Sunday, September 29, 2013

Orangutan camp

This note from April 11, 2011 continues my Borneo tale.

A couple days ago I left Palangkaraya for an orangutan research camp inside Sabangau National Park.  Ervina and Imam asked me to stop by their house before I left to say goodbye.  So, at around 0600 on Saturday morning I went to their house to find that Ervina had cooked me a going away breakfast—fried bananas with chocolate icing and sprinkles!  She and Imam also gave me souvenirs—Ervina a traditional Javanese shirt and Imam some Indonesian coins from his collection.  I felt I should give something in return but unfortunately I'm living out of a pack, and of course they understood and never expected anything.  We said our goodbyes and Dus drove me across town to the researchers' office.

From there we took motorized longboats across a burnt forest/Pandanus swamp to an old logging railway that led to camp.  The entire camp is built on stilts in the middle of the peat swamp forest.

The research camp rises on stilts above the peat swamp

Boardwalks connect the buildings, including the laundry area and outhouses on the camp fringes

Researchers navigate the flooded forest on narrow walkways

Wood decomposes fast in the hot wet climate and the network of stilts and boardwalks requires regular upkeep.  Twice during my stay boards broke beneath me and I fell into the peat below.

I was invited to the camp because they were starting a project that turned out to be almost entirely ant-based and, except for an entomologist from Saskatchewan named Eric, they had little experience with insects.   All the experienced researchers focused on primates.  They figured I might be able to assist for a couple days and immediately put me to work.  The work consisted of checking insect traps, identifying ants and offering any tips I could.  In reality I was of very little help but contributed company and conversation.  For my part, I got to spend time in the field with researchers and experience the forest from behind the scenes.  Indonesian was the camp language, of course, since most of the researchers and employees were Indonesian, but there was a core group of half a dozen or so native English speakers.  There was even an American grad student from Utah!  And the food was amazing—giant plates of Indonesian food cooked three times daily by a local cook.  They had a scale and I weighed myself for the first time since I started my trip—I've lost quite a few pounds over the past three months and now weigh less than I did in the Marines.

My daily routine was to wake up around 0500 or 0530 to go birdwatch and listen to the Bornean agile gibbons (Hylobates albibarbis) for about an hour.  Then after breakfast I went out into the field with Eric and we did our insect thing.  I also had some opportunities to explore the forest in other ways.  In the evening we sat and talked outside (well, the buildings don't have doors, so there really isn't an "inside").  We all tended to go to bed pretty early, especially since the primate people spent all day following orangutans or gibbons or red langurs through the swamp and were exhausted every evening.  None of the researchers were able to locate any orangutans on the days I was there, and neither was I, although I did find a nest.  But there is so much more to the forest.

If you've seen BBC's Planet Earth you may remember an interesting genus of fungus known as Cordyceps.  Many species in this genus parasitize living insects and hijack their nervous system, causing them to perch on the ends of leaves where they die.  Cordyceps then sends forth a fruiting body and its spores are thus more effectively dispersed.  In Sabangau I actually found a few ants killed by Cordyceps with fruiting bodies sprouting from their carapaces.

A Cordyceps fungus causes infected ants to die clinging to the undersides of leaves.  Its long fruiting bodies sprout from the ants and disperse spores to infect other victims.

One day Eric and I found two giant brown millipedes of the genus Thyropygus—by far the largest millipedes I’ve ever seen.

Thyropygus giant millipedes are common decomposers in Sabangau’s peat swamp forest

Of course, Borneo is a place for mammals, many of which are large and most of which are nearly impossible to find.  For example, Sabangau is home to at least four cat species, including the clouded leopard.  There are also sambar dear, bearded pigs, sun bears, orangutans, gibbons and plenty of other primates.  In other parts of Borneo, just barely, there are Bornean rhinoceros and Asian elephants.  Chances are I will never in my life see most of those animals anywhere but a zoo.  There are plenty of smaller mammals as well, again mostly hidden.  What all of the mammals here have in common is that they are absent east of Wallace's Line.  A notable example is the squirrel family, species of which can be found on all continents except Antarctica and Australia.

Plaintain squirrels (Callosciurus notatus) were my most sighted mammal in Sabangau.  Coming from Australia, finding squirrels in Borneo seemed exotic.

There were also some reptiles—geckos and semi-aquatic skinks and, most exciting, a paradise tree snake (Chrysopelea paradisi) that lived in our rafters and ate our geckos.  The paradise tree snake can flatten its body and glide in controlled flight from tree to tree.

But I must have seen cool ants, right?  I mean, I spent hours each day collecting and identifying them.  I did, but I figure I've anted you guys out already.  There were plenty of giant forest ants (Camponotus gigas), one of the largest ants in the world at over an inch long.

Camponotus gigas soldiers are some of the largest ants in the world and can reputedly draw blood with their bites

I posted some photos of a Polyrhachis species before in Queensland—the golden-bum ant.  Here in Sabangau a larger and more vicious-looking species, Polyrhachis bihamata, was common on lower vegetation.

The metallic gold Polyrhachis bihamata is a harmless arboreal ant covered in giant hooks

Would you look at the giant fishhook shaped spines?!  There are some giant metallic blue Polyrhachis here as well, but their spines aren't as wicked.

Ants weren’t the only cool insects, as demonstrated by this colorful assassin bug

On my last night a few of us went a little deeper into the forest to look for orangutans.  Do you remember from my last note how what looks like solid soil can actually be a deep peat hole?  Twice on this walk Eric sank a leg up to his crotch.  You can see in this photo that one leg is on perfectly solid ground, folded under his body, but the other leg is totally submerged.

