Chasing Clouds

A journey from an island to an island in the sky.

It seems the best experiences in life erupt from the unexpected – we never know where our lives will take us, but I never thought mine would take me to the top of a volcano in the South Pacific with three classmates and my professor, equipped with minimal food and water, trudging in my delirium amidst a raging sinus infection. Yet there I was, hovering in the stratosphere, sitting atop an island on an island in the sky – numb to my throbbing sinuses and ill-preparation as I stared at the endless turquoise seascape, a beautiful manifestation of the journey it took to get there.

I remember the photograph as clearly as I remember that day – the image, a snapshot of ephemeral beauty, and that day, our journey to find it. Crowded around a table at our compound in Honiara, three of my classmates and I flipped through the pages of our professor’s recently published photobook of the Solomon Islands. Visiting from the far-away reaches of California, it was just the beginning of our one-month stint in the Solomon Islands, where we’d come to study environmental and community health. As each image offered an exciting preview of the reality that was about to unfold, this photograph gripped our attention.

A vibrant panorama sprawled across the entire page, revealing a lush landscape alongside the sheer walls of a volcanic summit. Towering atop this mountain of dense rainforest and cavernous green hues sat an island in the sky. The dense canopy came to an abrupt halt, disappearing into thick clouds high above the island. Moss cloaked the trees, and a soft, glistening mist filled the air, shrouding the trees in a fairy-tale-like veil. Treetops rested atop shortened trunks, no longer reaching for the sky because they were already there. Located in the very highest peaks of an island in the Western Province called Kolombangara, towering so high above the forest below that the trees form an island of their own, this was a special and rare type of rainforest known as Montane – the cloud forest.

At that moment, we became determined to get there.

I don’t know how many times we asked our professor, originally from the Solomon Islands, if he’d take us – definitely enough times to drive him crazy, and apparently enough times to convince him – because a few weeks later, we found ourselves atop that sky island, peering down into the crater wall of Mt. Tapalamengutu, absorbed in the surreal, enchanting reality of that photograph.

Most of the Solomon Islands are blanketed in thick rainforest, containing some of the most biodiverse and unique terrestrial ecosystems on Earth. It is this incredible biodiversity that beckoned us to Kolombangara – yet our first glimpse of Kolombangara’s rainforests was not of their beauty, but of their destruction. Intensive logging since the 1960s has dramatically altered the forested landscape of Kolombangara Island. This was the visceral reality we encountered as we arrived on the island’s heavily logged shores, stepping off our boat directly into the middle of an industrial timber operation. Yet off in the distance, hiding high in the clouds above the ghastly carcass of a once-present forest, rose a lush peak. Our journey began there, high above the destruction at a place called the Imbu Rano Lodge.

Ascending above the desolation into the rainforest, we arrived at Imbu Rano, an eco-lodge maintained by the Kolombangara Island Biodiversity Conservation Association (K.I.B.C.A.) K.I.B.C.A. is a community-based organization that was actually started by a timber plantation company, established as an offset for the plantation to gain a Forest Stewardship Council certification. While heavy logging spans the lower half of the island, K.I.B.C.A. manages the forest above an established 400-meter contour, promoting conservation while working with communities to find sustainable alternatives to logging. This week, their usual job of managing the forest also included managing us.

Nothing in life could have prepared us for that hike to the top, besides either being born in the Solomon Islands or possessing a burning, unrelenting determination to complete it – we had one out of two of those things. Our professor told us that he’d never completed this trek in one day, but given our remarkable detachment from reality and the adolescent gift of selective hearing, we held a burning optimism that it was possible.

In anticipation of the big day, our professor asked the coordinator of K.I.B.C.A. and expert navigator of the mountain, Ferguson, to join us. As we entered the forest, two things became clear: firstly, Ferguson’s immense passion and knowledge of the forest; and secondly, that he didn’t know how far we were hiking. Stopping several times in the first kilometer to talk about the forest, what he thought would be a quick bush walk transformed into an all-day expedition up the volcano. Surprising, yet non-catastrophic – Ferguson gleefully completed the entire trek with no food, no water, and no torch, leaving us in the dust on the way back as he trekked down the mountain alone in the dark. Oh, and he did the entire hike in thongs.

The rest of us, on the other hand, weren’t so prepared. We all forgot food, and survived the day off of some crackers thankfully remembered by our professor. None of us brought enough water, and in addition to this, I was sick with an ear and sinus infection. I spent a few minutes that morning debating the intelligence of this decision as I counted enough antibiotics to stuff into my backpack for the day, pondering whether or not the unknown elevation gain would be enough to explode my congested sinuses. Yet despite our disheveled mess of self-inflicted hardship, nothing was enough to shake off our enthusiasm for the cloud forest. I self-prescribed myself a myriad of cold medicine and an anticipated good night’s sleep, and decided it was a great idea.

Imbu Rano Lodge itself is situated in an expansive grassy area, surrounded on all sides by thick rainforest. Entering the trail is like stepping into another dimension – as soon as we began, we were absorbed by the rainforest. Trees towered above, covering us in cool shade as the sounds of the bush serenaded our journey. A full canopy enveloped the sky above, filled below with several layers of thick understory. The rainforest echoed with the noises and calls of the diverse array of organisms that inhabit its lower elevations. Large black ants – which we quickly learned inflict a nasty bite – as well as a variety of other fun insects, crawled along the diverse plethora of trees and flowering plants.

