Tailless whip spider (Heterophrynus alces) from Iwokrama reserve, Guyana. Copyright Paul Bertner 2010.

If it weren’t for the fact that these arachnids are utterly harmless and slightly more obscure than the mygalomorphs and scorpions, they would certainly occupy a distinguished position in the vanguard of nightmares’ creatures. However, to label them as a simple curiosity or a Halloween special does them a disservice. They form an ancient, and successful sister-clade (branch with most recent common ancestor) to the vinegaroons (Uropygi) and schizomida (microwhip scorpions). Their adaptations (dorso-ventral flattening of the body, spinose raptorial pedipalps and modification of forelegs into exquisitely sensitive sense organs) have led to successful speciation (155 species in 5 different families) and radiation across the tropics.

Like most creatures occupying the realm of nightmares, she emerges when sun yields to night, and our imaginations conquer good sense. She may materialize from a cavern or cave, a burrow or some long-abandoned retreat. She advances tentatively into the open, her sedate pace belying her incredible agility and speed. Her obscenely long forelegs swing to and fro, scanning,  probing the ground ahead of her for potential prey, mates or rivals. These highly modified legs appear as long, fragile extensions (or ‘whips’) but they are instrumental in forming an image of her environment since the small clusters of ocelli on her prosoma (cephalothorax) are oriented upwards and serve little purpose in the highly detailed and colour-based sight as we know it (rather they are thought to function in the regulation of circadian rhythms by discerning light/dark cycles, as well as the perception of vague movements, and overhead obstacles (important in determining the exposure of her daytime retreat). The antenniform legs also play a key role in hunting; packed with a dense diversity of afferent (sensory) receptors in the form of (at least) 7 different types of sensillae.

Tailless whip spider antenniform leg closeup showing sensory hairs. Photographed in Bilsa reserve, Ecuador. Copyright Paul Bertner 2011.

These receptors range from the mechanosensory slit sensillae (important in the perception of mechanical deformation and/or strain), trichobothria (measuring pressure differentials), joint receptor(s) (proprioceptor(s) which sense stimuli arising within the joint regarding position, motion, and equilibrium) to chemosensory (mostly olfactory) sensillae. While the bulk of the sensory information appears to come from the antenniform legs, and indeed these play a crucial role as outlined above, other mechano/chemosensory organs have been found on the claws and pedipalps, perhaps ensuring a level of redundancy in case the fragile forelegs are damaged, severed or lost by autotomy (a survival strategy whereby a limb is sacrificially amputated (a pre-severed limb is held together along fracture planes (1), and it is the controlled failure of adhesion mechanisms through internal and external forces which allow the limb’s release) to assure the safety of the organism as a whole). The combination of these sense organs help Amblypygi develop and maintain a multi-dimensional awareness of their environment, while mushroom bodies and neuropils (areas of dense synaptic connectivity) found within the brain have been associated with more complex behaviours such as learning and memory and the more recently hypothesized integration of diverse and complex stimuli (2), (3). Essential to the relay of all this information are giant peripheral interneurons occupying the antenniform legs, and though the full extent of their role has yet to be determined, it has been posited that the increased diameter of the axonal fibres and hence faster conduction speeds  are important in the large distances that a signal must travel within these elongated limbs, which would otherwise suffer from signal degradation and lengthier stimulus-response times.

While in situ studies of predatory behaviour are few and far between, there are several laboratory studies which demonstrate a 4 stage hunting strategy: 1) Prey is first encountered and assessed. The antenniform legs are alerted to the presence of prey by airborne or ground vibrations enabling the reorientation, aiming and tracking of the prey while the body as a whole remains stationary. Mechanosensory sensillae determine the prey’s distance and relative position, while olfactory organs determine the prey type. Unfortunately there is insufficient data to determine whether Amblypygi adapt their hunting strategies to specific prey size and type; however, given the sheer number and diverse types of sensillae it stands to reason that there is probably a certain degree of prey discrimination 2) Next, the antenniform legs will gently contact either side of the prey (surprisingly without initiating the prey’s flight response). This is thought to either guide the prey into a more vulnerable position, or else to provide additional information 3) The whip spider then unfolds its pedipalps revealing raptorial spines and frames the prey with its antenniform legs without actually touching it, composing a strike ‘image’ to accurately judge distance, speed, etc. 4) Finally the sensory legs are swept aside as the prey is impaled on the spines of the open pedipalps.

Tailless whip spider (Heterophrynus alces.) from Iwokrama reserve, Guyana. Copyright Paul Bertner 2010.

