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Kayaking New Caledonia – Noumea to Prony Bay

My blog has been down for over a year and I’m trying to catch up posting about some of my best travel experiences of the last  three years. The trip that I started blogging about in real time was my epic 250 km kayaking trip from Noumea to Yate in New Caledonia in 2015 but I wasn’t unable to sustain it for very long. At least I wrote a detailed diary, although I don’t have them with me here in Palawan so I’m relying on my photos to jog my memory, but with such epic trips as that most of the experiences are permanently etched in my memory, wether they were good or bad experiences. This post continues on from this one http://www.whale-of-a-time-blog.com/2015/08/25/a-false-start-and-going-around-in-circles-in-my-quest-to-find-humpback-whales/ after I had returned to Noumea after a false start and it starts with a bad experience. I had been staying with a young French guy called Jeremy in a tiny cramped one room apartment. It was my first time using Couchsurfing and it turned into a disaster. It was a mistake from the very start for me to be staying in such a tiny room with so much gear living cheek by jowl with someone who didn’t make me feel very comfortable staying there although it started of OK. When I returned I discovered that a plastic carrier bag with some of my things that I had left behind was missing. It took me a while to remember everything I had left in the bag but the first to spring to mind were my security money pouch belt containing at least £100 cash and my phone. When I informed him he was more disbelieving than concerned and just said that he didn’t remember seeing it. I was shocked when he seemed more concerned that I had accidentally taken his plug adapter rather than the one that I bought. They both worked the same but he said that he wasn’t able to use some of his equipment, which was obviously a total lie. He left the door open quite a lot when it was hot but no valuable items of his were taken so it’s a mystery why that plastic carrier bag with packets of noodles on top was taken.

When I left on this trip he was very impatient with me and offered no help carrying my gear the relatively short distance to my launching spot in the marina. Things went steadily downhill after I returned and I started looking for somewhere else to stay even before he asked me to leave because he said that he was having personal problems, which was already very evident to me! I found a friendly French couple on Couchsurfing and Jeremy and his friend helped me to move there. We parted on reasonably amicable terms until I became frustrated again with his lack of interest in finding out what happened to my things and let him know in no uncertain terms. If I had offered accommodation to someone and that happened in my home I would have been mortified and felt obliged to reimburse at least a portion of the money, but i would have been satisfied with a little bit more concern. When we then exchanged disgruntled messages I realised what a liar he was. He said that I never tidied the tiny kitchen area when I absolutely did it thoroughly every time I cooked anything because I could tell right away that he was an anal retentive person, and it was just the right thing to do as a guest in someone else’s home. He also said that I was antisocial just listening to music with earphones when I working on my photos, which was such a laughable lie because I ended up doing that because I got fed up trying to talk to him while he was always working on his laptop and plugged into his music! I always offered to share my food with him but he always declined and would just sit there and eat a whole packet of biscuits without offering me a single biscuit. The first time we went into a patisserie together, which leads me onto my first photos and away from this bad memory, he just ordered something and left me to pay without even asking if it was OK. He was a strange person with obvious insecurities, and it was the worst possible introduction to Couchsurfing. I’m a very hospitable person, and love accommodating and entertaining people, and I know that there must be so many nice people on Couchsurfing who do too, but I have no idea why he was doing it. I’m not sure if I will ever use Couchsurfing again, especially if I’m going on a kayaking trip with so much gear. That surprising theft started a sequence of thefts over the last 3 years, 6 in total, including camera equipment and my laptop. As I have often heard people say – it could only happen to me!

 

 

It may not have been good returning to my Couchsurfing accommodation but it was heavenly returning to the fine patisseries in Noumea! There was such a dizzying cornucopia of colourful cakes to tempt my palette but not my wallet too much because I was on a very tight budget as always, and even more so after getting robbed. French patisseries such as these are more like culinary art galleries for the eyes and taste buds – a smorgosbord of edible jewellery for the discerning taste. I usually went for something simple and more affordable like a pain au raisin or an almond croissant but they never failed to elicit a surge of saliva and sighs of satisfaction.

 

 

 

This was my regular patisserie for buying baguettes. Bread has always been an essential staple in my diet, and it’s usually the one thing that I miss the most in many countries, particulary in Asia, where the bread is usually so boring, so monotonous in flavour and texture, and without any real crust to sink your teeth into. It was great to finally find somewhere beyond the normal boundary of decent bakeries that had a variety of baguettes that I had to start nibbling as soon as I left the counter. A freshly baked baguette is a crust-lovers raison d’etre and they sustained me in a lot of my early teenage travels in Europe with a slice of cheese, tomatoes and peppers in Spain, and French jam, bananas or Nutella for dessert. In Greece the baguettes didn’t require any filling if they were covered with sesame seeds. Fresh bread isn’t the most practical thing to take on a kayaking trip but I had to find a way and the space to take 5 or 6 baguettes with me every time that I left Noumea so that I didn’t suffer from the pangs of cold turkey right away. And of course there was the usual seductive selection of French fruity jam to accompany the bread in my kayak….. and then in my mouth.

 

When I returned to Noumea the demonstration by the Kanak nickel truck drivers was still going on with a strong police presence as I described in my first post about New Caledonia. I think that there was a fatal road accident near one of their roadblocks.

 

A reminder of the proud culture of the Kanaks that has been so negatively impacted by French colonial rule.

Repainting the US war memorial in Noumea, which pays tribute to the liberation of the Pacific islands by the US.

Kite surfing is so popular in Noumea with the ideal trade wind, which was considerably less ideal for kayaking!

There’s a great variety of the staple root tubers in the market in Noumea, but they were surprisingly expensive.

As usual I had to transform my kayak into Dr Who’s tardis to get everything in and leave enough room for me to slot in.

 

I was excited to set off from the marina again but I wasn’t looking forward to battling with the trade winds, so Popeye needed an extra can of spinach to prepare for the confronation or arm-wrestling with a silverback gorilla as I described it in my first post. I camped on the same little island as I did on my first jaunt and then I was faced with a long stretch of open water to cross going past the Baie de Plum and Pirogues Bay. I left early to try to have some wind-free paddling but it wasn’t early enough and shortly after leaving the shelter of the island I locked horns with the strong wind in a struggle that lasted all day. The sea was crazy and confused with the wind and strong currents, and I had to stay focussed to keep on the right track to avoid waves breaking over me, which involved tacking to avoid having the wind and waves abeam. But I inevitably had to keep stopping periodically to bale out the kayak because one of the problems with an inflatable kayak like that is that it has a very low freeboard around the cockpit, especially as heavily loaded as it was. Whenever I had to stop because it was more like sitting in a paddling pool with water sloshing around I only had  a few seconds to bale the water out before the wind started to turn me away from heading into it and having it abeam and thus taking in more water to bale out. The biting wind, blazing sun and salt spray were taking a heavy toll on my exposed skin, especially my arms and lips. It was a seemingly interminable paddle to get to the distant headland, and a constant cycle of paddling and stopping to bale out. But I was still generally impressed with the handling and tracking of my Helios 2 kayak, and expected to have to contend with a lot of water entering in such sloppy sea conditions. I could see a white yacht flying towards me at high speed and I couldn’t help but contemplate the contrast between their slick passage gliding across the waves like an albatross, probaby with a beer in one hand, while I was slogging away with all the elegance of a slug stuttering across a sandy beach.

As the day dragged on my eyes were clutching at straws lining up objects on land trying to figure out if I was making any forward progress at all. I was getting exhausted by the elements and my expenditure of energy, hunger, my buttocks were protesting, and my back was burning from the sun and salt. When you’re kayaking between two distant points of land across open water you eventually reach a point where your destination starts to enlarge exponentially and a sense of relief starts to kick in but on this occasion that sense of relief was struggling with extreme fatigue. But I’ve been in that situation so many times before, and I always manage to find that last ounce of energy and determination to get me across the line. When I finally reached the headland I could see that there were some houses so after a rest I continued on a short distance to find a beach all to myself. It felt wonderful to be using my legs again, and my fatigue was soon supplanted by the eagerness to set up camp and curiosity to explore. I was immediately excited to see the fascinating combination and biodiversity of the vegetation at the back of the beach with the very distinctive endemic auricaria pines growing alongside palms and deciduous trees, and what looked like mangrove trees even though they were growing on the beach.

I found a perfect place to put up my hammock at one end of the beach. From there on wherever I camped there were usually inquistive birds and the accompaniment of their singing. The only other life I encountered on this beach was a banded sea krait and some skinks. As I explored what I assumed to be a pristine beach with no people or dwellings nearby I was dismayed by the amount of plastic pollution along the beach and in the vegetation. including one concentration where it looked as if there had been a drinking party and all the bottles were left behind. I counted approximately 100 plastic bottles along a 100 metre stretch of beach. It seems as if it’s virtually impossible to find anywhere free from the scourge of plastic pollution. I was more than aware of the looming problem nearly 40 years ago when I first started kayaking around Southeast Alaska and encountered a juvenile Steller sea lion with a noose of cargo netting strangling it. It was a vision from hell of an unimaginable living death.

 

This is the most deceptive photo showing what appears to be kayaking on a beautiful sunny day. It doesn’t accurately reflect how fierce the wind was that I was battling into, and that beautiful sunshine burnt my arms and badly blistered my lips. There’s a white yacht in the distance gliding towards me at high speed – quite the opposite to me!

It was such a relef to get to land and out of that wind!

 

I was enthralled by my first real glimpse of the unique combination of coastal vegetation with auricaria pines growing alongside palms, deciduous and mangrove trees.

 

 

A perfect campsite at the end of the beach, but I was always wary of the menace of marauding gnawing rats after my carelessness on the small island that I camped on previously.

 

There was never any problem lighting fires wherever there were auricaria pines with a thick bed of their tinderbox cones.

The endemic auricaria pines have very flaky bark like birch trees.

 

Thick crusty bark on a coastal deciduous tree – an essential requirement in the salty conditions.

These skinks were the commonest reptiles around the coast.

 

I was horrified by how many plastic bottles I found on this beach – about one every metre!

 

A coconut grove is the ideal place for slinging a hammock!

My next destination was an easier paddle to the Woodin Canal that leads onto Prony Bay, or so it seemed until I realised that I had a very slow puncture in one of the air chambers so instead of having to stop periodically to bale any water out I had to stop to pump more air into the chamber to stop me taking on a lot of water if I sank! I left late afternoon to avoid the heat of the sun and when the wind had died down sufficiently. Despite the slow puncture it was much easier going than the long hard slog of the previous day. Because of my late departure I had to paddle in the darkness, which wasn’t a problem in the benign sea conditions and I was paddling closer to land. I had been reading too many shark attack stories of New Caledonia so my mind sometimes wandered and imagined a shark lurking around and following me, especially in the darkness. But it was a very enjoyable night-time paddle that brought back memories of other nocturnal paddles under the moon and canopy of stars in Southeast Alaska and the Sea of Cortez. The silhouette of a ship with lights flickering like a fairground attraction emerged from the darkness and provided a comforting sense of passing company as I visualised the crew relaxing onboard. In the darkness I could make out that I had land on either side and tried to navigate by the mainland shore to my left and any headlands according to the screenshots that I had taken from Google Earth. I had a rough idea of where I wanted to camp but it was getting late and I couldn’t be too fussy. I passed a light and kept going a short distance to ensure that I had complete solitude. I landed on a small beach and discovered a coconut grove so I wasn’t that far removed from people, but the coconut trees provided the perfect posts to sling my hammock between. I kept very quite to avoid attracting any attention and left fairly early the next morning with no worries about the wind in that sheltered strait. The fast catamaran ferry that goes to the Isle des Pins passed in the morning creating a large wave in its wake that created havoc on the beach as I frantically tried to hang on to my kayak.

