Ulu Sawe

by Cam Webb, Research Associate
November 9, 2012

River Isal

Ulu Sawe

I’m back in Wahai, looking out over low tide in the sheltered lagoon in front of the guesthouse. We’re taking our first rest day since the trip began, and just returned from snorkeling and fishing. Team members Acun and Endro are avid fishermen and had, until this morning, been skunked in every river and bay that they had tried in Seram. However, Acun’s luck changed on this morning’s trip and we just enjoyed the sizable fish he brought in, grilled with garlic and crushed chili, along with swami, a steamed, bread-like starch made from cassava root flour.

A lot has happened since my last post. I went back up to “Unit O,” and hiked 100 km west to Kaloa with locals Agung, Jon, and PD (our cook from Masihulan). Since we had been planning to take a lot of the supplies in with us, I had lined up eight day porters the night before we set off. However, due to a series of misunderstandings about prices and expected duration of employment—combined with posturing and solidarity on their part and some misreading and mishandling of the situation on my part—the porters walked out on us after sharing a pre-trip breakfast. I was humbled by the experience, recognizing that despite my significant negotiation experience within some Indonesian cultures, I knew next to nothing about how to get things right out here in Eastern Indonesia. I was stressing about this on the walk in, though when we sat down for a rest the three locals who did come with me expressed their surprise and embarrassment at the rudeness of the missing porters.

We arrived back in Kaloa without rain, and I was again treated to the kindness of the people in this very small village. In the evening I met with two of the village elders (Mateas and Lukas) and discovered the tragic history of this community. Asking why it was so small (just 12 houses), they said it used to be huge, numbering more than a thousand people. The site of Kaloa was formerly on the other side of the Isal river, at the mouth of the Rara river which I had explored with Yustus a few days ago looking for a suitable research camp. However, at some time in the 1950s, a devastating epidemic passed through Kaloa. Most of the people died, often within just three days of getting sick. The original village site was abandoned and the survivors set up the tiny villages of Elemata and (new) Kaloa on the east side of the Isal. The pain of the death of old Kaloa was evident on the faces of the elders remembering that time. When I asked Lukas what he would like the rest of the world to know about Kaloa, he said, “its culture and traditions.” I asked more about this, and while they did describe a (now dying) tradition of basketry and rattan weaving, what Lukas seemed to be referring to was their culture of dance and song. He described village dances that went on for days, and songs of multi-part harmony. As so often happens out here, I was reminded that it is not just the biological diversity that rapidly is going extinct.

River Isal

Agung and PD crossing the unpredictable, wide river Isal.

Yustus, Nus, Agung, PD and I set off the next day to find the perfect camp site. We crossed the Isal, no longer in flood, and cut through the tall alluvial forest to the Sawe River. I was aiming for a site about a two-hours hike up the gravelly river bed, where on our recce I had found low, rounded hills with Shorea selanica that would offer a nice ridge/valley contrast for our forest plots. However, during the previous evening’s discussion with Lukas and Mateas, I had described what I was looking for: rounded ridges, not slippery, unstable, knife-edge ridges, and they had pointed me towards the hill they called “Kehutupe.” I thought it important to explore this option, as I was still looking for sandy ridge tops that would cause significant drought stress for the trees in the dry season. Leaving our packs and the others by the Sawe, Yustus and I continued up the smaller Wehe river and got out on a long, narrow ridge of rattan palms. This was the traditional route cutting through to the Mual and Toluarang rivers to the west, but it did not look like anyone had come this way for a while.

Finally, after a discouraging half hour of slipping and being grabbed by the razor-sharp hooks of rattan, we climbed onto a wide, very flat plateau that seemed surprising in the context of its surrounding landscape. Clearly this was the remains of a level, sandstone sediment layer, and the soils looked acidic and humus-deep like those in similar situations in Borneo. Most amazingly, I spotted a seedling that rang a bell with me. Looking at the distinctive brown glands on the secondary nerves, I recognized a Vatica. I was extremely excited, since I’d just read in Edwards et al (1993; in The Ecology of Seram) that “the Moluccan endemic, Shorea selanica (“meranti”), is the only Dipterocarp species to occur in these lowland forests of north Seram.” Had I had found a significant new record expanding the distribution of dipterocarps? I also had a digital copy of Peter Ashton’s Flora Malesiana treatment for dipterocarps, and noted that Vatica ressak, the most likely candidate, occurs elsewhere in Maluku but was not listed as occurring in Seram. I’ll need to check this when I can access the internet, but for the moment it feels like a fun, albeit minor, discovery.

