The Great macro safari

Usumbara Peacock Tree Frog (Leptopelis vermiculatus). Photo taken in the Usambara mountains. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

There’s an aura of mystery, superstition, fear and awe that still enshrouds Africa to the uninitiated. In many ways it is still Joseph Conrad’s heart of darkness…but wouldn’t it be nice to move past these cliched introductions? Past the current iteration of panic which has seen the spread of ebola from a few West African countries to a blanketing of an entire continent larger than the combined size of India and the USA? It’s a continent of superlatives: The birthplace of modern man. The Serengeti or “endless plains”, The Congo – The largest tract of unbroken rainforest outside the Amazon, The Sahara – The largest desert in the world…and a place where even in capital cities it can be difficult to find a good wifi connection.

It’s odd to think of a white man going home to Africa, but as I step off the plane in the middle of the night, feel the sweat bead, hear the city cry and navigate the mad howls of the touts and taxi drivers there is a kind of siren song heard in the breath of silence between wailing sirens.

My preparations had extended to emailing a few guesthouses and hostels during a layover in Amsterdam. Of course between the frequent power outages, common to Dar es Salaam, and the typical Equatorial mindset of going at one’s own pace, none of my emails got any responses. With boarding imminent, I had taken a quick look at some online hostel reviews and decided on a place on Msasani peninsula, away from the busy town centre and which despite an adjacent bar looked good. So once again I find myself in a strange land at ungodly hours, trusting to a taxi driver. “Where do you want to go?” the driver asks in a pitched accent that I could just barely decipher. “Hold on a minute” I say, wrestling with an airport porter who has grabbed my bag. “No!!! I. Don’t. Need. Help!!!” He responds with monosyllabic grunts, which I take to mean: “Very heavy, very heavy!”, as he pulls the bag away from me in sharp, jerking motions. I stare him adversarially in the eye, but he rises to the challenge and yanks the bag free of my hands. I sigh and relinquish the battle, simply so as to ensure that no damage comes to the equipment within. Of course I know what’s coming, and after about 25 meters we arrive at the taxi stand and he demands payment, 10,000 shillings or about $7.50 USD. I give him the lowest bill I can find and turn to the taxi driver, “Star hotel please”. “Ahhhhh…” he exhaled like the bubbling up of some fond, youthful remembrance. “Yes, Star hotel… It has everything a young man needs”. “Awww fuck, not again” I say to myself. But with the porter is still tapping on the window asking for more money I tell the driver to go. “But, but maybe I’m jumping to conclusions?” Half an hour later as we pull up to the hotel with disco style lights, music blaring and more prostitutes than you can shake a handful of 1 dollar bills at, the other shoe dropped…

There’s always a certain amount of preparatory work that goes into a trip. Some people book their vacation long in advance and are catered to the moment they arrive (they ensure that they are picked up by reputable hotel-associated taxi drivers), they lounge on cordoned off beach properties, join safaris whose guests are other white Westerners and which ensure that their refined tastes are met, and who leave by the same means. Others arrive with flexibility, the sketch of a plan, the desire to interact with the locals, perhaps volunteer and the un-assailable notion that they are experiencing the “real Africa”. I envy these people, probably because they don’t find themselves in a brothel in the middle of the night on their first night in Africa. 

Consciously refraining from using my blacklight on the bed and walls, the accommodation itself wasn’t terrible and I will say that the rates were within my price range (after I told reception that I wasn’t planning on staying by the hour), however, with daylight came the unmistakable ticking clock to nighttime revelry and so the (frantic) search for other accommodation began. And when finally I did find a place, have moved and settled in, I look at the green spaces on the map. They have exotic names like Udzungwa, Usambara and Mahale mountains. They are centres of endemism within Tanzania and unlike the savannahs harbour much more of its flora and fauna. In the case of Udzungwa, over 50% of the countries’ species occur here. These places are magnetic and I find myself irresistibly drawn to them. Udzungwa will be my first port of call I have decided and ready my bag, noticing with no small amount of peevishness the stretch marks on the shoulder straps from the wrestling match with the porter.

Despite what one might think, mine isn’t a novel story, I join an army of photographers come to Africa. The only difference is that I have substituted the 600mm telephoto for the macro lens (Nonetheless, I am met with quizzical looks and no small amount of skepticism when I tell people I am a photographer and yet wander past yawning lions, sprinting cheetahs and giraffes at full stretch to photograph some bug in the bush). They are everywhere with their long white lenses, camera backpacks, tripods and in the coffee shops on their laptops editing photos. They clutch their bags with a possessiveness which betrays the valuables which lie within. They are on the traditional Safari, it seems like everyone here is. In the Western lexicon it has come to mean “an expedition for hunting or viewing of wildlife, especially in East Africa”. However, ‘Safari’ is originally a Swahili word meaning journey, and mine has just begun…


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A question of crisis?

Green large-eyed pit viper (Trimeresurus macrops). Photo taken in Virachey national park, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

When one is shaking uncontrollably after having taken an unknown quantity of amphetamines, and measures one’s fever by the mL of sweat collected in spare water bottles, and would gladly exchange any brand of power tool for the current jackhammering of one’s skull, certain questions of one’s judgement tend to emerge.

