Child of a Volcanic God – Part 2

Part 1 here

I awoke at daybreak after a peaceful night’s sleep. No monitor lizards had raided the food in my tent – I was happy at that. Nor had Anak thrown any projectiles my way. A couple of the fisherman had some coffee on the go and I happily accepted one.

I was reclining in my hammock when the sound of engines made me look seaward. Four specks grew larger as they approached. Amir and Hussein came on shore and before long we were joined by a group of at least 50 Indonesian tourists fresh from Jakarta. They hopped about excitedly and posed for pictures in front of the signs, as their guides slipped some cash to the rangers. After a short while they headed up the path to say hello to Anak. Amir asked me what I wanted to do. On my climb the previous day, when Amir had shouted me down from Anak’s shoulder, I’d left my binoculars behind on the ridge. I explained this to him and asked if I could go back up to retrieve them.

“OK, but this time I will come with you.” he replied.

We followed the now familiar path and passed the horde of tourists. They had all sensibly stopped just past the 4th marker and were taking photos from the bottom of the slope. We began the climb, following the path I’d taken before. Amir was bare footed and held his t-shirt as he climbed ahead. Upon reaching the ridge he bent over in exhaustion. Grey ash bellowed from the nearby summit. I left him to catch his breath and continued along the ridge, smiling at the fact that I was again so close. I found my binoculars and noticed that they had been covered in a layer of ash. Amir came up and asked if he could have a look through them. First he tried them the wrong way round, and then spent a minute wiping the lenses of ash. He pulled a face and handed them back.

A southerly wind had picked up and after a few minutes Amir led me back down towards the colourful t-shirts that peppered the lower slope. I mingled with the crowd, who were mostly in their 20’s, and started chatting to a young guy. They were on a work outing, some kind of team-building session I understood. I asked what he thought about Anak and a future eruption on the scale of the 1883 one.

“When that day comes, I hope that I’m already dead!” Fair enough.

Within a couple of hours they were back on their boats and off to Jakarta.

*

As there was no chance of climbing to Anak’s summit, I proposed to Amir my plan of walking around the island. Again he agreed, and I was free to wander off. I geared up and headed anti-clockwise, towards the lava field plateau I’d spotted from the ridge. I was happy to be hiking alone and excited as to what I’d find on this little exploration. I was surprised that the rangers had let me go, as anything could happen, but wouldn’t want it any other way.

The usual manmade debris lay scattered around the beach: plastic wrappers, straws, flip-flops, polystyrene, light bulbs, the odd shoe, drink containers etc. Monitor lizard tracks were easy to identify with large, clawed prints either side of a ploughing tail. Tiny crabs fled into their holes as I passed.

A three metre escarpment separated the beach from the forest. In its face I could make out different layers of ash fall. A few hundred metres on, the beach met a wall of jagged boulders. I precariously clambered up and spotted another patch of forest, evidently cut off by the old lava flow I was now on. Ten minutes later I came to the next clump of trees and saw a second beach. I jumped down to it, thankful for the flat, soft surface to walk on. A couple of plovers ran onto the sand and did a little dance for me.

Again a steep face walled off the beach so I investigated a narrow gulley. The sides crumbled under pressure and any root I grabbed fell free, making it too difficult to climb out. Then something caught my eye and I was shocked to find what looked like a potato growing out of the side. Resisting the temptation to take it back for lunch, I went back to the beach and tackled the wall at its end. This one was higher and tougher to climb than the first. It was comprised of ash and rock, making it hard to find a solid hold. After some frantic scrabbling I was up and looking at a wooden box about 30cm high and 15 across. A small, sealed tube came out of its top. I’d seen a similar, albeit larger one, on the other side – seismometers.

I plodded on for a while, taking in this new view of Anak. I began to feel the heat and my back dripped with sweat. I started to doubt whether the litre of water I’d packed would be enough. I picked my steps carefully, as the rocks were sharp and rough. Many toppled over

Life will take hold anywhere

way too easily. Without the tough hiking boots my feet would’ve been cut to pieces. Anak continued to bellow as I continued to advance. He seemed to have woken up in a foul mood and was clearing his throat for the day. I mounted a small rise and gazed ahead at the barren, inhospitable surface. But not all was dead. Small specks of green grew between the light grey rocks – tiny ferns and grasses – clinging for life.

Another loud boom suddenly put me on edge. A scary thought crossed my mind – what if these rocks were not from an old lave flow, but were projectiles? I nervously hurried onwards, but checked my speed to avoid an accident. Every step had to be taken with care. 45 minutes had passed and I was not even a quarter of the way around. I had told the guys that I’d be about an hour. If I had been in their shoes I wouldn’t let some crazy white guy go tramping off by himself.

I now seemed to be in the middle of plateau where small gulleys made it harder to traverse. I was just reflecting on how I’d never seen a landscape so bleak, when life surprised me once more. From behind a boulder just below, a large white shape sprung up and flapped long, white wings. It had an orange tinge and I made out an oval face as it flew off – a Barn Owl! Within two minutes my passing caused a couple more to flee their shelters. I climbed down to investigate, hoping to find a nest, but only saw a crag with some feathers and white shit stains. What were these owls doing in this desolate landscape?

I came to a flatter section where a smooth ash surface allowed me to speed up. I was now heading towards the western coast and could see that the cone went straight down to the sea. Not a good sign. I wasn’t too keen to get that close to Anak. As a risk assessment played through my head I walked head on into another danger – gas!

It stank like burning match heads and soon I began to feel light-headed and dizzy. I turned my back to Anak and made for the shore. The smell didn’t subside so I improvised a gas-mask by wrapping a wet scarf around my face. As I slung my bag onto my back on a strap broke. Damn cheap Asian products. I’d only bought it three days earlier. The dizziness was still with me so I broke into a light jog. Then the second strap broke and my bag fell.

Felt like I should’ve been on a protest

What to do? Walking would now be harder having to carry the broken bag. My water canteen was almost empty. The gas frightened me. If I was to lose consciousness it would take them hours to find me. Even if I made it through the gas field, I then had to walk across the cone itself – in range of lava bombs. I wanted to push on, but now the risks definitely out-weighed the benefits. Anak had defeated me. It seemed like he had had enough of my intrusive presence and wanted me gone. I’d out stayed my welcome. I conceded and made a tactical retreat. I slipped, cutting my finger and knee – treachery everywhere. The island was full of danger.

Halfway back to the second beach I realised that I’d just made the best decision of my life. The eruption dwarfed all the others I’d witnessed before. The sound nearly made me fall in fright. It was an angry, violent noise full of malice. The lava bombs flew way beyond the cone and onto the plateau, the closest landing barely 150 metres from me. I hurried on, desperately wanting to be away from this raging entity.

See the impacts on the cone kicking up ash…

I was now in a section where steep slopes rose and fell and rocks tumbled beneath me. Just as another owl flew off from beside me Anak let rip again. And this time even bigger than the one just gone. His reach had extended and bombs were now falling within 100 metres of my location. Luckily I could no longer smell gas and then the beach appeared. I pressed on, now within sight of salvation, in full flee mode.