The forest floor in Sabangau is treacherous—apparently solid ground can give way and submerge your legs in peat

Today I left camp and returned to civilization, intending to make my way to Pangkalanbun and Tanjung Puting National Park.  One of the researchers told me how to get to the bus station and gave me a number to call to arrange a boat trip into the national park.  I bought my bus ticket and borrowed a bus employee's cell phone to call the boat operator.  So tonight I take a twelve hour overnight bus to Pangkalanbun.  I should arrive around 0330 and the boat operator will pick me up on his motorcycle and let me spend the morning at his house.  For a while Tanjung Puting was used as a place to rehabilitate captive orangutans, so some of the orangutans there aren't as wary of humans as the totally wild ones here in Sabangau.  Thus, I’m told, you can usually spot them and even photograph them.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Dayak boat tours

This was my first Borneo note and was written on April 8, 2011.

My trip in Indonesia so far can be seen as a chain of successive helpful people.  Here's what I mean.

After a few days in the giant human hive of Jakarta I looked forward to the rural atmosphere of Borneo, an island larger than Texas.  I flew into Banjarmasin, the largest city in Borneo but still smaller than Columbus, in the province of South Kalimantan.  At the airport I met the first person in the chain, Yuandi.  Yuandi talked to me at the airport's single baggage claim, asking me where I was from and whatnot.  He asked if I had a place to stay in Banjarmasin.  "No."  That prompted him to reveal that he knew a teacher at an Islamic religious university in Banjarmasin and he offered to hook me up with a room in the university guest house.  What luck!  He made the call and told someone there was an American who needed a place to stay.  A short 30 km cab ride later and we were at the University and I met Pahriadi, the English teacher at Universitas Iain Antasari.  It was another unpredictable day; I would not have been able to guess that morning that in the evening I would be staying in an Islamic school.  The next morning Pahriadi gave me his contact info in case I came back through Banjarmasin and arranged an organized car service to drive me 150 km, five hours, to Palangkaraya in Central Kalimantan.  Pahriadi instructed the driver to find me a cheap place to stay in Palangkaraya.  So the driver took me around to a couple places, finally finding me a small "mess”—someone's home where individual rooms are rented out to families on a monthly basis.  It was run by a young guy named Dus, and I don't believe they've ever had any foreigners stay there.  I've stayed in that mess the past three nights and it has been an interesting experience—living in a house with local Indonesians in the backstreets of Palangkaraya.

So far: Yuandi to Pahriadi to driver to Dus.  Are you following?

Here in Kalimantan people understand Indonesian, but they don't speak it as a first language.  In this part of Kalimantan they speak Banjar, and around Palangkaraya there is a large Dayak population who speak one of any number of Dayak languages.  So most of the people I meet are bilingual at the very least, often trilingual, and the huge variety really tries my comprehension.  Dus spoke no English.  He is a native of Rinca, an island in Komodo National Park on the other side of Indonesia.  But there happened to be a Javanese guy at the mess, Jeff, who spoke English very well in addition to Javanese and Indonesian.  I told him I wanted to go to Sabangau National Park, home to the largest population of Orangutans in Borneo.  Jeff took a few hours off work from the business he owned to drive me around town acting as my interpreter as we tried to find a way to get to Sabangau.  But Jeff didn't speak Banjar so even he had a bit of trouble communicating with the locals.  Well, this Sabangau place is nearly impossible to get to—it's not meant for tourists and the entire area is peat swamp forest and difficult to get around in.  Jeff managed to find the administrative offices for the government conservation workers and they gave me the phone number of a woman named Ibu Zuly in the nearby village of Kereng-Bangkerai.  Jeff didn't know how to get to Kereng-Bangkerai and only the big cities and none of the towns or streets are on Google Maps.  But Dus said he could take me there on his motorcycle.

Ibu Zuly turned out to be the perfect person to call.  I told her I wanted to go to the park and she arranged a boat, a guide and a Dayak machete man for the next morning.  That's right—I had to charter my first machete man.  What's the word for that?  Machetier?  Isn't that a rite of passage for all explorers?  After nearly a week I was finally going to have my first experience of natural Indonesia.

So from Dus to Jeff to Ibu Zuly, ok?

Over my first couple days in Palangkaraya I befriended Ervina, the proprietor of an internet cafe across the street who spoke a little English.  She introduced me to her husband Imam and the two of them offered to show me around town at night on their motorcycles.  First they took me out to eat and insisted on paying because I was their guest.  They then took me to a bridge over the Kahayan River and to a traditional night market.  Have you ever had the desire to buy an entire chicken without the inconvenience of leaving your motorcycle?  You can do that here.  The market stalls formed a maze of narrow alleys and Ervina and Imam guided me around and taught me about everything.  Then they asked the all important question: "Do you want to eat traditional food?"  Of course!  I mean, I always want to eat anything.  They took me to a little tarp-covered stall filled with Indonesian snacks and I sampled as much as I could.

Ervina and Imam took me to the market to try traditional Bornean snacks

I've hung out with Ervina and Imam a couple of times since and I still can't get over how nice they are.  Today Ervina told me they are my family in Palangkaraya and to come to them if I need anything.  I owe them so much.

Ervina and Imam adopted me and helped me experience Palangkaraya

Yesterday morning I woke early and Dus took me on a 40 minute ride on his motorcycle to the docks at Kereng-Bangkerai.  There I met Ibu Zuly, who would guide me since no one else was confident with their English, and Pasudi, our Dayak boat pilot and machetier.  The three of us set off in a small motorized longboat on our quest to find orangutans.  To even access the outskirts of the park we had to sail for an hour through a maze of Pandanus swamp.  In the past few years widespread deforestation has led to Borneo’s infamous peat fires, transforming peat swamp forests into these vast open lands.
Skeletons of dead trees testify to the former presence of forest on Sabangau’s outskirts.  Clearance for palm oil plantations in Central Kalimantan has led to frequent fires and the burning of forests and their underlying peat.

We docked at a cabin for rubber harvesters along the forest edge

Once in the forest we hiked on local rubber harvester trails.  Peat swamp forest is an ecosystem that exists nearly exclusively on Borneo.  The forest floor is waterlogged or flooded everywhere, and often I would take a step onto what looked like solid soil only to sink up to my knee in peat.  To even get to semi-dry land we had to wade through long stretches of knee deep tea colored water.  The trail was sometimes invisible to me but Pasudi’s Dayak eyes could follow it.