From there I had a very pleasant short paddle along the Woodin Canal with the Pacific Ocean visible at the end. I couldn’t see any human habitation in any direction, just the red rusty hills with sparce greenery. I stopped to camp on Ile Ouen off Grande Terre adjacent to a large coral shelf fringed with mangroves. I was eager to start exploring the incredible marine biodiversity of New Caledonia. New Caledonia is encircled by an immense double coral barrier reef (almost 1,600 km), the second longest in the world after the Belize Barrier Reef, comprising a group of six lagoons that contain coral reef ecosystems with great species diversity and a high level of endemism, which have been declared as a Unesco World Heritage Site: Lagoons of New Caledonia: Reef Diversity and Associated Ecosystems. The reef systems of New Caledonia are considered to be the second largest in the world after the Great Barrier Reef of Australia, the longest continuous barrier reef in the world with a length of 1.600 km and its lagoon, the largest in the world with an area of 24.000 square kilometers. The density of reef structures here is the most diverse in the world. It host a great diversity of species with a high level of endemism, and is an important habitat for endangered dugongs and sea turtles.

 

Two weather-beaten information boards in Yate with some interesting translation, including a reference to the lagoons as “properties” making it more like a real estate sign.

 

In compliance with the Convention referring to the protection of the cultural and natural world heritage, the reefs, lagoons and associated ecosystems of New Caledonia appear on the world heritage list. Inscription on the list denotes the outstanding universal value of a cultural or a natural property in order to protect it for the benefit of all mankind.

The listed property is a property in series, made up of a set of 6 sites. It stretches across a very vast area and encompasses all the complexity of the local environment and its associated ecosystems (mangrove and algnerium) and includes an extraordinary diversity of morphologies, physical environments, habitats and biodiversity. The total area of the property amounts to 18,000 sq. km. and represents about 60% of the total area of the coral environment and lagoons of New Caledonia.

The lagoons, reefs and associated ecosystems of New Caledonia feature these characteristics of outstanding universal value. It is the second most vast reef sysetm in the world. The fact that it includes a very rare double barrier reef, a great diversity of coral forms, extensive marine turtle neesting sites, breeding areas for emblematic and/or threatened species (dugongs, humpback whales, marine birds, and many endemic species and highly vulnerable habitats (mangrove, seagrass meadows) contributes to the outstanding universal value of the property named on this prestigious list.

 

 

The Southern Lagoon area extending over 3145 sq. km. is situated at the southern tip of the mainland of New Caledonia (Grande Terre). It contains outstanding landscapes (Upi’s Bay, Nokanhul) and forms a transition area between various tropical, sub-tropical and temperate communities and populations. That marine area contains many coral islets and is considered to be of international importance.

This area contains the biggest fish biomass in New Caledonia and harbours subtropical marine species rarely occurring elsewhere in the territory (example of the great white shark). Many emblematic and vulnerable species are represented: three species of marine turtles; the green turtle, the hawksbill turtle and the loggerhead turtle, twelve species of marine nesting birds including an outstanding density of ospreys and five species of marine mammals, including the humpback whale, which migrates to the Southern Lagoon suring the southern winter to breed.

So I was now within the boundary of the Unesco World Heritage Site of the Southern Lagoon and whatever it is designated as I could personally testify to its stark beauty and the abundance and biodiversity of marine life at my feet as I eagerly explored the tidepools whilst being very careful not to damage the coral. There were some beautiful pink/violet circular coral formations among similarly coloured staghorn coral and less attractive amorphous blobs of soft coral that could have been vomited. Among the creatures I found was an octopus, a speckled moray eel, a brightly coloured hermit crab, big blue starfish, sea cucumbers and the first of the many different species of large sea hares that I found along the coast. I remember occasionally finding them in my local tidepools when I was a boy, and they were always a prize find because of their size and strangeness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I saw many species of moral eels in the tide pools.

I saw many of these banded sea kraits along the coast.

One of the many kinds of marine invertebrates that I frequently saw and yet to be identified.

The prickly pear cactus is a very ubiquitous plant distributed by people, and the fruit were a welcome treat for me until I got some of its hairy spines in my lips.

 

 

 

It was such a beautiful place to camp looking down the mirror-calm strait towards the Pacific Ocean, and it’s fortunate that it was so calm and still because I suddenly spotted my kayak drifting away! I had foolishy carried it high up the beach without securing it properly after I had repaired the leak in the hull yet again. I wouldn’t have been completely marooned with the occasional boat passing through the Woodin Channel but I really didn’t want my kayaking trip to end there when the excitement and anticipation of things to come was really starting to well up in that beautiful location. As I had already experienced there were plenty of inquisitive birds visiting my camp. It was the kind of location culminating with a sunset that reminded me why I love sea kayaking so much and still don’t do it enough! It was such a beautiful evening that I felt compelled to shoot some video with commentary because photographs can never capture the full ambience of a place.

 

 

After another short fairly liesurely paddle around the next point into the entance of Prony Bay I found a camping location even more intoxicating than the last one with a huge spread of those beautiful lilac/pink circular coral formations to use as stepping stones at low tide. They were rock solid unlike the fragile staghorn coral that I was always trying to avoid stepping on because I was well aware that these were relatively pristine locations with little if any visitors, just an occasional sailboat passing by, and it was an absolute privilege for me to experience such places. I camped in the mangroves in a relatively sheltered location on the lee side of some small islands inside the entrance to Prony Bay. I couldn’t wait for the tide to go out to explore the coral and tidepools. The current was fairly swift in the channel between the mainland and the islands meaning a good supply of nutrients to support a rich habitat. It was one of those locations where I could just keep taking good photos in a continuous sequence as I gingerly stepped from one coral outcrop to another with the clouds and sky reflected in a unique photomontage of heaven and earth. There was all the usual intertidal life that I was becoming accustomed to seeing, especially sea cucumbers, with the addition of spiny sea urchins to be avoided! There was also some vividly coloured giant clams, which required patience and stealth to get the best photos of when their brightly coloured “jaws” were sufficiently agape. The contrast between the crazy convolutions of coral formations and the backdrop of auricaria pines sticking up on the offshore islands like spines on a hedgehog’s back was a vivid display of the uniqueness of the coastline of New Caledonia and the exciting kayaking journey that I was undertaking. At the end of that visual feast I was treated to a beautiful sunset with the silhouettes of those bristling auricaria pines tickling the golden clouds.

 

 

 

 

This was a truly remarkable location and a veritable feast for the eyes.

 

 

 

 

 

I have never before seen so many different sea cucumbers as I saw in New Caledonia. They were a good indicator of the rich marine biodiversity.

Yet another banded sea krait!

Smile for the camera please!

 

The next day I continued on into the left fork of Prony Bay, which is a very big open bay subject to the full force of the SE trade wind as I discovered being buffeted by the sloppy sea. I was making for one of the few historic  sites in New Caledonia, the near-deserted village of Prony, which was the site of a penal colony for harvesting the abundant timber in the bay for the construction of Noumea after France had claimed New Caledonia as a French territory in 1853. A year later, the Prony corvette left the Nouméa strait to explore the southern coasts. Travelling along the Woodin Canal between the Grande Terre and Ouen island, its captain Jean-Joseph de Brun, discovered a huge bay that he named after his ship. In 1863, following on from French Guiana, New Caledonia was designated as a penal colony serving the purposes of punishment and colonisation; punishing convicts far away, and thus protecting  French society whilst populating a new colony and developing it using forced labour. 248 convicts arrived in the first convoy in 1864 and up until 1897 75 convoys transported over 21,700 convicts including 525 women. In 1866, there was a rise in the cost of timber imports to New Caledonia and Captain Hippolyte Sebert was given the task of finding a new source of timber. Prony Bay was selected and logging operations began in 1867. The first workforce sent to Sebert Camp comprised 29 convicts selected for their skills in trades and crafts. By 1898 the workforce of convicts had increased to 635. When convict shipments came to an end in 1897 there were no new recruits for the workforce, and the site gradually deteriorated and was abandoned in 1911. I stopped for a break from the unrelenting wind to fuel up with some lunch and saw my first big solitary kauri tree, the primary source of timber in Prony Bay, hanging over a dry stream bed. Over the next few months I would learn much more about the alarming extent of deforestation in New Caledonia.

 

The red staining of nickel and iron oxides is evident everywhere.

The first large kauri that I saw in New Caledonia.

Looking out across Prony Bay. This conifer was dancing around in the brisk wind.

Sadly there’s no escaping the computer even on a fairly remote beach in New Caledonia.

 

It took me a while to find the location of Prony because there isn’t very much visible from the sea. I anchored my kayak in the red mud and went ashore where I surprisingly saw some Asian tourists but after that I saw very few people. The first notable feature that I came to was this banyan tree completely obscuring the foundations of the logging supervisor’s office. A bread oven and provisions depot were the first structures to be built at the Sebert Camp, followed by the Penitentiary Administration’s brick and stone buildings, prison guard quarters, accountant’s quarters and the powder magazine, which is the most intact of the ruins The eerily sedate village of Prony is an odd mixture of the ruins of the Sebert Camp and the shanty structures of the village constructed on the ruins in 1956 to house the families of miners employed in mineral extraction in the region until 1968. In 2007 the site was taken over by the Southern Province as a historic monument.

 

 

 

Banyan trees quickly claim any abandoned structure for additional support.

I did see some people who were presumably permanent residents in this quirky isolated community.

I could not help but feel a sense of eeriness in a place that was once a penal colony that relied upon forced slave labour where conditions were probably harsh and punishment brutal as this strange mannequin in a box conveys, although at first glance I thought that it was a toilet! The Prony penal settlement was originally used to detain transportees but from 1890 it became a destination for habitual offenders, after which there was an increase in escape attempts. Repeating previous abuses of authority at the infamous penal colony of French Guyana, prison guards at Prony subjected the convicts to various forms of corporal punishment so vicious that they were tantamount to torture. Their abusive behaviour was denounced and a sweeping judicial enquiry was launched in 1880 but no charges were brought.

 

Most of the timber felled was kauri (Agathis lanceolata) and gum oak (Spermoleptis tannifera). After felling the timber was shifted on sledges along timber tracks with wooden rails. A transport crew comprised 18 men. The timber was then shipped to Noumea by boat. The farthest timber forest from the village was the forest of the great kauris 15 kilometres away.

