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Flags In The Field: Tom Ambrose in Cuba

Explorers Club Flag expeditions represent the cutting edge of exploration. Our archive of past expeditions is a treasure trove of information and meaningful discovery, available to Club members, researchers, filmmakers and the interested public. In addition to the archives, many recent flag expedition reports may be found on the Flag Reports section of our website, along with our interactive flags-in-the-field exploration map.

A central mission of the Club is to promote the work our members accomplish while carrying Club Flags in the field, and to catalog their stories. We recently caught up with Tom Ambrose and Flag 99 to learn more about his survey of Cuban karst landscapes, his personal motivations, and why karst is so fascinating to him.

Flag 99

Survey of Tropical Landforms on the Island of Cuba: Epicenter of Antillean Karst

November 8-23, 2013

In November 2013, Tom Ambrose MN ‘10 and his Cuban-born daughter Natalie spent two weeks intensively surveying and documenting the abundant karst formations of Cuba. The Caribbean is one of the major karst regions in the world, and most of this dramatic landform is present in the Greater Antilles.

While rocks are usually inanimate, Tom has a rather poetic relationship with this particular geological phenomenon. “I consider karst a living rock with character, often ‘growing’ as stalactites and stalagmites, sometimes ‘deforming’ into bizarre shapes by acidic rainfall and even ‘dying’ by completely dissolving away over time by these same rains.”

Flag 99 is only the second Explorers Club Flag to make its way to Cuba, and the first ever to document surface karst landforms for the Club’s archives. Cuba’s stunning karst formations rank among the world’s best, akin to those found in China, Australia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and the Ozarks in Arkansas.

So what exactly makes a karst formation world-class? “[They] differ in shape, size, and height, the latter being the most defining feature.” Ambrose ranks the “beautiful limestone towers and cones in Guilin, China as truly world-class, with some reaching 1600ft in height above the Li River Valley floor.” Their appeal is a cultural touchstone, as “the erosional features have a 2000 year written history, and were sketched and painted by early artists.” National Geographic profiled the Chinese rock earlier this year. While not quite as vast, “Cuban karst towers (Mogotes) reach 1300ft and are the highest and most spectacular in the Americas.”

For father and daughter, their expedition was more than ‘just’ a scientific survey—it was also a survey of their own past. As a young geologist, Tom held his first post in Cuba, before and during the revolution in the late 1950s. Natalie was born on the Island. It was in Cuba where Tom saw his first karst limestone, the ‘Karren’ stone column, to which he still feels connected. That connection made for some privately significant moments, and promised an exciting trip back in time.

Their journey was befittingly undertaken in a 1955 Chevy Bel Air, one of the many vintage American models still on the roads in Cuba. That Chevy was the same model Tom once drove off the Key West Ferry at Havana Docks, and later had to leave behind, when they fled the revolution. Tom and Natalie surveyed the entire Island, beginning at Baracoa on the eastern tip, then moving through Holguin, Sierra Cubitas, Cangilones of the Rio Maximo, the greater Havana area, Jaruco, and Vinales in the west.

From tip to tip, the classic car took them across the island, often riding next to ox-carts on quiet country roads. “In pre-revolutionary days, I saw identical ox-carts moving along similar muddy roads.” Highlights from the road trip included ubiquitous “pro-revolutionary signs,” limited hotel rooms but frequently accessible accommodation in private homes, Chinese intra-city buses prone to breaking down, plus live Cuban music and dancing at the Casa de Musica in each country town.

Little has changed since I lived here in the late 1950s—it’s almost a ‘time warp’—except then, the railroads were running. There is a new four lane lightly traveled and nicely landscaped Russian built highway, running halfway down the island. Otherwise, my old 1957 Esso road map served as our expedition guide with all the old landmarks still in place, minus many sugar mills which have been abandoned.

Political restrictions on Cuban tourism continue, but Tom was able to enter the country on a U.S. research license and Natalie was admitted as a Cuban-American, with a Cuban visa. While their movement was nominally subject to control, they pursued their expedition without any interference from authorities. Tom finds that “remarkable, considering Cuba’s reputation as an anti-American state,” and wonders if Cuba is changing under Raul Castro.

Tom and Natalie believe that some of the surveyed karst landscapes—especially the Vinales Valley, just a two hour drive from Havana—would make for major tourist attractions, should Cuba eventually open up to US tourism. Their hope is that “advanced, strategic, and visionary planning by the Cuban government will protect the environment and beauty of this area for future generations.”

About the Flag
Before it was carried by Tom Ambrose to Cuba in 2013, Flag 99 was carried to Latin America twice (Kenneth Kamler’s Mt. Vinson/Aconcagua Ice Climbing Expedition; Stanley Spielman’s XINGU 2000 Brazil expedition), though its history began in much colder climes—on Finn Ronne’s U. S. Antarctic Expedition in 1939.

Tom’s detailed report is available for download here.

Photo: Ambrose in Havana with Cuban revolutionaries, January 1959.

Published by : Julia Knobloch

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Background image photography courtesy of members Christoph Baumer, Neil Laughton, Matt Harris and Don Walsh's image of the Bathyscape Trieste