Survival on Las Tortugas
I’m proud to say that McKee’s back, this time with a story he wrote himself detailing how he almost died on a desert island in South America.
I must warn you: proceed with caution, because moment by moment, McKee’s island saga unfolds like nothing short of a nightmare. What this man endured rivals the most gruesome of horror novels. His very survival is a clear testament to his great strength and intelligence (shameless plug for the Bridgeton Public Schools?).
Perhaps most striking is this: in his darkest hour, as the jaws of disaster were mercilessly clamping down, Art McKee’s thoughts turned to the one place where it all began. You’ll see that, as McKee was dying of thirst, he found himself screaming Bridgeton High School football cheers at the top of his lungs. I can only speak for myself, but, to think of those words echoing with desperation in the South American night simply blows my mind.
Okay, on with the show. Thanks once again to Robert “Frogfoot” Weller for his gracious permission in allowing this to be excerpted here on Bridgeton Legends. Enjoy.
Survival on Las Tortugas
By Capt. Arthur McKee
Introduction by Robert “Frogfoot” Weller
In 1976 Art McKee made his first, and almost his last, land expedition in search of buried treasure. His objective was the Island of Tortuga. In history there were two Islands de las Tortugas. The first is located off the northern coast of Hispanola and was the hangout of Beccaneers who got their name from the little dome-shaped huts called boucanes, where they cooked the meat of wild cattle and boars that roamed the island. The second island is located off the northern coast of Venezuela and was on the route taken by the Spanish treasure fleet as they made their way from landfall near Trinidad across the Caribbean Basin to Cartegena. It was on this island that McKee almost lost his life.
During his lifetime of treasure salvage, and his search for the Genovesa, Art kept meticulous records of his expeditions in the hope that some day he would write a book. His manuscript was close to being finished when he died in 1980. The only “works” that Art completed for publication was his “Survival on Las Tortugas,” his personal account of what happened when an underwater treasure hunter turned to an unfamiliar pattern…looking for buried treasure on land. Art would be proud to have his works in a book, and for that reason we have printed here the story, exactly as he wrote it, “Survival on Las Tortugas.”
Survival on Las Tortugas
As a hard-hat deep sea diver, my primary interest had been in the deep, blue sea and I had been fortunate enough to discover, identify and salvage many sunken vessels, some of which were authenticated as being sunken Spanish treasure ships. I finally established a Museum of Sunken Treasure at Treasure Harbor, Plantation Key, in the Florida Keys and displayed many treasures which I had recovered, including 60 to 75 lb. bars of Spanish silver bullion. One of the silver bars was purchased by the Smithsonian Institution at Washington, D.C., where it was acclaimed as being the prize of the year for that famous museum.
We had explored the sunken city of Port Royal in Kingston Harbor, Jamaica, which had been destroyed by an earthquake in 1692. With the help of my trained divers, who specialized in Marine Archaeology, we also located the treasure fleet of Don Rodrigo de Torres, wrecked in 1733 off the Florida Keys. Some of the treasure ships, including the EL CAPITANA (Rubi), the EL INFANTE, SAN JOSE and several other ships of the fleet, were excavated and a considerable amount of treasure was recovered. We kept the location of these ships of De Torres’s fleet a secret for many years. It being the era when scuba gear was being introduced, and in its infancy, we had little competition in our field.
On this particular occasion involving Tortuga, I was contacted by two men from Venezueala who stated that they wished to discuss with me some strange markings which they had found on some old documents. These documents had been discovered at an old house in Venezuela which had been torn down. Apparently the documents had been a part of some ancient collection as several different treasure sites were indicated. Some of the documents were inscribed on a skin-like material and leather and dated as early as 1557. One document indicated an old Fort or hideout, which had existed on the island of Tortuga, located about 110 miles off the coast of Venezuela. According to the document the Fort had been built by pirates in the late 1550s and had been in the possession of rival pirate groups operating on the seas of the Spanish Main, one of which was referred to as “The Organization of the Doble Cruz.” Their sign of the double cross is indicated in the documents by two crosses which invariably accompanied the signatures.
I had made a considerable study of “Paleography” and soon we were studying the ancient documents. Many of the documents contained messages in code, which consisted of marks and symbols made by the pirates in recording secret information.
Later, I was to find a very faded but identifiable document which contained one of the coded alphabets which assisted us to a great extent in deciphering information contained in the documents.
