Storms, poisonous beasts and a really limited menuThe typical Korean summer getaway is a trip to the beach, spent surrounded by thousands of people with the same idea. Freelance writer James Card went to the opposite extreme: he spent an August week on tiny Mokdo, one of Korea’s 2,689 uninhabited islands, armed with a bag of gear, two cases of bottled water, seven cans of tuna and a digital camera. The first half of his account appeared in Monday’s JoongAng Daily.
Day Four: Poisonous
Last night’s thunderstorm soaked most of the firewood; only a few precarious embers remained in the fire. I set out the wet wood to dry on the rocks, and built a larger rock wall around the fire ring. The morning sun, brutal between lingering rain clouds, drove me to the other side of the island seeking shade again.
Adjusting to the diet of a hunter-gather, I was feeling the effects of what can be only described as carbohydrate withdrawal. I craved a bowl of greasy fried rice, or a big plate of carbonara.
I hiked into the woods and found a chestnut tree I’d spotted the day before. I picked up a stick from the ground for knocking the nuts off, and felt a slight tickle. I threw the stick down; a large centipede fell off and crawled under a rock.
It was nearly eight inches long, with an indigo body and an orange head. Known as the Chinese redhead, it has a poisonous bite that painfully swells the affected area and puts some people in the hospital. They’re quite common in Korea; I’d seen their dried corpses sold in the herbal medicine markets.
More tentatively, I knocked a dozen chestnuts off the tree, and collected them in a makeshift bag of fish netting.
At midday, snorkeling and spearfishing brought me nine small fish: greenlings, rainbows, surf perch and one sculpin-like fish. Before I emerged from the water, I took one last shot at a fleeting target and stuck it.
It was a puffer fish. I knocked it off the spear tip, smacking it against a rock; it swam off to die.
I crawled up to the shore and raked my spear tip in the wet sand, sick with worry. Puffer fish are common in Korean waters, and there are many different species, one of which is infamous for its poison (and is considered a delicacy when prepared by an expert chef).
The poison is extremely lethal. If even one milligram of the poison was trapped in a burr on my spear tip, and if I speared another fish, transferred the poison to it and then ate that fish, in theory I could die almost immediately, but not before experiencing paralysis and convulsions.
Angry at myself for spearing the absurd fish, I went back to camp and pondered whether I was being too paranoid. I wasn’t sure the puffer had been of the poisonous species. I stoked the fire, unscrewed the spear tip and stabbed it into a red-hot log. I would sterilize it if possible. I dumped the chestnuts directly onto the coals to burn off the spines and let them roast.
I hiked off for more driftwood. Between some rocks, I saw the unmistakable slither of a snake. I backed off, picked up a heavy rock and pinned it by its midsection. I walked back to camp and retrieved my hatchet.
It was a two-foot-long tiger keelback, one of Korea’s venomous snakes. Its distinguishing marks are the orange coloration on the first third of its body, with alternating black patches. I had little fear of getting bitten; these snakes are back-fanged, and the only way to be injected with the venom is to practically feed it one of your limbs. I pinned its neck down with a stick and raised the hatchet to lop off its head.
Later, I would regret what I did next: I showed the snake mercy and let it crawl off into the woods. I should have barbecued it and eaten it with fang-smacking, survival-of-the-fittest relish. Such benevolence doesn’t exist in the natural world ― you get your dinner when you can, and you can’t be nice about it. Humans like to think they can play God, and then Mother Nature steps in and kicks us in the head.
Dawn of the Red Tide
The water looked a bit murky. Standing back from the shoreline, a brownish haze was visible along the water’s edge. Thinking the murk couldn’t be that bad, I went fish hunting anyway.
Visibility was reduced to a few feet; I could barely make out my shiny spear tip ahead of me. I swam in different directions, looking for a glimpse of fish. I swam further out and dove to the bottom with bursting lungs and popping ears. It was still blurry.
Back on the beach, I cursed this weird, unexpected turn. Only one explanation came to mind.
This was the time of year when the annual red tides spread over the coastal waters of Korea, especially in areas of waterborne pollution. The algae is responsible for large-scale fishkill, and Korean scientists have developed a technique to stanch its bloom.
Clay is dumped overboard, and the algae is smothered and coated with the clay particles and falls to the ocean floor to die. Last summer, from a mountaintop on Geojedo island, I’d watched through my binoculars as a ship dispersed the clay, which looked like a strip of chocolate milk suspended in the green-blue seawater.
I realized then that I’d been a one-trick specialist, relying on spearfishing. With my hatchet and knife, I went down to the rocks at the water’s edge.
