Notes from the Abyss

The musings of geographer, journalist, and author David M. Lawrence

The story behind the image — Tramps

Tramping through the rainforest of southwestern Sumbawa

Tramping through the rainforest of southwestern Sumbawa. (Copyright © 2007 David M. Lawrence)

MECHANICSVILLE, Va. — The image above is called Tramps. It was taken in April 1996 on the island of Sumbawa in Indonesia. This was toward the end of a two-month-long expedition to Indonesia in search of tree-ring chronologies that would help my colleagues at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory reconstruct the past climate of Southeast Asia and Australia.

Due to an overly ambitious research plan, the field team — consisting of me, Paul Krusic, and his wife, Rachel — split up about halfway through the expedition in Sulawesi. I continued alone on to Lombok, where I would make contacts with officials of PT Newmont Nusa Tenggara, a mining concession that was in the process of establishing an open-pit copper and gold mine in southwest Sumbawa (the island to the east of Lombok).

The Newmont folks put me up at their mining concession and provided logistical support in the guise of supplies and personnel, both professional environmental staff and local guides. After some discussions, we decided to focus on a tropical tree with relatively soft wood — all the more easy to core by hand — that should have been fairly common in the area. Locals carved dugout canoes from the trunks.

The field crew and I were dropped off by helicopter at an old exploratory drilling pad, well away from the site headquarters in rugged hills covered by rainforest. I made the mistake of relying on the locals to look after logistics. We had everything we needed save water — and fully charged batteries for the radios so that we could call in for a supply drop. Ultimately, it was my responsibility for the oversight, as it was my research they were helping with.

We spent our first few hours in the area obtaining water supplies. First, we gathered up left-behind five-gallon water containers full of animal and plant debris, cleaned them out in a nearby creek, then filled them with more water from the creek. I then dumped a healthy supply of iodine tablets in the water in the filled bottles to sterilize what we would drink.

After we took care of our water supply, we began to explore the nearby forest. Our guide was supposed to know where the trees we were looking for were located. We never found them in sufficient numbers to justify coring any, though. I’ve often wondered whether his difficulty in finding the trees was intentional — a way to protect the canoe supply. If so, it was a wasted effort, as much of the area has since been cleared for the mine.

Many people refer to the rainforest as a jungle, and they think of it in Hollywood terms — as a thick tangle of vegetation requiring machetes (or parangs and they call them in Indonesia) to cut a path through the trees, vines, and brush. Actually, mature rainforest is fairly open near the ground, as so little light reaches the forest floor not much vegetation can grown down there.

But, where there are openings, the Hollywood vision is realized. Quite a bit of light reaches the ground. With plenty of light, plus a long growing season and ample rainfall, you will find lush, virtually impenetrable greenery. This photo was taken as such a place. We were on a trail that was running along — maybe crossing at this point — a creek.

The humans — visible at the lower left — are puny, dwarfed by the trees, tree ferns, lianas, and other plants that surround us. It is easy to be forever swallowed up by such an environment. Fortunately, we weren’t.

Unfortunately, humanity’s appetite for resources is swallowing up — has swallowed up — this forest.

This part of my expedition proved not to be successful. After several wasted hours trying to find enough trees to justify coring, I thought it best to move on. Unfortunately, we couldn’t radio out — because of the battery situation — so the local guide and I hiked out of the hills to the coast, where another mining camp was located.

We were racing sundown, going up and down rugged ridges. Toward the end I was near the point of physical collapse, surviving only because the guide and I would periodically switch packs. (He shouldered my much heavier burden better than I did, I have to admit.) At points, I just fell to the ground and lay there for a few minutes to catch my breath, then would crawl on my hands and knees until I picked up enough momentum to stand and walk. We reached the camp in twilight.


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