Enter the Congo

View of Karisimbi volcano from Nyiragongo volcano. Vapours in the foreground are from fissures in the crater rim releasing hot, sulphurous gases. Photo from Virunga national park, DRC. Copyright Paul Bertner 2015.

It began with a picture, which should perhaps come as no surprise being a photographer. It was an alluring, enticing picture which insinuated itself into my thoughts and surfaced whenever boredom threatened or I was overcome with sleep. It beckoned and yet I was wont to answer its call. I blocked my ears and tied myself to the mast to resist its siren song, only, it wasn’t a song at all but an image and an idea. A bewitching idea, “What if…”.

Seared into my conscious like a brand, the image was the one reason that trumped the thousand-and-one reasons not to go. It remained in my vision long after I had ceased gazing at the monitor with admiration and awe. It was not only the natural beauty of the landscape itself but what it represented – vastness, power, majesty, destruction, life. It was a Tolkien-esque Middle Earth, and it was within my reach. If only the reach of my desires could exceed the grasp of my fears. It was Nyiragongo volcano. And it was in the Congo.

The Congo. It is a name that has become synonymous with danger, conflict, wealth, poverty, corruption, colonial ineptitude and disastrous self-government. It is a country that tells the history of the whole of the African continent. A country where strife has become the status quo, with the shadow of peace glimpsed but fleetingly through the haze of tension-filled ceasefires. It is also home to the largest tract of unbroken rainforest outside of the Amazon and possesses an irresistible lure, Virunga national park. Mired in hostilities and threatened by interests ranging in scope from coal production, and poaching to elicit animal trade and oil interests (SOCO), Virunga is a UNESCO world heritage site under threat and it teeters on a knife’s edge. In brief, it is a place like no other.

The Congo is a country that I had long yearned to visit and yet I had prevaricated, postponed, and delayed as it often proved to be the focal point of violence, both human (Rwandan genocide exodus (1994), m23 rebellion (2012) and natural (2004 eruption of Nyiragongo volcano). However, it can be difficult to convey the sheer magnetism such a place is able to exert. It occupied the realm of thoughts and dreams, and even while photographing within Nyungwe national park in adjacent Rwanda, my thoughts drifted across the border and I was left with a vague sense of longing and desire. Close as I was to the Rwanda/DRC border, it was not enough. There was a sense of discontentment and malaise even while photographing and experiencing unique and wonderful flora and fauna. I could feel the tension building. Whenever I availed myself of an internet connection I would scan dozens of pages of trip reports, security updates, wildlife and landscape photos. However, there was still a voice, a voice grown hoarse with repetition and steadily weaker and yet which still forestalled my full commitment. Some might call it the voice of reason, or that of the most powerful of primordial instincts, self-preservation. I might have remained in this agonizing limbo, dreaming without taking action, indefinitely torturing myself with tantalizing possibility until an expired VISA robbed me of choice.

However, fate or good fortune intervened, and one day in my increasingly manic state as I frenetically jumped between webpages, I stumbled across the recently released documentary by Netflix – Virunga.

Beautiful cinematography, a haunting musical score and an incredible narrative dispelled any remaining doubts and sealed what might already have been inevitable. Now my focus was singularly on the Congo. The questions raised by the documentary along with the powerful imagery quickly displaced all other thought, including any of self preservation, and fomented into a full-blooded obsession. An obsession which compelled action.

And so minutes later, I slumped back in my chair and stared at the computer monitor. The thousand dollar plus confirmation receipt for transport, park permits, Volcano hiking permit, and Visa application request open in one window. Outnumbered ten to one by travel advisory warnings, apocryphal security situation updates, and recent articles on protests and renewed hostilities. I exhaled long and slowly, “What the fuck am I doing?”…

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The Great Race

False chief caterpillar (Pseudacraea lucretia ). Photo taken in Udzungwa national park, Tanzania. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

