Rainforest Reality; Getting Around

Working in a tropical environment, be it North Australian Rainforest or Asian Peat-swamp forest, is an experience growing in popularity, featuring in many global explorations or expeditions…

…So to appeal to these increasing masses, here to appear in two(+) posts are some of the in-s and out-s of jungle-ing that the unsuspecting city-ite may not of thought of whilst booking a flight, before grabbing a Starbucks. I’ve also linked in some more developed works for those interested, see footnotes. Perhaps this post can make the forest a little more real to both  holidaying business partners and the students on finding-themselves-gap years…

Field work in the tropical forests is often to research or experience the wealth of biodiversity that lives near the equator, perhaps to learn vital more information about a species that is endemic to small areas of our overwhelming globe. Anyone wanting to learn about rare or illusive wild animals should immediately think one thing…

Sunset over the sedge lands of Central Kalimantan Photo ©Thea Powell/OuTrop

…long , unsocial hours.

This is the pagi pagi of launching into a forest in the wee hours, or not returning to base until the sun is safely tucked into the west. At 3 or 5 am (depending on what creature/natural phenomena you’re hunting), you stumble out of ‘bed’ (empty rice sacks hung between poles perhaps), avoiding what ever items you left on the floor because you only had a head torch when you went to bed and didn’t put things away. Due to drinking so much water to avoid dehydration, you go straight to the bathroom. You then put your field clothes on as quickly as possible because you’ve opted for ten more minutes sleep over actually having enough time to get ready. Due to rushing you only remember to shake your clothes to displace night-time bite-y things once you already have them half-way on. This often results in some sort of half-dressed shake dance and feeling lucky that this time there were no bite-y things. This feeling of luck repeats after a small delay of putting on your crispy socks and wet cold boots. So far it’s a good day.

On cramming enough food to last you breakfast and lunch into a lunchbox, there is a growing bug biomass up in your face attracted to your head torch(1). You turn your head torch off. You get rice all over the floor and so turn your head torch back on – finding this helps a lot with avoiding the cockroaches etc. on the table. Breakfast until 7 or 8am is a banana (if your lucky, some pocketed biscuits) and a cup of tea. Of course due to opting for more sleep, you only have 50 seconds to drink this tea. Getting the correct amount of air-temperature water in a scolding hot tea so you can drink it in two sips is a skill only the most experienced hold.

The first time you put on your sun hat in the forest is not for the sun, but in the dark of the morning to stop cold drips getting on your face and running down the back of your neck. On warm skin (it’s about 20 degrees celsius all night), these cold drips are distracting when you are aware of every single thing that touches your bare for arms and face. It’s not raining – the forest continues to drip for hours after the rain stops, the thousands of leaves drip down on to each other, through the canopy layers(2) , only for the drip to end up cold and wet on your eyebrow – but not if you have your ‘sun’ hat. This leads us to the issue of actually getting anywhere, despite…

…the terrain.

Overall forests are deceptive at every step. Many choices face you when walking, the most obvious of which is were to step. The best chance you have is to a) step exactly where your local guide steps and so b) keep up with your local guide. If you opt for the wet steps, you get wet or slip… dry options are liable to crunch or snap and the real brain teaser is the muddy option. You are regularly presented with an area of mud or leaf fall, that may or may not be ‘dry’ in certain places – you know some of the area will lead to sinking into mud up to your calf / knees / thighs / crotch / hips, thus completely slowing you down as you scrabble around for things to hold that are not covered in backward facing spines and spikes(3) to drag yourself out. You can avoid the area by taking four times as many steps around and through dense foliage that is also pretty muddy anyway and often crisscrossed by lianas(4) and roots* that are specifically designed to trip you up… (to sink or to painfully fall over – that is the question.)… Whilst your mind attempts and fails to make a quick decision of where to place your foot (knowing you will leave that spot straight away anyway, but still you pause and stare cluelessly, registering the intricacies of the ground and plants in front of you), your local guide zooms off in front by around 50 meters, so the effort of thinking through this to save time (and muddiness), is completely pointless as you now have to run to catch up and will almost certainly fall or sink in the process, and most probably fall further behind.

*roots can have some pretty awesome adaptations in forests, to be discussed in future post soon…

In summary, fallen logs(5) deserve much more appreciation that you may of first thought (when they are ŸŸ~ not rotten , ~ not covered by slippery moss, ~ not below skinny lianas and awkward foliage, ~ nor covered in various species that you don’t want to harm (e.g. fungi) nor harm you (e.g. bees(6))). Whilst balancing on this wonderful log of speed and ease, make sure you don’t walk forehead first into that thick branch.

And after this walking, the epic falls and the resulting Van Gogh shades of bruises… you enjoy your time and have exceptional experiences. Some of these logistics are hilarious and ensure you and your comrades become close and laugh a lot each day – no matter your culture, background or first language. Similar to any situation in which you want to achieve, enjoy and work hard at something, when some thing goes right (no matter how simple and small) the achievement is incredibly satisfying – you appreciate minimal things much more. You appreciate logistics, as they allow you to achieve the aims you set out to achieve – seeing and learning about things that fascinate you (why else would you be there!).

Peat-swamp forest

An Indonesian peat-swamp forest in the dry season.
Photo ©Thea Powell/OuTrop

It’s amazing what you can achieve between falling over.




(2) A quantitative technique for the identification of canopy stratification in tropical and temperate forests

(3) ~ Spines protect plants against browsing by small climbing mammals


(4) The ecology of lianas and their role in forests

(5) The Definition of Treefall Gap and Its Effect on Measures of Forest Dynamics

(6) Bee diversity along a disturbance gradient in tropical lowland forests of south-east Asia


One response to “Rainforest Reality; Getting Around

  1. Pingback: Just So Story #1: Why the orangutan swings… | Ecological Pie·

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