Thursday, February 24, 2011

Run Through the Jungle

The Pinnacles, Gunung Mulu National Park, Sarawak in Malaysian Borneo

It’s too often that songs stick in my head and annoy me all day long.  But every now and then, I’ll luck into a song that provides endless amusement to an otherwise monotonous or even arduous day.  On the day that we climbed to the Pinnacles in Gunung Mulu National Park, John Fogerty’s voice kept a smile of irony on my face as his advised pace grew more and more ridiculous.
Melinau Gorge, sunrise, as we begin the climb to the Pinnacles

As we walked out of Camp V at 6:30am, we wondered what this 2.5km trek that climbed 1100m would serve us.  The guide of another tour group offered an answer as he began calisthenics, clad in spandex leggings, goalie-style sport gloves, Oakley M-frames, a skull-and-crossbones do-rag, with a Camel-back hydration system and attached mini-speakers that screamed out CCR’s familiar refrain.
Laughing, but nowhere close to running, along the Pinnacles trail

The first 200m on ‘flat’ ground did little to warm us up for the ascent that followed.  Our thighs began burning long before the midway point, and our arms followed, working just as hard as we climbed through the forest.  We made it to the top while the weather remained clear, but we looked as if we had come up through a downpour.  The Pinnacles were worth every ounce of exertion, although we were spent and had little energy to clamber about the overlook.  The climb down took twice as long and even back in the flats, there was no running for either of us, and all we could do was laugh about it.
One big tree

Ignoring our legs, we did find the Borneo of our dreams in Gunung Mulu National Park.  While my dreams were probably informed by Joseph Conrad, Indiana Jones, and Planet Earth, this place certainly gave them their cues.  We spent our six days taking longboats as far upstream as rapids would allow, swimming in clear, crisp, spring-fed streams, staring up at towering limestone cliffs and staring down into bottomless caves.  Although primates were scarce, bugs and snakes, fish and turtles made up for their absence.  And the vegetation, from tiny mosses to towering dipterocarps, surrounded and enshrouded us in a tangle of green, revealing a delicate balance upon which life flourishes.  
Looking out of the mouth of Clearwater Cave
Little turtle in the lowlands near park headquarters
Green tree viper, a few feet off the Pinnacles trail
Pitcher plant along the Pinnacles trail

We’ll say goodbye to Borneo for now, but doubt that it’s grasp will allow us to leave forever.  We’ve come to cherish the forest and care deeply for the people on this island.  Just as a song can hold a smile through the most difficult journeys, Borneo has given us a focus in life that will carry us onward.  When the time comes to return to the jungle, I’m sure we’ll be ready to run.
Millions of bats swarming out of Deer Cave

