Hikeseekers Hike to Shark River

by hikermaster Joanne Mike-Ventour

It has now become the tradition of the Hike Seekers of Trinidad and Tobago to spend the Easter holiday weekend camping at Shark River in Matelot on the north coast. So that when hikers gathered at Valencia Junction at 8.00am on Good Friday it was with feelings of nostalgic anticipation of the adventures ahead. The highlight of the weekend was to be the hike to Madamas Bay on Glorious Saturday, an overnight rest there, and the return hike back to Shark River on Easter Sunday.

Our hike master Lawrence ‘Snake’ Pierre was already at Shark River preparing the campsite for our arrival and making sure that, with the hundreds of campers who had recently discovered the beauty of Matelot, there would be an area set aside for Hike Seekers. By the time the group that had gathered at Valencia reached to Shark River, the numbers had increased five fold as some hikers had already traveled up from the night before and many tents had sprung up like mushrooms on the river bank.

One of the joys of hiking is the opportunity presented to form bonds with new friends and strengthen bonds with old friends. With camping, hikers are thrown into closer proximity with fellow campers where they get to know and appreciate each other even more in a supportive environment. Worries and stresses are left behind and ‘ole talk’ rules. We all left our woes at Valencia junction and laughed all the way to Matelot, making that two-hour drive seem like it was fifteen minutes long.

We arrived at the campsite to a grand welcome and just in time to assist in the mounting of the tarpaulins that would serve as our shelter for the next three days. The designated cooks, captained by Johnson ‘JB’ Blackburne were already busy over the huge lunch pot, while new arrivals of hikers kept the crowd growing as the day wore on. We all felt very much at home at Shark River and were eager to rediscover the bathing pools up the river. A glorious soak in the river before bedtime ( floortime) is the perfect lullaby.

Campsite at night is a place of great entertainment. Card games, jokes, and heated discussions on social issues could go on for hours, and this Friday night was no different. A hunting expedition left camp with great hopes of trapping some wild meat, but returned empty handed with only the benefits of exercise to show for their efforts (Come again Richard!). Eventually, tired hikers dropped off to sleep, one by one and the only sounds were those of the frogs, night insects and the campers involved in the ‘Best Snorer’ competition. JB quite easily won that one, but his ‘prize’ was just a heap of abuse from his campmates who were probably already a bit sore from sleeping without enough padding on the solid earth. After an invigorating bath in the river and a hearty breakfast fifteen hikers set off to Matelot to start the hike to Madamas Bay. We had braced ourselves for the long walk – thirteen miles in each direction – taking enough water and food to last us through the night, but we were ever grateful for the few mango trees that we passed on the trail. Those mangoes along with the tranquillity of the forest, the scenic walk along the coast trail and the never ending picong made us all feel very privileged to be part of this Hike Seekers group.

Four hours later, we were sinking into the loose sands of Madamas Bay, happy the we had completed this leg of the journey and looking forward to an interesting night of turtle watching on the beach. There were already two families camping on the beach one of which we recognised from the year before. Like the Hike Seekers, they had developed their own Easter tradition, and we met them paddling away on the river on their inflatable rafts. We had a short while to revel in the fatigue of the moment, the roar of the ocean and the beauty of the surroundings before we were directed to focus on clearing a campsite for the night and finding a source of fresh water to replace our depleted supply.

It was on our way down the beach that we met another Madamas friend, Pepper. Those who had not met him before stopped in their tracks at the sight of one of the few remaining members of the ‘Earth People’, a group of locals who in the seventies had denounced the stifling values of modern life (including clothes) and opted to live in the forest in the most natural state they could achieve. Pepper still maintained his natural state (of nakedness) and we found him tending his harvest of seaweed on the beach, preparing it for sale to his established buyers. He took time off from his chores to share his Rastafarian philosophy and experiences with us, and to explain his life style and his dreams to members of the group. It was not surprising that it was the women of the group who showed the keenest interest in what Pepper had to reveal to them, and after an intense photography session, the subject of their attention swung away to perform other necessary duties.
A cool river bath and small snack later, we settled down on the beach to await the arrival of the awesome female Leather back turtles, which were on their annual trek to the beaches of Trinidad and Tobago to, lay their eggs. This sea turtle, also called the Atlantic Leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea) is the largest living turtle today. Giant Leatherbacks have been known to grow up to 1000kg and are approximately 2.2m in length. The largest one recorded was 3m in length. These turtles travel the furthest and are the greatest migrants of all sea turtles covering thousands of miles over open oceans and strong currents. They nest in tropical waters yet forage in cold areas in the north. In Trinidad, nesting sites are on eastern and northeastern beaches. The turtles also nest in Tobago, the Guyanas, Suriname, Costa Rica, South Africa, Malaysia, Australia and Mexico. After nesting in Trinidad and Tobago, they travel north to Canada, Nova Scotia, Alaska, Norway, across the Atlantic to Africa and when they reach maturity, after about three years, they return to lay, often on the same beaches where they were born, here in the West Indies.
They lay 80-100 soft-shelled eggs in holes about 80cm deep, which they laboriously dig themselves. They prefer these steep coarse sandy beaches, as the haul to the dry sand above the high water mark is shorter. They nest approximately 8-10 times at ten-day intervals from March to September. Females are capable of storing live sperm for several years, enabling them to fertilise numerous clutches of eggs without mating. After approximately 60 days the young hatch. They are 2.5cm long at birth and after attacks by birds, crabs, dogs and fish, their survival rate is one in five. Therefore, for us to witness this marvel of the laying Leatherback turtle was indeed to be a bonus on this trip. We even set a bet as to who would sight the first turtle.

It was not until two hours after sunset that the first giant turtle was sighted at the eastern end of the beach. The finder was not part of the group wager so nothing was gained or lost. We scuttled over to the area of interest and kept the quiet beast’s company while she lovingly followed the call of nature, depositing her numerous potential offspring into their nest. This female was the first of over twenty four Leatherback turtles that would come to the beach that night to perform their motherly duties, raising fears that the small area may have been insufficient for the steady stream of giant visitors. We were forced to leave that problem to Mother Nature as we headed for our own resting-places.

Personally, I blessed this night that I was finally able to fulfill a long held dream to sleep in the open air, under the stars, with the waves crashing in the ocean nearby. The lagniappe was that nature was moving apace, mere metres from where I slept. In my dream, I did not cater for the biting cold at 2.00am nor the heavy drizzle of rain that made us scamper for shelter into enormous plastic bags that somebody with great foresight (and no tent) had brought along. Luckily, we all survived the elements to carry back the tales to our friends at the Shark River campsite.

The mango trees were awaiting our return on the trail back to Matelot on Sunday morning, and due to our depleted resources we were overjoyed to meet each of them. It was sad that the early birds at the front of the group left only bare seeds and skins for the slowpokes at the back, but we were still able to get by.

A sumptuous Easter Sunday lunch on the banks of Shark River was our reward on return to camp, weary but exhilarated. It was a fantastic Easter weekend! We have already started planning for next year in the hope that we will have the good fortune to come together again at Shark River and that Pepper, and the mango trees would again warmly welcome us, as they normally do.

Joanne Mike-Ventour