As I jumped onto the beach, the handle I was holding my bag with also snapped off. Cursing, I hauled it up onto my shoulder. I dreaded the final lava field that divided the two beaches. But it seems I wasn’t alone in being shaken by Anak’s sudden volatility and bad temper. I heard the boat before it appeared around the rocky headland. The fishermen made straight for me as I took my weary boots off. The boat swung into the shallows, barely stopping, as arms reached down to pull me aboard. Even through their toothy grins I could tell that they were nervous.

We headed straight out from the beach then banked east towards Java. I knew that they wanted to get home, yet I had one last request. The boat did a 180 and we headed back towards Anak. If I couldn’t circle it on land, then I’d do it on water. They gave me lunch but I wasn’t too keen yet – still focused on Anak, I was enjoying my last fix. I put my plate into the cabin as we passed under the ash cloud. It came down like light, grey snow, covering the decks and ourselves with a thin skin.

Looking up at Anak’s peak, I noticed a couple of small vents pumping out what looked like white steam. The wind was blowing it right down onto the plateau I was on. It must have been the gas I walked into. The cone on the western coast did go right down to the sea, well within range of the two huge, final eruptions I’d witnessed. If I had been so stupid as to continue through the gas, and make it, the timing would have had me on the cone during those eruptions. A shudder passed through me at the thought.

We rounded the southern coast and headed through Rakata and Panjang into open sea. I looked back at Anak, fading into the distance, with the familiar grey cloud rising up above. I now understood and respected the incredible power he wields. Nowhere else have I seen the cycle of life and death represented so clearly. It’s no wonder that ancient peoples worshiped volcanoes as gods. I can’t see how mankind will ever control or even tame such unpredictable forces. We will forever be at their mercy.

Happy to be on their way home

Over a million people live on the coastlines immediately surrounding Anak. One day, as their ancestors before them did, they’ll have to stare death in the face. The final part of my journey was to meet these people and find out what plans are in place to protect them from Anak’s fury.

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Child of a Volcanic God – Part 1 (of 2)

(Long overdue, I’ve whacked out the first half of this piece. Due to the majority of the photos I took – and all the videos – being 20,000km away from me right now, text will have to suffice for now. Enjoy!)

A restless youth is growing from the sea in the Sunda Straight. At 300m tall, he still has a way to go before he can compare to his mother. His mother was a God. A vicious, vengeful God who unleashed her wrath onto the world upon her death. A suicide bomber the size of a mountain.

Known to the Western world as Krakatoa, she wreaked havoc during August of 1883. After months of increasing activity, the final explosions came on the 27th of August. It was a dark day.

After a lengthy slumber, smoke from her top warned that something was brewing. Over a few weeks increasing eruptions frightened the local population.

Pressure built to a point where the underwater magma chamber collapsed.

A series of tsunamis rolled out from her, the biggest being 40 metres high, devastating coastlines that lay in its path, and were felt as far away as Britain. The sound of the explosion was unlike any human had heard for thousands of years. Off the coast of Africa, sailors thought they heard sounds of a distant cannon fire. The blast’s shock-wave circled the planet seven times. A pyroclastic surge of hot ash, pumice and blistering gas raced across the sea on a bed of steam, scalding and burying all in its path. 20 cubic kilometres of material vanished and the Earth cooled as a result of an atmosphere heavy with ash. All that’s left of the triple-coned volcano are the sheared cliffs of Rakata.

It was also the first major global news story, harnessing the newly developed telegraph communications.

Her progeny is now rising from the ruptured womb. He has been spurting his own ashes, announcing himself to the world like a boisterous teenager. One day he’ll cause his own catastrophe.

It was time for me to pay the child a visit.

*

To cross the Sunda Straight I chartered a fishing boat from Labuan, a rough town on the western coast of Java. Most trips are organised and depart from the nearby beach resort of Carita, and my original plan had been to go from there. This changed, as while on the bus down from Jakarta, I was intercepted by a rogue tour guide by the name of Udin. I was onto him from the start, when the bus conductor handed me his phone, but other tourists were evidently falling for his well-rehearsed routine. Misspelling ‘vulcano’ on his business card, constantly trying to prove his authenticity, the persistent pestering, not wanting to give me time to decide, his shifty eyes – the fraud was all too obvious.

By 8AM our boat pulled out of the congested estuary and hit the open sea. The day was overcast and visibility low, yet the surface remarkably calm. The crew of five had an average age of at least 50 and not a full set of teeth between them. Only one mustered a few words of English. There was no guide. More misinformation from Udin. Only after I’d handed over the cash did he tell that he wouldn’t be coming on the trip.

I kicked off my boots and lay on the prow, my mind unsure. Sleep took hold for a quick half hour. Direct sunlight soon had me back up.

My eyes focused into the distance, trying to spot a cone. It was not until past the half-way mark that a faint outline appeared. A low shape took form, confusing me. Then, to its left, I saw a line rising at a 20 degree angle, peaking, then running back down to the sea. Rakata! Sertung and Panjang lay nearby, completing the triplet that surround the notorious child. White clouds hung above. It was another few minutes before a smaller, steeper cone revealed itself between the three islands.

A dark cloud rose out of this one.

Krakatau!” shrilled our pilot with a grin.

Finally I had my target in sight. It excited me, yet the dark plume was a surprise. Udin had previously confirmed that it was supposed to be in a temporary state of dormancy. The dark cloud soon melted away into the haze. Maybe I’d just imagined it. But no, a few minutes later a fresh one rose a kilometre up from the peak. So Anak is awake!

I tried to time these exhalations, and at first they seemed to come every 10 minutes, but the fourth plume just kept coming and coming. I could now see that Rakata and Panjang were completely covered in a thick layer of jungle. Anak himself had green growth on his eastern and northern flanks. Rakata rose up above as we entered ground zero. Bootsmans Rots, a couple of jagged rocks, poked out from the sea, a curious blemish in the calm waters. Outstretched fingers of the dead mother in a last defiant gesture of warning to the world – I may have perished, but my son will follow.

It was hard to notice all this as my eyes kept being drawn back the dark grey plumes of ash that mushroomed from Anak’s peak. Is this normal? Have I got more than I bargained for?

The main beach had three other boats anchored off it, and we slid in besides the largest one. I threw my boots onto the black sand and jumped ashore. I was distracted by a large group of about 30 Indonesian tourists, a part of which consisted of some extremely gorgeous women who looked like supermodels. I sat on a log in the clearing behind the beach. Trees rose all around, blocking the view of the bellowing summit. Here the ground was grey and a consistency between dust and mud. Signs gave some basic information on the 1883 eruption and the formation of this new piece of land.

In 1883 death emanated from the old volcano. But after death comes life. It took 44 years for Anak to first peek above the waves. He’d been slowly rising from the remains of his mother, putting on weight in the depths. The sea bubbled and steamed, ash and fire spurted high, fisherman fled.

