Coping with a tropical climate
in the field, in and around the rainforest...
The tropical climate in and around the rainforest is hot ‘n wet.
The area where most of Australia’s tropical rainforest is found is called the ‘wet tropics’.This name sums it up pretty well.
It is the combination of hot weather and wetness, the humidity, that most people find unbearable in the tropical climate.
On a humid and sunny summer/wet season day, you may find that merely strolling around the forest trail (but focusing on bird-watching or photography), you end up drenched in sweat. If you are in non air-conditioned accommodation, you can find yourself waking up in the morning already sweating! You may also find yourself sweating even at night when spotlighting though the jungle.
The humidity is negated somewhat by rise in altitude. For every X metres in height, there is a drop of X degrees Celsius in temperature. Thus, life is considerably more comfortable in, say, the Atherton Tablelands.
There are several ways to dealing with this humidity. When you live in a tropical climate, one gets into the habit of several quick (frequently cold) showers a day.This will cool your body down quickly, wake you up and clean the sweat off.
When outside, you avoid standing in the sun, and always head for the shade. So for this reason, despite the sun, local Caucasian people in the tropics don’t necessarily sport a tan.
The humidity, heat, and continuing to wear wet clothes after a soaking may result in the development of rashes. People that first settle in wet tropical climate areas sometimes develop these around their groin and thighs, chest and/or armpits. These red welts are annoying and itch; the more you scratch and sweat, the longer it takes to get rid of them. You can reduce this effect by changing out of wet, sweaty clothes regularly, and drying and ‘airing’ the effected area.
Eventually, after a few months, you’ll find your body gradually adapts to the tropical conditions. Not a consolation for the short term visitors.
what clothes to wear?
The best clothes to wear in the wet tropical climate varies on the situation and depends on your personal preference.
If it does rain, then it is best to be wearing less. Longer pants get soaked and will take long to dry. Jeans are just plain absurd in the tropics: they are too thick, and get wet and uncomfortable. Lighter material is better as it dries quicker and is cooler.
However, clothes that cover up the body, such as a long-sleeved shirts and pants have their advantages.
They will protect you from sun damage when on the edge of the forest.
They also reduce the damage of nasty plants such as ‘stinging bush’ and ‘wait-a-while’ (refer to section on ‘Plants’); however those very same clothes may get ripped, (but better that than your skin).
Longer clothes also protect you from insect bites. Australia doesn’t have too many disease-spreading insects like other tropical parts of the world, but there are biting green ants and others.
Also, there is little social requirement to cover up, as Australia doesn’t have the issues of cultural modesty that, say, tropical Asia has.
Pack a range of shorts and t-shirts. They are small and light, so you can carry more of them.
You can change them when they get wet and stink (they will). And they fold better (roll ‘em up) for travelling without as many wrinkles!
Hats are recommended in open areas in the tropical climate, such as on the beach, in the savanna, or on the edge of the forest.
But if you are spending time within the rainforest, you may find a hat counter-productive.
We lose much of our heat through our head, so having a hat will hold in that heat.
It also restricts our view when walking along the trail, cutting down our chances of spotting birds in the canopy as well as nasty hanging spiny plants.
But when it rains, a rimmed hat does keep the water out of your eyes.
Thus, hats are also a personal choice.
Be warned, however, if you wear a brand new ‘bush’ hat in the forest, you’ll look like a tourist!
the most important peice of clothing...
And finally there is one very effective tool in dealing with the wet tropical climate.
I never leave home without one, anywhere I go in the world.
I always have it with me.
They are cheap and I have many lying around the house.
Write this one down.
It is called an ‘umbrella’.
They are essential in the tropics.
Yes, they will break. But they are cheap. Buy another one.
Yes, they will get torn in the rainforest by overhanging foliage such as wait-a-while. Buy another one.
And yes, they’ll eventually get mouldy. So buy another one!
The alternatives are not that good: raincoats are difficult as they lock in sweat. Even the so called ‘breathable’ materials like Gore-tex do not work as well in the humid tropics because they rely on a humidity differential to work.
However, a rain jacket is handy in the higher altitude mountain rainforests where it can get chilly. But in the lowlands, when you get wet, you are simply better off having a few spare shirts.
The wonderful umbrella invention not only keeps you dry, but also the all important gear.As a naturalist, you will no doubt have a lot of stuff: binoculars, camera gear, tripod, scope, spotlight, and field guides. One eventually gets proficient at holding the umbrella with one hand and juggling the gear with the other. But when a tropical downpour sets in, it is probably best just to pack everything away and hide under the umbrella until the rain slows down.
what about my equipment?
Humidity and heavy rain will also effect gear in a bad way.
If you live in a wet tropical climate, you just accept your camera and other optical equipment won’t last that long. Cameras and lens get mouldy. Cameras get drenched. Lens get dropped into creeks when changing. The bumps and the water very quickly damages today’s relatively delicate digital cameras pretty quickly.
I have also bought an ‘Olympus U1030SW’ as a spare camera. It is an underwater camera without a housing, perfect for jumping in for quick snorkelling. But it also small enough to slip into an extra back-pack pocket, and of course it is water proof and relatively shock proof. They retail for about Aus$500.
UPDATE 2011:Last year I bought a Lumux underwater camera, the equivalent to the previous camera. They are pretty good, and getting better. They take pretty good underwater pictures of wide shots (eg; coral) and fairly good macro (stationary invertebrates, such as Featherstars). However, there is still a delay with the shutter and so taking good images of moving fish is still a challenge. They retail for about Au$450 or so.
You will also find the wet 'n hot tropical climate heat will cause your optics to steam up, but this is temporary. It occurs mainly when they are first taken out into the humid outdoors from an air conditioned hotel or vehicle. This can even happen when you put your camera into a bag back in the air con, and then take it out to get a photograph several hours later. Don’t worry, there is no permanent damage, and it should take less than half an hour to clear. But of course, by this time the animal you wanted to photograph has long gone!To avoid this, it is good idea to have the camera out and around your neck before you start out. That's where the umbrella comes in handy again!
To protect all this gear it is a good idea to invest in a decent back-pack that is somewhat tougher and water resistant.
I spend a fortune on backpacks, trying out different ones for comfort, my camera gear, and ruggedness.
I have to say I have gone through a lot of packs, and haven't found anything that combines everything I want, yet.
I will quite quickly break the straps on the bag from the weight of my gear and books inside, and the trials I put it through. Also, because I work on ships and drive boats, and spend a lot of time in forests, I am always getting my gear wet.
I have used various ‘Loweprowe’ back-packs in the past, because it has guarantee. These days, most of these bags have a compartment for laptop and camera gear.
At the moment I am trying various 'waterproof' bags. They tend to be pricey. I am currently trying a few 'overboard' products. The problems with these types of top seal bags is they do not have compartments. Also, I have found that there is some seepage through the canvas type material at the bottom.