Tired from days of hiking and worrying, and feeling like I was running out of options, I decided to opt for a relatively easy choice: making plots, or in this case one large plot, at a site on the main north Seram road where it slices through the Manusela park. While access could not be easier, it turned out the forest was not without its challenges! After reporting to the park office in Air Besar and requesting permission to work in a site they had already designated a “model forest,” we transported all our team back from Unit O to the new site next to the bridge over the Toluarang river.
I had come back down from Kaloa just in time to meet Acun, Yessi, Yahah, Nus and Demien (a park staff member assigned to our team) as they were setting out to join me in Ulu Sawe, so little of their time was wasted. Yessi Santika and Yayah Robiah are staff at the national herbarium in Cibinong, and have been helping with our project from its beginning. I was pleased they could join us for a couple weeks to help do some general collecting. It was Yayah’s first field trip (and also her first time out of Java and first air flight) and so I hoped it would go smoothly. As it turned out, it was almost certainly a much better experience for her at Toluarang than it would have been at the aborted Sawe camp.
It was clear that it was raining much less on the north coast than inland, and we set up camp and performed the usual minor forest engineering works required to make life reasonably pleasant. This included creating an enclosed bathing spot and river toilet for the women, steps down to the river, a cook tent (tarp), a dining tent, a lab tent, and a bunkhouse with rice-sack beds for the local assistants. Endro and I slept in our Hennessey Hammocks and Acun and the women slept in dome tents. All was quite nice, until we discovered that the forest here was full of chiggers (“kutu maleo”). Within a day or so, everyone was itching madly, or trying not to. Poor Endro and Demien were plagued the worst, probably exposed during a scouting trip to find a good camping spot on the first afternoon. For several nights I found one or both of them up past midnight in the lab tent in their underwear trying to dig out the mites with a needle. Somehow, I avoided a major infestation, and was able to sleep relatively soundly.
This was a forest site unlike any I have stayed in, since the road was just a few meters from the camp. For being the major island highway, there was surprisingly little traffic, but all day and night there was the occasional roar of a cargo truck or speeding passenger car zooming by. The bridge over the Toluarang soon became the favourite hang-out spot. High, dry, and chigger-free, it was a pleasant place to watch the bats in the evening’s fading light, or the stunning parrots and kingfishers in the dawn, or to do a little unsuccessful fishing. Under the bridge and parallel to the river, several unused construction logs made a slippery platform for bathing (and defecating) and tempted us to swim in the roiling, olive-green water after a hot day. However, crocodile eyes were spotted one night, and we later heard that not far upriver was a vast, flooded, grassy swamp densely infested by crocs. Little swimming ever took place!
The forest itself was truly spectacular: alluvial forest dominated by giant Canarium, Duabanga moluccana, and Octomeles sumatrana trees, huge tree-pandans (screwpines), and Caryota palms. Diversity was low, but we expected this in Seram: we found only 55 species in four 0.25-ha plots. One particular species, an ebony (Diospyros), was very common, representing over a quarter of all the stems. Knowing this forest had been chosen as a “model forest” by the park office and that there was no permanent plot here, I suggested to the head of the park, Pak Zul, that we set up a fully documented, one hectare (100 m x 100 m) plot for them. He was pleased and fully supportive, and I think it’s quite likely that the plot will be cared for and used as a training tool. In this way were able to add to the value of our project, meeting one of its capacity-building goals.
Compared to the dense, high-diversity forest we encountered in Borneo, I was able to finish the initial morphotyping of this forest very rapidly. Collecting specimens might still have taken quite a while were it not for the amazing skills of Dedy and Ratu, our two tree climbers from Kaloa. They were up and down safely in seconds, allowing the collecting team to make and process up to fifteen tree species a day. We were thus planning to decamp as soon as today, but as ever, our plans were changed by the weather. Two nights ago there was a huge rainstorm over the camp. Because it was coastal, it need not have led to a rise in the river, and I watched the river level into the evening without noting any rise. However, it must have been raining in the interior as well, and starting at about 6:00am yesterday the river began rising.
By 8:00am, the water had reached the lip of the steep banks on which we had made our camp. It kept rising and soon the dining tent was inundated. Fortunately we could keep ahead of the rising water, but in the end we had to pack up the tents and move all the equipment onto the highway verge. I knew we only had twelve more collections to make, so I decided we would strike camp completely and hoped to get the specimens and be out by nightfall. The collecting team worked on in the flooded alluvial forest in water up to their thighs, while others dried the tents in the morning sun and started folding the whole show into backpacks and bags. I hitched a lift into Wahai to get a cellphone signal to call “Mr. La,” our friendly pickup truck driver, and was back in an hour, just as the afternoon rain was beginning to pelt down—the coast now too seems to be in the rainy season. Luckily, the collecting team had gathered all the taxa, and we finished the processing later that afternoon in Wahai.
So, despite the depressing retreat from Ulu Sawe, in the end we successfully sampled a lowland forest site while contributing meaningful infrastructure to the National Park. Yayah and Yessi also made a large number of excellent collections which will add significantly to the very low number of existing Seram collections. At the model forest site, there was no nearby high, dry, hill site to make direct comparisons with it; so tomorrow, we’re heading to a different section of the park, near Masihulan, to sample ridge forest. But today, all I can think about is how nice it is that the rain here in Wahai fell on a roof, and not directly on me or my tent. That and how good the fresh fish we had for lunch tasted. Ah, rest days!