excerpts from SAUCER ISLAND: A FIELD GUIDE

The Field Guide, like Saucer Island itself - depicted by a series of works in the watercolors gallery - is invented.   (There is in fact another Saucer Island, in Myanmar, but I'm confident that few people will confuse the two.)  These "excerpts" describe how I imagine the island's physical geography, climate, ecology, flora, and visitor attractions.   

Physical Geography 

Saucer island is roughly oval-shaped, about 4km in length by 3.3 km in width. It is situated 185km from the mainland; the nearest landmass, Conch Island, is approximately 60km to the northeast. The island’s name is in fact a misnomer, because the extinct volcano (also called Saucer) that created most of its landmass has a very pronounced rim, rising to 290m at its highest point (Green Peak) from just 20m at the lowest point of the crater floor.  The island’s other significant feature is Pug’s Nose Volcano, about 1km in diameter, protruding from the southwest coast and rising to 65m at its highest point.  Between the two volcanoes is The Saddle, a zone of rugged lava fields created during the island’s most recent eruption in the mid-1700’s.  A narrow coastal plain, composed mostly of sandy beaches, encircles the island - except for two zones just below the highest peaks in the southwest, and an area of cliffs on the north flank of Pug’s Nose Volcano.  Fringing and patch coral reefs parallel the entire coastline at varying distances from shore.  

Climate

Saucer Island experiences a tropical climate with essentially no seasonal variation in temperature or precipitation.  Rainfall levels vary dramatically, however, across the island.  The East Rim of the main volcano rises high enough and steeply enough in the direct path of the trade winds to create a zone of high orographic rainfall and cast a rain shadow over the land to the west.  Green Peak is the island’s wettest point, receiving an average of 2600mm of precipitation annually, much of it in the form of mist.  The coastline below is slightly drier, receiving just over 1800mm.  In contrast, the western rim receives only 380mm of rainfall per year on average.  The driest part of the island is Lime Beach on the northwest coast (the name references the white sand, not green vegetation), with only 250mm of precipitation annually.  Pug’s Nose Volcano as a whole receives roughly the same amount as the western rim of Saucer.

Ecology and Flora

The wet Eastern Escarpment supports true rainforest, grading into cloud forest near the summit of Green Peak.  At all elevations the forest is of relatively low stature, with trees rarely exceeding 10m in height due to strong winds and steep topography.  Covering a relatively level, poorly-drained zone atop the crater rim just west of Sunrise Peak, the rainforest grades into a treeless bog (known simply as The Bog) characterized by ferns, grasses, and scattered shrubs.  These wet ecosystems support several endemic plant species, all relatively inconspicuous with the notable exception of the tree fern Cyathea attenuata, distinctive because of its highly tapered stem.  It can be seen along the entire eastern rim, but its highest concentrations are found in the upper reaches of the rim’s western slope, growing out of a meadow-like understory.  Sparser populations creep farther downslope, before rapidly giving way to desert shrubs at roughly 100m above the crater floor. 

Traveling westward along the rim, the vegetation grows gradually sparser and shorter, grading into a miniature savanna of low acacia-like trees and scattered thorny shrubs.  This open forest ultimately gives way to a near-desert dotted by spreading shrubs of the same species reaching no more than 1m in height.  The shrubs continue to thin out approaching the coastline, until nearly disappearing in the vicinity of Lime Beach.  The floor of the crater itself is equally barren; heavy clays mixed with mineral deposits create an especially hostile environment for vegetation, with the exception of several tiny shrub and succulent species.

The vegetation of Pug’s Nose Volcano closely resembles that of Saucer Volcano’s rim just to the east, with plant densities becoming sparser inside the crater and toward the west.  Notable, however, is the prevalence of the candle cactus (Cereus pseudocandelabra), endemic to Saucer and Conch Islands and so named because of the bright yellowish, waxy surface of its typically un-branched stems. Growing in scattered clumps and generally not exceeding 1m in height, the species is common across both the inner and outer slopes.  Conspicuous succulents are surprisingly rare across the island, but other populations of candle cacti can be found behind Lime Beach (also growing up to 1m high), and more significantly in parts of The Saddle.  Here, they can reach much larger statures, with some specimens attaining 4m.

Access and Attractions

Ferries running between the mainland and South Saddle Beach bring day visitors, overnight campers, and guests of the exclusive Candle Cactus Lodge, to and from the island four days per week.  (There are no docking facilities, and thus all landings are made by rowboat.)

The vast majority of visitors arrive and depart the same day, and choose to remain at South Saddle Beach.  However, several day hikes of easy to moderate difficulty are available without a guide.  These follow trails accessing overlooks on the rims of both volcanoes and circumnavigating the entire Saucer Crater.  Guided hikes traversing both craters, across The Saddle to picturesque North Saddle Beach, and descending the precipitous grades down to Grape Beach on the east coast, provide access to more challenging and ecologically-sensive terrain.  All guided and non-guided hikes can be accomplished in a single day, but single-night camping is permitted on Grape Beach and Long Beach and provides for more immersive experiences. 

Saucer Island contains no permanent structures with the exception of two zones. The first, on the wet East Rim, incorporates two Fern Pavilions. These simple but elegant wood and thatch structures are linked to each other, and to the edge of the coastal cliffs across The Bog, by a narrow boardwalk.  The second zone, situated at the northern end of The Saddle, is the Candle Cactus Lodge - a three-room luxury lodge reached by a short but difficult 500m hike north across the lava fields from South Saddle Beach and nestled among giant lava rocks and stands of cacti.  The intimate restaurant-bar serves guests as well as day visitors with reservations.  Short trails from the lodge to North Saddle Beach and the rim of Pug’s Nose Volcano are well-marked and well-surfaced.