Photo Of The Day: Highlands Hammock State Park

The Highlands Hammock State Park feels surreal. Located just outside Sebring, Florida, the park contains a vast swamp of old-growth bald cypress trees, some of which are said to be more than a thousand years old. American Alligators and white-tailed deer roam the grounds, and the rare Florida panther is seen on occasion.

The park’s surreality is augmented by the high-contrast photo effects added by Flickr user Chuck Oliver, who uploaded this shot to Gadling’s Flickr Pool. The image was taken with a Sony NEX-6, with an ISO of 1/100, exposure of 1/500 and aperture of f/6.3.

Do you have any surreal nature photos? Upload your shots to the Gadling Flickr Pool and your image could be selected as our Photo of the Day.

[Photo Credit: Flickr user justchuckfl]

From the shores of Louisiana: Inside the Atchafalaya water basin

Dean Wilson guns the outboard engine on his snub-nosed, 17-foot aluminum bateaux through thick water hyacinth. We are in the heart of the 1.4 million acre Atchafalaya water basin which is both his backyard and his preserve – he is its formal “keeper” – when I ask if he has ever in 20 years gotten lost in this maze of narrow channels and floating forests:

“Not lost, but one time I did have my boat break down. And I was in a place that only one man alive could find me. Luckily my cell phone worked and he was just leaving the house. Otherwise, I always know where I am.” Good thing, since there’s no way we could walk out of this morass of thigh-deep water.

We spend the morning racing at full-speed up the man-made canals – dug by oil companies to give them access to the abundance of natural gas that lies beneath – his one-year-old puppy Shanka standing on the side of the boat, or becalmed in the heart of an old-growth Cyprus forest admiring the hundreds-year-old trees and wildlife that uses them for homes. Barn owls hoot in the near-distance. The gentle swoosh of wings — herons, egrets and ibis — break the calm air. The occasional four-foot alligator slides off a downed tree or mud bank. And fish, mullets, leap out of the brown-but-clear water.

“Why do they jump?” I ask Dean.

“I’m not sure,” he answers, in an accent that is part Cajun, part native Spanish. “Because they are happy?”

%Gallery-95432%Dean came to live on the edge of the swamp 20 years ago. “I wanted to go live in the Amazon, and in preparation looked for a similar place to acclimatize, so I moved here. And I never left, never made it to Brazil.” Part Spanish (his mother), part Ohioan (his father), he fit perfectly into the patchwork populace of South Louisiana. Initially he lived on the banks of the swamp, first in a tent, then a trailer, living off what he could catch by hand, hook, arrow or spear, including fish, raccoon, mink, otter, duck. Moving into a small house surrounded by swamp he made his living as a commercial fisherman and hunter for 16 years before his passion – protecting the swamp, particularly its Cyprus forests – became his livelihood. For the last five years he’s been the official Atchafalaya Basin Keeper, associated with the 200 water watchdogs operating under the umbrella of the Waterkeepers Alliance.

Other than the oil and gas companies that covet any access they can get to the oil and gas rich swamp land, his biggest enemy were clear-cutters making their way into the swamp to take the protected, hundreds-year-old Cyprus trees to turn into garden mulch. Several years of investigation, which included sneaking around the swamps in camouflage, sneaking into lumber yards and lots of aerial photography, helped him force the hand of the big box stores – specifically Wal-Mart, Lowe’s and Home Depot, which were selling the illegally-gotten mulch – into stopping. Today taking trees from the swamps in Louisiana is limited to a small corner on the eastern edge, away from the Atchafalaya. His efforts are not always lauded; he’s been followed, shot at, had a dog poisoned.

“I still follow my share of trucks loaded with trees,” he admits, “so occasionally it still happens. But it’s much better than it was.”

Why protect a place most people consider God-forsaken, a region believed (wrongly!) to be home to only melon-sized mosquitoes and poisonous snakes? “Actually, I believe this is where God resides, in the heart of the swamp,” he says.

Catching the travel bug: Attack of the killer mosqitoes

Welcome to Catching the Travel Bug, Gadling’s mini-series on getting sick on the road, prevailing and loving travel throughout. Five of our bloggers will be telling their stories from around the globe for the next five weeks. Submit your best story about catching the travel bug in the comments and we’ll publish our favorite few at the end of the series.