Tail-less whip spider (Heterophrynus sp.) with cricket prey. Photographed in Jatun Sacha reserve, Ecuador. Copyright Paul Bertner 2011.

Observations of mating amblypygi are rare in the wild, and photos even more so; however several documented accounts relate a scenario similar to the more familiar scorpion and Uropygi mating rituals. Notably, a short courtship involving a touching and stroking of the forelegs, a pedipalp embrace, the deposition of a spermatophore directly onto the substrate and the guidance of the female by the male over the sperm packet upon which she lowers herself. Eggs develop in a case held below the opisthosoma (abdomen) and hatch approximately 3-4 months later.

Like some other basal lineages (Thelyphonida and Scorpions), mothers exhibit a degree of subsocial behaviour (ie. care for their young). This is most obvious in the manner in which they carry their newly hatched young  (first instar stage) on their backs until their first moult (second instar stage) when their antenniform legs become sufficiently developed to allow them to hunt for themselves. This seemingly trivial extension of maternal care offers substantial evolutionary advantage in neonatal survivorship at a time when mortality rates are at their highest. Furthermore some species have been demonstrated to show kin recognition in successive moults with concomitant decreases in aggression (4).

Photographs of this group typically rely on frontal portraits of the head and pedipalps. This highlights two key features: 1) The eyes; though functionally of little value these are still important compositionally, and 2) The spines which ornament most/all amblypygi pedipalps. This is an effective view and probably offers the most advantageous perspective which includes the most features.

Tailless whip spider (Damon sp.). Photographed in Amani nature reserve, Tanzania. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Tailless whip spider (Damon sp.). Photographed in Amani nature reserve, Tanzania. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Tailless whip spider (Charon sp.). Photographed in Mt. Isarog national park, Philippines. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Tailless whip spider (Charon sp.). Photographed in Mt. Isarog national park, Philippines. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Tailless whip spider (Damon sp.). Photographed in Amani nature reserve, Tanzania. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Tailless whip spider (Euphrynichus bacillifer). Photographed in Amani nature reserve, Tanzania. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Other views to consider might be overhead closeups of the head (first image of this section and below).

Tailless whip spider (Charon sp.). Photographed in Mt. Isarog national park, Philippines. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Or else high magnification views detailing armature and spines (below). Owing to their nocturnal nature, properly photographing amblypygi within their environment through wide-angle macro can be difficult, though provided there are interesting topographical features this may be a desirable perspective. Nb. that this will require either a multi-flash setup or a single flash fired multiple times with a longer shutter speed.

Tailless whip spider (Charon sp.). Photographed in Mt. Isarog national park, Philippines. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Tailless whip spider (Euphrynichus bacillifer). Photographed in Amani nature reserve, Tanzania. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Alternatively, many amblypygi show beautiful translucence with delicate whites, purples and blues immediately following ecdysis (moulting). Unfortunately this highly photogenic phase is quite short-lived, usually no more than 30 minutes. Therefore if ecdysis is imminent it is probably best to remain nearby and check in frequently. During this teneral stage they also display a small amount of UV reflectance which disappears completely as the exoskeleton hardens and becomes increasingly pigmented.

Tailless whip spider (Euphrynichus amanica) under UV llight. Photographed in Amani nature reserve, Tanzania. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Tailless whip spider (Euphrynichus amanica). Photographed in Amani nature reserve, Tanzania. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

A clip from “Life in the Undergrowth” narrated by David Attenborough:

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The Bolas spider

I am hoping to start a new monthly feature giving some background into my most interesting finds. So without further ado, here’s October’s instalment.

Bolas spider

During the day they are at rest and fairly unresponsive. Undoubtedly they possess an interesting physiognomy, often camouflaged as bird droppings or other unpalatable fare and thus suitable for portraiture; however, the real point of interest is their hunting strategy which can only be seen at night.

Bolas spider (Exechocentrus n.sp.) from Andasibe national park, Madagascar. Copyright Paul Bertner 2015.

Bolas spider (Exechocentrus n.sp.) from Andasibe national park, Madagascar. Copyright Paul Bertner 2015.

And so, as darkness descends, the bolas spider emerges from its daytime slumber, finds a suitable location free from obstructions and begins to build. It is not a web in any recognizable sense, but rather a single long silken line to which it attaches globule(s) of a glyco-protein glue; together, they form the bolas. The silken line is made of a relatively rigid silk, not like the capture strands of a standard web, but rather like a fishing pole, rather than the line itself. It can bend and has give, but it must provide a frame to support the heavier globules which adhere to it. As the silk is pulled from the spinnerets, it is pulled towards the mouth where the globules are affixed before being lowered to where it rests below the spider’s body. “Each of these globules has a complex internal structure consisting of a mass of curled or folded fibre embedded in a viscid matrix which is in turn surrounded by a less viscous layer. This results in the low viscosity liquid flowing past the moth’s scales to reach the cuticle below, while the more viscous liquid forms a bond to the thread to sustain the moth’s weight. The folded thread inside the ball permits elastic elongations which extend the spider’s striking range”(Unreferenced Wikipedia note).

