Nature Watch in the Jungle

large red flower with white marbled petals.  Tightly closed in the centre with petals opening towards the outer edgesIt is 5am on Christmas Day and I have been awoken, partly because I need to go to the loo, but the sky is lightening and the birds are singing.  The Howler monkeys are not so loud here as they were in Puerto Jimenez but maybe they are just drowned out by the medley of birdsong.  I have tried to record it on my phone but the result doesn’t really do justice to the beauty and clarity of the sounds that are all around me.  Apparently more than 100 birds have been recorded in this small peninsula in Costa Rica and judging by the myriad calls I am listening to I think they are all singing now!
wooden lodge in jungleI am staying in a tent hung in a wooden platform which I hope is snake proof but suspect is not.  Snakes are my only real fear.  Insects are a nuisance especially in the evening as the sun goes down but apart from reacting to the bites with large red weals as I do, they are mostly harmless.  The mosquitos here do not carry malaria and we have seen little sign of any anyway.  Javier told us that Costa Rica has only just recently been declared malaria free.  There are bats in the toilet behind my sleeping quarters which fly hurriedly out of the window when I unzip the door. I have to wipe the guano from the toilet seat before sitting down (TMI, sorry!)
red flower which is oval shaped and has separate petals pointing upwards. orange bird of paradise flower looking upwards through star shaped red spotted leaves.I am looking out immediately onto shrubs and with brightly coloured leaves and flowers in what seems to be a well planted garden surrounded by the tall trees of the jungle. A hint of steam rising from the tops of the trees gives an ethereal feel and, at this time of day, the temperature is deliciously cool.  As the birds awake a new song joins the throng and others fade away.  Few birds can be seen but every now and then tiny little yellow and green birds flit across my vision, then a flash of brilliant red and high up I see the silhouette of macaws accompanied by their raucous screech. A pair of brilliant red, green and b;lack birds have just flown noisily across right in front of me and landed in a tree opposite, and then a pair of black with almost fluorescent red wings birds whizzed by too!
Christmas Day is the hump day on our trip – the exact midpoint and it could be a difficult one for some who are more than a little homesick.  However, they are pulling together and supporting each other and all very excited for Secret Santa and the prospects of the day.
Today’s walk gave us the opportunity to look around us and enjoy the scenery and learn about the plants and animals we could see.  It was a 10km circular walk around the lodge, just a day pack, some snacks and water.  This evening I tried to write down as much as I could remember of what Randall told us but couldn’t get all of it.  So, for our reflection I asked the girls to all tell us something that they learned today.  What a wondrous thing crowdsourcing memories is! Here are the facts in no particular order.  This website gives some additional information.
The Ceiba tree (pronounced sayba) is sacred to the Mayans and has sharp spikes all the way up the trunkThe Ceiba Tree – this is a sacred tree to the Mayans who believe that the Gods live high up in the branches and the long vines that hang down to the ground are the connection to the underworld.  The roots are deep and give life to the tree and to the people.   The sharp spines that cover the trunk help protect the tree from the Strangulator trees as do the colonies of fire ants that seemed to be hosted by the tree that we saw.  They can grow up to 200ft tall and are often the only trees to be spared when a forest is cut down.  The canopy of the tree is home to epiphytes which also provide space for myriad animals, insects and other plants to exist.
tall, smooth barked tree, with foliage high up.The Surá Tree – this tree is tall and has very smooth bark.  Randall told us that it is a special tree for the Mayans and mythology says that in the beginning there was only land.  When the tree grew too tall the monkeys chewed the trunk until it fell over.  It created such a large space in the forest that the ocean formed in the space it created.  I can find no literature about this on the internet but it is clear that many civilisations believe that trees are the givers of life and connect heaven and earth or the spirits and the people.
strangulator tree, vines come down from above and form trees around a treeStrangulator Tree (Higueron) – this actually starts life out as an epiphyte and is a member of the fig family.  The seeds are dropped by birds in the tops of trees and the vines that grow from them reach down to the ground where they take root and thicken. As they thicken the light is taken away from the host tree and it gradually dies.
The “Naked Indian” Tree –  this tree obviously has a botanical name but because of its red peeling bark Ticos call it the Naked Indian tree.  Randall told us that the it is the bark where photosynthesis occurs in this tree.  The blog to which I have linked the name of this tree also describes the multiplicity of uses this tree has.
walking tree the roots are all splayed outwards and "walk" in search of lightThe Walking Tree – so the story goes that the mini trunks that look like splayed roots on these trees actually “walk” in search of light to help the tree grow. But this could easily be a popular story that guides tell trekkers just because…well, they can! Who knows?
