Friday, August 5, 2011

First Day at First Camp

 The Cordillera Kampankis is a knife-thin ridge that runs south through the Amazon from the Peru-Ecuador border, rising up from the lowlands to either side of it like the wrinkle you get when you push a tablecloth. Up close it’s not as simple as that – up close it’s a complex of ridges and escarpments so tangled that even with all our maps and satellite images it’s hard to tell whether a given stream you come across in the field drains to the east, into the Morona River, or west, into the Santiago.

A view looking west from Peru's Kampankis range, with the  Santiago River in the distance.
Photo: A. del Campo 

This morning we woke up in our first campsite, which is located in the northernmost stretch of the 150-km-long range, just a few kilometers from the border. The cordillera here consists of two parallel ridges, and our camp is nestled in the valley between them. The sensation flying into the heliport yesterday was of dropping into a deep hollow; once we were on the ground the high ridges to either side of us had vanished and the view in every direction was trees.

The valley where the biological inventory's first campsite is located. The heliport is visible in the center of the image.
Photo A. del Campo

The most prominent feature of our camp here is the stream that winds through it – a stream about 10 m wide and shin-deep where it passes the kitchen – so that wherever you are in camp you hear the shushing of cool water over rocks. The rocks in the stream are worn smooth and covered in moss and planted here and there with shoulder-high stands of herbs whose long, ribbon-like leaves keep them from washing away when heavy rainstorms turn the stream, for a few minutes, into a river. One of the herbs is a nondescript cyclanth; the other is a bromeliad whose long, cane-like stems are topped with spectacular bright red inflorescences. It’s such an unusual design for a bromeliad that upon first arriving at camp Isau and I gaped as if it had fallen from Mars. But David, who knew it from the Cordillera del Condor, said simply: “Pitcairnia aphelandraflora.”

The rheophytic bromeliad Pitcairnia aphelandraflora in the stream near the first campsite.
Photo: A. del Campo

In the forest across the stream from the heliport the advance team has built seven small pole-and-yellow-plastic-sheeting shelters: a pantry, a kitchen, a dining room, a gear depot, a lab, a radio house, and a bunkhouse for the guides. Now that the biological team has arrived the mud around camp is churned up with the to-and-fro of rubber boots and there’s gear scattered everywhere. This afternoon I walked a ways downstream to find a private stretch to take a bath, but just after I thought I’d found one I noticed that a tree nearby had been outfitted by the herpetologists with an automated device that switches on every so often to record frog songs. I did my best to stay quiet, but when the current took the underwear I was washing and carried it off downstream the recorder may have picked up some undignified yelping.
Botanist David Neill studying a specimen in the first campsite.
Photo: A. del Campo 

Undignified yelping – in a place this beautiful, surrounded by birdsong and frogsong and the shushing river, that seems like a pretty good description of the blogs we’ll be posting from the field during the inventory. Over the next few days the other bloggers and I will tell you some more about the team, our hosts, and the things we’re starting to find in this valley.

Post by Nigel Pitman, Conservation Botanist

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