Well 'tis the season - fieldwork season that is, and also the rainy season in Tanzania - which is NOT the season for fieldwork! But, if you are Hitoshi Takano, and determined to find that elusive species new to science, then needs must. This week, our fledgling entomologist has flown the NHM Coleoptera nest and managed (against the odds) to send us his 'notes from the field'. Here are the highs and lows thus far:
“For the rain it raineth every day”
It has been tough. It has seemed like everything has been against us – a long and drawn out April Fool’s joke that Feste in Twelfth Night would be proud of. The wet season in tropical Africa really is a most unforgiving place. Especially up in the mountains.
Our drive from Dar es Salaam to the village of Maskati in the Nguru Mountains should only take 7 hours or so in normal conditions; it took nearly 14 hours this time. The roads leading up to Maskati are winding and contain some pretty challenging uphill hairpins and turns with huge 100m drop offs. Dangerous enough in the dry season, let alone with the torrential rainfall. The deforestation on these slopes don’t help at all. The topsoil just erodes away and flows into the rivers; landslides are not uncommon in this region.
Half way up to Maskati the back wheel of our trusty vehicle slipped off a concrete bridge. The whole vehicle ground to a halt with its weight bearing down solely on the differential! It took us nearly 2 hours of lifting and pushing with the help of the locals to get the car out. We thought this was bad enough; 200m further up the road, up an especially tricky uphill turn, the vehicle nearly flipped onto its side; it slipped down hill and ended up with its front left tyre completely off the ground! There were many points along this road where we had to unload the kit from the vehicle, reload it only to get stuck 100m further down the road. There were times where we thought it would just be impossible to make it to the village due to the atrocious roads. But Maskati and the Ngurus are well worth the effort. With the sun setting behind the mountains, the village must be one of the most beautiful places in the world. I would guess this is the kind of place James Hilton imagined when he described Shangri-La in Lost Horizon. The air is cool and refreshing. Maskati has been known to the Europeans for over a century. The mission and the church in the village were built by the Germans in 1909 and are still the pride of the village.
The walk into the mountains is also very tough. Two serious up-hills interjected by fast rivers flowing over slippery granite. Having overcome this obstacle, one reaches an incredible ridge at about 2100m. Beyond this ridge is a 200m drop off into what feels like Jurassic Park; a prehistoric forest with wonderful streams and rivers which contain many endemic frogs and chameleons, tree ferns, mosses and lichens. Many of the neighbouring forests have been logged out but because it is so difficult to get here (and to get the timber out) this area has escaped the deforestation.
To rub salt into the wound, this long walk was undertaken during a torrential downpour! I made a massive hash of packing my kit and because none of my clothes were in dry bags, absolutely everything got wet! Thank goodness we had three hours sunlight on top of the ridge to dry my clothes. I was not very happy with my schoolboy error!
During my time in the Ngurus it really did rain a lot. If we had less than 10 hours rain in the day, we were lucky; on bad days, it rained for 12 hours and more. Cold and wet. Nothing dries - putting on wet clothes in the morning has got to be one of the more unpleasant experiences when in the field.
The wet season also means that two of my fears become a palpable reality. Firstly, lightning and thunder which in their own right are extraordinary spectacles, but camped perilously on an exposed ridge with quite a lot of metal from all our equipment is not in the least bit amusing! Secondly, slugs and snails – my inordinate fear. They are everywhere. On the forest floor, on my tent, even in my tent. When walking at night looking for insects, every leaf you look at and every log you turn over, there is always some filthy slimy creature waiting for me! Give me spiders and scorpions any day!
Having managed to get up to the mountains and to base camp in the forest, we found to our despair that the generator we bought with us did not survive the journey. Light trapping is such an important weapon in an entomologist’s armoury that without it, comprehensive collection becomes very difficult. We painstakingly had another generator sent up into the forest and although it seemed like it was working, this too failed to light our Mercury Vapour lamp! Unbelievable! Other things which decided to die at crucial points included our inverter/battery charger, the choke for one of the actinic tubes and a digital camera. At this point it seemed very clear that it was worth cutting our losses and returning to Dar es Salaam to sort out our electrical problems; we really need it working for the rest of the trip. It is a terrible shame but we will be returning to the mountains towards the end of the trip to light trap high in the cloud forest.
I will now be heading south to the Udzungwa Mountains where elephants and buffalos await – and no doubt, more rain!
Next time, we see some Tanzanian beetles encountered along the way...