Madagascar, Mauritius and Round Island – Part 5 (Round Island.)


Round Island Keel Scaled Boa - Casarea dussumieri

Round Island Keel Scaled Boa - Casarea dussumieri

To say that we were lucky is an understatement.  Being allowed onto Round Island was one thing, but it seems our timing was perfect too.  It turned out that we were to be airlifted to the island by the Mauritius Government helicopter, which visited every few weeks to drop off supplies and swap scientists.  The next shift change was the very next day and there would not be another one for weeks.  Not only were we amazed at our timing, but astounded that we had been approved to visit.  We seemed to have rolled a six yet again and I resolved to buy a lottery ticket as soon as I reached home!

The helipad turned out to be a playing field on the northern tip of the island where we were to meet the helicopter for an early start.  Having never been in a one before, I didn’t know what to expect.  I wasn’t reassured by Jim’s stories about losing the contents of his stomach when he last flew in one and so waited nervously for it to arrive.  As the clock ticked on our arranged meeting time came and went.  Half an hour passed; then an hour and we were beginning to think about leaving for home when we heard the whirr of the helicopter coming towards us.  As it landed on the field a crowd of children appeared (as if from nowhere) and stood looking excitedly on as we donned life jackets and headsets and climbed into the bird.  Before we had settled into our seats we were off and climbing, with only the sea below us.  My heart was pumping real fast and I couldn’t help grinning as we banked sharply away from the coast.

15 minutes later we approached the barren landscape of Round Island which looked totally inhospitable and seemed to offer nowhere to land.  Of course, I was wrong about there being no-where to land but as far as the island seeming inhospitable, I was right on the mark.  This place was bleak to say the least.  Although there is an extensive re-planting project underway, there is still little greenery on the island, the legacy of the former goat and rabbit populations.  These have now been eradicated and the team there is now working hard to redress the problem.  Alighting from the chopper we were met by the surprised scientists who had no idea who we were or why we were there.  After a few minutes explanation we entered the modest shack which made the living quarters and checked for seeds, nuts and any hitch hiking animals which could become non native pests.  (We later wondered why this search had not been conducted on the mainland as by the time we had reached Round Island, any contamination had potentially already happened.  We never did ask why this was though and suppose there is valid reasoning at work.)

The first thing that struck me about the island was how bleak it was.  The second thing I noticed was the heat. It was far hotter than anywhere we had experienced thus far on our trip and we had been seriously hot at times!  (We later measured the heat on the lava rocks and recorded a temperature of 134.9 degrees Fahrenheit which is over 57 degrees in Centigrade!)  However, the most astonishing thing about Round Island is the rare Telfair Skink.  To say they are rare is a relative statement.  Compared to Green Iguanas, yeah, they are rare as you can only find Telfair Skinks on this one tiny piece of real estate.  However, when you see an Iguana in the wild, you don’t normally see a dozen of them sitting on a porch.  They don’t normally raid the bag under your chair and steal your biscuits and they don’t normally pull your sandwiches out of your rucksack and share them with their gang of friends.  These were high density animals to say the least and it was the same story all over the island.  As we walked on the paths we had to avoid stepping on skinks, if we went into the undergrowth we had to watch out for skinks, if we were taking photographs of other animals, we had to keep clearing the skinks from the frame.  These lizards had no fear!

The scientists on the island were indeed surprised to see us as they had never before received visitors unannounced.   Over tea, the conversation soon turned to reptiles as we began to pick their brains about which animals we would likely find.  With our wish list in place we set off with a couple of scientists as guides.  At 57 degrees it was hard going, particularly for Bill.  Weighed down with a heavy camera bag he soon gave up the climb, leaving Jim and I to soldier on up the mountain with Steve, our scientist babysitter.  Steve knew his stuff and pointed out the rare plants he had been working on in his nursery, some of which were the only individuals known in existence.  “You’ll probably see Guenther’s Day Gecko and the Ornate Day Gecko (Phelsuma ornata)” he said as we marched uphill, “But don’t hold out your hopes for the Ground Boa.  They’re nocturnal and we have only seen them on night hikes.”  Although a little disappointed I was still hopeful.  After all, given our luck on this trip I wouldn’t be surprised if we were to re-discover the extinct burrowing boa Bolyeria multocarinata! You never know!

