lunes, 20 de marzo de 2017

5 day trek through the Sumatran jungle - Volunteering with OHP

The best part of this two weeks was definitely the five days we spent in the jungle, doing what? Mainly looking for wild orangutans to observe their behaviour but also to collect samples from the plants that they use in order to keep on collaborating with the research that is held in terms of their medicinal properties. and to analyse the efficacy of natural self-medicative behaviour in treating parasitic infections.

It is important to know that although our main aim is to find them, you are not guaranteed to see one in that time, so although I had all the hope, we had to be prepared for anything. Our first day started trekking through the Landak river in order to get to our camp. 

We were six of us plus Wanda, Joyo and our jungle chef! After seeing the amount of weight that they were carrying on their backs, I think now one dare to even complain about our heavy backpacks. Although I tried really hard to take the least possible, there are basic stuff that you need to bring, specially when you know that you’ll probably be wet 80% of the time and that anything that is not inside a plastic bag will get wet as well. Drying in the rainforest is almost not an option, since it rains every day, humidity is very high all the time and the sun can difficultly penetrate the clouds and the dense forestation. 

Our camp was in a lovely spot right by the river, at first the plan was to stay there for two nights maybe and then move, but everything was subject to change. First day after we left all of our stuff in the camp we started exploring the area going up one of the hills. The next day turned up to be, a VERY intense day. Very steep hills which made not only the way up difficult but the way down quite dangerous when they were no trees to hang on to. Although it was a great day since we got to see some very cools spots in the jungle and worked really hard to find some orangutans, we did not spot any. The good thing about it was that now one from the group was upset or negative about this fact, personally I felt very optimistic and thought it was just a matter of time. 

And I was not wrong, after we got back to the camp and the sun was coming down, Wanda spotted one by chance while he was sitting on a rock on the river. Big adult male probably getting ready to go back to his nest up in the three (really high). We all left what we were doing and just sat near him and watched. Good thing was that, as it was already dusk, he would likely stay around the area and spend the night there. So early next morning we came back and he was still there. We observed him for a few hours, were lucky to actually get some fecal samples and awesome pictures thanks to Claire camera, and then left him alone to go on. It is important to know when the animal is already getting a bit uncomfortable with your presence, so it was enough for us. 

PH: Mallory Abel

Having Wanda with his map of the jungle on his head has no prize. He took us one afternoon to this amazing waterfall which we obviously underestimated how hard was going to be to get there. We climbed uphill through all this wet  steep rocks to get to a locations that seemed like a waterfall taken from the movie “The jungle book”. 

PH: Mallory Abel

PH: Mallory Abel 

PH: Mallory Abel

PH: Mallory Abel

We had already seen one wild orangutan but we wanted more, and we got more. One of the last days we were trekking through this hill and suddenly a small juvenile orangutan appeared, we thought It could be around five or six years old and Wanda told us he might have been independent for a short time. He was much more active than the other one we had seen so we could get some really cool shots of him climbing from branch to branch at an impressive height. It was the most amazing ending for one of the best weeks of my time abroad. 

All of this experience would not have been the same if it wasn't for the amazing group I was lucky enough to meet. Everyone of them has something I take with me as a lesson and these kind of people is the one that make me want to improve  every day and continue following my passion for wildlife and conservation. 

domingo, 15 de enero de 2017

Volunteering with OHP - The people, Coconut, the first days and the practice trek.

My first volunteer program with a non profit organisation that does research with willd animals was something that I had always expected and idealised. Here is what I encountered and how I lived it. 
I had booked this volunteer program six months ago so the days before actually getting there (even though I was spending christmas holidays in Thailand with close friends) were inevitably of a lot of anxiousness and nerves, not knowing really what to expect, if it was going to be hard, if I was going to be of help, usual questions. 
Arriving to Medan, biggest city of the Sumatra Island, part of Indonesia, was a very long trip of one day and a half of several different transports, but I did it in the end. Hoping to actually find someone expecting me on the arrivals gate at Medan airport there she was, Maureen(US), the first face to this project that I met and later renamed "Sugar mama". She is one of the PA (Project assistants) of the station that OHP (Orangutan Health Project) holds near Bukit Luwang and the Gunung Leuser National Park. After meeting the second face which was my fellow volunteer Nina(AUS), we directed ourselves to a shopping mall. To set you a little bit in the indonesian people living here and how little they are used to seeing people like us (westerns), I’ll tell you about our lunchtime in the mall, where several girls and actually a father approached us because they wanted to take selfies with us. Something that obviously Mo was already used to since the PA’s live here for six months, but to Nina and me it was kind of a shock.
Getting to Coconut (home, three hours away from Medan by car) was a long trip as well by car in a route that is partially destroyed by the amount of huge trucks with palm oil fruit that come from the palm oil plantations that completely mine the route between Bukit and Medan. This is something that we were going to learn more about later. 
Coconut was going to our home for the next two weeks, except for the days that we were going to be in the jungle camping during the long trek. This station is like the office of the project here in Sumatra and is the place where the PA’s live, where most of the samples are held(plants, fecal), data entry is made and things like photos or footage of the orangutans is processed. It is as well like a base for us, the short term volunteers to collaborate with administrative tasks and anything we can get our hands on. It is in a small neighbourhood surrounded by rice fields, from the back deck, and in the following days our favourite place to hang out, you have in my opinion the best view of the house. Coconut is a fifteen minute drive from Bohorok, small town that counts with a minimart and some other small shops, and more or less the same distance but going the opposite way you will find Bukit Lawang so we were kind of in the middle of nowhere.
In spite of that, or the mosque praying at 4;30 am, or the roosters, or Salem the cat or the litches I was very happy there the whole time. The best way to describe this special and cozy place that took us in is by photos. 