The exact form of the bolas differs between species, with some species using a single terminal globule attached to the line, while others use interspersed droplets. The line is completed in short order and is then allowed to dangle, or rather angle.

Bolas spider (Exechocentrus n.sp.) from Andasibe national park, Madagascar. Copyright Paul Bertner 2015.

Bolas spider (Exechocentrus n.sp.) from Andasibe national park, Madagascar. Copyright Paul Bertner 2015.

As one might expect from such a peculiar spider, this is not the whole story. Left to chance alone, swinging a single line would be even less effective than casting a line without a fly or bait. However, studies have shown that bolas spiders, on average capture as much as their web building counterparts. How? With perfume. Or rather a sex pheromone. Normally the domain of sexually willing and available females, the pheromone is species specific, and entices male suitors. Wafting on the humid night air, the moths follow the concentration gradient with their ultra sensitive antennae until they reach the source. Once there, they will literally fly circles around the waiting spider, affording several attempts at capture before wising to the spider’s subterfuge. This aggressive chemical mimicry is even more complex than what it appears on the surface. Some bolas spider species (Mastiphora hutchinsoni among others) have been shown to emit pheromones for multiple moth species and adjust the concentration ratio in response to the scotophase (the stage of darkness in a light/dark cycle) and resultant activity pattern particular to each moth species. How such a complicated strategy has emerged is truly a wonder of nature. One hypothesis is that the pheromone analog is actually derived from a native pheromone used by the female bolas spider to attract the much smaller males, which would otherwise have difficulty finding her. However the mechanism behind the development of multiple pheromones and the ability to adjust their concentration ratios remains baffling.

Hunting strategies seem to vary between the three genera of Mastiphoreae. “Mastophora holds the bolas stationary with a front leg until a moth approaches, and then cocks the leg and swings the bolas towards the prey with a rapid pendulum-like stroke. Ordgarius begins to whirl the bolas rapidly when detecting an incoming moth. Cladomelea akermani whirls the bolas immediately after it is prepared for about 15 minutes, even when there is no moth present. Ordgarius sometimes has smaller droplets above the terminal one, whereas the other genera produce only one terminal globule.”(Unreferenced Wikepedia note).

Like most of the araneidae, bolas spiders have poor vision, instead relying on the vibrations from the beating wings which are picked up by pressure sensitive hairs (trichobothria) which line the legs. Once the bolas makes contact with the moth, the sticky globule(s) sink and spread over the scales preventing escape through their release. The spider then gently reels up its prey and will either feed or else tie up its prey with a different form of silk and produce a new bolas to continue hunting. On the occasions where hunting is unsuccessful, the line is brought in and consumed.

It would be interesting to trace the emergence of the bolas spiders and the selective pressures which have led to the secondary loss of a web building habitus. One might think that the ability to emit a species-specific pheromone evolved first and then the abundance of prey led to the dispensation of expensive silk production in a gradual and/or episodic evolution towards its current hunting strategy. However, this view is complicated by the the fact that standard webs are not effective at catching lepidopteran prey short of entanglement. The wings of butterflies and moths are covered in delicate overlapping scales which are readily dislodged upon even the slightest contact, something which is exacerbated with frantic flapping. Therefore when butterflies and moths fly into a web, the web adheres to the shed scales, enabling escape for the majority of subjects. This might indicate that the web building stratagem was lost first, followed only later by complex pheromone mimicry. This would imply stages in bolas development (or reduction in web design) were probably present at one point or another and that such a means of capture might have involved less specificity in terms of prey.

This wonderfully intriguing spider undoubtedly has more secrets to reveal though finding them might involve a bit of fishing.

Bolas spider in action begins at 3:00 (David Attenborough’s “Life in the undergrowth”.