According to the ancient documents, written in old Spanish, the organization of pirates known as the “Doble Cruz” was organized and consisted of a group of very powerful and influential persons, who in their normal life, were honorable men. However, they made a very lucrative livelihood by plundering treasure ships and conducting raids on the coastal cities of the South and Central Americas.
A translation of one of the actual documents reads: “The formidable association of the ‘Doble Cruz’ was first born on London the 26th day of May, 1548, being its mother justice, and its father the Conde Alonzo Machui. Its rule to punish to Blazons and the offense made to the honor. This organization was led by the Conde S. Helen DR and A. Olmedo Dgl. David Vonwil and the General Roman Raviere were annihilated in 1635 by the criminal hand of the Silivalo. The documentation can be found underground in America. In Tortuga can be found the treasure of Mexico 1635, the cargo of ‘La Magdalena,’ the cargo of gold which was taken from Montezuma to Islas Canaries. The one of Brazil was not buried in Tortuga because the guides had to take refuge in the Islas de Junanacoco. They hid it and after were sacrificed by the English fleet. It is lost but there is documentation of the other treasures.”
This powerful pirate organization of the ‘Doble Cruz’ included Henry Morgan, Ventinila (believed to be the wife of Henry Morgan), Fardi, F. Carmou, Borein, General Maximilliano Machui and his brother Colonel Francisco Machui, Ansermote, and other powerful persons.
A letter signed by the two Machui brothers (Hermanos) swore to the fact that the secret of the ‘Doble Cruz’ would die with them.
The following is more of the actual translation of the document found on leather: “On the 24th of June, 1585 arrived in Port of Gold the ship ‘Santa Eufemia.’ The captain of this ship was General Elias Machui. By superior orders they went to take a look off the coast. The sailors Bormi, Tom and Sermo. Sermo took the north and Tom the south. Big was Tom’s surprise when he saw a lot of nuggets which he took and brought them to the ship. Then their chief ordered them to go back for more gold, but they met an Indian tribe. The Indian chief was Araue who gave them some gold for some powder. The General wanted to be friendly to the Indian chief. Three days later the General was taken to a place from where the mine was seen. The mine has the name of the men who discovered it.
The 11th of August of that year, as they were coming back from Gibraltar, they came by point of ‘Bormiton,’ the General Machui and Tom walked three miles in a straight line, up to the cross, eight miles to the south, up to the arm of the dead man, six miles .75 to the southwest up to the brook of the Black man, two miles .87 to the north up to the mine. ‘Bormiton’ was registered in Santiago de Los Caballeros the 11th day of March of 1621. It was worked from the 7th of July, 1627, and it stopped of working and was closed in 1639. Look for the mine from ‘Pozo’ of White Hill---Cerro Blanco.””
The official records at the Archives in Maracaibo stated that Maracaibo had been raided five times by pirate groups and special precautions were finally established so that the population, after being warned, would conceal their valuables and escape to places of safety in view of the threat of pirate invasion.
The convent in Maracaibo has a secret tunnel which leads out from the Convent, under the city, and extends to the shore of Lake Maracaibo. Extending from this main tunnel, another leads under the city to the site of the former prison. Still another tunnel leads off to a huge underground room where the church officials would hide the church treasure of gold and silver and was also equipped to house the nuns and other church officials until the pirates had concluded their raid and put out to sea.
One such document which I had studied was on leather and shows the actual existence of the above-mentioned tunnels.
But to get back to Tortuga, finally the Spanish Crown and the Church organized a fleet of warships to seek out and destroy the pirates at their fortress hideaway on Tortuga. An actual plan of the Fort indicated various rooms, also four corner watch towers. The pirates not only used this fort as a hideaway for their men but concealed much of their loot in the vicinity of the fort.
The fleet of ships converged on Tortuga and after a devastating attack by cannon fire, the Spanish Marines made a landing and massacred all of the people there except two pirates; who managed to hide and eventually made their way to the mainland. The fort was leveled to the ground and the story of the destruction of “Forte la Tortuga” was recorded on the very documents which we were studying!
I was asked if I would be willing to go to Venezuela and not only assist them in deciphering other documents but to become involved in the actual search and excavation of the several archaeological treasure sites, and I agreed to do so.
On May 14th, 1976, I arrived in Maracaibo, Venezuela, where I was met at the airport by Prof. Alberto Cribeiro Valiente. We arrived at his home and immediately made plans to investigate the several treasure sites indicated on the ancient documents.
We finally decided that Tortuga would be our first objective and made plans to conduct an aerial survey of the island. This accomplished, we carefully set up our expedition to search, find and excavate Fort Tortuga. We hoped to find some marks on a slab of rock in the vicinity of the Fort which would lead us to some “very valuable loot,” cached by the pirates prior to the destruction of their hideout.
We prepared a list of all necessary gear: a tent, four large containers of drinking wather, three 2 quart canteens, which we would carry when we left our main base, and a sufficient supply of food to last us a week or ten days. It was decided that we would fly our gear in to Tortuga by helicopter.
A few hours before we were scheduled to take off I received an urgent cable from Miami advising me that my aged mother was critically ill in the hospital and was not expected to survive. It was decided to postpone our expedition. We unloaded the helicopter and stored our gear and supplies in the hangar until I could return to Venezuela. Each box had been marked, designating its contents, and one box, containing our metal detector, the water canteens, and our new compass, was stored along with the other equipment. I had made an itemized list of all equipment and this I carefully filed in my brief case.
I arrived in Miami on May 27th just an hour before my mother passed away. I returned to Maracaibo on June 15th, 1976. I arrived at the heliport and found that the equipment was being loaded aboard the helicopter. I immediately contacted the Professor and asked him if he thought we had sufficient water to last us during our proposed stay on Tortuga. I also asked him if he was sure that all the equipment had been loaded aboard. He assured me that everything was in order and that we had plenty of water. However, I decided that I would check over my list of equipment but found that my brief case, containing the list, had already been stowed aboard the helicopter and was buried under the boxes of equipment. I had a hunch that I should have checked the boxes of equipment anyway. However, as it was getting late in the afternoon, we decided that we should take off immediately for Tortuga. We had discussed our plans with Colonel Torrelles Paiva, who was a friend of the Professor and a senior officer in the Venezuelan Air Force, assigned to the helicopter service.
The three members of the expedition included Professor Albert Creibeiro Valiente; his son, Jose Valdes, affectionately called Marachucho by his family; and myself.
We had been assured that upon our pinpointing the old fort ruins we would be joined by ten guards and four workmen to assist us in the excavation.
“Isla la Tortuga” is owned by Venezuela and is located approximately 110 miles east north east of Caracas, in the Caribbean. It is approximately 30 miles long and 12 miles wide. It is of volcanic origin and its surface consists of volcanic slab rock about one foot in thickness. The top layer of slab rock is cracked and from the air, resembles huge pieces of a giant jig saw puzzle. Upon striking these rocks with a hammer each piece will give off a different sound and ring like a bell. Various types of cacti patches cover most of this rugged surface. The cacti appeared to be of the “tree Cereus” specie and grows in thick stands which are practically impossible to penetrate, except by laboriously hacking a path with machetes. This condition makes it almost impossible to follow a direct compass across the terrain. Some of these cactus patches extend over an area half the size of a city block. Some areas are covered with an orange-red sand which is the only comparatively smooth surface of this desert island. A section of white sand beach extends over the western tip of the island and the shallow sand bottom extends over the western tip of the island and the shallow sand bottom extends a considerable distance into the Caribbean. The so-called iron shore area is constantly pounded by huge breakers which, upon striking the rocks, send a spray of water high into the air. The almost constant breeze comes in gusts. During the heat of the day when the sun is blazing down on the rock, the first gust of this unusual breeze is unbearably hot. This breeze usually lasts from two to four minutes and the air is practically unbreathable due to the beat from the hot surface of the rocks. However, the latter part of the gust is exceptionally cool. Several hours after nightfall, when the hot rocks have cooled, the breeze turns quite chilly. At about four a.m. the breeze becomes so cool that without a covering of some kind once actually shivers from the cold.
The only animal life I saw was a lone brown field mouse and numerous lizards. I did catch a very quick glimpse of a bush tailed creature, the size of a cat, month the cactus. Numerous birds including sea gulls, pelicans, mocking birds, humming birds, parrots, canaries, man-of-war birds, and a type of black vulture are native to the island.
The various types of cacti included the very tall “tree Cereus,” growing in vast patches; the Turks Cap or “Cactus Intortus,” and some other species, some of which contain a white, milk-like sap and is very sticky and quite toxic. To get some of this white, milk-like sap in the eyes produces temporary blindness unless it is washed out immediately with warm, fresh water.