Returning to the others, we set off for the proposed campsite, another hour up the Sawe. As we arrived the rain started, but we found a suitable flat site high enough above the river to resist flooding. Within an hour we had hung a blue tarpaulin to shelter the bags, created a fire-pit, and a cleared area for my hammock. That evening, we were treated to the first of PD’s incredible meals. Hands down, he is the best field cook I have ever had the pleasure of working with, conjuring up from his magic bag of spices restaurant-quality sauces for fish (fresh and dried) and vegetables.

Ulu Sawe

Our cook, ‘PD’ working his magic in front of our camp at Ulu Sawe.

Next morning, I set to work teaching Yustus and Agung how to lay out a 50 m x 50 m survey plot. They took to it rapidly, and soon Yustus was shooting dead-straight lines through tangled rattan and mud in what was to be the first of six plots: an alluvial forest site across the river from our camp. In the afternoon, I taught them how to label the trees with the aluminum tags they had helped make the previous night, and measure the trees with a forester’s diameter tape. After working with them in just a few 10 m x 10 m subplots, I was confident in their ability and started to work on identifying the trees and collecting fallen leaves, the fun part for me. Just then, the skies opened again and we rushed back to the camp in the strengthening rain. Within a half hour, the river had risen significantly, turning from a crystal clear brook into a brown torrent.

The storm passed by 6:00pm. As I retired to my hammock after dinner the stars were coming out. Next day dawned with blue skies behind a low mist, the trees still dripping from the previous day’s rain. Yustus and Agung continued on with the tree tagging, while I focused on the trees’ identifications:  the first tree was a Garcinia (its ultra-yellow sap the source of artists’ “gambouge” paint), then a Rubiaceae, an Artocarpus (locally “gomu”), an ebony, and so forth. I collect fallen leaves and/or shoot them out of the tree with a catapult, in order to keep track of how many “morphotypes” of plants are in the plot and hence determine which need to eventually be collected for DNA, wood, and botanical specimens. Most interesting was the dominance, both numerically and in terms of species, of the nutmeg family Myristicaceae, which becomes increasingly diverse as one travels eastwards in Indonesia. As a family, the trees are unmistakable with their red sap and distinctive nutmeg aroma.

Despite this, the overall composition of this alluvial forest was not strikingly different from one in Borneo, although it was clear the diversity was going to be less. Not for the first time on this trip, I was nagged by doubts about our standard disperalist model of forest formation in Eastern Indonesia:  that all the species have arrived independently via rare, long-distance dispersal events. How can it be that almost all the elements of a Bornean forest have come together in such a similar way on the other side of vast distances of empty water? Surely there must have been a land connection at some time. But that’s not what the geological story seems to say.

I had finished two rows, or 0.1 ha, by 1:00pm when it began to rain again. We went back to camp and had lunch as the rain picked up. Thunderclaps and twilight darkness signaled a major rainstorm. The river began to flood again and had risen a meter within just an hour of rain, becoming a terrifying brown force, sluicing down the valley bottom. Watching its deadly power, I made a decision that I had pondered for a while. I had been very troubled by the rivers, especially the deep, wide Isal, since we started exploring this region. I was sleeping poorly, plagued by what I had begun to call the “three-bee jeebees”:  waking too early from the sound of the frogs, the dripping forest, the river (quiet again by the dawn hours), and imagining team members being swept away or cut off for days from resupply by a swollen Isal.

So, despite the good campsite, the weeks already invested in this location, the promising forest, the “kehutupe” plateau, and some of my own pride, I decided to retreat and move to another site. Where that would be was not immediately clear, but clearly the safety of the team had to be paramount. If this had been a military operation, or even one formed solely of volunteers, we might have stuck it out. However, there was too high a risk of someone drowning (our three Javanese team members cannot swim), of getting cut off by the Isal without communication, or having team members trapped downstream on the Sawe and away from the campsite as night approached. Also at risk was the likelihood of wasting hours and hours each day in a damp, depressed huddle under the blue tarps, as the rain began earlier and earlier each day. After all, we were heading into the rainy season, not out of it!

Next morning, we packed up and headed back to Kaloa. As usual, the sky was blue and the river back to a crystal ribbon. I was tempted to doubt my decision, but the giant, building cumulus clouds, even at ten in the morning, assured me this was the right course. The problem was finding another site. In the park, the suitable area of non-limestone, rolling lowlands was bounded both to the east and west by rivers, the Isal and Toluarang respectively. Ironically and frustratingly, the hill behind Kaloa was a perfect site, even though much of it had been logged:  high, rounded ridges; well-drained soil; rivers full of hard sandstone boulders; and open, palm-free forest understories. However, this hill lies outside of the park, beyond the bounds of my research permit. It would have taken days and days of office visits, and no doubt would have involved snag after snag, trying to access this site with correct permission. In the end, I chose to set up a plot in the alluvial lowlands near the coast, easily accessible via the north coast road running through the park. I’ll pick up with this story next.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *