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Mostly unedited entries from a journal I kept during the Hukaung Valley Rattan Survey (see Hukaung Valley Rattan Survey and HKV Rattan Survey.pdf). [NOTE: To read chronologically, start at the bottom with the January 04, 2005 post.]


January 25, 2005

Mile 15 Camp, 3:48 PM

It took almost three hours of cutting and clearing and pulling and yanking, but we collected that Plectocomia. It had about 20 ripe infructescences. We took a lot of pictures and made lots of collections. After it was finally down, everybody was happy-botanists, ecologists, orchidologists, field crew, kitchen staff, everybody. By the time we had finished with all of the notes and photos it was about 12:15, so we had lunch on the side of the road before heading back toward camp to look for a transect camp.

About a mile down the road we found a beautiful piece of forest. Huge, tall, straight trees and an understory of Pinanga palms. Never been logged. It was pretty steep in pots, but then leveled off and was easy going.  There were a lot of palms, but we finished the 2,000 m² in about and hour and a half.  The transect crew is really getting good.  Today was our fifth transect, giving us a total sample so far of 10,400 m². I'd like to do as many more as I can. These are great data.

On the walk back to camp it started that slow, sprinkling rain like yesterday. The rain complicates things a little because we have to press the plants under the tarp in the kitchen and the space is a little cramped. There's also the issue of the smoke...

The elephants finally made it to Mile 15 camp today from Namyun and now we have all of our stuff.  We were especially relieved to see the two bundles of pickled specimens that we had left in the town hall of Namyun, because it was too much for the elephants to carry. We will have to move the stuff to the next camp, Mile 8, in two trips as well.

If I ever write a book about this adventure, I think "Leeches on the Tent" would be a good title.  After a night of rain, I found several leeches crawling on the walls of my tent looking for a way to get in. Pretty much says it all. As far as I know, I'm leech free today, which is surprising given how dripping wet the forest was today.  Several others had to pick off leeches, but somehow I managed to escape being a blood donor.

Tomorrow will pretty much be a repeat of today if the weather permits.  We'll head south on the road until we drop about 100 m in elevation and then look for an appropriate transect site. Just hope the rain holds off. It's a real challenge to keep the tent from getting yucky under these conditions.  Right now it's about 30% yucky, but still not to the grunge stage.  Very sleepable.

7:48 PM (con't)

Had a nice talk with the guys tonight after dinner. Andrew had already gone to bed, but I wanted to let everyone know what a great job they were doing, and how important all of the data were. Everyone was pleased and flattered at the compliment, and the conversation eased into a discussion of ecology, conservation, and how these relate to the patterns that we had been seeing in the field with rattan. This type of teaching I enjoy... 



January 23, 2005

Mile 21 Camp, 8:53 AM

Today could be called "waiting for the elephants". We are planning to move to a camp at Mile 15, but we can't do so until the elephants arrive, and it's anybody's guess as to when that might happen. In the meantime, it's Sunday morning, the sun is out and blazing, I've put on a new pair of pants and socks, re-packed my bag, put the solar panels on top of the tent to charge my camera batteries, taken my maleria medicine, and have opened the windows on the tent to air it out a little. I'm actually looking forward to a slow, realxing morning to re-charge my batteries. A Sunday New York Times would be nice...

Mile 15 Camp (N26º30', E96º12'), 5:54 PM

I am writing this by candlelight in my tent that has recently been set up and arranged on Mile 15. It has started to sprinkle slightly, but I don't think it is anything to worry about.  The kitchen crew is building a bamboo kitchen and sleeping quarter.  Amazing how quickly they can find the canes, cut them the right length, tie them together in the right place and the right order, cover the whole thing with a big sheet of plastic, and "presto" - instant shelter.

There was a change of plans today. Andrew went to look for for palms and Saw Lwin went orchid hunting in the morning.  Everyone else was just taking it easy around camp waiting for the elephants to arrive.  About 11:00 AM, we talked with some people on a scooter who had come from Namyun and found out that our elephants had only recently left there.  It would take them about 7 hours to reach us, making it about 6:00 PM when they arrived - already dark and too late to start walking to mile 15. Shortly after the scooter left, we saw a mule train with seven mules, empty of baggage, pass by camp. About 20 minutes later, Saw Lwin returned from orchid hunting and told us that he he had talked to the man with the mules, who was headed to Shimbweyeng, and that he would gladly pack our things to Mile 15. When the elephants finally did arrive, they could rest at Mile 21 and then continue on to Mile 15 the next day, i.e. tomorrow. We thought this was a great idea, so we packed up our stuff, had a quick lunch, loaded up the mules (hard to believe how much they can carry), and started walking the six miles to Mile 15 camp.  It was about 2:00 PM when we left.