There’s the perennial favourite, a delicious aperitif which no meal would be complete without, “How could things have come to this?”. This is usually followed by the main course, a remorseful “What could I have done differently?”. This can be quite a tough and meaty question requiring a bit of time to chew and digest (Chef’s note: Be warned though filling, in some customers with a predisposed sensitivity and irritable bowels, one tends to shit out recriminations and regrets). Finally onto dessert, the melancholic and pitiful, “Aren’t I a good person?” Though a little heavy, and tending towards the maudlin and saccharine it’s a crowd favourite and really rounds out the philosophical menu. Though the special of the day, well the daily special really, is “Why does this kind of shit keep on happening to me?!!” The chef calls this a culinary tour-de-force which combines the traditional with rich and varied local ingredients. It has a long-standing history on the menu, though some critics have complained in the past that it is old and might even incorporate leftovers.

I made my way through this full course meal since I had little appetite for the more conventional rice overrun with ants, 4 day old meat (which had been butchered even earlier and had bled and sweated in the same painstaking overland journey as I had), and perhaps some kind of grub pulled from a tree, or salad of local greens. However, in contrast to my traditional even-tempered and analytical personality, my current state allowed little time for self-analysis and the inevitable depression which follows. Rather I picked up my camera and on legs trembling as much from weakness as from restless energy I stumbled about looking for something to photograph. That such an ill-advised walkabout could potentially keep me well-fed beyond my current crisis was one of those thoughts which might come back to haunt me, though which garnered disturbingly little attention at the time. “You okay?” Sou asked, by which he really meant, “are you sure you should be up? Sit down before you hurt yourself and have some of this delicious ant rice”. I nodded vigorously, my enthusiasm not exactly compensation in his eyes for my copious sweating, pallor, and trembling. He looked partway between settling back in his hammock and rushing to keep me upright. Comfort prevailed and he settled back down in his hammock, though not before uttering the utterly un-reassuring words, “don’t go far. I maybe need to find you if you sick… again…or you fall down…again. Or if you get hurt”. “Shit, thanks for the reassuring words Sou”, I was thinking to myself before I heard him finish, “Or you die”. I assume this last one was supposed to be a joke though there wasn’t so much as a cracked smile, and the word “death” hung in the air like some clarion call cum classified ad to the nearest grim reaper (“Young man aged 29, sickly state, seeks quick and equitable death. Terms negotiable. Available immediately. Pick up only.”)

The night was cool and I was happy for the blanket of warmth the fever provided (never let it be said I’m not a positivist at heart). A couple hours passed with little to show for my efforts, and disease and fatigue were starting to worm through the veneer of health the drugs had provided. I settled back against a tree to catch my breath and let the wet leaves drape around my neck and shoulders to cool me back down. Then, I took a step closer to answering that classified ad, as that green branch I was leaning against slithered over my shoulder…

Large-eyed pit viper (Trimeresurus macrops) photographed while sick and delirious in Virachey national park, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

To achieve sufficient depth of field, this photo was a 5 shot stack. Difficult to do hand held when my hands were shaking with adrenaline and amphetamines coursing through my veins. Large-eyed pit viper (Trimeresurus macrops) photographed while sick and delirious in Virachey national park, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

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Beyond macro photography

Obviously the focus up to this point has been on macro. However, landscape photography is an essential ingredient for setting the scene and creating context for many macro photos. If you do decide to publish, many editors like to see a landscape photo which sets the scene and can provide background information on where such marvels creatures can be found. Even when they don’t specifically ask, I have found that offering up such a contribution still works in one’s favour. When taken from remote jungle, or high mountaintops it can show the efforts that went into a photo in a way that a caption like “deep jungle” simply fails to do.

I find it to be especially important in chronicling my tales of misfortune in my adventure blogging. Keep in mind though that books have been written on the subject and to be perfectly honest, it’s not by area of expertise, so take what I say within the context of macro photography and documenting the travails of trekking across the globe rather than a how-to guide for flawless landscape photography.

Landscape photographers go on about the golden hours, sunrise and sunset. Undoubtedly these hours are important and indeed transformative in some cases. However, the rest of the day should not be neglected. The key to an engaging photo to my mind is atmosphere. Fog, mist, clouds, contrast, rain, snow, all these elements add interest to a photo and should be pursued rather than avoided.

It was just about the start of the rainy season and I’d just come from a miserably wet bogland (Read full story HERE). The rainclouds constantly threatened and I was reluctant to offer up my camera gear as another sacrifice. However, between the option of staying in and nursing leech bites and going on a trek to find the beautiful and endemic ‘doughnut pitcher plant’, Nepenthes aristolochioides, (It’s much more beautiful than it sounds) I opted for the latter. Danau gunung tujuh or 7 mountains lake is only a short 3 hr hike from the nearest village and is the site of these wonderful carnivorous plants. Clouds rolled overtop of the lake and mountains and brief spats of rain interrupted my 2hr shoot with the plants, however I was more than justly recompensed for my gamble (Full story HERE).

Storm clouds over 7 Mountains lake in Sumatra, Indonesia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

One of my favourite landscape photos from my last trip to Indonesia was the shot below. I feel like I got most of the elements and balance right in this shot. Taken on Gunung Kerinci on the island of Sumatra. Kerinci is the 2nd highest climbable volcano in the area and attracts mountaineers from all over Indonesia. The climb itself is strenuous, though not overly so. Nevertheless summiting by sunrise still requires waking up at ungodly hours, braving the bracing cold, the shrieking wind and the icy rain. The view from the summit itself was choked with fog and I was most disappointed. However, while descending the mountain, the clouds parted briefly and I was able not only to get a partial view of landscape, but also to document the arduous climb upwards. I feel like the barren scree above the treeline, the roiling mists, the dark foreboding clouds, golden dawn, scenery and the dwarfed and almost insignificant climber combine together to make this a memorable photo. The climber is in the bottom right so as to emphasize the distance yet to climb, as well as show the steep angle of incline. I was fortuitous that the climber was wearing a poncho which whipped about with the wind and subtly gave more character to the shrill wind.