 

The powder magazine is the best preserved of the old buidlings for the obvious reason that it was so solidly built.

 

A small alter overlooking the bay was a clear indication that there are still people living in Prony.

 

 

Life Around the Samanala Tea Estate and Laxapana Waterfall in Sri Lanka.

My engagement with the beautiful island of Sri lanka goes back decades, and my ongoing connection has a lot to do with a special friend who I first met there in 1993 when I was conducting an investigation for the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society into dolphin harpooning by fishermen in the south. I met Nigel Kerner through his uncle Ed Kerner who was the president of a local conservation organization founded by Dr Hiran Jayawardene who I contacted because he has been the driving force of conservation and cetacean research in Sri Lanka for many years. Nigel is a wealthy author and philanthropist who was born in Sri Lanka, educated in England and returned to Sri Lanka to facilitate charitable ventures including building a hospital for the local Tamils in a tea-growing district in Maskeliya. At that time he sponsored me to take conservation-oriented photos for Dr Hiran Jayewardene who is the nephew of former president J.R Jayewardene.

From a two week assignment for the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society I ended up staying there for a whole year photographing the natural beauty of Sri Lanka as well as enjoying some other unique opportunities including starring in a Sri Lankan teledrama. It was truly a serendipitous year in every respect. The term was first coined in 1754 by Horace Walpole as suggested by The Three Princes of Serendip (an old Persian name for Sri Lanka), the title of a fairy tale in which the heroes ‘were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of’. My life has been all about serendipity and that year in Sri Lanka was a charmed epitome of that.

Nigel is a larger than life character with a daunting intellect and razor-sharp wit. I’m sure that he wouldn’t mind me saying that he is the most endearing of eccentrics but someone who doesn’t suffers fools gladly, which has been a most important asset in his dealings in Sri Lanka. He has been a very loyal supporter of my work and what I stand for as an individual, fully aware that like him I am very much my own man and don’t suffer fools gladly either. Apart from his own family he has supported and surrounded himself with beautiful people and their children. It is a very special extended family bonded by his strong principles that I am happy to feel part of whenever I am in Sri Lanka.

The hospital was constructed after he purchased the Samanala Tea Estate, which also encompasses his concern for the welfare of Tamils rather than just a business venture; apparently it makes very little profit but at least his workers get the best possible treatment. The hospital has evolved into a specialist eye clinic because there is a very high incidence of eye cataracts among the Tamil tea plantation workers. As well as performing cataract surgery the clinic also conducts eye tests and provides glasses for people who have suffered with poor vision for a long time. Volunteers including the regulars from Nigel’s extended family conduct all of the work in the clinic.

 

It’s an important occassion and day out for the Tamils from quite far and wide when they attend the eye clinic in their best clothes,

 

 

This man was able to see reasonably well for the first time in many years.

The Tamil tea pluckers always add a rainbow of colours and smiles to the pervading greenery.

 

Children walking in the rain to the school on the other side of Norton Bridge below the tea estate.

The location and setting of the hospital and tea estate is breathtaking with the well-known Seven Virgin Hills forming a monumental wall behind the estate and at its feet is the Laxapana Falls, the 8th highest in Sri Lanka at 126 metres (413 ft), which appears on the 100 Rupee banknote. The Seven Virgin Hills, Saptha Kanya in Sinhalese, is more of a mountain range than a row of hills, and is infamous for the worst domestic plane crash in Sri Lankan aviation history when an aircraft crashed into one of the virgin hills killing all 191 people onboard – 182 Indonesian pilgrims bound for Mecca and 9 crew members. It’s still an unsolved mystery as to why it crashed. The fiery explosion of the plane on one of the mountaintops of the range at night created instant terror among the villagers because in this area there are hydro electricity power plants at Laxapana and Polpitiya. The panic-stricken people first assumed that the thunderous roar was either a power plant exploding or a rapid gush of water from the damaged reservoirs of Castlereigh and Maussakele.

When you are standing before such a beautiful setting in that idyllic place, which has become a little piece of heaven to me, it’s difficult to comprehend that such a tragedy took place there. But it’s something that I rarely think of when my senses are besieged by so much beauty from the majestic mountains to the seductive serenading of so many birds in the garden of the estate bungalow and lush vegetation that borders the tea estate. Beyond the fortress wall of mountains lies the Peak Wilderness Sanctuary, the third largest of 50 sanctuaries in Sri Lanka with the sacred mountain of Adam’s Peak within. It is included with Horton Plains National Park and the Knuckles Conservation Forest in the Central Highlands of Sri Lanka, which was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2010 because of its importance as a super biodiversity hotspot. These montane forests, where the land rises to 2,500 metres above sea level are home to an extraordinary range of flora and fauna, including several endangered species such as the endemic purple-faced monkey (Trachpithecus vetulus), which can sometimes be seen on the outskirts of the tea estate. The proximity of such a biodiverse montane forest is evident from the number of different species of amphibians and reptiles that I have photographed behind the estate as well as regular visits from sambar deer and the occasional visit by a leopard, even right around the estate bungalow.

 

 

An eagle soars overhead in front of the Seven Virgin Hills. Everything is clearly on view from inside the bungalow.

Isabel and crazy Clare relaxing in the rain.

 

The heavens open up and thunder transforms the tranquility of the tea estate.

 

Isabel enjoying a meditative moment in the morning above the bungalow.

A regular visitor to the bungalow garden – an oriental garden lizard (Calotes versicolor).

A male oriental garden lizard showing off its bright red head during the breeding season hence its other name of changeable lizard.

 

A surprise visitor: a tiny deer mouse under the bushes in the back garden of the bungalow. It was fascinating to get so close to one of these miniature deer with its tiny hooves. It may have escaped from a leopard and looked very nervous.

 

 

 

A simple Hindu shrine on the tea estate.

 

The birds singing add to the sense of it being such a heavenly place.

 

The estate bungalow has several bedrooms and a dormitory to accommodate visitors and volunteers working in the eye clinic. The lounge is more like a greenhouse, which provides a 360 degree view of the spectacular location at the foot of the Seven Virgin Hills overlooking the tea estate and the valley. With the big windows slid open and the birds singing in the garden you feel immersed in the surrounding beauty; you never know what creatures nature is going to pop in through an open window. Trees have been selectively left around the estate to provide some shelter for the tea pluckers, and perches for the many songbirds to sing from. I love the old stone paths, walls, drainage ditches and terracing in the tea estates in Sri Lanka. When the heavens open up the drainage ditches are quickly transformed into raging cascades. Unfortunately you are often distracted from the surrounding beauty by the nagging menace of leeches at your feet, especially during rainy days. In the past I have ventured up into the rainforest and returned from a mass assault with blood all over me. They are a constant nuisance to the tea pluckers who rub soap over their feet and legs to deter the blood-sucking pests.

 

All kitted out and ready to go out for another nightwalk to photograph macro life with my essential leech socks.

These cute little frogs are at home on the anthuriams in the back garden.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A large beautiful gecko on a wall of the bungalow.

 

A large longhorn beetle on a tree at the entrance to the bungalow.

This dainty little butterfly is the commonest species around the tea estate.

Whenever I am staying there, quite often on my own apart from the estate manager and his wife who have their own separate accommodation in the bungalow, I usually make nocturnal excursions up a stream into the forest just behind the estate to photograph reptiles and amphibians. In the back garden there are always some pretty little frogs ensconced in the red anthuriums making for some endearing photos. On my way to the stream I quite often disturb sambar deer that start barking to announce my arrival. On one occasion when I was returning back down some steps I startled a big buck right next to the path; actually I was just as startled as we stared at each other just a few metres apart before he bolted. There’s nothing I love doing more than exploring a stream at night with the river gurgling, the frogs chirping and the moon winking at me through the mosaic of leaves. It’s hazardous because of the slippery rocks and fragility of my macro photo equipment, and on one occasion it wasn’t the slippery rocks that were waiting to upend me. I foolishly stepped on a rotten log straddling the nearly dry streambed and it snapped sending me plummeting a metre down on to a sharp rock that struck me on the worst possible place apart from my head – my shin. The impact and pain took my breath away and as I struggled to get up I could see that I had broken my expensive Canon twin macro flash. I hobbled back to the bungalow and by the time I got back there my leg was badly swollen. The injury was on exactly the same place where I had struck a rock in the rainforest in Danum Valley, Borneo, and once again it became badly infected and took a long time to heal. I subsequently struck the same place on my shin in the rainforest here in Palawan and it not only became infected but it gave me a fever during the night; such are the hazards of forest trekking in a tropical environment! I have got so tired of striking the same cursed place that I started wearing a shin guard made from a plastic bottle when I was working in Kalimantan after injuring it again.

 

The nightly frog chorus is a good indicator of the biodiversity around the tea estate.

 

 

One of the most memorable evenings at the bungalow was having a beautiful supermoon directly overhead.

 

The attractive red leaves of miconia have invaded many of my photos because it is inexorably taking over the forest.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Endemic hump-nosed lizard (Lyriocephalus scutatus).

 

Juvenile oriental garden lizard (Calotes versicolor).

 

 

 

 

 A green pit viper (Trimeresurus trigonocephalus).

 

 

 

This was the only Phasmid (stick insect) that I found in the forest around the estate.

 

This hairy caterpillar makes it quite clear not to touch it!

 

 

 

 

I stumbled across this large intimidating bee’s nest on the estate, took some quick photos and got out of there ASAP!

 

 

A rotting carcase of a big sambar buck was found in the undergrowth on the estate. It could have quite possibly been killed by a leopard.

But I cannot resist the call of the rainforest when there is so much amazing life to discover and photograph. In a stretch of stream of no more than 50 metres I have probably found ten different species of frogs that I have yet to identify apart from the largest one, the common wood frog (Hylarana temoralis). It is believed that until recently there were 119 species of amphibians in Sri Lanka with 103 of them being endemic, but unfortunately 20 of those (all endemic) are now thought to be extinct. There is so much pressure on their habitat in Sri Lanka that it is imperative to monitor and protect all endemic species. In addition to the abundance of frogs I also found an endemic hump-nosed lizard (Lyriocephalus scutatus) and a green pit viper (Trimeresurus trigonocephalus) no more than three metres apart! Other reptiles I found were several common garden lizards, an unidentified one and a large gecko outside the bungalow. A worrying change in the environment, around the estate and deep into the forest that was very apparent from when I first went there a few years ago is an invasive plant called Miconia. It has large attractive red and green leaves making it a popular house plant but it has become a widespread scourge in quite a few countries because of its ability to take over new habitat very quickly like a green plague.

 

One of my favourite companions whenever she is staying there is Yani who has boundless enthusiasm, loves adventures in nature and keeps everybody satisfied with special treats that she is always baking.

Yani did a great job of capturing me leaping into a cold pool below the Laxapana Falls.

