TREASURE ISLAND AT LAST
WE sailed on towards the desert island under all canvas, but did not reach it for eight hours from the time we first sighted it.
As we neared it the features of this extraordinary place could gradually be distinguished. The north side, that which faced us, is the most barren and desolate portion of the island, and appears to be utterly inaccessible. Here the mountains rise sheer from the boiling surf — fantastically shaped of volcanic rock; cloven by frightful ravines; lowering in perpendicular precipices; in places overhanging threateningly, and, where the mountains have been shaken to pieces by the fires and earthquakes of volcanic action, huge landslips slope steeply into the yawning ravines — landslips of black and red volcanic debris, and loose rocks, large as houses, ready on the slightest disturbance to roll down, crashing, into the abysses below. On the summit of the island there floats almost constantly, even on the clearest day, a wreath of dense vapour, never still, but rolling and twisting into strange shapes as the wind eddies among the crags. And above this cloudwreath rise mighty pinnacles of coal-black rock, like the spires of some gigantic Gothic cathedral piercing the blue southern sky.
The loftiest peak is about three thousand feet above the sea, but on account of the extreme precipitousness of the island it appears much higher.
As a consequence of the recoil of the rollers from the shore we found that, as we got nearer in, the ocean swell under us increased in height, and rose and fell in an uneasy confused fashion. The breakers were dashing up the cliffs with an ominous roar showing us that, in all probability, landing would be out of the question for the present.
We passed North Point and opened out Northwest Bay. At the farther end of the bay we saw before us the Monument, or Ninepin, as it is called on the charts — a stupendous pinnacle of basaltic rock 850 feet in height, which rises from the edge of the surf and is detached from the main cliffs.
The scenery was indescribably savage and grand and its effect was heightened by the roaring of the surf on the beach and the echoes of it in the ravines as well as by the shrill and melancholy cries of thousands of sea-birds so unaccustomed to the presence of man that they came off the crags and flew round us in evident wonder as we sailed by often approaching so close to us that we could strike them with our hands.
My companions had expected, from what I had told them, to find this islet a strange, uncanny place, barren, torn by volcanic action, and generally forbidding, and now they gazed at the shore with amazement, and confessed that my description of its scenery was anything but exaggerated. It would be impossible to convey in words a just idea of the mystery of Trinidad. The very colouring seems unearthly — in places dismal black, and in others the fire-consumed crags are of strange metallic hues, vermilion-red and copper-yellow. When one lands on its shores this uncanny impression is enhanced. It bears all the appearance of being an accursed spot whereupon no creatures can live save the hideous land-crabs and foul and cruel sea-birds.
We were now coasting under the lee of the island and our progress was but slow, for the high mountains intercepted the wind from us, and we were often becalmed on the oily swell under the hottest sun we had yet experienced. Occasionally a violent squall, but of short duration, would sweep down on us from some ravine and help us along. What wind there was between the squalls came from every point of the compass in turns, and we were constantly taken aback.
But at last we passed the rocky islet which I named Bird Island at the time of my former visit, and, doubling the West Point, we entered a bay which I recognized well, for there was the cascade still falling over the cliff, and, near it, the landing-place off which I had anchored in the Falcon. As the swell was not high here I decided to anchor at once; so, bringing the vessel as near in as was prudent — about six cables from the shore — I let go in eighteen fathoms.
The scene before us was a fine one. A very steep and rugged ravine clove the mountain from summit to base. At the bottom of this ravine a stream fell in a cascade over a ledge of black rock on to the beach, about thirty feet below. One could trace the silver line of the falling water in many other parts of the ravine, especially in one place far up, where it fell over a gigantic black precipice.
The mountain-sides were barren, save in spots where a coarse grass grew sparsely. At the very head of the ravine were downs beautifully green, with a dense grove of trees, the nature of which it was not easy to distinguish from so far below; but as I had ascended this ravine during my last visit to Trinidad I knew that these were tree-ferns, which only grow on this portion of the island high up among the damp clouds, and are in charming contrast to the desolation that prevails around them.
Between the foot of the mountains and the surf extends a narrow beach of rugged stones of all sizes fallen from above, and the black heads of rocks appear here and there in the middle of the surf, so that any attempt at landing seems a risky venture.
But I knew where the safe landing-place was, and soon recognized it again, though it was not to be easily distinguished from the vessel. I pointed it out to my companions. Some forty yards to the left of the cascade an irregularly shaped rocky ledge extends from the beach some way out into the deep water beyond the beach, and thus forms a natural pier. I had often found it quite an easy matter to land here when to do so anywhere else would be impossible for, as a rule, the seas do not break until they have rolled some way inside the end of this point, so that by approaching it carefully, and waiting till the boat is on the summit of a wave and near the level of the top of the rock, one can leap or scramble on to it with the exercise of a little agility. There are occasions however, when the seas wash right over this ledge.
