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!

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