The swamp here could be the stuff of nightmares. Because this happens to be the rainy season, which lasts from October to March, the trails are meant to be waded, not walked. Yet I am utterly stuck, knee-deep in pungent red mud with stagnant water up to my waist. Ellen Meulman, a PhD student from the University of Zurich, doubles back to pull me out of the quagmire. It takes a few hard yanks. “Be careful,” she says. “You can disappear in these waters.” Thoughts of leeches and king cobras vanish, replaced by a more immediate fear.

We’ve been slogging and hacking through the Sumatran jungle for nearly three hours, on our way to rendezvous with today’s observation team. The field staff hustles day in and out to arrive at the nest-site before dawn and do not return until after dark. In between, they track the individual behaviors of the orangutan in excruciating detail.

But for now, I’m too busy worrying about myself. Asides from the immediate danger of disappearing into the quicksand-like mud and trying to balance on a crude plank trail that’s submerged in water, I’m being absolutely devoured by mosquitos. Before embarking on this afternoon trek through the jungle, I dumped half a bottle of herbal mosquito repellent all over my body, but that has made no difference. At one point, the constant biting and buzzing and circling drive me nearly to tears. Alas I’m too tired to cry.
That night, after returning to camp and getting deleeched (a complicated process that involved me screeching in a high pitch voice, “get them off; get them off”, to my driver), I noticed a patch of mosquito bites around my ankle. I started scratching them and soon enough, a half dozen bumps turned into a dozen.

My flight back to the states was set to depart in a couple days, and this swamp was something like 1,000 miles away from Jakarta airport. So I had to leave the very next day, up a winding river and then through the heart of Sumatra on a 10-hour overnight drive back to Medan. From there, I flew to Jakarta and left right away for New York.

Here the story stalls for about a week. I kept scratching my bites and they kept festering and oozing and doing all the other nasty stuff that I’ll just leave to your imagination. What was somewhat worrisome at this point was that these bites weren’t getting any less itchy–and keep in mind that a week has passed by now. Even worse, they started melding together into a few superbumps.

Then all of a sudden, I started walking with a limp. I immediately thought of the worst case scenario: I had contracted some type of flesh eating bacteria (and made the mistake of Googling the images … don’t). I ran down to my school’s health services, where something happened that you never, ever want to happen in a doctor’s office, which is to have the doctor say “hmm, that’s interesting.” He subsequently disappeared, and a few minutes later, came back with three or four of his colleagues. They proceeded to collectively give a “hmm, that’s interesting”. I could see the pity in their eyes. The end was going to come in only a matter of days.

And being the unlucky guy I was, this happened on a Friday afternoon. The nurses and doctors had no idea what I had, although they feared it was contagious. So they basically held me prisoner as an inpatient for the entire weekend. The following Monday, a dermatologist came to see me and declared that I had a “hypoallergic” reaction to the mosquitoes, which is to say that my immune system just went berserk from the utter number of bites I received.

Two weeks of heavy-duty antibiotics and a course of cortisteroids later, the scary rash that was climbing up my leg had abated. Looking back, would I have trekked out there if I knew that it would land me in the emergency room for the better part of a week? Probably!

Yo see, the orangutans in this part of Sumatra are pretty damn special. They’ve learned some remarkable tricks, such as how to fashion a seed-extraction stick to crack open the prickly shell of the Neesia fruit. The theory goes that this rather complicated skill developed from simpler abilities to use tools to dig for honey, fish for termites, and scoop for water. Yet primatologists know little more than that these smarter-than-we-thought apes possess culture; the pressing question now is to figure out how it’s acquired and transferred.

Though outsiders often refer to this swamp as “orangutan heaven but human hell,” the staff does not plan to jump ship anytime soon. They want to bring the station back to its old glory by this fall, with an new 6-room dormitory, solar panels for constant electricity, and three boardwalks (getting to the orangutans without them can take several hours). They’re even hiring-the graduate students need at least five more assistants to juggle the array of projects.

