"All good things are wild and free." --Henry David Thoreau

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Mastic Trail, Grand Cayman Island

Writing about a foreign trail goes against the premise of this blog—hikes with children in the San Francisco Bay Area—but I just came back from the first international trip with the baby, and we had a great hike on the Mastic Trail of Grand Cayman. We arrived on Valentine’s Day and stayed with a family friend, Lois Blumenthal, who happens to be a major advocate for the conservation of bats in the Caribbean, and a self-taught ecologist about the flora and fauna of the delicate ecosystems on the Grand Cayman.
One of the best parts of our visit was walking the Mastic Trail with Lois. We plopped the baby in a carrier on the husband’s chest, grabbed a water bottle and sunhats, and set out. The sky was overcast, perhaps a great thing since the temperature felt perfect and the humidity was low.
Up until we had hiked the Mastic Trail, the island seemed largely developed with houses, some in a colonial style with gingerbread trim, but most just boxy. The land seemed somewhat dry and scrubby except for long-legged tangles of mangrove trees along certain watery edges. The Mastic Trail opened us to a whole new world, one teeming with biodiversity.
The trail is a one-way trek—we started at one end and walked to the other, where we had a car waiting—of about two miles. The terrain changes form: rough with jagged limestone, muddy, and sometimes soft with a red dirt that supposedly comes from Africa, borne on high winds over the Atlantic.  The path traverses several island habitats—mangrove, an ancient forest, and stands of native palms. It was made a couple hundred years ago when people needed a north-south route across the island, carrying goods by foot or donkey; now the National Trust of the Caymans owns the land.
The ground beneath our feet became muddy shortly into the hike as leggy mangroves, vines, and ferns rose out of the brackish water. We crossed a mahogany bridge made perhaps over a hundred years ago, the logs still firm although they lay partially submerged in goo.
Further on, the terrain became dry and Lois pointed out a tamarind tree, bushy looking and with feathery, pinnate leaves. In the old days, hunters nailed boards horizontally across the trunk; they would wait up in the tree for the agouti, a fat rodent, to snuffle around where a lure was set.
Lois showed us a well dug into the limestone-studded earth. “There used to be a little cup next to it, but I guess someone took it,” she noted.
“Don’t move, Jessica!” my husband barked. A two-foot long snake poised on the limestone, smooth head raised, eyes coolly observing us. The grass snake (Alsophis cantherigerus) is harmless—there aren’t any poisonous snakes on the island—and we admired its smooth scales before continuing down the trail.
We trekked on, passing Silver Thatch Palm (Coccothrinax proctorii), the national tree, endemic to the islands. The fronds were used for thatch roofs. We walked under strangler figs and giraffe trees, royal palms and buttonwoods, red birch (not a true birch) and calabash and ironwood. Elegant bromeliads clung from branches everywhere. A couple of the trees had termite nests on them, thick crusty balls of dried frass, several feet long. Birds sang and chirped and skreeed and cawed everywhere.
We passed a fissure zone where there were huge clefts in the limestone, evidence of the plate tectonics that's still lifting the island above sea level. A soldier crab without a shell came scuttling down the trail, and a rainbow colored lizard called an anole perched on a tree limb. 
As we walked on, I saw something snuffle on the side of the trail. “An agouti!” I cried.
The animal shuffle-hopped through the underbrush about five feet from us. It was maybe twelve pounds, compactly built and colored like an American football, a tawny brown, the Central American version of a guinea pig. Settlers brought agoutis (Dasyprocta punctata) to the Caymans as a food source, although they’re not eaten much today, I believe. The fellow regarded us quietly then slipped into the forest.
We encountered a large Mastic tree about two-thirds of the way into the hike. It happened to be at highest point on the island, a mere sixty feet above sea level. Shipbuilder’s used the Mastic (Mastichodendron foetidissimum) for their masts, and people cut down so many of the trees, they almost eradicated them from the island.
Lois pointed out where the ancient seashore was, a craggy area where we could find sea shell fossils if we looked. The land there rose above sea level two million years ago, she told us, and had slowly evolved into the forest we walked through, with 100 different kinds of trees and over five hundred other plants.
At the end of the trail, the dirt became that ruddy soil from Africa, called “red mould” by the locals. A fire had recently burned small swathes of land on either side of the trail; perhaps farmers were clearing land as it looked like a controlled burn.
Three hours later, we reached our parked car and Marshall peeled an orange, the sweetest fruit after a good hike, I nursed the baby in the backseat with both doors wide open, and Lois talked to some travelers with children who had questions about hiking the Mastic Trail. They were a family and, seeing the baby, asked if their kids (four years old?) could handle the trail. Without a pause both Marshall and I assured them it was definitely something to experience, but perhaps they’d need to carry their children part of the way.
Last Hiked:
February 2010 

-Make your way to Grand Cayman. Cayman Air is about $200 roundtrip from Florida.
-From the capital of George Town, go east on the Queen’s Highway for 14 miles.
-Left at Frank Sound Road
-At the Fire Station, go left on Mastic Road
-Parking lot is a quarter mile on the right
-If you have two cars, park the second at the other end:
-continue on Frank Sound Road to Old Man Bay
-Left at the crossroads, travel a mile
-Left on Further Road
-Park at the dead end
Cayman Wildlife Connection,
Including several articles written by Lois Blumenthal:
National Trust of the Cayman Islands,
Mastic Trail information:
Bat Conservation International,
Article about Lois Blumenthal:
Wildlife of the Caymans:
The Mastic Tree: