Sunday, December 17, 2017

Black gold at Marac Tar Lake


‘Piche’: Eric Lewis shows the viscosity of the Marac Tar Lake. —Photo courtesy Heather-Dawn Herrera

Mark Fraser

The First Peoples of Trinidad and Tobago called it “Piche”, the Spanish referred to it as “La Brea” and the British named it “Asphalt” or “Pitch”. Our Pitch Lake at La Brea has made a worldwide name for itself historically and economically.

Relatively unknown to most is the presence of another area of “Piche” deep in the southlands of Trinidad. Spanning an area just about one acre in size, the Marac Tar Lake in Moruga is another “Pitch Lake” that has gone unmined so far except for the unobtrusive use of it by our First Peoples for painting their pottery. Flints found en route to the lake site tell of their occupation here.

The site has remained more or less in its original state because of its location off the beaten track. Motor vehicles can only reach up to a certain point and the rest must be done on foot for about 20 minutes of brisk walking down and up the hills.

Our short hike along the trail was a pleasant one, as sugar birds and other tiny species kept up musical accompaniment. Our enjoyment of this ambience climaxed onto a plateau where a large break in the canopy marked the presence of the tar lake. The strong odour of the asphalt was intoxicating.

Our guide, Eric Lewis, led us toward what initially seemed to be similar to the cone of a mud volcano. This was our first encounter with the features of the lake. Vegetation had managed to separate this cone from the rest of the area.

The surface appearance of this cone was black in colour and it emitted thick, black material. This material was the asphalt we had travelled to Moruga to visit.

We felt like present-day members of Sir Walter Raleigh’s crew as we explored the slow bubbling “piche”.

The wider area or tassik, as we called it, was further blackened by fires that had recently raced across its expanse. Lewis told us it would otherwise be shiny and black instead of this charred look.

We gingerly made our way across this unstable mass, avoiding the bubbly ponds that represented danger to those who dared to tread. The bones of animals who had succumbed to this gooey trap lay scattered across several areas.

Mounds or cones spewed asphalt mixed with mud. Ponds on the flatter areas of the lake surface heaved in slow motion to produce growing bubbles that culminated in a burst of black gold. The lake was very much alive around us.

Our feet sank slowly into areas we thought to be more solid. When we applied pressure underfoot by stomping on the tar, there was a quick response from nearby vents in a burst of emissions. This meant we were stan­ding on a mere crust of the tar lake and caution was needed here.

Just as we had done so many times at the La Brea site, we poked a stick into a soft area and pulled up a thick curtain of viscous “piche” that clung and waved in the strong breeze before plopping back into the mass.

Grasses thrived on the more solid areas around the lake, while plantations of teak contributed to the overall vegetation of the fringe forest. This seemed to be an area for birds and not animals. While tiny birds were able to alight on the surface of the lake near water, the bones of animals that tried told a different story.

We scouted the rest of the hill for vents that may have appeared outside of the parent area, but found none. The tar lake, from all appearances, seemed to be confined to one site at the top of the hill.

We left the site with blobs of tar sticking to our shoes. This would be a reminder we had visi­ted quite an impressive pitch lake not in La Brea, but in Marac, Moruga.