Friday, February 4, 2011

A Run Through the Jungle

The Jungle. One of our planets most fascinating and foreboding places. Deep jungles in the heart of the Amazon and Congo are the only areas left on earth that have not been touched by outside influences. The primary reason for their isolation is that dense jungle is the hardest terrain to traverse, with the possible exception of high mountain cliffs. I recently read a book called “The Lost City of Z” that describes the harrowing journeys of early 20th century explorers through the depths of Amazon. The book chronicles things such flesh eating maggots, swarms of diseased mosquitoes, and limbs rotting away in the stagnant water. Trekking through the Jungle is not an easy task.
On the other hand, jungles are beautiful. They are the bursting with life and showcase many of the amazing wonders of nature. Jungles are filled with a brilliant array of living things and have more diversity and unique species among them than any other terrestrial landscape. Towering trees, overflowing vines, colorful flowers and exotic plants serve as homes for a vast assortment of insects, birds and small creatures. In most of the jungle, there is no sign of man and Mother Nature truly reigns supreme.
During my last few months, I have been disappointed about the lack of time I have spent around beaches and ocean. Our beaches have disappeared in the last couple decades and due to funeral restrictions we have been forbidden to enter the water. Well, I decided to turn my attention to the other natural environment that is present on my island. Tropical rain forests.
I basically live in the rain forest/jungle. However humans inhabit this part of the jungle, so it has been altered greatly. We have a small road, dozens of houses, and much of the land has been cleared away for the progress of modernization. I can look out my window and see an endless wall of gigantic trees, but I wouldn’t quite classify it as dense jungle. The “real” jungle exists up on the mountain.
One of my favorite things to do is hike. Every time I see a mountain of any sort, something inside me stirs and urges me to drop whatever I am doing and scamper up the peak. I have been looking at our little mountain for quite some time and been itching to find my way to the top. Well I finally got my chance this week.
My friend Iner volunteered to guide me up to a cleared place of that my family owned. So early on Sunday morning we decided to forgo church and ate a standard breakfast of ramen and rice. I strapped on my Keen hiking sandals, threw on a pair of basketball shorts and loaded up my small backpack with a camera and water bottle. Iner was clad in army pants and a pair of rubber boots. I had never seen Iner ever wear shoes or pants, so my suspicions were slightly aroused that I was in for quite a journey.
We turned right out of my house and walked on the path towards the next village of Sapata. It is about a 45-minute walk between the villages and the area in between is devoid of people. The thick mangroves and steep cliffs convinced people to settle in other spots on the island. After a leisurely stroll of less than a mile, Iner stopped and pointed upwards with his machete. He pointed at a scraggly line of rocks that meandered its way up into the jungle. It appeared to be a small creek, but you wouldn’t actually call it a creek. No water was flowing or bubbling. However, it was obvious that this conglomeration of volcanic leftovers was formed by water flow.
Iner led the way up the hill because he was wielding the machete. There is no way that this type of hiking can be done without a machete. As I soon learned, we were not climbing on a path. Instead, we were charging directly through the heart of the jungle. At times, there were faint resemblances of human traffic but those signs only lasted for fleeting moments. Our line of approach was determined by the principle of the using the path of least resistance. I often enjoy this method of hiking when I am scaling peaks in the Sierras or boulder hopping in the desert, but this was a different type of hiking. Thick walls of foliage blocked our way at all times. Vines snagged on our ankles with every step and decaying trees were piled in mounds along the ground. Every foot that we progressed was a struggle through the core of nature’s belly. I could not fully understand the logic that Iner was following in his trailblazing but I assumed that he generally knew what he was doing and followed with enthusiasm.
Each step was accompanied by the thrashing chop of the machete against vines and bushes that stood in our way. We tore threw plants and ripped our way higher and higher up the mountain. It was exhilarating! With reckless abandon we barreled forward into this unknown wilderness. Branches scraped my legs, mosquitoes sucked my blood and the wet earth seeped between my toes. But these things didn’t slow me down a bit, my heart was pounding a million times a minute and my adrenaline was carrying me forward at a frenzied pace. Although I was in no real danger, I fancied myself as an audacious explorer charting the mysterious depths of the jungle as in “Lost City of Z”
We eventually came to a small clearing in the trees and stopped to take stock of our progress. I was still pumping excitement out of my veins and didn’t even want to sit down to take a sip of my water. Suddenly we were startled by a shuffling in the bushes. There are no big beasts of prey in these forests, but it was obvious that some large living animal was quickly closing in on us. All of a sudden our dog Raminam leapt out of the undergrowth and grinned a big slobbery smile. We were unknowingly followed by our faithful hound! I was quite impressed at the ability of the dog to keep up with our difficult hike and was very happy to have a canine companion along with us.
After we greeted our eager dog, I took time to observe our surroundings. Down below we could see a rumpled carpet of glorious greens that was the top of the jungle canopy. As we lifted our eyes higher, the vast expanse of the blue lagoon revealed its beauty in its entire splendor. The day was slightly overcast with a thin cloud cover, but in the distance we saw a much more ominous team of nimbus clouds coming from the northeast. The wind usually blows from the northeast, so we surmised that we were directly in the path of this storm. We turned our backs on the ocean and continued our climb to the top.