Wharf roaches scattered at every footstep. These terrestrial isopods are fast and gruesome; a hundred of the filthy vermin skitter in your path, while another hundred shoot for cover in the crevices and cracks. Colonies of acorn barnacles and oysters covered the rocks; I imagined slipping on the rocks and slashing my body apart. The only first aid items I’d brought were a roll of gauze and a film canister filled with aspirin, vitamins and some expired antibiotics.
By midday, I’d collected enough oysters for a meal. One of my concerns was letting fresh shellfish stew in the hot sun. Already this summer, a woman in Busan had died from vibrio vulnificus, a bacteria that becomes active when the seawater warms in the summertime. It is contracted by eating raw or undercooked oysters, clams and mussels. The symptoms are horrifying: nausea, shock, fever, skin lesions and possibly, for people in a weakened state, death in 48 hours.
I speared the raw oysters on a green stick I’d whittled from a camellia tree. Like a kabob, I scorched them over the fire until they sizzled and the edges grew crispy. I ate them like a Boy Scout would eat toasted marshmallows.
When they were gone, I was still hungry. I lazed in the shelter for the rest of the day, napping and checking the water visibility, which didn’t improve. I fell asleep to a warm breeze scented with pine pitch.
I woke to a starry sky. There wasn’t enough wood left for a fire, so I decided to explore the island at night. From the back of it, I could see the lights of the Posco steelyard and the Yeosu industrial area, flickering in the distance like the fires of Mordor.
For a Fistful of Clams
Along Korea’s south coast, old, sun-weathered women digging for clams in the tidal flats are a common sight. I now have the greatest respect for the endurance, patience and fortitude of these women.
Spending half a day at low tide mucking about in the afternoon sun earned me a small pile of small clams. I dug around the spit marks ― the siphon-like holes that clams use for receiving and expelling water. As soon as I dug a hole, water oozed in, making it hard to find the clam in the soupy mix of sand and mud. I was exhausted and sunburned, and my lower back felt like a spike had been driven into it.
The water was still murky, making spearfishing impossible. Mullet jumped out of the water all day; sometimes they’d skip three times across the water, catching about two feet of air. It was as though they were mocking my appetite, like dancing hot dogs and T-bone steaks from an old cartoon. I wished I had a shotgun and a Labrador retriever that would swim out and fetch me downed mullet.
Boredom took its toll. I talked to myself in the second person, giving myself orders. “You ought to gather some more firewood,” I’d say, and gather firewood until more jumping mullet caught my eye.
“You ought to kill some of those evil mullet.” I’d go down to the water with my spear-tackle. The water was still murky. I knew that.
“You ought to gather some more oysters instead.” I chipped away at some oysters.
I began breaking into the first person. “Damn, I’m hungry.” “Damn, it’s hot.” “Damn, I want a beer.”
As evening came, I stoked the fire and roasted my gourmet oysters-on-a-stick. The paltry handful of clams cooked on a hot slab of rock until they cracked open.
A chill came to the air, and more rain clouds loomed. Besides my rain jacket, I had only brought only one other item of clothing, a fleece pullover. Putting it on lifted my spirits ― I was no longer a barechested savage. It was the first time I’d worn a shirt all week.
Day Seven: Dodging the Typhoon
I woke up with rain spraying into the shelter. I knew it wasn’t a normal rain shower ― it was typhoon rain. Raindrops pelted the fire, and what embers remained hissed and smoldered. Dark clouds canvassed the sky, and the wind was strong enough to make the trees sway.
“You ought to get the hell off this rock,” I said.
I gathered my gear, hacked down the shelter, stacked the wood in a neat pile and soaked down the fire pit with seawater. The makeshift raft was where I’d left it. I tossed my dive bag onto it and pushed off. Sometimes, the best chance for survival on a desert island is to leave it.
Small, choppy whitecaps slapped the raft; I took my time swimming, focusing on a lone seagull on the far shore. “You ought to look out for that fishing boat that’s coming,” I thought. A boat’s engine fired in the distance; it chugged toward me and I feared that its wake might swamp my raft. I swam faster in the rain; the boat veered to the other side of the island, and I was safe. Ashore, I slogged my dive bag up the rocks to my car, parked in the shade. I changed into some clean clothes I’d left there.
Immediately, a mosquito bit me; my first bite in a week of outdoor living.
I thought of my air-conditioned apartment, soft linens and a refrigerator full of high-calorie food and cold beer. I turned the ignition and noticed that the gas gauge needle was on empty, much like my stomach. The car started, and the needle dipped further south. A gas station would be somewhere on the country highway, I figured ― one last chance to push my luck before returning to civilization.
by James Card