Sunday, July 31, 2011

Survival Guide: Coconut Trees (In Rarotonga)

Climbing coconut trees, opening coconuts, eating coconuts - some of my recent experiences in Rarotonga and a few ideas for further experimentation.

I’ll try to keep this short and sharp as there is a lot of material to cover. I only want to inspire you and to start you off on the path for exploration so that when you visit Rarotonga you too can climb the coconut trees and eat of the bounty!

Climbing Coconut Trees
Find a tree with a gentle lean as this will make it a little easier. A tree with lovely green coconuts and a trunk about a foot in diameter is the best place to start. All you really have to do is to walk your feet up the tree trunk in a tight crouch while holding the other side of the trunk from your body. As your feet get closer to your hands, move your hands up a little and then repeat. Like a monkey climbing a pole. Experiment with what works for you and remember to be aware of your fatigue levels so that you can get down safely.

The hardest part is that your arms get very tired, very fast. I’ve seen video clips of people climbing using a rope (often made from coconut fibre) around their hands and the tree to make it easier on the arms. You can see that I’ve used some green palm leaves roughly woven together for this purpose. I tested my makeshift rope by looping it over a beam and bouncing my weight up and down to see if it would break. This was total overkill, but 10+ meters up and you don’t really want it to break!

Ideas for further testing that I didn’t try but would like to were numerous. The main one is to make a loop of rope for my feet to hold them a fixed distance apart to push on the tree trunk. The rope in this case is on the same side of the trunk as my body and provides friction on the trunk so I can push better with my feet and with less energy used to try and keep my feet in place.

Also, a larger rope would be nice. One that can go around the trunk and my body so that I can lean back and let go with my hands to work at the coconuts or haul a cutting device (a machete or sharpened stick) up into the tree.

The challenge I set myself was to use as much natural material as I could, though I still wanted to have some success at the end of the day. I successfully demonstrated the proof of concept (getting up a tree in position to get some coconuts) to my satisfaction, so I allowed myself to get some fresh coconuts with a little “cheating” but in a safer way. The most energy efficient way to get a coconut down, apart from waiting for it to drop (normally happens when ants have been at the nut, ruining it anyway) is to use a really long stick and something tall to stand on. The really fresh, green, coconuts will be hard to get this way as they “hang on” pretty well.

I leaned a pallet against the shortest tree I could find and wedged a long stick into a bunch of coconuts. I then levered and shook the bunch until one or two dropped off. I had to make sure that they weren’t going to fall on me as they came down. apparently more people die from falling coconuts than from shark attacks in the world! Something to remember if you are on a tropical island!

Here is a YouTube clip of someone successfully climbing a tree before I briefly mention how to open and eat a coconut:

Opening and Eating a Coconut
A machete or a sharp rock will be incredible helpful at this point.

The outer husk or the coconut is very tough and fibrous. The best way to get inside seems to be to use your sharp implement to break into the fibre along the length of the husk in the direction the fibres run. You can cut away at the end of the coconut where it was attached to the tree to loosen the ends of the fibres and then wedge a stick into the gap between the outer fibre and inner nut, using the inserted stick to lever the husk away.
A sharpened stick stuck in the ground with pointy end up will work well if you hit your coconut husk into it. If you can get enough leverage with your bare hands on the loosened fibres you will be able to pull the husk free in strips.

The simple machete method is to cut directly across the fibres on an angle towards the top of the coconut (where it was attached to the tree). You keep turning the coconut to cut away the entire husk around the top of the nut and then poke something through the three small holes in the coconut to drink or drain the juice. Sometimes the juice is a little but fizzy but I haven’t been able to find out why (whether from natural fermentation or heat effects in the tropical climate). Fizzy coconut water doesn’t seem to cause any ill effects, though I’d like to know more about this phenomena. You can see the pressure that some coconuts are under from the video of Chris below as he opens a coconut.

If you get to the coconut water (there is no “milk” - coconut milk is apparently normal milk filtered through coconut flesh) then you will work out the rest. The water is refreshing and a good sports drink, the flesh is tasty and nice to eat raw or just cooled. I drained about 750 millilitres of water from each coconut and a large bowl full of flesh. Not bad for a meal in a survival situation I think, and just one afternoon of careful coconut harvesting can easily land you with a weeks supply of emergency food/water if you know what you are doing. I would still try and fish or find something to get a more balanced diet, but at least you won’t starve.

How to open a coconut using a rock and a twig in less than a minute:

Further information:
Coconuts on Wikipedia
Machete Reviews and Buying Guide (a machete is a larger heavy blade that uses the weight of the blade to do the cutting - kind of blunt force cutting almost!)
Coconut Chris (from Hawaii) tending his coconut palms