Climbing Gunung Kerinci to photograph the Giant red leech, a previously undocumented species. Photo taken on Gunung Kerinci summit, Indonesia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

It can sometimes be daunting browsing through a photographer’s portfolio. Why would they ever put their failures up for all to see? In fact the reason is manifold. Not only do they wish to appear as professional as possible, but errors, the unpolished work might also give clues to their technique. After all, knowledge and experience is learning from one’s own failures, however; wisdom is learning from the failures of others.

I have often found the importance of documenting one’s failures alongside one’s successes. This not only acts as a kind of photographic journal, but can also be used for future reference should you find yourself in similar circumstances (not to mention that it’s a little humbling putting out your failures for all to see). Although I had initially planned on deleting all my pictures from the chocolate hills on the island of Bohol (Philippines), I decided that putting them on display and walking through my method and thought process might prove useful to others, despite the fact that there are few if any salvageable photos in the lot.

An attempt to incorporate foreground elements to block out and draw attention away from farmland. Photo taken in the chocolate hills, Philippines. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Like the previous picture, I hoped that perhaps by shooting through a foreground subject I might be able to divert attention away from the lacklustre landscape. In this case it wasn’t successful. Photo taken in the chocolate hills, Philippines. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Nevertheless, the photos do demonstrate some principles borne of experience which are applicable to other scenarios. For example, knowledge of local practices like the burning of trash, agricultural clearing or nighttime fires common to many SE Asian settlements can create haze which can negatively impact photos. Research beforehand the most up to date information on the area you plan to visit since a pristine area may have undergone development since it was last publicly photographed/updated on Wikipedia.

Trash and agricultural burning can create haze, especially in the evening hours. Photo taken in the chocolate hills, Philippines. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Sometimes just as important as the location is the time, weather and other elements beyond the photographer’s control which can utterly transform a landscape. A good example of this is the chocolate hills, a tourist draw on the island of Bohol in the Philippines. I had seen pictures online and was immediately drawn in and made a special effort to get there. The online pictures had piqued my curiosity, however I didn’t see any that truly inspired me. Could I be the first to capture this magnificent landscape in a way it deserved?

However, upon my arrival I was quite disappointed. The reality of the place didn’t seem to match the photographs I’d seen. The ‘forest’ from the photographs which looked like it occupied the valleys in between the hills was in reality quite sparse and was more farmland than forest.

The unfortunate reality. Rice patties interrupt the spaces between hills and haze blots out a beautiful blue sky. Photo taken in the chocolate hills, Philippines. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Late in the day haze from burning trash made sharp photos next to impossible and to cap it all off, the sun set not in front or behind the hills, but to the side behind farmland, making for a weaker composition.

Despite the fact that there’s a sunset, a misty haze, a few hills and even a flock of birds (bottom left) the picture still fails to impress in my eyes. This is largely due to the sunset not setting directly behind the hills which would make for a much more impressive display. Photo taken in the chocolate hills, Philippines. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

The following day I woke up at 4AM and drove my scooter an hour along the potholed roads to reach the lookout point in time for sunrise. Unfortunately the sunrise too was in a poor location, at least relative to my position at the lookout.

I brought my 300mm lens to see if I could zoom in on the hills to avoid some of the obstructions and perhaps frame the hills so as to avoid the ugly farms. The result wasn’t to my liking, however it was still a worthwhile exercise, as experimenting with different lenses opens up many possibilities.

Chocolate hills captured from the central viewpoint with a Canon 300mm f/2.8 lens. Photo taken in the chocolate hills, Philippines. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

I wandered about the lookout hill and found a spot with the least number of obstructions and decided to shoot in a way to maximize shadows (to hide the farmlands and make it appear more wild, as it might have been decades ago) and appear more atmospheric, with the rising mists, rays of light and shadow outlines of the treetops and hills. The result are the below photographs which conceals more than they reveal but are beautiful all the same.

An acceptable photo focusing on the hills. I had to underexpose the photo to hide the farmland and palm trees between the hills. Photo taken in the chocolate hills, Philippines. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Sunrise over the chocolate hills on the island of Bohol, Philippines. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

View from the top. Lookout points are natural magnets for the landscape photographer, especially in the rainforest where it can be difficult to see the forest for the trees. It is worth the extra effort to hike or summit that hill or mountain early in the morning to catch the dawn, just to enjoy if not to photograph. Early mornings in the rainforest often also produces a low lying mist due to transpiration. This can create a glow which lights up the entire horizon as the sun shines through it. During the day the mist is usually burned off and is only replenished in the cool evenings.

Taken during an early morning hike to Pejenakan mountain, opposite Mt. Bromo, Indonesia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Taken during an early morning hike to Pejenakan mountain, opposite Mt. Bromo, Indonesia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

This aerial view of the wonderful Guyanan rainforest was taken from a small Cessna plane on the way back from Kaieteur falls. Sometimes by air, especially in remote areas that offer no chance of scaling mountains to achieve viewpoints, is the only choice for captivating scenic views. When traveling into or around a country with rainforest, always consider:

1) Taking a golden hours flight

2) Asking the pilot what the route will be (for smaller (and more flexible planes) there are sometimes alternate routes that can be taken or else the pilot will sometimes loop around a particular attraction so people can get a good view). Ask beforehand and they might accommodate you.

3) Bringing a camera aboard fitted with a polarizing filter to cut down on the reflections from the window.

Unspoiled wilderness. The river is the Potaro which extends downwards towards Mahdia and which eventually empties into Guyana’s largest river, the Essequibo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2010.

