Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Just another week in the office - tour planning on Montaña Santa Barbara

Baking the biscuits
The women are busy by the “horno” - a large clay oven that looks like an outdoor pizza oven. Scrumptious looking breads and biscuits are emerging from the fire on trays balanced on the end of a long-handled spatula. A young girl darts around, gathering any crumbs that happen to be left on the trays. Nearby a barbacoa is being set up and the tables and chairs are being loaded off a truck. We’ve organized a community barbecue for the families of all of the members of the committees and working groups that make up our project - Montaña Santa Barbara - La Fuente de Vida (the source of life). To my surprise,  the community here has little idea of what a barbecue is - I guess rice, beans and tortillas are not the ingredients for a barbecue. It also seems that people getting together for social events not involving the church or political meetings are virtually unheard of here. But in spite of this, everyone is involved in the makings of a novel social event. 

Firing up the barbecue

Our challenge here is that different people turn up to all of the different meetings and activities that we organize and only few people have a good understanding of what we are trying to do, so the purpose of the barbecue is to bring together everyone that is involve to try to ensure that they all have a common understanding of the project.  We’ve also invited their families as this project requires lots of community support and a good starting point is to ensure that the spouses of the participants are supportive. It turns out that few of the men actually inform their wives of what they are doing and one women told me that they were not sure if the men were using it as an excuse to go off to visit other women!

Getting the formalities out of the way

The reality is that they have all been working incredibly hard. Over the past past couple of months we have put together a package of tours that we can offer to tourists. This has involved workshops to identify all of the potential points of interest and much hiking around the landscape to design routes, identify features of interest, assess trails and develop a consistent  story that the local guides will be able to share with tourists. With the incredible help of Williams, my birding guide, translator, bar tender and Honduran extraordinaire, we have have been able get a group of the community involved and motivated and the amount of effort that they are putting in is inspiring. All of this builds on great work done by a couple of Peace Corpse volunteers, Alecia and Alex who did a fantastic job of building the foundations for this project but, unfortunately had to leave when Peace Corpse were pulled out of the country. Thanks guys for all of your great work - the community constantly talks about you!

Lining up for the food

The award ceremony
So the barbecue today is really a critical point between planning and doing - while there is a lot of work to do, we are almost ready to start promoting the tours - the real test of whether we can get people off the Lonely Planet gringo-trail (hanging out in all the standard places with other gringos through central america) and up the mountain to visit the real Honduras - local communities with so many challenges yet so much to offer at the same time. Isn’t it always the case - those with the least to share materially seem to be the most willing to share the little that they have! What they certainly do have is a warmth and strength of character and a beautiful landscape, so I’m hoping that this will draw people out of the guide-book comfort zone. If you feel in need of a holiday, you could always put this on your list - you wont be disappointed, unless you just want to hang out in bars or laze by the pool. 

We arranged some certificates of appreciation to a couple of the older guys who have shown real leadership in understanding and appreciating the environmental and cultural wealth of the landscape - again, a simple action that appears not to be normal in these small communities but one which carried a lot of weight. On of the recipients said with great sincerity “now when my grand children see this they will realize that I’m not just a crazy old man.”

So stay tuned - hopefully I’ll soon be blogging about our first tours.

Out with the guides

Trip planning in the field

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Still in Honduras - 12 months on!

Who’d a thunk it? A year has just past since I first arrived in Honduras and here I still am, with little sign of moving on soon. A fascinating and beautiful country with some of the friendliest people I have ever met and yet with some of the worst crime statistics in the world - a bit worse even than some places in the US! It certainly is a land of contrast and paradox, and I’m sure if you went to the wrong places at the wrong time, you could get into trouble (like you could in most major cities in the world). But, touch wood, my experiences here have only been wonderful. 

Montaña Santa Barbara and Lago Yojoa from my lakeside camp
So much for my original plan to be in Patagonia last February! I guess I’ll just have to pick another February. My only concern is that, because my experience has been so much richer by getting involved in a local project here, that I’m going to find it hard to just pass through any of the other countries between here and the bottom of South America. I guess all I can say is “don’t expect me back in Oz any time soon!” Amusingly, someone pointed out to me the other day that, after driving 40,000 miles I was less than 4,000 miles from where I started from!
Azure-crowned Hummingbird - Gracias

A lot has been going on with the community project that I’m involved with but I’ll save that for the next post. Tonight the thunder is rolling down off the mountain and the rain is smattering on the roof of my van and I’m very cosy inside with a bottle of red  and Tom Waits on the stereo. I’m camped in a beautiful coffee finca - apparently the first certified private conservation estate in Honduras?? At this time of year the rain only falls at night. A common morning greeting here is “¿Qué tal amanecio?” - How was your dawn? And the answer is invariably “Muy bien” as, by dawn, las tormentas (the storms) have moved on and the day dawns clear. By mid morning, it’s warm enough for a swim and I can take a choice of the piscina (swimming pool) just in front of where I am camped or the stream that cascades by 40m away.  

Here,  I’m just going to dump a bunch of photos taken around Montaña Santa Barbara, Lago Yojoa, Gracias and Copan over the past month or so.