As we passed the rattan camp down the road where we stopped yesterday, Andrew saw a dead Plectocomia rattan and wanted to see if maybe it had flowers and we could collect it.  This was the species that our elephant, Aumbu, had helped us collect outside of Shimbweyeng (see More Myanmar).  A bit of botanical background. Plectocomia is hypaxanthic, i.e. it flowers and fruits and then dies. As a result, vary rarely do you see Plectocomia plants with leaves and flowers and fruits.  The original description of the species Plectocomia assamica was done by Griffith in the 1830's based on a handful of fruits collected in Assam, India. He never saw the leaves or the plant.  The specimen that we collected at Shimbweyeng was sterile, a fantastic collection given how little is known about this palm, but we really needed some reproductive material, even old inflorescences or fruits.

This is what Andrew had noticed behind the rattan camp.  Two rattan harvesters hiked up the mountain to try to collect it, but they could not pull the rattan down. The local name for the species, "elephant cane", refers to the enormous size of the stem, but it is also appropriate because apparently you have to have an elephant to collect a specimen of it. We saw another dead Plectocomia with old inflorescences on the other side of the road, and the collectors valiantly tried to get it, but again, they simply could not pull the rattan cane down out of the tree. We had already spent too much time on this and the sun was getting lower and lower in the sky and we were still a long way from Mile 15, so, very disappointed, Andrew and I gave up and started back walking.  It is important to note that this would have been the first full collection ever of this enormous palm, and only the second collection of reproductive material.  It would have been a fantastic score.

The walk back to Mile 15 passed through some beautiful forest which comes right down to the road.  Perfect for transects. Beautiful rivers and old bridges.  The team spread out as we walked down the road, and, as usual, I was one of the ones in front. After about two hours of walking, I rounded a curve in the road and one of the field crew was standing at the side of the road waving his arms at me.  I walked over to see what he was pointing at.  Right near the side of the road was a huge Plectocomia with four large, fresh infrutescences! They were ripe and bright red.  The plant would soon be dead, but for now it had fresh leaves and fruit - a perfect collection.  We spent about 15  minutes trying to get it and couldn't pull it down, but we couldn't spend any more time on it because it was getting dark.  We marked the spot, however, and will be back first thing tomorrow with all the crew and all the time we need to make a complete collection. 

We fell back into walking mode after this wonderful find, and soon the mules passed with our stuff and before long I was, again, all by myself trudging up and down the hills of the Ledo Road. Most of the assistants were in front of me with our stuff, and most of the survey team was behind me.  I had no idea how far I had walked or how much further I needed to walk.  I was just enjoying the scenery, savoring the discovery of the Plectocomia, and listening to the jade pendant rhythmically slap the back of my pack. After climbing one long hill and thinking that it would really be nice to be lounging in my sleeping bag, I noticed a plume of smoke down around the bend.  The crew had made it to Mile 15 and started the cooking fires.  I had arrived - and there was still enough time to set up my tent.  Mile 15 camp is nestled in closed forest right next to a big river with a wonderful bathing spot.  It is extremely picturesque and a perfect spot for camping.  My tent is pitched on a slight downward slope, but I'm thrilled to have such a comfortable place to sleep, such an historic palm collection to make tomorrow, and such prime forest for running transects.  The rain is continuing, slight but steady, but hopefully it want interfere with the fieldwork.  Time to go see what's happening with dinner.

8:07 PM (con't)

I'm back in the tent after a wonderful dinner of beef curry and a tasty, but inknown soup.  We all ate together in the lean-to that the kitchen crew had made.  Very smoky if you stood up, but cozy.  A perfect closing for the day. New place, new shelter, the sound of the rain, the mountain chill, the expectation of that Plectocomia tomorrow...

8:22 (con't)

One thing I forgot to mention.  Shortly after leaving the camp at Mile 21 this afternoon, we passed a truck full of people. (After several days of rain the traffic had picked up again). The truck stopped and one of the passengers got out, ran directly to me, and graciously offered me a neatly folded piece of paper. It was a letter from Myint Maung (shown below). He had thought about what we had discussed and wanted to propose the idea of rehabilitating old gold mine sites with rattan plantations to the Forest Department.


January 22, 2005

Mile 21 Camp, 4:22 PM

A little bit of context. Myint Maung had to go back to Tanai and deal with warden stuff, and we said goodbye to him this morning when we left for the field. He was going to stop the first scooter that went by and ask the driver to send another scooter to carry him to Shimbweyeng which is 21 miles away. Apparently, this worked because he is not here now. [NOTE: Wardens can do this type of thing, apparently]. Zon Ny Ton, one of his ranger's who has been with us all along and is fantastic, will take over the liaison duties, i.e. talking to the local authorities.  It was great to have Myint Maung with us, and I appreciate his devoting several weeks to a rattan survey with a couple of American scientists.

