My thousand dollar trashheap

So let’s review which equipment has bit the dust: Sherpa Li-ion battery, an AC/DC inverter, 5D mark ii camera and now, first night out and I find that my twin flash isn’t working. It turns on but the LCD screen is all glitchy and changing between functions the unit turns off. Try as I might I can’t get the flash heads to work. I figure the damage is probably due to excessive heat while walking several hours in the savannah, though this discovery doesn’t bring me much consolation as I now only have the in built flash and so no longer have the capability of shooting high mag. insects….by now I almost take it in my stride though and rather than retreating to my hammock to lament my woes, I try not to become too disconsolate over my loss and hike the trails, sometimes finding great subjects, but mostly kicking myself when the shots don’t turn out like I’d like.

Thread legged bug (Emesinae) with very distinctive dorsal wing pattern. This is a predatory insect within the assassin bug (reduviid) family. Notice the rostrum (beak) which it uses to pierce its prey, inject digestive enzymes and drink the proteinaceous remains. The front legs are held more like a praying mantis than a typical reduviid bug. These small predators feed on spiders and hemipterans. Their slender fragile looking bodies give them a graceful appearance but also helps them camouflage in amongst filamentous lichens and fungi. The hairs on its body further help to disrupt its shape. Kanuku mountains, Guyana.

Not being able to photograph the smaller insects did have one benefit however, it caused me to ignore the small stuff, and walk the trails faster, increasing my chances of finding larger animals. And so I did! Several beautiful snakes .

Slug eating snake
Coral snake mimic (Rhinobothryum lentiginosum) with tick. In the tropics the popular mnemonic “red next to yellow kills a fellow, red next to black venom lack” doesn’t necessarily hold true so one must be extremely careful and vigilant around tropical coral snakes. In this case the large shape of the head, enlarged nostrils and banding patterns advertise this species as non-lethal. However it was still aggressive, and could pack a nasty bite.

I come across scorpions quite often, however, they are typically motionless on tree trunks waiting to ambush prey. It is actually quite rare to come across one eating or engaging in other kinds of behaviour. So you can imagine my surprise and delight when I found this mating pair displaying signs of courtship. Scorpions first find each other by a combination of pheromones and vibrational cues. The latter are sensed via the air by small sensitive hairs covering the underside of its body and via the substrate by basitarsal compound slit sensillum and  tarsal sensory hairs which can sense extremely small directional displacements within the substrate up to up to 6 times the scorpion’s length away. Once the two scorpions have found each other, the male, seen here as the larger black/red individual grasps the female’s pedipalps in his own and they perform what looks like a dance but what is in actuality a search for a proper location for the male to deposit his spermatophore. The search lasts until either the male finds a suitable location or the female finally loses interest. There have been documented cases of pairs held together for greater than 24 hours. When the male finally finds a suitable location he releases the spermatophore and guides the female over it. The spermatophore is inserted into the genital operculum and sperm is released to fertilize the female’s eggs.

Scorpions in courtship. Male grasping female in a pedipalpal embrace.
Scorpion courtship behaviour full view.

The following day began the trek to Jordan Falls, 6kms away as the crow flies. However, there are no crows in this jungle and the way there involved traversing streams and hiking up and down a series of hills so that the actual length was closer to 12 kms. This was the first time since the beginning of the trip that I carried my large (77lb) pack up and down hills, while grasping roots for balance and tip toeing across slippery rocks. The guide carried a children’s backpack and nimbly jumped from point to point, even on the trail he had a spring in his step. I wondered how that spring would feel weighed down with my pack! After just the first day of hiking, my leg started to become painful and the weight was starting to get to me despite only having hiked no more than a few kms in a couple of hours. What was becoming of me, I felt infantile complaining of the pain after so short a time. But thankfully before we could go any further, we were interrupted by gathering storm clouds. “Maybe we should stop here” I yelled out the guide who was barely within earshot, almost running up the hill I was panting up futilely. My shirt was soaked with sweat, a small waterfall cascading down from the brim of my hat. Perhaps it was my pathetic appearance but he returns without any encouragement to go any further and we begin setting up camp as the first patters of rain are felt.

I don’t know why but for some reason I felt this competitive urge to outdo the guide, so I set up as quickly as possible. Probably to do with a need to justify my own ability especially in the wake of the discouragement that that old woman in Lethem had given me about traveling alone. So, I tie up my tarp overhead so that I can set up my hammock in the dry as the rain comes down. But I can’t find a suitable square shaped area. The rain is becoming more insistent, so I pull the machete free and start chopping small trees to clear my space. All the while casting glances over my shoulder to monitor the progress of my guide. Meanwhile the tarp is pulled over my bag to prevent it from getting wet as I feel the fibres of my shirt soaking in the rain. 10 minutes later I have slashed and broken the resistant trees and plants, tied up my tarp and am sitting, panting in my hammock. My camp still isn’t ideal as the tarp only covers 90% of my hammock, but I am tired and can’t bring myself to cover the rest. Sitting in my hammock I don’t feel any rain entering, so I am satisfied. I pull the strings taught to prevent the accumulation of water in the low spots, I pull my bag free of the water and finally I finish with a triumphant look on my face like beat that! I look around to find the guide and see that he has built his shelter, set up his hammock started a fire in the rain and is sitting on a chair he has made for himself from cut branches. I can’t help but feel slightly inferior so I slowly circle his shelter looking for fault, anything to boost my own confidence but everything I see simply re-asserts his superiority until I throw up my hands. His shelter is a simple heavy plasticized tarp. Not only has he built an internal A frame to support the tarp with a crossbeam, but he ran out of rope, found some jungle lianas and used them to secure the frame.

When I compare his rude, strictly utilitarian equipment to my own, it gives me even more respect for the guy. My tarps have luminescent guy wires, are lightweight and have an elastic crossbeam locked in place with a carabiner. My hammock has an attached zip-on mosquito net. Everything about it minimalizes my own involvement in setting up and yet he his setup is faster, roomier and more comfortable than mine. I can’t help but slowly gravitate towards it, especially as the deluge of water picks up and I find water snaking down the ropes and into my hammock.

The rain has negated all plans for a night walk, so as water pours down around us, I make myself some soup and try to ignore the Chinese water torture that my hammock has now become.


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