Tropical rainforests are never easy to navigate but Sabangau’s peat swamp forests were the worst I’ve seen.  The faint rubber harvesters’ trails were sometimes nearly impossible to follow.

At one point Ibu Zuly informed me we were legitimately lost and she had to take compass bearings to navigate us back to a trail.  This is one of the reasons I love Indonesians.  Had I told an Australian I wanted to do something like this they would have asked me why.  I ask an Indonesian and they agree to guide me through some of the most treacherous ground I have ever walked, anywhere, no questions asked.  It was great fun and very dirty.

It was fortunate I learned to say "stick insect" before leaving Java.  One flew by my face and I said its Indonesian name and chased after it but it eluded me.  Pasudi charged off into the bush after it and returned shortly afterward holding it between his fingers and handed it to me.  What a great machetier!

Pasudi caught a stick insect—belalang daun—after it first escaped from me

And Ibu Zuly was a great guide.  Although her English was great she didn't know species and family names in English.  But because she knew their Latin names we could still communicate.

Ibu Zuly was a knowledgeable guide who taught me much about Sabangau’s forests

At one point she asked, "You know Nepenthes?"  Of course!  Borneo is famous for its collection of native Nepenthes—pitcher plants.

Nepenthes ampullaria is one of many carnivorous pitcher plants found on Borneo.

This nest was the closest we came to finding any orangutans on that day

Though we found no orangutans it was a great experience, and the wildlife was totally different from Australia, being on the other side of Wallace's Line.  For example, we saw two squirrel species (there are about a dozen in the park), a crab-eating macaque, and absolutely no kangaroos.

I asked Ibu Zuly how many tourists come to the park.  "Under ten a year," she said.  She even asked me how I had found the place because it's not ready for tourists yet so they don't advertise it.  That way "only the people who really want to come" find out about it.  At the end of the day, as the sun was setting, we landed back in Kereng-Bangkerai and Dus drove me home to Palangkaraya, soaked in mud and satisfied.

Ibu Zuly and Pasudi helped me reenact a small part of A.R. Wallace’s Bornean adventure

It was in fall of 2008 that I first read Wallace's account in "The Malay Archipelago" of hiring a Dayak boat and sailing up a Bornean river in search of orangutans.  And now, although my experience pales completely in comparison to his, I have had the pleasure of reenacting the event in a small way.

Back in Palangkaraya I somehow managed to get in touch with a British orangutan researcher and a Canadian grad student who are staying at a field camp inside Sabangau.  I met them for lunch today—my first encounter with native English speakers since Australia.  Tomorrow morning I'm scheduled to head out to the forest with them to stay the weekend at their camp.

I've lost track of the chain by now, but you get the point.  A host of people have gone out of their way to help me, and without them I would likely be having a far worse time.

A long awaited decision

I’m in my third year in Oklahoma and just took my written exams last week.  So this old Around the World note comes at a perfect time.  It can be motivating to look back on where, when and how you made the decision to be where you are today.  I decided to come to Oklahoma in Java in 2011, just before leaving for Borneo, and wrote this note on April 3 to let my friends and family know.

This is just a quick note for the few people who are interested.

Some people have been asking me where I will be going to grad school, Oklahoma or Tennessee.  I've now received the offers from both programs, and have sent my responses to both schools.  I will be going to Oklahoma.  The advisor, the research, and the general atmosphere of bold creative exploration are what led me to the decision.  As a bonus, the material aspects of the offer were also better.  Plus, I get to live in Oklahoma.  Of course, with any decision there's also a downside.  I get to live in Oklahoma, sure, but then again, now I have to stay there for five years...

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Java Man

This is my first note from Indonesia, written in Java on April 3, 2011.

Knowing no Indonesian, on my last day in Melbourne I finally got around to buying an Indonesian phrasebook.  But there I stopped, and didn't study it one bit before I left Australia.  After all, other travelers told me it’s very easy to get around in Indonesia and people are helpful, and one person told me everyone knows English.  Here's how my Indonesia experience began.

After a brief stop in Kuala Lumpur I boarded a flight to Indonesia where I sat next to a nice 31 year old Indonesian girl named Halimah who knew no English and couldn't read.  This is how I found out she couldn't read.  Everyone had to fill out a couple forms—an immigration form and a customs form—no big deal.  Through hand gestures I borrowed a pen from Halimah and filled out my forms, which were in English.  From watching me she deduced that she should probably fill hers out too, which were in Indonesian.  Before, not knowing what they were, she had just stuffed them in her purse.  So she pulled them out and started asking me to translate the questions for her.  I knew no Indonesian, and here was an Indonesian asking me for help with paperwork!  By matching up the words on her passport I was able to tell her what some parts meant, but it wasn't enough.  After puzzling for a bit she handed me her passport and a pen and asked me to fill it out for her.  That was my first example of how blindly trusting Indonesians can be.  Would any of you ever hand over your passport to a foreigner whose language you couldn't speak and ask them to fill out your immigration paperwork?  I couldn't believe it.  I did my best, but left a lot blank and filled out at least one part incorrectly, which she just found humorous.  That experience was a kick in the pants and during gaps in our conversation I whipped out my phrasebook and finally started speed-learning Indonesian.

At the Jakarta airport I went to an ATM, withdrew a million Rupiah (no biggie), bought my visa, and was immediately swindled out of my first 50,000 by an overeager porter who rushed my bag through customs and into a taxi without giving me a chance to protest and then demanded a tip.  Lonely Planet says about Indonesian-foreigner relations, "Indonesians see foreigners as walking bank accounts, from which they would like to make a withdrawal."  But because some things are so cheap here, I can afford to be a pretty generous tipper.  The cab attendants assured me they knew where my hostel was and called up a driver.  I found that the driver neither spoke English nor knew where the hostel was.  He got us to the right road and after asking directions a few times I spotted the place and told him to stop.  As you can probably guess, I spent the whole day studying up on my Indonesian because it all of a sudden seemed pretty damned necessary to me.