It wasn’t easy for Anak to enter this world. Three times the elements beat him back. But then he pushed harder, and three years later he threw out enough material to gain a permanent position above sea level. Once he’d conquered the wind, rain and waves – and occasionally his own violent tendency towards self-destruction – he grew like an island on steroids.

Volcanic ash is one of the most fertile of all soils. Life now flourishes on Anak Krakatau. On this north-western coast the jungle’s got a foothold. Anak was extremely volatile and disruptive in his early days. Life found it difficult to settle in the ever-changing environment. Just like Anak had to fight the elements to survive, vegetation finds it tricky to dodge the lava flows and suffocating ash.

The troubled youth didn’t seem to like the green growth and wiped it out many times.

Rakata, that remnant flank of the mother, quickly welcomed life back. Within decades hundreds of species of plant and animal were thriving on its rigid, stable slopes.

*

The supermodels and their entourage departed and I was left to nibble on the sticky, chilli rice they’d given me. A rustle in the bushes had me turn round. Two metres of scales, muscle and a lashing forked tongue slowly ambled its way towards me. A scavenging monitor lizard. The beast tasted the air and cautiously ventured closer. I tossed over the banana leaf wraps of fiery rice, making the huge reptile kick up ash in alarm. It recomposed itself, tasted the snack, decided to not breathe fire and headed to the beach for a dip.

A heavy set man with a military crew-cut came over and introduced himself as Amir, one of four Forestry Department rangers who keeps an eye on the island. He had a bizarre, green sub-machine gun slung under his shoulder. He wouldn’t tell why he was armed. We joked about the supermodels and shared a couple of kretek cigarettes. These are iconic of Indonesia and the sweet, pungent smell of the clove-infused smoke wafts across the country.

*

After acclimatising myself, it was time to say hello to the Anak himself.

With two of my fisherman we followed the path through the casuarina forest towards active peak. This is where having a guide may have been useful. Excitement manifested itself as we trudged over fallen trunks and through the thinning trees. At the tree-line my escorts stopped, out of fear or laziness (it was hard to tell), and motioned me onwards towards the first ridge. The ridge appeared to be the remains of an older cone that must have blown itself apart. I followed a thin trail up to the left through the heavy ash. Dead tree stumps lay scattered around the bottom half of the barren slope. The going got steeper and I was quickly out of breath. As I paused Anak spurted out his first warning. A muffled crack drew my attention to the cone. Pulsating clouds of dark grey ash shot up towards the atmosphere. Out of this came lumps of molten pumice, arcing high into the air, before being dragged back to Earth. They plopped down ferociously onto the side of the cone, kicking up little white clouds upon impact.

I continued on, drawn to the epicentre as if possessed. Sweat poured from me as the air seemed to warm. Ash sunk beneath my feet, as if they were climbing a snowy mountain. I panted hard.

A very low, discreet thud came from the belly of Anak, followed by a rushing sound. Brand new rocks flew out of his mouth, leaving trails of smoke in their wake.

Once on the ridge I turned north and walked along to its highest point. A small valley separated me from the cone. It was crusted yellow in places with sulphur, and either steam or gas wafted up from hidden cracks. A lone crooked stump stood on the slope below – long dead. How a small tree had grown there in the first place is beyond me.

I looked back down the way I came and tried to spot the fishermen. Either it was too far, or they’d left. The forest appeared small and the sea flat from this vantage point. A small white speedboat cut a white line in its surface, past the cliffs of Rakata and back towards Java. From here I could see how tiny and insignificant humans must seem to Anak. I turned back to face him and sat on the ridge, 300 metres away from his mouth The dark grey ash continued to bellow up as it curled into itself.

Wonder. Awe. Respect. Shock. Fascination. I was overwhelmed with emotion and adrenalin.

Fear was the one emotion I didn’t feel – but probably should have. I wanted to get close – personal – look the titan in the eye. Foolhardy – maybe? But suicidal – no! My original idea had been to climb to the summit, assuming that it was semi-dormant. Udin had said I could. But he was still on Java, counting his money, while I stood alone, gazing up at a cauldron of death, with a perfect view of the action. I watched small lava bombs hitting the cone. No, I don’t think I’ll be climbing to the top today. Anak was telling me to stay away. He was wide awake and ready for fun.

I sat for a while on the ridge, contemplating my plans. I had another 24 hours on Anak and I wanted to get to know him some more. My current spot was special, yet not enough for me. I dragged my gaze away from the summit’s hypnotising activity, rolling them towards the right and the island’s northern shore. The forest I’d come from ended here, cut off by heavy lava flows in 1994. These flows had created a low plateau that stretched for hundreds of metres towards the sea. From this distance it appeared gnarly, cracked and bleak – a veritable wasteland of young basalt. My eyes couldn’t see what lay beyond this, on the other side of the cone. That’s when I decided to walk around Anak Karakatau.

*

A voice in the air brought me back to my senses. I cocked an ear and listened hard. Again I heard it, this time clearer – a distinct “Heyyy!” I stood and looked down the slope from where the wind seemed to be carrying the voice. Far below, striding out from the tree-line, I spotted a bare-chested man in green shorts waving his t-shirt at me – Amir. The fishermen who’d accompanied me had gone.

I could sense Amir’s agitation and knew that he wanted me to come down. I’d spent about 15 minutes on the ridge and was desperate for another five. I tried to convey this to him, which only resulted in him shouting and waving even more. Reluctantly I conceded and let him know that I was coming down. I’d been filming and hurriedly packed my gear back into the bag. Instead of retracing my ascent, I cut straight off the ridge and down the steep slope towards Amir.

I felt like I’d been torn away from a party by my mother. Now that I’d had a fix I wanted more. I understood the danger I’d put myself in, but did it anyhow. Part of the reason I took Udin’s cowboy tour was to test the limits. A real guide wouldn’t have let me go off like that.

Getting down was a lot quicker that going up. My black boots were light grey by now. Small clouds of white puffed up from the gritty slope with each heavy step. I approached Amir, who was now calmly puffing on a kretek cigarette, his t-shirt wrapped round his head bandana-style. Hussein, another ranger, had joined him.

“No go up there,” Amir said “dangerous!”

I tried telling him that nothing came within half the distance from where I’d been sitting. He shrugged and led me to a large hole in the ground nearby. He then pointed to a rock, a metre across, which lay a short distance beyond it. A straight line linked Anak’s summit, the hole I was next to, and the extremely heavy rock that’d made it. The edge of the hole was well defined and had not yet collapsed. “Yesterday” Amir confirmed to me, “big one!”

I’d been put back in my place.

*

Back at camp I swapped my dusty outfit for surf trunks and entered the dark waters. There was little visibility underwater and I didn’t bother using the snorkel that was on offer. The bottom dropped off rapidly and I was soon paddling on my back. I’d heard that the underwater sights were good in this area, with manta rays being spotted, but again I was distracted by summit. From here I could hear the distant, muffle cracks as Anak spurted debris upwards.

