Carrion Flowers and Hammerhead Flatworms: This is Why We Work

I woke up on Saturday morning, my first weekend in Sukadana, itching to get into the rainforest. What better place to hike and camp than Gunung Palung National Park, the 350 square miles of protected lowland tropical forest out our backdoor?

I waited on the porch next to my housemate, Dr. Krista, a family practice doctor from San Francisco. Two backpacks bulged with sleeping bags and a mosquito net, and all our bottles filled with water. Our house, raised on a stilt floor of wooden boards and wide cracks, is known to everyone in the neighborhood simply as "Kinari's house." It was previously occupied by Dr. Kinari Webb, legendary founder of Alam Sehat Lestari (better known as ASRI) and Health in Harmony. At ten-past-eight, Amad and Samsul arrived to begin our weekend adventure. Amad works for ASRI as a conservation educator. Samsul, trained in forestry, works as an administrative assistant to the executive director.

We paused our motorcycles by the side of the road to look at this pet long-tailed macaque (Macaca fascicularis), chained to a platform outside a store.

The monkey's owner fed him a piece of fallen fruit, and he stole her hair-comb before she could get away.

I rode on the back of Amad’s motorcycle, and Krista sat behind Samsul. My helmet, which Amad thoughtfully brought me from ASRI, had no strap. A lot of good that would do in a crash! We stopped at a school building to pick up Amad’s salary. He used to work there as an English teacher before moving to ASRI as a conservation educator. The half-hour ride through rice paddies, houses and secondary-growth forest was lovely.

A woman about my age herded her four goats along the side of the road and smiled broadly at us as we sped by. Yesterday, I discovered a green paperback copy of Storey’s Guide to Raising Dairy Goats in the ASRI library, and it made me happy. ASRI has a program called “Goats for Widows,” helping the wives of deceased husbands start a new vocation through a gift of goats and training in animal husbandry. I think I would like to be a goatherd at some stage in this life.

A goat, kambing, chews her cud in the sunny weeds.

The entrance to Gunung Palung National Park was barely one. We met our local guide, Yudik, who has the same short, black hair and boyish grin as Amad and Samsul. I bet each one is around my age, since they have finished university already – Amad in English, Samsul in forestry – but their faces could be much younger. Yudik led us down a wooden ladder, across a curved concrete dam, back up a ladder, and along the forested margin of bare-dirt rice paddies.

Krista climbs the ladder while Amad and Samsul cross the dam.

Bare-dirt rice paddies seen from our forest path.

I collected two handfuls of plastic trash during our hike.

Workers rested on benches under a stand-alone roof, hollering and waving as we hiked by. After passing a friendly brown sapi (cow) and several relaxing, rope-tied kambing (goats), we veered right and penetrated deeper into the forest. We walked near a cool, trickling stream and crossed in several places over stones. Pohon pisang (banana trees) and patches of sunlight made obvious the secondary-growth nature of these woods.

Epiphytic ferns enjoy the sunshine of the forest's edge.

Amad learned how to tell ferns from angiosperms, and I learned the Indonesian word for fern: pakis.

Samsul splits open the fig of a trunk-fruiting ficus.

Samsul pointed out lianas and a trunk-fruiting pohon ficus (strangler-fig tree). I joked with Amad that I would like to see blooming orchids and orangutans, ideally together. Soon, the anggrek (orchids) appeared! Their leaves, grass-green ovals with pointed tips and parallel veins, grew in a bunch. A single stalk, three feet tall, erupted from each cluster of leaves and carried a head of a dozen white blossoms. There was no fragrance, but the appearance was arresting. Each flower showed zygomorphic symmetry, the lower flag's pale orange contrasting with snowy-white petals. Five or more pods hung from the stem below the flowers with immature, green pods closer to the head and mature, brown-black pods lower down. These anggrek tanah (land orchids) grow in soil, unlike the epiphytic anggrek pohon (tree orchids) which show bulbous stem-bases, and the lithophilic anggrek batu (stone orchids) which can be found coating exposed boulders.

Blossoms of the anggrek tanah, land orchid.

Pods of the anggrek tanah.

Stems of the anggrek pohon, tree orchid.

No orangutans yet, but we encountered many strange fungi including red shelf fungus with a white outline, a rotting log smothered in little white fairy mushrooms, the perfectly round jamur mangkuk (bowl mushrooms), a vertical column of frilly cream-colored fungus, and an exquisite mushroom draped in a hexagonal mesh of its own creation.

Jamur mangkuk, bowl mushroom.

Frilly fungus digesting a rotten log.

The most exquisite mushroom I've ever seen.