One of the most invigorating aspects of the rainforest is that just when you think you’ve witnessed the peak of its beauty, everything changes. Even the slightest elevational changes reveal striking changes in species composition and tree height – as we continued up the trail, it didn’t take long for the rainforest to change. Black ants haunted us for most of the hike – but as we transitioned upwards into the ridge forest, different species appeared and the trees began to change. Wandering our way up, we encountered several cultural sites as well; the volcanic slopes above Kolombangara’s protected 400-meter contour contain not only some of island’s most important habitats, but the majority of its cultural heritage as well.

The most noticeable change in the forest, however, was the abrupt disappearance of the maintained trail, which occurred approximately a third of the way to the top. This beckoned a new chapter of adventure in which the bush knife was now an absolute necessity to continue. Proceeding ahead, this marked the moment in which we were fully and truly swallowed by the forest. Large trees, root systems, and flora consumed the steep path ahead. I became a walking micro-biome, a veil of spider webs and other unidentifiable canopy life inhabiting my presence. It was akin to being underwater – fully immersed, tiny, and adrift in an expansive new world.

By this point, neither my professor nor Ferguson had released one drop of sweat, but the rest of us were beginning to understand why this isn’t usually a one-day excursion. Stumbling our way up the mountain, falling became quickly normalized; we climbed over massive root systems, branches, and at one point, a felled tree that took several different approaches and attempts to navigate through. Apparently the Imbu Rano rangers run this “trail” quite often; my speed barely qualified as walking, and I thought I might plummet through a root system or disappear off the edge of the sheer ridge.

We started to run out of water. The path behind was now coated in the deluge from my throbbing sinuses, I’m pretty sure I had a fever, and our sad supply of crackers was dwindling. In search of water, Ferguson retreated to a nearby river with ease akin to walking down an aisle in the grocery store. A very short time later, he popped up behind us, unphased by his brief detour down the sheer edge of a cliff. Refueled with river water and stale crackers, we ambitiously continued our journey up into the sky.

While I still don’t know the exact distance of this hike, it was very steep – characterized by the rapid elevation gain we encountered over a relatively short distance, revealing the rainforest’s abruptly changing flora and fauna. Caused by a process known as the Massenerhebung effect – German for “mountain mass elevation” – the rainforest changed abruptly with just moderate elevation gain. As we climbed, new life entered the canopy as old life disappeared, revealing fresh surroundings in an experience akin to walking through time.

About five hours into our journey, the hot, humid air cooled. The path beneath our feet softened and was overcome with a carpet of small, white flowers: orchids. Tree trunks now welcomed friends – epiphytes – plants that live on the surfaces of other plants, in clever pursuit of the warm sunlight hovering above. Much to our excitement, trees began getting shorter.

Not many parts of the Solomon Islands reach elevations above 400-meters, making both the conservation area at Imbu Rano and the cloud forest special and rare places. Located on only the highest ridges and peaks, upper montane rainforests are so high that they form islands of their own: sky islands. While islands in general exhibit high levels of endemism, the sky islands are so high up that they drive additional endemism of their own, containing unique species that only exist at their remote locations in the sky. The upper montane forest is also characterized by stunted tree height, smaller leaf size, and an open understory, as well as an abundance of mosses, epiphytes, and fungi. Although the lower montane forest occurs at surprisingly low levels throughout the Solomon Islands, entrance into the magical realm of the upper montane forest is striking and abrupt.

There comes a time when completing a long hike that the mind locks into an almost meditative state. Just keep walking – Torowe leg, as my professor said to us in pidgin. We kept walking. Suddenly, however, after a long, delirious, and seemingly endless venture upwards, our preconceived visions of the cloud forest manifested into our surroundings. We were so deeply humbled by this point that it didn’t seem real, like the forest was taunting us with false gratification; yet as we continued, dense shrubbery erupted into the sky, sunlight breaking through stunted trees and dancing across the exposed ridge. Plumes of moss engulfed the tree trunks, coating the entire forest in a soft, colourful haze. The air was cool, and the ground was soft – it was such a beautiful, surreal, and magical place; it felt like my surroundings were glowing. The insidious black ants – along with other insects – seemingly disappeared, and the forest evoked a peaceful silence. The photograph in the book had gripped me in a profound way, but the beauty of becoming part of it brought an indescribable joy. It was one of the most unforgettable moments of my life.

Ecosystems change over time, fluctuating with the natural rhythms of evolution and biological shift – yet our extensively long journey brought us to a place that was unfathomably still and frozen in time. It was a world as peaceful and still as the photograph. Isolated in the sky, the cloud forest floats in pristine stillness compared to the dramatically altered landscape below, where the abrupt perturbations wrought by human impact beckon a sudden end to over 200 years of slowly changing forests. I peered down at the world below – I looked where the turquoise waters meet the dark murk unleashed by logging runoff. I looked at the barren hills, at the dreary roads weaving from one logged patch to another, the skeletons of trees teetering in the backs of large trucks. Then, I looked at the magical forest of glowing, untainted trees sparkling with the reflective mist of the clouds. I wondered how high a tree has to live to escape being chopped down.

It takes walking through the rainforest to see that logging isn’t just extracting trees, but razing a unique and expansive world to barren smithereens. As the late afternoon sun kissed the horizon and we began our descent down from paradise, I took one final look at this magical place, trying to memorize the magnificent stillness of a moment I know is destined by Earth’s biological clock to change. K.I.B.C.A. has fought long and hard to preserve this immaculate space. In the context of such persistent exploitation lingering below, preserving this special place may be a difficult pursuit. I pray to the heavens atop the clouds we reached that day they do.

 

 

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