Remember that ATM withdrawal?  My bank decided that a withdrawal in Indonesia looked suspicious and blocked my account even though I told them I would be here.  So the next day with little money I started wandering around downtown Jakarta looking for a phone.  Jakarta is the 10th largest city on Earth, larger than any in the US, and certainly the largest one I have ever been to.  It is crowded beyond belief, traffic lanes are amorphous and motorcycles drive on the sidewalk, whizzing by you from behind.  The press of humanity is everywhere—just endless streams of humans, humans, humans in every direction, and you can't escape the noise, the exhaust fumes and the overall smell of everything.  That same guidebook has this to say about Jakarta—"There is no reason to stay here and certainly little reason to actually like the place for itself."  Indonesians themselves look with distaste on Jakarta and generally only move here to find work.

There I was, almost out of money, roaming the streets of a megacity whose language I didn't speak, dodging cars and looking for someone who could help me, and quite terrified I might add.  I couldn't find a payphone anywhere!  You know what I did find?  A Lamborghini dealership!  Not once have I ever seen a Lamborghini dealership and here I find one in a Jakarta slum, but still can't find a payphone.  You know what else?  A Ferrari dealership…and then a Harley-Davidson dealership and a Ford dealership.  I did eventually find four payphones by wandering through a hospital campus, but they were all either out of order or I just couldn't figure out how to operate them.  Dejected, I returned to the hostel and told the receptionist, Rathi, my predicament.  I should have done this to begin with, since she was ridiculously helpful.  She let me use the hostel phone to make the long distance call and I was able to access my millions once again.

Now that I had money, the next mission was to find a way out of the city.  I found a flight to Borneo for around $40, but I couldn't use my American cards on the Indonesian website.  Again, I told Rathi who without a moment's hesitation, again with utter trust in a strange foreigner, offered to buy it for me and then I could pay her back.  So she did!  She bought me a plane ticket using her own bank account and I saw it with my own eyes.  We even walked to the bank together so she could do it and then I paid her in cash.  Geez.  I always used to say Iraq was the only country where people I just met invited me to their homes.   That record no longer stands.  On my first day here a 24 year old aspiring DJ named Rafi befriended me on the street and asked if he could practice his English.  So we talked awhile and then he invited me to his house but I declined because I was hungry and had to find food.

Last night I finally tried a real Indonesian street "restaurant," which anyone with a portable stove and a tarp can set up on the tiny margins between the sidewalks and the shop faces.  I have a portable stove and a tarp...  It was delicious and now I'm addicted.  I just order by pointing.  For my first meal I got a massive amount of food for the low, low price of about $2.50.  Today I had another first—I crossed a street in Jakarta.  Crossing the street here is an act of faith in two ways.  First, believing in a paradise after death might help convince you the attempt is actually worth it.  Second, the way you do it is by stepping out in front of traffic, maybe putting your hand up to signal, and blindly trusting that the drivers will slow down or stop or swerve around you.  I'm finding that blind trust is pretty common here.

My flight to Borneo isn't until tomorrow so I had to find something to do today.  Jakarta has one basic attraction—a giant public garden with a tall monument in the center, the Monumen Nasional—“Monas”—surrounded by a complex of museums.  Come to think of it, it's sort of similar to the layout of D.C. except the museums cost money.  There's even an official "foreigner" price which is higher than normal by about 11 cents.  The National Museum is the most famous and one of the largest in Southeast Asia.  I went, I paid my 10,000 Rupiah entrance fee (about $1.11) and I explored.  It's mostly an ethnographical museum.  There was a columned courtyard filled with pre-Islamic Hindu and Buddhist statues.   Islam isn't much of a religion for statues so the country's sculpture has suffered a bit in the past few hundred years.  There were many statues of Ganesha and other Hindu stuff and some great Buddhas.  The exhibits were nice, but came with a little propaganda.  Each tribe or culture was described in terms of the extent to which it had "embraced Islam" or it was mentioned how some tribes gladly gave up Sanskrit script to switch to Arabic script.

Indonesia’s Monumen Nasional—“Monas”—is located near the National Museum in Jakarta

The National Museum displays Hindu and Buddhist sculptures from around the country

I came to this museum for another treasure.  The most famous item in the museum, of immeasurable monetary and historical value, and quite a bit of scientific as well, was prominently displayed in a giant glass case in a hall filled with casts of human fossils.  This is the original femur and skull of Java Man discovered by the explorer Eugene Dubois.  I think the badly translated English placard described it best—"The Most Uproar Java Man."  Of course I was a bit weak at the knees to see in person just a few inches in front of my face some of the most famous bones on Earth here in an otherwise pretty shoddy museum, even if they were just casts.  That exhibit did seem to be the best maintained out of any in the building though.  Java has contributed many hominid fossils and it's something Indonesians are proud of.  There were plenty of other fossils of the same species but that femur and skull were set apart for their individual fame.  I turned around and saw in another glass case a Homo floresiensis skull the size of the palm of my hand!  Homo floresiensis is a possible new species of human discovered on the Indonesian island of Flores in 2003 and nicknamed the "hobbit" because it was, well, the size of a hobbit.  I knew the Java Man fossils were here but I didn’t expect this.  That, in combination with the dozens of other human fossils, pretty much left me a bit breathless.

Homo erectus was first discovered here in Java in 1891 and nicknamed Java Man

Homo floresiensis was discovered on the Indonesian island of Flores in 2003

 Homo floresiensis was as small as a hobbit and its skull can fit in the palm of a hand

In the same exhibit was a map of the historical biogeography of Indonesia with a couple prominent lines through the country labeled "Garis Wallace"—"Wallace's Line."

 Indonesia was where Alfred Russel Wallace made his discoveries and earned his fame, and he’s rightly celebrated here because of it

I wandered around the gardens and hailed my first taxi to go back.  By now I can communicate a bit better in Indonesian.  At least enough to give him a street I knew and then I directed him with hand signals from there.

