Around 1875 - Frank Bullen, Whaler
Shore Leave: Riding a Tortoise
Aldabra Islands, Indian Ocean
The end of the week brought us up to the Aldabra Islands, one of the puzzles of the world. For here, in these tiny pieces of earth, surrounded by thousands of miles of sea, the nearest land a group of islets like unto them, is found the gigantic tortoise, and in only one other place in the wide world, the Galapagos group of islands in the South Pacific. How, or by what strange freak of Dame Nature these curious reptiles, sole survivals of another age, should come to be found in this lonely spot, is a deep mystery, and one not likely to be unfolded now. At any rate, there they are, looking as if some of them might be coeval with Noah, so venerable and storm-beaten do they appear.
We made the island early on a Sunday morning, and, with the usual celerity, worked the vessel into the fine harbour, called, from one of the exploring ships, Euphrates Bay or Harbour. The anchor down, and everything made snug below and aloft, we were actually allowed a run ashore free from restraint. I could hardly believe my ears. We had got so accustomed to our slavery that liberty was become a mere name; we hardly knew what to do with it when we got it. However, we soon got used (in a very limited sense) to being our own masters, and, each following the bent of his inclinations, set out for a ramble. My companion and I had not gone far, when we thought we saw one of the boulders, with which the island was liberally besprinkled, on the move. Running up to examine it with all the eagerness of children let out of school, we found it to be one of the inhabitants, a monstrous tortoise. I had some big turtle around the cays of the Gulf of Mexico, but this creature dwarfed them all. We had no means of actually measuring him, and had to keep clear of his formidable-looking jaws, but roughly, and within the mark, he was four feet long by two feet six inches wide. Of course he was much more dome-shaped than the turtle are, and consequently looked a great deal bigger than a turtle of the same measurement would, besides being much thicker through. As he was loth to stay with us, we made up our minds to go with him, for he was evidently making for some definite spot, by the tracks he was following, which showed plainly how many years that same road had been used. Well, I mounted on his back, keeping well astern, out of the reach of that serious-looking head, which having rather a long neck, looked as if it might be able to reach round and take a piece out of a fellow without any trouble. He was perfectly amicable, continuing his journey as if nothing had happened, and really getting over the ground at a good rate, considering the bulk and shape of him. Except for the novelty of the thing, this sort of ride had nothing to recommend it; so I soon tired of it, and let him waddle along in peace. By following the tracks aforesaid, we arrived at a fine stream of water sparkling out of a hillside, and running down a little ravine. The sides of this gully were worn quite smooth by the innumerable feet of the tortoises, about a dozen of which were now quietly crouching at the water's edge, filling themselves up with the cooling fluid. I did not see the patriarch upon whom a sailor once reported that he had read the legend carved, "The Ark, Captain Noah, Ararat for orders"; perhaps he had at last closed his peaceful career. But strange, and quaint as this exhibition of ancient reptiles was, we had other and better employment for the limited time at our disposal. There were innumerable curious things to see, and, unless we were to run the risk of going on board again and stopping there, dinner must be obtained. Eggs of various kinds were exceedingly plentiful; in many places the flats were almost impassable for sitting birds, mostly "boobies."
But previous experience of boobies' eggs in other places had not disposed me to seek them where others were to be obtained, and as I had seen many of the well-known frigate or man-o'-war birds hovering about, we set out to the other side of the island in search of the breeding-place.
These peculiar birds are, I think, misnamed. They should be called pirate or buccaneer birds, from their marauding habits. Seldom or never do they condescend to fish for themselves, preferring to hover high in the blue, their tails opening and closing like a pair of scissors as they hang poised above the sea. Presently booby - like some honest housewife who has been a-marketing - comes flapping noisily home, her maw laden with fish for the chicks. Down comes the black watcher from above with a swoop like an eagle. Booby puts all she knows into her flight, but vainly; escape is impossible, so with a despairing shriek she drops her load. Before it has touched the water the graceful thief has intercepted it, and soared slowly aloft again, to repeat the performance as occasion serves.
When we arrived on the outer shore of the island, we found a large breeding-place of these birds, but totally different to the haunt of the boobies. The nests, if they might be so called, being at best a few twigs, were mostly in the hollows of the rocks, the number of eggs being two to a nest, on an average. The eggs were nearly as large as a turkey's. But I am reminded of the range of size among turkeys' eggs, so I must say they were considerably larger than a small turkey's egg. Their flavour was most delicate, as much so as the eggs of a moor-fed fowl. We saw no birds sitting, but here and there the gaunt skeleton forms of birds, who by reason of sickness or old age were unable to provide for themselves, and so sat waiting for death, appealed most mournfully to us. We went up to some of these poor creatures, and ended their long agony; but there were many of them that we were obliged to leave to Nature.
We saw no animals larger than a rat, but there were a great many of those eerie-looking land-crabs, that seemed as if almost humanly intelligent as they scampered about over the sand or through the undergrowth, busy about goodness knows what. The beautiful cocoa-nut palm was plentiful, so much so that I wondered why there were no settlers to collect "copra," or dried cocoa-nut, for oil. My West Indian experience came in handy now, for I was able to climb a lofty tree in native fashion, and cut down a grand bunch of green nuts, which form one of the most refreshing and nutritious of foods, as well as a cool and delicious drink. We had no line with us, so we took off our belts, which, securely joined together, answered my purpose very well. With them I made a loop round the tree and myself; then as I climbed I pushed the loop up with me, so that whenever I wanted a rest, I had only to lean back in it, keeping my knees against the trunk, and I was almost as comfortable as if on the ground.
After getting the nuts, we made a fire and roasted some of our eggs, which, with a biscuit or two, made a delightful meal. Then we fell asleep under a shady tree, upon some soft moss; nor did we wake again until nearly time to go on board. A most enjoyable swim terminated our day's outing, and we returned to the beach abreast of the ship very pleased with the excursion.
We had no adventures, found no hidden treasure or ferocious animals, but none the less we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. While we sat waiting for the boat to come and fetch us off, we saw a couple of good-sized turtle come ashore quite close to us. We kept perfectly still until we were sure of being able to intercept them. As soon as they had got far enough away from their native element, we rushed upon them, and captured them both, so that when the boat arrived we were not empty-handed. We had also a "jumper," or blouse, full of eggs, and a couple of immense bunches of cocoa-nuts. When we got on board we felt quite happy, and, for the first time since leaving America, we had a little singing.
The Cruise of the Cachalot
Vol. 1, Leipzig 1899