 

 

 

During the day the waterfall is the main attraction, either at the top or the bottom. At the top there are rocks that jut out above the precipitous drop that you can test your nerves on and the view makes it more than worthwhile to risk life and limb. Leading up to that there are many pools that provide a refreshing swim and habitat for numerous species of dragonflies, damselflies and other insects and frogs. There are also many species of freshwater fish that I was able to photograph when I was equipped with my underwater housing. The Samanala Tea Estate and surroundings really is a heavenly place whether the sun is shining or dark clouds roll in to shroud the Seven Virgins Hills and thunder heralds a tumultuous deluge that you can be a comfortable spectator of from the security of the bungalow even if the power sockets sometimes create their own flashes of lightning. There is a harmonious ambience of the fusion of people and nature; birdsong and the chorus of frogs accompanying the chanting emanating from a small Hindu temple on the other side of the bridge before the waterfall, which Nigel also generously funded for his employees. I never want to leave and always dream of returning to that little patch of heaven on earth.

 

 

 

 

A fun day out around the pools above the waterfall with Jenn, Ale and Clare.

 

 

Euphlyctis cyanophlyctis is a common dicroglossid frog found in South Asia. It is known under numerous common names, including Indian skipper frog or skittering frog. They are often seen at the edge of bodies of water with their eyes above the water. They move away noisily when disturbed, giving them their common name. They are rarely seen outside water. I had to crawl stealthily on my belly to capture these close-up photo before it eventually skittered away.

 

 

I have always admired the speed and ability to glide across water so effortlessly of pondskaters.

One of the commonest damselflies at the waterfall is the oriental greenwing (Neurobasis chinensis).

 

When this species is in flight it flashes the beautiful blue iridescence of its underwings, which was very difficult to capture in a photo. I had to do a lot of patient stalking crouched in the river to be able to get close to them.

 

 

A shining gossamerwing (Euphaea splendens), which is endemic to Sri Lanka.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Visiting the Bataks of Sitio Kalakwasan, Palawan in 2016/17

I first visited Sitio Kalakwasan, a Batak village in the forest in Barangay Tanabag within the city boundary of Puerto Princesa, in 2010 when I was producing a coffee-table book of photos for the then Mayor Ed Hagedorn; I will create a separate post about that. It was one of most unforgettable assignments of that failed project. The Bataks are the smallest of the indigenous tribes in Palawan and face an uncertain future with their population having dwindled down to no more than about 49 families numbering not much in excess of 300 people, less than half the number from the beginning of the last century.  Rapid depopulation, restricted forest access, sedentary living, and incursion by immigrants has impacted the group culturally. Today, very few Batak marry other Batak but tend to marry from other neighboring groups. The pattern has been that the children of these marriages tend not to follow Batak cultural ways, and today “pure” Batak are rare. They are also not reproducing to sustain their population. As a result, Batak are being absorbed into a more diffuse group of upland indigenous peoples who are slowly losing their tribal identities, and with it their unique spirituality and culture; there is even some debate as to whether or not they still exist as a distinct ethnic entity. I was informed that Kalakwasan is the most culturally authentic of the Batak communities, but having first been there in early 2010 and then not until 2016 when I started working with the Centre for Sustainability http://centreforsustainabilityph.org on their “Saving the Almaciga Tree Project” http://centreforsustainabilityph.org/saving-the-almaciga-project/, I could see how the influence of the outside world has inevitably taken its toll, which is sad to see.

The Batak are considered by anthropologists to be closely related to the Ayta of Central Luzon, another Negrito tribe. They tend to be small in stature, with dark skin and short curly or “kinky” hair, traits which originally gave the “Negrito” groups their name. Still, there is some debate as to whether the Batak are related to the other Negrito groups of the Philippines or actually to other, physically similar groups in Indonesia or as far away as the Andaman Islands. Since ancient time they have inhabited a series of river valleys along the 50 kilometers stretch of coastline northeast of what is today Puerto Princesa City. Recently part of that original homeland was designated as Cleopatra’s Needle Critical Habitat, the largest such protected area in the Philippines, thanks to a determined campaign project by the Centre of Sustainability in cooperation with the Bataks. Their economic activities involve mostly swidden farming (slash and burn or Kaingin system as it’s referred to in the Philippines), hunting, and natural resource product gathering: primarily almaciga resin-tapping, rattan pole collecting, and honey gathering. They were traditionally very nomadic hunter-gatherers and thus less motivated to cultivate permanent land areas for crops productions. Traditionally they only plant cassava, banana, sweet potato, ube, gabi, and coconuts. Bataks have always followed animist beliefs of spirits that reside in the natural world, but inevitably the dominant religion in the Philippines, Roman Catholicism, has made inroads into their lives. Prior to residing in Kalakwasan, and seven other villages, their original territory was lost to loggers, minor forest products concessionaires and lowland settlers pushing them from their original settlements to the higher altitude forest interiors. This significantly reduced their swidden farming and hunting activities as well as the forest products gathering area. To safeguard their economic survival the Centre for Sustainability has also been engaged in empowering the Bataks to sell their forest products directly to the main markets rather than through middlemen, which greatly reduces their profits.

 

He was one of the first Bataks that I recognised from my first visit in 2010 when he was one of the two men who performed a hunting dance for me to photograph. He is really friendly and always greets me warmly.

I recognised Antonio from the opening ceremony of the Batak Visitor’s Centre. We stayed at his camp higher up the river during the Almaciga Cone Collecting Expedition. He is also very friendly and gracious. Here he is in his home just outside Kalakwasan with his wife, daughter and grand-daughter in their simple home.

 

Antonio’s neighbours with some fine Batak basketry hanging up. I noticed a monkey’s skull hanging up in the roof and it’s there as part of their animist beliefs in animal and forest spirits. It’s their way of appeasing a hunted animal’s spirit to bring them good fortune for the next hunt. There are some pandan leaves on the floor, which will be woven into a mat.

 

 

 

I feel very comfortable with people like this who live such a simple unassuming life. I could easily live in a house like this a long way off the grid of frenetic modern living.

I was really excited to return to Kalakwasan in 2016 to document the Almaciga Cone Collecting Expedition – see previous post https://wp.me/p6wch1-fP – for the Centre for Sustainability’s Saving the Almaciga Tree Project. After taking public transport from Puerto Princesa it takes no more than an hour to walk to the village in the forest with several river crossings along the way. I recognised a lot of the people who I had photographed in 2010 including the two men who had peformed a traditional Batak hunting dance for me to photograph. On that occassion I was very sensitive to being a photographer intruding into the private lives of these shy people, although it was made somewhat easier because I was working for the mayor. Following on from that assignemt I photographed the opening of the new Batak Visitor Centre at Barangay Concepcion attended by Mayor Hagedorn. Even if they remembered me and why I was previously there I knew that I would have to earn their trust and let them know that I wasn’t just another tourist barging into their village as if it was a zoo open to the public, taking holiday snaps and only giving sweets or instant noodles in return as I was informed. I was there because I had volunteered to work with the Centre for Sustainability to help to preserve the forest, and the best way to do that is to ensure that the ORIGINAL custodians of the forest and their traditional way of life, which is respectful to the earth and its resources, is protected at the same time. I was not there to take from them but to respect a simpler way of life that we should all be aspiring to if we are going to stand any chance of halting the destruction of our once beautiful planet.

 

I heard that the men say that they can have motorbikes and still be Bataks – I really hope so

Fashion and image consciousness has always been part of being a teenager but now it’s more far-reaching

That instant coffee tastes and feels very good to a young boy!

 

Unfortunately plastic bags and other plastic reaches the village in the forest as with just about everywhere and there is a lot of garbage scattered around.

 

 

 

The commonest toys in the world where there are no toyshops or money to buy them are old tyres or wheels on a stick.

 

It didn’t take his older brother long to fix it after he had some good fun smashing it on the ground.

 

 

Taking a “drive” down to the river with her little brother and sister onboard.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was immediately apparent that “modernisation” had arrived when I saw the row of ugly yellow concrete pillars carrying solar-powered lights through the middle of the village and a single TV in a small village store attracting Bataks like moths to a candle with the most incongruous of teledramas from Manila and Korea. I could see that mobile phones were more prevalent, especially among the young men, but for me the most worrying arrival is the new catholic school armed with two loudspeakers that blast out religious proselytising for about an hour every night completely drowning out the once hypnotic sounds of the gurgling river, chirping frogs and crickets, and the laughter of children. I was also dismayed by how religiocentric the teaching is in the new school, which is completely at odds with the traditional animist beliefs of the Bataks that have instilled a deep sense of respect and wonder for the natural world, rather than the purely exploitative attitude that is encouraged by having a biblical dominion over the earth. I know that it’s inevitable in such a devoutly catholic country as the Philippines but I hope and pray that these mountain people of the forest can retain some of their animist beliefs. But having said all of that it was still immensely refreshing for me to observe and photograph these beautiful people living a much more sustainable life than the majority of us in a very close community without walls, fences and barriers; everywhere you look there are people mingling, children laughing and playing together, babies and little children in slings on their mothers, fathers or older siblings, mothers breastfeeding their babies, communal cooking and eating, people making things or just generally chilling out.

 

It’s grooming time!

 

 

This beautiful little girl is a good example of the “negrito” heritage with her mop of curly hair.

 

This fruit was evidently quite a prize.

 

 

 

 

Driving his wheels over a suspension bridge at the upper end of the village. From there on you have to make numerous river crossings in the river to get up the valley, which can be quite hazardous after heavy rainfall.

 

A community meeting was arranged for me to be introduced and approved along with some other Centre for Sustainability business. The Bataks were originally very suspicious of the motives and obectives of the Centre for Sustainability and plenty of diplomacy and presuasion was required for them to be accepted as genuine working partners. As well as introducing myself it was immensely rewarding for me to be able to share some of my photos of them from 2010 at a subsequent meeting. They were so enthralled and when I had finished they asked to see them again. I have done so many photo presentations in my life and I’m quite sure that I have never enjoyed watching the audience as much as I did on this occasion as they pointed at the screen and laughed when they recognised each other. It was an absolute delight for me and a glowing affirmation of why I love to do what I do. It’s great to be published and win competitions but there can be no greater personal reward than this. I hope that one day a small booklet of my photos can be published and distributed among the familys in Kalakwasan.

 

 

There’s usually some activity on the village basketball court even if it’s raining!

 

He was a very sweet friendly young Batak who accompanied us on an Almaciga tapping expedition, which was carried out to implement new cutting and tapping procedures to ensure a sustainable yield. He always wanted to share his knowledge of edible plants in the forest with me. I marvelled at him scaling a tree to collect some fruit for us to sample. They really are people of the forest who have been climbing trees so instinctively from childhood.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lito is the senior tree climber in the village who ascended the lofty almaciga trees during the cone collecting expedition.

