Some sort of beginning

Gunung Kerinci by night, Sumatra, Indonesia.

Having somehow convinced the guesthouse owner in the dead of night to drive me in the driving rain up to the foot of the mountain, I soon found myself on the back of his motorbike, poncho flapping in the wind, bouncing over potholes, veering dangerously around shadowy half-hidden obstacles and skidding across sections of road that had disintegrated into a rabble of rock. Lightning lanced the sky and the resulting thunder cracked like a whip at our wheels urging us forward ever faster. I could already feel the cold rain seeping into my pants, reaching its cold fingers into all the dry places to rob me of warmth. The motorbike’s engine revs for the final assault up the steep path (the road has long since degenerated into mud and sprouted weeds with the occasional loose slab of concrete) and finally we arrive. I step off the bike and immediately sink into the mud. The guesthouse owner looks at me as though to ask ” are you sure you want to do this? We can go back I can make you a nice hot chocolate, you’ll have a warm bed…”. I sigh and resist the lure of his unsaid words. He doesn’t waste any time in retreating back to the comfort of his warm home. There’s another crack of lightning, just enough to illuminate the silhouette of a lone biker on the horizon and then its gone, and there’s nothing. I let out a deep breath, turn on my flashlight, and head up the mountain path. The trail narrows quickly and soon I am swallowed whole like a Russian doll, first by the rainforest trail, then by the swirling mists shrouding the mountain and then finally by the all encompassing darkness.

But perhaps this is a story in need of a beginning…

Going to the beginning will take too long though so we’ll start somewhere in the middle. Well into my current travels in South East Asia after I have been booted from Khao Yai national park in Thailand, had a motorcycling accident in Java and gone blind from volcanic ash at the top of an active volcano, I find myself in Kerinci Seblat national park in Sumatra, Indonesia. I have just spent a demoralizing amount of money on an even more depressing trek into the wetlands of Ladeh Panjang. 3 days of solid rain which despite my best efforts has soaked my camera gear without my ever having taken it from its numerous protective layers. Despite the tantalizing accounts of deer, endemic birds, and even tigers native to the region, the only thing I have been able to photograph are the leeches. My appetite initially whetted by these accounts has long since been drowned and what was supposed to be a trek of 5-7 days found itself drastically shortened. After night 2 was spent in a sulphurous bog, whose comparison with the fire swamp from the ‘Princess Bride’ would not be far off, I decided to get out as soon as possible! In the meantime though, with the cold clinging to sodden clothing, the occasional leech pried from some crook or cranny and the sharp, pungent odours emanating from some chthonic crevice, I truly felt I had a glimpse of what hell might be like. I shivered in my hammock, not daring to go out and brave the cold, the rain, and the leeches. It would be a long, long night! Did I hug knees to chest in an embryonic position, swaying gently in my hammock while a steady flow of tears echoed the more riotous rainstorm outside? Um, of course not…

Camp 1 on the edge of a sphagnum moss bog. Photo taken in Kerinci Seblat national park, Indonesia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

As the sun broke over camp I sprung from my hammock and walked down the small hill to where my guide was camped. Wait…sun? I looked back up at the sky and marvelled how the clouds had receded and there were blue skies. Of course it had to be the day that we were leaving that the weather turned more hospitable! My guide was already awake and greeted me eagerly, apparently he had also had a poor night’s sleep and was glad that I had gotten up early so that we could get an early start. We made a quick breakfast. He was chomping at the bit to get going but I insisted on taking advantage of the sun to dry all my equipment. We stayed an extra hour until the last of the fog evaporated from inside my lenses. Of course by this time clouds had coalesced and were already beginning to darken the sky. I avoided my guide’s accusatory looks, unholstered my umbrella, readied my poncho and donned by backpack. We both glanced at the sky, our faces the picture of piety and modest supplications to Zeus on our minds as we started walking. I guess we prayed to the wrong god, because 10 minutes later a relentless rain began. Escorted out of the jungle by grey clouds and whichever aggrieved god we had neglected to pray to, the guide and I beat a hasty retreat to the main road. The mud from the previous day had turned into a morass. Progress was agonizingly slow with each step a tentative probe of the ground to determine which spot was least likely swallow us whole. 2hrs later we eventually made it back to the road and the guesthouse beyond. As we stumbled across the doorstep and into the owner, cheerful words of greeting died on his lips as he looked at our drenched, muddy, and cheerless forms.


5 Responses to Some sort of beginning

  1. Monika says:

    Hmm… maybe next time give Hermes a try? 😉
    Great to see you writing again!

  2. Monika says:

    Head honchos are usually pretty busy; nevertheless you got what you prayed for. Are you sure that the god of lightning, thunder and storm, the one who was begged to send rain to water craving vineyards is your patron as well? Next time, when praying for so called ‘good weather’, be just more precise 😉

  3. Pingback: Beyond macro photography |

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