Monday, June 13, 2011

the tropics

[Part 2 of Gabon trip journaling. Again, not edited...]

Yesterday [June 2, 2011] was a truly tropical experience.

Backing up a bit: for ten days, Jake and I are camping in a tropical forest in a remote corner of Gabon in order to collect fishes* in the previously-unsurveyed Bateké region. Two days ago we caught a ride in a Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) landrover to the small village of Kessala, about 90 minutes drive (30 km or so) south of Franceville. I’ll write about that journey separately actually, so suffice it to say that we are now camping with three WCS elephant researchers and our guide, an old guy called Papa from Kessala, at the WCS camp located in a rare clearing in this incredibly dense tropical forest. This is not a place you want to break a limb or fall ill with African sleeping sickness.

We got up with the sun at 6:30 and packed up the fishing gear to take down to the Mpassa river, the larger river a mile or so away running next to the WCS elephant observation platform. Papa guided us through the forest, cutting away vines as we went with his machete that seems to be a non-negotiable tool for anyone venturing into the trees, and blabbering a constant stream of Teké and French which, as best as I could tell, was intended to make us aware of each root we might trip on, branches we might hit our heads on, thorny branches not to grab, sturdy branches we should hold on to, and muddy sinkholes to step carefully around. It slowly became clear that this constant stream of words (sorely lacking in clarifying hand gestures) also contained bits of information about the forest itself. That vine over there is good to eat; this pile of dung is from a duiker; these tracks are from elephants this morning; these paths are all made by elephants; chimpanzees and gorillas live here.

As we got closer to the Mpassa we got deeper into the territory that the elephants had been through just that morning, and Papa was clearly very concerned that they hadn’t left yet. Every 15 steps or so he stopped and hushed us to step lightly, paused his Teké narration, and listened very carefully for the sounds of elephants munching their way through the trees. When satisfied that they must be far enough away not to be bothered by our presence, we proceeded another 20 yards or so.

Elephants do not immediately evoke the impression of vicious attack animals, but in fact they are the 2nd most deadly large animal in the world behind tigers.** Much of that is simply due to size and numbers though. God forbid you should pitch your tent on the wrong river bank or you’ll be trampled to death in your sleep before you even know what’s happening.

In case you’re wondering, by the way, if you should ever encounter an elephant in the woods and startle it into an attack, you should hide behind a very large tree and let it chase you in circles around it until it loses interest. I don’t know what you’re supposed to do if you encounter two elephants.

The sheer power of these enormous beasts is immensely obvious when you find a clearing that has recently served as an elephant buffet. In a forest so thick that sun doesn’t directly hit the ground, this is the only place to see blue sky. Most plants develop defense mechanisms against the smaller wildlife that might eat their foliage, with bristles on the lower levels or no vegetation at all except very out of reach. Elephants have solved this problem by simply felling any tree that looks tasty by smashing their heads into the trunk until it topples. They’re also one of the only animals that can eat wood directly so they aren’t scared away by a few bristly leaves. The wake of a hungry elephant is sheer destruction, just like a miniature tornado toppling and stripping everything in its path. As Papa pointed and chattered in one of these clearings, I immediately learned the words `elefant’ ‘mange’ ‘ici’.

We had approached within a couple hundred yard of the observation platform before we were finally truly delayed. We stopped so Papa could listen carefully, and about fifty yards away through the foliage we could just make out some movement. Staring longer, we eventually could see the huge ears flapping at the insects and the trunk picking through the foliage for the tastiest bits. Each time it took a step forward or yanked down a branch, the crack thundered back to Papa and he waved us to back up. At this point our communication with Papa about the purpose of our visit and his job description were very rudimentary and Jake was convinced that he only wanted to charge us to photograph the elephants, but after more frustrated gesturing and forceful whispers, Papa shooed us back to a large tree a little off the path and continued forward without us to scope out the situation. 20 minutes later, during which time we preoccupied ourselves by photographing the various colorful forms of fungus in the area, Papa returned and led us towards the river, pointing out where the elephants were moving and stopping every minute or so to verify his calculations. The coast was clear, though, all the way to the Mpassa.