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Border skirmish

There was a moment’s hesitation whilst the border woman looked up from my forged vaccination card to size me up. “No…this doesn’t look right” she frowned, handing my certificate to another officer, who seconded her reservations. I had had to keep my subterfuge simple, the addition of a simple pen stroke, something designed mislead and misdirect rather than raise questions. Anything more overt would be overextension on my part, a hard lesson learned from experience. Now they were both leaning forward, squinting, noses practically touching the paper I’d folded over and over again, creases designed to confuse and further obfuscate the change I’d made. “Already expired” the woman finally pronounced, giving my vaccination card a dismissive backhanded flick in my direction, the universal sign for “get this shit out of my face”. The second officer already had the faint crease foreshadowing a smile and looked ready to motion me aside where we could “discuss” the fine. It didn’t take much imagination to see dollar bill signs emanating from his head like some cartoonish thought bubble. The woman meanwhile was turning in her chair, eyes glazing, flushing my shitty prospects from her mind. I reached for my vaccination card, sighed the sigh of resignation that precedes doing something stupid, indulged in that blissful 1/2 second fantasy where things actually go my way, and then opened my mouth.

“Pardon, mais je crois que vous vous trompez” – “I’m sorry but I think that you’re mistaken”. The officer’s chair stopped mid-swivel. Although negotiation is a matter of course, the pair seemed somewhat taken aback. The growing smirk of the one and the vacuity of expression of the other had disappeared. It hadn’t taken me long to  come to the conclusion that courtesy is a ruefully one-sided affair. I held the woman’s gaze a moment then let my eyes fall in what I hoped would be taken as a sign of deference rather than of guilt and then chanced what I hoped to be a disarming smile (you’ll notice a lot of baseless and naive ‘hoping’ going on in my narratives, a counterbalance to the crying in the shower scenes which I mostly edit out… or as far as you’re concerned simply don’t happen), though it appeared to either be lost in translation or else simply ignored as the woman simply pursed her lips and settled her rifle in my direction. She snatched the card out of my now trembling hands and I readied myself for the further tightening of the screws of scrutiny.

I imagine that these encounters follow a rather typical trajectory in which 1) Introductions are made 2) Documents exchanged 3) Problems found by officials 4) Problems denied by traveller 5) Possible reference to peers or superior who corroborate original official (with an expected cut of the profits) 6) Payment terms suggested 7) Negotiation 8) Payment 9) Passage granted. This simple flow chart of course neglects the intricacies of negotiation and further complications engendered by the original forgery which might involve an almost “snakes and ladders” like progression where any simple misstep might require additional documents be furnished, other officials engaged, running from one department to another, all the while the imagined dollar bill signs radiating from each encountered official gathering into some dark, brooding and imminent financial thunderstorm. I was still in stage 4, with stage 5 involving possible escalation and involvement of additional personnel and further complications. Something had to be done. And so, with a second sigh of resignation that precedes doing something stupid in as many minutes, I played my hand.

It was a maneuver straight out of Sun Tzu’s “Art of War”,  “change the landscape or the theatre of the battlefield”. With an innocent and nonchalant “What does this look like to you?” I needlessly involved another Muzungu in the line next to me. He was part of an organized tour and someone whom I hoped would fall under the auspices of the tour organizers who would undoubtedly speak Swahili and/or have some influence. Of course they could simply disavow any connection or complicity and leave me dangling from this fetching new noose I’d crafted for myself, though they might also not want to appear unsympathetic to their clients. These thoughts raged briefly as I made my gambit.

As if his grimace weren’t enough of an indicator, a trail of under-the-breath expletives beginning in “fucking” and ending in “fucker” muttered through tight lips confirmed my suspicions… this Muzungu wasn’t happy. Although we’d had a few pleasant exchanges while waiting he seemed to have an altogether different opinion of me now, not to mention harbouring a profound regret at having made my acquaintance. “I…I don’t know…” he finally managed to utter without even a glimpse of the object of contention. “But it kinda looks like it expires next year”. Hope rekindled? The border woman’s eyes narrowed and then with a sound that was something between a squawk and a growl she motioned for him to hand over his card, studiously comparing the two as though my deception were all part of a larger conspiracy. I couldn’t help but feel that perhaps I’d gotten my head wedged in the steadily narrowing window of opportunity. Several moments later the woman practically flung the man’s vaccination card back at him, while still holding mine along with any other cards she still intended to play close to her chest. Fortunately, it was then that the guide for the tour operator interceded. Some soft spoken words in Swahili were exchanged and suddenly I found myself liberated, my vaccination card accepted, my passport stamped, the keys to the kingdom given. It was a complete about face that had me equally wrong-footed. My brain told me to make sure things were sorted with the border woman, to find out what the hell had happened, whilst my body was already half-way out the door. My sense of elation was weighted down by suspicions…things had gone a little too smoothly. I stood west of the Rwandan border, my feet firmly on Congolese soil, already a befuddled target.