Color was provided by the holly-red berries of kopi hutan (jungle coffee), a low, herbaceous plant reminiscent of a white-lily houseplant. I was excited to find a patch of cultivated coffee, too. Before this land was protected as a National Park, farmers tended coffee here. Now the farmers have gone, but the trees still produce a crop of red berries, each containing two slimy, green-blonde coffee beans.

Feral coffee.

Coffee beans that will never be roasted.

My favorite specimen was the bunga bangkai (carrion flower). Its stalk is a sturdy stick, about two centimeters in diameter, rising from no apparent foliage to the height of my rib cage. The plant's sexual organ resembles less a flower and more the head of a spear, coated in a sheath of dripping wax or rotting flesh, and pointed to the sky. This wrinkly, gray-pink flower is encircled at the base by single, fused leaf. I caught no scent, but the name and cloud of flies – large flying ones and small crawling ones – indicate that the odor resembles putrid meat.

The carrion flower grew next to a stream.

Bunga bangkai, carrion flower.

We took a refreshing dip in the waterfall pool.

Of course, the pohon (trees) are what truly make this hutan (forest), and the most renowned of those is the ironwood. Naturally, such a valuable tree comes with a vault of names: belian in formal Bahasa Indonesia, kayu ulin in local Malai, kayu besi to emphasize the wood’s ironlike constitution (kayu means wood, besi means iron), or Eusideroxylon zwageri if you prefer Latin. I saw only young and middle-aged individuals due to this tree’s immense value as timber. One grand old stump remained near the trail as a ghost of forests past. Its wood was vivid reddish-orange. A gnarled knot at the base surely would have caused a secret passage to open, had this tree been a whomping willow. I could see multiple episodes of cutting and regrowth, giving reason to believe this was a tenacious tree. Currently, a foot-in-diameter shoot is defying death and emerging from the main stump. I hope no axe or chainsaw thwarts its mission to the sun.

Amad holds a hollow meranti seed pod in front of an old-growth ironwood (Eusideroxylon zwageri) stump.

The seed of another economically-important timber tree called meranti (Shorea sp.)

We came across a confusing tree, which Samsul tried to explain, but the essence was lost in translation. The tree appeared to consist of three separate parts: a tangle of buttresses and stilt-like roots sinking into the ground, a towering broad-leafed tree above, and a cancerous mass of short, reddish roots bursting from the trunk in between. None of these rootlets seemed to join the soil or strive to. They grew out and over one another in a bunch the size of a small car, to serve what purpose, I cannot say. Was the tree a fig? A mangrove? Were the rootlets for breathing air? Or attempts by a parasitic hitchhiker to strangle and conquer? I relish the mystery, which might be solved if I can find the tree’s Latin name. For now, I know only that it is called nyatoh or jungkang.

Samsul poses with the mysterious mass of rootlets.

An abandoned orangutan nest (the dark patch in the upper lefthand corner).

We saw no birds. The only signs of orangutan were discarded fruit shells and a nest high in the canopy. Today’s fauna was dominated by invertebrates. Mosquitoes, of course. Ants, both usual and unusual. I was horrified and intrigued by the raja semut (king ants), growing up to five centimeters long plus sweeping antennae of half that length. Their bulbous, translucent abdomens looked ready to pop with a toxic ruby fluid. They made up for their large individual body mass with low numbers; I saw maybe twenty ants in total, crossing the path and milling in their nest below the leaf litter. The largest – the king of kings – carried a dead cricket in his jaws. He refused to let it go despite our harassment. Amad warned me, “Don’t let it bite you! It is poison!” but that didn’t stop Yudik from letting one crawl over his hand and fingers. Anything for the photo!

Raja semut, king ant.

Wild rainforest fruits.

We saw tractor millipedes with segmented black armor like suits of mail, and a smaller brown millipede on a leaf. A pillbug rolled into an unassailable ball. A red worm thrashed maniacally when the rain started; here and in Bali I have observed the most lithe, energetic worms of anywhere in the world. Ant lions guarded a landscape of sand craters under the log table and benches in our camp; perhaps they congregate here for the ants that seek our crumbs, or perhaps the shelter makes a dry, dusty substrate they can’t resist. A few large butterflies startled as we passed. A thorned grasshopper melded into a mossy boulder.

Tractor millipede (Polydesmida).

Tightly curled pillbug.

Small, brown millipede.

