The Hills are Alive

Scaling TCI’s summits.
Story & Photos By B. Naqqi Manco

“Because it is there” is allegedly the reason British mountaineer George Mallory provided for climbing to Mt. Everest’s summit. Sir Edmund Hilary and Tenzig Norgay were the first to accomplish this feat, noshing on Kendal Mint Cake while enjoying the view from the peak. Some mountaineers attempt every peak on a continent, others go for the top ten highest in the world, and still others go for the most challenging faces. A friend of mine has the dream of climbing to Everest’s base camp, and acknowledges that she will have to cross a dizzying rope bridge to do so. “But look at the brochure photo,” she reassures me with brazen confidence, “the rope bridge can hold seven yaks.”

I never had any such delusions regarding the outdoors. I don’t do avalanches and glaciers and the final resting places of intrepid climbers marked only by their own frozen corpses studding the snow. I trek for the journey, not for the destination. I’m a sensible, stop-and-smell-the-orchids type of hiker. I watch birds and stoop to examine mushrooms. I pat clumps of moss, provide hand-over-hand treadmills for stick insects, and occasionally sprawl out in the crackly leaf litter under a bush to rest.

Flamingo Hill is the highest summit in the Turks & Caicos.

But now I have gotten myself into a bit of an unexpected situation. Through botanical fieldwork, I had conquered the highest peaks on the islands of Grand Turk, South Caicos and Middle Caicos. Then in November 2010, a precedent was set when, along with a team of colleagues, I ascended to the highest summit in the Turks & Caicos Islands — Flamingo Hill in East Caicos. The journey to the top was difficult, but I caught the mountaineering bug. Views from these peaks are astounding, and they can be climbed without much in the way of gear.

A peek at the peaks
These peaks are the tops of ridges that arose from the gradual accumulation — estimated at 5 centimetres per 1000 years — of calcium compounds precipitating out of sea water to form oolitic limestone. They all formed under the waters of oceans that were, at some time in history, much higher. The Turks & Caicos Islands, along with the Bahamas, began forming as far back as before the Jurassic Period, 145 – 200 million years ago. Exposure to air and occasional washings of acidic rainwater make many of the ridges barren of soil and covered in a hard patina of smooth, bare, weathered bedrock. Acidic rainwater has also worn holes into the limestone in some places, creating everything from small pockets where dusty soil may accumulate, to significant caves. Plants cling into these pockets and into cracks and fissures in the rocks.
It was some of these plants that brought me to some of the highest ridges in Middle Caicos. Wild populations of Christmas palm Pseudophoenix sargentii grow on a few of the highest hills in Middle Caicos, rooted into tiny pockets of soil on the sparsely-vegetated peaks. One of the highest ridges in Middle Caicos, Freetown Hill overlooking Lorimers, also plays host to a number of red orchids Encyclia rufa (which disobediently bloom cream or yellow in the Turks & Caicos Islands), gripping onto the trunks of shrubs with no need for soil, a scarce commodity at the tops of hills.

Dwarfed trees like this joe-wood are common on the eastern ridge of South Caicos.

Treks to the highest points of South Caicos were carried out in search of tiny Bahamas buttonbush Borreria bahamensis which prefers sandy stacks on the tops of windward ridges as its habitat. Many of these ventures resulted in surprises, like the golden-leaved true lignum vitae Guaiacum officinale (far rarer here than the sacred lignum vitae Guaiacum sanctum) squatting on the top of the windward ridge over South Caicos’ eastern shore, with the rare Turks & Caicos endemic plant silvery silverbush Argythemnia argentea huddled beneath them. Forming meadows between these one-tree forests in miniature grow swaths of wind-stunted rong bush Wedelia bahamensis, a Bahamas and TCI endemic answer to the sunflower, humbly holding its yellow blossoms stiffly in the incessant windward ridge-top breeze. Far below to the west, feral donkeys lumbered along their ancient trails between ponds along Back Road and farther west the weathered town of Cockburn Harbour looked quaint and hazy, stabbed by an anachronistic cell phone tower.

Farther north, a clamber up the surprisingly high hills on the northern peninsula of South Caicos yielded a panorama out over Columbus Passage past a hillside thickly clothed in Inagua silver top palms Coccothrinax inaguensis, their shiny green and silvery-bottomed leaves forming a tumultuous windblown ocean of sea-foam and green. I strained my eyes downward to follow my botanical students on their search for more silvery silverbush as they sunk below the waves of jade and silver, the steady wind speedily flipping through my notebook and several times relieving me of my hat.

Taking a beating?

Wind-swept habitats are perfect for woolly nipple cactus.