Looking fiom our anchorage we could see the coast as far as West Point on one side of us, with the head of the Ninepin just visible above the cape and on the other side as far as the promontory of basaltic columns which forms the western extremity of West Bay, and which I have named The Ness on my plan of the island.
As soon as the sails were stowed I went below with the doctor to talk over our immediate plans. It was now five in the evening, so it was too late to attempt a landing, even if the conditions were favourable, which they were not; for every now and again a sea would break over the pier, sending showers of spray high into the air.
While we were discussing things there suddenly came a violent thumping on the decl: above us, and from the shouts and laughter of the men we knew that something exciting was going on; so we went up the companion-ladder to see what the fun might be. We found that a fair-sized shark was tumbling about the deck in very active fashion, while Ted was dodging him, knife in hand, ready to give him his coup de grāce. Our sportsman had got his lines out as soon as all had been made snug on deck, but his sport for the first hour consisted of nothing but sharks, of which he caught several. After this he had better luck and was able to supply the cook with fish enough for dinner and breakfast for all hands.
The sea round Trinidad swarms with fish; but, for some reason, though we got as many as we required, they were not to be so readily caught now as at the time of my first visit; for then we hauled them in as fast as we could drop our hooks in the water.
There are various species of edible fish here; among others, dolphins, rock-cod, hind-fish, blackfish, and pig-fish. None of these hot-water fish are to be compared in flavour with those of Europe, and we found that the sharks were the least insipid of the lot; stewed shark and onions is not a dish to be despised.
The frontispiece plan of Trinidad is copied from the chart of the South Atlantic, which I made use of on this voyage, but contains some additions and corrections of my own, to which allusion will be made in the proper place. It will be seen that, according to this plan, the island is rather more than five miles long. Another chart which I possess gives its length as only three miles, which I am sure is wrong, but, on the other hand, this last chart is the most correct in some other respects, and marks outlying shoals which are not indicated on the other. There are, indeed, no absolutely reliable charts of this island; for the different surveys have been somewhat cursory, and each has repeated the faults of its predecessors. The longitude has, I believe, never been accurately determined, and even the latitude of the landing-place is, if I am not much mistaken, more than a mile out on the chart.
However, the plan which I have copied is sufficiently correct to illustrate all that I have to say concerning our work and exploration on Trinidad and, before going further with the narrative, it will be well to enter into some explanation of the task that was before us.
The treasure was supposed to be hidden in Southwest Bay, in the little ravine which I have indicated on the plan just to the left of our camp
It will be observed that the yacht was anchored out of sight of this spot, and at a distance of two and a half miles from it as the crow flies. My companions were, I imagine, somewhat surprised at this manoeuvre of mine, especially when I told them that it was highly improbable that we should shift our anchorage any nearer to the scene of our operations on shore. Later on, however, they realised that there was a good reason for the course I had taken.
My former experiences off Trinidad with the Falcon had convinced me that the anchorage off the cascade was far the safest, indeed that here only could one remain at all for any length of time. It must be remembered that a vessel is never really secure when anchored off a small oceanic island like Trinidad. One should be always prepared to slip one's anchor and be off to sea at once should it come on to blow. It is, therefore, necessary to lie at some distance from the land, so as to have plenty of room to get away on either tack. If one is too near the shore one incurs great risk, as I frequently discovered while coasting later on; for even though it be blowing hard outside, one is becalmed under the cliffs or subjected to shifting flaws and whirlwinds, so that the vessel becomes unmanageable, and is driven straight on to the fatal rocks by the send of the swell. I need scarcely say that to come in contact with this shore, even in the finest weather, would involve the certain destruction of any craft in a very few seconds.
The anchorage off the cascade possesses many advantages. The coast here is free from any outlying dangers, and there is a depth of five fathoms dose to the beach. One cannot be embayed here, for the coast beyond West Point trends away northward almost at right angles to the south-west shore, so that from the anchorage it is easy to get away on either tack, according to the direction of the wind. Here, too, the sea is smoother than anywhere else, except on rare occasions, for the prevailing winds are north-east to south-east, more generally south-east.
