (or locally referred to as ghauts) have carved themselves into the mountainsides creating sheltered, humid rich environments. The steep walls of these ghauts are clothed in dense coverings of ferns, gingers and begonias to name a few. Cooler temperatures and massive water smoothed rounded boulders create a zen-like sanctuary, peaceful and separated from everyday life of the island.

Towards the summit, the ghauts disappear and thick moisture rich cloudforest take over.  Sadly, this is a world that I still need to experience as my work keeps me to busy to explore. I've been told that the vegetation is controlled again by the same Atlantic winds, keeping the tree height to a minimum. However, the moisture rich clouds allow epiphytes like Orchids to drip from the limbs of trees making up for the lack of height. Everyday I watch the clouds swirl around the peak to swallow it up from view, only clearing occasional to give a glimpse of a world often hidden in the mist.

I would be amiss to not mention the other feature of Nevis also seen in travel magazines, Monkeys! Naturalised from Africa, the Green Vervet monkeys were brought to the islands as exotic pets and after escaping captivity grew in number. They are loved by visitors, but despised by islanders. Sure, they're cute to watch and bring hours of enjoyment as they run, climb and play but they're as destructive as deer. Agriculture on Nevis has almost been obliterated by these furry thieves as people give up trying to provide produce for themselves. It's no wonder that people who catch them for cooking call monkeys 'Tree Mutton'.

Well, this is just a small glimpse of the island my family and I now call home. As and when time allows, I'll write and tell stories of our adventures of life and gardening on the island. But for now I need to shoo off the monkeys from the Mango tree and throw the kids in the pool to cool off.

Lime on!

Friday, April 3, 2015

Life on a island, Part 1

Even though the final box was unpacked some time ago, my move overseas and the transition into a new job had put me into a blogging hiatus of sorts.  Lets face it, the draw of sitting under a coconut palm watch the world go by has been too great.  However, lots have been learnt since moving on Island and its time to share my experiences of living on a rock and get back into writing again.

For many, gardening is all about the escape.  Even though I still work in it, it is what you create that gives you the freedom.  So for this post I thought I'd starting at the roots, well actual the house I live in and the garden around it.  Its the perfect way to chronicle my adventures in tropical gardening and the challenges I face as the seasons change.

Here on Nevis, houses don't have numbers, but are given names instead.  My little slice of paradise is aptly called Genesis.  I'm pretty sure it wasn't to honor the pop giants of the 80's and 90's, but probably to honor the biblical term for 'the beginning'.  Its better to think of a place in a more noble manner than to picture a little balding man singing 'I can't dance'!

Genesis is your typical caribbean home.  Solidly constructed in concrete with a metal roof and water catchment cisterns under the floors.  Built to withstand hurricanes its a doomsday preppers dream come true!  Even the big bad wolf could blow this house down.

Adonidia merrillii, Manila palms outside the front door

The other dream come true mainly for my daughter, is that its painted Barbie pink, a common  color of caribbean dwellings.  Apart from constantly craving cotton candy, I feel like were living in a dolls house.  We're located about 700 ft up on the slopes of the extinct volcano that forms the center of Nevis.  The views across to St Kitts are amazing and the breeze is somewhat constant, but you need to have the stamina of a mountain goat to mow the lawn!

Flamboyant tree, Delonix regia

The one  negative about living on the side of a volcano is all the bloody rocks.  Aparently, at some point many thousands of years ago, Mt Nevis blew its top and threw it down the side of the mountain, which is where they decided to build this pretty pink house and put in a garden.  Its reassuring to know that we are living on an old pyroclastic field.  I better find a way to pay homage to the sleeping volcano to guarantee my safety.  Now, where did those bloody free roaming roosters go!

Bismarckia nobilis, Bismarck Palm
The positive side is that the garden has great bones with all the trees and shrubs.  The standout features are a nicely mature Bismarckia nobilis, Bismarck Palm with grand silvery fanlike fronds. Along the driveway is a grove of Adonidia merrillii, Manila palms with bright red berries that are produced in copious amounts. Surrounding the rest of garden are three wide spreading Flamboyant trees, Delonix regia providing a much appreciated canopy of shade and in the back yard is an endlessly flowering African Tulip Tree, Spathodea campanulata .  As time goes by I'll highlight a few others, but these are the stand out specimens that caught my eye when we first moved in.

One difference you soon learn in the tropic is that there are just two seasons, the wet and dry!  Gone are the four season gardens I have used to for a while.  I had always considered winter as a curse but in reality its a luxury.  The gardens here never sleep, they just slow down when it gets dry.  That means that all the problems associated with gardening, pest and disease and the like stay as a constant issue.

African Tulip Tree, Spathodea campanulata

In my next post, I'll introduce you to the rest of the island. Although we're pretty much a small circular island that shows up on many maps as a small dot, it a diverse rock with many different environments.  I hope that many who read my blog before will continue to do so even though its a departure from the cold tolerant gardens of the north.  One thing I've learnt since coming here is that its never dull and there's always a story to tell.

So until next time, garden on!