Saturday, August 20, 2011

This Is What It Sounds Like

Written 14 August 2011
Spend a day with us in Kampankis and here are some things you’re likely to hear:
The nighttime honking of the Trachycephalus tree frogs, which have been common around the first three of our campsites. For a long time they all sit quietly, and all you hear are the crickets and the river. Then one of them honks like a miniature duck, and another joins in, and another, until pretty soon there’s a whole flock of miniature ducks honking in the trees around camp. After a minute or so they feel they’ve had their say and fall silent again.

 The nighttime plucking of the camp guitar, which survived having a heavy sack of plantains thrown on top of it during the last helicopter transfer.

 On the steep trails, the friendly Wampis question “¿Te apoyo?” – which means “Can I help you with that?”

The friendly clinking of the aluminum poles that the botanists carry in the woods to reach specimens up in the midstory. Sometimes when I get separated from the others I stand still until somewhere off the woods I hear the clink saying: “Here we are!”

Heavy rain coming your way when it’s still a few minutes off and sounds like an advancing ocean.

The beep-beep-click of Alessandro’s camera as he and Pablo photograph the new lizard species over at the herp table – then Alessandro saying “Gaah!” when the lizard jumps off the table and tries to hide in the leaf litter again.

Alvaro yelling at Tyana over the radio, punctually every day at 7 AM and 7 PM. Tyana is handling logistics from the community of La Poza on the Santiago River, which is between 20 and 100 kilometers from our campsites. Reception on both sides is iffy, so the yelling is both an aid to communication and a symptom of frustration. Calls go like this:

Tyana: Alvaro, let me know if you want me to send more rice with the next helicopter.
Alvaro: Tyana, that would be perfect, thanks a lot, we’re a little low.
Tyana: Sorry, I didn’t catch that, can you repeat?
Tyana: Alvaro, did you copy about the rice?
Tyana: Alvaro, I’m sorry. I’m not copying you very well.
Some joker at the breakfast table: Alvaro, are you like this in the morning at home too?
Alvaro (grumbling): Tyana, Tyana, did you copy?
Tyana: Alvaro, Alvaro, did you copy?

The sound of the enclosed world you hear when the hood of your poncho is up and the rain is thrumming on it and you can see but you can’t hear the splashing of your boots through the puddles.
Whistling in the forest, whistling around camp. There’s the “Where’d you go?” whistle, the “I’m over here” whistle, the “I’m happy botanizing and I’ve composed this melodious little tune for the occasion” whistle, the “I’m supposed to be thinking about trees but I’ve got that Amy Winehouse line about Tanqueray stuck in my head” whistle, and the “I’ve been carrying a pack through heavy mud for a couple of hours but I want everyone to know it’s no big deal for me” whistle….
At night, the zipping-up of zippers, the rustling of nylon tents. Last night we laid out our sleeping bags on a bed of palm leaves under a plastic sheet. The ground there sloped a little, and in the night I kept waking up and wondering how far downhill I’d slid in my sleep. Then I’d hear the rustling of David’s sleeping bag to my left, or the rustling of Isau’s to my right, and I’d fall back asleep thinking that things couldn’t be too bad because the three of us were all in the same place.
The unbearable roar of the helicopter. Even with earplugs it finds a way in and makes your head throb. Once it’s left and the chopping fades into the distance you have to sit still for a few minutes, doing nothing at all, until you’ve regained your independence and can go about life again. (On the days we transfer from one camp to another, the Wampis guides always hear the helicopter approaching half a minute before the rest of the team, probably because they haven’t spent their lives listening to headphones and going to rock concerts and commuting through city traffic….)
The word increíble, repeatedly, at mealtime.
The tak-tak of Vladimir swinging the pick of his rock hammer at something from the Jurassic.
The shouting from one bank of the river to the other, when the current is swollen and the only bridge has washed away and the rushing whitecaps make communication impossible. Then you tap your wristwatch and shrug and hope the people on the other side of the river understand you mean that the only solution is to wait until the water goes down, because no one’s crazy enough to cross that.
Renzo back in camp, playing back a birdsong he’s recorded for Ernesto and Debby. One by one they hold the little recorder to their ears and assume a thoughtful expression.
The ping! ping! of a machete.
An argument about Chrysochlamys fruits among the painfully soft-spoken botany team.
The gallows humor of field biologists. Renzo says: “I have two pairs of pants. There’s the pair that’s wet, and there’s the pair I’m wearing. Which is wet.”
That funny grunting sound that hummingbirds make as their wings beat the air for a sudden change of direction. For a split second you think: “Peccary? Oh – hummingbird.”
The faint reminder of jetliners passing over so high that we have yet to see one. When I hear them I like to imagine a little girl looking out her window at the Kampankis range and saying “Cool…” – and then I remember that she’s probably saying “Cool” because she’s too busy with Angry Birds to look out the window and she just cleared that level with the treehouse and the boomeranging pelicans. (Or whatever they are. I just asked the ornithologists what kind of birds those are, and they said “Angry Birds? What’s that?”)
The almost audible crispening of the leaf litter and hiss of water evaporating on days when the sun comes out in full force after a rainstorm and the heliport is littered with a hundred pieces of drying field clothes.
The river next to camp, which sings all night: “I’m going to Brazil, I’m going to Brazil….”
Post by Nigel Pitman, Conservation Botanist


  1. Great post Nigel, enjoyable read!

  2. Nigel!!!!! angry birds?????jajajajaja que pasó?,jajaa.
    Really wonderful place!

  3. Awesome Nigel! Abrazos de lejos.