Borneo Tree Experience   Roman Dial
  Mar 05, 2006 13:58 PST 

My nastiest tree experience was during my sabbatical in Boreno in 2002.
My then 15 year-old son and I were taking down the 140 m or so of
traverse lines I used for research. The traverse line was in two
segments. The longest segment was about 100 m long that left a big 75 m
tall Koompassia (a giant legume) from about 65-70 m above ground, then
went swooping downhill, high above the lower canopy, then across a small
creek and through the top of a tree filled with orchids, and then into
the crowns of some more tall dipterocarps. It ended at about 55 m above
ground in a smallish dipterocarp.

Anyhow, my son went across the traverse carefully and slowly on a couple
carabiners. He made it safely to the other side and then descended to
the ground. His old man, me, equipped with a video camera and a pulley
approached it differently.

I put on the pulley, then started the video cam and whizzed down the
traverse line, accelerating toward the creek. The video cam records my
whooping and then the ominous approach of the orchid tree crown looming
ahead -- when, like a George of the Jungle cartoon, "whack!". The tape
goes black. It comes back on, however, as I use its pivotong screen to
observe my wounded head. I had crashed into a 3/4 inch limb, breaking it
with the camara, and gouging my forehead, but at least not my eye.
Blood oozed from the scrape. I felt sheepish but lucky.

I finished the traverse a bit out of it with mild concussion, perhaps,
and feeling a bit worried -- borderline freaked out.   It would soon get
dark and as I rigged the rappel the the "6-oclock cicadas" came out.
These bugs announced each evening with a characteristic "whahhh--whahh
--wah- wa-wa -wa-". Within minutes it would be pitch black.

It was about then that swarms of near thumb-sized ants poured over the
branch I hung from. I knew these ants well, _Camponotus gigas_, one of
the world's largest species of ant. They spend the day slowly working
the ground, but at night came up top, possibly to "milk" the plant-juice
sucking homopterans that plug into the tree foliage.

Anyway, in my out-of-it state of mind, swapping pulley on traverse for
grigri on rappel, hanging from a worn-out rope at 165 feet above ground,
with litterally hundreds of giant ants swarming over me and my rope,
darkness dropping like a theatre curtain, I felt like I was suffering
some sort of 1960's era acid test. To add insult to injury I had to pass
a knot on the way down.....

Once down, my patient son joined me in collecting our gear to pack out.
One of the items was a big hanging tent, of the style used by big wall
rock climbers. Its purpose was to keep my gear and science stuff dry and
off the ground. It had a big frame so that when I rolled it up and
loaded it in my pack it stuck out over two feet above my head.

We hadn't counted on being out so late. I carried a small "thumb light"
LED and cupping it in my hand like a refelector we made our way along
the slimy trail. My son used his video camera light. The walk was about
a mile back to camp.

Soon afetr leaving the study site the tent frame hit an overahanging
limb and something fell on my neck. My first thought was that it was a
big catkin, like the ones you see on cottonwoods. But there really are
no catkins in the tropical rainforest understory (or overstory in Borneo
for that matter). There was something sticky to it and it felt as long,
but not quite as heavy, as a banana. So my next thought was that it was
a long, clinging fruit.

I reached up and grabbed it when it bit me, twice, like liquid fire
poured on the nape of my neck -- a 6 inch centipede! I screamed and
threw the creature to the ground, calling to my son to look at my neck
with his light. He looked at my neck and saw the bloody jaw marks where
the thing had bit me.

Well the walk back to camp was scary. The pain on my neck spread to my
shoulders. I feared for my life, with the bite so close to my head. My
son was afraid, too, but took calm care of me even though I was nearly
in panic. After the fire feel, my skin went numb, then came an intense
aching bruise that felt like someone had hit me with a baseball bat.

We staggered into camp, had some dinner, and recounted the day's tales
of back to back misadvaentures to other scienitists at the research
station. Then we fell asleep.

In the morning, the pain was gone, but welts remained on my forehead
from the George of the Jungle escapade and on my neck from the "sticky
fruit". The forehead healed quickly, but the centipede's bite remained
as a small knot on my neck for several years.

When it rains it pours, I guess....

Roman Dial