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Trindade Island : Where You Can't Go

 

The Island of Trindade is where Brazil begins. The oceanic island is a third of the way between Brazil and Africa, in the south atlantic, three days by ship from Rio. I ended up on this trip by chance. Forty eight hours before departure, I got a call from Fernando Costa Netto, who at the time was one of the editors at Trip Magazine. He said they had permission from the Brazilian Navy to join them on a supply mission to Brazil's easternmost territory. It was an unique opportunity, as the island is off limits to civilians.

The original idea was to invite top surfers to ride the island's previously unsurfed waves. This met resistance from the ship's captain, who declared that he would not take any surfboards on this trip, claiming the Navy could not be held responsible for any accidents which might happen three days by ship from the continent. The captain said that even though we couldn't surf the waves at Trindade, we were welcome to come along for the round trip to the island. Trip ditched the surf photographer and invited me.

I had never travelled by ship before so it sounded like a good idea. After a six hour bus ride to Rio , we went to the Navy Base at Ilha Fiscal, an Island notorious for the biggest and most extravagant party in brazilian history in november 9, 1889.

We got our papers and asked directions until we were face to face with Sirius. That was the oceanographic vessel that would be our ride to the Island. Unlike the warships, Sirius was a scientific research ship, so instead of the usual grey hull, it was painted a gleaming white. The benign appearance was made up for with a huge array of radars, antennae, and other high tech gear aboard. We were met by an official and were shown our cabin. It was below deck, not too high above the waterline. The smell of diesel oil and musty salt was everywhere. The ship is mostly metal, and just walking around the different passageways was cool, with oversized bulkheads and heavy duty everything making one thing clear: this ship was a real jewel.

We had some time to kill, so we left the base and loaded up on cereal bars, had a beer or two and took a cab down to Arcos da Lapa, where in a place called Fundição Progresso we met with Marcos Prado, a fellow photographer, who was having the opening of his great photo exhibit, called os Carvoeiros, about the coal workers in Brazil. It was an impressive show, with great lighting, a soundtrack by Caetano Veloso, and beautiful black and white prints. Eventually a photo from this series got second place in the Nikon International Photo Contest.

We had to be back early, so we went to the base, showed our papers, and slept in our cabin, which had strong air conditioning. We were underway at sunrise, and were invited to a great breakfast at the officials' dining room. It took a few hours to get to Cabo Frio, where we were to pick up a vital addition to the ship. A bi-turbine Esquilo Helicopter, which was quickly fastened to the heli-pad upon landing with its rotors folded and tied down. We met the pilots, and had dinner with the captain.

We headed east, towards the island. About the three days it took to get there, I recall watching my breakfast orange juice move left then right then left on and on again in the open sea. Drinks would slide across the table, then slide back, (and of course the veteran navy guys seemed not to mind as the drinks would slosh back and forth); I also remember one night near the oil-extracting Bacia de Campos where we were in a big storm and I couldn't see anything outside our cabin window. In the morning, blue light shone through the window, then grey. We were dipping above and below water, and the seas were pretty nasty. Nobody was allowed outside and after breakfast I immediately went to get rid of it, being met by other sick crewmen. That made me feel better, (both) puking and knowing that I wasn't the only person getting sick with the ship's nonstop rolling.

Fernando and I got to know the navy routine, with wake up calls before six a.m., emergency drills, and naming every sighted craft a "target". Still, the crew of the Sirius had a very Carioca feel to it, and everybody seemed to be in good spirits. There was even a bit of late afternoon music on the helipad, with drums and singing.

The food was great, although I quickly dispersed the notion that the navy ate a lot of fish. In the departure haste and knowing I had a total of six days aboard a ship, I grabbed a pocket book. It was Tom Clancy's Clear and Present Danger, which if not as entertaining as I expected, detailed a lot about helicopters (used in anti-narc Colombian raids by the U.S.), which helped me ask less stupid questions to the pilots of the navy chopper.

On the morning of the third day, I went above decks around 4:00 am to wait for the first sighting of land. A sailor with powerful binoculars spotted the island in the pre-dawn light and after a while its shape became more distinct. The sun was rising and the light was beautiful.

We dropped anchor quite a distance from the island, but its mountainous and rocky appearance was quite evident. Not many trees, except for near the naval base, and very steep looking slopes. Everyone who goes to the island is a volunteer, and everyone is dropped off and picked up in the helicopter. The only material transported to the island by a smaller boat is cargo which is ferried to the island, and trash from the base which is taken back to the continent. This smaller boat is called a "cabrita" and is cable driven. The reasons for this are that the island is very steep, and there is great risk. Not far from the shoreline, the ocean drops over 6000 meters to the bottom. The island is an extinct volcano much like an iceberg, with less than 10% of its mass above the water. It is only around 8km long above the sea, but when it reaches the ocean floor it is over 50 km wide.

 

Fernando and I watched in fascination as the helicopter crews worked. There was a team on a zodiac on the water, with divers ready should the chopper crash in the ocean. Aboard the ship, a crew of firemen was at attention wielding special hoses with chemical foam. A helicopter crash aboard a ship loaded with fuel could be disastrous, so every precaution is taken. There is no smoking aboard the whole ship during heli-operation, and the worst job has got to be the sailors who have to wear the fire retardant clothing and sweat in the heat during every flight, waiting to rescue the pilots in the chopper if there is a fire.
Soon it was our turn to disembark on the island. My talk with the pilots about my previous helicopter photography shoots, balloon flights, and other aerial experiences was a big mistake. They obviously were quite pleased to show me what their specially prepared helicopter was capable of. I was not too pleased to discover that we could fly in any position, except horizontal. The flight was exhilarating, and clearly the pilots were having fun. We flew all around the island, and we were able to glance and be amazed at the different colors of the rocks and how the place can only be called a topographical disaster. Tall peaks, spires, towers, pillars, eroding scree slopes, drainage ditches, and all possible relief features were present.