I was drawn back towards the volcano like an addict needing his next fix. Once out of the water I explained my plan to Amir. He was fine and just told me to be careful.

I grabbed my hammock, put on a light shirt, a pair of flip-flops and headed back towards the Anak alone. Amir had told me not to venture past the last of four posts that marked the way to the tree-line. Once there I scouted around and found two suitable trees that gave me a clear view of the summit. I strung up my hammock and clambered in. To my left was life and to my right death. The ridge I’d earlier scaled rose up and dominated the view. Behind it jutted up the crest, bellowing out its dark clouds that were given a golden outline by the dropping sun.

I lay back and smiled. I’ve strung my hammock in a lot of interesting places, but his was taking it a step further. I lit up a kretek and began to day-dream. Despite the arguably most notorious volcano in the world erupting under a kilometre away, it seemed such a peaceful place. Birds sang in the trees and I could no longer hear any boat engines or other signs of human activity. Anak went quiet and the dark clouds dissipated into the atmosphere. The sun touched the ridge-line and orange hues began to spread across the sky.

With Anak taking a break I took in the pine trees around me and marvelled at how quick life had colonised this new piece of land. Insects were abundant, yet surprisingly I’d come across no mosquitoes. I put this down to the lack of any open, fresh water sources for them to breed in. All our water had to be brought from the mainland.

Anak reasserted himself with a crack and a jet of almost black ash and pumice that rushed vertically up. His violent strength was all too evident, yet a nearby bird didn’t even break off his song, continuing as if nothing had happened.

I zoomed in on the carnage, and then later played back the footage in full HD, watching individual lumps fly out in slow-motion, digitalised as they come crashing down from the sky.

*

That evening I swam out to the two boats and had a dinner of deep-fried chicken and rice with a side serving of instant noodles. Once full I jumped over from the fisherman’s boat to the ranger’s, which had a large elevated deck. Tea and coffee flowed and Amir explained a little more about the ranger’s job. They work for the Indonesian Forestry Department and keep an eye on Anak as it’s a protected area. They play no scientific role and are not involved in tourism, yet extract a “visitor’s fee” from passing tourists. I still couldn’t fathom a reason for the sub-machine gun.

They told me that the eruptions started the previous day and that I’d timed it perfectly. I’d originally planned to arrive about a week later, but after a trip to see the Komodo Dragons fell through, I forwarded my plans.

Our little chat was cut short by Anak deciding to show off. Jets of deep red scattered into the evening sky, unlike any fireworks display I’d ever seen. Glowing blobs hit the cone and rolled down leaving molten trails in their wake. Seeing these eruptions at night was a whole new experience. The nature of what I was witnessing really hit home. Forces beyond my imagination were churning out magma from the depths of the Earth. Live geology – up close!

I downed my tea, made excuses and dived into black sea. Another set of burning streamers illuminated the darkness. I hurried to the tent, threw on my ashed clothes, grabbed video camera and tripod, flicked on my torch and headed up towards the light show. The insects were in full song and creatures rustled in the trees. My powerful torch beam exposed nothing – eerie

I reached ‘marker 4’ and plonked myself down. Tripod deployed and camera running, I lay on the crusty ground and waited. And waited some more. The battery started running low so I switched off the camera and kept my finger hovering over the power button. On a couple of occasions Anak teased me with deep rumbles and he emitted an orange glow from his rim. Odd spurts of lightning flickered from within the ash cloud.

I shifted uncomfortably on the slope and egged the child volcano on. He went quiet so I lit up a kretek. My mind drifted to other subjects and the rhythmic song of some lonely frog lulled me. I rested my head on the bag and absently gazed at the ominous outline beyond. The insects died down and I carried on waiting. The moon slid behind the high altitude ash cloud, turning the night a shade darker…

I jolted just in time to save myself from impending sleep. Something had lightly bitten me and my torch revealed a small pack of earwigs scampering around my gritty bed. I brushed them off my bag and body while realising that I’d spent well over an hour on the slope. Another ten minutes passed and I came to the conclusion that Anak himself was sleepy. Or just camera shy. I wanted to stay longer, but the thought of sleeping on the side of an active volcano wasn’t comforting. I could also be sitting up there half the night without even getting a good shot. But inside I had that feeling that something would happen soon. I waited another ten minutes. Another little nip to the ankle felt like the earwigs were warning me away. Time to go Max! I conceded that it wasn’t to be my night. I packed up and trudged back down towards the beach.

Back at camp I cleaned myself up and climbed into my hammock. Not even twenty minutes passed when Anak let out the most almighty roar. Through the trees I spotted huge embers flying above, as if every smoker in the world had flicked their cigarettes at once.

The bastard had waited for me to leave, then BANG! The biggest eruption so far, the sound frightening – huge. A massive lightening filled plume blocked out the stars. I ran to the beach to get a better view, but no more came. It felt like fate, something I wasn’t supposed to see. I accepted and gave Anak his victory. No night footage, but those memories will remain etched within my mind for ever.

In my tent, lying on the ground mat, I could feel tremors beneath. “What has Anak got in store for me tomorrow?” I wondered.

To be continued…

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Anak Krakatau Teaser

A restless youth is growing from the sea in the Sunda Straight. At 300m tall, he still has a way to go before he can compare to his mother. His mother was a God. A vicious, vengeful God who unleashed her wrath onto the world upon her death. A suicide bomber the size of a mountain.

Known to the Western world as Krakatoa, she wreaked havoc during August of 1883. After months of increasing activity the final explosions came on the 27th of August. It was a dark day.

Her progeny is now rising from the ruptured womb. He has been spurting his own ashes, announcing himself to the world like a boisterous teenager. One day he’ll cause his own catastrophe.

It was time for me to pay the child a visit.

TBC…

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Notice:

Extreme movement has kept me away from the keyboard for some time. Nevertheless I’m half way through a very eruptive story. It should be up here within the next week or so.

An upcoming odyssey requires me to set up a new website. As you can already tell, I’m pretty useless at this. Any offers of help will be much appreciated. I will, at some point, also revamp this shoddy, neglected blog.

So that you don’t have to wait for me to get my act together, somewhere to the right of this text is a button of some sort, that allows you to subscribe to updates to this blog. Until then I leave you with the annoying words of:

To be updated soon…

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Paradise? – Part 2: Trouble Awaits

We left Koh Tang in the late morning and set course for Koh Phi, two small, uninhabited islands an hours ride away…

We passed the first of the two islands and approached the smaller one. I slipped on my battered shoes and dived in, beating the anchor to the drop. Smooth, slippery stones slowed me down as I emerged on the rocky beach. Jagged edges made me pick my steps carefully, as I checked out the selection of trees on the lower part of the island. Not many hammock spots presented themselves, so with Archie, I explored the other half. A bunch of cormorants flew off as we followed the shore. No soil – only rocks, some trees and a tangle of bushes. The centre piece was a beautiful type of strangler fig that rose higher than all around it: The Mother Tree!

