Monday, January 03, 2005

Trash and tourists washing up on our shore

January 3, 2005
Moraka Beach, Equatorial Guinea
N 3.25878° E 8.48594 ° Elevation 8 feet. Temp: 89° F in the shade

Oh, the humidity.

This is my last day along the sultry coast, where the census-takers for the Bioko project have repeatedly trod the same three paths, counting groups of monkeys and other animals. The data they’ve collected will be crunched and compared to previous years. So far the signs are positive: A fair number of monkeys, often alarmed at the invasion of larger primates, scold us from the branches overhead – a red colobus relieved itself from the trees above on one of the census takers this morning. And we’ve found very few fresh shotgun shells, which indicates that there has been little hunting recently.

We’ll be working on stories for next week that look more closely at the monkey census.

There are only a handful of us left here at the beach camp. In recent days, most of the Arcadia University expedition has departed for the ancient volcano crater called the Gran Caldera de Luba, a two-day hike up to about 3,000 feet. It’s a secluded place, drenched in rain and walled off by imposing chasms. Its isolation is its advantage over the rest of the island – it’s more protected from the commercial hunters who prefer forests from which they can quickly remove their catch. The last surviving monkeys on Bioko island will flee to the caldera for refuge.

Gail W. Hearn, the Arcadia biology professor who is leading the expedition, has reported back to us by satellite telephone from the caldera that everyone is healthy and relatively dry. The census is going slowly because the trails are overgrown and need to be cut.

My interviews and explorations along the coast are nearly finished and I will head up the mountain tomorrow with Barbara Johnston, the Inquirer photographer, Arcadia economics professor Wayne A. Morra and a small entourage of other campers and porters. While Hearn focuses on the research, Morra’s contribution is to keep this large operation running smoothly. He organizes the porters, sorts out and repairs the gear and keeps loads of cargo moving between camps. His bonhomie transcends language, and the Equatoguineans seem to like him a lot and are eager to work for him. They pronounce his name “Wine.”

I like the beach as much as anyone, but the fine, black volcanic sand finds its way into everything – clothing, tents, teeth, computer keyboards. My body is covered with so much sweat and ointment – sunscreen for the beach walks, insect repellant for the bugs and anti-itch cream for when the repellent fails. The only thing the multiple layers of goo seem to do well is collect grit. I’m looking forward to climbing to a higher elevation, where I will get to experience different varieties of biting insects, slightly cooler temperatures but just as much humidity.

I have come to realize that while I like the tropics, I do not love the climate. I dream about ice cubes. I fantasize about hitching a ride with an expedition to Antarctica.

There are barely more than 100 adults living on the southern edge of Bioko, where the warm air coming from the south collides with the dramatic dormant volcano. The air condenses at it gains altitude and releases more than 30 feet of rain a year. The northern end of the island, the populated rain shadow, is fairly dry compared to this place. One might expect that an area as remote and as uninhabited as this would be pristine. But the coastline is littered with debris, much of it washed ashore from the jetsam of passing freighters. It’s a little disappointing to stumble across a hypodermic needle in the sand. The same goes for the trails that cut through the rainforest here, the highways for villagers, fishermen and hunters. It’s easy to find the paths because they are usually marked every few yards by crushed plastic bottles, clumps of fishing nets, empty sardine cans and the discarded plastic footwear worn by Equatoguineans. There are few places on the planet untouched by humans.


A curious thing about this beach is that the tides take place at the same time each day. The tides vary in size from day to day, but they always occur at the same time. Nobody from Ureca can offer me a plausible explanation because, to them, all tides everywhere occur at the same time of day. So if any readers out there can help me understand this phenomenon, please weigh in on our Web forum.

Speaking of curious tides, this afternoon a boat washed up on our beach bearing three Spanish tourists – two women and a man. They hired Ureca’s cayuco to take them to the village for a two-day visit. The boat had engine problems – not the first time that has happened, we’re told. So they had to stop short of their goal while the boatmen work on the motor overnight.

They don’t look too prepared for this – they’re a little puffy and pale and they’ve packed their gear in luggage with wheels that does not appear to be waterproof. I’m not sure if they knew exactly what they were getting into, but I suppose they are well-meaning – they’re spending money to come here to see turtles. But they didn’t bring much food or a tent. Perhaps they were hoping to find a guest house in Ureca, but I suspect they wouldn’t like the room with the bat where Barbara slept the other night. Wayne Morra has offered them the only spare tent the expedition has – unfortunately, it’s the tent that leaks really badly. At least the mosquito netting is sound, although I see they’ve left the flap open.

They did, however, bring plenty of liquids – a case of bottled water, a case of San Miguel beer and eight liters of boxed red Spanish wine. The alcohol is real currency in this camp. Also, if the tent turns soupy and buggy, they can drink themselves to sleep.

Party on, amigos.

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