Well, after two weeks of solving a neverending string of logistical, administrative, and social puzzles (too stressful and exhausting to recount here), we finally managed to set up a camp on the banks of the Kavlot River, near Kabilol. The village has been adamant that we involve as many people as possible in our enterprise, to share the work and wages, and so with 20 helpers we set off last Monday in three ‘longboats’ with our small mountain of food and equipment. The site we picked (the previous Saturday) is best accessed via a picturesque boat ride up the main Mantekit River draining the large watershed west of Kabilol, and then a very muddy slog across a soggy alluvial plain.
The Mantekit River trip is only about 45 minutes, through tall, intact mangrove swamp; then from a very narrow transitional Nypa palm section into a large area of sago palm swamp. The sago trees provide the majority of the starch for the residents of Kabilol, and we passed eight large palm-thatched huts on the river bank. This is where the villagers stay while they work a tree, cutting it just as it is about to flower (when the starch is being mobilized internally), grating the pith of the tree, and then washing the mashed pith through a fine mesh to capture a starchy meal. This energy-packed meal can be dried in blocks (“sago iris”), which are eaten dry or dunked in coffee as a portable snack (not my favorite; cardboard anyone?), or cooked wet with water to make papeda (see previous Seram blog entries). Our companions say they spend about a week every month working in the sago orchards.
After passing a sacred hill (where we had left offerings of cigarettes and betel nut on a prior reconnaissance trip), we landed on the south bank of the river and managed to load up everyone so that only one trip to the campsite was necessary. After a narrow disturbed zone near the sago trees, where some open gardens had been cut and some trees felled for local building needs, we entered tall, primary forest on a vast alluvial plain. This is the kind of forest that is always the first to go for agricultural needs: easy to access, with very fertile soils. We’ve been having a lot of rain, and drainage is poor on this large flat area; the water table is just inches below the surface in places, meaning that a column of feet soon becomes a trail of mud. Interspersed with these soggy areas are what must be slight domes of marginally higher ground that are more solid under foot and accumulate some leaf litter. The forest itself is tall, with a relatively low level of natural tree-fall disturbance, indicating that despite being wet, the soil provided good purchase for tree roots.
The day-porters unloaded our supplies, and after a cup of tea and biscuits, headed back to the village. We had finally made it to a beautiful, if rather wet, parcel of lowland forest. On Tuesday, we set straight to work, laying out our 0.25-ha plots, measuring tree diameters and, for me, beginning to solve the sweet riddle of tree diversity: how many kinds, what are they, which species are new, and which “cool?” The methods match our previous trips to Borneo and Seram, so if you are interested you can look back at previous blog postings. I’m writing this from Waisai on Monday (June 10), where I have come out to meet four counterpart scientists who will be with us for the next week (more on them later). But in the first week at Kavlot we have already finished most of the work in two plots, so I am breathing a bit easier: we now have some Papua data!
As usual, the flora is wonderfully new and exciting, but I have to admit that it may be the birds that will make this site particularly memorable. I have never been anywhere where the birds were more “present”: loud and diverse from dawn to dusk. In Borneo around midday, the birdsong usually fades out, replaced by the raucous sawing of cicadas, but here at Kavlot there is no lull. The hornbills honk and swish overhead, and the red bird of paradise seems to always be calling (the villagers point it out). I’ve never really been a birdwatcher, and in fact usually see remarkably few birds given that I spend my days in the forest looking up into the trees, but I cannot help but want to know more about the birds here.
We have a copy of the Birds of New Guinea (Beehler, B.M., T.K. Pratt, and D.A. Zimmerman. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), and I’m doing my best to identify what I see. For example, behind the camp a giant “kayu besi” (ironwood; Intsia palembanica) holds a large, noisy, and always present flock of what I make out to be metallic starlings. There is constant stream of parrots: white ones, black ones, and scarlet-plus-green-plus-red ones; I’m working on them! Frequently a pair of black-and-white ducks fly up the river, perching on high branches as they go. Most strange are the enormous round hillocks that one finds commonly in the forest, perhaps five meters in diameter and a meter tall. These are the nest-mounds of maleos: giant, decomposing compost heaps with raised internal temperatures suitable for incubating maleo eggs.
Waking up in this noisy forest is a treat, with sounds so different to ones I am used to in Borneo. Here’s a recording [mp3] made at about 5:30am (the loud popping sound is last night’s rain still dripping off the leaves; what sounds like regular, distant thunder is just Endro snoring in his hammock!). Now, in this dingy guesthouse in Waisai, just listening to this inviting symphony makes me eager to get back to the Kavlot camp.