Overall not the best place to camp.

*

Back on the boat we swung round to the larger island. Again the shore line was rocky, but its bigger sized promised a camp spot. A defensive wall of stone had been built around the southern point, a warning to invaders. Keen to explore, I dodged a barrier of thorny sea-urchins to make it ashore. I ran off ahead, playfully hopping from boulder to boulder. I felt like a kid again, off on an exciting adventure.

The western coast rose up in jagged walls to a slanting plateau above. Ferns grew thickly, obscuring all sorts of ankle-twisting possibilities. Unidentifiable creatures rustled nearby. Short trees and their many roots gripped the rock. As I moved round to the other side, the land flattened, allowing me to begin penetrating the hidden interior. The foliage thickened as I left the waves behind. Green, blue and blacks birds moved in the shadows. A posse of bats awoke and screeched as I passed below their perch. A mess of scattered feathers indicated a predator on the island.

I spotted a thin trail that led deeper, into the inner sanctum. The air was still as I wound my way through the ferns. Two saplings formed a gateway to a slight clearing under the low canopy. A spire of a termite hill marked the centre point of a perfect camp spot. Enough trees were scattered around for hammocks and the ground was free of rocks and relatively flat. Creatures rustled in all directions while the birds warned of an intruder in their midst. Beady eyes watched me from above. I ignored the pang of unease that shot through my soul and decided to explore further.

The terrain rose as I continued onwards. My next find was truly surprising. Right-angles and straight lines poked up unnaturally from the undergrowth. As I edged closer concrete walls formed a rectangle about four metres long and two deep. It was sunk into the ground and half full with stagnant, black rainwater, into which vines grew. A code of numbers lay engraved on one of the top edges. What did this mean? What secrets lay concealed in those dark waters?

I’m not normally a superstitious person, but I felt a strong presence. People had once lived here, soldiers, Khmer Rouge maybe. Had there been fighting, death, dark deeds committed – who knows? A cemetery with no tombstones. A place forbidden to outsiders. We were intruding. Uninvited foreigners trampling where they shouldn’t. This weighed on me as I stood alone, yet it also excited me.

A said a silent prayer to the spirits, meaning them no harm, and left to find the others.

*

The others joined me and I gave a brief tour of what I’d found. While hopping boulders, The Hungarian pointed out a large black mass in the water.

“Hey guys, check this out. I think it is fish!”

Archie: “Oh yes – Sardines! Look they are so close. We must catch some!”

With that The Hungarian retrieved the net from the boat and the two of them began a comical routine. Picking their way through the shallows, Archie began swiping at the moving shadow with the net. The Hungarian followed with half a plastic bottle to use as a container. Catching the sardines with net seemed to be no problem – the skill involved transferring them to the bottle before they slipped through the wide meshing. After all their efforts, they only managed to finish with a handful of individuals.

*

After lunch on the boat we began ferrying our supplies to the shore via a cooler box with ropes attached to either end, enabling it to be pulled to and fro. The Hungarian wasn’t keen on sleeping in the forest again, and decided to set himself up right by the water. Once I had my machete I went ahead to begin clearing the camp spot. After widening the path I went about making space for the hammocks.

This is when the island decided to give me a firm warning. I’d just cut a sapling and was dragging it to one side, when an intensely fierce pain stabbed into the top of my head like burning piece of broken glass. I yelped and swatted at whatever was attacking me. My hand connected with something hard with legs, dislodging it from my scalp. A large black and red thing flew off with a buzz – a hornet!

Stunned by this seemingly random, brutal attack, I stood for a moment clutching my head. The pain burned sharply inwards, but hoping it would fade, I continued with my work. I thought it a one-off incident, probably as a result of me knocking the hornet with that sapling I’d cut.

I mentioned it to the others when they arrived, but didn’t make a big deal of it, not wanting to scare them off from the one good camp spot on the island. Oh the joy of hindsight.

Fifteen minutes went by, all our stuff had been brought to the spot and hammock knots were being tied. Iskander borrowed my machete to do some clearing. I was helping Karen pick a good spot for her bed when the madness erupted.

Iskander was hit first – “Argghh, fuck, fuck!!” – arms flailing about.

Then came Archie “Wahhhhhhh, wahhhh” – hopping up and down.

Suddenly realising what was happening, I shouted the only thing I could –

RUN!”

The group fled in panic and fear amid a cacophony of screams. With the aggressors hot on their heels they sprinted down the path towards the beach. All that is except for me. In the confusion I ran the other way – straight into a wall of bushes. Luckily the pursuers had followed the herd, leaving me alone in the darkening jungle. I froze and contemplated… “What next?”

I waited and listened, not daring to move. All was silent for what seemed a very long time. An old The Clash tune started playing in my head. “Should I stay or should I go now?”

Finally The Hungarian came nervously up the path, looking this way and that. I met him at the edge of the clearing.

“So what’s going on – how are the other guys?” I asked.

“Not too good. Archie was hit real bad, at least six stings. Brechtje has two or three, as does Iskander. Most were on the head. Have you any calcium? I hear this is good for stings.”

“No, but here’s some anti-histamine. Share it round the group.”

He left with the four pills I’d given him, once again leaving me alone. Shards of the diminishing sunlight reminded me of the late hour, the need to organise accommodations. Options flew through my mind – another jungle spot, the shore, the boat?

An ominous buzzing yanked me back to the present. I froze, hoping it’d pass, but the island had one last, firm message for me. The hornet repeatedly thrust its sting into my head, two inches to the left of the previous wound, once again sending piercing pain straight through my skull.

OK, I hear you now, I’m leaving!”

With that I finally ran out from the jungle as fast as my worn feet could carry me.

*

Back on the rocky beach our defeated group sat nursing their wounds. Poor Archie was bent double in pain as Karen caressed him. Brechtje looked around for more medication, while Iskander recounted to me how they’d all jumped into the sea after bursting from the jungle. The Hungarian began to cook. This brought me back to the pressing issue: where to sleep?

“So who wants to sleep in the jungle?” I joked, hoping for a smile. I received none. The boat now lay over a hundred metres off shore, and besides there was no real place for seven extra people to sleep on it. That left one other option: join The Hungarian on the shore.

Now came the daunting task of retrieving all of our gear from the scene of the crime. Feeling responsible for the pain of the others I got up alone. They were clearly in no mood to leave the relative safety of the beach – bar one.

“Hey buddy I think your going to need a partner in this.” said Iskander as he stood. Nice one!

*

After creeping down the path with senses on high alert, we observed the clearing from its edge. Bags lay scattered about and four hammocks had to be taken down. Iskander pointed out what I’d somehow failed to notice the whole time. Three metres above our hammocks, in a small tree, was an enormous, orange, tear-drop shaped nest from which our nemesis buzzed to and from. Directly below it, embedded in the trunk, was my machete. Aha!

