Chasing Orchids

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My favorite orchids from our our time on the mountain.

While Rick and I usually prefer exploring the forest on our own, there are some definite advantages to working with a team of researchers and guides. For me, the main advantage is that there are more eyes and ears out there finding interesting things.

One of the researchers, Maria Febe, goes out everyday with one of the guides to work on vegetation plots. For these plots, she mainly counts saplings and trees, identifies tree species, and takes a series of measurements. She also notes every species of orchid or pitcher plant that she finds. In the evenings, Fabe shows me photos of any of the orchids she found and last night she shared a photo that inspired me to hike halfway up the mountain today. Armed with instructions on where to find the orchid (walk around 100 meters past the second clearing and look to the left at eye level), Rick and I set off this morning.

On our ascent, we were continually distracted from our goal of finding the orchid. First, I spotted a green vine snake that glowed brilliantly in the sun on a bush next to the trail. The snake would normally be very camouflaged because of its thin, green body, but the light caught it in such a way that it appeared to be glowing. We spent some time filming and photographing the snake as it wound its way around a series of bushes, slinking across the vegetation. It must have been four feet long if stretched out, but it always appeared to be smaller because it was so thin and coiled.

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After the snake, we came across a few of the famous gliding lizards, which leave me in awe each time I see them. While they look brown and nondescript, they sport dazzlingly colored dewlaps (folds of skin that come out from their throat) and colorful wings they extend when gliding through the trees. Rick saw one of the lizards glide at least 50 feet between trees. Excitingly, a few days before, Rick had collected a specimen of one of the lizards. Rick has a strong aversion to killing things and found the lizard half-dead when he interrupted a snake in the middle of eating it. We took the lizard to Tim and he cannot find it in any of the guides. The genus is Draco and it has been suggested that we should name it Draco malfoy if it is a new species. Fingers crossed.

We ran into Tim a little while later and he decided to join us on our hike up the mountain. Thankfully, the hike was a lot easier for me today than it has been, which must mean that I am adjusting to carrying my backpack and hiking up such steep terrain. We reached 800 meters and began a careful search for the orchid. Tim ran up ahead and was unsuccessful at finding it, but I insisted on looking more closely since we had some so far. Finally, I found an orchid plant on a nearby tree and turned over every leaf until I found the single bloom that Fabe had described. It was too windy to photograph it in natural light, so I used a macro flash to photograph the flower.

The orchid Febe gave us directions to find.

The orchid Febe gave us directions to find.

 

Walking down to meet up with Rick and Tim, I paused on a particularly difficult part of the trail (essentially a mudslide) when two Dayak men approached me. They offered their hands to me in greeting, which I interpreted as an offer to help with my balance. This ended in one of the men being awkwardly pulled down when I shifted my weight onto him. We later learned that the men were hiking to the Summit and would spend the night there to hold a small ceremony.

Tim decided to jet ahead  to our camp while Rick and I hiked slowly down the mountain. Although the orchid and the vine snake had both been wonderful sightings, the most spectacular thing we ended up seeing all day was an insect we found on our way down. While walking slowly, I spotted a grayish black katydid sitting on a leaf. Rick and I leaned in closer to inspect it and were astonished when we saw a giant red band with two horns inflate around its neck. After a few moments, the katydid hid the red band entirely between its head and its body, but it would puff it out as soon as we waved our hands. We spent a long time filming this interesting behavior and were reminded that it is always worth looking more closely at even the most nondescript creatures.

Katydid with red pouch puffed out.

Katydid with red pouch puffed out.

Katydid with red pouch tucked in.

Katydid with red pouch tucked in.

Flying Frogs

Bornean horned frog (Megophrys nasuta)

Bornean horned frog (Megophrys nasuta)

One of the main objectives of the research team was to survey frogs on the mountain. Each night, Tim and Munir would set out into the forest to search for frogs. They would occasionally find them when they hopped across the trail, or skittered out of the way of one of our boots. Mostly, they located them by listening to their calls, much as a birdwatcher would hone in on a bird in the dense forest. Heavy rains, which started around 9pm each night, did not deter them from their research.