Friday, February 18, 2011

Our Last Week in Sukadana

Our mixed emotions in leaving Sukadana were eclipsed by the excitement of taking one last hike through the forest and sharing smiles and laughter with our friends.
Disappearing into the forest and leaving the hot farming valley behind
 We weren’t sure that we’d ever get deep enough into Gulung Palung National Park to see its true beauty.  The brief hike several weeks ago only demonstrated the ease with which loggers operate within the park and our attempts at organizing a trip with the park office had thus far met only resistance.  It took Cam Webb, the ASRI director’s husband and rainforest ecologist intervening on our behalf to pull the last bit of logistics together.
Jacquelyn and Roberto, contemplating a swim.
 I’ve never been in a forest so lush and so diverse.  As we hiked into the woods, away from a cleared agricultural valley, the temperature felt like it dropped 10 degrees.  The underbrush thinned as we traveled deeper and the canopy blocked more and more light.  We followed a cascading stream up through a gorge covered in vines and ferns and mosses, stopped for lunch at the top of a narrow sluice, and climbed hard just hard enough to deserve an hour’s rest at a park shelter near the top of the trail.  From a lookout at the top, we could see across the agricultural valley between us and the Gunung Palung mountain, and marvel at the expanse of forest that needs so badly to be protected.
A little tree frog, enjoying a flash of sunshine
Another tree frog, this one sitting on the wrong color of leaf.
Orangutan, I promise.
Cam must have pointed out a half dozen edible or medicinal plants in the first 500 meters, without even walking off of the trail.  He commented that a number of flowers small plants we admired must be uncataloged new species, as their seed dispersal mechanisms have such limited range.  We constantly felt that we were being watched, but only a handful of frogs, a flying lizard, and one rare wild orangutan revealed themselves to us.  As pristine of a forest as it was, we could tell that other humans had come before, but with minimal impact.  One of the tallest trees we encountered held bunches of honey bee nests in its uppermost boughs, and along its trunk paralleled a series of bamboo poles reaching all the way to the top.
Jimmy & dr. Robin, having fun with rain forest seeds.
 The greatest joy of this adventure was experiencing it with friends from ASRI, knowing that it’s this forest and all of its biological abundance that we work so hard to protect.  Most of the ASRI staff gets into the forest at least once during their tenure with the organization.  With his year of service nearly completed, this was dr. Robin’s last chance to venture into the park.  We hiked together for most of the trip, and were both equally overwhelmed and amazed at the magnificence of this place.  We agreed that as we move on – Robin back to start his own practice near Jakarta, and me on a long journey back to the United States – the forest of Gunung Palung will stay in our heads and hearts for a very long time.
Looking out across the valley to Gunung Palung Mountain
A last meal with some very good friends.
 As for Jacquelyn and I, we’ll cherish not only the forest, but also the friendships that we’ve developed in the four months we’ve lived in Sukadana.  We came to study the rain forest and tropical medicine and to help promote human and environmental health, but we leave most impressed by the special people that make such work their life’s devotion.  On our last night our friends threw a party for us and we stayed late, eating and laughing and singing, postponing as long as we could the inevitable goodbyes.  As sad as it was to board the speedboat and watch Sukadana disappear behind us, the joy and gratitude we feel towards our friends there will keep us close for a long time to come.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Happy Birthday to Me!

A from-scratch chocolate-coffee birthday cake!
Blogging's been slow recently, while we wrap up our work and prepare to move on from Kalimantan.  The good times continue, though, and my birthday week (now two weeks ago) still has me smiling.

My big day was a Wednesday, clinic was busy and the morning flew by.  Little did I know, however, that Jacquelyn, unmoved by the power failure and gas shortage the night before, had returned home to spend the morning in the kitchen.  After lunch she reappeared, with a huge chocolate cake, candles, and accompanied by the full ASRI staff in song.  Mixed with coffee as well as chocolate, it fed the whole group and powered us through a hectic afternoon.

I was horribly wrong in thinking that was the end to the celebration.  The staff couldn't resist honoring me with a traditional Indonesian birthday surprise.  At the end of the day, as I sat on the front porch of the clinic, peacefully watching the late afternoon light and welcoming the cool evening breeze, Etty and others quietly assembled behind me.  Before I could jump up I had a raw egg dripping off my head and a face full of flour.  I spread the love and only a few escaped without needing a change of clothes.  As I rode my bike to the beach to wash off, I was greeted with laughs and "selamat ulang tahun - happy birthday" by many of the townspeople I passed.
Nur, Wil, Etty, Arta, Carla, Hari, and Jimmy, after his second cake of the day.

En route to Tanjung Puting National Park
Still itching to explore more of the forests in Borneo, for a birthday weekend Jacquelyn booked us a boat trip into Tanjung Puting National Park, down the coast in Central Kalimantan.  The 400 hectare preserve is home to nearly 500 orangutan, most of whom are rehabilitated or offspring of rehabilitated orangutan who were rescued from captivity.  Most rely on scheduled feedings by park managers, so the best bet to see one of these legendary apes is to time the trip to hit a few feeding stations at the right time.

Enjoying a cup of coffee and morning shower.
Our kloktok carried five of us (our guide, a cook, and captain, along with ourselves) quite comfortably for the two-night journey.  Jacquelyn and I slept on the deck, beneath a mosquito net and with roll-down tarpaulin sides for when the rain grew to more than a drizzle.  Once on the Seikonyer river, time slowed, noise disappeared, and the passing palms and jungle foliage proved nearly hypnotizing.  After five hours we were deep in the park, puttering along on clean blackwater and nearly enclosed by branches and vines reaching across the river.

