Where Did Julie Disappear To?

Admittedly this is a question that my loved ones ask a bit too frequently. I am rather difficult to keep track of. I often don’t know myself where I might end up. I do concede that blogs work better when the writer is engaged and keen to give the avid reader new and consistent material. It would appear that so far I am not off to a great start. I do however have a good excuse: I was in the jungle. Now that’s a line even I haven’t used before.
Oh how glamourous, how exotic, how frightening, you are surely thinking. In theory, yes, in practice, not quite. I have been posted at the Danau Alo Station, one of two operated by the Frankfurt Zoological Society (for whom I am working). It is somewhere in south central Sumatra, in the forest buffering Bukit Tigapuluh National Park. This station is home to about a dozen young orangutans. All are being coached in wild living, although none are quite ready for total independence yet. I did spend quite a bit of time observing the orangutans and their routines (more on that in future, more timely blog posts), but that was not my main mission this trip. This November Danau Alo hosted the FZS Basic Ranger Training and I was sent to follow and report on the event.
So by now you are thinking: damn it Julie, you promised me millions of pictures of cuddly baby orangutans! This may or may not be true, but the question at hand is where did I disappear to, and this is after all my story. As I said, I was in the jungle. True much of the time I was at a relatively comfortable camp in a clearing, near a gentle creek surrounded by jungle. But there were days (and some nights) that I found myself really, truly, in the jungle. Immersed in parts of the forest that you only find if you are so inclined to work your butt off to access them.
Let me begin by dispelling the myth that being a photo journalist in Sumatra is a glamourous job. Sumatra on a cool day is 30 C degrees with humidity giving that number a steroidal boost. Most days, however, the air feels like you are lying in a hammock, over a cauldron of water boiling on the surface of the sun. Let me tell you, no one, especially not a pale skinned redhead, looks glamourous when their face is melting off. Ranger training takes place partly in a classroom and around camp. So I poke around, snap some photos, pretend I understand the lectures being delivered in Bahasa Indonesian, then retreat to my porch to write (until my lap top inevitably dies, the generator is only turned on for a few hours each night) and drink tea. But rangers don’t work in a classroom. FZS rangers roam the forest for two weeks at a time, always searching for illegal activities and signs of rare and important animals. It follows that the majority of the training will not take place in a classroom or around camp. And so I find myself tripping over vines, sliding down steep muddy banks, being torn up by thorns and swarmed by biting ants and mosquitos.
Shooting great photos in this environment is hindered by several factors. First, humidity means that your lens is always fogged. Leaving the lens cap off helps with this, but makes stumbling under, over and through the zillions of obstacles that much more nerve racking (my lens is worth more than I am, and for that reason not replaceable at present). So once you’ve beaten and bruised yourself, all in the name of keeping the precious lens out of harms way, you set up for the shot. Here, a bigger set of challenges presents itself. One, the forest canopy doesn’t usually offer the best light, and chasing the freakishly fast moving–and chain smoking (!?!)–rangers around makes a tripod unideal. When you do get the lighting right there always seems to be a vine or a leaf or a tree in your shot, then when you move, the rangers move and your shot is gone. In my opinion, the thing that really makes for an engaging picture of a person is their face. To get that you have to be in front of them. Far enough in front that you have time to both set up and make your subject forget about you and behave naturally. Well, the person in the front carries the machete, not something I am going to swing around near my camera. So to get ahead of the group means charging the forest in it’s most dense and fearsome state. Or maybe we are walking down a river bed, in theory providing for more ease of travel. Then getting in front means simply jogging ahead of the pack. Well, river bottoms are not flat, and they are certainly slippery. Wipe outs happen. When they do I am forced to perform ridiculous contortions, bruising everything but my arm holding the camera high above head. Now lets say I am in position, I am waiting for the perfect moment, staring unblinking through the viewfinder. This is where all my zen training comes into practice. For as I wait mosquitoes buzz in my ears, sweat drips salty into my eyes, many legged creatures taunt the nerve endings of any exposed skin. I must keep all of this out of my mind until the shutter has clicked. Then I have a silent mental freak out because there is no way I want these young men to think they are stuck dragging around some wimpy white chick.
I suppose this does sound a bit exotic, perhaps more so frightening. The jungle is indeed home to many iconically scary things: tigers, king cobras and giant spiders, to name but a few. But moving around in such big groups generally scares all of these things away. I think the forest can more aptly be described as icky. There are leeches everywhere, I have an itchy rash on both my forearms from I don’t know what (the theories are some sort of spore found on leaves, or fleas, or heat rash???), my legs have been thoroughly cut up by rattan thorns, ants seem to love making a home out of my backpack, everything is damp or downright wet all the time. The environment does not exactly abound with human comforts.
Of course I am playing up the discomforts, indeed the list could go on. But dwelling on all the creepy, icky, uncomfortable aspects of the jungle takes away from the experience. There is so much life here. Life literally layered on life in an astoundingly complex tapestry. We find majestic buttressed trees, giants that know time on a different scale. There are insects displaying such precise mimicry that they are scarcely seen. Plants in all stages of their life cycles offer hints at the intricate workings of the system. Serene waterfalls inspire awe and silent appreciation in all who gaze upon them. This is truly a wondrous place. Despite the bruises, the scars, the bites, it is a pleasure being lost in the jungle for a while. It is an excuse I will certainly use again.

This entry was published on December 3, 2012 at 12:22. It’s filed under Working at field stations and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

2 thoughts on “Where Did Julie Disappear To?

  1. Sandra on said:

    Sounds like a great adventure so far! Thanks for sharing and keep them coming 🙂

    • Thank you. I have just recently discovered that you can set the posts to release at specific times in the future. So my plan is to have an update every Wednesday and Sunday, with possible bonus posts if something truly exciting happens.

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