One night, having already returned from his survey and settled down into his hammock, Tim had a very special visitor. He was reading Crime and Punishment and I was deep in Heart of Darkness when I heard him shout out from two hammocks down the row. He began to laugh hysterically, saying aloud “Why, hello!” Wallace’s flying frog – arguably one of the coolest frogs in the world – had just glided into the tent and plopped down on Tim’s pillow. Wallace’s flying frog is named after Alfred Russell Wallace, the great scientist and explorer who worked out the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection at the same time as Charles Darwin. The flying frog is one of the many creatures in Borneo that has developed the ability to glide through the air (there are also lizards, geckos and snakes that glide – imagine a snake flying out of the trees!). The frog’s toes are highly webbed, creating little parachute pads that help it travel long distances from tree to tree. Rick and I were both longing to see this species and, through some incredible luck, it had landed in the hammock of one of the team’s frog specialists. We filmed the whole event and the sequence will be in the short film we are creating about the expedition.

Below and above are some of the other amazing frog species we saw while in Borneo. Tim and Munir expect that at least one species they found (not pictured here) is new to science and that a number of species now have range extensions. More wildlife images soon!

Wallace's flying frog (Rhacophorus nigropalmatus)

Wallace’s flying frog (Rhacophorus nigropalmatus)

Cinnamon tree frog (Nyctixalus pictus)

Cinnamon tree frog (Nyctixalus pictus)

Leptolalax hamidi

Leptolalax hamidi

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Rick with Bornean horned frog.

Tim checks out a frog.

Tim checks out a frog.

 

A Great Team

Febe records the location of a pitcher plant.

Febe records the location of a pitcher plant.

Now that we are out of the woods (more on “the woods” later . . . ), it is worth mentioning a bit about the amazing people we spent time with in the forest over the past few weeks.

The Gunung Bondang Expedition was run by the Heart of Borneo (HoB) Rainforest Foundation (www.heartofborneo.org), a small non-profit organization founded by Martin Holland (our expedition leader) and Tim Van Berkel (Scientific Director of HoB). HoB has organized  a number of expeditions to remote locations in Indonesian Borneo, all with the goal of raising awareness of and support for rainforest conservation in Borneo. They have done a great job with outreach – using satellite communication and media to engage kids all over the United Kingdom in rainforest exploration.

For this expedition, HoB supported five young Indonesian researchers by giving them the opportunity to conduct their own research projects on the mountain. They ranged in age from 22 to 26 and were all wonderful company. Each of them focused on a different aspect of the mountain’s biodiversity with the combined goal of creating a baseline survey of this remote mountain. I learned an enormous amount from each of them – both about their particular research questions and about Indonesian culture and language. We also formed strong friendships, having faced the challenges of camp life together for almost a month.
The team with some of the local villagers.

The team with some of the local villagers.

– Maria Febe was our fearless botanist. She studied the vegetation at different elevations on the mountain and braved steep slopes to get good data. I believe she completed around 20 vegetation plots – identifying, counting, and measuring trees and saplings in 20 x 20 meter plots. She also surveyed orchids and pitcher plants and often gave me GPS points for neat orchids she found during her surveys.
– Tika, a primate specialist, studied mammal diversity by conducting forest transects by both day and night. She was tireless and would walk for hours, bushwhacking through the forest to look for monkeys, cats, and other creatures. She often found only the traces of animals – porcupine quills stuck in a tree or the footprints of wild pigs. The lack of good sightings never seemed to dampen her enthusiasm.
– Nanan and Ria focused on dragonfly and butterfly diversity. They were constantly sewing up their nets, which got torn up in the spiny vegetation.
– Munir worked on frog diversity and conducted nightly surveys regardless of the weather. We are still waiting on the results . . . but he may have even found a new species to science!
Beyond the Indonesian researchers, Tim assisted the research team and served as comic relief throughout the trip (his gibbon calls are pretty epic). He also helped place camera traps around the mountain and some of the results they got are really interesting (more later!). Ririn and Koto managed the camp and did a really amazing job – they made sure we had enough to eat, kept the guides on track, and inventoried gear. And, of course, Martin, our leader, was wonderful. Unfortunately, he had to spend most of his time in the city dealing with police, permit offices, and government officials, but the little time he spent at camp was great.
Tim stares down a rhinoceros beetle.

Tim stares down a rhinoceros beetle.

On the night before we left for the jungle, we stayed overnight in an office in the closest city. Tika came over to talk to me and we both shared stories about our families and our homes. On that night, just a day after we met, she asked if she could call me Kata Gabby, which I later found out means “Sister.” I am still touched by that moment and by the friendships we all made in the days that followed.
Ririn lights a lantern in camp.

Ririn lights a lantern in camp.

A photo of the lovely forest near our camp.

A photo of the lovely forest near our camp.

 

Camping in the Rainforest

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For the last few months, I have read accounts of expeditions to Borneo, to the Amazon, and to New Guinea in preparation for our travels. Reading about their trials and tribulations, I have jotted down notes about essential items that might help us avoid their pitfalls. I am amazed that they made these journeys without the help of plastic. Above all else, the rainforest is a very wet place.