Back on our feet, wondering what awaits us in the forest.
We made it to three feeding stations, most of which were an easy 1-2km walk through beautiful lowland rain forest.  Jeini, our guide, grew up in a village that was relocated when the park expanded its boundaries.  As we walked he told us about his childhood, growing up in this amazing forest with a father who was a park ranger and inspired his love of the natural world.  He pointed out medicinal plants, whose roots and leaves may be steeped or compounded to heal wounds, ease arthritis, and cure fever (which, here, is malaria until proven otherwise).  He could also tell us about the ongoing tension among villagers, loggers, the palm-oil industry, government officials, researchers, and tourists, none of whom are satisfied with their stake of the land's resources.

Stopping to ask directions.
Initially concerned that all this travel would yield a distant sighting, at best, of a macaque or a proboscis monkey, and an orangutan only if we were truly lucky, our reality took a dramatic shift after our first walk into the woods.  It bears remembering that these are not wild orang-utan (no where else in the 'wild' are there tables where an endless supply of bananas are placed several times a day).  That said, when bananas are placed on the feeding station, a far-off commotion breaks the stillness of the forest, trees begin shaking, limbs crack, and the ground starts rustling, closer and closer until the nearby underbrush parts and every evolutionary instinct and lesson from Man vs. Wild tells you to turn and run the other way. 

Biggest male of the trip.
This scene repeated itself enough times for us to become nearly as habituated to the 'feeding platform scene' as are the orangutans. We were visitors, and while a few hung out on the dock to welcome us and bid farewell, most of them went about their routine without much notice of the 3-4 (or in one case 30-40) humans gawking at their daily meal.  At the largest feeding station, we even shared the trail with two orangutan families - both just as hurried as we were to not miss the action.  My mind grew so twisted with 'who's watching who?' scenarios that at one point I wondered if the whole setup is meant not only to amuse the orangutans, but that it's primary purpose is to feed the local mosquito population (which I think enjoyed even better meals than the orangutans).

Traffic on the path to the feeding station.
Kids don't mess around waiting to be fed.

Siswi, welcoming newcomers to Camp Leakey (and inspecting all craft for bananas)
Siswi wouldn't let us go without a good belly drag
We admit to having fallen in love with the 'queen' of Camp Leakey.  Siswi is an older (33 years) female who has been able to reproduce only once, and lost that child, unlike most park females who usually have a child in tow for their entire reproductive life (10 years to shortly before death at around 40 years).  This has kept her big and healthy, but also sad enough to try and 'borrow' other female's babies and pitiful enough to gain extra attention from rangers and tourists.  Certainly spoiled, she met us on the dock, sat with Jacquelyn and tried to untie and steal her shoes, and wouldn't let us leave until Jeini and I dragged her across the boardwalk on her belly.  When she finally let go, unable to use all her weight to keep us from leaving, all we could do was anthropomorphize a sad look in her eyes as we boarded the boat to go home.

Sad goodbyes.
Proboscis monkey in flight.
A handful of other sights add to make this an unforgettable excursion.  We discovered that hornbills really do exist, that parks like this can protect them from hunters, and that their call is almost as lovely as gibbons in the morning.  Cuckoos are real, and kingfishers can come in every color of the rainbow.  Proboscis monkeys do look funny with their enormous nose and pot bellies, but that doesn't keep them from launching themselves from 20 meter treetops across the river and down with a splash, grabbing the lowest branch on the other side to fling them out of the water and back into the forest.  Fortunately for us, they only do this when boats pass, because the engine scares away the crocodiles.

In addition to being a fun and memorable birthday weekend, this forest showed us why we are here.  Borneo used to be covered in forest like this, with apes and birds and trees and medicinal plants and indigenous culture that knew no risk of extinction.  Now it doesn't even exist in many national parks, whose borders are unmarked and resources pillaged to earn more than it costs to protect them.  It's been such a privilege to work with an organization that not only recognizes this, but has a vision to offer a much different alternative.  Spending a birthday with the dedicated staff of this organization couldn't have been more special, even if it was a little messy. 
Sunset in Tanjung Puting