Since fieldwork stopped across Aceh, it’s difficult to precisely quantify the impact of the civil war on this biodiversity hotspot, home to elephants, rhinoceroses, leopards, sun bears, tigers, and some 6,500 orangutans. While the primatologists at Suaq lost much more time than their neighbors-eight years of data-the 70 or so test subjects haven’t missed a beat. In fact, the concentration of orangutans here, where fruits rain from the trees year-round, is greater than anywhere else in the world (twice the density of other sites on Sumatra and five times the density on Borneo, the only other island where these apes can be found). The unusually high density has enabled these solitary creatures to “teach” each other skills like tool-use, making Suaq the ideal laboratory for studying the origins of human culture.

But for now, Suaq is still a friendly neighborhood. I still distinctly remember the afternoon that I finally spot two of the residents: the mellow Lisa and her 6-year-old daughter, Lilly. Lisa, ambling in the treetops, much prefered her sour melaka fruits to our company. But for a brief moment, Lilly swung down to investigate these strange-looking two-legged apes, and realizing we would not make suitable playmates, disappeared in a blur of orange.

This brief encounter with one of the world’s most intelligent and beautiful creatures was worth dealing with the travel bug.

Dispatch from Sumatra’s nastiest swamp (part 1 of 2)

Forget for a moment the dreadful conditions in this miserable Sumatran swamp, which include being eaten by tigers (seven in the surrounding area last year). Just getting here is an ordeal in itself. Start by taking the 1,400-kilometer flight from the capital, Jakarta, to Sumatra‘s bustling northern port, Medan. Then it’s a grueling twelve-hour ride straight across the island’s dramatic mountains-and poorly maintained roads-to the Indian Ocean, where a puttering speedboat will be waiting to make the hour-long trip upriver.

If all goes well, you arrive at camp for the daily rationing of rice and canned mackerel. This is assuming you secured the four permits required for a visit to this hidden corner of Leuser National Park, a World Heritage Site.

Yet despite the remoteness or food or the fact the Suaq Balimbing field station is in the middle of a flooded swamp, the scientists here couldn’t be happier at their return. “We were all waiting for this place to reopen,” Andrea Gibson, a PhD candidate at University of Zurich who had to delay her orangutan fieldwork by three years because of the station’s hiatus, said to me.
There’s no question why so many researchers clamber to be here. The site rocketed to fame in the mid-1990s with the discovery of tool-use among orangutans, the only primate besides chimpanzees with such abilities; it remains the only location with widespread tool-use. Later work contributed to a landmark paper in Science that demonstrated the existence of orangutan culture. This modest patch of swamp, quite frankly, boasts some of the smartest apes in the world.

But an upsurge of violence from the long-running civil war at the end of the 1990s forced the Suaq primatologists, as well as wildlife researchers across Aceh, out of business. Only now, with a peace treaty in place, are they trickling back. Nowhere has the homecoming been more dramatic or anticipated than at Suaq Balimbing.

As the boat pulls into the dock-a rickety piece of plywood-the field station looms large, looking almost palatial against the backdrop of dense jungle foliage. But once on top of the riverbank, you realize the camp, which consists of three tiny rooms in two wooden shacks, is about to burst at the seams. Fifteen people, including three graduate students from Zurich, an Indonesian student, a cook, and several field assistants jostle for space alongside generators, laptops, food supplies, and an entire department store of wet field outfits hung out to dry.

None of this, however, was around a year ago, and with that in mind, Suaq’s transformation seems nothing short of miraculous. When the field staff evacuated in September 1999, hastened by the execution of the head assistant and violent skirmishes nearby, they left behind two sturdy buildings, one of which had six rooms. By the time they returned for a brief survey in 2006, everything had gone up in flames. “The rebels had been using our camp, so the military didn’t burn it down for nothing,” the camp’s principal investigator explained to me. Equally disheartening, the boardwalks used to traverse much of the 350-hectare swamp had rotted away.

After completely rebuilding the station last February, albeit on a smaller scale, the staff spent much of the summer blazing a new, 46-kilometer trail grid, an absolute necessity when tracking orangutans day in and out. They started collecting behavioral data last September.

The civil war’s impact on the Suaq jungle, on the other hand, was quite unexpected. When President Suharto fell from power in 1999, illegal loggers almost overran the station. “Then the civil war stemmed that,” explained Ian Singleton, a Medan-based orangutan researcher who oversees logistics at Suaq. “The illegal loggers and poachers didn’t want to risk being shot. So the civil war was extremely good for conservation.”

Continue to part 2.