Our research camp was constructed in a forest clearing using small trees, rattan for rope, and large blue tarps. Watching the structure materialize, I was skeptical of its ability to keep out the elements and to keep us comfortable. Aside from one night, when the roof almost collapsed during a downpour, it held up for our stint in the forest. I do think the plastic tarps helped. Privacy was not a feature of the camp – we all slept side-by-side on large canvas hammocks that were strung tightly between two wooden poles. I would not call the hammocks comfortable, but they were certainly serviceable beds. Our guides strung up their hammocks in a similar fashion, but they used old rice sacks instead of canvas and I was told they were comfortable but itchy.  Continue reading

The Monster on the Mountain

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Gunung Bondang is a sacred mountain. I was told this before signing on to the expedition, but it was not until two weeks into the journey that I began to understand the significance of the mountain to the local community. By that time, I had had a live chicken waived over my head, wet riced pressed into my forehead, and an unknown liquid sprinkled above my brow. All of this took place without my understanding why. The only thing I knew for sure – bad things happened to those who climbed the mountain without observing these rituals.

The village at the base of the mountain is a Dayak village – Dayak is a general term to describe the native people of Borneo. There are numerous tribes and languages among the Dayak people and the people in the village where we visited spoke Dayak Siang (translated as River Dayak). Although many people in the village we visited were Catholic, they also observe spiritual and ritual practices outside of the church that are more akin to animism. The village spiritual leader, called the Kepala Adat, was our guide through these rituals.

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The ceremony started after dusk just outside our base camp. I noticed things were changing when the Kepala Adat walked past me, chanting rhythmically under this breath. The group began to coalesce and formed a circle around him, his face lit by the light our our headlamps. A woven tray behind him held herbs, rice, an egg and a variety of liquids. After a few moments of chanting, he grabbed a rice sack and pulled a squawking chicken out of its depths. Holding the chicken by the legs, he began to swing the chicken in broad sweeping movements over our heads. I was filming this process instead of taking photographs and, at one point, the chicken even swept across the front of my lens (poor chicken!). When the chanting stopped, a voice called me out of my camera and I lowered it to find the chicken’s backside held up close to my face. I looked at the Kepala Adat for instruction and he spit deftly onto the chicken, indicating that I should do the same. Being a Southern lady, I am not very adept at spitting and it took me two tries to reach the body of the chicken and to thus satisfy the requirement. After receiving the salivary offerings of the entire group, the chicken met a swift end and eventually became part of dinner. Its blood, mixed with a concoction of liquids was thrown out into the forest.

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Later in the night, the Kepala Adat passed by us, sprinkling liquid onto our heads using a bunch of herbs as his brush. He also pressed wet rice to our foreheads and asked us for a strand of our hair. I complied with all of these rituals, wondering what dangers we were avoiding through these steps.

Almost two weeks later, we learned the story of Gunung Bondang or “the Monster in the Mountain” from one of the village elders. An anthropologist from the Borneo Institute joined the expedition for a week and helped me to record the story and provided the following translation (edited by me for readability in English) – it helps contextualize the ceremony and it also helped me understand many of the village practices I observed during the expedition (more on that later . . .):

Once upon a time, Bondang Hill was a mountain, so high that its top reached the heavens. Because of that the Gods and Demons could use the mountain as stairs to the Earth below. The Ajudahari, a powerful demon that took a form like a monster, used the mountain to reach the people living below. She consumed human flesh and blood and many humans were attacked by her and became her victims. The humans living around Bondang Mountain decided to consult with the Gods on how they could be free of this terrifying threat. They made offerings to the Gods on the top of Bondang Mountain and, eventually, the guides replied with a solution.

The Gods sent two of their children, Bondang and Buro to help the people. Bondang was a man-god and Buro was a woman-goddess. Bondang’s duy was to keep Ajudahari busy while Buro try to make the mountain shorter. Buro compacted the mountain, so that it became a hill rather than a mountain and Adjudahari could no longer use it to reach the Earth. When Adjudahari realized that the mountain were no longer stairs to the Earth, she became very upset. Through the door of heaven above, she could only open her mouth and stick out her long tongue toward the Earth. She could no longer reach the people. However, her saliva did fall down from her tongue and the drops of it became many types of creatures that like human blood, such as leeches, mosquitoes, pythons, and bees. Since that time, Bondang Hill has been a dangerous hill to be climbed by the villagers around it. And since that time people have treated the mountain as sacred and given offerings to the Gods on the mountain.