Tomorrow I leave for Borneo.  I still can't understand Indonesian at all, but I know a little, like numbers and how to ask the basic questions, like "How much?" and "Where is the stick insect?"  You know, the important stuff.

General exams

One of the reasons I’ve been importing old material rather than writing new stuff is that I’ve been preparing for my General Examination.  The general exams (or preliminary or comprehensive exams) vary with university and department.  It’s one of a few rituals necessary to get your degree.

In my case, it basically consists of three parts—a dissertation proposal, written exams and an oral exam. I submitted my proposal last week.  The written exams last a week and mine start tomorrow.  My oral exam is in two weeks.  So it may be a little while before I post new writing.

I do, however, have a backlog of Around the World stuff to import, so I’ll make sure you guys have something new to look at.  Next up is Indonesia.

Thanks for your patience!

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Farewell, Australia

This is the last note from my 2011 trip to Australia.  I wrote it March 30 as I was about to leave for Indonesia.

The past week has been a rush from Katherine, NT back to Melbourne—a distance of around 2,000 miles—with a few days devoted to puttering around in the Central Desert, of course.  It's pretty much a sin that I've spent two months in Australia and only now at the very end managed to spend only a few nights in one.  But I think I deserve a bit of leeway.  After all, Australia is practically an entire continent.  There’s always next time.

I'm an idiot in plenty of ways, but here's a particular one—I carry a lot of books.  Right now I have eight.  True, four are guidebooks and necessary for my daily work, but the others are all pleasure books, one of which is giant and probably weighs a couple pounds by itself.  When I walk so far with my pack, why would I keep adding books?  I just can't help it.  Plus, I've gotten used to the weight.  As far as my back and shoulder muscles are concerned my pack is my pack and it really doesn't matter if I add a few books here and there.

I must admit that during this stage of my journey I did something so stereotypical, so touristy, as to be almost sickening, but still every bit worth it—I took a 1,100 km guided tour to Uluru and the nearby, but less famous, Kata Tjuta.  Out of an attempt to avoid anything remotely political I have so far managed to avoid the overt racism for which Australia is currently in the spotlight.  However, it comes into play in this story in a slightly humorous way and has quite a bit of bearing on my tour experience, so I feel forced to mention it briefly.

Uluru (Ayers Rock) is the world famous monolith out in the Australian desert.  It's actually one of a few such monoliths in the area, the others being known as Kata Tjuta (the Olgas), but is the most dramatic.  I had two tour guides for the long trip who alternated shifts sleeping and guiding, and both of whom said plenty of laughably, and sadly, racist things.  To start with, on our way out of Alice Springs one of our guides—an older gray-haired woman—pointed out a school for Aboriginal kids where they "bring them in from their communities" and "teach them about white culture" so that "hopefully they can take some of it back to their communities and spread it around to other members of their tribe."  Given the primary reason many people go to Uluru is to learn about and experience a part of Aboriginal culture, openly deriding that culture just seems like bad business practice.

Uluru is no mystery, there's a simple geological explanation for it which boils down to this—it's a really big rock.  People don't go to Uluru to learn about its geology, they go to see the rock art and touch and feel a part of an ancient culture.  That didn't stop our other guide—a middle-aged man—from derisively telling us the local Aboriginal story of the rock, describing it as a "fib" that "will confuse the hell out of you" and following it up with "the white man's story."  After telling both stories he asked, "now, which one are you gonna believe?"  First off, the geological explanation is not "the white man's story," it's a scientific explanation which "white man" didn't understand until relatively recently.  If "white man" even had a story about Uluru, which "he" doesn't, it would probably be similar to the Aboriginal one.  At the end of the day the same guide delivered an enlightened lecture on Aboriginal physiology, explaining that male Aboriginals are now "heavyset, because they get to eat white man's food."

I think I'm a little hard on these guys—part of their racism is just an Australian's habit of good-naturedly making fun of absolutely everyone.  The same guy later went on to tell me that a fellow tourist—a splendidly annoying Chinese man—asked questions that "were f**king stupid" and that that is typical of "Japanese or Chinese" tourists.  He was right about the questions that particular guy asked though.  He slept through everything—all the scenery, all the explanations, not interested in learning at all.  He woke up for a few minutes to take photos of Uluru and then wanted to leave.  At one point the guide spent about five minutes explaining how a mesa we were passing was NOT Uluru.  The fellow tourist interrupted him far into this explanation to ask if it was Uluru.  He also asked if people planted the desert vegetation there or if it was natural.  Oh, well.

Kata Tjuta are a group of monoliths with the same origin as the nearby, yet more famous, Uluru

Uluru rises out of a flat savanna of Eucalyptus, Acacia, Hakea and desert “oak” (Allocasuarina decaisneana)

This part of Australia is sometimes called “the Red Centre” because of its sandy red soil, visible from outer space

In rocky areas around Uluru and Kata Tjuta the red sand is replaced by boulders and stones

A few hundred km to the northeast of Uluru, the West MacDonnell Range is a bit moister and more gravelly

After Uluru I made my way to Adelaide, South Australia after a brief stop in Coober Pedy, a famous opal mining town.  I mention Coober Pedy because in Adelaide there is a free Natural History Museum.  In that museum you can examine and touch some of the world famous Ediacaran fossils, the oldest known multicellular organisms, in themselves reason enough to go to Australia.  Also in the museum are plenty of opal fossils of Ammonites, Belemnites, Ichthyosaurs and Plesiosaurs—fossilized skeletons literally made out of gemstones, found in Coober Pedy and generously donated to the museum.  For these reasons and more I found Adelaide to be a great city.

Today I took a 10 1/2 hour train ride from Adelaide to Melbourne.  It's autumn here in Victoria—the air is cold, the exotic European leaves are turning yellow and dead Sycamore leaves scrape the sidewalk.  People wear jackets and girls wear sweaters instead of dresses.  I don't have a jacket or a sweatshirt so I've been pretty cold.  A constant cold wind blows in from the harbour, reminding me that it's time to leave Australia.  Actually, it doesn't say, it screams, and what it screams is something like this:  "Jackson, why did you leave the tropics?!  Why would you ever leave the tropics?!  When you go to the tropics, wherever that happens to be, you leave only when you absolutely have to, and that kicking and clawing the ground with your fingernails!"  It's a little difficult to comprehend that only a week ago I was sweating it out in tropical heat, dealing with mosquitoes and crocodiles—but it certainly illustrates how massive Australia is.

