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All’s Well That Ends Well

Wishing on Grand Turk’s North and South Wells

Story & Photos By B Naqqi Manco

Wells present and preserve a special image for humankind. Popular art and media images of traditional draw wells—cylindrical stone structures with thatch roofs and a wooden bucket attached to a hand crank by a rope—were instantly recognisable to me as a child. This was despite the fact that the only such wells I ever actually saw were ersatz replications at theme parks. Witnessing a park employee fishing discarded change out of army-green water with a pool net at the bottom of one of these wells somehow did not tarnish my fascination with them.

Later in my life, the media of mature news magazines presented different images of wells. Cavernous vertical bore-holes in drought-parched reddish dust were covered not by quaint thatch roofs, but emaciated, downward-looking farmers; they were surrounded not by neat stone walls but by thirsty beasts of burden and desiccated crops. Gushing, humanitarian-installed hand-pumps were not places to wish, but wishes granted. And the traditional shaft wells were transformed from relics of rural life to the would-be tombs of wayward pets and wandering children—both in horror movies and reality. A metal-covered well under a cousin’s porch was regarded with suspicion and fear: never jump on the metal top, for it might break and you would be plunged into darkness that could be imagined only by closely peering through the ventilation holes.
When I learned that this well was covered for its disuse, and a new one drilled, the definition of a well became a slim borehole through rock, far too narrow to thrust anything but a pipe and posing no danger to people, pets, or pocket change. A cement cap with some angled pipes, a fibreglass pressure tank looking like an over-wrapped broken limb, and a cantankerous, screeching anvil-shaped pump clicking randomly on and off through day and night became my adulthood image of a well. But I was fortunate to have gotten to know some real wells in my early years that have stayed in my memory as my favourites, and have become favourites of others, human and non-human.

Several walled wells in North Wells Pond, Grand Turk, merge during rains.

Several walled wells in North Wells Pond, Grand Turk, merge during rains.

My favourite wells are the North and South Wells in Grand Turk. They are off the beaten track and rarely visited, but are among the most historic and earliest of post-Lucayan structures on our capital island. Before Grand Turk was permanently settled, Bermudian salt rakers sailed south via Mudjin Harbour in Middle Caicos in the dry season and harvested Grand Turk salt to carry back to Bermuda. As their efforts increased, they eventually brought with them donkeys to facilitate the movement of salt from pond to port. The donkeys, being decidedly inconvenient shipmates, were left on Grand Turk during the rainy season when the salt rakers were home in Bermuda — these are the same donkeys whose ancestors still roam on the Salt Islands.
Even with the rainy season, there was no standing, open, fresh water year-round on Grand Turk. The Bermudians located two low, inland seasonal ponds, and dug wells into their bottoms for the donkeys and for themselves. For their own use, they dug narrow, vertical shaft wells. For the donkeys, they dug broad, wide keyhole wells with ramps for access. The ramps allowed the donkeys to access the water no matter how low the groundwater level got. The wells themselves also provided a convenient meeting place for the annual return of the salt rakers and the donkeys. Even if the donkeys were none too enthusiastic about performing their beast-of-burden function, they did eventually have to drink — and this way could not hide from the salt rakers.
As Grand Turk was settled, further wells were dug at these sites, especially at the North Wells pond. More livestock was brought to Grand Turk, including horses and cattle. Preparations were even being made for the introduction of another domestic animal: the introduction of several species of Acacia trees including the gum aroma Vachellia farnesiana was most likely done to create a food source for the camels that were due to arrive, but (thankfully) never did.
We no longer use beasts of burden for daily transport tasks, and few people still depend on shaft wells. The North and South Wells fell out of everyday use, except by livestock. The surrounding seasonal ponds reverted to homes for migratory and resident waterfowl, and herein lay the present value of the wells.
Bahama hatpin plant grows in the bottom of a draw well.

Bahama hatpin plant grows in the bottom of a draw well.

Approaching North Wells in winter time from a dirt track through the quarry in the small ridge on the west bank of North Creek, the numbers of waterfowl are impressive. White-cheeked pintails and killdeer are usual residents, while flocks of sandpipers migrating from the Arctic and blue and green wing teal from North American wetlands visit temporarily. Laughing gulls and terns wait out rough seas on the shallow pools, and herons of various sorts come to eat the native sheepshead minnows and the introduced mosquitofish in the water of the ponds. All the while, casual, loose lines of feral hoof stock wander along, stopping to sip murky water or graze on the miniaturised lawn of fogfruit verbena Phyla nodiflora and Bahama hatpin rush Eleocharis bahamensis. The flanking ridges lend a feeling of protection and concealment of the wells. In dryer times, the walls of the shaft and keyhole wells are clearly visible, even if surrounded by cow-trampled mud. During hurricane season, only the tops of these walls are visible above the pond water, and they are often festooned by waterfowl, who find them a convenient place to rest and hunt for fish and aquatic insects.
Feral donkeys graze near North Wells Pond on Grand Turk.

