More notes from Maliau

Nepenthes camp is surrounded by waterfalls, three being within one hour distance from it.

The terrain to reach them is steep and muddy. Zizul repeats “Ati ati, lichis” (careful, it’s slippery) and I’m very glad I brought hiking poles. Zizul wears rubber “Bowling” shoes, the footwear of choice among forest habitué. He almost never slips and collects way less leeches than I do, with my mountain boots.
The three waterfalls are spectacular. Two are tall, each falling from the top of an amphitheatre of vertical sandstone. The third flows over giant sandstone steps engulfed by the forest. We spend some time at each, sitting silently in the roar of the water, enjoying the breeze saturated with water droplets that comes from the waterfalls. Zizul smokes, I take some pictures and sketch some drawings. Then it’s time to go back and continue our tour towards Ginseng camp. Again we walk through an incredible variety of forest types. The path from Nepenthes first goes down and there is plenty of Nepenthes pitcher plants and orchids. Then the path climbs again to reach the basin rim and its kerangas forest. In the sparse forest, even more pitcher plants are mixed with rhododendron species and eucalyptus trees. I see one flowering Nepenthes plant. Despite the elaborate structure of the “pitchers”, those are not modified flowers but modified leaves, transformed so that they can capture small animals and digest them in the enzymatic bath at the bottom of the pitcher itself. Flowers are tiny and simple, apparently without petals, and grouped in inflorescences. As I am taking pictures I notice an ant with a big butt and spiky back apparently visiting the flowers. Minutes later I see an ant of the same species walking on a Nepenthes leaf. I’m an experimental ecologist, after all, so my instinct is to try to annoy the little dude to see what happens. The ant’s reaction is surprising: as I blow on it, it stops and holds its ground, beating its butt against the leaf surface in short, noisy, rapid series. The sprouting pollination ecologist inside me wakes up. What is going on here? May it be a symbiosis in which the ants harvest the flower/nectar, and in exchange they defend the plant from attackers and annoying ecologists? Later, at the library of the research centre, I find out that these ants belong to genus Polyrachis and, according to C. Clarke, they do “not seem to have mutualistic associations with” pitcher plants. I still like my story more. Myrmecologists, Nepenthes experts out there, let me know if you know more.
As we lose altitude, the forest changes again towards bigger trees, until we reach the usual lowland mixed dipterocarp forest. As we walk towards Ginseng camp I hear a strong hissing sound mounting from the trees. I ask Zizul if it is a river. “No, it is the rain coming”. The gusts of wind in the trees made a noise as of rapids. On the ground we only get a little breeze and also the rain is not as bad as the sound would have suggested. Nevertheless we speed up our pace, as the wind can bring down dead branches and even trees. In all this I forget to check my legs for leeches until we reach camp. There I find handfuls of them on my ankles, disgustingly fat and happy. My ankles bleed for hours.
The camp is simpler than Nepenthes camp, just two open huts with no walls. The beds have mosquito nets but no blankets. I do not have a sleeping bag, because hey, this is the tropics, isn’t it? It is. And yet the tropics can be chilly. I wear all I have, but it’s a long cold night nevertheless.

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