Thursday, January 13, 2005

It’s all about the gear, Part II

January 13, 2005
Malabo, Equatorial Guinea
N 3.74949° E 8.76031 Elevation 122 feet. Temp: 74° F

My boots dried out days ago, and we survived two weeks in the rainforest, so it's time for me to swagger a little bit about our good fortune with communication gear.

In the weeks leading up to this expedition to Bioko island, I spent much time fretting about the logistical details of taking our electronic gear into the rainforest and transmitting to the Internet every day, using only the power sources we carried in. I worried about the rain and what it would do to the computers and cameras. I researched the generators and how much gasoline they would consume. And I ground my teeth in my sleep over whether our satellite telephone signal would be able to penetrate the tropical rainforest canopy and get our story out. Any failure could foil my plans.

We made plans, and backup plans and alternatively, if everything failed, we planned to resign ourselves to writing our stories after returning home, just as we did in the old days before we were “liberated” with this wonderful ability to make a connection from anywhere in the world.

I’m happy to report that everything worked fine. Actually better than expected.

We certainly encountered plenty of rain in the first half of the trip. But the waterproof bags and sacks worked flawlessly. We were religious about keeping the computer in the bag except when we were using it. When I saw a lot of condensation building up inside the Aquapac that contained my computer, I dropped a small sack containing silica gel into the bag and the problem went away. I always made sure that I carried my computer in my own day pack so that nobody else would be responsible for mishandling it. And when it really rained, we put all our packs inside large Cabela dry bags that could contain a big duffel bag or a full-sized backpack. At times, our equipment was essentially triple-bagged, and everything stayed dry.

Barbara Johnston, the Inquirer's photographer, was also diligent about keeping her digital cameras dry. Except for a few minor setbacks, her stuff worked well.

I grossly overestimated our power needs. The little Honda 1000-watt generators that the expedition carried to each camp were very fuel efficient and very quiet. We probably only used five gallons of the 25 gallons of gasoline we took on the expedition (some of the gasoline was to be used in an emergency by the expedition’s inflatable boat, but fortunately, we never had to use the boat, which was in terrible repair). With sufficient power from the generator, the 12-volt automobile battery we bought in Malabo and carried to the beach with us proved to be a luxurious redundancy. We did not carry it up the mountain to the camps in the caldera, and I’m sure the porters would be grateful if they knew we saved them from hauling a lead-acid battery into the wilderness. We left the battery with the villagers of Ureca, who have an old power generator they can use to charge it periodically.

We considered using solar cells to provide our power. Paul Jaffe, an electrical engineer who was working on a project called CyberTracker with the expedition, brought a couple of panels with him. Solar cells are a great idea, but they don’t provide a huge amount of output and they take a long time to charge a battery in the rainforest.

As for the satellite telephone, it worked pretty well most nights. There always was a hole somewhere in the forest ceiling through which we could aim the satellite antenna.

Sorry to bore many of you with these details. I’m putting them on the record for gear geeks who might consider trying to put their stuff through the same paces. I don’t think we came close to pushing our gear to the limit.

We’re having a technical day here in Malabo, at the ExxonMobil facility where we are camped. I’ve been writing. Barbara has assembled a lovely slide show of the expedition, accompanied by music we recorded in the village of Ureca. We’ll show it tonight at a farewell dinner for us. It’s really the first chance I’ve had to look at her output, since we were often working on our own jobs at the same time. The photos are really splendid. She’s available for speaking engagements.

Most of the expedition members have run out of chores to do and have explored about as much of Malabo and they care to, at least during the daytime before the dancing begins. Boredom seems to be setting in. Four members of the group went to the cathedral today to take a look at the beautiful church, but were thrown out by a policewoman who said that only Equatoguineans could enter the holy place. The tourism ministry authorization they carried apparently did not persuade the police. As I wrote yesterday, Equatorial Guinea is a xenophobic little country, and while it slowly gets integrated with the rest of the world, I’m sure many visitors will encounter similar frustrations.

Untitled Document