There is no fresh water on the island, and rain quickly evaporates, leaving an eerie, weird fog or mist. It seldom ever rains on Tortuga and we experienced practically no rain during our stay, except for a one minute drizzle.
Such was the island we now found ourselves looking down on from the helicopter at 2,000 feet. We crisscrossed the island at the spot designated on the old chart and documents but saw no sign of the ruins. We made several passes at 800 feet, but decided that the ruins must be concealed under one of the many vast clumps of cactus. Finally, the pilot sat the helicopter down on one of the flat, red-orange sandy areas in the interior of the island. I suggested that we move our base closer to the coast but the pilot indicated he was low on fuel so we proceeded to unload our gear. As I got out of the helicopter I stepped on the handle of one of the shovels and twisted my left knee which had been injured in my school days, during a football game. At the time I did not consider this to be serious.
The helicopter pilot was instructed to return and pick us up on the seventh day at 4:00 p.m. He then took off for his base at Caracas.
We proceeded to set up our camp site which was easily distinguished by our orange and blue tent. We cut a 20-ft. pole and tied a red shirt to it. Thus we established our base of operations in La Tortuga.
We checked our water supply, which was in three plastic 5 gallon containers. Then we discovered we had only the one quart canteen which I had carried with me. The list of equipment I had made out at Caracas included three one-half gallon canteens which were now missing. We also discovered that I had the only compass. We had paid $90.00 for a very fine compass in Caracas but that too was among the missing.
By sundown we had eaten our first chow, downed a cup of water each, and turned in for the night. I chose to bed down outside the small tent and finally fell asleep watching the stars which seemed so near I felt like I could reach up and touch one.
In the early hours I awakened, feeling very cold and checked my watch. It was 4:15 a.m. and the wind had set up a series of gusts which were cold enough to cause me to shiver. At daybreak we were all up and had a cup of coffee and some breakfast. We had a conference and Prof. Cribeiro suggested we “take a look” at the sea coast. He remarked that it was only a short walk and we would search for the fort on the way. I checked my compass heading and noted that we were walking north to the coast. I made certain the canteen was full and after a big drink from our main supply we started for the coast. I knew that as soon as the sun came up, our day of intense heat would begin.
The cactus patches were thicker than they had appeared from the air and we had to go around them. Soon we were slashing our way with machetes on a course which took us over some very treacherous rock ridges. Some of the cracks in the foot thick volcanic rock were wide enough to lie down in. This rock was very difficult to traverse and we had to watch every step we took.
After walking a couple of miles we called a halt and rested under a semi-shady tree. My injured knee was swelling considerably so we slowed our pace. Finally, after about 4 hours of beating our way through the jungle of cactus we reached the beach. The seas were high and breaking over the rocks, sending a cool, misty spray over us. We welcomed this natural air conditioning. We stripped off our clothes and, locating an area of beach sand, we soon were enjoying the surprisingly cool water. After the heat and the long hike we really enjoyed the swim. It was getting late and I knew we should be starting back. I left the water first and after dressing I made a disturbing discovery, only about a pint of water remained in our canteen. We would have to ration our drinks to one canteen cap full each. I figured that we were going to be in some trouble if we did not get back to the base camp soon. It was getting late in the afternoon and it would be impossible to fins safe footing to travel after dark.
On our way to the sea, we had passed a large nesting area of young, white-feathered pelicans; took a couple of pictures and planned to get some close-up shots of them on the way back to the camp. When we realized we had missed the nesting area, I noticed that the compass was acting up. The needle would spin like a top when the compass was moved. I realized that we struck an area of magnetic rock. However, I noted the sun’s position and we continued “south” toward camp. My knee was swelling more and more and soon I found the pain was almost unbearable. I called a five minute rest period and we each had a cap full of water. I tried walking a few steps and found I could not step over the rocks.
It was then I made my decision.
I told the two men to take the compass and what water we had left in the canteen and to make their way to the campsite, which I estimated was about one and one-half hours away. I told them to watch the sun and to compass and when they made camp to fire two shots from their .38 pistol. I would answer with two shots to let them know I had heard them. They were to get a good night’s rest upon reaching the camp and at sun-up they were to bring me food and water. I figured with rest my knee would be improved by sun-up. I made them realize that I was slowing their pace and it was late in the afternoon. They reluctantly started out for the base camp without me.