Iskander grabbed two of the closest bags and ran them down the path. Crouching low, I swiftly moved over to mine. Twenty seconds later I had a long sleeve shirt on and a krama wrapped round my head, looking and feeling like I was on a suicide mission. With an eye on the nest and both ears cocked, I piled the bags on to the path for Iskander to pick up. That was easy. Next came the hammocks. Mine came down quickly and I dragged it to the path without bothering to fold it. Two of the others were torturous due to the tightness of the knots. My trembling fingers pulled at the ropes, desperately trying not to shake the trunks. They finally gave and I added them to the shrinking pile by the path.

All that remained was machete. Iskander had mentioned leaving it, but I was determined. Standing a few paces off, I readied myself. My eyes moved from the blade to the nest, and back again. Inhaling, I closed the gap to my target, eye fixed on the hive of trouble above. I felt an audience watching as I stopped next to the trunk. My hand reached out and froze just above the handle, sweaty and twitching. I shot one final glance above before snatching the offending item and bolting to the beach for the last time.

*

We now faced a race against the sun to set up again. Spots were scarce but we made do with what trees were available. Brechtje and I positioned ourselves near to the Hungarian, while the others found space about 50 metres down the shore-line. Large and sharp rocks covered the ground so we laid washed-up styrofoam under all the hammocks. It was not a place you’d want you hammock rope to break on you..

We spent the evening trying to numb the persisting pain with jungle juice. Spirits once again rose and we joked about our misfortune. Floating storms provided a lightening show in the distance. The rocks and broken coral ceased to be a discomfort and the realisation of where we actually were became our solace. Seven friends who’d overcome the pitfalls of being stranded on a deserted island. Paradise?

*

Last to bed, first up. My head was still sensitive to the touch, yet the agony had faded into memory. I joined the sun in rising and pottered about the coral, whistling a tune whose lyrics had been bouncing around my head: “It seems that every single time, we put ourselves right in the firing line

As beautiful as the situation was, I felt compelled to leave. I transferred the tune from my head to the MP3 player and began to dismantle my bedroom. My motions awoke Brechtje:

“Packing already?

“Yeah I’m going to move my stuff to the boat and go for a little snorkel.”

“Cool, I’ll join you in a bit.”

Ten minutes later I was gazing at the serene underwater world.

*

The others slowly rose and also began evacuating Hornet Island. Safe on board, Archie involved us in a final fishing session. By late morning the the anchor was being pulled in and the boat directed towards Lazy Beach on Koh Rong Saloem

The crew seemed relieved to be leaving Hornet Island. Beds, bathrooms, burgers and cocktails were on the horizon. Three days and nights out in the wild had taken its toll on the city folk. We’d survived and now came a night of luxury as a reward.

A perfect white sand bay, guarded by forested hills at either end, greeted us a few hours later. A Western-run resort, it fully deserves its name. After checking into the twin, double bed bungalows, we assaulted the restaurant menu. Cold beers, mojitos, onion rings, pancakes, teas, shakes, lassis, burgers, spring rolls, Long Island Ice Teas, pineapple fritters… we ate and drank late into the evening. I was first to slumber:

“Guys, that’s it! I’m going to make my way down to the beach.”

I swayed and staggered on to shore and sat under the stars. Gradually gravity overpowered me and I found myself slipping into unconsciousness. Rolling to one side, I melted into the sand. Then something yanked me back from the brink. The sudden urge to swim had me awake. I peeled my body upright and my legs began working, guiding me into the midnight waters. Self-preservation told me to stay in the shallows where I could bob around harmlessly. I would have stayed all night had my awaiting bed not dragged me back to the bungalow.

I awoke in the middle of the night with a parched throat. As I got up I noticed something wrong – I was naked! Quickly putting my shorts on, I thought about how this may have happened. Then I saw the towel on the bed. A memory of taking a shower flashed through my head. I pictured myself with the towel round my waist and collapsing on the bed. I wondered what Brechtje, Lindsay and Iskander had thought when they’d walked in.

*

As the adventure neared its conclusion, the mood was reflective and relaxed. Trials, tests and terror were conquered, rewarding our endurance with a host of firm memories and unique experiences. A special place in a special time with special people.

Our supplies held out, as did morale. It would have been too easy to have given in to despair – rough camping, intruding drunk soldiers, differences in opinion, hornet savagery – these alone would have broken a different group. The crew became a tight and united through what they’d overcome together. On the return journey we filled an empty bottle of rum with messages of hope, despair, warning, adventure and exploration before casting it into the currents.

I sat alone on the prow as we began our final approach to the mainland. The scenery was heavily scarred by the tentacles of human expansion. Sores appeared along the trampled landscape, spreading from the hub that is Sihanoukville. Some outlying islands remained covered with a bubbly growth of natural vegetation – but for how long?

The seas are already plundered, foreign fisherman compete for the last scraps. Growth has few limits. Tourism, agriculture, development, the need for people to live – all compete for space.

On arrival at Otres Beach it felt strange to see the hordes of tourists. Rows of sunbeds lined the sand and a scattering of heads bobbed in the water. A windsurfer cruised just off-shore, beyond which, in the far distance, a jet-ski zipped along. Paradise?

Each has their own interpretation of paradise. What may be paradise for one can be hell for another Follow if you must, but remember – beware of Hornet Island!

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Paradise? – Part 1: Crashing Koh Tang

RUN!”

The group fled in panic and fear amid a cacophony of screams. With the aggressors hot on their heels they sprinted down the path towards the beach. All that is except for me. In the confusion I ran the other way – straight into a wall of bushes. Luckily the pursuers had followed the herd, leaving me alone in the darkening jungle. I froze and contemplated… “What next?”

Two days earlier…

The ghetto blaster played re-mixed Khmer music, a bottle of rum changed hands, beautiful people kicked back on deck – we were finally off after many delays and uncertainties. With our backs to the mainland we headed into open sea. The unknown. We’d opted out of the madness of Khmer New Year and sought isolation.

Seven passengers, two crew, nine nationalities. One hundred litres of drinking water, four bottles of rum, three litres of spiced rice wine (my homemade “jungle juice”), five kilos of rice, a multitude of snacks, seven hammocks with tarpaulins, two machetes and a boatload of high spirits. We’d come prepared.

And so we had to – this was no organised tour. Welcome to the world of DIY adventure travel.

The gang sprawled out on the deck of our rented fisherman’s boat in a variety of twisted positions – sheltering from the sun, catching up on sleep, or conserving energy before landfall – each had their reason. There was The Hungarian – our Khmer speaker and photographer, Archie – the ever eager curly-haired Frenchman, and his calm Filipino girlfriend Karen, Lindsay the enthusiastic and jolly American, Brechtje the kung-fu fighting Dutchwoman, Iskander – no-one really knows where he’s from, and myself, the wandering narrator.

Our course was a steady south-west towards a small group of islands 50km off the Cambodian coastline. We had five days and a host of ideas to keep us busy.