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In the Village

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It took over two hours on winding roads to reach the village. Rick and I had happily picked the quiet car, free of the blasting techno music the other drivers played incessantly. We splashed through large pools of mud and jumped out of the car to film the other jeeps passing along bumpy stretches of the road.

When we pulled into the Dayak village, we watched as people began to gather on their porches and to point at our cars. The village was so small that it did not take long to arrive at the house of one of the village leaders. Our expedition leader had met him on a previous visit and hoped that he would help negotiate with the guides. The man’s son came out of the house smiling and ran off to find his father. He told us that they had received word of our arrival and had actually expected us the day before. We breathed a collective sigh of relief, happy to know that we were both welcome and anticipated.

Slipping our shoes off on the steps of the man’s house, we entered a large, clean room with no furniture. The almost bare walls featured images of local politicians – a consistent theme in the village houses.We all sat in a circle on the floor, unsuccessfully attempting to understand what was being said. We were offered coffee, which was really sugar with a little bit of coffee in it and we smiled at the women who shyly waited in the adjacent room and kitchen.

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After ten minutes of pleasantries, a steady stream of men began to flow into the room, each one pausing to grasp our hands before finding a seat on the floor. One man came in carrying what looked like an oil container and set it down in the center smiling. The grimy container turned out to be filled with a fermented rice drink. They passed a cup around, filling it for each person in turn. While some of our group refused the drink on religious grounds, Rick and I both chose to partake in the sour and extremely potent beverage. The custom seemed to be to chug the entire cup, so with both followed suit and ended up with ridiculous looks on our face. It tasted like sour milk combined with cheap alcohol.

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After finishing the entire jug, some of the men left to take a rest and we began to unload all of our gear into the man’s house. His house would become our home for the next two nights as we ate in his kitchen, slept on his floor, and used the tub in the back of his house to bathe and wash clothes. The negotiations with the village were just beginning – we had to arrange guides and porters for a month-long expedition and we had to have standard prices up front. With over 100 kilos of rice alone, we needed a lot of manpower to make it up the mountain and to build a camp out of wood and tarps that could withstand the torrential rains that poured down every night. And, we had to meet with the village’s spiritual leader to gain permission to climb the mountain. Before we set foot on the mountain, we would have to participate in a three-part ceremony. None of us had any idea what to expect.

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Setting Out on a Big Adventure

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Over the past few weeks I’ve lost ten pounds, gained 100 insect bites, taken thousands of photos, and made a dozen new friends. Now, sitting in an air-conditioned hotel room in Borneo, I finally have a moment to process all that I experienced during one of the most incredible trips of my life.

Getting to Borneo was an epic adventure in and of itself. We set out from Washington DC only to have our flight cancelled after it was already delayed for seven hours. We were sent home again with our luggage and told to call the airline in the morning. The flight was rescheduled for 8pm the following day, but did not takeoff until 3am. We flew through Abu Dhabi and lost five pieces of luggage in the process. Thankfully, the airline recovered our bags 26 hours after we arrived in Jakarta and delivered them to our hotel in time for our flight.

Even with all those snafus, we still managed to meet up with the rest of the team on time. We gathered at a small hotel in Central Kalimantan to begin our journey to the field site. The first leg of the trip was about 10 hours by car and took us to a small city where we begin the staging process of the expedition.

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We arrived at an office that had been taken over by supplies –tarps, ropes, shovels, field guides, and piles of food. Ririn and Koto were our camp managers and had spent the last week buying supplies at the local market and calculating how much rice and many noodles our team would need. We spent the day organizing our gear and helping with group supplies.

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That night, we had our first meeting as a team – getting to know each other and hearing about some of the logistical challenges our expedition leader expected to encounter. The main challenge was the possibility that the village had no idea that we were coming. One of the expedition team members in charge of local contacts had dropped out the week before and no one had been in direct contact with the villagers about our imminent arrival. Some text messages had been sent to a boy the team knew in the village, but cell service could only be obtained 8 kilometers away from the village center and the boy had never replied. There was a definite possibility that we would show up and none of the villagers would be ready to work as guides or as porters. There was also the possibility that the village would be relatively empty because of the holidays.

Despite these potential obstacles, we packed up the cars and set off the next morning for the village. Three giant jeeps were packed with people and supplies and took us to the start of our big adventure . . .