 

The Nawam Mawa Perahera, Gangaramaya Temple, Colombo

I have been visiting Sri Lanka for many years dating back to my first visit in 1983 after failing to get there in 1973 because the ferry service was suspended for bad weather. Sri Lanka is a marvellous mixture of cultural and natural spectacles. I was fortunate enough to get serendipitously involved with a wealthy philanthropist and a powerful conservationist on my next visit in 1993 after initially going there for two weeks for the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society to investigate the harpooning of dolphins. I ended up staying there for a year and had privileged access to many of that island jewell’s sparkling facets. The most unforgettable cultural spectacles are the Buddhist festivals called Peraheras; the ten day Kandy Esala Perahera being the most well known and one of the most colourful religious pageants in Asia. I have attended it twice and also the perahera in Colombo, and this was the last one that I witnessed in 2016.

The two day Nawam Mawa Perahera is held on the Nawam Poya day every February and is the only perahera to illuminate the streets of Colombo. The importance of the Navam Poya day is that it honors the day the Buddha’s first Chief Disciples, Saripuththa and Moggalana entered the order of the Sangha. Gangaramaya Temple near Beira Lake not far from the city centre houses the sacred “Sharirika Dhathu”, which is the physical remains of the enlightened one, the “Maha Bodhi” also known as the sacred Bo tree and Buddha Rupa, images of Lord Buddha. The Nawam Maha Perahera of the Gangaramaya Temple was started in 1979 during a period of economic turmoil, student unrest and massive unemployment in Sri Lanka. During this unsettling time, the traditional Sri Lankan performing artists and their cultural talents were being neglected by lack of recognition and opportunity, and many of the village groups had sold their costumes, masks and instruments and found new employment in the industrial or agricultural sectors. The Gangaramaya Temple recognised that many of the traditional parts of the Sri Lankan cultural heritage were quickly disappearing and could well be lost forever so they responded by organising the first Nawam Perahera and buying back or making new costumes, sourcing instruments, masks and other traditional apparatus and began subsiding and supporting many village cultural troupes. 

The elephants and their mahouts that participated in the original events had to walk all the way to Colombo. This sometimes took weeks and some were even hit by cars at night on the dimly lit roads. As a safety measure, battery operated bicycle head lights and tail lights were strapped onto the elephants and many motorists in the early eighties got used to passing what appeared to be big, grey four legged bicycles at night. There are a few resident elephants permanently housed on the Gangaramaya Temple grounds so now the majority are trucked in just before the parade. They have to be cared for by their individual mahouts, fed, bathed and watered. They are assigned to any vacant land or public park that the temple can find, and through private donations and corporate sponsors the temple makes sure that the elephants and their mahouts are well looked after. Nearly 5,000 participants and their musical instruments, costumes and various paraphernalia arrive in town, followed by nearly 300 Buddhist Monks and 150 elephants. They come from all over the Island and converge on or near the temple grounds each February just before the Nawam Perahera.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When I first arrived at Beira Lake I gravitated to where all of the elephants were chained up around the lake and a cricket pitch. The lakeside ones looked as they were participating in afternoon picnics like oversized family dogs and the ones around a cricket pitch were being hosed down from water tankers to cool them off, which they evidently loved and couldn’t get enough of! Watching them having their euphoric showers was one of the highlights of this amazing event. I then visited a small Buddhist temple on the lake to photograph the novice monks in their saffron robes. When the sun started to sink the elephants were getting dressed in their finest brocade robes and started to proceed in procession to the streets around the Gangaramaya Temple along with all of the performers. When I arrived there it felt as if I was entering a dream world where most of the people were in costumes from another age or reality like court jesters. They were milling around the darkening streets and doing everything that normal people do like going into eating places for dinner. I entered one such place to eat and felt as if I was arriving at a fancy-dress party. When I photograph the street festivals in Puerto Princesa I always like to mingle with the participants while they wait for the event to commence and I can always be assured of getting some interesting group photos of costumed and body-painted people.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Once the procession kicked off the atmosphere, ambient energy and sounds went through the roof. The pulsating energy of this perahera is magnified because the procession does a continuous circuit around a fairly narrow two-way street with a central reservation in between right in front of the temple. The dance troupes and drummers perform in waves of activity along the street with lulls and crescendos. There were the familiar Kandy dancers and drummers, clowns and demons from Buddhist lore, garish masks and crazy wigs, men dressed and made up as women and women with beards, flag-bearers, fire whirlers creating Catherine wheels of flames and smoke, men spinning tops on flexible poles, and one of my favourites, the stilt-walkers doing impossible things on stilts. The medieval atmosphere is heightened by the flaming braziers lining the procession route.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Amid all of the cacophony and commotion the elephants provide some contrasting calm as they plod and sway along as if it’s a Sunday afternoon stroll in the park. The pride of place in the procession as always goes to the largest temple tusker in his finest ceremonial dress adorned with lights like a Christmas tree and carrying the Karanduwa casket for the sacred relics. There is always some controversy surrounding the use of elephants for these parades. Animal welfare is always at the forefront of my thinking but realistically I know that these elephants represent the cultural background of these traditional events, and I think that it is important to maintain the respect for elephants in their culture if we are going to protect them in the wild. There is so much population pressure and fragmentation of their habitat with all the conflict with people that brings. These elephants must spend a lot of time chained up so maybe they get some enjoyment from these occasional outings in their finest clothes. Animals need stimulation just as much as people and maybe this is just as much an exciting party for them as it is for people.

 

 

 

 

 

 

There was a big crowd of people lining the street with many other photographers and videographers so there was a lot of jostling around to get the best photos and videos. My objective was to try to capture as much of the colour, energy and movement as possible in still photos, and as with any street event like this it was exhausting but exhilarating. A Sri Lanka perahera is a must see cornucopia of Asian culture, which is overflowing with colour and vibrancy. The annual Nawam Maha Perahera has preserved and sustained Buddhist traditions that are significant to the Sinhala culture, but the event is also a showcase for Sri Lankan cultural diversity; included are Muslim traditional synchronised dancing with wooden batons and traditional Hindu Kavadi dancing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The plight of orangutans and my first encounter in the Sabangau Forest

The Sabangau Forest is a lowland tropical peat-swamp forest in Central Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) near the city of Palangka Raya; it covers 6300 sq. km and is home to the world’s largest population of orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus) estimated at approximately 6,900 individuals, making it of critical importance to the protection of the species. The Borneo Nature Foundation http://www.borneonaturefoundation.org/en/  – previously the Orangutan Tropical Peatland Project (OuTrop), has been engaged in researching the orangutans in the Sabangau Forest since 2003 following over 100 individuals and collecting over 20,000 hours of data. The primary objective for this project is to gain a better understanding about orangutan behaviour and ecology in a tropical peat-swamp forest, to compare with other populations in different habitats, and to see how they cope with the unique challenges that this habitat brings.

The devastating forest fires which engulfed Borneo and Sumatra in 2015, combined with ongoing habitat degradation and hunting has resulted in the Bornean orangutan being reclassified as Critically Endangered. BNF is working to understand orangutan population dynamics, to protect and restore critical orangutan habitat and work to raise awareness in Indonesia and around the world. All studies of mankind’s closest relatives help to get a better understanding of how human evolution was shaped by the environment, and BNF are regularly making new and exciting discoveries that reveal the orangutan’s great intelligence and problem-solving ability. The data is also used to inform conservation management plans, by understanding how orangutans cope – or in some cases, fail to cope – with the damaging and disruptive impacts of logging and fire. In addition to habitat loss hunting and killing have driven a dramatic decline in the orangutan population of Borneo where nearly 150,000 animals have been lost from the island’s forests in 16 years. While the steepest percentage losses occurred in regions where the forest has been cut down to make way for palm oil and acacia plantations, more animals were killed by hunters who ventured into the forest, or by farm workers when the apes encroached on agricultural land, a study found.

An international team of researchers estimate that the number of orangutans left in Borneo now stands at between 70,000 and 100,000, meaning the population more than halved over the study period which ran from 1999 to 2015. Without fresh efforts to protect the animals, the numbers could fall at least another 45,000 in the next 35 years, conservationists predict. The real decline could be worse, because the prediction is based only on habitat loss, and does not include killings. Hunters in Borneo tend to enter the forest to find pigs and deer, but if they encounter a large orangutan, they can take the animals for food. Female orangutans are occasionally killed for their young, which are sold on as pets. Far more of the apes die when they venture on to plantations, and into people’s gardens, where they are shot or killed with machetes. Writing in the journal Current Biology, the researchers describe how the decline in nests from 1999 to 2015 points to the staggering loss of 148,500 orangutans in Borneo. The conservationists identified 64 separate groups of orangutans on the island, but only 38 are thought to comprise more than 100 individuals, the minimum that is considered viable for a group.

Worryingly four fifths of wild orangutans in Kalimantan live outside national parks and other protected areas, according to a new study by the Indonesian government. The study, called the 2016 Orangutan Population and Habitat Viability Assessment, was led by the Ministry of Environment and Forestry. Released last month, it is the third of its kind, with the last one done in 2004. The study confirms that orangutan populations have plummeted as their forest habitats continue to be flattened by the expansion of industry. So too has an illegal pet trade taken its toll on remaining populations.The study estimates that 57,350 critically endangered Bornean orangutans remain in Kalimantan. That’s 13-47 individuals per 100 square kilometers, down from around 45-76 in 2004.

 

 

On my very first walk in the forest with Jennifer Brousseau from the US, who had been very helpful in coordinating my volunteer placement with the BNF,  we were fortunate enough to encounter two orangutans in a very short space of time not very far from the camp, but I soon discovered the challenges that I faced trying to get photos of these animals in that kind of forest, my very first experience with a tropical peat-swamp forest. The forest isn’t particularly dense, and the height and size of the trees is restricted by the nutrient deficiency of peat-swamps, but because it is so flat there you are always looking up at them with all of the lighting problems and obstruction of branches and foliage that entails. And of course when they are feeding they are usually on the move and you have to negotiate the undergrowth and boggy ground to keep up with them. They make plenty of noise when they are moving through the branches so you usually know if there’s one around and there was no mistaking when we heard the first one we encountered. But I just couldn’t get a very clear sight of it to get any decent photos.

 

 

 

 

 

I was much more fortunate with the next one we encountered soon after, and was presented with an unforgettable and intimate first close-up encounter with a wild orangutan. He lingered in the branches above and then to my great delight he descended down to my level from the canopy above. Initially he made some kiss squeak alarm calls as I had already experienced with my very first encounter with a wild orangutan in Danum Valley in Sabah in 2013.  Then as I fumbled around with my camera equipment curiosity appeared to give him a more relaxed outlook, which reminds me of when a brown bear fell asleep in Alaska waiting for me to set up my tripod to take some photos. As far as I could tell it was a young male, and he looked very comfortable suspended by his hands and feet between two small tree trunks just above the ground. I felt connected with him by the physical intimacy of being alone and face to face but that feeling was accentuated by the awareness of meeting one of our closest relatives deep in the forest. I had anticipated that I would want to extend an apology and feel a sense of shame for how we have treated this wild relative, but I could only feel love, respect and gratitude for that special meeting. When you are able to gaze into their eyes at such close quarters it’s impossible not to be aware of their intelligence and awareness, and you wonder what they are thinking; a sentiment that doesn’t spring to mind when you are observing animals that are not related to us. I would like to think that his animal instincts connected with mine, and gave him a good impression of my respect and desire to help them in any way that I can because we cannot afford to lose such an important family member.

http://www.borneonaturefoundation.org/en/

 

LIFE in the LAHG Research Station in the Sabangau Forest

I grew up very near the zoo with the second most number of species in the UK at the time, and spent a lot of my childhood there because I was able to sneak in for free through the woods at the back, and when I was a teenager I worked in the zoo restaurant until the general manager caught me red-handed throwing a sausage roll at one of my school friends who was also working there. I wasn’t so aware of the animal welfare issues back then when many of the old cages were unacceptable by today’s standards, but I loved being there and it really helped to nurture my fascination with the animal kingdom. Living in the LAHG camp is something like living in a zoo but without any bars, cages or barriers to prevent the wildlife coming and going from the surrounding forest. I relished the opportunity to search for small creatures in the lush wild garden between the buildings, but there was something much bigger awaiting my attention in the swamp beside the kitchen and dining area where dinosaurs from the forest came to dine as well. This was not just a fantasy childhood zoo but also reminiscent of the garden that I grew up in, and I mean “in” because I was always immersed in it.