We didn’t have to go far before we found our first of three Guenther’s Day Gecko’s.  Having seen lots of supposedly giant day geckos on this trip already, this one really put those in the shade.  Guentheri is the largest of the day geckos, with a total length reaching 30 centimeters with a thick set body which makes grandis look decidedly weedy.  Their marbled grey colour blended well on the palm trunks where we discovered them and made getting good photographs difficult.

After about an hour we had found three guntheri and a selection of phelsuma ornata, as well as hundreds of increasingly annoying Telfair Skinks.  (Annoyed at seeing too many Telfair skinks?  Who did I think I was?!!)  We had now dedicated our search to finding the snakes and so we were lifting palm fronds and turning rocks.  Steve was patiently waiting for us as we rummaged in the undergrowth, clearly skeptical of us having any success.  I had found plenty of Shearwaters and Tropics Birds sheltering from the scorching sun underneath palm leaves and in rocky hides, but no sign of a snake anywhere.  I was just stepping past Steve to another likely site when he tapped me on the shoulder.  There at my feet emerging from the rocks was an orange snake, which I immediately recognized as our quarry.  “Got one!” shouted Steve and Jim soon appeared through the palms to find us.

Our Keel Scaled Boa was about 40 centimeters long, female, very slender with a sharp angular head and it squirmed in my hands trying to get away.   I was surprised that it never attempted to bite (as many skittish animals do) as we set about posing it for photographs.  “Hope Bill finds one too.” I said as we released the snake back into the rocks where we had found it.  It was unlikely that Bill would have made it to where we were and it was too far to transport it there and back given the heat.  “If I know Bill, he will have!” said Jim.  We would have to wait to find out.

By now I was in a daze of daydream, thinking about telling my friends where I had been and what I had been up to.  I couldn’t wait to brag about going to Round Island and finding the Boa, but I wasn’t sure anyone would believe me! Good job we had pictures to back up our story.  Daydreaming was distracting me from my serious reptile search as I lifted the greenery looking for more Boas.  I had to do a double take as I saw a grey slender shape slither away from me but my instincts kicked in quickly as I realized it was another Boa.  This one was slightly larger and had lost the orange colouration making it slate grey, but it still retain the slender physique and angular head of the earlier youngster.  It had not lost its skittish behaviour either.  “I can’t believe you’ve found two!” said Steve “You’re very lucky!”
“Yeah, the harder we work, the luckier we get!” I said, winking at Jim.

Once we had finished with the boas we decided that it was important we saw the summit of this volcanic island mound.  We had yet to miss reaching a peak and were not about to start now.  Each step in the openly blazing sun was torturous and drained our energy so; gasping for breath we would stop frequently, making the sun feel even hotter.  Reaching the summit seemed to take for ever and I have never been hotter or more exhausted.  Jim and I sat on a rock and had a bit of a quiet moment at the summit of Round Island.  Draining the last of our water, I was glad that the walk back would be quicker and easier than the outward leg.  As we neared the shack we could see Bill sat on the porch drinking a tall glass of water.  He was grinning and waving and we guessed that he had also found a Boa.  “I didn’t move three meters from where you left me!” he said as we recounted the arduous journey across the island.  The chopper ride back was a mixture of excitement and sadness as I realized that this really was the final installment of our adventure.  Not in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine an adventure like this one.  It’s not often you can say “beyond my wildest dreams” and really mean it.

Published: Reptile Care Magazine.

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~ by Tony's Desk on March 17, 2009.

2 Responses to “Madagascar, Mauritius and Round Island – Part 5 (Round Island.)”

  1. Whoa! That’s really beautiful what you have described. Am a Mauritian and never had the chance to visit Round Is. but you gave me vivid description.
    Wonderful!

  2. Thank you very much! I loved Mauritius, please do visit the crocodile park. It is a fantastic place.

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