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The Challenges of Packing for an Expedition

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It is hard to believe that we leave for Indonesia in about 72 hours! I have spent the last week visiting with family, testing equipment, and packing. We have been relearning a lot of techniques in preparation for the trip – we walked around the house with a Steadicam, created a timelapse of snow accumulating outside, and worked on an interactive 360 degree panorama of Rick’s living room. Since we won’t have Internet in the forest, I’m laminating quick guides that will remind me of the correct settings for the fun multimedia pieces we plan to create.

Packing for an expedition like this is truly a challenge, especially since we are essentially moving to Malaysia after the camping trip. After much deliberation, we think we will be able to stuff everything into four checked bags and four carry on bags. Most of these bags will be stored in Jakarta while we go on the expedition. With the help of porters, we will each be bringing two backpacks on the expedition itself.

So, what do you bring on a trip like this? Apart from the normal camping checklist and our camera equipment, here are a few of the more interesting items we have decided on:

Leech socks and scotch tape: Terrestrial leeches abound in the forests of Southeast Asia and we have to wear socks that tie off at the top to keep the leeches out. Today, a friend of mine also recommended that we bring scotch tape to tape up the zipper on the inside of our hammocks. Apparently leeches like to sneak in through small crevices in the zippers and can get on you while you are sleeping. Yeah!

Snake gaiters: We have snake guards that wrap around our lower legs to protect us from venomous snakebites. We’re most likely to step on small snakes – I’m hoping we will see the king cobras before we run into them (they get up to 17 feet long!).

Permethrin treated clothing: Dengue fever and malaria are both prevalent in the areas we are visiting so we have spent hours treating all of our clothing with permethrin (an insect repellant). This reduces the amount of Deet we have to put on our skin each day.

Biodegradable soap and a solar shower: We went back and forth on the solar shower for a long time, but decided that bathing in cold mountain streams could get old after a few days. The shower weights 1 pound 4 ounces and will hold (and heat) five gallons of water. This is our luxury item for the trip and I think it may be the best $32.00 we’ve recently spent.

Wilderness First Responder Manual and First Aid Kit: Rick and I are both certified Wilderness First Responders, but we always carry the manual for a refresher. On past trips we’ve had allergic reactions, E. coli, unexplained fevers, and even shingles. Fingers crossed that this one will be free of medical emergencies.

Bird Audio Recordings: In addition to our wildlife guides, Rick has put together a collection of bird audio recordings from the more than 650 species of birds found on the island of Borneo. These recordings help us identify species in the field, even when we can’t see them with our eyes. We get free recordings at http://www.xeno-canto.org.

An extra of almost everything!: We have extra battery chargers, extra cords for each device, and extra sensor cleaners. I’ve had rats chew through cords before in hotels and can only imagine what might get into our things in the jungle.

Rain Gear for Us and Our Things: It is also monsoon season, so it is going to be very wet in the forest. This has led to its own packing challenges – we have a pelican case, silica gel, Contact Sheets from Mindshift Gear that serve as waterproof camera tarps, and a Hydrophobia from Think Tank Photo (these last two items were donated by Think Tank Photo to support the expedition!).

On top of all the packing, I have had trouble sleeping for the past few nights – waking up in the middle of the night to run through my to-do list. While lying awake in my warm and cozy bed, I have tried to imagine what it will be like to sleep in a hammock in less than a week. I picture myself reading a novel by headlamp at night and listening to the eerie call of frogmouths in the distance. I can’t wait!

 

Borneo

Sunset in Bali, Indonesia earlier this year.

Sunset in Bali, Indonesia earlier this year.

I’m starting this blog as Rick and I prepare to embark on a five-month journey to Southeast Asia. Rick has received a  Travel Fellowship from Harvard University to volunteer in Malaysia on a series of conservation projects, and I am taking off and joining him! We are very excited about this incredible opportunity and we look forward to sharing our photos and stories from the field through this blog.

To kickoff our journey, we will be going on a month-long  expedition to a remote mountain the heart of Indonesian Borneo. The mountain we will be exploring is in Central Kalimantan and is almost completely unstudied (see green dot on the map below). It has lowland rainforest, moss forest, and montane forest. Although there is logging around it, the mountain is sacred to local communities and logging on the mountain is taboo. We are looking forward to spending time in this wilderness and to celebrating Christmas in the jungle!

We leave for Indonesia on December 16th and for the island of Borneo on December 20th.  We hope you will follow along on our journey through this blog. You can subscribe to the blog to receive email updates by entering your email in the righthand column. I’ll be posting some pieces in the coming weeks as we prepare for this trip.

Map of Borneo. The green marker represents the mountain that we will be exploring.

Map of Borneo. The green marker represents the mountain that we will be exploring.