At the time when I was regularly frequenting Paignton Zoo I lived in a big house with my 6 brothers and sisters with a garden that was like a nature reserve to a budding young naturalist like me. On the bushes I could find at least five different kinds of caterpillars and at least ten different species of birds were nesting in the trees. I couldn’t resist lifting up rocks and wood to see what was hiding beneath, and I could always be sure of finding at least one slow-worm or toad. There were frogs and newts in the pond that I had introduced, and my eldest brother even found a record-size grass snake slithering across the lawn, which ended up at the zoo. At night-time you could hear hedgehogs snorting as they went about their business of controlling the population of slugs and snails. But as anybody from my generation knows only painfully too well those days of the natural abundance of British wildlife, even in an urban setting, are long-since gone, and I’m both grateful to have experienced it and sad for the children of today who have been denied that kind of natural childhood.

Stepping out into the garden of the LAHG camp every day was like stepping back into my childhood with my eyes peeled like a hungry hawk for any motion or anything unusual. Colourful butterflies were instantly on view and flitting around tantalisingly with their catch-me-if-you-can aerial dancing, and I rarely do! It seems as if the larger and more spectacular the butterfly the harder they are to photograph. Quite often you have to just feed off scraps as the butterflies are feeding on your laundry or you tempt them with an irresistible patch of fresh urine, but there were more than enough fragrant blooms in the garden to entice the butterflies to give me a fair chance. In addition to butterflies flitting from flower to flower above it’s an ideal habitat for many species of damselflies and dragonflies just above the water. The gathering of invertebrates includes crickets and spiders, and one of my best finds was a gorgeous green and pink praying mantis, which actually came to introduce itself to me when I was working in the office. I carefully transferred it to a fern outside, which was the most complementary to its elegant form for photos. I have always loved praying mantises but like butterflies they can be very elusive for photography. One of their most intriguing characteristics is their uniquely flexible neck, which enables them to follow your movement with their over-sized motion-detector eyes, so there’s not much chance of sneaking up on a praying mantis! When a praying mantis fixes its hypnotic gaze on you, for a moment you can’t help but feel like its prey and pray that you aren’t. I stumbled across this dandy on two more occasions so it was evidently just as satisfied with the life on offer in the camp as I was. I only managed to find one stick insect in the camp and unfortunately it was eaten by a spider not long afterwards because it was visible in the daytime, which is unusual and not recommended for a stick insect as it transpired. Probably the commonest insect that you bump into in the camp is one that’s more likely to bump into you, and that’s the big clumsy rhinoceros beetles that come careering towards you like out of control helicopters, and sooner or later either end up in the water or struggling on their backs after yet another collision. It doesn’t matter how many times you rescue them they still end up in the wrong place. They seem to be the most hapless victims of the lure of lights with the absence of any kind of innate object avoidance system like a drone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of the commonest creatures around camp are the metallic sunbathing skinks. They are like the equivalent of cats and dogs just hanging out watching the world above them pass by. They are most active around the dishwashing area at the back of the kitchen where they manage to grab some scraps from the dirty plates or even get the occasional handout from Lis, the cook. One of my favourite occupations when I was a young boy was stalking and catching lizards, which required a lot of speed and agility; here it was more likely that I would accidentally step on one. But the skinks were not the apex scavengers around the kitchen, and I’m not referring to myself even if my eating habits have often earned that ranking. Virtually every day at least one large monitor lizard slinks into the kitchen swamp to see what’s on the menu. It was like another childhood fantasy to find myself dining in the company of large monitor lizards, but I didn’t have any intention of stalking one and leaping on it with handkerchief in hand to smother it. These giant reptiles quite clearly rule the swamp with their heads held up haughtily and their long tongues flickering menacingly like whips. I don’t normally encourage feeding wild animals but they were already regular customers so I couldn’t resist tossing them some scraps. But like any animal that has become accustomed to having access to a varied menu unlike anything available beyond the human café they have become somewhat fussy eaters and turned their noses up at some of my offerings.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

With monitor lizards visiting the kitchen and dining area regularly I was guaranteed that there would never be a dull day in camp. But I had to wait a while for the big spectacle – the big showdown! Sometimes I saw more than one monitor lizard but they appeared to be keeping a safe distance from each other, and the smaller ones made a quick exist as soon as a big bully arrived. One day I was photographing one at very close quarters from the deck at the back of the kitchen. It was literally right at my feet and seemingly not bothered by having a paparazzo following its every move. Then out of the corner of my eye I noticed another big one emerging from the shadows beneath the kitchen and they were slowly heading towards each other, and probably not for a handshake or a hug! Then in a flash they flew at each other like a couple of sumo wrestlers and there was a hug, but with claws dug in and blood flowing. They toppled over into the water still locked in a deadly embrace and thrashed around with tails whipping like scorpions. The agitated water was flying around like bullets from these dinosaurs enacting a wrestling match from a 1950s Godzilla movie. It was indeed fortuitous that I had been in exactly the right place at the right time, and had a ringside seat for this big no-holds-barred bout. It was all over very quickly and the victor was able to reclaim his lunch voucher and get on with the important business of being a scavenger.

 

 

 

 

 

 

There were other reptilian visitors to the camp including a fresh brood of juvenile snakes that appeared from time to time. My best snake highlight from the camp was sleeping with one just as I had been dining with the monitors. One day I woke up from an afternoon siesta on my bed and when I pulled back the mosquito net I was fully awakened by the sight of a beautiful big green snake curled up on the floor next to my bed. I wasn’t quite sure what kind of snake it was, but I knew that it was a good friend because it would undoubtedly be hunting for the wretched rats that plagued me at night. I later identified it as a non-venomous grey-tailed racer (Gonyosoma oxycephalum) and it was confirmed as previously being seen eating a rat so it was welcome in my bedroom anytime, but perhaps not in bed with me. As I wasn’t sure what species it was and if it was venomous I had to exercise some degree of caution, which is never easy for me. It disappeared under the floorboards and reappeared in the office next door where I had just enough time to get a couple of decent photos.

 

 

 

 

 

 

If the rats are the mammalian masters of the camp at night when everybody else is trying to sleep then the squirrels are undoubtedly the mischievous distracters in the daytime. They have obviously become very habituated to people and on one occasion I looked up when I was talking to someone and there was one crouched right behind them on a railing as if it had been eavesdropping on our conversation. They are quite often to be found in the dining room, which they treat as a circus for doing flying circuits around the walls and ceiling; or else if I was working in the office one would suddenly appear in the window with a few twitches inviting me to chase it. I only saw two large-eared bats roosting in the camp during the daytime but there are signs in other parts of the camp that there are more that treat the camp as a very secure home. The nocturnal shift of reptiles is mainly to be found in the dining room where territorial disputes and confrontations between the geckoes is happening above your head as you eat. If a large dragonfly or moth is attracted to the lights then you can observe the comical sizing up, bluffing and bravado of competing geckoes. But there was one visiting dragonfly that would have completely befuddled their attention. I was very excited to be informed that there was an extremely large dragonfly resting on a wall. It was indeed the biggest one that I recall seeing and to confirm that I later identified it as probably being a Tetracanthagyna plagiata, the heaviest odonate in the world with only a South American species of damselfly being larger. I was also fortunate enough to find an atlas moth near the camp at night but I will include that in a subsequent post about night walks on the boardwalks leading from the camp.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As with everywhere in the forest there are birds to be heard but not so often seen because of the vegetation. The commonest bird I heard and usually saw around the kitchen swamp was a greater coucal or crow pheasant, a large non-parasitic member of the cuckoo order of birds, the Cuculiformes, a widespread resident in the Indian Subcontinent and Southeast Asia, and one that I sometimes see around my home in Palawan. Their distinctive main call is a booming low coop-coop-coop. I was able to capture some photos of one towards the end of my stay. You can sometimes see hornbills and if you’re lucky, kingfishers. There were also smaller colourful birds visiting to feed on a fruiting bush.

 

 

 

 

 

The forest insinuates itself into the camp with many creatures of the day and night but there is a singing star, which you can rarely see but can sometimes hear; a voice you can’t resist like a siren song, which compelled me to get out of bed at 5 am in the morning to listen to and record. The Bornean white-bearded gibbon (Hylobates albibarbis) represents one of the Borneo Nature Foundation’s flagship primate research projects in the Sabangau Forest (more of that in future posts) and for myself it became the most magnetic of the primates. But to be fair I already have a love for gibbons from my childhood days at Paignton Zoo where there has always been a family of lar gibbons living on an island in the zoo lake with a sign compelling you to “Look up in the trees at the gibbons!” And look and marvel I always did at their incredible graceful agility, but they remained with me wherever I was in my town because I could always hear their whooping call, and loved to imitate it as I also did the other perennial call from the zoo of the peacocks. But the call of the Bornean white-bearded gibbon seems to be more melodic and melancholic as if they’re calling out for a long-lost love. Some of my most stirring memories from the camp were being the only one up and standing alone in the dark amphitheatre of the camp surrounded by an audience of silhouetted trees with the silver moon and a haloed flotilla of clouds up in the balcony while a gibbon sang its heart and soul out. Sometimes there was a duet in stereo with gibbons in separate trees, and in the background a call to prayer from a mosque in Palangka Raya. If there was ever a plaintive cry from the forest to capture the hearts and mind of humanity to save the forest then this is surely one; a call to prayer for the sanctity of all life on earth, just as in Madagascar I was moved by the mournful call of the Indri.

