Up for air

by Cam Webb, Research Associate
October 23, 2012

Cam Webb Flower

Up for air

Cam Webb Flower

A flower from our first collection, xm-402, smells like honey.

Believe it or not, I managed to connect via sloooooow cell phone GPRS at 4:30 in the morning in Wahai, North Seram, and can send this report. I am just out of the forest after five days of trekking around, looking for a camp location. Tired (but this feels good) and wet, wet, wet. If there’s one thing I would change about this trip, it would be to have left a couple months earlier. Now, we’re just entering the beginning of the wet season, and the rain has been very heavy for two to four hours every afternoon, coming from giant convection thunderstorms forming at the windward edge of the northern mountains.

The forest stays wet, even in the morning sun, and so do I. It’s a great pleasure now to be under a roof, with dry air and dry sheets, at a picturesque waterfront guesthouse in Wahai.

The survey has been quite productive in terms of information gained about the forest types, geology and topography, and logistic routes. Our entry will be via a Javanese transmigration site called ‘Unit
O’ (now about 15 years old) to the east of the northern sector of the Manusela lowlands. We can reach Unit O by car or motorbike and store supplies at a house owned by the national park service and rented by a young couple who operate a basic general store. They will let us run up a tab, so that we can send out for vegetables and replenish supplies without sending cash. From Unit O, it’s a 4- to 6-hour hike (unladen/laden) through logged forest to the small, indigenous village of Kaloa, a tiny place of only about ten houses.

In a previous post I pointed out Elemata on GoogleEarth; Kaloa looks identical from the air, but even smaller. I had also wondered where the fields were in the satellite image: dumb question…the residents are of course sago eaters, so the areas generating this staple are not field but forest. We have been warmly received by the head of Kaloa, the bapak raja (a colonial Dutch-instigated term meaning the ‘father king’), who insists we stay in his dirt-floored home if we must spend the night. Waking in the misty dawn, hearing the shrieks of cockatoos from the outlined shapes of the giant trees that still surround Kaloa, I feel as far from anywhere known as perhaps I ever have. Yet as ever, people are people, and the farther you get from big towns, the kinder and more down-to-earth they become. Our three forest guides for the last five days, Yustus, Nus, and Agung, have been wonderful: hard-working and very considerate of our “forest clumsiness.”

Wai Sawe River

Our guide, Yustus, leading us up the Wai Sawe.

With them, we forded the Wai (river) Isal in its wide, gravel-strewn channel, and entered the park. Giant Eucalyptus deglupta trees, with their blue-, green- and red-striped trunks, line the riverbanks, letting me know I’m not in Borneo. The floodplain forest that stretches for a kilometer either side of the river is magnificent in its very existence. Trees of this size have gone from most of the forests like this throughout Indonesia. Canarium, Aglaia, Anthocephalus, and Octomeles are common.

As we explored, we followed tributaries into the low hills. As predicted by the prior geology reports, this is an area of weathered sandstone, siltstone, and limestone. The tilted limestone layers form sharp, hard hillocks, with valuable ‘keyu besi’ (literally iron wood, Intsia palembanica) trees atop, while the siltstone weathers to slippery knife-edge ridges covered in rotan and other palms. We have also located a few wider ridges on harder sandstone which should make the most appropriate sites for our plots.

Tomorrow, I will head back in with more of the equipment and set up camp. Acun is on a supply-run to Masohi and will come back in with Endro, Yessi, and Yayah (staff from Herbarium Bogoriense) who had to delay their departure (partly because tomorrow is the important Muslim holy day of Idul Adha, when families rejoice with a meal of sacrificial beef).

Botanically speaking, I can’t wait to get to grips with the trees! So much is new to me. There seems to be a fair amount flowering, and as long as the trunks dry out enough in the sunny mornings to allow the tree climbers to grip them, we should be able to make some excellent collections.

I will probably not be able to send another post until mid November. Wish us luck!

One thought on “Up for air

  1. Best of luck Cam! Very glad to hear you’re back on Seram!
    Thanks to Kris Helgen at SI, I should be going to dinner with Tim Laman and Cheryll Knott tonight while they’re in town for Tim’s bird of paradise project talk at Nat Geo in DC, very much looking forward to meeting them.

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