“It took us just over two hours to reach the summit,” shouts Nicolas as the helicopter blades disappear in a growing roar. Nicolas, the Ecology Officer with the Amazon Park of French Guiana, emerges above the boxes, tin drums, and backpacks piled up in the cockpit around us with a smile on his face. But I am not as tall as him and have disappeared beneath the equipment. As the Rochambeau runaway recedes into the distance, I can no longer feel anything in my right leg. It doesn’t matter, however, as the excitement of taking part in this outstanding mission and the sight of the forest hurtling past at over 120mph soon make me forget the weight of the boxes, filled with supplies for the team. Organising a science mission involving 36 people in a spot as remote as the Sommet Tabulaire (literally, the table-topped peak and also known as Mount Itoupé) is a huge challenge. Nicolas understands this and has spent a lot of time over the past few months mapping out this mountain massif which rises to 830m in altitude, the second highest in French Guiana after the Mounts Inini (860m). At that altitude, despite the “short March summer”, the peak is shrouded in cloud for most of the day. It will therefore take a few perilous helicopter manoeuvres before we can set up camp on the slopes of the mountain.

On 26th February, the first team realises that it is not technically possible to land a helicopter on the savannah-rock which was spotted on satellite images half a dozen kilometres from the mountain. Olivier, who heads the Ecobios team, points out another granitic outcrop a bit further off. The team therefore decides to hack its way with machetes through to the Sommet Tabulaire. As for the pilot of the Écureuil, he is responsible for the tricky mission of delivering chainsaws in a net at the end of a long sling, like some fantastic sword of Damocles dangling above the canopy*. The helicopter successfully delivers its load in a gap in the forest caused by windfall near to where the Drop Zone (DZ) will be – an area of about fifty by fifty metres which will be cleared by wardens from Camopi in the Amazonian Park of French Guiana. As the epic nature of this scientific mission is showing, Itoupé is the most inaccessible mountain massif in French Guiana. Situated between Saül and the Brazilian border, halfway between Camopi and Maripasoula, Mount Itoupé (unlike its larger brother Mount Inini) is not on the path of a great river but instead lies on the boundary between two river basins, with that of the Camopi to the east and the Waki to the west. For this reason, pirogue would be difficult to use to transport all the equipment needed for a scientific expedition of this scale up the narrow creeks.

To the west of the Sommet Tabulaire lies the vast and unexplored Waki plain. To the north lie the Mounts Bakra. In these places unknown to man, you become aware of exploring previously untouched territory. Nevertheless, further south, the famous Émerillons pathway links up with the river basins of the Maroni and Oyapock. For thousands of years, Amerindians roamed this region. The only visible human traces nowadays are those left by the scarred trunks of balata trees. These are found as far as the slopes of Mount Itoupé and their marks were inflicted by tenant workers in the late nineteenth century who went to the most remote spots in Amazonia to harvest the latex produced by the trees which they then mixed with the gum of the precious rubber tree.

The mission camp is finally set up on the western slope of the table-top plateau 200m below the peak. There, near the “DZ”, wardens from the Amazonian Park of French Guiana have built a rudimentary camp with a few wooden tables beneath tarpaulins. For the rest, everybody kits out their own personal “carbet-bâche” shelter. Nicolas goes over the scientific objectives of this mission with me:

“Species living at these altitudes are markers for observing future climate change.”

Olivier, an ecologist with a consultancy in French Guiana, Ecobios, adds that: “It is an important initial state, the zero state of present species”. In this way, the “first nature mission in the Amazonian Park of French Guyana” has been set up, able to provide global understanding of the systems within the park.

Olivier’s team is concentrating on studying the botany and birds. In the tradition of nature prospecting missions, they look for and collect species of plants by roaming over the entire massif. I decide to go and discover the peak with them the next day.

Michel B., a pteridophyte (fern) specialist will be leading this first “climb”. Michel is fifty-something, a geologist by training, and doesn’t look like a “bushman”, but he is captivating when explaining the world of plants, especially the world of ferns. “Ferns are found especially in sub-mountain forests. During a previous mission thirty years ago, Jean-Jacques de Granville and Georges Cremers collected an impressive number of species in this region, but during the dry season. It is our job to find them again and to discover new ones! All of this information will be used to supplement Flora of the Guianas, the international flora of plant species in our region.” Over the course of the expedition, 500 species of ferns, orchids, and trees are identified.

Together with the rest of the Ecobios team, Guillaume and Vincent, they will be exploring the trail on the Sommet Tabulaire for over four weeks. The trail, opened up by the wardens of the Amazonian Park in French Guiana, does not avoid the crevices or areas of windfall and its course (or “transect”) forms a perfectly straight line. That makes it easier to set up several scientific protocols, as well as being an obvious way of knowing which way you are going. On my way up the trail, which gets steeper and steeper, I can see the forest landscape change, with more and more great arborescent ferns, halos of clouds everywhere, and mosses growing indiscriminately over trunks, branches, and even leaves sometimes, making the forest look like some mythical, magical place.

Olivier, Guillaume, and Michel follow the path through this fantastic landscape. They take numerous samples of plants, concentrating intensely the entire time. Each evening the samples are indexed, numbered, classified, and processed using a surprising piece of equipment that only tropical botanists are familiar with – a dryer. This is a structure wrapped in a cloth: the samples are placed above whilst underneath is a gas or oil stove. Over the course of the night, the heat dries out the leaves flattened between boxes and newspaper, turning them into real “herbarium specimens”. If you’re lucky, it’s also the only way to miraculously dry your clothes before dawn. There is a lot of competition what with all the wet socks between the odd fern!