Waramu tree - the guide to the right is pointing at the rings on a tree which has a slim straight trunkWaramu Tree – well, I can’t find this tree on the internet using this name so maybe I misunderstood the name.  Anyway, there is a photo so someone may recognise it. He said that this is a tree that the sloths like as the leaves are tasty.  It is hollow and so when the trees are young they were young they were used by the Mayans to make pipes. It also has a symbiosis with ants – they live in the hollow part and if the tree is attacked they swarm out and defend the tree.
white milky sap from the vaco treeVaco Tree – this tree is called the milk tree or the cow tree and produces a white milk like sap that seems to be high in iron.  It is used in medicines to treat anaemia. Randall also told us that the wood is used for building and so many of these trees were cut down by the Conquistadors.
large leafy shrub which has many properties useful to manA plant the name of which I can’t remember but which Randall called the jungle man’s friend.  Just like the New Zealand Bushman’s friend, this large soft leaf can be used when you are caught short in the jungle.  But its uses don’t stop there; it can also be used as sun shade if draped over your head, folded over the back of your neck it has cooling properties, if you break the stem and chew on it, it will numb your mouth so it has been used as an anaelgesic and crushed and rubbed onto the skin it acts as an insect repellent.
Havillo – this tree can grow tall like the Ceiba but when small it has sharp thorns all over it.  These were used by the Mayans as poison darts; once they took them off the tree they would stick them in poison dart frog to get the poison. The sap of the tree is also poisonous.
golden orb spider in its web. the male which is much smaller is to the leftGolden Orb Spider – the female is much larger than the male which is to the left in the image.  They are not harmful to humans and the webs are so strong that research is going on to see if scientists can reproduce the silk to use to make bullet proof vests.
Ant Facts

  • If you kick an anthill, the warrior ants come out to protect the queen.
  • Big ants were used by Mayans as sutures on wounds.
  • Leaf cutter ants release an acid that kills the vegetation in their path to clear the way.

white butterfly with clear black markings and red stain down the inner edge of the wingsbrown butterfly with white vertical stripe down the middle of each wing, smalle white dots on outer edge of wings and red spots on lower inner edge of wingsButterflies – we saw so many beautiful butterflies while we were in Costa Rica.  The beautiful Blue Morpho flashed by often, rarely settling long enough to get a photo, brilliant green and gold and red butterflies and the stunning Owl Butterfly.

Coast to Coast: Puerto Jimenez to Carate

trekking map of a section of the Osa Peninsulatrekking map of the southern part of the Osa Peninsula Costa RicaOur trek was to take us from Puerto Jimenez on one side of the Peninsula del Osa  to Carate on the other.  42km in 4 days.  Doesn’t sound too bad, eh? Add in temperatures at around 30C and humidity of 90% and “Costa Rican flat” (aka up and down – just look at the contour lines!) through jungle and rivers and you start to get an idea.  Oh! And we were carrying tents, stoves, safety gear and food for 5 days for 13 people.  This was meant to be a challenge and a challenge it was.  For me, it wasn’t so much the walking with a pack.  I have done that plenty of times and for much further.  It was the heat and the humidity that I found hard.  Constantly sweating, constantly having to replace fluid and trying to keep cool.  The many river crossings were, in fact, a blessing as it gave us a chance to cool our feet down and splash our faces with water.  Although we had wet feet for 5 days which wasn’t so great.
But I wouldn’t swap the experience for anything.  The wildlife we saw, the shared challenges, the sense of fulfilment and just being in such amazing surroundings – the sights, the smells, the sounds.
trekkers crossing a shallow river.  Low lying vegetation around the river with the edeg of the jungle in the back ground.  Sunny day with blue skyDay one was our entrance walk, mainly on 4WD track from Puerto Jimenez and crossing the Rio Nuevo several times, we walked 13.5km into a lodge situated at the confluence of two rivers at the edge of the jungle.  Someone, I think, had had the bright idea a few years ago, probably a few years too early for the tourist boom, to build a “jungle paradise” with a central cabin with a wood stove and space to hang out, and a range of cabins that sleep between 2 and 6 people on wooden bunks.  It never really took off but the cabins remain, a little dilapidated but still functional and a warden still manages the site and keeps the place maintained.  For us it was a haven.  The river provided us with a great swimming spot to cool off and we didn’t have to get out our tents or trangias.  Having a fire to cook on was a luxury.
old battered sign that reads "Welcome to the perfect tropical adventure"The high note of the day was seeing squirrel monkeys in the trees.  These were our 4th species of monkey this trip. They are very cute and surprisingly happy to sit as we took photos.  We also met our first (of many)  leaf cutter ants which are everywhere!  These amazing ants carry more than their body weight in leaf to their colonies where it moulds and then is broken down as food. The acid that the deposit as they walk kills all other vegetation and leaves empty brown pathways that, according to Randal, can get so big that trekkers follow them thinking they are trails!