Phase 1: reach the Mpassa, complete. Papa climbed up the observation tower to chat with the three WCS scientists, probably complaining about what annoying white people we were, while we sat at the base of the tree sifting through the phrasebook and dictionary to figure out how to explain our plan. Jake wrote down some approximation of “We need a place where we can fish, in slow water, that won’t disturb your research”, “We would like to find earthworms”, “is it ok to set the fish trap up here”, etc. The WCS guys, who initially seemed very perplexed by our presence and unaware of our purpose, were suddenly quite friendly and helpful. One guy, a particularly friendly man whose name I still haven’t figured out, led us to a small stream nearby and helped us dig around in the mud for worms. I was quite enthusiastic about this barefoot squelching in the satisfyingly smooth, sandy mud, but was sadly inept at actually finding worms, so his assistance with slicing away huge chunks of earth with his machete was very beneficial. Soon we had a dozen or so collected and moved onto the next small tributary to the Mpassa, where we could see a dozen or so small fish in a pool. This is where I learned how frustratingly intelligent fish can be.

We blocked off the stream below the pool with one net, buried under the sand under the water, and blocked it off above the pool with the other net. Our plan to shoo them out of the pool into the net, however, was entirely ineffective. They simply hid deep under an overhang on the bank. The handnets were not even conceivably a more productive tactic. We finally gave up and decided that the best bet was to let the dust settle until they ventured back out, and lift up the net when they swam over it unsuspectingly. This plan, more by complete accident than any actual skill on our part, eventually yielded half a dozen fish, including one small catfish that Jake was particularly excited about for reasons lost on me, and the fish trap attracted a couple more tiny ones.

At this point we had to hurriedly pack up because WCS Guy said it was about to rain. No clouds were visible, but through some sort of hooting communication with the 2 guys still at the platform, he had established that a big storm was coming. We rushed out, made it about 100 yards to another little beach on the bank of the Mpassa, and WCS Guy said ok it won’t rain until later, so you can do some cast-netting here.

As it turned out, Jake needed to process the fish we’d just caught quickly, so he showed WCS Guy how to use the cast net, and Papa did some hook-and-line fishing, while we sat on a log a little ways back from the river to anesthetize, tag, photograph, store in Formal, and take tissue samples from the fresh catch.

After skirting around the elephants, this was the 2nd time that day I was keenly aware of being in the tropics.

Gabon is a relatively wealthy country, with GDP-per-capita some four times higher than other sub-Saharan countries. It’s located on the equatorial west coast of Africa, in the heart of the African rainforest. For the last decade or so, former president Omar Bongo and current president Ali Bongo (son of Omar) have been trying to position the country as the Costa Riva of sub-Saharan Africa; that is, as an ecotourism hub. Omar Bongo established a network of 13 national parks to that effect (only one of which, Lopé, is remotely ready for tourism, but hey gotta start somewhere). Prior to visiting, Jake read a report done on the issues involved in developing the ecotourism industry in Gabon. One this noted: “There are a few black flies.”

When we landed in Libreville and took the train to Lopé and spent a week in Franceville with no insect issues except the unavoidable mosquitoes, Jake wrote off this warning as nitpicky hypersensitive worrying targeted at hyperrich royal visitors who prefer to be carried around in air-conditioned, mosquitoe-netted carriages while being fed grapes and ice water. While sitting on this log attempting to process the fish, he was forced to reassess, as, I quote, “Some people might find this unbearable.” Translation: “This is unbearable.”

We slathered ourselves in 34% deet cream to no avail. I wore a mosquito head-net to no avail. These flies, which look like smallish versions of standard house flies, are harmless in the sense of not biting or stinging, but I have never been ambushed by so many bugs simultaneously in my life. And to make up for their non-biting nature, a handful of Tsetse flies joined in the mix and ate Jake alive, deet and all, causing him to yelp in pain every fifteen seconds or so. (In cosmic compensation for having a bloodstream the equivalent of caviar and fine wine to mosquitoes, the Tsetse flies largely left me alone, or at least didn’t hurt much when they bit me.)

Photographing each fish took several tries, since we had to snap the shutter at just the right instant after brushing away the giant black ants and shooing the flies. I never succeeded in getting a tissue sample into a vial of alcohol without drowning a fly or ant or two along with it. My many mosquito bite scabs, accumulated over the last 2 weeks, were each home to an ant trying to bite away some dead skin and some flies trying to drink my blood. I stopped talking after too many flew down my throat, but then they decided to explore my sinuses instead. Breathing between my teeth worked ok, so long as I stopped to pick them out of my teeth and gums every couple minutes.

They were also strangely attracted to my glasses. So many of them coated both sides of both lenses that I could barely see and had to take them off every couple minutes to dig out a few dozen from the back side of each lens where they immune to my constant swatting. In between these massacres, six casualties occurred when they crawled directly into my eyes and were blinked to death.

