Do you have an inner swamp ogre? By Carolyn Thompson

“And finally, this is your room…”

I remember leaning forward against the rickety wooden door which screamed as it swung open to reveal a bare room with two beds and a naked shelf. There was a strong musty smell which lightly tingled my nostrils. Jill, my intern, stared apprehensively with a look of ‘what have I gotten myself into?’.

“At least it’s not camping!” Always a good line to use with newbies.

I was offered my dream job back in 2014. I was the Head Primate Scientist for the Borneo Nature Foundation in the tropical peat-swamp forests of Indonesian Borneo. My role was to manage the research, follow wild primates, and supervise the local team, students and interns. Pretty dreamy, right?

“What is peat?” I hear you ask. It is plant matter partially decomposed in waterlogged conditions and forms the black sludgy layer of the forest floor. Did you know it can be up to 20 metres deep?!

My field camp was located right in the heart of the forest. It was built on wooden stilts to avoid flooding in the wet season. Every morning small apes would sing an opera and we often had visits from stealthy clouded leopards, kitchen-raiding monitor lizards, and nest-building orangutans.

Nothing really prepares you for the peat-swamp forest. The peat-swamp really divides those with an inner Shrek (swamp ogre) from an Artax (the horse that drowns in the Swamp of Sadness in the 1984 film The NeverEnding Story). Don’t Google it. It will only make you cry.

The interns who decided to brave the peat-swamp often had little to no field experience. Jill was no different. Jill had worked in zoos for most of her career but longed to study orangutans in the wild. She was incredibly enthusiastic – an American – and was excited to challenge herself.

My fondest memory with her was the day she arrived.

“What’s that over there?” Jill whispered, breaking her own silence since entering the bedroom. She pointed towards a mouldy mattress on one of the dilapidated beds.

I glanced over and saw a thin tail sticking out.

“Oh, just a skink – a type of lizard. Maybe you have a roommate!” I said whilst laughing, but quickly realised that Jill may not find this funny.

I once spent six months desperately fighting for bed ownership with an audacious skink. I was left regular treats on my pillow (poo). And if I was lucky, some shedded skin in the shape of a perfectly formed foot. I tried depositing it more than 500 metres away from the camp, alas skinks are very territorial it would seem.

I crept over to the bed. “See Jill, it’s tiny!” I exclaimed as I lifted the corner of the mattress.

“OH MY ******* GOD!” I screeched as my heart exploded out of my chest, and I fell backwards.

Coiled under the mattress quietly engulfing a rat, was a huge, vibrant green snake!

I was relieved that it did not have a triangular-shaped head. It was therefore not a pit-viper and likely to be non-venomous. It was a Red-tailed racer with a beautiful net-like pattern of criss-crossing scales on its body. The tip of its tail was reddish-brown, hence its name. Its three-metre body was tightly wrapped around a defenceless rat whose clawed hind limbs where sticking out of the snake’s mouth.

This is by far one of the most thrilling close-up wildlife encounters I have ever had – and a nice reminder of how privileged we were to live within such close proximity to our wild neighbours!

The unfortunate rat had obviously been living in the mattress as there was stuffing everywhere! Either that, or the rats had attempted to throw a foam party! Rats were a camp pest, so I was shamefully pleased this snake had found a decent lunch.

Undisturbed by our presence, the snake continued to devour the now-disappearing rat. With every mouthful, the snake’s body did a perfect Mexican wave. Jill remained silent as we watched in awe for an hour.

Fat and fed, the snake eventually slithered slowly up the wooden wall and made its way to the top of the room divide. It paused and with one flicker of its stunning blue tongue, it glided along to the next room.

Wondering how Jill was coping, I recall whipping anxiously around to look at her.

“Well…” Jill laughed anxiously with wide-open eyes. “Perhaps I will sleep in the other bed!”

She attempted to make a light-heartened gesture and tugged on the corner of the other mattress…

As she did, a sea of fire ants, named for their extremely painful sting, scattered in every direction like a moving carpet!

Welcome to swamp life.

About the Entry

  • Blogger name | Carolyn Thompson
  • Site name | The Gibbon Warrior
  • Site URL
  • Why should someone visit your site? Ever wondered what it’s like to hear an ape sing? Follow a dancing lemur? Or live in a remote forest? Or perhaps you’re curious as to what a field researcher does when they’re not globetrotting? Wonder no further, wander with me instead! I am a primatologist studying gibbons (the smallest, and often forgotten, apes). I blog about my exciting fieldwork tales and fails, and general life adventures to hopefully encourage a new generation of field researchers!
  • Entry Number | 25

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