This hike above the mountainside forest of silver top palms was perhaps good practice for what would come in the following year. In May 2010 I hiked with a team in East Caicos inland from the east coast and north toward Drum Hill, on that island’s northeast corner. Chopping our way through the dense tangle of twisted trees growing in the alluvium at the base of the hill, we eventually made it above the “tree line” — here not controlled by climate, but rather the lack of soil to support large trees. At the summit, plates of broken cap rock teeter-tottered as we padded over them carefully, mindful of the possibility of caves below the rock. Turning around to view south-eastward yielded a vista of brilliant coast south to McCartney Cay, and the dramatic hues of deep water close to the land. Beyond the shore, humpback whales breeched, while at our feet Turk’s head cacti spit their pink berries onto the ground. An occasional white-tailed tropicbird cruised by, possibly seeking a place to nest in the high seaward ridges, and blue-grey century plants held up ranks of lemon-yellow blossoms like tiered candy dishes.

Reaching new heights
Drum Hill may have been one of the most dramatic peaks I have ever visited, but it is not the highest. In November 2010 my team hiked along the East Caicos donkey railway embankment and walked wide to the south of Cape Comete Hill out onto the rocky inland tidal flats that make up the majority of East Caicos. Heading east through this crumbly, salty pavement of lithified algae and softened but craggy limestone with the occasional puddle of stagnant hypersaline water, eventually in front of us, rising up from just about sea level like an overturned, dented bowl, was Flamingo Hill, the highest peak in the Turks and Caicos Islands.

At 48 metres (157 feet) in height, the effect of this hill is significant because it arises not from a headland, but from the tidal marsh at its feet. Along its base there are patches of rare plants, including Turk’s head cacti and the endemic capillary buttonbush Borreria capillaris. Around the hill’s foot is a wash of crumbly alluvial soil, weathered from its sides by ten thousand years of sparse seasonal rains. In this soil grow contorted trees, twisting their limbs around one another as if circling the mountain’s base in some sort of obstinate protective chain.
Much like Drum Hill, once this “tree line” is passed, the hillside is barren, but shingled in enormous brittle scales of loose cap rock. These scales of rock, held in place only by thin trunks of stunted shrubs suctioning onto the rock, are micro-habitats themselves, festooned with clumps and piles of yellow-flowered woolly nipple cactus Mammillaria nivosa. One wrong step on a scale of this rock, and it will shift and clang loudly against the bare rock of the mountain, and perhaps slide out of position and down the steep slope to the next tiny plant that catches its multi-century descent to the foot of the face. Learning to avoid these sledges of sharp limestone was the key to scaling the hill to its summit.

At the peak, an ancient horse pear cactus Opuntia nashii, found only in the Bahamas and TCI, raised its prickly, red-flower-studded pads above a surprising thicket of giant tongue bromeliad Aechmea lingulata, opening their vase-like leaf centres hopeful to receive cups full of water in the next rains. Outside this thicket, the rock-loving slender orchid Encyclia gracilis, its stout leaves hard and sharp as plastic knives, waved its delicate yellowy blossoms in the breeze. A quick hike along the top of the hill revealed a brilliant green pitch apple tree, which with its broad, thick leaves and pink-porcelain-saucer flowers is always a sign of a cave below. In fact, the tree’s banyan-like roots descended into a vertical shaft eight feet wide and twenty feet deep, like the crater of a volcano. As a colleague and I sat in the shade of this magnificent tree and had lunch on the highest point of the Turks & Caicos Islands (which, regrettably, did not include Kendal’s Mint Cake), we marvelled at the views around the island — Flamingo Pond and the ocean to the north, the next peak to the east, the wide open flooding flats being trotted over by an obviously distraught brown donkey to the south, and Cape Comete Hill framing Jacksonville Creek and the hills of Middle Caicos on the horizon to the west.

On the horizon
These vistas were a benefit of a job we had to do (documenting rare plants on East Caicos), so I didn’t just climb Flamingo Hill “because it is there.” But now that I have ascended to the country’s highest peak (all in all, the climb took about 30 minutes) I want to see what other islands’ peaks are hiding.

I’ve conquered the peaks of Middle Caicos, the Ambergris Cays, South Caicos, Six Hills Cays, and I’ve been to Pine Cay’s “Scenic Overlook,” three metres above sea level. I know what is on the highest point of Grand Turk, because my mom lives there. I’ve even sipped on a Shirley Temple with a past Governor on Parrot Cay’s peak, where the main resort sits. But the majestic heights of other islands call to me now. Richmond Hill in Providenciales (which is sometimes listed as TCI’s highest point, in competition with Flamingo Hill) is on the list. St. James Hill in North Caicos is another I have yet to scale, and the sweeping heights of Taylor Hill on Salt Cay and West Caicos’ complex of low ridges overlooking Lake Catherine are yet unconquered. All of these summits are on the list to punch, and while I doubt I’ll need an intrepid Sherpa or supplementary oxygen to facilitate the excursions, I will at least try to have a Kendal Mint Cake to nibble on when at my next summit.

Why continue climbing to the next summit? Not because it is there . . . but because it is patently not Everest.

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Aysha Stephen is Grand Turk’s newest artistic sensation, renowned for her iconic “Cool Donkeys” paintings. Her creations are quite the hit with visitors to TDB Fine Arts Gallery. It recently opened within the Turks & Caicos National Museum on Grand Turk and is dedicated to showcasing art “Made in TCI.

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