Suriname: Tafelberg

We flew out of Paramaribo on Tuesday morning from the Zorg & Hoop airfield, the small runway within the city that mainly serves as the jumping off point for flights into the interior. Jason, our photographer, missed the flight by about fifteen minutes, but he arranged a later charter out and arrived just a few hours behind us. I don't think it was until we were in the air that I really began to understand the scale of the rainforest. We were out in the midst of it within fifteen minutes, flying just below the clouds, then going for another hour with nothing but the canopy under us for as far as the eye could see, the coffee brown Saramaca River snaking through.

The runway at the Rudi Kappel airport at the foot of Tafelberg is basically an improved natural savannah formed by the sandy soil from the eroding plateaus. We skidded onto the sandy grass about one o'clock, carried everything to the house, and got right to work. Our guide was Atinjoe Panekke, a Trio Indian from Kwamalasamutu. Kwamala isn't a real village per se; it was founded in 1975 by missionaries as a place to attract members of many surrounding tribes and convert them to Christianity. Atinjoe considers himself a Christian but showed us as evidence the tribal tattoes he had received as part of his baptismal ceremony. Everything about him, in fact, was a study in these kinds of contradictions. He's a mountain of a guy with a WWF-build, a shaved bald head, a goattee, and facial tattooes, but when we met him at the house he was wearing Air Jordan board shorts and flashed a quick smile whenever we managed to get across a few ideas in our mishmash of English, Spanish, and Dutch. Atinjoe cut us twelve perfect bat poles for our mist-nets in nothing flat. He was like Michaelangelo with a machete.

About 3:30 we set out the first night for the spot where dad first collected Lophostoma schulzi along the trail to Tafelberg at a spot where a wooden bridge spans a small creek. We strung four nets and unfurled them at 6:30. Over the next six hours, we caught only four bats--all of them relatively rare--but dad couldn't understand why we weren't catching more. He had expected ten, fifteen, even twenty per night. The next night, we moved closer to the house and got ambitious. We set up six nets, including some really big ones, over a fair expanse of space and at spots that effectively cut off three major trails. We caught two bats. Again, rare bats, but only two. Dad was totally baffled and--I must say--he seemed worried.

Well after midnight, we sat there with Steve Williams's field notes from the expeditions in the '70s and '80s as dad tallied the incredible numbers of bats caught each night at these very sites. Forty and fifty bats on some nights--often with a dozen or more nets, to be sure, but we were catching almost nothing. Finally, it dawned on dad: we were catching the rare species and only the rare species. None of the common bats, especially the ubiquitous fruit-eating Artibeus, were anywhere to be found.

On the third night, last night, we set just three nets, but we set the largest net we had across a stream at the top of a spectacular waterfall southwest of the airstrip. Dad had promised not to do any water sets before we left for Suriname, because he said the nets always filled with Artibeus, but now he was determined to find some of the fruit-eaters. So we strung over the stream and at two excellent spots along the trail. We even opened the nets earlier (which netted us a couple of birds that we had to untangle and release) to assure that we caught early flyers. We caught seven bats that night--some, dad said, very rare--but still no Artibeus.

So no sign of schulzi, but dad said the forest looked great and there was every reason to assume that they were still there and thriving, just too rare to be caught in a few nights with a few nets. But we've returned with this big question about what's happening with the fruit-eating bats. We're hoping that they show up in force at Brownsberg tomorrow and the next night to reassure us that the situation at Tafelberg is localized. And, of course, we hope that they bring along a Lophostoma schulzi or two as well.

The big news of the day, however, is that we got to go to the top of Tafelberg. Jerome, a pilot with Hi-Jet, the Surinamese medical emergency service, flew his helicopter out to the airstrip this morning--to pick up some eco-tourists who had been dropped at a lodge that is under construction alongside an enormous set of falls on the backside of the plateau. (Dad was stunned by the news that some place that was almost unexplored when he went there thirty years ago was now hosting tourists.) We arranged with Jerome to go to the top. There were only three conditions: money (too much, but when would we ever be back, right?), almost no time at the top, and finally (and this was a big one) we would have to fly back to Paramaribo with him--almost an hour and a half by helicopter. Oh, and did I mention that it had been raining, sometimes very hard, since last night?

We did it. And it was absolutely worth it.

We were only there actually on the mountain for a few minutes, but it meant so much to me. That mountain occupied such a large place in my childhood imagination, but I never would have believed that I would actually stand there myself some day--especially not with my dad. All the way back to Paramaribo, we dodged rainclouds and kidded over the helicopter's intercom. There was a kind of giddiness that swept through all of us--Jason and me, but dad too, I think--that we had gotten this unexpected gift.

Tonight, back in Paramaribo, around a table filled with Chinese food amid the hokey decor that could be any Asian restaurant in any strip mall in America, it was hard to believe we had been so far away from everything so recently. We stepped out of the restaurant and found that the sky had opened up again and torrents of rain were pouring down. The weather had let up for just long enough to make that trip possible. We dashed through the rain, and Jason (in a moment of glee) lept down into a sheltered patio just off the street, not realizing that it had filled with nearly a foot of water. He went down, ass over appetite, and emerged soaked through from head to toe. All of us burst into laughter and couldn't stop laughing as we ran all the way back to the hotel.