As I step off the bus and head towards the airport terminal, the traveller’s platitude echoes in my mind, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single…” – Of course I’m unable to finish the thought as I tug my bulky bag from an overhead bin and swing around, unbalanced, trying to right myself in a flailing maelstrom of straps, zippers and limbs. In so doing I whip some poor bystander in the face with one of the buckles. He goes down (with in my opinion altogether too much moaning) and I quickly follow (sans moaning) buried under the weight of my bag. It’s a rather inauspicious start and if I were one for omens I would probably cancel my trip then and there. However, I pick myself up, apologize profusely, and scurry off, taking flight before even boarding the fist plane. Omens, portents, signs…It’s a good thing I pay them no heed since it doesn’t take an augur to infer the worst from my turbulent start. Now, I take a deep breath, open the door to the hostel and look out. It’s early, but the street is still thrumming with activity. I am afforded 1, 2, 3 lingering seconds before I hear a call over the rumba rythms, blaring Bob Marley and riotous cacophony of the street. It’s distant at first, but as it is picked up by others it becomes readily discernible, “Mzungu” – or ‘white person’. I have not been in Africa long, but I already know that the word is not simply a call to get my attention, but also a call to arms to every hawker, tout, taxi driver, vendor, shoe shine boy, beggar (armless or not) and butcher that fresh meat is on the table. The sound is a starting pistol and I’m off. I walk hurriedly down the street. To run would draw too much attention to myself but too move too slowly would be just as perilous. I walk the line. However, to call an African ‘sidewalk’ a line would be as accurate as calling their potholed, serpentine roads the Autobahn. There’s a passing resemblance to a sidewalk, if you squint, actually maybe it’s better if you just close your eyes altogether. I deftly maneuver open sewers, dodge refuse thrown from the tenements above or the shopkeepers below and sidestep wandering city dogs which growl uneasily as they pass me by. I am moving briskly but suddenly stop at the edge of the curb, my hands windmilling to keep balance before falling precipitously 5 metres or more over the edge and into some kind of un-signposted city works project. I glance behind me and see that there is still a ragtag assemblage in tow. Their numbers have swollen. I wipe the sweat from my forehead with a twist of my cap as I gaze up at the sun peeking over the brow of old, withered and decrepit buildings. They are almost upon me now. It is at once a marathon and a gauntlet that I am running, complete with the same vacillations between struggling onward or surrendering in defeat. I jump several feet across the narrowest section of the pit and land on the other side of the road that still looks like it has some integrity and continue on. “Mzungu!” I look back and for one shit-inducing moment I see a car baring down on me. It has swerved across the street and onto my side of the road, partly working its way up onto the ‘sidewalk’ to avoid a pothole. I stagger out of the way as the car speeds by without so much as a courtesy of a horn blast. I stick the landing in something unpleasant and sticky, and move on imagining a panel of judges holding up scoreboards as I continue to navigate the rat maze of Dar Es Salaam’s streets. I want to take a break from the relentless heat, but there can be no blending in, no camouflage for me here. Ahead of me there’s a small crowd and I wonder what challenge I am to face now. I join them and see that water has inundated the street. A broken main, perhaps? I pass mobile store stands shored up on the driest portions of the road like marooned boats. “Mzungu!” The single cry from behind is a pebble hurled, followed by “Mzungu, mzungu, mzungu”, the sound of the ripple through the crowd. “Does it ever end, will I have no peace?!!!” I glance around and then duck into a blessedly inconspicuous shop to buy some water and fortify myself. I’m close now. I gaze outward from my post looking both ways and then abandoning all protocol jog the last few hundred metres to catch the bus heading to Udzungwa. These last few hundred metres are the hardest and I brush back the ticket scalpers and flycatchers (so called because they catch the unwary and bring them to agencies where they receive some form of percentage, incentive or kickback) which have gathered into a swarm. I push through the throng knowing that I’ll get the most reasonable price (though still at a markup) and a genuine ticket (counterfeiting is rife) at the booking offices. I’ve made it to the offices, if only just… Security posted at the door pushes away those that would follow me in and I can hear their howls as they spy me through the windows handing over my money and annihilating their last chance of swindling, grifting, and/or cheating me. They turn away already spinning new, more intricate webs. There will always be other flies. In broken English the ticketing agent directs me on a hand-drawn map of the station where to go. My bus doesn’t leave for another 4 hours. I groan inwardly and then outwardly, but am told there is a waiting area free of disturbance. I make my way there and to my surprise it is relatively peaceful. I still fend off the occasional vendor or flycatcher, but here their attempts are half-hearted, they know that most of the people waiting are passengers that already have their tickets. I am able to set my bags down and though I maintain a vigil over them I feel like I have made it through the worst. Now I write in my journal, and will the hands of the clock to move faster. I cannot sleep nor can I allow my eyes to stray too long or too far from my bag. I do some mental jumping jacks, examine the people in the room (while not allowing my gaze to rest too long on anyone so as not to serve as an invitation) and allow myself to imagine the fertile photography grounds ahead. The hours pass and finally I break off a half-hearted conversation I’ve been having with a leper boy to eagerly board the bus. I stow my bag, and settle deep into the seat. It’s not particularly comfortable but I rest easy knowing I have a direct bus, and for now no longer have to worry about the outside world. The bus is my world now and I allow myself to be lulled to sleep by the gentle whir of the idling engine… And then I hear it. Close, almost a whisper in my ear. The breath is rank and humid on the nape of my neck and I shudder. “Mzungu”, purrs a man with fermented breath and a slowly spreading smile across sugarcane-rotted teeth as he sits down next to me. I slowly turn around, seeking to push myself deeper into the corner of the already impossibly small seat. A whimper and an involuntary convulsion runs through me at the thought of the 7hr bus ride ahead…

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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 pbertner@gmail.com. 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. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16193296

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. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1046/j.1365-2656.2003.00766.x/full

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. http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/3546277?uid=3739400&uid=2&uid=3737720&uid=4&sid=21103891370077

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. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12533922.

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. http://www.entsoc.gr/volume19b/2010-45-53-Ben-Dov%20and%20Fisher.pdf.

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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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