squirrel monkeys playing high up in the treesleaf cutter ants carrying cut leaves into their ant hillChristmas Day saw Secret Santa visit and we excitedly opened the presents we had been given and watched as the presents we had bought were opened.  It was a time of reflection and I know there had been a few tears shed in the privacy of dorm rooms as the girls thought about what their families were doing.  But it was also a time of excitement of what was to come.  We had an easy day ahead of us; a 10km circular walk without our huge packs to explore the immediate environs of the lodge. Randal is a biologist and today was a real treat as we had time to stop and appreciate the world around us.  He told us all about the different trees, animals and insects as we climbed to a high point where we could see across the jungle canopy.  In one direction was the gulf and in the other the peak we would climb the next day to get across to the Pacific Ocean.  (see next blog for details of the wildlife)
the author swimming against the current in a short rapid in a small river
Day 3 was our big day; only a short 10km walk but the steepest climb and as we headed deeper into the jungle the terrain was more unforgiving.  The “hill” was advertised as being “hard”.  It was only just over 400m high but one group had allegedly taken 12 hours to complete the 10km with 3 hours spent climbing the hill!  Randall was confident that we were better than that and could do it in around 8 hours but we still had an early start at 6am – just in case!  Challenge on!  There was lots of “Costa Rican flat” which meant “up, up, down, up, down, down, up…….” We ended up doing the big hill in half an hour!  Result!
very tall tree in the jungleLunch was at a small waterfall and getting there after the hill seemed like forever as we made our way over the seemingly never-ending, undulating “Costa Rican flat”.  I think we had been so hyped up for the hill and after making it to the top with relative ease we thought it was all over and were a little low on moral and energy!  Never mind, only 2 hours after lunch and we were at the goldminers’ camp in the Quebrada Piedras Blancas. All in we had made it in seven and a half hours.  Not bad at all!
Goldminers' wooden lodge in the background with our tents and a washing line in the foregroundDay 4 was supposed to be an easy one.  A 7.30am start and we would be at the beach by lunchtime.  It was not to be. We had a medical crisis to start off with:  Randal had fallen into a low blood sugar unconsciousness in the early morning.  We had thought he was just asleep and then that he was fooling around pretending to be asleep and that when the girls were all ready to go and that he would just jump up.  Leidy, the assistant guide had seen him up and about at 5am so thought the same thing.  At 7.30am he was still snoring, we got all the girls to shout from below the balcony to wake him but there was no response.  We then called his name and shook him but there was still no response.
Nor did he respond to pain.
Something was wrong.
Leidy suddenly realised what it was and went to get some sugar sweets from his bag.  I had been going through the possibilities of why a seemingly very fit and healthy man would be unresponsive and was just coming to the conclusion that diabetes might be the problem.   Leidy reaching for sweets confirmed that.  However, she said that he wasn’t diabetic he was just susceptible to low blood sugar.  Same thing, I thought, but he didn’t have insulin.  To cut a long story short, we started trying to get sugar into his system and after about half an hour he started to respond, we could open his mouth and his swallow reflex returned.  It took another hour before we could have any sort of intelligible conversation with him and it was clear that he was not going to be able to lead us out of the jungle. Interestingly, the first words he said were in English and so I had to translate for Leidy!  He said afterwards that as soon as he came round he felt that he had full brain functionality, recognised that Leidy and I were treating him and knew exactly what he wanted to say but just couldn’t make his mouth work!
After consultation with Javier, the trekking company owner, Roy, one of the goldminers who was also an experienced trekker and knew the way out well, was to lead us out and Javier would send in some more trekking guides to meet us, assist us on a steep downhill section and then help Randall out.  In the meantime, Lisbet, Roy’s wife stayed and continued to feed Randall carbohydrate and sugar until he stabilised.
early morning mist rising in the trees.  A bareback horse walking in front of the trees across the meadowIt was 9.30am before we set off.  The girls had been extremely patient and understanding as we had kept them informed with what was going on.  Howie had also contacted the World Challenge Ops room.  The first part of the trek was along the river, criss-crossing as we went.
basic shelter of upright tree pole and black plastic tarpaulin set beside the river in the jungleThe goldminers’ basic shelters of wooden poles and a tarpaulin were dotted along the river where they had cleared the bank of vegetation and flattened out the ground.  The river beds too had been modified to encourage the flow of water and the washing down of the gold deposits after the rainy season.  Goldmining was a booming trade of Costa Rica (the name means “Rich Coast”) but nowadays the gold is pretty much all gone and there are only a few Oreros (Goldminers) grinding out a living.  They are there, according to Randall and Javier, because their families have always been there and they don’t really know anything else.  Mining in the Corcovado National Park is illegal but these guys roam the rivers just outside the Park and if they do venture just inside they are more or less ignored.  Their eco-footprint is small compared to ours; they may alter the river bed and leave some waste behind by burying or burning plastic, tin cans and bottles but they live a very simple life – no electricity, wood fires, travel by horse, kill the meat they need and use edible plants from the forest to supplement the monthly trips to “civilisation” for basic supplies.
