Sunday, August 26, 2012

A Forest Fit for Fancy Footwork

Moving around the forest here is not as linear as you would expect. The hiking tends to be a bit more like rock climbing mixed with a slalom through small trees, which suits me just fine. However, there are no rocks here, and the ground is quite flat. Everything is biotic, meaning it is, or once was, living material - often mixed with a healthy dose of water in the form of mud. I like to think of my daily treks as Bio Bouldering ... notched up a level if it's done in the dark!

The ground around you is peat, mud, leaves, fallen trees bits, and roots of all sorts ("normal", buttress, stilted, pneumatophore, secret tripwire, etc.). The "walls" of your clambering cathedral are vines, lianas, tree trunks, small pointy plants, and branches - sometimes covered in ants or caterpillars, sometimes not. Most often, spider webs are strung up across the path to shower whoever gets to walk through the forest first that day in celebratory streamers. The invisible threads tend to go well with the confetti of dirt and leaf litter that rains down upon you all day to add to the mud, sweat, and scratches.

Some of the flora underfoot: a lovely set of pitcher plants!

But back to the Bio Bouldering. In rock climber lingo: edging, high stepping, and crimping come in handy (and footy) for your traverse. Precise foot placement is important, as you don't want to miss that slippery root you are aiming for, since a knee-deep mud hole certainly awaits your misstep. Or that seemingly-innocuous dry leaf could be covering yet another deep peat dip, so step carefully and stick to the sticks. The childhood game of "the ground is lava" comes in very handy here, as said ground is an unknown mix of mud and material in various stages of decomposition to slow your travel. Now, as many know, I am a big fan of mud, and gravitate towards it wherever I can find it. Yet this slog in the bog can be a bit heart-wrenching at times, as every sink into the substrate completely saps any forward momentum you may have had. But there's no denying the cooling capabilities of a good ol' mud wallow. Babi the forest pig might be onto something...

Many a fallen tree bar your path, so the higher your leg can reach to help pull you over, the better. Going around the downed giant is not an option, as it has a huge root structure at one end, and a massive tangle of branches at the other. Upper body strength is always welcome to aid in pulling yourself over or out of the mud, and help surmount those fallen trees. Finger and grip strength assist in these endeavors as well - at least when the tree being gripped is not fully rotten. Core body strength seems to help across the board, as balance is paramount, especially on early morning boardwalk walks.

Two boards side by side on the boardwalk is a luxury that lasts only a few dozen meters into the woods.

Two additions to make the scampering even more fun-filled are those small pointy plants, known as Pandan and Rattan. Pandan  (Pandanus sp.) is kind of like a little palm fern which can cover large swaths of the forest floor and grow taller than a person, but seems to like stopping its growth at eye height. It is covered in smallish spikes that all point outward and make bushwhacking through its green opulence a scratch-tastic experience. Those eye-level tips of the fronds are also sharpened to a spike, and have jabbed more than one wary walker right in the cornea. The only retaliation we can take against it seems to be either stepping on it at the base, thereby flattening it momentarily, or pulling it out at the root and eating the base of the plant. Not too flavorful, but it could sustain you for a time. Plus, biting down and impaling the plant with those spikes of your own tastes of sweet and refreshing revenge. 

Rattan is thankfully a less common companion in the forest, but one you don't quickly forget. It has very thin tendrils covered in very sharp spines that will ensnare you for a solid (painful) minute if you are caught unawares. The best/worst encounters are when both you and your fellow observer get caught in the same set of tendrils and alternate yelping until breaking free of the tug of war with the near-invisible menace.

After the first couple weeks, the maneuvering becomes a tad easier, and as it is the dry season, the mud holes have been shrinking. However, I haven't been in camp for several days and the rains have been coming in more frequently ... if the rain spirits decree, I'll get to soak up more thigh-high mud again soon!

Friday, August 10, 2012

A Breath of Fresh Air

Coming to you live from the edge of delicious rainforest, with this first report of life in the peat-swamp forest of Indonesia. And life is good.

The Sabangau forest and the facilities at Base Camp both are above and beyond my expectations – with a wealth of biodiversity and fun muddy terrain to greet me in the forest, and delicious food plus good company to welcome me back to camp each night. Though the highlight for me might be waking up to the singing gibbon duets almost daily ... more to come on that in a later post. 

Camp Bed
The mosquito-free accommodations where I'll be  kicking back in for a spell.

Base camp itself has no internet access (let alone electricity for more than a few hours per day), but every couple weeks I take a day off in the nearby town of Palangka Raya to recuperate and reintegrate (briefly) into the wired world. [Hooray for US Women’s Soccer and the landing of a rover on Mars!] Blog posts are born during these brief stays in town; I head back into the great green garden again tomorrow. 

A small little pitcher plant I managed to capture and take as my prisoner.

Gaining access to the canopy-covered camp, where the orangutans dwell, has three steps:

Step 1. Take a local taxi to the outskirts of town to get to the harbor.

Kereng, the town on the edge of town. They have the boats.

Step 2. Board a klotok (small outrigger canoe) for a delightful journey down a broad river flanked by dense palm-like pandan.

The sun and the breeze are quite divine when traveling by klotok.

Step 3. Hop out of the little boat and hop into a “lorry” (mini-train) to chug up an old logging railway and reach base camp once more!

Down the track, clackity clack.

On the charismatic megafauna front, many lovely beasts have made themselves known in the forest thus far – from gibbons to a wild pig (who I think is charming) to the star of the hour and/or next six months: the orangutans! My tally to date is three separate females, each with a young baby; one juvenile male; and one shockingly large flanged male.* I am still in training, learning how to walk in the muddy forest and search for the big red apes, and how to follow them once I find them. Add in a dash of trying to identify the different individuals by sight, plus learning basic Indonesian on top of it, and you’ve got one tired new orangutan intern. A daunting learning curve to be sure, but one that requires me to sketch lots of ape faces for practice! Photos are also encouraged. The project I’ll be working on will have me trying to find as many females as I can and hopefully witness some of them interacting to gain a better sense of female social networking out here.

Mom & son (Feb & Fio), snacking on some flowers, as orangutans are wont to do.

Other fun creatures seen include a whole bunch of new birds like the Brahminy kite (looks a bit like a bald eagle), a teeny pit viper or two among other snakes, praying mantises, tree shrews, fire ant armies, macaques, turtles, and a species you’re certain to hear more about from me: red langurs – cool little monkeys that are fun to follow too!

Babi the Pig is a stunner ... staring you down out behind the kitchen.

I’ve linked this post to some of my photos up on Picasa – they sum up my time going from Jakarta to Palangka Raya to Base Camp pretty well … but are a tad lacking in forest photos as of yet. Though I tossed in some baby orangs to make up for it for now!

Small Fio learning termite etiquette.

As well as the art of true downtime.

Enjoy the photographic journal I’ve made you, and “sempai nanti” (until next time), 

Jess, signing out!

*What the heck is a flanged male you ask? Here’s a sketch I did of one a little while back: 

Flanged males: they've got big cheek pads (flanges) and throat sacs, and some also sport inspired hairdos.