Thursday, January 06, 2005

It’s all about the gear

January 6, 2005
Main Camp, Gran Caldera de Luba, Equatorial Guinea
N 3.32972° E 8.47899° Elevation 1,713 feet. Temp: 78° F

My $150 boots are still damp and moist after the hike up from sea level to the Gran Caldera de Luba, the ancient volcano crater that is home to several threatened primates, myself included. Gore-Tex boots are a fine idea for Eastern Pennsylvania, where the trails are well-maintained and one can reasonably expect a river crossing to include some modern assist, such as a suspension bridge or an air-conditioned ferry. But here the trails are ill-planned and the rivers contain slippery rocks. No amount of high-tech waterproofing material can keep your boots dry when you go knee-deep into a rushing stream.

My wife, Amy Blackstone, who has proven to be a providential addition to the Arcadia University expedition we have joined because of her skill speaking Spanish and working with Africans (we lived in South Africa for six years), reminded me of a quote from a 19th Century European adventurer, back in the days when white people hired Africans to heave them on their shoulders to cross streams. One day the tourist filed this log entry: “I fell into the water today. It was the fault of the man who carried me.”

Well, you can’t get that kind of help these days – the porters only carry our gear. So I have to admit it was my own damn fault I got my boots wet.

It was a small admission price to pay to enter this breathtaking forest on Bioko island, where the trees are a tangle of vines and branches. The dense foliage often requires one to use senses other than vision to identify the wildlife. The forest is mostly green and brown, broken only by an occasional delicate flower or a bright butterfly. There are a couple of holes in the canopy above our camp, allowing just enough light to penetrate to provide a weather report, and just enough space through which we can aim our antenna at the Inmarsat satellite, 22,000 miles above Earth.

The trees here are not very large in diameter, unlike some primary forests where the timber is gargantuan – big logs that wash up on the beaches are immediately identifiable as coming from the mainland. The absence of big timber works to Bioko’s advantage for those seeking to preserve the biodiversity here – the Asian timber companies that have opened up vast stretches of African forest, depriving wildlife of habitat, are not interested in these skinny trees.

Amid this primal place, we have an embarrassment of Western technology. Our group is carrying satellite telephones, digital cameras, shortwave radios, laptop computers, GPS systems and an Apple iPod. We’ve got gasoline generators to power the gear. My digital thermometer that went into a humidity-induced coma woke up today after 24 hours cocooned in a Ziploc bag with a pouch of silica gel. We’re wearing clothing made of impermeable fabrics or fabric designed to dry quickly. Our gear is carried in waterproof drybags that could withstand a monsoon. For breakfast today, I had a cup of Starbucks coffee, provided by our expedition leaders, professors Wayne A. Morra and Gail W. Hearn.

Meanwhile, the Equatoguinean porters, each of whom can speak or understand four or five languages (including English, though they don’t like to admit it), carry all their personal belongings wadded up in a plastic grocery bag.

And their footwear? Some wear Wellingtons, knee-high rubber boots that, when filled with water, they empty by raising one foot behind them like a heron so that the water can pour out.

Others prefer plastic sandals whose deep treads seem to cling to rocks that have me doing the splits. A pair costs $6, and they dry out in about the same time that it takes me to pry my wet $150 boots from my pale, puckered feet.
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