The team sometimes gets up to some rather surprising things in the forest in the name of science. One morning, when several teams were already at work, a gunshot rang out a few metres away. In the heart of the Amazonian Park of French Guiana, there was no way that it was somebody hunting a tapir for supper. I go over and see one of the IRD-AMAP “botany and bioinformatics of plant architecture” team members, Daniel, pointing his rifle rather curiously up at the canopy. Another shot rings out, a branch falls to the ground, and Daniel victoriously holds his trophy aloft – a leafy branch. “It might be a new species for French Guiana!” With his strong southern accent, he explains that it is much easier to fire a cartridge than climb the tree. The tree needs to be identified using its leaves and, if possible, its flowers and fruit, which are often over 40m above the ground. The AMAP research team, which works in various places around the world, from New Caledonia to the norm, also works in French Guiana where they manage the Herbarium of French Guiana.

Having explained this, Daniel disappears into the undergrowth, along with Jean-François and Michel T.. For a moment, it is as if the stories of Pagnol have been transferred from the South of France to French Guiana.

I decide to go back down – alone this time – along a path I have never taken before. There is something magical about walking on your own through a rainforest. The vegetation seems to open up and then close behind you as you pass through. Being alone encourages you to listen. As the ridge is beginning to narrow and I’m about to start the descent, I hear a sound. It is a monkey but he is making a whistling sound which attracts my attention. His silhouette appears; I can make out a long brown tail dangling straight down behind him and his barrel-chested body. Two hemispherical protrusions are clear on his head. It might be a black-bearded saki. I run back down, excited about my pseudo scientific discovery, and ready to give a press conference.

Evening is the ideal time for talking to other members of the expedition. By the light of our head lamps, over our tinned cassoulet and a glass of ti-punch, we share our discoveries, talking about the sites that have been inventoried and those which still need to be prospected. On this occasion, rather than my improbable black-bearded saki, a mysterious pond has caught everybody’s attention. Situated at the top of the peak, it is surrounded by trees from a family that was not known to exist in French Guiana – the lepidobotryaceae, of which only one species exists in America. Going by the rather splendid name of Ruptiliocarpon caracolito, this species was – up until now – only known in Central America and the Andes, and possibly in Surinam. The pond and its highly unusual water conditions promise some interesting discoveries. The teams decide to meet up there later on.

Over the days which follow, I am able to better understand what each person is researching.

I can observe the SEAG (Société Entomologique Antilles-Guyane) team in action. Their mission is to collect insects from as many different altimetric and environmental conditions as possible, from the top of the canopy* right down to ground level. This group of enthusiastic scientists has developed some surprising techniques to catch insects. For instance, a strange object made from a sheet of plexiglas and a gutter is an effective means of catching insects flying in the forest at man height. This, however, is just one of the many systems they use. By the end, they have collected an incredible number of all kinds of insects (nearly 20,000 samples of between 1500 and 2000 taxons* in all) which are either stored in alcohol or else killed with arsenic to be analysed. Some of these are to be sent back to Romania to be studied by the only specialist. Some new species for French Guiana have already been identified, however – some of which were only previously known to be present in the foothills of the Andes.

The chiropterologists are another surprising team on this expedition. The unique thing about them is that they only venture out onto the trails at dusk. Armed with great poles, they hang long nets in the air, barring the way to all flying animals. Bats are of particular interest to them and therefore are the ones to suffer. Every night, therefore, Maël, Margot, Vincent, and Nicolas take it in turns to set up 10 12m-long nets spaced at 200m intervals of altitude in accordance with a well-established protocol. The bats are caught in the nets, weighed and measured, and a tissue sample is taken for genetic analysis before they are released. Bats must be handled with care as they are fragile and will sink their teeth into the fingers of anyone who gives them half a chance. On the Sommet Tabulaire, nearly 40 species of chiroptera were identified out of about 102 found in French Guiana.

On the last day, I take the path to the summit for one final time in the hope of seeing the black-bearded saki once again. During my short stay, I have been able to observe an impressive range of primates. The spot is perfectly preserved and home to baboons, spider monkeys, tamarins, capuchins, and this elusive black-bearded saki. Just before reaching the summit, I stop and wait, sitting on a log. I am delighted when my patience is rewarded, and quickly take a poor picture of my black-bearded saki (see below left, on this page).

Everybody packs up camp and the helicopter trips begin once more. The mountain slopes are freed from this unusual human presence. Jean-François, from the AMAP team, has still not returned, having set off at dawn with a few cartridges to bring back the fruit which will perhaps enable him to reveal the mystery of the pond tree.

Whilst the final helicopter waits, people begin to worry – we all know how dangerous the slippery forest trails can be. He finally appears on the edge of the forest, muddy but victorious, and jumps into the cockpit at the last minute carrying a frond with two fruits on it. The tree will be unveiling its secrets after all.

Peace returns to Mount Itoupé once again, temporarily at least, before the second part of the study begins in September and October 2010. A new multidisciplinary study will be organised to study the ornithology, large fauna (in partnership with the French National Agency for Hunting and Wildlife, or Office National de la Chasse et de la Faune Sauvage – ONCFS), and ichthyology.