*

Tiny rectangular sails dotted the waters, like doorways to another world. As we came closer, we saw they weren’t from another world but from another country: Vietnam. ‘Boat’ could hardly used to describe the floating, circular tub not even two metres across. The Vietnamese intruder reluctantly tossed a squid aboard – straight at our chirpy American friend – where it hit with a sloppy slap. We would use this “donation” as fishing bait.

As we cruised on our captain explained that the numerous floating tubs we could see around us were dropped off by a mother-ship of some sort. They’d plunder the waters for a couple of days before being picked up and taken back across the invisible border. That explained how these precarious fishing bowls ending being so far out to sea and away from home. Our fisherman were clearly not impressed with this cross-border looting of their natural resources. Our captain had earlier accosted a Viet boat with the patriotic cries of “Angkor! Angkor!”.

*

After three hours at sea our destination appeared in the distance. Koh Tang grew with every passing minute. At first it was a mere faint dome on the horizon. Then it grew an arm pointing south. The the smooth outline began to reveal bulging trees. Flickers of golden sand emerged above the swell, visible when standing. A phone mast extended from the highest point, connecting the remote island to the greater world. The chunk of land now took up most of our view. A beach to the southern end looked perfect for our cause. Unfortunately the captain would only take to the main beach on the north-eastern coast – we had to meet the inhabitants.

We pulled gently up to the pier and unloaded the supplies we’d need. The Hungarian couldn’t resist and dived straight into the water. Most of the crew had already started walking down the beach when the welcoming committee turned up. The only moto on the island carried the local boss and a young grunt. He was friendly, shook hands and seemed to give us permission to go camp at the far end of the beach. Our Hungarian spokesman emerged dripping from the water to add some depth to the interaction. A gift of jungle juice and a packet of cigarettes, as well as two crates of beer from our fisherman, cemented our acceptance. The Cambodian army would let us stay on their island.

This came as relief. We had, after all, turned up uninvited

*

Koh Tang holds a place in military history:

On May 12th 1975, a US container ship, the SS Mayaguez, was captured by Khmer Rouge gunboats close to Koh Tang. The crew was moved to a fishing boat and taken to Koh Rong Saloem, close to Kampong Som (Sihanoukville). Due to a failure in aerial reconnaissance, the US believed that some of the crew were being held on Koh Tang. A helicopter assault with over 200 Marines commenced on the morning of May 15th. Unknown to the US, the island had been heavily fortified against potential Vietnamese aggression. They came under intense machine gun and RPG fire and lost two helicopters in the early stages. During the assault the Khmer Rouge released the Mayaguez crew from Koh Rong Saloem after having four of their gunboats destroyed.

Once this was realised the US cancelled the Koh Tang assault and began a tricky evacuation of the Marines on Koh Tang. The fighting was fierce and went on into the evening. In the confusion three Marines were left behind and subsequently executed.

The incident resulted in the death of 18 Americans, with 41 wounded. The Khmer Rouge lost about 20 men. The empty Mayaguez itself had been easily recaptured by the US in the morning before the assault.

*

As we carried our loads down the eastern beach I found it hard to imagine that such a place had witnessed so much violence and death. These same crystal clear waters had once been dyed crimson with American blood. We were also invading, but only to enjoy the natural surroundings.

Pig tracks littered the white sand and trickles of fresh water carved channels into the tide.

We scouted a patch of forest and came upon a good spot to set up our hammocks. After clearing the area, I assisted the rest of the team with their sleeping arrangements. After overcoming some rope problems (i.e. they broke), we soon had our insect and rain proof cocoons ready. The Hungarian busied himself with building beach fires out of driftwood, Archie and Karen prepared dinner while the rest of us went about emptying a bottle of rum. The ghetto blaster pumped some classic beach tunes.

We soon attracted some visitors. Two shadowy figures made their way down the beach, cans of fresh beer in hand. The soldiers were friendly and introduced themselves to the group. They politely refused a serving of pasta with tomato sauce – but eagerly joined us in drinking some rum. Through our translating Hungarian we learnt that 14 military families are based on the island, with a permanent population of around 80 people. A number of other soldiers also rotate there from the mainland.

This is all set to change. A Russian investment consortium has serious development plans for Koh Tang. Seven luxury hotels (named and styled after European cities), a collection of high-class villas and possibly an international airport will one day replace the wild jungle. Private yachts will dot the waters and the beaches reserved for wealthy Chinese will be off-limits to all others. The soldiers told us that a Russian owned a house not far from our spot, but didn’t live there. They didn’t know when construction of “paradise” would start.

(See http://www.kohtang.org/ for more details.)

Once they saw the rum bottle was empty, our new friends staggered off and left the international crew of beach tramps to sit under the stars. A washed up plank acted as a bench, our toes wriggled in the sand. The near-full moon illuminated all around us, leaving our torches to be used as photographic props. Eyes fixated on the embers of Natures glowing television. Iskander strolled into the lapping surf for a late-night swim. Paradise?

*

The first pangs of day light stimulated my eyes open. Bird-song danced through my ears as my nostrils picked up wisps of last night’s fire. Time to wake up.

A couple of the others stirred in their hammocks, but I was alone in rising. The sunrise drew me to the beach where the placid waters invited me in for a swim. The tide was low and after 30 metres of wading I was still only waist-deep. I turned, flopped and sat facing the beach. To my left low-lying rocks jutted into the water and continued along the coast. To my right the beach swung round to the pier. Small huts and buildings peered out from behind the tree line, beyond which a forested hill rose. Our green boat bobbed just off-shore. Except the lapping water, all was quiet. No need to explain the smile on my face.

Back in camp I put the coffee on and munched on some bread with honey. Our merry band seemed to now sense a reason to begin the day. Murmurs came from Archie and Karen, Brechtje and Lindsay pottered around their hammocks while Iskander finally switched off his head-torch after leaving it on all night. Only The Hungarian seemed content in staying where he lay. How, was hard to fathom: his cradle drooped down into a steep U-shape, twisting his body into an impossible position. One knee was thrust out so much to the side that I thought his mosquito net would rip at any moment.

*

Strolling down the beach, towards our boat, anticipation built for the day ahead. Exploring the island had been an option, moving camp also, yet we decided to make the most of having a vessel at our disposal. Once on board, our Hungarian friend instructed the fishermen to take us to a good spot. We wanted fish!

Out of the group only Iskander and I had any fishing experience, yet the others were keen to learn. Keen doesn’t even come close to the describing the enthusiasm that Archie displayed to the task. After a brief tutorial he was cradling the one rod and muttering encouragement to his prey below. “Come on little fishes, come try my tasty squid!”

The rest of us used a collection of hand-lines to angle with. The set up was simple: a small hook baited with a strip of squid, a weight to sink it the seabed and a long stretch of line to hold on to.