Yesterday, the elephants went back to Namyun to get the rest of our gear, which was too much to take all at once.  We thought they would be back this afternoon, but on asking the first people that passed by (a truck, actually), if they had seen two elephants coming from Namyun, they said they had not.  The plan is to move to camp Mile 15 tomorrow, but that will only happen if the elephants show up.

Today was a bit rough, but very productive.  The problem in getting into the forest along the Ledo Road is that one side of the road is usually a steep road cut, and the other side is a sheer cliff. So far, we have lucked out and found rattan collector's trails that led us in to the forest. Today we were not so lucky. We found a short trail leading down to a river, but from there we had to bushwack for 200 m to complete the transect. The place was loaded with rattans and very steep. This is a deadly combination, because every time you start slipping and reach out to grab something it has spines on it. Andrew was off with one of the workers taking pictures of some Calamus fruits, while the rest of us were slipping and sliding and falling all over the transect. But there was an amazing amount of palms. I think we encountered six species of Calamus in the plots, and the most abundant species, C. flagellum, or "mauk chee kyein" (monkey poop cane) had almost 100 individuals in some of our 10 X 20 m plots. My problem was trying to slowly work my way up and down the slope with the fieldbook in my hand, and still stopping to record the data everytime someone called another rattan. As soon as I would close the book to try and climb a bit, someone would inevitably call another rattan. It was slow going to say the least.

After about 5 plots, the slope was so steep that I had decided to stop and look for another spot.  But the guys cutting line and the compassman didn't hear me - or didn't understand me - and they kept setting stakes. Saw Lwin and I decided that if they were going to keep running line than we could certainly count the palms, so we struggled on and eventually finished the 10 plots we needed.  It was an amazing effort and I was quite proud of the crew and pleased with the data we collected. It will be a wonderful paper.

As we walked down the road from our transect we came to a rattan collector's camp and stockpile. There were thousands of canes bundled up and ready for sale. The collectors had been working since November, and they said that they had collected about 10,000 canes, all of them from the species known locally as "kadin" [NOTE: C. wailang or C. nambariensis]. We chatted with the collectors for a while, had our lunch, and then started the 2 mile climb back up the road to camp.

It has been cloudy most of the day, and all of the laundry that Andrew did yesterday is still hanging, dripping wet, on the line.  Critical items, i.e. socks and underwear, are now hanging over the fire, drying a little and getting that nice smoky smell. I am writing this on the new table out in front of the camp, and as the sun goes down, it is starting to get cold again.  Another night that I am glad that I have a sleeping bag and pad.  

When we are walking to and from the field, I am inevitably one of the first to arrive.  The cadence of my pace seems to be a little faster or more consistent than the others. I noticed today that it probably has to do with the jade pendant that I have hanging from one of the zippers on my pack.  I bought it at the Shwedagon Pagoda (see Sunday at Shwedagon) in Yangon before we headed up to the Hukaung Valley, thinking that a little Buddhist "merit" probably wouldn't hurt anyhting. When I start hiking, every time my right foot hits the road the pendant hits the pack like a metronome.  I keep walking, it keeps hitting the pack, and on we go, uphill and down at a steady pace. My walking stick, which has proven invaluable, is made form the stem of a Pinanga palm. 

I am getting chilled and will probably move inside by the fire with the rest of the gang. The day is drawing to a close, and as the last scooter of the day chugs up the hill past our camp, I am very thankful to be sitting right here - 21 miles down the Ledo Road in northern Burma. 




January 21, 2005

Mile 21 Camp, 3:29 PM

Wonderful to wake up in a tent, a bit cold outside but cozy in your sleeping bag, and look up and see mist-covered mountains in the largest continuous tract of tropical forests in S.E. Asia. Padded out in my flip-flops and Polartec jacket to have a hot cup of tea.  The fires had already been started and breakfast was on the way.  This is the life.

Left camp after breakfast this morning and headed back up the road - the downhill section effectively becoming uphill again - for about a mile and a half until we ran into a group of six rattan collectors.  A friendly lot, and we got loads of information about species, quantities, and prices.  While we were chatting, a flock of five hornbills flew by overhead.  Have never seen a flock of hornbills; a bit like seeing five Rafflesia flowers (see Corpse Flower) in one day. The collectors told us about a large diameter cane that they were collecting, "kadin", and agreed to show us where we could get a specimen. They had gone into the forest eight miles yesterday to collect  "yamata" rattan.   The were intrigued by our method of collecting specimens and hung around until we started doing our transect.   I have some black flies biting me as I write this, each bite drawing a small drop of blood.  I've just returned from a bath and have shorts on, but I think I 'll go put on some long sleeves and long pants to stop the bugs.