Oftentimes one needs to get above the forest canopy to capture engaging photos. Unfortunately not all rainforests are so accommodating. When such is the case try dusk and dawn hours to catch sunlight streaming in through the forest canopy. This can make for enchanting photos. Note that there will be a great deal of contrast between the shadows at the forest floor and the brightness of the canopy and light rays. This would be a good job for HDR, though a single shot can still work, and sometimes the contrast is desirable, as below.

Daylight streaming through the canopy on Gunung Mulu, Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2009.

In cloud rainforest, high humidity and fog can pose problems with condensation on the lens and malfunctioning equipment. However, it can also provide opportunities for an atmospheric photo.

Morning mist at Altamira ranger station, La Amistad national park, Costa Rica. Copyright Paul Bertner 2012.

Waterfalls range from iconic and touristy to hidden and secretive. There are people that specialize in just this and so despite their beauty it can oftentimes be difficult to achieve a unique waterfall photo. Nevertheless, they are an important part of the landscape in rainforests and worthy of mention. Moreover, many insects, amphibians and reptiles can be found along the stream banks and in the cascading pools around a waterfall.

The azul waters are achieved through rich mineral deposits upstream. The waterfall basin is a big tourist draw, though one that still merits fighting through the crowds. Day hike in Volcan Tenorio national park, Costa Rica.

Kaieteur falls in Guyana is iconic and the largest (by volume), single drop (rather than tiered) waterfall in the world.

This image could have been improved by the use of a polarizing filter which would have deepened the blues in the sky, enhanced the double rainbow and cut some of the haze from the mid-morning sun. Photo taken at Kaieteur fall, Guyana. Copyright Paul Bertner 2010.

Rainforests can be dark places with little to distinguish one location from another. The forest can appear uniform and as a result there are few features to draw the viewer in. In these situations, a person, tent, or other focal point not normally found in such an environment can help generate interest. It is also helpful in the context of a narrative.

A personal touch. Photo taken in Braulio Carillo national park, Costa Rica. Copyright Paul Bertner 2012.



I will update this section with other landscape photos from future trips as well as any other tips or information that I come across that might be useful. If anyone has any suggestions or advice for landscape photography or how to improve this section you can either leave a comment or email me directly.

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The weaver ant complex

The goal of this article is perhaps a little ambitious, but I’d like it to be one of the most comprehensive, factual and well illustrated reference guides for what I have termed the weaver ant complex; a microcosm of predators, prey, and mimics with Oecophylla at its centre. Therefore if you come across any errors, new information or something which I have left out which bears inclusion then please leave a comment to that effect and I will strive to remedy the problem. If you have photos you would like to contribute which demonstrate interesting behaviour or contributes to the ever expanding web of ant-associated organisms you can email me at Thank you to all the contributing photographers for their kind permission.


Part I – An introduction to the Weaver ant (Oecophylla)

Weaver ant (Oecophylla smaragdina) guarding a colony of mealy bugs which it protects in exchange for honeydew, a plant-phloem concentrate rich in sugars. Photo taken in Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.


A keystone species is a species which has a disproportionally large effect on its environment relative to its abundance or biomass and whose removal from the ecosystem would constitute a dramatic shift in its composition, the result of a trophic cascade ie. a domino effect in which organisms dependent on the keystone species either:

a) Flourish and come to dominate the environment to the detriment of other species, lowering overall biodiversity Eg. the sea otter (Enhydra lutris), a predator of herbivorous, rapidly reproducing prey (sea urchins).

or b) Perish as a result of the absence of an essential service that the keystone species provided eg. Pollination, resources, etc…

Keystone is a term often applied (sometimes erroneously) to large, dominant predators and flagship species like the wolves of yellowstone or jaguars in the rainforest due not only to their overrepresentation in the media and research, but also due to the more readily measured effects on the ecosystem. However, the term may equally be applied to plants like the fig tree which supports a large number of species with its fruits, or the honeybee, a pollinator without which the angiosperms (and organisms which depend on them) would surely never have enjoyed the same level of success as they have.

While weaver ants don’t follow the classical definition (ie. their abundance/biomass is often greater than that of other species in the community therefore they produce less of a “leveraged effect” than traditional keystone species), they are undoubtedly sculptors of their environments, impacting not only their immediate surroundings, but also its genetic composition over an evolutionary timescale. As a result of their unparalleled level of social cohesion, coordination and communication they have come not only to dominate the majority of environments they inhabit, but also to increase its biodiversity. With respect to the latter, this not only applies to their near-indiscriminate predation and thus control of overly abundant species, but in a fascinating model for co-evolution, a bewildering array of arthropod species have developed remarkable strategies to evade, co-exist, or else deceive the ant super-organism by means of subterfuge. Hence the weaver ant has effectively shaped the genetic destiny of a significant number of arthropod species across a variety of genera. Out of what can often be a barbaric rainforest they have created a kind of savage garden.

Ants are known for their ability to dramatically alter and indeed tame their surroundings. Whether it be the vast swathes of rainforest and grasslands denuded by leafcutter ants (Atta sp.) of the New world, whose farming predates our own by millions of years. Or else the establishment of a fully functional microenvironment within a single tree as in the the raising, feeding and eventual slaughter of armoured scale insects by Melissotarsus sp. Oecophylla’s dominance over the landscape is no less impressive. To the casual observer its abundance is clear, this is especially the case in disturbed forests and agricultural lands where Oecophylla can quickly establish itself and spread throughout the landscape via multiple nests all belonging to the same colony, a behaviour known as polydomous nest building. Within older secondary and primary forests, its dominion, though perhaps less visible as a result of its arboreal habits, is no less of a shaping force. To what then does Oecophylla owe its tremendous success? The answer is manifold and includes morphological (incredible load bearing capability), biochemical (complex chemical signalling ie. pheromones), and behavioural (polydomous nest building) adaptations among many others which are still the focus of ongoing research.