 

 

 

http://www.borneonaturefoundation.org/en/

 

The LAHG Research Station in the Sabangau Forest

As soon as the lori (train) trundles into the colourful lush garden of the LAHG Research Station just inside the Sabangau Forest you can sense the marriage between the forest and the world beyond as this is a camp dedicated to its preservation born from a logging camp that was engaged in its exploitation; from chainsaws to binoculars. In 1996 50,000 hectares in the north of the Sabangau River catchment area was protected as the Natural Laboratory of Peat Swamp Forest (NLPSF or LAHG). The NLPSF is managed by CIMTROP (the Centre for the International Cooperation in Sustainable Management of Tropical Peatlands), an Indonesian research and conservation institution based at the University of Palangka Raya (UNPAR). The NLPSF is managed by CIMTROP (the Centre for the International Cooperation in Sustainable Management of Tropical Peatlands), an Indonesian research and conservation institution based at the University of Palangka Raya (UNPAR). The LAHG Research Station, within the NLPSF, is situated in a former logging concession 20 km southwest of Palangka Raya in the upper reaches of the Sabangau Forest. The Borneo Nature Foundation http://www.borneonaturefoundation.org/en/ works in partnership with CIMTROP, and it was necessary for me to first get a support letter from them for my 2 month social/cultural visa and then a permit to work in the forest.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The camp is constructed from wood that is well seasoned by the elements; imbued with the essence of the surrounding swampy forest and frequented by some of it’s wild opportunists in addition to a regular ebb and flow of the local Borneo Nature Foundation field staff, researchers and interns from overseas. I felt at home as soon as I started springing along the wooden boardwalks in keeping with one of the nicknames my parents gave me as a child: Spring-heel Jack, because I have always been a springer and a strider rather than just a walker, and there’s nothing like a wooden boardwalk to add extra spring to my step like a diving springboard. I used to own and live on old wooden boats, and feel a serenity being surrounded by old wood just as if I was immersed in the forest. I love the creaking and squeaking that only a wooden environment can provide, and of course the musty smell to complete the ambience of being within the skeletal remains of deceased trees inside a living forest.

But it wasn’t just the ambience of wooden buildings, the wild garden, the surrounding forest, and wild visitors that made me feel right at home: there was also the warmth of all of the BNF field staff that you can slide into right away like a deckchair on the beach including an ice cream, with the bonus of having your spirits raised by the humorous banter and cackling that’s on tap there for much of the time as soon as the crazy gang arrives like a trainload of merry football fans intent on having as much fun whilst engaged in their important conservation work in the forest. It was hi-fives as soon as they arrived, with some guitar playing and singing after breakfast in addition to the hyena laughter and joking, which always made me curious to know exactly what they were laughing at. The clown-in-chief was Supian who is part of the Kelasi (red langur) research/monitoring team along with his assistant clown Uji who combines good looks with infinite silly faces. Shortly after arriving at the camp for the first time I gave an introductory talk and presentation of some of my photos in my usual energetic party popper fashion. Evidently I made a good impression, and Supian was the first one to congratulate me and tell me “I really like your style man!” as we overtly exchanged style gestures, and someone else told me that I was the first foreigner to make him laugh. Although I was restricted by language most of them are more than adequate with their English and I was soon made to feel as if I had been accepted into the brotherhood of having a laugh as well doing serious conservation work. I look forward to seeing my conservation brothers again soon for more work and play – Twenti, Ajat, Idrus, Marta Bina, Hendri, Aman, Azis, Iwan, Santiano, Supian, Uji, Aziz K, Ari, Unyil, Tomi, Jali, Kades and Sadi……and I hope that I got your names right.

In addition to the regular commuting BNF team there is the camp manager and lori driver Twenti, and the cook Lis with two helpers, Ibu Yanti and Ibu Zariah. Twenti made me feel very welcome and manages the camp with a busy swagger and Lis is one of the sweetest gentlest souls I’ve ever met, and does a great job of keeping everybody well fed with very tasty food, which I never tired of. He is also a very keen amateur photographer who was always very quick to notify me of any photo opportunities in the camp, and in return I was always happy to share my photographic knowledge with him. When I arrived at the camp there was an international mix of young female interns and researchers: Jess from England, Caitlin from Scotland, Alexis from the US and Debbie from Italy. I subsequently met Cara the kelasi specialist and Sophie the orang-utan specialist, both from England, and Eka from Indonesia who replaced Cara when she left. It was an absolute pleasure to get to know them all and work with them whenever I could.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And of course I mustn’t forget to mention Sid from India who is working there as an ethnobotanist, and adopted me as a fellow eccentric and mentor as soon as he strode towards me like a big lumbering bear with his hand extended at the BNF staff house in Palangka Raya. His obeisance to my greater confidence and experience was manifested when he sought sanctuary from a marauding forest spirit by sleeping in the bed adjacent to mine in the dormitory room that I had been allocated. He brought some holy water with him for additional protection but unfortunately I accidentally drank it by mistake, which probably endowed me with additional forest spirit mojo power. I like to think that I’m a magnet for forest spirits just as I am for all of the bloodsucking insects in the forest so I’m probably a good person to have around.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was very happy with my dormitory room, which I had to myself most of the time unless Sid was at the camp evading forest spirits or the camp rats were having a party scurrying along the beams and shelves knocking my things on the floor. The rats are always skulking around the camp but there’s no mistaking when they’re having a party at night as if they’ve drunk too much coffee and go into hyperdrive, or maybe it has something to do with the phase of the moon. On such evenings I found myself in something akin to a fairground game as I threw missiles at the rats dashing back and forth along the shelves, but alas I never achieved the prize of hitting one of the little buggers. It reminded me of one of my many rodent skirmishes when I was camped beside an abandoned house on an island off the coast of Madagascar. The rats were just hanging around waiting for an opportunity to nip in and steal something. I can never forget the sight of one of them running along the ridgeline of my hammock like a tightrope artist in a circus, as if it was mocking me while sticking out its little tongue. Fortunately there were plenty of coconuts to use as missiles in that particular fairground game! One of the things that I have learned from a lifetime of sea kayaking in remote places is that you may be able to escape people but you can never escape bloody rats!

My dormitory room had its own en-suite bathroom with an invading plant stem hanging in the middle as a reminder of where I was and to give me a fright when it tickled my head during the night. My favourite feature was having my own balcony although I was happy to share it with sunbathing skinks. The balcony looks out across the flooded garden of the camp with frogs that you can hear a lot of the time but rarely if ever see in the dense swamp vegetation. Next door to me was the main office full of research data and equipment, which I used to work in most of the time because everybody else used the outdoor office in the main corridor that runs through the camp.Ants were always an annoying distraction just as they can be on my desk here in Puerto Princesa. I have a love-hate relationship with ants depending on where I’m encountering them: in the forest they are one of the marvels of the animal kingdom but as soon as they invade your home they are a proverbial pain in the ass, and a lot more places too as I discovered with the tiniest of fire ants there. One day when I was laying on my bunk bed thinking that I was fully protected by the mosquito net I suddenly started writhing around from a multitude of burning daggers all over my body. I soon discovered that I was being attacked by microscopic ants that were stinging well above their weight. It took me a while to figure out that they were actually coming from my laptop, which they were using as a Trojan horse to transfer from the office desk to my bed! At the start of this post I described a perfect marriage between the forest and the outside world, but on this particular occasion I was ready to ask for a divorce. I encountered larger red fire ants in the forest with the usual painful stings but these little buggers sting with a vengeance and the pain lasts a lot longer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Anyway, apart from the ants and the rats life at the camp is idyllic. I loved the changing moods with the weather when it could go from scorching sunshine with just the melodic sound of birds, frogs and crickets to a deluge of rain clattering on the tin roofs in a matter of minutes. Most of the corridors are covered so you can go for a virtual walk in the rain without getting wet. The level of human activity and noise varies a lot from hour to hour and day to day from feeling like you’re in a lively pub on a Saturday night when all the crazy gang are there and playing cards in the afternoon to some blissful nights when I was the only one there in addition to the four camp residents. The domino card game the men play religiously every afternoon is as rousing as a Thai kickboxing match and as quirky as a gay mud-wrestling match as they don’t gamble with money but with the penance of bottles dangling from their ears…….as one does???

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I particularly loved it there at night with the camp lights reflecting in the swamp and shimmering on the wet boardwalks, and the moon and entourage of illuminated clouds gleaming from above with the nocturnal sounds of the forest completing the nocturnal ambience. The main hubs of activity are the kitchen and dining area with its perfect swamp viewing, the washing area, the corridor office, the crazy gang’s building at the far end, and at the beginning and end of every working day for the men the entrance hall in my accommodation building, which has a large roster board detailing the work schedules of the different activity teams; orang-utan, gibbon, kelasi, butterfly survey, dragonfly survey, phenology, dam-building, replanting and boat patrol. I will describe all of those activities in some detail, including the education outreach programme that I was also involved with, in subsequent posts along with more information about the Sabangau Forest and the objectives of the Borneo Nature Foundation. But next up is the animal life in the camp!

 

 

 

 

 

http://www.borneonaturefoundation.org/en/

 

When a Jellyfish Met a Whale Shark

It’s another deskbound rainy day here in Puerto Princesa, Palawan. As I mentioned in a recent post I would usually be going on the whale shark trips to Honda Bay at this time of year, but I have moved on from that way of doing it now to do it differently, and there are also whale sharks awaiting me in West Papua when I go kayaking there later this year. There were oceanic manta rays and spinetail devil rays seen feeding in Honda Bay a few days ago to remind me that I have to find my own way of doing it soon, which will entail kayaking with a friend, possibly hiring a small tuna fishing banca boat to get us out there quickly and maybe finding a base to camp on one of the islands.

In the meantime I want to continue posting about some of the best whale shark experiences of the last two or three years, which have become increasingly intense for their feeding activity and presence in Honda Bay. It used to be that their appearances could be consistently predicted according to the phase of the moon: they would usually arrive just over a week before the full moon and depart just over a week after. Of course there are other variables such as the water temperature and weather conditions that can affect the food supply that attracts them in the first place, and sometimes they can’t be found because they are feeding at deeper depths.

I have experienced whale sharks so many times now over the last ten years that many of the encounters just merge into each other in the dark depths of my memory, but there are days that still sparkle because of the exceptionally good conditions and extra bonuses like two or more whale sharks together or rays. Those bonuses also included the guests onboard who often provided the icing on the cake, and I’m happy to say that I’m still connected to some of them on Facebook. But of course my primary objective on those trips was to keep seeking new photos that could capture another facet of those beautiful creatures in their exquisite underwater world, and also the other marine life which is magnetised by them even if out of fear as I described in my last whale shark post.