After leaving our stuff in our new room it was time to meet the rest of the team. The other two PA’s were Mallory(US) and Hannah (AUS) and last but not least, our other two volunteers Claire or Mama(FR), and Daniel(RO). Together we were going to start a two week living together experience that could have worked out in different ways given that we were all strangers, from different countries, ages and in a place where there were no luxuries and things work quite differently than we are used to. However, after a couple of hours of chatting and telling some things about each of us and our lives I had the feeling that everything was going to work out just fine, since we were all kind of with a common purpose that is that we love animals and conservation, we want to collaborate and above all, learn and gain experience. 

The first days were merely adaptation, learning a bit how things work at the house in terms of the water, the bathroom, electricity, etc. Also learn some of the etiquette related to the community in which Coconut is placed, how to dress being a girl, and how to behave in a part of Indonesia where 87% of the people are muslims. The next day the girls (PA’S) gave us some presentations to inform us about the project in a more detailed way. Also we had some orangutan behaviour, a bit of parasitology which is a very important part of Ivona`s study (Dr. Ivona Foitova, in charge of OHP) and last one about a problematic issue that affects orangutans in an indrect way, palm oil plantations. A lot of the territory occupied by trees that are used by the orangutans (and many other animals) as home to build their nests is being cleared to make room for palm oil plantations. Without being extremist about this issue since this is the economic sustentation of many of the locals in the area, it is something to pay attention to. We use in our daily life a lot of products that include this component and there are some important and well known brands that are committed to only or mostly use palm oil from plantations which soil was already being used for agriculture, so no forest was cleared. This is a way to collaborate with these issue so, let’s get informed!

One of the best things about these days was having the opportunity to have a closer and daily contact with local people and living in Coconut allowed us that. Our delicious meals where prepared by Mami, being (we think) around 70 years old she came every early morning of every day and cooked us breakfast and left us food prepared for lunch and dinner. Everything was so healthy, tasty and the best part, vegetarian. With white rice as a common base to all dishes, my palate experimented an explosion of new flavours and became spicy friendly. Now we need spicy to light up things a bit. So every morning when I wake up I would go and get my coffee and Mami would be there cooking, welcoming you with a smile and ready to have a three-phrase dialogue in bahasa (indonesian language) with the few expressions I picked up from listening to the girls and reading “Instant indonesian”.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    The day of the practice trek in the river and It was finally time to meet our guide for the jungle, the already famous before you meet him, Wanda. He has been a guide for more than 20 years and met Ivona in 2001, that’s when he started to be a participant in OHP and now is a very important part given that he directs all the treks where the short term volunteers and PA’s go to the jungle, and his presence is vital because he is the one that has the legal permits necessary to collect samples from the jungle. Not to mention that we would probably end up lost in the middle of the jungle with no way out without his directions. 

Early in the morning the next day and anxious about our first real activity out of Coconut everyone was up and ready to get a quick breaky (delicious Mami made porridge with banana which I already miss), grab the little bag we prepared since we were only going out for a few hours, and started walking towards the road to get our bus towards Bukit Lawang. The practice trek took us almost all morning and consisted on going through an area of rubber plantations to get to the Landak river which we were going to be crossing a few times and walking on it a lot. Walking on the river is more difficult than it seems, first of all, stones are VERY slippery, even with water proper shoes, and second, the water current is much stronger than it looks and can destabilise you sometimes. Once we got to a hill, we started climbing and the more tricky part started. Hands, nails on the mud, strong arms on the trees, everything was necessary to grab onto and not slide given that the soil is so slippery out there. Wanda would go in the front talking out loud about plants that we saw in the way, or some of the 41 species of monkeys that Indonesia has. Every curious insect or spider or whatever we would stop and ask. On the way back we got to see some Thomas leaf monkeys near the rubber plantations and a macaque as well which was quite a treat for our first visit to the jungle. This is called the practice trek because it allows us to know what to expect for the long trek of five days in terms of physical intensity, rhythm of walking, weather conditions, jungle conditions etc, and also allows the guide to know which kind of walkers he is guiding. Thankfully we got a compliment of Wanda saying we were all pretty good trekkers, ha! 

Tired but happy with the trek we collapsed in the chairs of a very nice to place to eat in Bukit Lawing with a wide view of the river and the town. Bukit Lawing is the most touristy place around the area since the entrance to the national park where the people come to see the orangutans is on the edge of the “city". There’s other things to do as well around but that’s the main attraction. Clothes shops, some wood carving artists and a lot of guesthouses fill up the little streets. Some bridges with not very reliable stability connect the two sides and you can see people going down the river on this big black inflatable donuts, which look like a lot of fun I have to say.

We ended up our day chilling out at Rainforest guesthouse, a very cheerful and well located guesthouse where the girls come and stay every weekend they are off from Coconut. This place has like a little living room with hammocks that looks out to the river and seemed at the moment the perfect spot to just chill and enjoy.