Another breakfast in Doña Nicha's kitchen

 My truck almost full - the record is 10!
On the road with Hjalmar, the Pepsi distribution man from Gracias
The local version of Kentucky Fried
With Mika, Francisco and a local landholder near Gracious
Breakfast stop
Spot-breasted Oriole
Trying to impress the girls
One of a pair of Mottled Owls that keep me company at night...
…and their offspring

Turquoise-browed Motmot
Grove-billed Anis

Saturday, May 10, 2014

La Moskitia once again

Point of departure - La Ceiba Airport
If there is anywhere in Honduras that you are going to find birds that have not yet been recorded in this country, or find the elusive ones that an experienced Honduran bird-watcher still has not got on his list, then La Moskitia is the place that you are likely to find them. So that’s just what we were setting off to do. With recently acquired friends Robert Gallardo and his partner Olivia (Robert is the experienced birder who is writing the guide to the birds of Honduras) we were on our way to La Moskitia once again. This time by small plane from La Ceiba to a remote little town of Puerta Lempira on the shores of the vast Laguna de Caratasca, and then the following morning in an even smaller missionary plane to the tiny village of Mocaron. The dusty field that we landed on was in the grasslands of Honduras’ north-east, a strange region where vast swathes of grass suddenly give way to pine woodlands which, in turn, give way to wet forests. 

The crowd of onlookers that rushed to the plane as it rolled to a stop suggested that this place didn’t get a lot of visitors. But in spite of this, there was a “lodge” of sorts and the very friendly owner, Irma Love, ensured that we had a good lunch before we set off on our hike deeper into the forests. 

Point of arrival - Mocaron International airport

Packing to head further inland
Our original plan was to go upriver some way in small outboard-driven canoes carved out of large forest trees, but the water was too shallow and so instead, we pilled all of our gear, together with guide, porters and cook, into the back of a pickup and bounced off across the grasslands to an even smaller village on the edge of a river beyond which vehicle transport was not possible. It was early afternoon by the time we made our first river crossing and set off through the forest. 

The bemused onlookers…. 

One of the porters - not sure what was in the cigarette but he was always happy!

I'm hoping that we don't really need this???

Whilst, in theory, our route was to take us through a biosphere reserve, we were following a well marked trail that clearly had not been established for the purpose of appreciating the biodiversity of the region - at least not in the way that westerners do! At regular intervals we came to small clearings where bananas, maize and beans were being cultivated. The flat grasslands where the villages were located were clearly not suited for growing much - the regular inundation by wet-season rains and low nutrients that accounted for the lack of forest also meant that the region was not good for agriculture. However, where there was forest, there are also nutrients - hence the cropping inside the forest. Because the people couldn’t live in the reserve, they simply walked in to farm it, setting up small structures where they would stay for several days, with pigs and dogs, while they tended their plots.

The first river to be crossed...

After you…...

The intrepid, and slightly damp, Robert Gallardo

Olivia and Alicia, the cook, wading in!

After our 4am start, we were pretty exhausted when we arrived with soggy boots and tired legs at our first camp with just enough light to pitch tents, sneak in a bit of birding and organise some food before collapsing into bed.

Our first night's camp - apart from pigs shit everywhere, it was pretty nice.

More bemused onlookers - white-necked puffbird
King Vulture

Our second day’s hike found us venturing further into the forest - the clearings were being left behind but wooden poles lying across the trail at 3 meter intervals made it pretty obvious that large trees were being rolled out from deep in the forest. The effort that would be required to remove a single tree would be enormous. I suspect that, while its probably illegal, its got to be more sustainable than any of the legal logging that happens throughout the rest of the world. Unfortunately the almost complete lack of sizable wildlife suggested that the rifles that everyone carried were being put to good use. After a bit of confusion about our location, we set up camp by a small stream that had enough water for drinking and bathing. This was going to be our base camp for the next few days so our porters set to work building a pretty sturdy camp. 

Base camp
Another resident of base camp!

The next few days were spent on day hikes, exploring the region from our camp. The flat forested plains gave way to limestone outcrops which looked interesting and inviting but, as soon as you started to climb the ground became very dry, and the forests became quieter, suggesting that a few million years of water leaching through the porous limestone had taken all the nutrients with it, making the area relatively unattractive for all the beasties that build their food chains up from the forest floor. For some reason the only exception were the ticks, and they welcomed us in their thousands - tiny pepper ticks that got into everywhere and left us scratching for days!

Black-eared wood quail - apparently getting a photo of this guy is pretty special

Bicolored Antbird
Forest fashion

…all the essentials

After a few days of exploring it was apparent that this particular part of Mosquitia did not have the wealth of birds that we had expected. We did see the tracks of a jaguar and its cub and we heard a group of peccaries that melted off into the forest before we could sight them, and while I added lots of new birds to my list, it was a bit frustrating for Robert G so eventually we packed camp and made our way back out. 

Return to civilisation

Compared to the Rio Platino (see the earlier post) this area is not likely to become a great drawcard for tourists, although I’m sure botanists would have a field day. But it was a great experience, both to see this place and to have the privilege of birding with Robert, and it was something that had to be done simply to find out what was (or in this case, wasn’t) there, given that it was virtually unvisited by scientists or naturalists. 

Working hard against the current

A bit of grassland birding

They are a friendly lot here in Honduras!

Olivia ready to go home

The runway???

The beginning of the burning season

So now the question is - what might be in the other parts of this vast little-explored wilderness - clearly it varies hugely from region to region. Maybe we might just have to find out - and there is still the elusive Harpy Eagle to find! 

And huge thanks to Robert and Olivia for inviting me along!!