First introductions

‘Sunrise’ on Gunung Kerinci, Sumatra, Indonesia. A struggling Indonesian attempts to summit Sumatra’s highest peak. Generalizations while not always accurate or fair have their place as a friend once told me over beers and bashing Americans. And Indonesians are terrible trekkers, in general. This is probably owing to the fact that they stop for smoke breaks every 15 minutes and have the lung capacity of a premie, or perhaps it’s their work ethic (another generality). However, it’s interesting to note that despite the fact that it takes them 5 times longer to make the trek, there are still many locals that do it. Forsaking the comfort of their couches and TVs for the cold and wet. Now how many of us would do that?

There is really only one guesthouse in Kersik Tuo, the village at the foothills of Gunung Kerinci. Technically there are actually 3 or 4 but only one is recommended in Lonely planet guide and so naturally everyone winds up there. It makes for a quiet, relaxing atmosphere where guests can mingle and exchange stories and eat together at the single living room table. It’s quite unlike the high octane guesthouses with rooftop pubs and clubs of Bangkok and other high traffic areas. I find that the latter attract huge numbers of partying, beer guzzling pubescent teens who bat themselves against the guesthouse walls like moths attracted to a flame. A swirl of pheromones in the air heavy with the promise of sex but mostly only the realization of self-gratification, and usually in the bunk right next mine…”Do you mind, I’m trying to sleep dammit!”. “Do you mind if I finish?” might respond a timid, slightly breathless voice. “Are you serious?!” – and conversations of such ilk are not uncommon in the middle of the night…

No, this guesthouse drew quality patrons that confined their hand-to-gland combat to their bedrooms. It is also here that I have met some of the most charismatic travellers I have encountered. There was Danny the Dutch traveller who’d hitchhiked his way from the Netherlands across Iran, Iraq even Afghanistan and the rest of the troubled Middle East all the way past Pakistan and had finally arrived here in Sumatra after 2 years. Then there was Dino the avid volcano climber who punctuated every sentence with “Shit!”, “Merde!”. For example, “I was walking down the street and like Shit! Merde! I saw some beautiful penne noodles that I just had to buy. But Shit! Merde! when I ate them they were like Shit!” …wait for it…”Merde!” he would finally finish. Numerous and hilarious were his tales of seeking out and conquering active volcanoes, sneaking around guards that had evacuated the towns nearest the volcano and generally doing things that no one in their right mind would do. His  fantastic photos a testament to his genius and questionable sanity. It was in this stew of people that I came to join on with Veronika and Xander on their trek up Gunung Kerinci the following day. A wonderful Polish couple whose company buoyed my spirits on the cold, forlorn, sunless peak of Kerinci and whose brilliantly bizarre tales of Polish politics, bureaucracy and daily life enlivened the otherwise wet, foggy and unremarkable mountainscape. Yes there was perhaps also a tinge of madness in that face, with wild eyes whose breathless rants of the merits and superiority of volleyball over all other sports took on a feverish pitch in the night and brokered no discussion.

Though the trek began with lighthearted banter, grinding ever upwards we struggled for breath, and the conversation gradually waned to grunts, and groans in a kind of sonic devolution terminating in the primordial squelch of wet boots. Along the way we were forced to take shelter as a torrential downpour hit. Little did I know this event would be a formative event, for it was only due to this that I came to encounter the giant red predatory ground leech of Kerinci mountain. A chimerical beast that would not be out of place in an Aesopian fable or mythic account by Homer. I am ashamed to say that  the importance of this discovery did not impress itself upon me immediately, but only upon retrospection and as such my photographic account was desultory. After realizing my momentous lapse in judgement there was much rending of garments and tearing of hair. Despair and futility embraced me though in truth it hadn’t been so very long since last we’d seen each other. I fortunately found a sympathetic ear in my companions.

The night drew on and amidst the incessant chatter of Indonesian trekkers, the untameable flapping of the tent’s tarp, and wafer thin ‘mattresses’ there was little sleep to be had and it took all my efforts for my thoughts not to be drawn into the steady spiralling orbit of the giant red leech. 0300 hours came (the hour needed to start the climb to summit by sunrise), however, the steady tattoo beat of rain on the tarp urged us to stay in while the wind whispered for us to turn back. When we disobeyed and left the quasi-warmth of our thin-walled home an hour later it shrieked its discontent and tore at our clothing with nails sharpened by a fine misted rain. Gone was the lackadaisical, meandering trail at the base of the mountain. Now, gnarled roots protruded from the banks of the path (which had degenerated into a kind of crevasse) provided rough purchase and it was only through careful maneuvering, flashlight held between chattering teeth, that I managed to slowly inch my way forward along with my companions. I was only thankful for the fact that we left our backpacks back at the camp (though slightly rueful that the socks I had thought that I had packed were notably absent and found a poor substitute in some plastic bags I found, cut up and wrapped around my feet), the rest of the time I cursed the mountain, the elements, the gods but mostly myself. Finally after about 3 hrs of struggling we arrived at the summit. “Well this is…”. “Shit!” Xander finished my sentence for me. “Yeah, I was going to go with disappointing but yeah”. We glanced around the three of us and our guide then after a few quick snaps of the flag and a sign planted at the top (to prove that we’d made the hellish journey), we descended, this time all of us cursing…