The following segments of this article will attempt to explain the phenomenal success of Oecophylla from the cellular level to the macroscopic to the more integrative natural history. The last of which plays host to a large cast of characters with an amazing variety of strategies to cement their place in the Oecophylla complex. This is a work in progress and very open to suggestions, so please feel free to leave constructive feedback in the comment box or by email.







1- Reisewitz SE, Estes JA, Simenstad CA. Indirect food web interactions: sea otters and kelp forest fishes in the Aleutian archipelago. Oecologia: 2006 Jan (4): pp.623-31. Epub: 2005, Sep. 27.

2- Christopher C. Wilmers, Robert L., et al. Trophic facilitation by introduced top predators: grey wolf subsidies to scavengers in Yellowstone National Park. Nov. 2003. Journal of Animal Ecology Vol.72 (6): pp. 909-916.

3- Wright SJ, Gompper ME, and Deleon B. Are large predators keystone species in Neotropical forests? The evidence form Barro Colorado Island. 1994, Nov. Oikos: Vol. 71 (2): pp. 279-294.

4- Yang D, Peng Y, et al. Relationship between population variation of fig trees and environment in the tropical rainforests of Xishuangbanna.  2002, Sep. 23. Huan Jing Ke Xue (5): pp. 29-35.

5- Y.Ben-Dov and B.L. Fisher. The mutualism of Melissotarsus ants and armoured scale insects in Africa and Magadascar: distribution, host plants and biology. Entomologia hellenica 19 (2010): 45-53.

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From bad to worse to “it could only happen to you”

Veal Thom grassland, Virachey national park, Cambodia. Photo taken during “Medical evacuation”. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

I stared at the 6 pills in my palm. Blue, red, yellow, white and a couple that were the colour of… well, let’s just call it “beyond expiry”. I peered more closely at the cornucopia trying to decipher their pharmacology from the colour and the  two or three letter designations written upon them. Amo 500, must have been Amoxycillin, an antibiotic. Two didn’t have any numbers or letters. One actually said “POWER” on it and the rest could scarcely even be called pills since they were in a partial state of degradation and were more powder than what could adequately be termed ‘pill’. Whether it had been brought to that state by time or by the stifling humidity was anyone’s guess. “Sou, how old are these pills?” Sou thought a moment and then shrugged not even hazarding a guess on the hazardous materials he was urging me ingest. As I got up from my hammock I swooned with the effort and rapid change in blood pressure, fortunately Sou was there to grab my arm and steady me. I was quickly moving into the realm of invalid I thought as I wobbled to the washroom whose distance from my hammock was steadily decreasing, threatening to invalidate the common wisdom and my own long-held maxim of “don’t shit where you sleep”. “Exceptions need to be made for exigent circumstances” I thought, lowering my trousers. When I returned, Sou looked at me with an expression that said “aren’t you forgetting something…?”. I bowed my head in silent acknowledgement of my omission and gathered up the pills I’d set aside. What extra harm could a handful of mystery pills cause? And besides, they might even help…I held them in my hand for a long enough time that Sou felt the need to give me a tutorial on how to take them. “With water, with water” he urged and mimed putting his hand to his mouth, tossing his head back and taking a swig of water. I sighed, offered up a momentary prayer that I wasn’t hastening an iatrogenic death and then swallowed the lot. Gulp…

Sou could hardly restrain his satisfaction and clapped me on the back as though I’d performed a daring feat…and perhaps I had. Though I simply nodded, fear displacing any outward signs of encouragement I could have offered him, and then tumbled back into my hammock. I didn’t dare to hope that one of the pills might be useful and do something to help with the pounding headache or fever. I leaned back and gradually fell asleep in spite of Sou’s kind-hearted but ultimately creepy rocking of my hammock while making ocean sounds and quietly murmuring “sleeeeeeep. Sleeeeeeeeeeeep.”

When I awoke half or an hour later I felt…better! I couldn’t quite believe it, but I actually felt better. I was still sopping wet from cold sweats, however, the headache and fever were suppressed. I don’t say gone because I could still feel a dull throb at my temples and my temperature had not so much broken as had been turned down from a boil to a simmer. But this state was…manageable. I peered out over the lip of my hammock to see the sun on the cusp of disappearing over the green green mountains. I had the briefest moment where I could enjoy the Veal, and the fields of gold set ablaze before evening descended. I waxed poetic and waned lyrical, it was as though a spark of joy had been rekindled in the back of my brain somewhere. It was a moment of beauty that almost justified the preceding ordeal…and then I reminded myself that I was still in the middle of the jungle and “that ordeal” I had just referred to as though it was a thing of the past and had been effectively dealt with was still far from over. And then I reminded myself further that I don’t feel “joy”, I’m a depressed misanthrope whose state of being is just barely positive enough to propel myself forward…and this is when I’m not in a sickly state bordering on death. That’s when my thoughts turned back to the mystery pills.

