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The Outer Banks

Friday, 30 April 2004
written by Teresa

Dark gray clouds march across the brooding sky sending torrential rains to slow our progress towards Cedar Island and the ferry for the Outer Banks. A tornado watch is in place but luckily we're intending to take the boat out tomorrow and can sit and wait for the skies to clear. Eventually the percussion on the camper eases and the sun manages to emerge allowing us a short jaunt along the beach in the late afternoon. You lookin' at me? Returning, we come across a Snapping Turtle attempting to get through a chain link fence, his head and one leg through different holes but progress halted by his shell. We always feel some affinity with creatures that carry their homes around with them and his inability to work out the source of his hindrance coupled with a nearby road sent Sterling into rescue mode. As everyone knows, Snapping Turtles are just as likely to remove your digits as thank you for any help; there is a popular belief that offering a stout stick will encourage the turtle to grab on with its jaws after which it can be safely lifted. This particular reptile had obviously not heard of this tactic and refused to cooperate but gave us ample opportunity to see the strength of his mandibles. A stout pair of work gloves and a sneaky approach from behind was required but even then he was non too happy and writhed, hissed and snapped as Sterling lifted him around the fence. An hour later we saw him on the other side of the campground making steady progress towards and directly into another fence; this time we left him to his own devices as it seemed to be part of his daily routine.

On board the M/V Carteret at dawn, bound for Ocracoke Early the next morning we boarded the ferry to Ocracoke, the light still muted, the sun not over the horizon as the boat pulled away from the small dock. Watching the dawn break on the land from out on the water has a touch of romanticism about it that is hard to define. The entire experience of being on a ferry is inordinately pleasurable and somehow epitomizes the business of travelling even for people like us who spend so much time on the road. Maybe it's down to the obviously different mode of transport but even on a short journey of two and a half hours there is a sense of possibility and adventure, the knowledge that we could put the camper on a boat, sail half way round the world and just drive off at the other end. The good company of fellow travellers made the journey especially enjoyable and by the time we approached the Outer Banks the breeze had well and truly blown the cobwebs away and brought a rosy glow to the cheeks.

Back on terra firma we drove a short way up Ocracoke Island, views of white crested waves crashing on the shore accompanying us most of the way to the next ferry. Unlike the first one, this is a free service up to Hatteras Island; it runs every thirty minutes and is used like a bridge between the two islands. Ocracoke-Hatteras Ferry The ferry crew guide the boarding vehicles into position within centimetres of each other, chivvying specific cars a hairs-breadth further forward at the last minute in a successful attempt to squeeze another van onto the deck. Disembarkation takes a little longer than expected as a North Carolina Department of Transport dump truck breaks down on the ramp, blocking the exit for all behind. A pick-up truck is summoned and the offending vehicle towed from the ferry in short order. I suspect that the dump truck had been enjoying the effortless travel and was just reluctant to move under its own steam. We all need a rest now and again.

The Outer Banks are a line of thin barrier islands strung out parallel to the North Carolina coast and their tenuous hold on existence was illustrated in 2003 by the work of Hurricane Isabel which cut Hatteras in two, sweeping away all in it's path. The work to restore the road is complete but replacing the houses has taken longer and there is much evidence of building in that area of the island. From many points it is possible to see water in close proximity on both sides with space for little more than the road itself and in places broadening out to accommodate small communities.

Frisco campground is a delight; nestled in an old dune field just a third of a mile from the coast, some of the pitches along the higher back ridge giving views out across the small sandy hummocks to the ocean. Hatteras Beach It was virtually empty, the only noise from the birds and the water, at night the darkness complete save the gentle strobe of the beam from the lighthouse some miles away.

Ospreys flew back and forth over the campground all day, their distinctive high-pitched cries carrying on the cool air, their catch dangling vertically from their claws, glinting in the sun. Gannets patrol the waters just off shore, they circle looking for a likely fish before plunging, wings folding at the very last moment creating a splash visible from some distance. Watching them is a glimpse into another existence far removed from the supermarket. Pods of dolphins are clearly visible just off shore, presumably feeding from the same wealth of fish attracting the birds although they appear to be as interested in playful cavorting as getting down to dinner.

Much of the Outer Banks is National Seashore and to some extent we had been expecting miles of pristine beach. It came as a bit of a surprise looking at the National Parks website before we arrived to discover that they allow vehicle access to the sand. We had somehow thought that this might involve the odd truck or two and so were stunned by the sight that greeted us. The sand is churned up by the pick-ups that seem to be favoured by the ocean fishermen who come down in their droves, making walking an arduous task for those of us who travel on foot. Beach Trucks Looking down the coast, the string of trucks parked perpendicular to the water stretches as far as the eye can see, fishing lines stretching out into the water at regular intervals. I appreciate that for those fishing it must be like a seventh heaven but for us it was spoilt, seeming more like a large car park than a nationally preserved environment.

Not to be deterred, we decided to walk over to Hatteras Lighthouse, the source of the gentle light continually sweeping over us through the night. Our little friend at Hatteras Light Our path took us a couple of miles along the beach but then turned inland towards what proved to be a fictitious track through the dunes. Luckily the GPS kept us on course and with just a few slight detours around thick vegetation we managed to make our way forward with Sterling occasionally mumbling something about cartographers. The Lighthouse is the tallest in the US reaching two hundred and ninety three feet into the sky and painted in a black and white version of a barber's pole. This distinctive pattern coupled with the seven and a half second interval light tells passing mariners exactly where they are and probably serves to remind them of the need for a haircut. The lighthouse also serves as a salutary lesson of the power of the ocean. Its original position became threatened by the onslaught of the water to such an extent that the whole building had to be moved about half a mile away from the immediate attentions of the waves but unlike the lighthouse at Hunting Island, South Carolina, Hatteras is built of brick and not specifically designed to facilitate relocation. The whole structure was literally picked up and moved on steel tracks in a slow and laborious journey taking twenty-one days in the summer of 1999. Whether you're a lighthouse aficionado or not this is a wonderful building and its removal an impressive feat of engineering.

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