I curled up under the only tree in the immediate area with leaves on it and waited for their signal shots which never came. I wated for the sun to go down and ceared away the sharp rocks from under the tree. Using a rock and a glove as a pillow I soon went to sleep. I was awakened by a lizard crawling over my face. He was gone in a flash and I immediately fell asleep again.
In the meantime, I had established and took stock of my scanty possessions. My clothing consisted of shorts, pants and a long sleeve shirt, along with a big towel, which I used for a flag. I sued the string from my tennis shoes to tie the flag to a long pole. I had a .38 pistol, 12 shots, my watch, a machete and an 8 inch knife, 1 glove, 1 sombrero and an empty camera which “Maracoucho” (the professor’s son) had left with me. Searching my pockets I found two medicated throat lozenges and a tube of sun screen ointment with a coconut oil base. I slept well until the four o’clock gusts of air began to hit me and I shivered until the sun came up.
When I awakened, I felt like I had a mouthful of bone-dry cotton. I waited all morning to hear a signal shot from their gun. I noted that the swelling in my knee had somewhat subsided and so I walked a short distance from my camp and cut some cactus. It contained a white, milky substance. I tasted it carefully. It burned my lips so I went back to camp and applied some sun screen ointment on my lips. The sun screen gunk was almost as bad as the cactus milk. Finally, I cut one of the larger cactus stalks and found a few drops of green juice in the pulp. I was hesitant to taste any more strange cactus juice so I sat down and watched the lizards catch flies from the rocks. Then, I got to wondering where they obtained their drinking water. I decided to squeeze a few drops of cactus juice on a rock and was elated when one lizard and then another proceeded to extend their forked tongues and drink the cactus juice. I waited and watched, expecting to seen the lizards suddenly flip over on their backs and die. Then, when I saw them back to feeding on flies, I cut a fresh cactus and squeezed the juice into the palm of my hand. My gigantic thirst finally overcame my reluctance to taste the juice. I wet my lips and then I swallowed some juice fully expecting to become sick as the juice was quite bitter. I waited two hours before taking any additional juice into my system. I continued to put a few drops of juice on the rocks for the lizards and on my parched lips.
In the meantime, the blazing sun was reflecting heat from the hot rocks and I decided I had to devise additional shade. I cut a few branches with leaves on it from another tree and proceeded to add them to my tree for shade. This effort caused my mouth to go bone dry again and my throat was feeling like I had swallowed sawdust. I immediately noticed the lizards still darting about and I realized that the cactus would have to supply my only source of liquid. I chewed the pulp and my throat took in my first bit of liquid in two days. Drop by drop, I relieved my thirst. I cut some extra cactus for use in the night as it was impossible to handle the needle-like spiked cactus in the dark.
The next morning, after squeezing cactus juice for over two hours, I felt I had enough water in my system for the time being. I learned to save the well chewed cactus pulp and to set it out on a flat rock during the night. The pre-dawn cold of the breezes produced a condensation situation and the cactus pulp then produced a good supply of cactus pulp in the pre-dawn hours and felt I had won my first point on my survival.
I did discover one bad side effect of using cactus juice. After I had satisfied my immediate thirst problem, I took some slabs of cactus pulp and proceeded to rub the comparitvely cool and moist pulp over my face and neck.
However, some of the juice went into my eyes.
When I awoke the next morning, both my eyes and mouth were dry-sealed shut.
I had to unseal my lips every time I awoke from a sleep of any duration. My lips and inside my mouth became very sore and bled constantly. It took two days for me to clear the dried mucous from my eyes and remove the scale which had formed on my eyelashes. In spite of my lack of food, I felt no hunger pangs. I was too thirsty, I suppose.
I decided to cut the date on a tree limb and also cut my name in the bark. Each notch that I cut in the tree every morning was some consolation as I knew the copter would be returning by the time the seventh notch had been cut. My watch had a date indicator on it but I had taken it off and hung it in the tree so it had stopped running. I relied on my notches for time and waited for the copter to arrive. I reset my watch by the setting sun which proved to be quite accurate.