Australia, I will miss you dearly.  With the exception of Iraq, no country other than the US has ever taken such a hold on me.  It's true, your people are rude and your food is tasteless.  There seems to be a national understanding that breakfast food is supposed to taste terrible.  Your most famous "cereal," Weetbix, is a dehydrated bar of bland flakes smushed together like plywood, which when added to milk acts as a sponge, turning bar and milk into a weird pale paste.  Every brand of Australian oatmeal I've tried is disgusting.  And vegemite is...vegemite.  I have yet to try it because by all accounts I've heard it doesn't seem to be worth the money.  I've heard diehard vegemite fans describe the best way to eat it—you take toast, put a lot of butter on it and only a tiny, tiny minuscule bit of vegemite, so that you almost can't taste it.  So, the only way to enjoy eating vegemite is to eat as little as possible?  That sounds a bit like the philosophy behind homeopathic medicine and just as credible.  So, sadly, I haven't tasted that particular monstrosity.  Just the same, I will miss meat pies and Tim Tams, in my opinion the greatest culinary contributions Australia has made to the world.

I love how Australians love to swear and how they say things like, "the road's only a bee's dick above the water level as it is," and "He's just a little guy, all prick and ribs."  The east coast of Australia is filled with resort towns and bars and night clubs that are exactly like resort towns and bars and nightclubs anywhere else in the world.  But with a little bit of effort you can usually get away from them.  In the interior of Australia, or pretty much anywhere in Northern Territory, you can still find crude, difficult to understand, generous people who have never met an American, or at least can't get over the fact that you have an American accent, and are willing to help you out if they can.  These are the places to get to, if possible—you just have to try a bit harder.  But then again, if you just want to drink and surf and have conversations on tour buses about how you're still drunk from the night before, like many people I meet, then by all means go to the resort towns.

But one thing about Australia needs to be said above all else.  Australia, you tested me.  I left New Zealand lamenting a little that nothing there had really been hard.  There were challenges, of course, but I didn't feel like I tested myself.  I don't have that feeling about Australia.  My most difficult moments of the trip so far have all been in Australia.  I have gone days on end where I fall asleep hot, miserable, exhausted and itchy or in pain, and wake up sore the next day just to repeat the same routine.  I've been stranded, stalled by floods, I've had to take precautions against deadly wildlife and navigate through difficult terrain, and I've been in plenty of situations where I had to draw on my "boot camp strength" to force myself on for just another twenty minutes at a time.  On top of that, every place I went in Australia seemed to be distinctly hotter than all the previous places, with the exception of my recent return to Melbourne.  And after most tests came great rewards—plenty to discover around every corner as long as I took the time to look.  So, Australia, I am absolutely satisfied, and quite in love with you.

On to Indonesia.  Goodbye, Australia.  I can easily imagine myself living here.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

The road to Kakadu (the Top End, part 2 of 2)

This is the second of two notes written in Northern Territory on March 24, 2011.

Part 1 of this series was an uplifting story of discovery and optimism and helpful strangers.  There are plenty of helpful strangers in Part 2 as well, but much less optimism and it's certainly not uplifting.

From Litchfield my original plan had been to return to Darwin and then find a way to Kakadu National Park, Australia's largest.  While in Litchfield, however, I decided to skip the return to Darwin and hitch straight to Kakadu.  It would be a long journey through terrible weather down a sparsely populated highway.  If successful, I would save money and possibly time and have a bit more freedom.  Of course I chose the riskier path, perhaps unwisely this time.

I was able to hitch a ride from Litchfield NP to a town called Humpty Doo from the only other camper I saw at Litchfield.  Humpty Doo is basically a shopping center and is the last town before Jabiru, 217 km away down a highway which was especially empty during the off season.  A little afraid, but having made up my mind, I started walking.  Right off the bat everything turned miserable.  The sun was intense, with no shade, the air was humid and the road ran for miles and miles and miles through marsh or low savanna, similar in some ways to the Big Cypress region of South Florida.   Sweating buckets, I ran out of water fast.  The creeks around here are inhabited by two species of crocodile, one of which often hunts and eats humans, the other of which sometimes merely bites them.  Needless to say, any water that was more than a trickle that I couldn't see through I didn't go near.  I found one muddy creek filled with bad-tasting water that would have to do.  Eventually, I was picked up by Belinda, a nursing student at Charles Darwin University, on her way home from work at the pub in Humpty to go study for an exam.  "I'm surprised you're out here in the middle of the day.  Not many people can stand this heat."  I told her I'd been in Australia a couple months and was kind of used to it.  To this she replied, "well, not many Australians could take this heat."  She drove me about 10 minutes up the road and dropped me off with a fearful look in her eyes, like she thought she might read about me in the paper the next day.  "You have plenty of water, right?  Promise me you'll drink two liters an hour," she said.  I told her I would and continued walking.  I walked for what seemed forever, demoralized, and was picked up by a farmer/construction worker named Cole.  He dropped me off at a pub/campground/zoo/trailer park near Corroboree Lagoon, the only building for miles.  By now I had walked about three hours and was nowhere near the park, with no town ahead, and it was already about 1600.  So I decided to stay there for the night.  Dehydrated, exhausted and soaked in sweat, without speaking to anyone I sat at the nearest table in the pub and started finishing the last of my water.  After a couple minutes the only girl my age in the pub walked over and asked if I was a hitchhiker, to which I replied in the affirmative.  "Come sit with us," she said, "my friend and I will buy you some beers."  I was really confused, but a little out of it anyway due to the lack of water, so I didn't protest and just went over to their table.  Beer was the last thing I wanted, but they bought me three of them, which I had to drink, only dehydrating myself further.  It turned out the girl loved to hitch, said she could tell I wasn't just some other tourist and wanted to help me out.  Ok, that's good, at least.  I thought my luck was turning, but I was wrong.  After the beers, I was at one of my most dehydrated moments in memory, dizzy, a little nauseous, confused, and I really needed to set up my tent.  So I paid the owner some money and went out back and found a campsite.  Before setting up my tent I needed water, so I filled up a bottle from the nearest spigot and gulped it.  Instead of a cool refreshing wetness in my mouth I felt an instant stinging pain all over my lips and tongue.  Stupefied and shocked, I spit out the water and looked into my bottle—filled with floating ants and larvae and pupae.  Some ant colony had set up shop in the water spigot.  At no point in my life had anyone ever warned me, "make sure you check a spigot for ants before you drink out of it."  It was just one of those things I had not the slightest thought to ever check for and it just seemed a cruel joke.  A miserable day on the road, incredibly thirsty, and instead of water I get a mouthful of stinging ants.  Of course I like ants, but that doesn't mean I want to drink a colony of them.  The incident only made me more nauseous and I fought off the dizziness and the nausea and just tried to relax in spite of the heat.  Obviously, I survived just fine and was in no danger of death or anything.  But that was the first moment on this entire trip I felt I was ready to go home.

