Bridge over the River Sonso

Posted on April 25, 2012


I’ve only been away from camp for six days and already there have been dramatic changes. The grass has grown thick and long and the heavy rain has turned the forest into a swamp. As we trekked through N5 this morning to identify the last of my plots in lines 4 and 5 I could hardly recognise my transect lines.

Sandwiched between Moses and Alfred I carefully negotiated the forest floor, water rising up over my boots as I pressed down on the carpet of leaves and debris. Lots of large trees had also come crashing down from a weekend of stormy weather and temperature had dropped – it was even a little chilly in places. The valleys we had previously trekked up and down were now slippery muddy slides which provided little grip for my under-soles and I grasped at small seedlings on my way down. At the bottom of the valley I was met with a sight I had not anticipated.

The ditch between the two valleys had filled with water, not an inch not even two inches, but all the way to the top. It was now a swampy river, a river that connected to The River Sonso.

“How the hell are we supposed to cross that?” I asked no-one in particular.

“You have to take off your clothes and swim,” joked Alfred.

“Yeah right,” I said, feeling a little anxious.

The boys wear gum boots – they are effectively wellies, so even in relatively high water, their legs up to their calves would remain dry. But this water was much higher than calf level, it reached thigh level. My boots are typical hiking boots, designed for UK forests. I’ve come to realise they are absolutely bloody useless in a tropical rainforest environment. I’ve a good mid to write the company who designed them and offer them a few suggestions. If water got inside my boot it would soak into the material lining the boot. “This is how people get trench foot,” I thought to myself.

We walked around the bank watching the water carry pieces of wood and fallen leaves. I assessed my options. Maybe I could run and jump across a narrow stretch or if I asked Moses nicely perhaps he’d give me a piggy-back across. No, that would be far too precious of me!

“There’s no way around,” said Moses, turning to me. “We have to cross.”

My heart sank. I contemplated the worse-case scenario. If we have to wade through it and I get soaked it’s only water, albeit stagnant, dirty water. I’ll just have to scrub my boots at camp and hope they dry overnight and pray I don’t get Cholera or something else. I never contemplated this scenario I expected rain but not flooding. I don’t even own a pair of waterproof-trousers. On the plus side this is not The Amazon, so no Anacondas in the water and hopefully no real big leaches.

Alfred and Moses started debating in Swahili. “So what’s the plan then?” I said hopefully.

“We make a bridge like the Vietnamese,” said Moses swinging his Panga.

“Genius!” I exclaimed.

But as I scanned the trees, I noticed that trunks were either very small or very large. I started to doubt his plan. Moses went over to a sapling and started hacking away at it from different angles. The machete cut deep into the bark, wood chips began hurtling into the air like missiles. I stepped aside, not wanting to lose an eye. After a few minutes he gave the trunk a push and it came crashing down. Then in a few swift moves he removed the smaller branches and hauled the trunk over the river and threw it. One end landed on the other side of the bank the other at our feet. Moses stepped onto our wooden tight-rope and bounced hard to check its stability.

“Good,” he said, and went off to cut another one.  After 10 minutes we had two small trunks laying side-by-side, our bridge was complete.

“Now I’m a friggin’ trapeze artist,” I thought. The last time I had to walk a tightrope was doing a live broadcast for GMTV in 2009 dressed in a full-length leotard supported by two fully made up clowns at 6am at a circus in Kent. It’s a memory that still haunts me.

“Moses, any chance you can you chop me two branches to act as poles for balancing please?” I asked nicely.

He nodded. Alfred by this time had decided to see if he could cross finding a shallow dip in the river. Silly boy! I watched him, wincing at the scene: arms out stretched, shoulders hunched over, stepping on his tip-toes. He was nearly half way across when he let out a cry. It was inevitable, the water was too deep and he got soaked.

“Patience,” I yelled. “You could have crossed using this.”

Moses handed me my rods. “Thank you!”.

“Right Asha,” I said to myself, “Slowly and carefully there’s no rush. Take your time. It doesn’t matter how stupid you look, stay focused.”

I cautiously put one foot diagonally down across the two trunks, one at a time, pulling hard at the rods as they became stuck in the muddy bed of the river.

As I approached the bank I took a leap and landed firmly with relief. I turned back to see Moses already half way across. “Here,” I said throwing him a stick. He caught it and nimbly speeded up his crossing.

Safely across I remembered we had two valleys along this line. The next bridge was a happy accident. Last night’s storm had caused a tree to fall across the river. Moses walked its trunk and removed its branches to make the pathway easier.

What would I do with Moses? He has been my saviour in the forest. I retold the story at dinner to the other students.

“Moses is too nice to you,” said Isaac smiling. “Anyone else would have got wet. They would just have to enter the water.”

“Aye, but she is the first person to be smart about it,” said Carol. “And she stayed clean.”

The rain continued to fall all of last night and early this morning. As I lay in bed listening to the drumming on my roof all I could think about was the water levels rising and the forest becoming a breeding ground for mossies. Today I slapped on the Deet and mentally braced myself for another bout of river crossing. Sure enough on line three was the broadest one yet. In fact one of my plots had almost been completely submersed by the water. I could just see a strip of Geoffrey’s shirt poking out above the water level. I looked at Moses and he turned away and began chopping immediately.

“Is this the first time you’ve made a bridge for someone?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said.

“Well I guess there is a first time for everything,” I said.

“I walk like a caterpillar, I don’t mind where I go, but you, you have to consider your steps,” he laughed. I handed him my BlackBerry, here, you take a photo, I need to show the people back home.

Moses is a brilliant field assistant, but he’s no David Bailey. Judge for yourself.

(I will try to upload the picture when there’s a better connection).