I used my medicated discs to take away the bitterness of the cactus juice and I would put them back in the wrapper after each session of juicing. I was much disturbed when, after unwrapping my last little bit of throat disc, I accidentally dropped it among the rocks. It was too dark to find it but at daylight next morning I searched and found it entirely covered with black ants. I quickly attempted to brush them off but finally put the bit of lozenge in my mouth, ants and all! Never did a piece of candy taste better, in spite of its being medicated.
In the meantime, I listened for the sound of a motor but all I heard were the two or three jets which flew over at 35,000 ft. every day. Soon I imagined myself listening for the stewardess to ask me if I “cared for a cold drink? Sprite? Coke?” I dreamed and imagined all sorts of cool situations like snow melting, ice cubes, ice skating, etc. I would wake up very thirsty and had it not been for the cactus juice I would certainly have gone out of my mind.
At night I tried counting stars and then in the still of the night I would yell as loud as I could, calling Alberto. I began to experience dizzy spells and had to grasp onto tree limbs to get to my feet. I found myself singing and then I started remembering the cheers from the bleachers at our hometown track meets and football games. I yelled cheers until I became hoarse. I tried to remember back to the earliest days of my childhood. I passed the time a million ways and would often fall asleep only to awaken either in the heat of the sun or the cold of the 4:00 a.m. breeze. I realized that I was getting weaker every day. The intense heat which soared to well over 120 degrees, and the pre-dawn hours of cold was getting to me.
I discovered that the big flat volcanic rocks would absorb the heat from the sun and were hot enough to fry an egg, if I’d had one. I took advantage of this condition for as soon as the sun started to go down I would test the heat in the rock and then stretch out and try to enjoy the warmth of my hard rock bed. The heat in the rock lasted well into the night. Then the cold breeze would begin. I would curl up into a ball and try to conserve my body heat. I was tempted several times to take down my flag-towel and wrap myself in it. I thought better of the idea when I realized how weak I was and would be unable to put the flag and pole back up again.
I worried constantly about how my companions were getting along. I counted the notches in my calendar tree a couple times a day, this finally became confusing as I would lose count of the notches and have to begin all over again.
I was invaded by ants, attracted by the cactus juice and fresh cut pulp. I set up a cactus juice processing area away from my shade tree but still they came. Finally I cut some cactus pulp and watched the ants swarm over it. Then I would pick up the ant covered cactus chunk and throw it as far away from camp as I could. Thus, I finally depleted most of the local ant population. However, a stray ant bite was all it took to make me do a midday or midnight strip act. If those ants were as big as a cricket, one bite would require some stitches in the bite area.
I was continually pestered by ants getting in my ears, or small gnats buzzing in my ears, which became very uncomfortable. Not having ear plugs or cotton, I inserted on of the .38 cal. shell casings in each ear. Thus, I could get good sleep without any bother from those pests.
Late one afternoon, a small beady-eyed brown mouse came out of the brush and I heard myself say “Buddy you better get going or I might eat you.” At the sound of my voice he disappeared into the brush and I spent each afternoon waiting for him to come back.
The lizards became very tame. I soon had them lapping up cactus juice from everywhere but the palm of my hand. They must have sensed my intention. However, I doubt that I could have closed my hand fast enough to catch one. Finally, I began to feel quite bad about the trick I proposed to pull on those poor lizards. After all, didn’t they show me that the cactus juice was safe to drink? I even felt sorry fot eh ants I had killed. This territory belonged to the ants and lizards and, really, I had no business there. I began to envy the ants and lizards as they were safe at home.
Suddenly, I began to think of selling the cactus juice to Coca-Cola. “Pure Cactus Juice! Sure to quench the thirst!” Wishing for a pencil and pad, I dreamed up an entire package deal to sell to Coca-Cola when I arrived home.
Then I vowed to take one of the cactus plants with me when I was rescued. I would have it analyzed and find out how the water got into the cactus in this dry inferno of heat and cold. Then I began to think of condensation, air-conditioners and compared the vents and rib-like structure of the cactus to the radiator cooling system on cars and air-conditioners. My mind was full of ideas. I tried to keep my mind working. I never gave in to any thoughts of not being rescued.
I decided a test should be made of the body chemistry of a person who had existed on cactus juice for seven days. Right! Seven days was right, I said aloud, as I counted the notches in my tree calendar. Then I realized that this was the day for the copter to pick us up. What about my two friends? Were they dead or did they make the coast? I checked the flag and it was flying in the breeze. I checked my watch and it was 3:00 p.m. Was my watch correct? If so, in one more hour I would get some nice, wet, sweet water. My mouth was dry but I did not chew cactus during that long hour’s wait. My gums bled constantly and it was very painful to chew the cactus pulp.
