“Water! Water! We have water!” I yelled, “We did it”. The relief, after many setbacks and months of preparation, flowed over me like the fresh clear drops dripping at my sandy feet.
For a moment I felt like Tom Hanks in Cast Away after he managed to make fire with two sticks. The fire changed everything. It asserted his dominance, if only in a small way over the merciless expanse that surrounded him, there was new hope for life.
“The water will change everything”, I thought to myself.
We found ourselves on Ilha do Fogo (Fire Island). The name makes sense once you have felt the midday heat on this beautiful but deserted island. It’s deserted for a good reason.
Even though the island is lush with vegetation, there is no drinkable water, if you want water you have to bring it with you. A 30km trip as the crow flies on a Dhow, which is a traditional, one masted, sailing vessel. After day three, despite our best laid plans, we realised we are going to run out of water on a five day trip. We had to make a plan.The extreme heat of Fire Island led to most members of the expedition drinking more than the planned quota of water.
When I was a boy I dreamed of being stranded on a tropical island, trying to survive by making smart plans and inventing all manner of devices to make life on the island liveable, even luxurious. I guess many young boys and girls have island fantasies, however this expedition did not quite play out as Blue Lagoon, but more like an episode of the Survivor series.
The main aim of the expedition was to explore Fire Island, for conservation, marine research and potential eco-tourism. The island is a nesting ground for the endangered Leatherback, Hawksbill and Green turtles, of which there are only about 40,000 laying females left. It is an oasis for these ancient creatures, but poachers have also made themselves at home on the island.
Although the island is a marine reserve it is remote and difficult to police by authorities. The two wardens on the island are often outnumbered by more than 20 poachers and have very limited means to enforce the conservation status of the island.
The island is about 30 km from the mainland, between Mozambique and Madagascar. It is oval shaped and it takes about 1 hour to walk around it.
It was my responsibility to make sure that we have a sustainable fresh water solution on the island. Due to the harsh environment and remote location previous solutions usually broke down swiftly and were difficult to maintain. Reverse osmosis and water from air solutions were very expensive, and needed a lot of electricity and maintenance. What was needed was an inexpensive and robust solution.
During the 2018 day zero water crises in Cape Town our team started the development of a solar still that would use minimal energy input to accelerate the evaporation and condensation process that occurs in nature and creates rainfall. Our Idea was simple, by mimicking and enhancing the natural process we would be able to distill fresh water from salt water in a simple and reliable way.
On Fire Island we had the opportunity to prove the concept. It was the perfect laboratory, lots of salt water, lots of sunlight and a harsh exposed environment that would be a real world testing ground. If it works on Fire Island, it will work anywhere.
That said, there were many hours sweating away on the island that I wondered, “How did I end up here”!
We transported the prototype and equipment via a dhow to the island, a bit of a logistical nightmare but not a problem for Jan van Deventer, a logistics guru, Fire Island Project Manager and leader of the expedition.
The expedition consisted of ten specialists including master divers, macro marine photographers, skippers, marine mechanics and Lynette Whittaker from Grindstone Advertising, our marketing communications expert. It was her responsibility to tell the Fire Island story to the world and gather support for the conservation projects.
There is no accommodation on the island and we arrived at sunset and everyone helped to pitch the tents and set up camp in the growing darkness. Thank goodness for a full moon! The following days we worked on our various projects in this pristine, proverbial Eden.
Every night we settled in for a barbeque, locally known as a ‘braai’, around a big fire on the beach boma as this was our only way of preparing food on the island.
We succeeded with two solar stills working and produced around 20 liter per day, enough drinking water for about 10 people.
It was a beautiful experience in a beautiful place and thanks to the water produced by the Sundome we should be able to eventually have a more regular presence on the island, that would enable Fire Island Conservati