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Mount Kinabalu: Love and Loathing in the Rainforest


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The hole-in-the-head frog (Huia cavitympanum), a species endemic to Borneo.

The hole-in-the-head frog (Huia cavitympanum), a species endemic to Borneo.

Camping in the tropical rainforest is an experience I both love and loathe. I’ve just arrived in a beautiful encampment deep in the primary forest of Mount Kinabalu. The station lies on the banks of a fast-flowing stream that is lined by big, mossy boulders. On one side lie the barracks, simple bamboo constructions with blue tarp tied over them—one for men (as indicated by a sign that reads “MEN CAMP”) and one for camp staff. Women sleep in little dome tents.

On the other side of the river is a wooden building with a metal roof and improvised porch where staff prepare meals three times a day. There is even a small prayer tent of the same bamboo and tarp construction as the barracks (Malaysia is an Islamic nation).

View over the campsite.

View over the campsite.

Looking up from the barracks, the view is spectacular. Steep forested slopes disappear into the cloud deck high above. The camp is surrounded by a wall of trees, each almost an ecosystem in itself, with hundreds of orchids, palms, ferns, lichens, and climbers growing on it. Up high in the canopy they catch more light and escape grazing from animals like deer that can’t climb.

These epiphytes, plants that grow on other plants without hurting them, in turn provide resources for a vast array of animals. For instance, many epiphytes are shaped a bit like a cup and have a small pool of rainwater standing in them. Insects, spiders and frogs live and reproduce in these tiny pools and yet other animals drink from them.

The "men camp."

The "men camp."

Nothing is more soothing than lying in your bed under the starry sky, falling asleep to the chirping and croaking of the forest life. On the other hand, staying in this kind of environment for any length of time takes its toll on your body. Beds consist of stretchers like those you see in old war films, two wooden poles with a heavy canvas slung between them—damp and not very comfortable, but at least they keep you dry when it rains and a torrent of water makes its way down the floor.

The air is incredibly humid. Anything not carefully stowed away in plastic bags sucks up the moisture like a sponge. If you leave your sweaty clothes out to dry, you only find them more drenched in the morning. Don’t even think about doing laundry! Other agonies of the rainforest—and indeed the tropics in general—are the many scary diseases and parasites you can contract. Dengue, malaria, and bilharzia, to name just a few. Less serious, but unavoidable in the Heart of Borneo, are the land leaches that literally throw themselves upon you whenever you stop for a break.

My feelings of love and loathing are about to deepen. Since most field stations don’t have the capacity for a group forty strong, we are split up across five different stations during our stay on Mount Kinabalu. Among the biologists here are Rachel Schwallier and Merlijn Jocqué. Together, we are preparing for a two-day trek to the mountain ridge above us at 3,000 meters, to the edge of the moss forest.

We hope to find two of Mount Kinabalu’s spectacular pitcher plants, as well as frogs that may breed inside them. This ridge is home to one of only three known populations of a pitcher plant called Nepenthes edwardsiana, the pitchers of which grow an amazing half a meter tall. At the field station (900 meters) you find a type of vegetation known as lower montane forest. Above about 2,000 meters this changes into what we call moss forest. This type of forest grows so high that it is nearly always engulfed in clouds. Up there it is cold and wet. Trees are smaller and every available surface is covered in a thick blanket of moss. Just the kind of habitat that many pitcher plants thrive in.

No existing paths lead up to the ridge, so we will need to cut a way through the forest while carrying research equipment and supplies for two days. It will be a tough climb. Thankfully, we can count on the help of a local guide, Sukaibin Sumail, and two porters, for if not it would be a mission doomed to fail. Still, it will take us most of a day to hike up the steep mountainside.

We leave early tomorrow morning and then we will be off the grid completely until our return. In the mean time, I’ve asked my fellow expedition members to send you stories of their experiences in the field. Stay tuned.

Previously in this series:

Mystery of the Mountain
Mount Kinabalu: First Sight of the Summit
Mount Kinabalu: In the Footsteps of Wallace

Joris van Alphen About the Author: Joris van Alphen is a photographer and filmmaker from the Netherlands who specializes in science and nature reporting. When he's not working on his next story he pursues a MSc in marine biology at the University of Groningen. Follow on Twitter @jorisvanalphen.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Glendon Mellow 9:15 pm 09/30/2012

    I love these photos. That garish pink and purple sky is something only nature (and a master photographer) can get away with.

    Link to this

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