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Trindade Island : Where You Can't Go
The Island of Trindade is where Brazil begins. The oceanic island is a third of the way between Brazil and Africa, in the south atlantic, three days by ship from Rio. I ended up on this trip by chance. Forty eight hours before departure, I got a call from Fernando Costa Netto, who at the time was one of the editors at Trip Magazine. He said they had permission from the Brazilian Navy to join them on a supply mission to Brazil's easternmost territory. It was an unique opportunity, as the island is off limits to civilians.
The original idea was to invite top surfers to ride the island's previously unsurfed waves. This met resistance from the ship's captain, who declared that he would not take any surfboards on this trip, claiming the Navy could not be held responsible for any accidents which might happen three days by ship from the continent. The captain said that even though we couldn't surf the waves at Trindade, we were welcome to come along for the round trip to the island. Trip ditched the surf photographer and invited me.
I had never travelled by ship before so it sounded like a good idea. After a six hour bus ride to Rio , we went to the Navy Base at Ilha Fiscal, an Island notorious for the biggest and most extravagant party in brazilian history in november 9, 1889.
We had some time to kill, so we left the base and loaded up on cereal bars, had a beer or two and took a cab down to Arcos da Lapa, where in a place called Fundição Progresso we met with Marcos Prado, a fellow photographer, who was having the opening of his great photo exhibit, called os Carvoeiros, about the coal workers in Brazil. It was an impressive show, with great lighting, a soundtrack by Caetano Veloso, and beautiful black and white prints. Eventually a photo from this series got second place in the Nikon International Photo Contest.
We headed east, towards the island. About the three days it took to get there, I recall watching my breakfast orange juice move left then right then left on and on again in the open sea. Drinks would slide across the table, then slide back, (and of course the veteran navy guys seemed not to mind as the drinks would slosh back and forth); I also remember one night near the oil-extracting Bacia de Campos where we were in a big storm and I couldn't see anything outside our cabin window. In the morning, blue light shone through the window, then grey. We were dipping above and below water, and the seas were pretty nasty. Nobody was allowed outside and after breakfast I immediately went to get rid of it, being met by other sick crewmen. That made me feel better, (both) puking and knowing that I wasn't the only person getting sick with the ship's nonstop rolling.
Fernando and I got to know the navy routine, with wake up calls before six a.m., emergency drills, and naming every sighted craft a "target". Still, the crew of the Sirius had a very Carioca feel to it, and everybody seemed to be in good spirits. There was even a bit of late afternoon music on the helipad, with drums and singing.
The food was great, although I quickly dispersed the notion that the navy ate a lot of fish. In the departure haste and knowing I had a total of six days aboard a ship, I grabbed a pocket book. It was Tom Clancy's Clear and Present Danger, which if not as entertaining as I expected, detailed a lot about helicopters (used in anti-narc Colombian raids by the U.S.), which helped me ask less stupid questions to the pilots of the navy chopper.
On the morning of the third day, I went above decks around 4:00 am to wait for the first sighting of land. A sailor with powerful binoculars spotted the island in the pre-dawn light and after a while its shape became more distinct. The sun was rising and the light was beautiful.
Fernando and I had precious little time on the island. The navy doesn't run leisure cruises, and our trip was a supply mission. They would stay anchored for the time it took to unload the cargo, load the refuse, and head back to the continent. Their efficient work meant less than 30 hours ashore.
Besides the mission of securing brazilian sovereign possession of the island, the Navy maintains a weather station on the island. We watched them release weather balloons, and broadcast weather data and reports for the region.
Part of the blame for the island's lack of vegetation goes to Edmond Halley, more notorious for his comet than for leaving goats behind on Trindade Island. The goats escaped, run wild on the island, and have chomped all the vegetation. There is some left though, including a giant fern forest, with very jurassic proportions. The navy crews now occasionally hunt some goats, but it looks like the goats are winning. Another species that is out of control in the island are the crabs. In the daytime you see them here and there, but at night its like some hitchcock thing, they all come out and walking around is like kicking autumn leaves, except you are kicking crabs. They are all over the place. Besides the goats, the other human-introduced species are rats and cockroaches.
I had read a bit about the island from what I could grab before leaving, and knew that the place hosted many legends and myths. We were particularly interested in one of them: the treasure of the Lima Cathedral. According to some, the vast riches of the Peruvian capital were hidden on the island, but were never found. We looked around but couldn't find anything except for more crabs.
We headed back towards the base, stopping at a natural spring where we drank water, our canteens drained long ago. We also stopped at the cemetery, which supposedly has no bodies buried in the graves, since most are of men who disappeared, either having slipped off a cliff, or drowned after being swept offshore by a rogue oceanic wave. Or so we were told. The rocky graves were not a particularly bad place to rest in peace eternally, with a great view of the bay.
As the night fell we were greeted with brilliant stars, which were so bright it seemed like they cast shadows. We walked a bit around the base, and at the heli-pad freaked at the amount of crabs. We had to kick them to walk anywhere.
The return trip to the continent was uneventful, a chance to sleep, eat, and photograph a special flag ceremony and celebration due to a naval holiday. The best emotions came when we finally reached port in Rio, and the sailors who had been at the island for three months were reunited with their families. One in particular was cool to watch, an official who's wife had his baby while he was away. His son was thee months old, and he had never him before. The story that ran in Trip magazine used this angle, opening with a spread of the happy navyman. More than the story, it was a unique experience for me, one that I am grateful for. Fernando was great company, and we ended up traveling together a few more times. Among the legends about the island, there is one that I chose to believe. It says that those who drink the water from the natural springs on the island are bound to return to it. I hope it's true.
story and photos copyright © Ignacio Aronovich
special thanks to : Brazilian Navy - Marinha do Brasil