Into the Jungle

77 A local boy in Tembagapura. All other phots are missing
A young native of Papua, our neighbor


A early music memory for me is Dr. Hook’s One Step From the Jungle to the Zoo (1976). Along with ABBA, Boney-M, and the Eagles, especially the album Hotel California, these party anthems take me back to Tembagapura, West Irian Jaya sitting in my dad’s chair listening to his music through his comfy headphones. For a young boy living in the middle of one of the wildest jungles in the world, I could only bet set up for a life of adventure.

197 Kurstin going for an Elephant ride
An elephant ride, the best transportation through the Jungle. Who has the biggest tires now?
196 Kurstin at the Petting Zoo
Have you hugged your python today?

The Wikipedia entry for Tembagapura is concise for its modern facts but for me and my family 40 years ago it was home. The town site was built on a hillside with our homes on one side of a narrow rocky gorge and our school on the other. The rocky gorge was so sensitive to the near daily rainfalls giant boulders were swept down its course sounding like marbles in the house rain gutters. There was a helipad, food store and medical center above the school. Below our housing was a radio dish for telecommunication off the mountain. This was my town, outside of this was the Jungle.

I don’t recall anyone telling me not to go into the Jungle. It started right at the end of our block. Our street ended and there was little creek fed by run-off cascading  out of the Jungle from the near daily rains. This creek taught me the life cycle of frogs and giant dragonflies. I learned that a tadpole could sucker on to the tip of your tongue. Beyond the razor grass of the creek were the vines and ferns of the Jungle. My personal code was to never go further into the Jungle than I could see out. So I never went deep at all but I always made it back for my sister’s open-face melted cheese sandwiches.

76 Monya, Gary Kurstin and Paulette in front of the school in Tembagapura 1976
Monya, Gary, Paulette, and Kurstin, family at home in the Jungle

The Jungle was a rich environment for a 5 year old’s mind. I was fascinated by this large green leaf and while I was looking at it, it hopped away. It was a very large frog camouflaged in the center of the leaf. It must have thought its cover was blown but my mind did not register until it was long gone. I crawled into a vertical cave, a space between some large boulders. The dirt floor was a bit dug out and  and this became my fort. But I did not have the foresight to have my exit planned. Now I was trapped in this hole. At first I was scared and started to cry, then I realized I had to find my own way out of this cave. A big realization for a young boy. I did find a passage through the back of the cave that lead to a route up and over the boulders. The Jungle was always a place to be respected.

My Saturday morning activity was to get up as early as possible and patrol the chain link fences around the school for resting insects. The sight is hard to imagine but picture the fence covered in moths and beetles. All specimens were larger than life for what we consider normal temperate bugs. These are truly the “Big and Beautiful” of the insect world.

As my interests were more coleopteran than lepidopteran, step one was to bang on the fence to get the moths to fly away. The jet shaped hummingbirds of the insect world, the sphyngid Hawk Moths were fascinating as well as the dinner plate sized saturniid Luna Moths, but my goals were the scarabs, lucandids, and cerambycids. So much Latin was not in my vocabulary until my graduate course work in Entomology, but in the Jungle these were Rhinoceros, Tiger, Stag, and Longhorn Beetles. Giant click beetles, elaterids,  were also in the mix. Flip them over and watch them self rescue by popping into the air. There were also an abundance of leaf mimicking katydid grasshoppers and plant mimicking phasmid walking sticks, but these were rarely offered more than a cursory glance and poke. Yet they offered the best examples of incredible mimicry.

Experimenting with macro photography in Costa Rica

The mouse sized beetles were beautiful and taught me to have an eye for their morphological details. Their head and thorax were often a high gloss ebony. The rhinoceros beetles had elaborate horns on their head and thorax while the stag beetles had ridiculously large mandibles. In contrast to the polished front of these little beasts, the outer wing covers were leathery brown and protected exquisitely fine and folded flight wings. My favorite parts of the beetles were ornately sculpted and armored legs. The most surprising details were fine reddish hairs around the body segments (often harboring a colony of mites; bugs on bugs) and an active abdomen billowing to get air inside such a large insect.

I was equally amazed by their strength. One morning I was out on my self guided beetle safari and I heard the familiar “chirping” of a rhinoceros beetle. Looking around I saw this rather large rock shifting on its own. I struggled to turn it over to find the source of the chirping as well as being in awe of how strong and determined this creature is. Another example of their extreme adaptation was their ability to wrap themselves around my wrist or forearm with a skin piercing death grip. Truly a cornucopia of awe for a young boy.

183 Follow the leader African style
Elephants coming to a watering hole in Kenya
228 The Grahams fly into Rio for New Years 1983 with a airplane window view of Sugar Loaf
Flying into Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

The memories created in the Jungle of West Irian Jaya are exhausting and near too numerous to write about. But they set a foundation of adventure to only be built upon. I remember hiking through the island jungle on Green Island with my dad. He was Tarzan and I was his pet chimpanzee. Dad tried to show off his survival skills by splitting open a coconut with a club, luckily dinner was waiting for us back at the hotel. In Kenya we went on a picture-taking-safari that opened my eyes to savanna and tropical dry forest. In Brazil we lived on the Mato Grosso Plateau dominated by savanna and woodlands and regrettably we did not travel to the Amazonian rain forests. As an adult I got to visit my folks living in Burma. Even in the capital city, Rangoon, the Jungle was was always creeping in. The forests around the ancient capital, Pagan, had been harvested for the temples and pagodas of Burma’s past royalty and distinguished. I made a trip to Inle Lake, toured the floating gardens and hiked the hills converted to cheroot tobacco farming. The roads in the area were cut through the Jungle. Often I could see trail openings in the brush, but they were marked with a government issued sign warning about security. It was explained to me that these were trails used by local rebels/ traffickers. In graduate school I was a teaching assistant in Costa Rica for a course in tropical ecology and conservation biology. The course took us from the Pacific coastal mangroves, to western dry forests, to the continental divide cloud forests. There I learned in the Jungle all ants have a stinger, ha! I have no doubt the Jungle will have more adventure in my future.

389  Night has arrive and Paulette and Kurstin stand high above the city of Temples
Kurstin and Paulette, sunset over the Irrawaddy River, Pagan, Burma




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