Now the only other possible anchorage for us would have been in South-west Bay, in very convenient proximity to our camp; but this, though it might do for a day or two, was absolutely unfitted for a lengthy stay, more especially as difficulties might occur with the vessel while I was on shore myself and only inexperienced people were in charge of her. In this bay one is surrounded by dangers. South Point is on one side, with the current generally setting directly on to it and across the perilous shoals that extend a mile and a half seaward. On the other side is the cape dividing West and Southwest Bays, off which also lie several dangerous islets and rocks. According to the Admiralty chart Southwest Bay itself is quite clean, with a uniform depth of ten fathoms. As a matter of fact, it is full of sunken rocks, and there is an island right in the middle of it, the position of which I have shown in my plan; its existence is ignored by all the charts. Surrounded as the bav is by lofty mountains, the winds are very uncertain within it, so that if one should have to weigh anchor it might be difficult to extricate the vessel from her dangerous position even by the exercise of the smartest seamanship. Lastly, it affords no shelter from the prevailing wind, southeast, which often raises a nasty sea, and, what is more, it is entirely exposed to the storm-wind of these seas, the dreaded pampero, which blows right into it. Any one in charge of a vessel brought up in this trap would be compelled to get under way frequently under most difficult circumstances, and would live an unenviable life of perpetual anxiety. This information will, I trust, be of use to any fresh adventurers who propose to hunt for the treasure of Trinidad.
Though I would not venture into South-west Bay with the yacht, I knew that we should have to carry our stores and tools there by boat and land them on the beach opposite to the treasure ravine; for to transport them by land from the easy landing-place near the cascade would be an almost impossible undertaking.
According to the dead pirate's statement, he and his comrades had surveyed South-west Bay and discovered the best channel between the rocks. He gave the directions for finding this channel to Captain P—, and its existence had been verified by both the South Shields explorers, but as they had brought back an alarming account of its dangers, and boats had been lost in it, I considered that it would be a wise precaution for me to land at the pier in the first place, walk — or rather crawl and climb, for there is not much walking to be done on that journey — across the island and survey South-west Bay from the hills above it, before attempting to beach a boat there. In the evening we held a council in the saloon over our pipes and I explained my plans for the tallowing day.
I had explored the island pretty thoroughly while here before and I knew that it mainly consisted of inaccessible peaks and precipices, among which there were very few passes practicable for men. In many places the cliffs fall precipitously into the sea, affording no foothold. I had landed in both Northwest Bay and the bay beyond it, and, though there were sandy beaches in both these, still, one could go no farther, for sheer promontories on either side and mountains equally insurmountable at the back cut off all communication between these coves and the rest of the island. I also knew that it would be impossible for me to walk along the beach from the pier to South-west Bay, for between these were the two capes that bound West Bay, both opposing barriers of precipices to one's advance.
But while here with the Falcon, after a difficult and dangerous search which has been fully described in the narrative of that voyage, I at last discovered a pass, and I believe it is the only one by which the mountains at the centre of the island can be traversed and the windward shore attained.
First, I ascended the steep ravine down which the cascade flows. Having arrived at the summit of the ravine I crossed the groves of tree-ferns, and, after making several descents into ravines which terminated in precipices and so compelled me to retrace my steps, I succeeded in discovering a gully which led me to the beach on the north-east side of the island. From here I found it possible to walk along the beach to South Point, for no insurmountable capes intervened; and from South-east Bay there was an easy pass under the Sugarloaf Mountain by which the Treasure Bay could be reached. This was the journey which I intended to make once again on the following morning. This route, together with others taken in the course of our explorations, are, I believe, the only accessible ways on the island.
I knew by experience that the passage over the mountains to the windward beach was both arduous and perilous, and that to climb to South-west Bay, survey it, and return to the pier would occupy the best part of three days.
The doctor volunteered to accompany me, and I decided to take him with me. It was, indeed important that he should make himself acquainted with the pass; for it had been settled that whenever I remained with the yacht he should be in command of the party working on shore, and, as the only reliable water supply I knew of was at the cascade it might become necessary for him to lead the men across the mountains to it should a water famine occur at South-west Bay. Again, it was certain that bad weather would occasionally make the landing of boats at South-west Bay impossible for weeks at a time, so that, if there were some urgent reason for communicating with the yacht, this could only be done by crossing to the pier landing-place, at which I am of opinion that one can land ten times with safety to once in South-west Bay. It had been my intention to form a depot of stores at the pier, but this we found to be unnecessary.
After I had made the above explanations to my companions assembled in the saloon, our sportsman, who had been listening attentively, remarked: "Skipper, you have given us plenty of reasons for taking Cloete-Smith with you to-morrow and teaching him the roads; but you have omitted the most important reason of all. Let me inform you that you won't get us to do any work on shore on Sundays; so on every Sunday afternoon we will put on our best clothes, and the doctor will have to take us over the pass to the pier, where we can do a sort of church-parade and listen to the band. I suppose there will be a bar there, too, with Theodosius as barman presiding over the rum-barrel."