January 26 Sunlight is slicing through the afternoon clouds when I arrive at the forest gallery along the bicycle path. My plan is to relocate my camera-trap. The thick understory smothers what little breeze there was on my ride over, and I feel the humid forest air thicken where the shade dissolves away to sunlight.
Okoumé trees stand in tall clusters, exuding a pungent, turpentine-like aroma in the heat of the sun. The buttresses of several large Okoumé “bleed” a sticky, aromatic resin to cover previously sustained injuries. With my knife, I cut into one of the cascades of resin adhering to a trunk. The crunchy, white shell gives way to a thick, viscous epoxy-like mass within, and this glob of sticky I transfer to a large marantaceae leaf, folded over, adding another leaf crosswise to make a little square package for transport. Several nights ago I used a similar glob of resin to help light charcoal for a grilled fish dinner. Once ignited, it burns vigorously, giving off a scent like copal incense. The Gabonese fashion Okoumé torches, filling woven cylinders of raffia with resin. Okoumé accounts for more than half of the forest industry production in Gabon, and is used extensively in the manufacture of plywood.
Back on the trail, I find my way to my camera and mistakenly delete the two images I had acquired since last set-up, before I can even study them. Oh well. I move the camera several metres to another animal trail that looks like it may have been used more recently.
In the middle of this, I hear the cracking of a branch and a rustling in the understory and I freeze, hoping to discover the source of the disturbance. I see nothing. I continue to hear noises in the forest around me, and, pausing to search the understory, I discover the source of the rustling. I am standing beneath a canopy of Mubala trees. These legume trees are hanging with large brown pods, some as long as 60 centimetres, and as they are drying in the sun, suddenly the two valves of a pod will explode apart (the cracking of the branch) sending a shower of shiny brown beans raining down into the understory.
On an adjacent elephant trail, I divert to an opening in the understory created by a dense, sunlight-obscuring canopy. It is easy walking now, but when the rains return, these grounds will become inundated with water. The roots of many trees lay exposed on the forest floor, which appears to have been swept clear by past rains. Something moves near my feet and I notice, blended in with a few decaying leaves, a serrated hinge-back tortoise, Kinixys erosa. It pulls its head into shell, sealing the front opening with a pair of formidable armored legs while its posterior hinges closed for protection. The shell, all of 30 centimetres long, is mottled to mimic the browns, blacks and yellows of the forest floor it forages through, searching out mushrooms, fruits, insect larvae, and snails. I crouch down nearby and wait, feeling myself drawn into the metabolism of a tortoise. Time seems to become meaningless as birds come and go, patches of sunlight grow and fade, insects amble by, and then, slowly, first one foot, then a nose, then an inquisitive eye, and soon the head of erosa emerges to scrutinize the terrain before it. A few minutes later, it begins a slow, chugging locomotion to the security of a nearby hollow tree.
The heat begins to lift as late afternoon brings in a softer, hazy light. I am studying the forest floor, immersed in the subtle textures and colors of fallen leaves. I come upon an intense spot of electric green on a marantaceae leaf. It is a tiny frog, no larger than the tip of my thumb, huddling in the shelter of a leaf. With eyes wide open, it watches as I move closer, then crawls to the edge of the leaf, leaping 10 cm to disappear among the leaf litter below.
The day begins the transition to evening as shadows build through the forest, the chatter of birds slowly giving way to crickets. Now and then the descending guttural cries of a great blue turaco reverberate through the forest, a familiar yet awe-inspiring lamentation that immediately focusses my awareness back to the African forest.
Continuing along the trail, I walk into an intense floral aroma. Instinctively I inhale deeply as vague memories of a familiar fragrance waft through my unconscious.
Nearby, a liana drips with enormous trumpets of creamy white flowers, 25 centimetres long, from which emanate a lush overpowering scent of lily. Perhaps opening for some night-pollinators, these flowers appear too fragile to withstand the midday sun.
In the quiet glow of evening, I am peddling back to camp. A Senegal coucal flushes from the savanna before me on beautiful, copper-brown wings, its white throat and breast flashing over the grasses in contrast to the black head and black tail. Slightly smaller than a crow, it flies with a slow, awkward grace, landing on a pipeline only to tip in a fluster of feathers to the ground.
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