When I awoke I had felt better than my feverish, headachy, sweaty, semi-conscious state to whose hellish depths I had spiralled in the past few days. However now that some more time had elapsed I felt better than better. I felt good, no…I felt great. I stepped out of my hammock with a light and giddy step. There was energy and even a bit of a spring in my step. With my mind revving up it was hard to focus and concentrate on, on, on, on…Fuck, what was it? Oh yeah, the pills! My hands shook visibly with suppressed energy and the inability to be idle. “I bet it was the one that said POWER on the side”, I couldn’t help but think to myself. Fortunately (or not) I had a fair guess at the identity of one of the mystery pills. I’d felt these effects before and I didn’t have to cudgel my memory to find out when or where as it had been a rather salient point in one of my previous trips (it was in Costa Rica immediately after my hip surgery when I was climbing to a hilltop ranger station with a 30kg pack. I was in enough discomfort that I went to the local medicine man who gave me a “topical analgesic” which it turns out happened to be cocaine. But that’s a story for another time). I sat back down, my heart pounding and I wasn’t sure if my current crop of sweating could be attributed to the medications, the unknown illness or my steadily rising state of anxiety at having ingested an unknown quantity of amphetamines…

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Narrowing options

When I regained consciousness, I awoke to Sou leaning over me anxiously. He had a napkin out and was dabbing the sweat from my brow with such nervous attentiveness that you would have thought that my life depended on the quality of his dabbing. As my eyes opened I could see that he breathed a noticeable sigh of relief. I could almost hear his thoughts “Thank God he’s not dead!” before he actually said them “Oh thank God you’re not dead!” “Not yet” I managed, rubbing the back of my head where my head must have hit the rocks. There was no blood although I could feel a lump that grew even as my fingers massaged the spot. As I tried to gather my bearings I realized I was still melting under the sun. “Hammock…Water”, Sou nodded and ducked under my arm to lend a shoulder. Together we stumbled over to my hammock. He quickly ran to get some water from the nearby stream. He practically threw the bottle at me in his haste. I immediately splashed my face and let the water run down my back before forcing myself to drink the rest. The haze from the heat began to lift and my thoughts came a little more clearly.

“I was SO scared!” Sou said, rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet from a semi-seated position a few feet from my hammock. He watched me as though at any moment the eyes would roll back in my head and I’d lose consciousness again. “What happened?” I asked, a little hazy on the details. “I go to take pictures of snake…” here he stopped and bowed his head apologetically “I can’t take photo. I can’t make your camera work”. I nodded not altogether surprised. “When I come back I see you on ground, lips shaking, eyes white”. “Was I shaking Sou?” “No”. His description sounded a lot like it could have been a seizure, despite the fact that I wasn’t convulsing. Either way, the whole thing did nothing but amplify my already not insubstantial fears. “You want pills? They give you power!” Given the fact that I had barely been able to stumble over to my hammock, even with Sou’s help and my current state of fatigue. Not to mention having lost consciousness/potentially having had a seizure, I came to the conclusion that I might not actually make it out of the park on my own. “Sou, how do we get out of the park if I can’t walk out? Is there an evacuation procedure?” He looked at me with a mixture of alarm and confusion. “But you Can walk, you Have to walk”. “Yeah, but say I can’t” I continued, “is it possible to call someone? A helicopter maybe?” My voice sounded too hopeful, even to my own ears. “You have helicopter?” he asked in surprise. “No, no I don’t have. But say I needed one, could you call one?” “I don’t have a helicopter” he answered incredulously. I paused to wipe the sweat from my brow, at least some of which I’m sure was from my frustration. “What do you do if there’s an emergency?” I tried again, belabouring the point since it seemed like the kind of information that might become relevant very quickly. “If emergency, we walk out”. Well there I had it, my imaginary rescue helicopter had crashed and burned before it had even gotten off the ground. “Sou” I said my voice heavy with resignation, “I’m ready for those pills now…”

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Of Nightmares and Fever dreams

Green pit viper found at night in Veal Thom grasslands, Virachey national park, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

I arrived into Banlung, jumping off point for Virachey national park around 2100 hrs after a bumpy and uncomfortable 13hr bus ride from Phnom Penh. In this supposedly “remote corner” of Cambodia, I felt nonetheless positively inundated with other tourists. I hadn’t booked ahead to any hotels knowing full well that I would have a rich buffet of options when I arrived served up by touts, tuk-tuk drivers and peddlers. Though perhaps not the same rich and varied options as in the more touristed towns of Siem Reap or Kampot. All the same, a crowd of Cambodians threw themselves at the passengers as they exited the bus. Jockeying with the owners for their luggage, they would at times forcefully wrangle it from their hands in order to load it onto the back seats of tuk-tuks or scooters. I managed to hold onto mine by virtue of walking off the bus with it already strapped to my back. Other tourists were not so lucky and quickly fell to the first wave of drivers. Like mosquitoes, to the buzz of touts, the scent of indecision was like blood in the air and wherever I went they quickly followed. I singled out the one driver who seemed unconcerned and asked if he knew any reasonable hostels. He was taking a couple that had already reserved a room at the hostel and so agreed to take me on for free. That was all the news I needed and jumped in the car and rolled up the window so the mosquitoes wouldn’t get in.

Upon arrival I settled into a nice bungalow and chatted with the guide-cum-gopher boy for the hostel named Smiley. Now, I almost decided then and there to organize a trip with him. After all, wouldn’t it make for a great story to get screwed over by a guide name Smiley? However, I decided to go with a guide recommended by a friend who has lived in Cambodia for a long time and who even helped train the current crop of national park guides. Fortunately Smiley knew him, got him on the phone and later that night I was introduced to my guide, Sou. He presented me with a 7 day itinerary which would take us well into the national park via an interesting natural grassland, Veal Thom. It looked good though I did require some cajoling and convincing over the eye-watering price.