It got better though.  After drinking a ton of water I rejoined the girl in the pub and she got me into conversation with a bunch of locals, mostly miners, with names like Chippy, Pesty and Schooner.  Had I rode in comfortably on a tour bus I probably wouldn't have met any of those people.  I stayed up late listening to their jokes and stories of local life.  In the morning I set off on the road again with a bit of terror.  It was just the same as the day before.  I got one ride to another pub/campground/zoo about 25 km away.  After that I walked for a couple hours and finally gave up and decided to sit in the shade and wait out the hottest part of the day.  Eventually a fire department pickup truck drove by and I ran to the road to hitch a ride.  The driver was on his way back from Darwin where he had gone to get supplies for the local fire station.  He drove me all the way to Jabiru and talked to me about bushfires and the different types of fires native versus invasive grasses created.  So, I made it to the park at the end of the second day.  Jabiru is a small community inhabited by workers at the local Uranium mine and is also a community center for local Aboriginals, some of which still live traditional lifestyles inside the park and the immediate area.  There I camped for the third night in the heat and the mosquitoes.  Some of the mosquitoes there were of the genus that can carry malaria, but I don't know if they were the right species or not.  Regardless, they bit the hell out of me.  All through the night I had the pleasure of listening to Australia's most famous and most terrifying introduced species—the dingo.

Dingoes (Canis lupus dingo) howled near my tent in Kakadu National Park

The next day I hiked though a bit of savanna and pandanus swamp to the main highway and hitched a ride from an Aboriginal couple who lived in the park, on their way back from a supply run to Jabiru.

During the wet season low-lying eucalypt and pandanus savannas become swamps

They dropped me off a half hour's drive down the road, but I was still 143 km from the next building, and 206 km from the nearest town.  For over an hour of walking not a single car passed.  At least on this day the sky was overcast and there was a lot more clean water.  Finally I was picked up by Kevin and Kathy, a couple of horticulturists from Perth looking for some tree species they had never seen in the wild.  They happen to be the only people on Earth who have a garden containing at least one of all 78 known species of Banksia, a genus of tree endemic to Australia, including the two most recently discovered species.  They were coauthors of the definitive book on banksia biology, which had sold well, and had also turned their garden into a bed and breakfast for visiting scientists, tourists, and banksia enthusiasts.  They describe it as a "hobby gone mad."  Before accidentally stumbling into the scientific world Kevin worked in the communications industry and Kathy was a physical therapist.  I got to ask them questions about banksias the entire way and listen to their stories about hiking to remote mountains and deserts to collect seeds.  Kevin was actually the codiscoverer and second European to ever see one of the recently discovered species.  He and another guy discovered 28 individuals living in a flat area surrounded by sand dunes in a desert north of Perth, the entire known population of the species.  They drove me a few hours all the way out of the park and to Katherine, where we parted ways.

The rides and the people were great, but because of flooding every single road in Kakadu National Park was closed except for the main highway out.  I didn't get great photos for you all, didn't hike much, didn't go to any lookouts of the famous cliffs or waterfalls, was miserable for three days and at one point wanted to go home.  I know I usually talk about how I intentionally do things the hard way but then reap the rewards in the end.  Well, I'm not so sure there were any great rewards in this case.

But I guess I got to have my own experience of Kakadu.

Much of Kakadu National Park is covered in Darwin woollybutt (Eucalyptus miniata) and sand palm (Livistona humilis) savanna

The Eucalypts with dark bark at the bottom and light on top are called, in typical Australian fashion, Darwin woollybutts and they are the preferred tree for didgeridoos.

What did stand out about this whole Kakadu experience were the frogs.  In Corroboree alone I found three different tree frog species in and around my tent.

A tiny javelin frog (Litoria microbelos) hunts in a camping area at a pub in Corroboree

Roth’s tree frogs (Litoria rothii) filled the campground bathrooms

The third was a white's tree frog, which you may have seen earlier.  There were also about a million invasive Cain Toads, as always, but they don't count.

Oddly enough, I'm pretty certain that the Top End is my favorite part of Australia so far.  It's remote, lawless (Northern Territory doesn't have statehood) and filled with quirky backwoods locals who are extremely nice (unlike the Melbourne people way down south).  Aboriginals make up over a fourth of the population and Darwin is the largest (and practically only) city, with a population of only a little over 100,000.  Getting eaten by a crocodile is a real but remote risk and there are always new things to discover.  Sadly, I have left the Top End and the tropics altogether, although I am still in Northern Territory.  As far as the tropics go, I'll be back when I fly to Indonesia next week.

This savanna in Aileron is just south of the Tropic of Capricorn and marks my departure from the tropics…at least until Indonesia.

And I might as well throw in one more tree frog photo just to make this note a little more exciting and a little less of one long complaint.