Feral donkeys graze near North Wells Pond on Grand Turk.

The North Wells keep animals watered and people entertained. As a late teenager exploring nature, there were ample features of interest around the wells, and our family stayed in a Cork Tree home just over the hill from this magical site. Just over the back wall and over the low ridge, Madagascar rubber vine Cryptostegia grandiflora attracted Bahama woodstar hummingbirds to watch as they scolded cattle egrets roosting in the adjacent Acacia trees. One particularly dry December, a very pregnant donkey had descended into one of the ramped wells and got stuck in there, so I helped her out as my younger brother watched from the top of the ridge, confident I’d get kicked. Earlier that day, newly freed pigs not-quite-trusting of humans had watched angrily from a safe distance as we followed families of nervous horses and a few half-concerned cattle around the pond.
The cattle of Grand Turk prefer the southern part of the island, so they are more often encountered at the South Wells, not far from the airport. While the North Wells dry down into a verdant plain of cropped green plants, the South Wells, subjected to the tumult of plodding cattle, dry down into a broad expanse of dark, manurish mud. Gargantuan bellowing bovines, descendants of the formerly doe-antelope-looking shorthorns genetically augmented heavily by the importation of a Brahma bull in the mid 1990s, lull on their broad sides on the hard mud. Annoyed-looking white-cheeked pintails and blue-winged teals pick their way between the resting cattle to access the rapidly drying pools of water, before flapping off to better swimming holes. Wiry strings of unpalatable Nash’s pepperwort fern Marsilea nashii, found only in Great Inagua and TCI, are one of the few plants that thrive in the mud hole. Adjacent noisy human activities help the over-abundant cattle in keeping birds frightened off, and the North Wells have become a far more enticing prospect to the waterfowl.
The enticement of the North Wells is not limited to birds — bird watchers are also drawn there. In recent years, the Turks & Caicos National Museum has developed birding tours of Grand Turk in partnership with other NGOs. The North and South Wells both feature on the museum’s Grand Turk Bird Drive, a self-guiding tour marked out with numbered posts and accompanied by a full-colour card complete with bird identifications (available at the National Museum). Occasional tours to the North Wells are carried out as knowledgeable bird watchers are available, but the site is often very rewarding when visited by smaller groups. Non-bird-watchers also visit the North Wells: while cisterns and piped water have mostly eliminated the use of shaft wells for our own water so much, the last time I visited I was amused to meet a fellow who brought his car there for a freshwater bath.
My family no longer lives close to the North Wells, but I still visit as often as possible. Sometimes I visit for work: Teachers’ workshops, wetlands conservation tours, bird counts, or plant habitat research. We always remark about the cultural, historic, and natural value of the site, and that the wells are not yet protected. Encroachment by quarrying is closing in, and there is no other place quite like it in Grand Turk.
In December 2012, I was fortunate enough to locate one of the Turks & Caicos Islands’ endemic plants at the site, the slender-stemmed peppergrass Lepidium filicaule, previously lost to science for 37 years. Several botanical surveys and a seed collection later, the plant’s presence verified the site as an important study site for my ongoing botanical work.
But other times I visit at my leisure, watching plovers scoot about for their food, chortling at the clumsiness of cattle mothers to their calves (which can easily be misread as abuse!), and looking in vain for the donkey I rescued in my youth — or her baby. These are not the cartoonish thatch-roofed wells of lore with some wish-granting spirit trapped inside like a half-drowned genie. They are filling stations for donkeys, they are historic holes connecting us to the realities of the harsh climate and difficulties of the past, they are portals of refreshment and life, attracting plants and animals from far and near. But they are underappreciated — so just in case it will help, when no one is looking, I put my faith in the spirit of the wells and wish for their perpetual existence.



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Master Photographers James Roy and Christine Morden of Paradise Photography (MyParadisePhoto.com) made the journey to East Caicos to capture this rare drone view of the remote island. They used their artistic creativity to enhance the color after the day turned overcast.

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