Fortunately the descent was more agreeable than the way up. Along with the layers of clothing we peeled off, we also shed our discontent and revelled in the idea of celebratory drinks and sheer bacchanalia we would engage in upon our return. Feats, feasts, orgies, adventure, mythical creatures you’d be forgiven if you thought is nought but a mythical account (Nb. Much to my discontent the orgies never happened and the feasting was limited to your standard Indonesian fare. But then there was always that ephemeral leech that haunted my dreams).

Following our return I practically ran to the lone internet station in town. There I could scarcely restrain my hands trembling over the keyboard. I willed myself to calmness, a few deep breaths, and then proceeded to look for any information on giant red leeches from Kerinci mountain. All I came across were accounts from Mt. Kinabalu and even those were uncommon. I encountered only a few science articles and blog entries and those were mostly punctuated with ‘cryptic’, ‘uncommon’, ‘unknown’… intoxicating words to my inner explorer. I then scrutinized the few online pictures. All were tagged with Mt. Kinabalu and most were poorly taken or uninteresting. A prime subject! I had already decided up on the mountain that I would remain until I’d properly photographed the red leech, however, this offered the confirmation I needed. I resolutely marched back to the guesthouse, and packed my bag for the following day. Around dinnertime a new crop of guests arrived and after settling in they joined me at the table. When possessed by a goal or with a certain object in mind I am apt to abandon my typical stoicism and mild mannered demeanour and become somewhat erratic and eccentric. During dinner, conversation naturally centered around the giant red leech (perhaps because when anyone wanted to talk about anything else I aggressively steered the conversation back towards the topic, maybe). Thus, somewhere in between passing the potatoes and reaching over to grab the sambal (a kind of chili paste used as an accompaniment for meals) I and the other guests exchanged looks: they stared into my wide, wild eyes and I into their blank, anaesthetized faces. They would call me mad, I would call them soulless; pleasant guesthouse banter! When all around the table had tired of talk of leeches silence fell and dreams latched themselves onto me like a…well you know…

Back on the mountain… “Have you seen the giant red leech?” I demanded accosting anyone that crossed my path. Often I was met with baffled stares or incoherent responses. “I…I…” – It was obvious they knew nothing and so I pushed my way past them back through the wet branches to continue my search. However I knew my searching would be fruitless without a heavy rain needed to bring them out, not this piddling shit that was more of a fine mist than anything else. It truly was my particular brand of bad luck that when venturing to the top of the mountain to photograph views from the summit and photograph wildlife along the way that it should rain and be utterly unsympathetic to my cause. But, when I wish to photograph a particular giant red leech that I should be met with beautiful weather with scarcely a drop of water in sight. The frustration was mounting day by day. I had already made tentative plans elsewhere and didn’t wish to spend more than a week on a fruitless search. F@&*$! The only consolation, albeit somewhat of a saving grace of my leechless days, was the type of sunrise that I had hoped for when first climbing the mountain and the kind I wished my Polish friends had had the good fortune to witness. Perhaps I should have warned them of fortune, my fickle mistress with whom I’m forever at odds and whose conciliation never extends beyond the smile of a single sunny day in an endless shower of sorrows (Though by midnight on the mountain amongst a din of Indonesian chatter, the snores of bedmates, the cold, a piercing wind I think they were starting to regret their decision to come up with me. Me…well, this was just par for the course).

Sunrise from Gunung Kerinci camp 2. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Although my stay on the mountain was still richly rewarded with other fauna time was running out, and the giant red leech had yet to reveal its many secrets to me…

Backlit green leaf-mimicking katydid (Pseudophyllinae). Found during a night hike in Kerinci-Seblat national park, Indonesia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.
A wonderful yellow long-legged centipede (Scutigera sp.). A species that I had not yet encountered and the lone specimen observed during my time in Kerinci. Photo taken during a night hike in Kerinci-Seblat national park, Indonesia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.
Portrait of the same long-legged centipede (Scutigera sp.) as above. Photo taken during a night hike in Kerinci-Seblat national park, Indonesia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.
Backlit cicada husk. A lot of failed attempts to get the proper illumination from the back but I’m fairly content with the results achieved here. Photo taken during a night hike in Kerinci-Seblat national park, Indonesia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

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