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Return to the Islands

Droughts and Caverns

Droughts and Caverns

Damaged palm trees

When the rains were regular on Baanaba, no habitation of man could have been more beautifully bowered than ours in the dark green of forests, the starry white of lilies, the flung foam of scarlet and crimson petals. But every seven or eight years there came a drought, and things were different then. There were no more flowers anywhere after two rainless months. After six, the pawpaws and guavas, the custard apples and soursops were dead, the mangoes and wild almonds page 35dying. After twelve, half of the island's coconut palms stood headless, while those that lived on, their leaves burned rusty black, had been fruitless for many weeks. Then, even the mighty, deep-rooted forest of calophyllum trees that covered the island's middle was stripped of its leaves. Our two thousand acres of phosphate and coral rock, left naked to the sunglare, lay flinging back the savage heat in a white-hot column to heaven.

That soaring shaft of refraction stood like a pitiless sentinel on guard over the land. It was the barrier against which the rainclouds beat and were divided. When the westerly monsoon was due to begin, you could stand on the south-west point of the land and watch the black battalions riding up the sky towards you, trailing an unbroken curtain of rain across the sea's face below them. "At last!" you would say to yourself, "It's coming. It must be coming this time," and, as if to mock your hope, it would come so near you could hear the swish and whisper of it on the water. If you looked up then you could see the cloud's edge sweep almost to the zenith. Almost, yet not near enough: in the last moment, you saw it waver, halt in the middle, torn apart there by the uprushing column of furnace-hot air. You watched its sundered halves pass by, spilling their torrents into the sea a few hundred yards from the coast on either hand, while, between them, under a sullen grey but rainless sky, the stricken land thirsted on.

The Gilbert Islands to eastwards had their droughts as well— still have them, doubtless—but they are atolls, not upthrust rocks like Baanaba, and in an atoll one can always have water drinkable enough, for all its brackish taste, from any seepage well. That same water also, held twelve feet under the sand in pans of the coral table on which every atoll stands, is nearly always fresh enough to keep most of the coconut trees bearing some few nuts, even through the worst of droughts.

The Baanabans of old had no such help from sea and soil for their food trees; nevertheless, they did command certain underground reserves of drinking water, for the coral core of page 36their island was as riddled with hidden grottoes and galleries as a Stilton cheese with the burrowings of animalculae.

Aeons ago, the coral had grown plateau-wise on a submarine mountain-top very near the surface of the sea. When it broke surface, countless seabirds, for countless centuries, made it their home and its three square miles were piled high with a bed of guano sixty feet deep in the middle. Then the mountain sank into the depths until, millions of years later, another convulsion of the sea's bed flung its top towering again, this time three hundred feet clear above the waves. In the throes of that upheaval, the coral plateau under its load of guano (now seachanged into phosphate of lime) was twisted, flawed, splintered, rent asunder a thousand ways. So were born the wonderful bangabanga, or caverns, of Baanaba.

The bangabanga stretched mile-long, an uncounted series of chambers and corridors, chimneys and passages, through the eastern half of the island, here rising to the light of day, there twisting amid festooned tree-roots through the middle depths, and again plunging deep through the bowels of the rock to the edge of echoing abysses. Wherever the rain, soaking through topsoil and phosphate into this dark labyrinth, could find a pan or a pocket to lie in, there it accumulated trickle by trickle through seasons of plenty, untouched until the hour of need. The entrances to the scores of branching passages where no pools could collect had been blocked in the course of generations with heavy boulders, so that no one living had ever explored the endless ramifications of the system beyond the three or four quarter-mile chains of grottoes where the women went water-gathering.

Grim stories were told of girls who had ventured off the beaten track into the black unknown, never to be seen again. Some said that these were only inventions, meant to warn the young against too much curiosity. I always thought myself that the known passageways were daunting enough in themselves to forbid wandering, the roofs of their principal chambers, sooted with the torches of sixty dead generations, less page 37than head-high, the tunnels between them no more than burrows through which the only way for a woman of ordinary size to squirm was on her back, clawing at the rock above her face. Yet, such is the sanifying force of usage backed by the pressure of a genuine need that women who, for fear of a thousand clutching ghosts, would never have ventured, even in twos or threes, through the quiet glimmer of a starlit night, would plunge alone as a matter of course into the murk of those sinister abysses without even a match to guide their groping hands and feet.

But no such solo performances were allowed when a drought had lasted for more than four quarters of the moon. Then, in olden times, it was death for anyone to be found loitering alone anywhere near a bangabanga: the women did their water-getting all together, at dictated times, each with her strict allowance of coconut shells to fill and carrying a lighted torch, so that her companions could observe her every movement. Precautions of this kind, rigidly enforced before the days of British rule by councils of old men representing all the four Baanaban villages, might suffice to eke out the cave supply for as long as two years. But that was the limit. If the drought lasted longer, the only possible source of supply left was in the rainfall at sea.

Men would go out every day in their canoes hunting for showers, with catchments of sun-shrivelled coconut fronds set up so that their butt ends rested in wooden bowls, into which they were intended to conduct the rain. Their wives and children would go with them to revel in the divine wetness and drink it in through every pore. In that way, they could do without the precious collected drops and store these up in coconut shells for the aged or infirm who stayed ashore.

Every coconut palm over ten years old on Ocean Island carried the record of at least one drought upon it. A dry spell of no more than four or five months would start a constriction of the trunk at the neck where the first fronds sprouted. After that, you could see the tree being slowly strangled as it page 38 Boy climbing palm treepage 39stood. But up to the very last moment before the head was utterly withered away, its life could be saved by rain. If that happened, no matter how far it was gone on the way to death, it would be bearing nuts once more within the next nine months, its wind-tossed head as richly green as ever, its stem grown full and sappy again up where the new fronds sprang. Only, just below the new growth, that constriction of the trunk would remain to show where the drought had clutched it.

You could count six such corsettings in the stems of the oldest trees. That carried you back forty years or so—about two-thirds of a coconut's natural span. The record could go no further than that into the past, because the seventh drought back from 1924, which happened in the middle eighteen-seventies, wiped out every palm in the island. Indeed, it destroyed every plant of any kind except the salt bush and ironwood scrub by the sea and the deep forest of calophyllum trees on the crest of the island. The forest survived because it had its roots far down in hidden caves and galleries where the Baanabans, had they but known the way, would have found water in plenty for their need. But that source of supply was discovered only half a century later when there was no longer any use for it. By then, the mining operations which revealed the caves were paying the islanders royalties enough to build fine village reservoirs and, in addition, accumulate a fund that, in the years to come, would enable them to buy a greener, kinder home of their own choosing, far from the droughts of the doldrums.