Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Up on the Ridgetop

Written on 8 August 2011
I’m writing this from a ridge at 1,350 meters elevation in the southern portion of the Kampankis range, more than a thousand meters above our second campsite. It’s five in the afternoon, the rain just ended, and a cold wind is blowing from the east. We have about an hour more of daylight, and then we’ll open up some cans of mackerel for dinner.
A view along the ridges of the Kampankis mountains.
Photo: D. Neill
We arrived at the second camp yesterday after a flight of about thirty minutes. The new camp sits above the Caterpiza River, a tributary of the Santiago that drains the western slopes of the Kampankis mountains. It’s a highway-sized river littered with boulders and broad enough that the helicopter set us down on one bank. We got in too late in the day to explore much around camp, but the botany team had already decided that if the weather was clear in the morning we’d try for the top of the ridge, because that’s where we’re most likely to find exposed limestone or sandstone formations, plants endemic to the Kampankis, and the everwet conditions where some of the world’s most diverse plant families – like orchids and aroids – thrive (and speciate).
The Wampis guides told us that the walk from camp to the ridgetop took them about three hours, so we decided it made sense to climb up as fast as we could, spend the night, and come back down the following day. The plan seemed like a good one, but it startled our Wampis hosts. Two weeks ago, when they were cutting the trail up to the ridgetop, they always returned to camp at the end of the day – even when that meant climbing down cliffsides on homemade ladders by flashlight. They preferred that to spending the night on the ridge, because the Wampis tell stories about mystical beings that inhabit the highest portions of the range. The stories vary regarding the extent to which the beings are benign or otherwise, factual or mythical, but they all give the clear impression that people aren’t entirely welcome up in that neighborhood.
The beings are said to send people warnings – sometimes in dreams and sometimes in the form of rainstorms – to keep away. Last night, as chance would have it, I did dream that someone was calling my name, but two things made it unlikely that it was the mystical beings. First, whoever was in the dream was pronouncing my name the same way I do, which is a very rare thing in South America. Second, that night I had happened to pitch my tent in the middle of the trail, where it was in everyone’s way, so it’s likely that someone wasn’t calling me in a dream but rather cursing me in the dark, because they’d walked past and tripped over my tent peg. Whatever the message meant, it didn’t seem like a very specific warning.
Isau Huamantupa and Camilo Kajekai collecting on the ridgetop near camp two.
Photo: D. Neill
So this morning all four botanists set out, accompanied by two Wampis guides: Agustín and Zaqueo. (I told Zaqueo I admired his name, and asked if it had a meaning in the Wampis language. He looked disappointed and replied: “It’s biblical.”) On the climb up Agustín cut some roots that he said gives hunters energy on long hikes. It’s a Piper that’s known to many groups in the upper Amazon because chewing its roots makes your tongue go numb. It did seem to boost my energy as we climbed, but mostly because as we got higher and higher the tingling in my tongue distracted me from the screaming in my legs and lungs.
We made it to the top around eleven thirty and immediately began to set up camp on a plateau just below the peak. It was a nice plateau with a spongy root mat over white sand soils, but a few minutes into the work we were swarmed by honeybees and abandoned the site in a hurry. We ended up along the ridgeline, where we had no sooner gotten up the tents that it began to rain and blow. This was a disappointment, because we’d hoped to collect all afternoon, but it was a modest disappointment, because by then we’d seen that the really interesting collections up there would have to wait until the morning.
The soil at the top of the ridge is a patchwork of brownish clay and white sand (not limestone as we had hoped), the forest is tall and stately (not stunted cloud forest like we expected), and most of the trees are species of large palms that are common along the base of the Andes and present back down at camp. Once the rain ended we wandered around without finding much in flower – although David spotted the gorgeous Cock-of-the-rock (Rupicola peruviana), Peru’s national bird. I settled down to write in the clearing where the guides have strung up a tarp, and the guides built a sort of stockade out of palm fronds stuck in the ground to block the wind. The botany team was subdued, but Agustín seemed exhilarated.
“When’s the last time someone slept up here, Agustín?”
“Never! No one’s ever done it – we’re the first!”
It’s nearly eight by now and everyone has turned in for bed. At dinner we talked about the places we’d seen on the way up that we’ll focus on tomorrow as we work our way back down towards camp, after we’re done exploring the ridgetop in the morning. The wind has gotten stronger and colder and is making a rushing sound like a heavy sea, but the tree frogs are chorusing happily. And so to bed.

Not the ridgetop flora the botanists had hoped for, and no sandstone outcrops.
Photo: D. Neill
 Post by Nigel Pitman, Conservation Botanist

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