The rainforest around the riverbed is, by its very nature, secondary forest; not only cleared for logging in the 1970s but also by virtue of the fact that it lines the ever-changing riverbed. The seasons and monsoons change the river’s mood from shallow fast flowing to deep and full flow, sweeping away riverbanks, trees and vegetation as it changes course. Primary forest is determined by the abundance of trees with a wide girth as it is this which determines the age; young trees gain height very quickly so height is not a good measure of age.
Today our mission is to walk through the jungle taking a northerly direction until we reach untouched forest (if indeed there is such a thing). It is hot and hard going from the start. The assistants with their machetes are out in front leading us up and down deep ravines, and across secret streams; little arteries of water making their way to the main river. We pick our way carefully through the multidimensional vegetation being careful not to get caught amongst the innumerable types of vine which grab your arms or feet and stop you mid-stride until you can untangle yourself. The swampy areas are the most difficult to cross as your feet disappear down small chasms of mud and water. You have to be careful to stand only on the clumps of vegetation and dodge the vicious bright green, spiky, rattan leaves which can puncture your hands should you grab them.
Amongst the treachery there is the beauty. The morning light is backlighting the ferns and leaves giving the forest a magical translucence. By midday and beyond the sun is high and more hidden, thus changing the light in the forest and making it a shade darker. It occurs to me how robust early pioneers must have been. Even the indigenous Indonesians find it an unwelcoming place, and not a place for us. I find the forest plays with my sense of direction very quickly, at times making me feeling claustrophobic. If I was abandoned here, I would not know how to get back to camp very easily; perhaps I would follow the small streams and hope it would lead me to the wide open rivers…. but how could I be sure?
One of the most surprising things about the rainforest is how little wildlife there is to see during the day. What wildlife there is seems to hug the forested river edges. Inside the forest there are occasional muddy areas which are likely to be caused by wild boar or rhino, and you can hear the calls from the gibbons, the Thomas’s langur monkeys and the long tailed macaques. All that I have seen today is the occasional butterfly, a skink, over-sized ants (some an inch long), a stick insect, spiders’ webs, dancing spiders and some honeycomb which has fallen from a tree. Plus of course the insidious leeches that find their way to your flesh. I have at least eight leech bites today alone. The best thing is to let them have their fix and wait until they fall off rather than pull them off as that leaves a little hole that bleeds.
Our research assistants do not seem to make a fuss about anything, although it is obvious that they are not enthusiastic explorers of the forest. They take regular smoking breaks filling the lovely earthy forest air with tobacco smoke, it is difficult to escape the smog. At one such break, lunch is served: spoons, a bag of boiled rice and some sauce; all carefully prepared and bagged by Ben. Although too hot and sticky to be hungry, food is a comforting thought.
After our rest we continue our forest loop, having decided that we have gone far enough into the forest, our GPS tells us to head West bringing us out at the river and just upstream from base camp. But it seems ages until we eventually arrive and where the forest gives way to the river. A relatively short trek upstream and we are back at camp. I reach for my swimming and wash bag and go to my private beach to bathe in the cool, soothing, jacuzzi-type river. I can feel the forest dirt, the sweat and the leeches leave my tired skin. I build a little inukshuk on the stony beach and take some photos in the knowledge that tomorrow we head back to Sikundur and that this is the last time I will frequent this little corner of tranquillity.
On arrival back at camp, I have a hot cup of sweet coffee and some dinner cooked by Ben; time to sort out and dry off our kit. We move our tent down from the undergrowth onto the river side away from the leeches and cockroaches. The sky is turning a dark black as rain clouds scuttle away from the mountains and towards us. The assistants will wake us up should the heavy rain cause the river to rise and swell. I sit on a driftwood log and watch the dusk being beckoned in by a flock of swifts, dipping and swooping overhead. They are accompanied by bee-eaters heading for their roosts; their lovely triangular silhouettes clear against the darkening skies. I watch small orange leaves drop into the silky green water whilst a swarm of tiny stingless bees drink the sweat on my arms, a late flying butterfly settles on our washing. The day is swiftly coming to a close. The now full moon shines into the water and guides me to the river toilet to wash and prepare for bed, another hot, sticky and rainy night ahead. I hope sleep claims me soon…