Fernando and I had precious little time on the island. The navy doesn't run leisure cruises, and our trip was a supply mission. They would stay anchored for the time it took to unload the cargo, load the refuse, and head back to the continent. Their efficient work meant less than 30 hours ashore.

We had to scramble. That's just what we did. We met the base captain, who praised the diving around the island, and introduced us to the thirty volunteers who manned the base. Well groomed and immaculately clean, it consisted of a few buildings, all quite nice, with a small hospital, the crew's barracks, and a main dining area and kitchen.
After the obligatory introductions, we excused ourselves and set off to explore. We headed along the coast, and soon met the only civilians on Trindade. They were two volunteers from the Tamar Project, a sea turtle NGO. Their job was to record and count eggs and turtles on the island, and mark nests. These guys were going back to the continent aboard our ship and were eager to talk. They showed us turtles swimming towards the ocean (only 5 out of 1000 reach reproduction age), hatching eggs, and newborn turtles. Their job was cool, living in a pristine island enjoying the beach and working hard. They stayed for ninety days at a time, the same duration as the navy volunteers. The navy crews got paid extra for staying there, actually double their salary, so it was a way to save some money, since there was no way of spending any money while on the island, so they all seemed very pleased to be there.

Besides the mission of securing brazilian sovereign possession of the island, the Navy maintains a weather station on the island. We watched them release weather balloons, and broadcast weather data and reports for the region.

We hiked up a scree slope, and marveled at the surreal landscape of the island. It was tough going, with our feet sliding back down and very loose footing. We reached the summit. At our back, an old volcano cone. In front of us, a long ridgeline which dropped vertiginously to both sides. The helicopter buzzed-below us- and I believe I saw somebody wave. It was the captain of the Sirius, I later found.

Part of the blame for the island's lack of vegetation goes to Edmond Halley, more notorious for his comet than for leaving goats behind on Trindade Island. The goats escaped, run wild on the island, and have chomped all the vegetation. There is some left though, including a giant fern forest, with very jurassic proportions. The navy crews now occasionally hunt some goats, but it looks like the goats are winning. Another species that is out of control in the island are the crabs. In the daytime you see them here and there, but at night its like some hitchcock thing, they all come out and walking around is like kicking autumn leaves, except you are kicking crabs. They are all over the place. Besides the goats, the other human-introduced species are rats and cockroaches.

I had read a bit about the island from what I could grab before leaving, and knew that the place hosted many legends and myths. We were particularly interested in one of them: the treasure of the Lima Cathedral. According to some, the vast riches of the Peruvian capital were hidden on the island, but were never found. We looked around but couldn't find anything except for more crabs.

We headed back towards the base, stopping at a natural spring where we drank water, our canteens drained long ago. We also stopped at the cemetery, which supposedly has no bodies buried in the graves, since most are of men who disappeared, either having slipped off a cliff, or drowned after being swept offshore by a rogue oceanic wave. Or so we were told. The rocky graves were not a particularly bad place to rest in peace eternally, with a great view of the bay.

We walked to the other visible sign of human presence on the island. A metal ship, a chinese vessel called Hwa Shing. It was run ashore and lies on a rocky beach. The story of the Hwa Shing isn't exactly clear, but we were told that the philipino crew killed the captain, the cook, and crashed the ship into the island, where it is until this day. At low tide, we boarded the ship and walked around carefully. Everything was coated in slime and the ship sat at an angle. Definetely some kind of strange vibe going on in it, but we didn't linger long enough to find out, encouraged to leave by the rotting smell.
The perfect waves peeling into the bay made us wish for surfboards, so we just sat and watched them, surfing them in our minds.

 

We left and asked for some directions to the giant fern forest at the base, but weren't encouraged to go as it was getting dark and rain clouds appeared to be marching in our direction. At the base we noticed the big satellite dish, the main link with the continent (supply ships arrive once every three months), and source of entertainment for the crews who enjoyed the TV shows immensely, their only source of news from outside.

As the night fell we were greeted with brilliant stars, which were so bright it seemed like they cast shadows. We walked a bit around the base, and at the heli-pad freaked at the amount of crabs. We had to kick them to walk anywhere.

In the morning, we went for a quick walk, but soon our flight was up and we had to get back aboard the Sirius. For the first time since I could remember, I had spent time in a place where no money or documents were needed, and nature went about its course untouched by man. I really appreciated this feeling, and felt both happy and sad as I watched the island shrink towards the horizon. But the sun was on the wrong side. We weren't heading back to the continent yet, we were going further east, towards Brazil's easternmost possession, a group of rock outcroppings known as Martim Vaz. If Trindade was steep, this place was almost vertically jutting out of the ocean. There was to be only one flight to the island, to check the Brazilian flag there, and we weren't on it. Still, there isn't much to see, except marvel at its fortress-like appearance.

The return trip to the continent was uneventful, a chance to sleep, eat, and photograph a special flag ceremony and celebration due to a naval holiday. The best emotions came when we finally reached port in Rio, and the sailors who had been at the island for three months were reunited with their families. One in particular was cool to watch, an official who's wife had his baby while he was away. His son was thee months old, and he had never him before. The story that ran in Trip magazine used this angle, opening with a spread of the happy navyman. More than the story, it was a unique experience for me, one that I am grateful for. Fernando was great company, and we ended up traveling together a few more times. Among the legends about the island, there is one that I chose to believe. It says that those who drink the water from the natural springs on the island are bound to return to it. I hope it's true.

 

story and photos copyright © Ignacio Aronovich

special thanks to : Brazilian Navy - Marinha do Brasil

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