Thorned grasshopper blending in with a mossy boulder.
The best invertebrate of the morning was certainly the hammerhead flatworm, also known as a broadhead planarian, of the genus Bipalium. It's no leech or earthworm, but a member of the phylum Platyhelminthes along with parasitic tapeworms and flukes. Luckily, planarians are predators of worms and slugs, not parasites of humans. To eat, they evert their pharynx and digestive juices over a prey item and dissolve it outside their body before absorbing the nutrients into their branching gut. (Reminds me of ochre sea stars back home!) This flatworm was decorated with black-and-white scrawl markings and a perfect hammerhead. I caught one on video, sliming across a dry rock in the stream, and we later encountered another that had been injured by someone’s footfall on the muddy path. Check it out:

A screenshot of the video in case you can't play it. Hammerhead flatworm, Bipalium sp.

We arrived at a primitive camp consisting of a two-story wooden platform and a roof. It was my dream treehouse incarnate. We laid our sleeping bags directly on the floor to stake out our spots.

Dr. Krista and I pose in front of our camp.

The outhouse was located across a bridge.

The stream where we pulled our drinking water and took a bath.

For lunch, the three men stoked a wood fire and dug in the camp’s storeroom for pots, plates, and a kettle. They prepared white rice, tempeh (cubes of fermented soybeans), water spinach, and a thin omelet. A wasp and a bee bothered us for our delicious meal. Soon, a bulky black spider with white spots kindly captured the bee in her web and spun him out of sight. 

Tempeh and water spinach.

Samsul was our camp cook.

A bold squirrel investigates our cooking pot at night.

At a quarter to three, after a siesta for journaling (me) or naps (everyone else), Yudik, Amad, Samsul and I headed out on a hike to Batu Bulan (meaning “moon stone”), a lookout from a high ridge. Dr. Krista decided to stay behind to rest and admire the small insect life that abounded at camp.

A lizard in the leaf litter.

Batu Gerbang, meaning "stone arch," where people used to pray for things.

We stepped quietly and spoke in whispers, hoping to get lucky and happen upon some orangutans. Instead we encountered two species of monkey. The first were lantung, which I believe is the ubiquitous long-tailed macaque (Macaca fascicularis). I couldn’t confirm because I only saw the rustling canopy in their wake. The second were originally identified as orangutans, but turned out to be a troupe of red leaf monkeys (Presbytis rubicunda), endemic to Borneo. One large male stood atop a tree and stared at us for several seconds. His coat was brilliant rusty-orange. His cheeks were adorned with tufts like a cowboy’s mutton chops. When he turned and leapt across a gap in the canopy, the length of his tail became apparent. That was the last glimpse I got of a red leaf monkey, but I kept hearing their eruptive, loud, abrasive chatter like a pack of annoyed squirrels.

The figure in the center is a red leaf monkey (Prebytis rubicunda).
Photo credit: M. "Amad" Zulkarnaen.

Human apes on a liana.

Give 23-year-olds a liana and watch them climb!

Samsul paused to pluck a treacherously spiny vine from the forest floor. It was rotan (rattan in English), the vine of a creeping palm used to make rope, hats, jewelry, and woven cane furniture. I was amazed to see how Samsul handled the weapon without harming himself. He looped it around the trunk of a tree and flossed it back and forth, shredding off the spiny green bark and transforming it into harmless fiber.

Rotan (rattan), a creeping palm vine.

Samsul neutralizes its spiny bark.

A coil of strong rattan fiber.

Yudik wore a delicate ring of woven rattan.

Our hike’s lookout did not disappoint. The ridge opened to a panoramic view of the valley below, painted from edge to edge with rectangular rice paddies in shades of green. The houses served neatly to separate the paddies from the broccoli-like tufts of rainforest trees coating the hills and beyond. The rainforest melted into raggedy shards of cloud, giving the illusion that is might continue to the very ends of the earth.

The forest on the near and far sides of the valley belongs to Gunung Palung National Park. The rice fields are privately owned. Notice the "orangutan corridor" of rainforest connecting the two halves.

Here comes the rain.

As soon as we arrived, the silver-toned light dimmed with the threat of rain. The view vanished behind rolling white fog, and a downpour was unleashed. Everybody dumped their smartphones into my Ziplock bag with my camera, and we hustled back down the slick loam, through giant bamboo and under fast-growing vines, past the wet monkeys, to camp. There, a group of ten environmental-engineering students and their professor from Tanjung Pura University in Pontianak were joyfully attempting to dry out after their trek. We settled in to do the same.

The environmental engineering students made an "L" with their fingers for the photo. It stands not for loser, but for lingkungan, the Indonesian word for environment!

A frog power clash: lime-green belly and leopard-print back.

Pre-dinner twilight was filled with the screeches of cicadas. A frog chorus rose and fell. Insulated from the distraction of internet, I welcomed a sense of peace. I could smell oxygen and chlorophyll and pulsing life. This is why ASRI exists to promote planetary health. This is why we work.