Lest you think we were stupidly setting up shop directly on their home, no, the entire usable radius at this beach was uniformly infested.

Needless to say, this impediment rather slowed down the fish processing job, so Papa and WCS Guy were left entirely on their own and caught about a dozen more fish for us. When we finally had the last fish in Formal, WCS Guy said he had to go back to the platform, so we waved goodbye and started to pack up at a more leisurely pace.

Unfortunately, part of the relevant message was lost in translation, and I believe the intended statement was closer to “you need to hurry back to the platform and meet me there so we can get back to camp before the storm.” Papa, with his nonstop gestureless chattering that we’d slowly come to ignore, was no more successful in getting that point across.

We eventually got back to the platform, which the other 2 scientists had already left, and WCS guy hurried down and led us down the path home at as close to a running pace as you can get in the thickly-vined woods. About 50 yards into the 1 mile walk, the clouds opened up.

This was the third time that day I was keenly aware of being in the tropics.

It’s not that I’ve never experience a downpour so thoroughly drenching. I grew up in Oklahoma, where the warm spring thunderstorms are equally violent and densely drenching, but it’s a different sort of experience in a tropical forest than on a wide open plain. Especially when trying to get back to camp as fast as possible.

First my glasses completely fogged up with the humidity so that I had to take them off and stumble blurrily closely behind WCS guy, who presumably would warn me by vanishing if I were about to step off a cliff or into a quicksand sinkhole. Within about 15 seconds I was as wet as if I had jumped in a river, most noticeably evident by the pint of water squelching around in my high-top GoreTex hiking boots (which are fantastic for keeping water out, but, it turns out, equally fantastic at keeping it in.) That was all fine though, and actually enjoyable as a welcome cool shower for a hot sweaty sandy body and clothes, but I couldn’t do more than cross my fingers and hold a platic ziplock bag over my pack and hope that the camera, kindle, binoculars, notebooks, phrasebook, etc inside were ok.

Really this talk about the immediate physical consequences of being drenched is beside the point. The truly amazing thing is what the rain did to the forest. By the time the water gets to the ground it is pouring in rivers off of the plant life more than it is dripping from the sky. And such a wet environment to start with hardly has the capacity to deal with a sudden new enormous onslaught of liquid: The rivers rose, the small streams turned into rivers, and the elephant trails we walked along turned into streams up to a foot deep with who knows hoe much mud under that. (The next two days, in fact, the trails were still so full of water that the WCS scientists couldn’t go to the observation station at all.)

The smells of all the diverse forms of plant life melting into the downpour was the other truly amazing thing. I was prepared for the different types of plant life in tropical forests compared to temperate American forests (although its somehow always still stunning to see these things in real life that you only recognize from photographs) but not for the mindboggling, visually obvious, variety of plant life. Looking up almost every tree I can see is distinct, and each gap-in-the-trees is home to countless other species of vines, shrubs, ferns, fungi, mosses, lichens, grasses, and things I can’t even place in any particular category. And they all have their unique refreshing small totally unlike what is found in the Northwestern and Western American forests that I’m most familiar with. My favorite pine and eucalyptus scents are absent of course, but not missed amid the plethora of new equally wonderful odors.

Towards the end of the hike when we had all entirely given up on keeping anything in our possession dry or “beating” any aspect of the storm back to camp, Jake engaged WCS Guy, who is a botanist, to tell us about some of the plants and trees. In particular, he taught us about a tree family (genus? I don’t know…) that have bark that smells very good and very strong. As we passed the different species he macheted off bits of them for us to pass around and sniff and tried to explain how the very slight differences in scent and color identified the different species, but that was pretty much lost on me. All I can remember is that one is called an Okume, which has very nice hard wood and is endemic to Gabon.

We finally stumbled into camp, pouring out our shoes, wrung out and hung up our sopping clothes, put on a dry change, and as soon as we sat down under the big canopy, the rain stopped. All in all, though, I’m very glad we dawdled too long at the Mpassa because the water was incredibly refreshing and I don’t think I’ll see something like that drowned forest again for a long time.

*`fishes’ is the plural of a species of fish, while `fish’ is the plural of an individual fish. Cool huh. It makes ichthyologists sound like they’re this many years old (hold up three fingers) when they’re talking about their work.

**I learned this fact from trivial pursuit so don’t quote me… I might not remember all the caveats from the question and I don’t have internet to check it right now.

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