We decided to leave the following day to waste no time and I insisted on trekking into the park the first day rather than spend it in the village as the itinerary suggested. Sou said he’d contact the local guide and see what he could do. With that we agreed to meet early the following morning and I retreated to my room where I re-arranged my 30kg of gear into a more manageable 20+kg.

The following day Sou and I went to the market to purchase supplies for the coming week and then motorbiked 2hrs to a small village where we picked up our local guide. He was a young 20 something year old who had just discovered Emo style and had his hair swept up into some kind of mousse/gelled concoction that looked exceptionally out of place in the jungle and already gave me grave doubts as to his competence. We lunched and then walked a couple hours to a small hut that bordered the jungle. With several hours of sunlight that still remained I attempted to clean my sensor with some alcohol and cotton Q-tips, though I mostly just succeeded in making it even filthier and left the sensor a minefield of dust spots and cotton fibres. I decided if I used a large aperture it didn’t look too bad and finally retired to my hammock where I relaxed until 9pm. Fading in and out of sleep I was finally roused by a herd of buffalo passing within a couple feed of my hammock, their wicked horns passing just to either side of me. Their heavy breath as they exhaled putrefying the air and raising the hairs on the back of my neck. I remained motionless in the hammock gripped by an irrational fear that any movement might engender some kind of charge or stampede. They eventually passed, though theyremained in the area and returned several times throughout the night.

Preparing for a night of macro I wiped the sleep from my eyes and erased whatever fatigue remained by downing a red bull. Alertness restored, I walked about an hour having spotted nothing more than a couple jumping spiders and a weaver ant mimicking crab spider (Amyciaea lineatipes) of which I failed to get any respectable photos before being rained out. I quickly donned my poncho to protect my camera and beat a hasty retreat to the hut where I doffed my gear and subsequently returned to my hammock. There I remained wide-eyed and awake for most of the rest of the night, awaiting the cease of the rains which never came, red bull coursing my veins, and the bulls outside on their own course; their flared nostril breathing waking me from my reveries with a start whenever they passed by.

Day break came and sleep eluded me. With a groan I got up, and faced the relentless rain which greeted me as a slap to the face. We ate a slow meal, trying to draw it out as long as possible in the hopes that the rain might abate somewhat. However, more than an hour later and we still marched into the rain. I found myself especially grateful for the two garbage bags I had insisted on finding in the market for wrapping around my camera gear and which proved immediately useful as we were quickly drenched. Sou and the local guide were bowed under the weight of the food and I under the weight of my camera gear. We all struggled with the rain, and the consequent leeches. At least they had the benefit of their loads becoming lighter over the coming days, I grumbled to myself more than once. A luxury not afforded to me unless I started jettisoning equipment, a strategy which seemed more and more appealing with every grinding hour that passed. 4 hours later and the rain which wavered only occasionally in its dedication and ferocity diminished just enough for us to enjoy a short reprieve for lunch. However, having stopped our energetics, the chill of our drenched clothing ushered the warmth away from our bodies and ensured that we were more concerned with shovelling our mouths full of noodles and rice rather than enjoying the calm jungle setting and the brief respite on the assault on our bodies. We shivered, caught in a foggy landscape, wishing neither to continue nor to remain in place. Eventually we buckled under the cold and so buckled up and continued the trek.

We crossed what Sou referred to as the ‘buffer zone’, a ring of mountains forming a natural barrier between the park and the forested area just outside which was rife with supposedly legally felled trees (though I had my doubts). Upon reaching the top I waited for the guides who struggled with their heavier packs. Mists swirled and the temperature seemed to plummet, especially after the efforts required to reach the hilltop. I hugged my core and hid my hands under my armpits. It was hard to believe how many times I’ve frozen in the tropics, not just atop mountains and volcanoes but even in the dense lowlands when pounded with heavy rains. I tried to count off the minutes on fingers which had frozen into claws and stubbornly refused to open. When they did finally arrive we scrunched together to preserve what little warmth we had. Fortunately the difficult part was over and we only had an hour or so left until we reached camp. We trekked mostly in silence with only the occasional grunt or gasp for air shared between us. At last, after a slippery final section which found us mostly inching forward on our asses, and 8hrs after we had first started the trek, we arrived at camp. I promptly set up my hammock, washed my clothes (with little hope of seeing them dry anytime soon), and ‘relaxed’/shivered, shook and rocked myself into a state bordering on warmth.

Despite relatively clear skies and only the faintest patter of rain I remained in my hammock. I nursed a pounding headache which persisted through the night and which at some point in the early hours was accompanied by a sore neck and the blush of a fever. I was exhausted and drained from the day’s hike, and yet however I tried, I failed to fall asleep.

Nevertheless at some point I must have fallen asleep because I awoke to a few stray rays of sunshine falling on my hammock. I didn’t have more than a few moments reprieve before my dormant headache awoke as well, and the dull pounding at the back of my skull resumed. It took me a moment to realize that I was completely soaked, not just my shirt and shorts, but my blanket and hammock as well. Had it rained and I not felt a thing? I looked around at the dry leaves and ground and slowly it dawned on me that I had apparently been sweating, a lot. Even now I wiped the beads of perspiration from my arms and forehead with a towel. It was about 0700, I had no idea how long I’d slept but I still felt utterly drained. Sou and Emo boy were already up and preparing breakfast. I put out my blanket and clothes to dry and then retreated to my hammock. Fortunately yesterday we’d covered a fair bit of ground and so today was only a 3 or 4 hour hike to the grasslands, Veal Thom, or so Sou promised. Thank God for that! I decided some more sleep or at least rest was in order and so after breakfast I remained in my hammock in a half-conscious state until 1100. Finally I was forced to rouse against my body’s protests. I shakily put on my pack and we began the uphill battle towards the grassland.

