Friday, January 21, 2011

The art and science of jungle trekking

I first thought about writing this post in October, when I was trekking up in the Bornean Highlands in the swampy Montane/Submontane forests of Paya Maga. I noticed that the others in my group seemed to know the importance of a walking stick and knew exactly how to pick out the best one. Then I've noticed and have been to seriously revere the trekking abilities of people here. I'm so impressed by some of the people (mostly the 'indigenous' groups, but definitely other like Malay and Chinese) here navigate the rainforest. it's beyond just a familiarity one might gain from doing something day in and day out. It's a feel, a sixth sense, almost as if they can listen to what words of wisdom the rainforest can offer them. It emerges also out of a deep reverence for the biodiversity and beauty this place holds. And with these skills, they are able to maintain a keen eye for potentially dangerous animals (or dinner) hiding nearby. Or quickly climb a tree to grab at a nutritious midday snack. Or just run through the forest (regardless of steepness or obstacles), instead of inching ahead sluggishly like I do.

I think throughout the rest of the year, I will try to compile in this post the various lessons I've learnt about jungle trekking. Even if I cannot exactly follow these important lessons.

1. Every step you take, do it with confidence. Don't be a helpless victim of your feet, just strolling away carelessly. Put some thought into your steps (Be Mindful and Aware of surroundings, especially the ground beneath you). Otherwise you might end up falling through some weak spots in the trail, or just tripping up and falling to a precipitous death. Basically every other less I've learned follows from this advice, and should be more or less obvious.  
  •  If you're uneasy about a step, surely your feet will not be stable and in general you are more likely to slip or lose balance
  • If you can be confident about step, then hopefully it means you have assessed whether the ground/rocks you are stepping on will remain stable under your weight. 
  • Even though you are confident about the step, if are going downhill, make sure you keep your weight back. definitely commit to the step, but you also don't want to destabilize yourself by moving from your center of gravity. 

 2. See each step you take long before you take it. Do not just walk constantly looking down, but rather see the steps you'll be taking some distance in front of you, so you're mind and feet can plan. Also that way you'll avoid walking into trees, people, snakes (cleverly disguised as roots under your feet, WHAT??!!!) waiting to attack. You should also avoid playing iPhone games or texting while on the trail. 
  • this is really an extension of being mindful and aware of surroundings. It takes time, but you'll need to be able to assess the entire scene around you. This will help you plan out each step, for example,  whether it's ok to grab onto that tree (you should ask yourself:  Will that tree hold my weight and extra tug I'm going to give it? as well as Does the tree have some sharp spines or dangerous critters lurking in it?)  to boost yourself with.   
  • in general avoid grabbing things you have not thoroughly investigated yet. This should be a piece of advice followed by every living thing on Earth, but especially humans, who seem not to have entirely internalized this lesson.           

3. Natives who jungle trek everyday dont have much use for walking sticks, but they can be useful at times, if only to beat down some quickly approaching danger. 
  •  Of course the stick needs to be appropriate for your height, and should be of a sturdy material, and flexibility of any kind is strongly discouraged  for your stick. 
  • There is a 'right' way to use a walking stick, so that it becomes your best ally rather than just a random piece of wood you're lugging for no good reason. 
  • It might seem surprising, but there are commercially sold walking sticks that look quite a bit like skiing poles
  • I had this thought the other day: There really should be multipurpose walking sticks. why not have a walking stick that is also a tripod/monopod for a camera that can also have a pop out knife at the push of a button? There could even be paddle adaptors in case you need to make a raft and paddle across some water. 
4. Try to develop the jungle sense 

  • I cannot quite convey how this is done, since I have yet to acquire it, but the natives seem to develop this innate sense for where is safe to go in the jungle
  • They can often tell which path will lead them in the 'right' direction, or can tell if, say  the base of a waterfall is rocky or clear (without actually going in to test it out) 
  • Probably growing up in a jungle helps a lot, but for us outsiders, getting a 'sense' for the jungle means understanding the potential signs of danger ahead (weak patches of ground; dark, calm pools of water suggest absence of rocks; shed skin of snakes lying around might indicate a snake's proximity) 
  • Also spending more time in rainforests can help one develop the 'eye' and 'ear' of a good jungle trekker. This means being able to spot organisms; whether big or small, breathing or photosynthetic, cloaked by leaves or other objects, or hidden in enclosed crevices or perched atop trees. 
5. Follow jungle etiquette 

  •  There is a widely held belief among the people here that living, sentient, forces pervade the fabric and ever object within the forest. This has serious implications for how one should conduct him/herself while in the forest. 
  • For one, any type of littering will anger the forest spirits and can lead you to either get lost in the jungle forever or to encounter some very dangerous animal that could mortally injure you
  • Another thing to keep in mind is to 'ask permission' from the jungle spirits before making the jungle your own personal toilet bowl. 
  • Moreover, shouting is discouraged for similar reasons of upsetting jungle spirits. 
  • Lastly, it is thought that uttering the name of certain organisms common to the jungle (i.e. poisonous snake, leopard) might actually summon those animals to confront you. So unless you want a cobra on your ass, don't say "Cobra". 

Ok, I'll be updating this post as I find out more on these very important topics. 

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