I had pushed up my machete so it shined bright in the late afternoon sun. I practiced holding my watch so the shining back of it would act like a mirror. If the pilot saw one flash he would certainly search the area. I took off my shirt and with my watch and shirt in one hand and my bright bladed machete in my right hand, I waited for zero hour.
Suddenly, I heard a far away hum and as it got closer and closer I came to recognize the chop of the copter blades. Then I saw it! He was on a south to north course, but too far east to spot me or my “flag camp.” I waved and flashed my machete but the sun was wrong. The sound became fainter and I figured he must have reached the north coast. Would he find my two companions there? Was he landing to pick them up? Would he come back? Then I heard the sound of the copter returning and then I saw it. It was headed directly for my flag and me. I felt my heart beating a mile a minute. I jumped up and down in spite of my injured knee, waving my shirt with one hand and the machete with the other. He surely had to see me as I could see the forward section of the big plastic blister and the divider down the center. He was on a beeline course for me! Suddenly he veered to the right and I figured he was maneuvering for a landing. I continued to wave and suddenly realized that hew as continuing away from me. I said out loud “No! He had to see me!” Then I rationalized. He saw me and is now going for the others. I waited and waited. The sound of the copter had slowly faded away and there I was standing in my little clearing holding my shirt and machete. Then I realized I had been swinging my machete like a mad man. Had I scared the copter pilot off? Was he going for help? It began to get dark and the gnats began to get into my years. I had to put up with them as I couldn’t put my cartridges in my ears to keep the bugs out or I might not hear the copter, should it return.
It was getting late and the sun had set. I cut a cactus and chewed for juice. I sat up most of the night and finally fell asleep from pure physical and mental exhaustion. I dreamed of them finding my clothing and a pile of bones that once was me.
When I did awaken it was due to the cold 4:00 a.m. breeze which made me shake with cold. However, I thought of the blazing sun soon to be endured. I cut another notch in the tree. This is the eighth day! Well, did he find the camp and the others and did he fly them back to Caracas? Were they sick, alive, or dead? I dreaded to think of facing Alberto’s wife and family as I had said I would look after the Professor and his son and for them not to worry.
In the meantime, back in Caracas, a search and rescue team headed by Colonel Torrelles Paiva was fueling the big Hewy copters and other units of the Venezuelan Air Force were on the alert for a rescue mission to bring back Prof. Valiente and his son and to find the remains of the Americano Capt. Arthur McKee. They took off early on their mission and were soon in sight of Tortuga, commonly known to the natives as the “Island of Death.”
The pilot of our original copter had not reported to the authorities of his not finding the passengers whom he had left on Tortuga. Why? He could not be located at his job with the copter service and thus no explanation is available as of this date.
Of course, I knew nothing of what was happening in Caracas. When I realized the tenth-day notch was due to be cut in the tree I made a decision. I had to get to those pelicans nesting or it was all over for me. I would cut them down in their nests and drink the blood and eat the meat raw.
I cut a good supply of cactus and cut the pulp into sections to fit in my pockets. I gathered my scanty gear and then I took some pieces of volcanic rock and laid out, on the ground, and arrow pointing in the direction I intended to take. The volcanic rock is blocked by the sun on the top side but the opposite side is white and this I figured would show up good from the air should the copter return.
The round ball of heat of the rising sun was just appearing on the eastern horizon. I looked up at my towel flag as it waved in the early morning breeze. I checked the notches, then I took my machete and cut off a branch of the tree which had shaded me through the nine days of blistering hot sun. I really felt bad about cutting it. I cut a message in the bark which read “will try to get to sea. Follow arrow.” I cut the date also.
Was I doing the right thing or was I getting out of the frying pan into the fire? I almost changed my mind after staggering about 100 yards. I looked back and saw the flag. “Still in sight,” I thought. My legs were like rubber but I was determined to make the beach. Suddenly, I tripped and fell into a bush, or what I later found out was “Pringo Mosa”---similar to poison ivy, only it has a thorn in addition to its poison leaves. I tried to get up but was entangled in the thorny vines. I rolled over and finally got clear of the mess. Immediately I felt a severe burning sensation and red welts appeared on my arms.