As we gained more elevation, there were less rocks and more dirt. The incline was steeper and the climb became much more difficult. The soft fertile soil slid beneath our feet as we took each step higher. We grabbed vines and used them as ropes to hoist ourselves up the steepest of areas. This was my classic image of jungle trekking and was pretty damn cool. The rocks were becoming sparser and we resorted to using small plants and roots as handles and footholds. Just as the ascension was becoming most difficult, the rains began. We took refuge under a large tree and stayed surprisingly dry. Through a small window between the plants I could see out towards the ocean. I watched as the sapphire water was obscured by grey clouds and drenched in torrents in rain. I chuckled to myself at the remarkable ability of the tree to shield us from the liquid onslaught of rain. Everything around us was getting soaked, but we were comfortably sitting under the protection of this useful tree.
The rain slowed to a drizzle and we continued to hike. We were no worse for wear due to the rain, but our surroundings were. The dirt was soft, the rocks were slippery and the vines were slick. The underbelly of the rain forest canopy is deprived of much sunlight, but ample water drips its way down to the ground. As a result, the wetness is constant and doesn’t easily evaporate. We slipped and slimed our way towards the top and eventually reached a flatter area. We entered a grove of giant trees and slowly walked our way through this area that presented a different atmosphere. We hacked through some more bushes and then I caught a tiny glimpse of sunlight in the distance between the trees. I turned to Iner with a big smile, and he beamed a smile right back at me. I knew what that meant, we made it!
I ran towards the light and ripped through the vines with my bare hands as I burst out into an open field. Before my eyes was an enormous field of pale brown grass. Just at this moment, the clouds passed overhead and let the sun shine its radiant light upon the field below. The sunlight crept across the open plain and lit up the expanse of grassland. It was a stark contrast to the overwhelming darkness that dominated the depths of the jungle. This area had originally been cleared by the Japanese during WWII and remained as grassland instead of becoming overgrown with jungle foliage. The vast stretch of brownish/greenish grass reminded me of the hills of Malibu where chaparral and dry grass dominate the landscape. It was nothing like anything I had seen in Micronesia and had a distinctive ambiance about it.
We had entered at the bottom left of the field and could see that it flowed upwards to a flat peak about a half-mile up the hill. This time I grabbed a hold of the machete and went rampaging through the tall grass. Once again, we had no trail. Just walls of overhead grass blocking our path. The grass was thick and you could not see an inch beyond its fragile line of defense. However, I was pleased to find that grass falls easily at the slice of a blade and eagerly shredded my way through the barrier of grass.
We reached the top of field and relaxed to take a look at the view. What a view it was! From this vantage point we could see most of the islands in the lagoon. It was a cloudy day, so we could not see the circumference of the 40 mile wide reef that surrounds the lagoon but the small islands stuck out like green paint splattered on a blue canvas. To the right, the large islands of Weno and Tonoas were easily visible and I was delighted to ascertain that we were at a higher elevation than their meager peaks reached. In the far distance to the left, the entirety of the Faichuk area could be seen. The western islands of the lagoon call themselves Faichuk and the mountainous island of Tol reigns supreme amongst them. I could see its jagged peak fighting its way to the sky amongst the flurry of clouds that spiraled around its neck. Our neighboring island of Parem is familiar to me on ground level, but it was fascinating to see its true shape from a birds eye view.
The aspect of the panoramic view that struck me the most was the reef. For half a mile around the edge of our island, coral reef formed a barrier of beautiful white and green that melded with the aquamarine color of the sea. Extended out from our dock in Unnuno I could see how the reef came to a point and ended in a outcropping of spiky rocks where the water broke in small waves. It was quite interesting to recognize the shape of the reef and fully understand the course we take with the motorboats when approaching the dock. My eyes were in awe to see the stunning colors that extended across my line of sight. Once again, my undying passion for the magnificence and majesty of nature was reaffirmed.
Our way down was much easier. Apparently, there is a path that leads up to this spot. We just didn’t take it. I don’t know if Iner was just testing my will power or was simply lost on our ascent, however I was happy that we took the road less traveled. On the descent, we followed a well-worn path that resembled any foot trail in the wilderness of America. It wasn’t manicured with wooden slabs and rock steps, but it was a fairly easy to traverse. The only issue was that the ground and rocks were still very wet. I actually slipped many more times on this easy path than on the thorny climb upwards. Our path was easy for 75% of the journey until we reached a few forks in the road. Once again, Iner utilized his machete and began chopping through the foliage that lay in our intended path. We took some wrong turns and ended up looking over green cliff sides, but just backtracked and continued our trip downwards. Eventually, we reached a line of scraggly rocks that resembled the initial “path” that we took. It was quite steep at first and it seemed like we were climbing down a dry waterfall. We headed down the slippery boulders and were soon greeted by familiar territory. The line of rocks took us to the back of the house where my predecessor Ben had lived!
Our journey was only a few hours long, but was physically exhausting. I took a cold bucket shower, ate some tuna and fell asleep for the next 2 hours. This hike was a wonderful introduction to the jungle landscape that surrounds my home and has inspired me to pursue these activities with fervor in the future. I am going to attempt to make a weekly journey into the jungle and explore all the wonders that it has to offer. I think I just found a hobby.