By Jean-Jacques Segalen (jjacques) February 20, 2012
As promised not long ago we will today go back in the forest of French Guiana with our special gear in order to reach the canopy, I hope everybody is fit this morning!
Nice view from atop!
The basics of secure tree climbing have been explored in this previous article and these are the techniques we will use to get up the highest trees. There are various reasons to ascend trees, either pruning or trimming, gathering fruits or seeds, observing birds and other animals, or photographing and taking samples from the leaves or flowers, setting various apparatus for data gathering or just to enjoy the view!
The purpose of today's climb will be birdwatching and photography, so make sure you have all your equipment ready. We will need the usual arborist's paraphernalia such as harness, carabiners, ropes, friction hitches, pulleys, helmet, lanyards and a choice of webbing loops. Water is necessary to carry as we will soon be sweating abundantly and need to restore the water loss; it's best to have a flask attached to your belt plus an extra bottle in your backpack. The greedy ones can bring some sweet but I personally am happy with a couple apples to provide vitamins, sugars and fibers. We may take a machete just in case we have to clean the base of the trees and to remove dead limbs or branches in the way; a folding pruning saw will come in handy. Dress comfortably in pants and a shirt, sporting shoes are fine as the sole will be less aggressive to tree bark than mountain shoes; insect repellent may be a good idea too! So now let us pack the car and drive to the forest. We will use the Saut Maripa trail and then walk some fifteen minutes to reach a nice tree I spotted not long ago with my friend Johann who is a bird specialist and will help us discover some marvels (you can check his blog.
Not a bad place, what do you think?
Johann with the 'Big-Shot'
Here we are at an impressive ‘chawari' tree, Caryocar glabrum which belongs to the Caryocaraceae family and has an estimated height of 35 to 40m (105 to 120 feet) a good choice for a warmup climb. A binocular observation revealed that on top of this chawari there is a fig tree (Ficus spp.) growing, a common feature in this area. And fig trees do produce figs of course which is of prime interest for us, not that we will indulge on those fruits as they are not edible for humans but they do attract many bird species which feed on them. All right then, put on your harness while Johann is assembling the "big shot." This is a device that will allow us to shoot a throwing bag attached to a thread at the required height in order to set the climbing rope. It is a sort of telescopic sling shot but very powerful, so stay at safe distance as it will send the weighted bag up to 30m where the first branches are. It may take a few tries as there are all those twigs, vines and shorter trees in the path but we will manage. Here we are! The thread has gone over the aimed branch, we can unknot the bag and attach the rope then pull it until it goes over the branch and back down to us, this means hauling more than 60m of rope and I guess you already need a good sip from your bottle! If you do not mind I will climb first so as to set things up there, make sure the place is safe and sound and maybe choose a better crotch for the access rope. Instead of using the classical ‘foot-lock' method which is usual when I work as an arborist on smaller-sized trees I will use this clever tool called "pantin," a mechanical rope grabber you put on a foot and it will make it somewhat easier though it is still a rather physical activity! As I worm my way up I can see the gradual change in light, passing over low branches which soon make the ground disappear and I feel like I am fully diving within the vegetal world. I can still hear you underneath though I lost sight of the track and I hear more and more bird noises coming from above. My legs start hurting a bit so I will make a break at some 20m (60 feet) high, gently swinging on the rope while enjoying the sight and drinking some water. Back to the climbing, I can now see clearly where I am going; there is a large, almost flat branch two meters under the place where my rope has been set so this is perfect for landing.
On the way up, just a few more meters...
Johann at work, stay quite!
Whoosh! Here I am, this was something! Just let me attach a few loops around branches and clip my pack, water bottle and camera case on them. I also set up an extra rope to help the followers pull themselves more comfortably and then send back down the main rope; next person please! While another climber slowly comes up I explore the place, make sure there are no dangerous dead limbs hanging, no wasp or bees ready to chase us down, no furious snake or other unexpected inhabitant and climb a little further up. What a view! We are over the canopy and it is like being in a plane over the clouds but those are green instead of white, amazing. As I sit quietly in a fork the first birds show up, they seem a little surprised to see this new animal in their dining room but as I seem harmless to them they start feeding happily on the figs and seemingly chat on the quality of the fruits and the novelty of my presence here. Johann has just reached the top and will unsheathe his camera with a huge telephoto right away, his eyes have brightened as he heard the characteristic sound of a toucan while climbing and he now can see it. This is one of the various species, a smaller sized one with impressive colors, its local name is ‘toucan koulik' while it is known as Selenidera piperivora by scientists.
Selenidera piperivora, 'toucan koulik' (Picture Johann Tascon)
It is not very shy but usually leaves the place if disturbed, we have the chance that a large prey bird which looks pretty much like an ‘urubu' is flying in the sky over us and the toucan does not feel too comfortable about it and will remain safely hidden underneath the leaves. Ah, here comes the next climber, a charming lady who proves that tree climbing is not only for hairy apes like me and Johann...Audrey works in a local environmental society and is happy to get up with us, a nice change from office and
Welcome in the canopy Audrey!
paperwork! But watch your step Audrey, you almost squashed this tiny frog (no more than 2cm (0.79in)) which has jumped out of a bromeliad plant I disturbed when stepping on the branch. This one is Ranitomeya ventrimaculatus which bright colors act a signal of danger towards predators. Its skin produces some poison and although it is not the deadliest one, no matter how delicious it looks we are not going to kiss it and see if it turns into a bewitched prince!
Ranitomeya ventrimaculatus (picture Johann Tascon)
Now that we are all up at 40m (120 feet) above the ground we can sit on a large branch, relax, have a drink, enjoy the scenery and use the cameras, of course we stay secured at all times with the ropes but we can climb further up or walk on a limb in order to get a closer look at some orchids that liberally cover whole branches. The way down will be much faster and less strenuous, simply using the friction hitches to get back down, stopping anytime we choose until we are back on the ground. It is already 5 pm and it starts getting dark down here although there is still plenty light at the top of our chawari tree, so we pack all the gear and walk back to the car. Everyone is all right? No sore legs? No fingers burnt on the rope? No mosquito bites? Good then, I guess you are ready for another tour with your favorite guide! See you soon.
About Jean-Jacques Segalen
I am a Parisian born professional horticulturist specialized in tropical seeds producing, living on Reunion island (just between Mauritius and Madagascar) since 20 years . I spend a lot of time gathering seeds in the wild, the ones I do not grow that is. Also a dedicated Tai-Chi practitioner and fully certified arborist-tree surgeon
Just released my first book on tropical plants and fruits, check it at http://www.barbadine.com/pages/livrejjGB.html