I finally was able to get to my feet and I staggered on and then fell again, got to my feet only to fall again. This final fall proved to be a bad one as I landed on a big rock and I heard the ribs in my right side crunch. I had severe vertigo and must have passed out. For how long, I’ll never know, but I vaguely recall the bright sun blazing in my eyes. As I opened them I thought I was blind. I turned my head to one side and then realized I was lying in the open, exposed to the blazing sun. My mouth was dry as dust and I tried to get up. A bad pain in my right side! Must get some shade! I reached in my pocket and got a piece of cactus pulp.
I tried to chew it but my mouth was bleeding and my teeth felt like they would fall out, being loose from the effects of severe dehydration. I tried crawling but every move was unbearably painful. In spite of my loose teeth and bleeding mouth I finally managed to obtain a few drops of water from the cactus pulp. My head cleared a bit and I realized I was only a few feet from a tree with some scanty shade. How long it took me to get under that tree I’ll never know but I did not care as I was out of the sun. I felt very, very tired and either fell asleep or passed out.
In the meantime, the search party had landed their groups of men from the big “hewy” helicopters on Tortuga. Colonel Torelles Paiva was on foot leading his team. They had spotted my flag camp, saw the arrow and my message cut in the bark. They could not read the crudely cut message cut in English, but saw the arrow and continued on the way it was pointed. I have a vague recollection of people speaking in Spanish and felt myself being picked up. The pain in my right side seemed to fade away and then the next thing I realized, I was feeling drops of cool water to my face and lips. Then I realized that someone was trying to open my mouth which was dry-sealed shut. I choked on the first drops of water and again passed out as I did not hear the copter take off. I recall somewhere along the trip to the mainland that Prof. Valiente was speaking to me and said “We’re both OK.”
The next thing I remember was being bathed and submerged in what seemed to be a rubber tub-like affair, although it seemed that I was flat on my back in bed. I never did figure that one out. After a couple of days, I discovered that I was hooked up to oxygen and all sorts of tubes protruded from my nose, mouth and arms. I had been incoherent for two days, reliving my last two days on Tortuga.
X-rays showed that I had three broken ribs as a result of my final fall. I had been coughing up blood and a blood clot had broken loose in my injured knee, passed through my heart and into my right lung. I had lost a total of 41 pounds in ten days! After a few days in the hospital in Caracas, I was airlifted to the “Hospital Coromoto” in Maracaibo. Following two weeks of extensive treatment in the hospital I was taken to the Professor’s home and several days later placed aboard a plane for Miami. The 2 ½ hour trip exhausted me completely. I was examined by my own personal physician, Dr. John B. Liebler, and entered Doctor’s hospital in Coral Gables, Fla. My feet were swollen and both lungs have fluid in them. On my flight to Miami another blood clot had passed into my left lung. My ribs are still sore. My many health problems are yet to be resolved. However, when I am released from the hospital, every day will begin with the question “When will I be strong enough to tackle ‘La Tortuga’ again?”
Soon, I hope!
So whatever happened to McKee’s fellow explorers?
“Later I was to learn that my companions had missed the base camp site and wandered for five days, existing on cactus. When they finally reached the sea coast they found and ate shellfish, snails, etc. They also found half a dead fish which they ate raw and which made them sick. Finally, on the afternoon of the fifth day,, they sighted a small yacht out of Caracas. In response to their frantic signals, they were given some water out of a jug which had recently held kerosene. They were refused their request to be taken aboard. The kerosene-tainted water made them ill but they continued up the rocky coast and picked sea creatures from the rocks and thus got the benefit of the fresh water which they contained. Later, they saw a small boat coming down the coastline and soon they were shaking hands with some fishermen who were camped at the extreme east end of the island. They were given food and water and then they told the fishermen that they had left an American under a tree in the interior of the island. The fishermen refused to make a search in spite of the fact that Prof. Cribeiro offered them $5,000.00.
They considered the island haunted.
When they first arrived at the fishing camp they tried to make contact with the mainland by radio but the reception was poor. The next day, however, they were able to get a message through to Caracas. The newspapers carried huge red headlines announcing that three men, including Prof. Alberto Cribeiro Valiente, had been lost on Tortuga and one was an American who was presumed dead, as only two men were reported to be saved at the fishing camp.”
E-mail stories to email@example.com