It was undoubtedly a struggle, although even Sou’s lower estimate of 3hrs turned out to be high and we made it in just over 2 hrs. Even so, the final 1/2 hr hike across the grassland with the full sun crushing down on us was punishing, and threatened to unravel what little resolve remained. When we finally did arrive into a small oasis of shade I collapsed on an uncomfortable outcrop, rocks jutting into my back and was incapable of further movement for a good hour. When I finally came to I found the guides huddled over a spitting fire cooking a late lunch, and ants crawling over what they must have taken to be my dead body. And then there was also my ever-present headache and clothes which I had sweated through, again. Somehow on unsteady legs I managed to pull out my hammock and tie it before falling in and falling ‘asleep’ or at least what passed for sleep nowadays ie. a sweaty, head pounding, feverish and half-conscious state.

“We go out?” Sou asked. I would have thought that the slick sheet of perspiration over my entire body and the occasional moan would have been answer enough, though Sou is an optimist. I managed to raise my head just over the lip of the hammock and shake my head before plunking back down with a heavy sigh from the effort. “Okay, tomorrow then” Sou said in a voice that just a little too upbeat for my current state. I didn’t have the energy to grumble or curse and so I just stared listlessly at him in the hopes of conveying my current state. It must have been at least partly effective because he came over a few minutes later with a handful of colourful pills. “You take pills, they give you power!” I felt wretched, nevertheless I didn’t feel quite desperate enough to down a random assortment of mystery pills, especially in a country where you can get morphine over the counter. “Thanks Sou but I think I’ll pass”. He shook his head as though he were the doctor and I were refusing a perfectly reasonable treatment. He brandished the pills and shook them in his closed fist a couple times for good measure as though about to perform a magic trick. After seeing that was still not enticed, he placed the the rainbow pills back in his pocket and went back to tend the fire.

Night fell and it seemed like all my symptoms worsened. My arms and face were hot to the touch and I had to douse myself in water several times throughout the night to cool down lest I boil down to nothing. The soreness in my neck which I had initially attributed to simply hiking with a heavy pack had now become a tense, rigid knot which had stiffened to the point that I had trouble moving my head from side to side. I must have sweated several litres in a few short hours because I was literally bathing in a puddle which formed a steady drip from the bottom of my hammock to the ground. When I opened my eyes I hurriedly shuttered them to the light as pain lanced the sockets (photophobia). I hid them in the crook of my sweaty elbow and massaged my temples to ease the headache which bordered on a migraine. I knew it was bad when I got up partway through the night to go to washroom and stumbled across a green pit viper. It was no more than 10 feet away from my hammock. I offered it no more than a glance before falling back into bed, my heavy camera gear which I’d carted for 20+ kilometres sitting beneath me, useless. Once I struggled to sit up and perhaps rummage through my equipment but I promptly fell back down breathing heavily. It was no use, I was finished, all used up.

I went through a mental rolodex of tropical and potentially fatal maladies and repeatedly came back to falciparum malaria, and bacterial meningitis both of which can be fatal within a very short time period if left untreated. We were currently on day 4 of what was supposed to be a week-long trek. However, in light of my worsening condition I decided I had to get some form of treatment or at least determine that what I had wasn’t too serious. I tried to assure myself that what I was experiencing was at least partially psychosomatic and that my isolation left me with nothing else to think about and so my symptoms mirrored my thoughts and theories. Unfortunately this realization did little to actually calm or resolve anything and I would gradually return to the rolodex and oscillate between fear and reason, with the scales steadily tipping towards the former.

Day came and yet another sleepless night. Fatigue settled into every limb and I knew already I wouldn’t be able to make the trek out. Sou got up brought me breakfast and upon seeing my pale, inert form actually felt the need to shake me to make sure that I was still alive. My eyes fluttered open and despite the pain from the strong sun, I managed a weak smile and accepted the bowl of porridge he offered. At least I still had an appetite…well sort of…I half finished the mush in front of me before it was overtaken by ants.

Sou didn’t bother asking whether I wanted to go on a tour of the Veal, it was evident from the way I couldn’t even bring myself to leave my hammock for breakfast that I was in no condition for a hike. So we remained in the shade and over the course of what could have been several hours or several minutes, I felt myself go from fever to freezing chills. I knew that my temperature must still be high but I found my teeth chattering and I was shaking with the cold. I crawled out of the hammock and towards a patch of sunlit rock. There I basked like the reptiles that I so often photographed. In fact I saw a skink not a foot away adopting a posture not so dissimilar from my own. On unsteady feet I peeled off my clothes, changed and put the sweat-soaked garments in the sun to dry. From my perch I pointed out the pit viper which hadn’t moved from the night before. Sou took a quick look before declaring “Very dangerous” with a vigorous shake of his head. I nodded feebly. “I take photo for you?” I had serious doubts whether Sou could manage my camera, however, no harm done so I gave him a quick tutorial and set all the buttons to automatic. The sun felt awfully strong…I saw Sou delicately easing toward the viper…I looked around and suddenly couldn’t make sense of anything around me. The heat, it felt like I had been in the sun for hours. How long had it been? 5 minutes, 10? I looked around and it was as though I was swimming in a Salvador Dali painting. Shapes melted away and my vision became a swirl of colours. The golden grassland became a blur of pastel strokes from a painter’s brush. The ground swelled and rolled under me, there was the brief realization that this was it, that I was losing consciousness and couldn’t hold on much longer. Then there was a streak of motion as though the painting tipped from the easel, which must have been me falling and then there was nothing.

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