There was some suggestion that the oreros were to be feared or at least people of whom we should be wary.  People who live their lives away from the civilised norms of society, in the past criminals and people on the wrong side of the law would make their way to remote areas to seek their fortunes.  Often the men stay in the jungle for weeks on end whilst the women live in the villages so the camps do not have the calming influence of females.  However, Randal and Javier have a good relationship with the oreros at the camp/village where we stayed and certainly Roy and Lisbet who we met were very friendly and the half dozen other men we saw panning for gold in the shallow rivers waved hello and smiled in response to our greetings.
Roy cleared away the overhanging branches so we could walk under the fallen trees that balanced precariously across the river and cut back the undergrowth to reveal the path beneath.  We had crossed into the Corcovado National Park and this was rainforest as you imagine it to be.  Lush, green, thickly overgrown. The path had clearly not been walked for a while; it was very overgrown, fallen trees and vines and deep mud made the going slow and awkward.  Roy cut footholds in the fallen tree trunks slippery with moss with his machete as we headed upwards.  It seems that Lava Tours are the only group that do this trek and it is one specially designed for World Challenge Groups so it really was a path less travelled. Leidy took up Randal’s calls of “watch out for snakes” as we went.  Snakes were the one thing that Randal feared in the jungle and since he was an experienced jungle man we could only respect his fear and advice to watch where we put our feet and be careful about what we grabbed hold of!
trekkers climbing over fallen trees in the jungleOnce we left the river we climbed quite steeply until we reached the highest point of our trek at 510m.  We paused for a few minutes to catch our breath and peer through the thick trees at the view.  More trees!  We could just make out that we were on a summit, we could see other ridge lines and there was a sense that we were high up but the vegetation was so dense and the steam rising from the ground as the rain fell steadily made visibility poor.   There was a stillness in the air and when the rain started and the mist rose it was all quite ethereal with the vines draped over the trees and the calls of the birds seemed to echo through the stillness.  Even the happy chatter of the girls had fallen silent. Anticipating our trek back in NZ I had worried about being wet the whole time in a rain forest and how I would cope with that.   It had rained in the evenings and during the night but this was the first rain that we had come across whilst walking.  It was actually quite refreshing although I am sure that we might not have thought so if it had rained the whole time!
On a more open stretch walking along a ridge we heard a commotion high above us in the trees and a huge branch came falling onto the path right in front of us.  Looking up at the noise we could see cappuccino monkeys having a rare old time.  “Angry monkeys”, said Roy, “keep walking fast”. Apparently when the monkeys are angry they are very violent and will break off branches and throw them down as well as throwing pooh and sticks and fruit!  Maybe it was the rain and the wind that was disturbing them or maybe it was us but they certainly seemed agitated bouncing on the branches and screeching and running and swinging between the trees.
Suddenly there was a cry of “Randal’s here!”. And sure enough, there he was as right as rain!  He came through the group to greet Leidy who was delighted to see him.  He gave us both a big hug and said thank you for saving his life.  There were an emotional few minutes, the girls too were delighted to see him and spirits rose considerably.  We had just been joined from the other end by another of the trekking guides and soon after Javier arrived with another.  So we had ample assistance as we made our way down the quite treacherous downhill section that was a slippery web of roots, thick mud and steep steps.
waterfallLunch was at another waterfall but this one was amazing.  Only short but a fearful force dropping into a pool about waist deep.  Perfect for pounding sore shoulders.  We were all happy by this stage to just stand under the water fully clothed to cool ourselves down knowing that a) it wasn’t far now to the end and b) it was so hot that clothes dried quickly and wet clothes helped to keep us cool.
trekkers walking down a river.  It is shallow and has a rocky bed much of which is exposed.  The river is bounded by trees and low cliffs on the right and trees on the leftThe last section was beautiful.  We came out of the jungle and into the steep sided gorge of the Rio Carate with tumbling waters and mini rapids.  None more than knee deep so we picked our way down the river, hopping over the stone strewn river bed or wading through the water.  All too soon we arrived at Carate and the Pacific Ocean.  Final group photos and (tearful) goodbyes.  It had been an emotional day, we were all tired and there had been some low moments when it had been hard to keep spirits up as we plodded through mud and slipped on roots and clambered over huge tree trunks, trudged uphill and negotiated the downs. However, there was a huge sense of achievement and huge relief at making it all together with Randal with us at the end.
Our guides on the beach at Carate.