I found this desert tree frog (Litoria rubella) on a potted plant during a late night bus stop in Larrimah on my way to Alice Springs.

Mound viewing (the Top End, part 1 of 2)

This was my first note about Northern Territory and dates from March 24, 2011.

I'm finding there are plenty of things to do here in the Top End and the challenges and disappointments of the wet season in some ways enhance the experience.  I'll start off with a great experience—Litchfield National Park—before focusing on the challenges and disappointments.

To get to the National Park, especially now in the wet season, I had to take a guided day tour, which wasn't too expensive.  My plan was to take all my gear on the day trip, leave the tour in the afternoon before it headed back to Darwin and camp in the park.  Usually whenever I suggest doing anything the slightest bit unconventional to an Australian in the tourism industry I receive those snide looks I spoke about and get told what I really want to do.  So as I walked to the bus pickup point early one morning I braced myself for a potentially difficult conversation when I tried to explain that I wanted to leave the tour.  The bus pulled up, the driver, Owen, got out and I told him my plans.  "Not a problem," he quickly said and offered to drive me to any campsite in the park at the end of the day.  Somewhat flabbergasted, I told him the campground I was thinking of which turned out to be closed at the moment for renovation.  Well, he didn't tell me no, he didn't tell me what I wanted.  He said he would take me there if I wanted but recommended another campground and gave his reasons.  Within five minutes he had moved to the top of my list of favorite tour guides.  The tour was actually pretty enjoyable.  I was the only foreigner and young person on a bus full of older Australians.  But they loved talking to me and joking with me and acting motherly/fatherly to me, and they all loved the guide as well.  Owen was the perfect guide, having lived his entire life in and around what is now Litchfield National Park, and with an interest in botany.  He showed us plant after plant after plant, always using the scientific names.  He's the only tour guide I can ever imagine using the word "Rhizophoraceae" in a sentence.  For each plant he gave us the food and medicinal uses, if any, and constantly got sidetracked telling personal stories about the characters that have lived in the area over the years.  On the last walk of the day before dropping me off, Owen told me to walk with him so he could show me some of the things I would see while wandering around.  His main piece of advice: "you can eat any fruit you find in the park once without dying."

Litchfield is one of those rare places that draw people from all over the world, even the most casual of tourists, for the sake of insects.  Termites in this case.  Australia in general is full of great termite architecture, but Litchfield is king.  There are quite a few species here with lots of different nests, but two in particular draw the largest crowds.  The first are the magnetic termites, which always orient their nests north to south.

 People come to Litchfield National Park from around the world to see termites.  These magnetic termite (Amitermes meridionalis) nests are a sort of compass, as they always orient north to south

I can't really do them justice and it's best to see what David Attenborough has to say about them in Life in the Undergrowth.  At this time of year the surrounding spear grass (Heteropogon contortus) is at its tallest and you can only see the mounds in the nearby cleared area.  For the best views people come during the dry season when they can see hundreds of these mounds stretching off into the distance.

Cathedral termites are the other superstars of this park.  This is isn't the tallest or largest mound I found but it has me in it for scale.

Cathedral termites (Nasutitermes triodiae) build giant spired mounds

Most of the Top End region of Australia consists of seasonally flooded grasslands or savannas.  Both of these termite species eat dead grass and the mounds keep the termites dry during the extensive flooding of the wet season.  Another resident of the park is the Darwin Termite, Mastotermes darwiniensis, one of the largest termites in the world.  On our private walk I asked Owen if he could find me one.  "Sure," he said and a few minutes later he walked up to a dead tree stump, said "there are Mastotermes in that one," and ripped it open a bit.  Inside swarmed the largest termites I've ever seen.

The Darwin termite (Mastotermes darwiniensis) is the sole member of its family and in many ways is more similar to ancestral cockroaches than other termites.  Soldiers like these are big enough to draw blood.

I was nimble enough to somehow manage not to get bitten, but Owen carried one all the way back to the bus to show the others and got bitten on the finger and bled quite a bit.

The park was filled with other great wildlife to explore as well.  Remember how I said I'd started seeing a few bowerbird species?  Here in the Top End there's only one bowerbird, the Great Bowerbird.  Although I've seen a few species, I had yet to see a single bower.  Here in Litchfield I finally got to see one and here it is for you all to see: the bower of the Great Bowerbird.

Male great bowerbirds (Ptilonorhynchus nuchalis) build and decorate bowers to attract females

This bowerbird makes its bowers out of twigs.  The entry is carpeted with white stones, snail shells and wallaby bones, with a few shards of broken green glass thrown in, and the inside of the bower is carpeted with some shiny rocks.  All of this is collected and constructed by the male.  A bower isn't a nest and the birds don't lay eggs in it.  It's merely a place to have sex.

Also a couple new kangaroo species for me.  The agile wallaby is the most common kangaroo in the region.

The agile wallaby (Macropus agilis) is said to be so quick it can dodge bullets

The photo is blurry because they are agile, as the name suggests, and run away before you can get a photo.  I've seen tons of them and this is the best I could do for you guys.  Locals claim that if you shoot one from beyond a certain distance you'll miss if you aim for the head.  Supposedly, the agile wallaby's reflexes are so quick that between the sound reaching its ears and the bullet reaching its head it will duck.

The other new kangaroo was the short-eared rock-wallaby.

The short-eared rock-wallaby (Petrogale brachyotis) is a small cliff-dwelling kangaroo found in Litchfield’s rockier areas

The other main attractions in the park are the many waterfalls, the tallest of which is 97 meters.

Litchfield National Park is crisscrossed by several gorges with spectacular waterfalls

At the end of the day Owen drove us to some rock holes near my campsite where I could swim.  We walked along the river and Owen explained to me which rock holes were safe and which would drown me.  Owen thought this was a great time to try and explain to me how to survive in case I got swept away by the rapids.  All I remember from his briefing was to keep my feet forward.

Although the heat and the mosquitoes were unbearable, Litchfield National Park was probably the highlight of my Top End adventures.