3:48 (con't).

Back with pants and jacket.  The place where the rattan collectors took us was close by and perfect for a transect.  We counted five separate species in the plots and made two collections, both of them new and unknown rattans. This will be my high elevation transect at 1040 masl. It's amazing how far up rattans can grow and still maintain such high diversity. It's also amazing how we keep finding new rattans in these forests.

After finishing our transect we had a "picnic" lunch along the road. Since we have been on this section of the road from Namyun to Shimbweyang, with the exception of the truck we came in, we haven't seen one vehicle.  A couple of dozen women carrying large baskets of stuff, and a handful of men on scooters laden with rice sacks, one team of rattan collectors, and a couple of army guys...but not one vehicle.  Roads without cars aren't so bad.

Back at camp, Andrew and I went to bathe under the bridge where ice cold water pours out of a bamboo pipe. Very brisk, but I did manage to bathe and, as a gesture to Case's admonition "to not come back with a beard", I even shaved. The sun is going down now and it's time to take down the solar panel which I had left on the roof of the tent all day charging camera batteries. The sun was blazing so well today that I managed to charge up my camera battery and after we returned from the field I plugged in one of Andrew's batteries and managed to charge it, too. It's a great system as long as it doesn't rain.

I hear the cooks chopping away preparing our dinner and now that Andrew and I are both clean, we have some plants to press. A relaxing evening in camp.  And now the moon is full.

7:37 PM (con't).

While we were in the field, the kitchen crew made a picnic table and benches for eight people out in front of our camp. It is made entirely of bamboo and rattan and took three of them 2 hours to make.  We pressed plants on it this afternoon and they prepared a sumptuous candlelight dinner on it this evening. It will be a nice gift to leave for the next travelers that visit Mile 21 camp. The temperature has already dropped to 6º C. It's going to be a cold night...



January 20, 2005

Namyun Town Hall, 8:47 AM

It rained like crazy last night, and the pounding on the corrugated roof was deafening.  I wonder what it would be like to be in a tent in a storm like that? Fortunately, the sun is out this morning and there is a lot of blue sky.  The elephants have shown up and are now saddled and awaiting our baggage.  We've got 11 miles to walk today and it looks like it's going to be a beauty.

8:30 PM, Mile 21 Camp (N26°53', E96°12')

I am writing this by candlelight in my new L.L. Bean tent at Mile 21 between Shimbweyeng and Namyun on the Ledo Road. There's almost a full moon and the sky is clear so the moonlight is filtering through the skylight of my tent. I have positioned my sleeping bag to be able to look up at the moon before I go to sleep.  The only sounds I hear, besides the guys telling jokes around the fire in front of the palm hut where they are sleeping, is Aumbu's bell as she forages along the side of the road and up into the forest.

Today's agenda was walking.  We packed up the elephants and left Namyun around 10:30 AM. And then we walked. And walked. And walked until about 5:00 PM.  The good news is that it didn't rain - until we had almost arrived to camp. The weather was cool and clear like Fall in New England, the roadside was covered with beautiful forest, the vistas were gorgeous, I had a good walking stick, my boots were broken in, and my water bottle was filled with Oralite (re-hydration powder). The bad news is that we walked 11 miles uphill, climbing from 300masl to 1100masl.  Around every bend was another uphill stretch.  All together, I think we walked up about 2500 feet in elevation.

When we arrived, everyone was thrashed but we hurried to set the tents up because it was getting dark.  Myint Maung, Andrew, and I are in tents.  The rest of the crew is sleeping on the split bamboo floor of the 5 X 30 foot palm-thatched "hostel" that serves travelers here that need a place to stay. Every 10 feet or so is a fire pit, and the kitchen is at the far left of the structure.  My dome tent was a bit confusing to set up at first.  It was getting dark, and we were hurrying, and we got the rain fly on backwards, and the poles wouldn't fit, and the elephants were getting dangerously close to see what was happening..., but everything finally came together and the tent is a beauty.

The cooks prepared a wonderful dinner, and the Army officer from the military post down the road came to chat and stayed for dinner.  The poor man is probably starved for company.  He brought us some pickled, wild boar meat as a gift.  Not sure what everyone was saying, but they were laughing hysterically and Kyaw Lwin, who is usually very quiet, was the life of the party.

The plan for tomorrow is transects and collecting whatever we find. And the same for the day after that. We'll move down the road and make another basecamp at some point, but for now, we just got here, my tent is cozy, and we'll probably spend several days here until the forest stops yielding surprises.  Time to take my pills, brush my teeth, and go to bed.  I'm thrashed, as well.