As I exited the border control offices, the guide (who had just finished his own round of negotiations on behalf of his clients) generously offered to give me a lift to the national park office. Although neither of us had made mention of his role in getting me clear of the vaccination card kerfuffle, it was clear, I was indebted. And so, as I climbed into the air-conditioned, tint-windowed SUV and he introduced himself, I was filled with all the misgivings that being introduced to a man named “Innocent” in the Congo might entail. Of a sudden I was taken by an involuntary shudder, what kind of a devil I had just shaken hands with?

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Between two worlds

I gazed at the calendar and visualized the months gone by, tracing the path from where I lay, dozing in my hammock in the Rwandan rainforest, to where I’d begun some two months ago in the bustling capital of Dar Es Salaam. I allowed my thoughts to wander the sinuous back alleys of memory, jumping from national park to national park: Dancing with mambas in Udzungwa, hypothermia in the relentless rains atop Mt. Meru, walking in the paw-prints of lions before being detained by rangers in Katavi and an endless march of days fading into obscurity. Sometimes commemorated with a photo, but more often than not just a pencil-thin sketch scrubbed clean by the ebb and flow of each new day. These were places where angst and fear were but pinpricks, felt beneath a blanket of security, the knowledge that safety though at times fraught with uncertainty, was never wholly out of reach. Now, that threadbare blanket had worn through and I could feel the rising dread. It had a pulse, and it was racing…

The waking hours preceding the Congo were a shadow-theatre played in the back of my brain. Stripped of detail, they were the silhouettes of a brighter day on the horizon. And now, as I lay curled up with the last of the sun’s vanishing rays, I am suddenly drowned in a deluge of emotion, a cocktail of adrenaline-fuelled anxiety and wild, waking dreams that burns with a chemical fire brighter than the proverbial midnight oil. I still had the option to back down; it was the sliver of a possibility, one shaved thinner and thinner by the ticking clock, and yet it was also the kind of opportunity to which I knew I would never avail myself. It wasn’t pride or the need to prove myself, but rather the strength of the current my actions and emotions had engendered.  I opened a family album, and hoped to fortify my resolve or at least rally my spirits but was greeted only by a gallery of disapproval. The imaginary voices beseeched, and implored and when I remained resolute, their chorus of complaints finally gave way to condemnation. I closed the album with a sigh. I hadn’t told anyone that tomorrow I crossover to the Congo, a decision that weighed heavily even as I waded beyond the shores of what had been the comfortable unknown in Rwanda and Tanzania. Now those shallows were ceding to the fathomless depths where the silhouettes of deepwater threats swam below. In the Congo I would be a minnow, just trying to keep ahead of the maw. Out the window, a yawning darkness; a black canvas for shadowy thoughts painted in with doubt and misgivings. I longed for the light, yet quailed at the day it would usher in. I closed my eyes and stared at the image seared into my consciousness, Nyiragongo volcano.

Nyiragongo volcanic crater lake. Photo from Virunga national park, DRC. Copyright Paul Bertner 2015.

Waking or asleep the Congo loomed large. In truth, I felt I was already there.

The following hours of packing, preparing and heading to the border were a hazy memory even as I lived them. A quirky distortion of time which squeezed the seconds from the minutes and wrung the minutes from the hours. All the while my heart beat set the swing of the pendulum.

“Certificat fièvre jaune”. “What?” I was suddenly brought out of my reverie. “Yellow fever card”, the border woman repeated. I stayed the tremor in my hand as I checked my pockets for the card. Although most countries officially require documentation of a yellow fever vaccination, it is rarely if ever enforced, the Congo is the exception. Here the rules have become an extension of corruption, a perversion by which money can be extorted. No card would entail the largest fine (upwards of $200 for a noviciate of the Congo) whilst an out of date vaccination would mean a fine, whose final amount would be determined by my bargaining skills under duress. Either option would invite further scrutiny of my entrance documents with additional penalties, real or imagined. The unrivalled number of UN officials and NGOs based in the Congo, “frequent flyers” across the border has translated into a lucrative opportunity for graft, in this case, literally the official stamp of the Congo. “Yellow fever card”, the woman insisted. I hesitated, then with what I hoped was an inaudible gulp I handed over my forged yellow fever card. The certificate, valid for 10 years, would as chance have it expired two days ago. Caught in a lie, I could only imagine what penalty I would be subject to. The seconds quickened, the calm was breaking, I was entering the Congo…

Nyiragongo volcanic crater lake. Photo from Virunga national park, DRC. Copyright Paul Bertner 2015.

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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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