The best photo opportunities quite often involve a rare or unusual conjunction and such was the case last year when a good whale shark encounter that provided some very good photos became even better when a beautiful jellyfish was spotted near our boat. But I couldn’t have imagined that my luck would be consummated when those two players at opposite ends of the size spectrum would pass each other like ships in the night, and ships that each had their own passengers. The trip had started in an unusual fashion when I was informed that there would be some models from a well-known TV travel show onboard and I was asked if I could photograph them for their magazine. I was quite used to having the distraction of rather attractive guests in bikinis onboard so why not have an official assignment this time, but unfortunately to my slight disappointment they were male models. But any disappointment was dissipated by their endearing ebullient nature. Although after ten years I still got excited about every new whale shark encounter it was always good for that privileged opportunity to be given a fresh gloss of magic and enthusiasm by those anticipating it for the first time like little kids waiting for Santa to come down the chimney.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The whale shark we encountered that day was just a small juvenile male but their relative size isn’t an issue for anybody encountering a whale shark for the first time; they’re still bigger than anything else that they’ve experienced in the water, and they’re still sharks even if they only feed on the smallest of prey by filtration. He swam around in the vicinity of the boat for a long time giving everyone a good opportunity to be wowed for the first time. Like a lot of whale sharks he had quite a few copepod parasites that were clustered in a streak running up the middle of his head and along his back. As a perfectionist photographer I preferred the individuals that had an entourage swimming with them rather than clustered on them like ugly brown scabs. But visual complaints aside it’s another fascinating example of commensalism or symbiosis in the animal kingdom that this species of the genus Pandarus, which currently has 17 recognized species, Pandarus rhincodonicus is noteworthy as it is appears to be associated exclusively with the whale shark, where it is also found on the leading and trailing edges of fins and on the lips. It is thought to be a commensal that feeds off bacteria and other microorganisms on the skin of the shark. During my many years kayaking with humpack whales it always intrigued me that they have their very own exclusive species of whale louse. I know that we have plenty of our own parasites but as far as I know I don’t think that there are any that are exclusively found in or on us, but I may be wrong.

 

 

 

I was already satisfied with my catch of photos that day when Andy, the regular guide onboard proclaimed that there was an amazing jellyfish to photograph as well. I know how photogenic those alien angels of the deep are with their translucent opalescent crowns and frilly petticoats with deadly stinging tentacles dangling below that belie their seductive beauty. This one certainly didn’t disappoint with it’s striking head coloured purple and amber like a partially ripe plum. But the most instantly striking things about it was its tentacles, which to me looked like churros as my memories of those scrumptious treats are still freshly dipped in melted hot chocolate. I later found out that it’s a species, Thysanostoma loriferum, which is known as the rasta jelly in Australia. Dreadlocks are also a good comparison but I can only think that whoever came up with that name hadn’t partaken of the orgasmic sensation of freshly fried, crispy golden churros dipped in melted chocolate…..and you haven’t lived until you have!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Like many jellyfish this one had a flotilla of small fish hanging around it for protection including some golden trevally that are often seen swimming around the mouths of whale sharks. I proceeded to take an infinite number of photos of this delectable beauty – I’m not referring to the churros now – from every conceivable angle. Apparently the whale shark was still in the vicinity but I only had eyes for this jelly maiden now. Then I could see that Andy was trying to get my attention and then I could see why: the whale shark had reappeared and was heading right at us including the jellyfish! My good photographic day was about to be consummated with heaps of icing on top of the cake but I had to move quickly to get into just the right position to capture them at the right angle in the same frame. It’s at fluky moments like that that you are always afraid that sod’s law is going to rear its ugly head and throw a spanner in the works like your battery suddenly dying; I remember that happening for the first time with whale sharks when I was with the largest assembly of them that I had ever encountered! But this time the whale shark made his entry on stage at just the right moment and position as I clicked away at the big ship and little ship passing in the night, well actually on a beautiful calm sunny day with very good underwater visibility, so fortunately on this occasion Sod or Murphy didn’t show up as well to spoil the visual feast.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I knew that I had captured a winner but unfortunately I blew it at this year’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year Competition because apparently I did a little too much unpermitted editing even though I did it on the basis of a misleading ambiguous reply to my question from one of the competition team. I was told that the judges really liked it but they had no choice but to disqualify it, even though the visual difference to the photos is so negligible. Oh well that’s my punishment for being a hyper-perfectionist Virgo; sometimes it helps me win and sometimes it makes me lose; but I can enter it again next time, although that’s scant consolation at the moment. I suppose that I shouldn’t be greedy because one of my spinetail devil ray photos won the fish behaviour category in the Ocean Geographic Pictures of the Year Competition but two wins would have really turbo-charged my work this year. A photographer’s curse is that at first he or she is either enraptured or disappointed with the photographic results of an encounter, and blinded to the unassailable purity of the moment…. but we get over it and live for the next celestial conjunction fallen from the stars.

 

 

A feast of a day was capped off with a pod of spinner dolphins for dessert.

 

 

 

Yes, these young male models from Mainila get paid to do this!

 

By klotok and lori to the Sabangau Forest

I was really looking forward to starting my volunteer work as a photographer with the Borneo Nature Foundation http://www.borneonaturefoundation.org/en/ in the Sabangau Forest in Central Kalimantan in late 2017. I will be describing all aspects of the largest unfragmented area of lowland forest left in Borneo, and the vital conservation work of the BNF in more detail in subsequent posts. It was going to be my first experience of the ecology of a tropical peat swamp forest; a new adventure in many respects, and the adventure starts from the moment that you leave the staff accommodation house in Palangka Raya and take the first of three steps to get to the LAHG Research Camp, which used to be a logging camp, just inside the Sabangau Forest. I had been very intrigued when I read about getting there by boat and then a train known as the lori that runs along an old logging railway. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect and could only base my anticipation on my experiences with miniature railways at my local beach and zoo when I was a child. The train itself actually turned out to be more like the simple painted wooden train that I first played with as a little boy, although the rickety old track wouldn’t have passed the safety inspection of my parents.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There’s a car or bemo (mini-bus) drive of a few kilometres to get to the colourful riverside community of Kereng Bangkirai where you board a narrow traditional wooden longboat or klotok, and sit down promptly unless you want to go for a swim with all the young children splashing around merrily along the banks of the river. Then the klotok travels swiftly up the river ploughing an amber furrow through the peat-stained water, and you pass some less than traditional boats on the way including multi-coloured fibreglass sea lion, seahorse and swan paddle boats that would look more at home on a boating lake in a holiday camp in England. Kereng Bangkirai has been developed from a sleepy old riverside fishing community into a weekend resort for family day outings from the big city, and as well as the menagerie of paddle boats there are larger tour boats that look more like houseboats with their colourful picket fences and potted plants. But there are also locals engaged in fishing activity around the maze of pandan growing in the river.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Everything on the river is a reflection of the seasonal transitional level of the water and that was very apparent on arrival at the rickety wooden station elevated high above the river on pilings. It was actually renovated when I was there adding some stability to its appearance. When I first went there I was accompanied by Ben Buckley who has been studying orang-utan behaviour in the Sabangau Forest for several years, and the camp manager and lori driver Twenti met us at the station. He demonstrated how he has overcome the problem of turning the train around on a single track by just reversing the motor, which is a lot easier to do! As I have already mentioned the lori looks like it should be bound for Noddyland but on dodgy wooden stilts that make you feel as if you’re crossing a canyon rather than the flooded border of the forest.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As we clanked along through the pandan palms I felt waves of adventurer’s bliss about the journey, the setting and the destination that beckoned ahead as a small portal in the long wall of tantalising trees. This was a commute that I could really relish and a reminder of the privileged nature of the work that I do. Then from an eyes wide open expanse beneath a big blue sky the world narrows into a dark tunnel of shaded trees for a short distance before you arrive at the research camp in a clearing, which I will describe in my next post.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

http://www.borneonaturefoundation.org/en/

 

Sinharaja Forest Reserve – UNESCO World Heritage Site

I finally got to have a guided walk in the Sinharaja Forest Reserve on my last day in Deniyaya. I’m used to doing this on my own, but guides are compulsory and I enjoyed the company of a French and Dutch couple who were also staying at the Deniyaya National Motel backpacker’s hostel. Up until then I had been investigating the encroachment into the reserve by the surrounding tea estates, as well as an “Ecolodge” that shouldn’t really be inside the reserve. The Deniyaya National Motel is a great budget place to stay in close proximity to Sinharaja and the scenic tea estates in that area. The owner Sidney Karunawardana, who wasn’t there at the time, provided me with a discounted room for my stay there. It was a cosy little room directly overlooking a pond in the back garden where every night I could photograph and record the chorus of several  different species of frogs. Beyond that was a rice paddy and a Buddhist temple with daily chanting harmonisingwith the frog chorus.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Sinharaja Forest Reserve is both a Biosphere Reserve and a World Heritage Site, being a biodiversity hotspot and the last significant patch of lowland rain forest remaining in Sri Lanka. It is only 21 km (13 mi) from east to west, and a maximum of 7 km (4.3 mi) from north to south, but it is a treasure trove of endemic species, including trees, insects, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals. Given that it is such a relatively small area, and you can see that from the photos that I’ve included of the map at the information centre, it is vitally important that far greater protection measures are introduced to prevent the inexorable erosion of the forest around the perimeter as I have witnessed.

 

 

 

 

Sidney Karunawardana, has been committed to trying to protect the forest for many years, and is using the profits from his hostels for that purpose, but it has been a frustrating cause for him because of the deep-rooted corruption and lack of enforcement that is so endemic in many Asian countries, as I know only too well from Palawan. He is working independently to maximise the focus of his efforts, but in so doing he is hamstrung by a lack of funding, and is hoping that he can generate sufficient income from his hostels to implement a public awareness campaign including targeting children, which is vital for the long-term survival of this incredible patch of rain forest. I have a very long connection with Sri Lanka going back to 1983 when I first went there. Although there are so many other places, and particularly rain forests that I want to get involved with to protect them, I feel an obligation to do whatever I can to help Sidney with his conservation efforts. He faces apathy and suppression of information within Sri Lanka, and hopefully I can play a part by creating more publicity and awareness through my photos and writing. I will have to try to get back there to see if I can get a permit to go deeper into the primary forest to take more photos. On this relatively short walk I was hampered by poor lighting and not having my workhorse 17-40mm zoom lens available.

 

Endemic Sri lankan green pit viper (Trimeresurus trigonocephalus)

 

Green vine snake (Ahaetulla nasuta)

 

 

Endemic hump-nosed lizard (Lyriocephalus scutatus)

 

 

 

Endemic Sri Lanka kangaroo lizard (Otocryptis wiegmanni)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I discovered how incredible and beautiful it is in just a 5 hour walk along a path on the fringe of the reserve that is disturbed by motorbikes passing through to the next village. I was amazed at how much of the biodiversity we saw in this disturbed portion of the forest that isn’t even primary forest as far as I could tell. We saw 3 species of reptiles and 3 species of snakes, along with many invertebrates, squirrels and monkeys. The highlight for me was a beautiful green vine snake that I handled, which was hypnotised by its reflection in my macro lens, and even lunged at it. We found some big millipedes, which I love, and I persuaded my companions to handle one to see how it feels as its myriad feet flow in waves over your skin with a slightly sticky feeling. We reached a beautiful waterfall where I had a most refreshing swim. The known species that we saw were the endemic Sri lankan green pit viper (Trimeresurus trigonocephalus), green vine snake (Ahaetulla nasuta), the endemic hump-nosed lizard (Lyriocephalus scutatus), the endemic Sri Lanka kangaroo lizard (Otocryptis wiegmanni) and the endemic purple faced leaf monkey (Trachypithecus vetulus).

 

 

 

 

 

Endemic purple faced leaf monkey (Trachypithecus vetulus)