The waters around the island are as clear as they come. Even from 20 metres above you can see the bottom. With enough focus I could see a blotch of white where my bait lay below. And I have bad eyesight! Thin slivers of silver pecked from all directions. A taut line had me feeling every nibble. The trick is to wait until one of these nibbles becomes a bite, then strike hard with a sharp yank up. The hook then embeds itself and you pull in your prize. That’s the theory anyway. A lot of practice and patience is needed to become successful, and our professional Khmer crew evidently were learned in the art. Heads bent over in concentration, arms skilfully playing the line, they began to fill the pot. This inspired our gang and it wasn’t long until we made our first contribution.

“Hey guys, guys… I think I have something!”

“Quick pull it in before it slips the hook”

Moments later a lean, yellow, ex-inhabitant of the reef lay flapping on the deck before Archie.

“My first fish!”

Unhooking it presented a new challenge. Every time he reached to pick it up, the doomed fish convulsed defiantly. Archie’s hands shot back from fear of the spiny dorsal fin.

“Ahh, you little fucker, you want to play like that do you?”

He reached for the nearby euthanasing club and eventually beat his determined catch into submission. He held up his prize by the tail and beamed with joy for the camera. Now that he’d tasted success, there was no curbing his passion for his new-found hobby.

*

We passed the day circling the island, exploring reefs and taking in the views. The Hungarian spent most his time snorkelling and exploring the coastline. Upon finding a higher density of marine life he’d shout over to the boat: “Hey guys, come over. This is where you want to fish – there are monsters down here. Some look like sharks!”

Needless to say his back cooked like a steamed lobster throughout the day.

Brechtje, without much previous snorkelling experience, soon became a natural in the water. With confidence she’d propel herself far from the safety of our vessel, absorbed by the wonders of the underwater world.

Lindsay, after observing all the action quietly throughout the day, decided she wanted in on the fishing action. Picking up Iskander’s idle rod, she quickly became excited by the teasing fish,

“Oh my God! Wow! This is soooo much fun!”

While moving location, Archie went to gut his earlier prize. Slitting its belly over the side of the boat he commenced to yank out the slippery guts. With a false sense of triumph, he inadvertently let the dead fish have the last laugh. He loosened his grip on the slimy corpse, allowing it to slide through his fingers and plop into the watery grave below.

“Aye Merde!” a look of disbelief plastered across his face.

“Don’t worry Archie, it’s only a fish” consoled Brechtje.

Disbelief quickly turned into an increased level of determination: “OK, we must find new ways to catch these fishes!”

He’d become bored with merely angling from the deck and wanted to get closer to the action. Karen sat on board, line hanging over the edge, while Archie,equipped with mask, snorkel and fins, held onto the line while floating limp on the surface. Excited, drowned mumbles emanated from his tube as he teased the fish. Iskander soon joined him in the water and directed my efforts with an array of hand signals. Up, down, stop, wait, strike – his visual cues had me chuckling. The sport of Assisted Fishing had now been invented.

*

A mid-afternoon meal announced by The Hungarian from the back of the boat.

“Food guys, free food…… Come get some rice…. Who’s hungry?…. Food!”

Full bellies had us mellowing nicely. Some lay back on deck, some fished, others read. The stillness was occasionally broken by a splash of someone jumping in.

“Down a bit. All the fish are under your bait.”

“Those same three long fish are still under our boat. I think the followed us from Sihanoukvile.”

“Seconds, seconds! Who wants more rice!”

“…”

Calm and content was the mood as eyes began to notice the setting sun. Legs dangled over the side and minds wandered. Darkening islands threw out the screeching whirs of awakening insects. Rum exchanged hands…. Paradise?

*

We docked at Koh Tang pier in darkness. At The Hungarian’s suggestion we decided to barbeque our days catch on the boat. An hour later we were back on the boat after getting changed and shifting some supplies around. The fishermen had cooked, and served up a feast of grilled fish, rice and a chilli/lime dip. We tore into the fish and devoured the rice, washing it all down with rum and juice. A game of cards followed. Half way through our first game of “Shit-Head”, the inevitable happened.

“Hello, hello!”, – “How are you?”, – “Happy New Year!”

Ten army personnel appeared at the side of the boat, a couple of them swaying from the evenings festivities. A sense of caution replaced my mellow mood. I could see that our fishermen were uneasy with this big group turning up.

Our fisherman had anchored the boat away from pier the previous night. They didn’t feel comfortable being within reach of the soldiers. Apparently they are known to abuse fishermen who stay overnight and sometimes even beat them up when drunk.

Following The Hungarian, Archie, Iskander and I hopped onto the pier and exchanged greetings. It was the polite thing to do, nevertheless we weren’t too keen. Seeing them eye the rum, we shared some round. Wanting to give the impression that the bottle was our last (which it wasn’t), I asked if they had any alcohol for sale on the island. I’d hoped this would make them stop pestering us for booze.

Ten minutes later a $3 bottle of whisky arrived. Of course it was expected that the bottle be drunk right away. Most of the soldiers were friendly enough, the pie-eyed chief included, but a couple were very pushy. Sensibly the three girls had stayed on the boat, politely refusing the repeated, leering offers to join the troops on the pier.

The Hungarian asked a bit more about the island, and our possible next destination – Koh Prins. They told us that the fishing wasn’t as good around the island due to Vietnamese looting, affirming what we’d seen and heard on the journey out. Asking about sharks, we were fed a story about a soldier whom had lost a leg to one some years ago. If true, this would be a first in the Gulf of Thailand. We were also told about that caiman inhabited Koh Prins. Something here had been lost in translation, as caiman only inhabit Central and South America. Saltwater Crocodiles may have been what they were talking about. Maybe it one of these that had chomped the soldiers leg all those years ago.

We emptied the bottle in no time, and after saying hello to a couple of the soldier’s wives, the chief stood to leave. Taking this as our cue we also announced that we were going to bed. The rest of the troops had no choice but to follow their boss, leaving us free to stroll back down the beach to camp.

*

From our fisherman and the army personnel, we’d heard enough stories to make us think twice about going to our planned next stop, Koh Prins. A soldier losing his leg to a shark, caiman prowling the shores, more tribute to pay. Koh Phi, the other option, sounded perfect – two tiny deserted islands, good fishing, no sharks, lots of wildlife on shore – why not? Little did we know what really awaited.

To Be Continued…

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Snippets

With little time to document every field trip, here are some tastes from the last few weeks.

We camped at the fork of two rivers where the local buffalo liked to wallow. They weren’t too happy with our arrival, escaping to the far bank before trotting off through the tangled bushes. We set up base in the bamboo grove, making full use of the versatile material. A squadron of small bees mercilessly pestered me as I unpacked my bedroom. My back, hands and head were tickling as they sucked the sweat off of my skin. Nothing seemed to deter them – washing off the sweat, applying insect repellent, smoking – all useless. I’ve yet to resort to swatting them while they crawl on me. Only protection was the physical barrier of the mosquito net.

*

The smell of death wafted through the brush. We split up and followed our noses, trying to home in on the carcass. Ban and Theng lost the scent, I winced as I got warmer. I called them over to locate the final resting place. Ban eventually found the rotting pig under a raised log. I kept my distance as they investigated. The hide had fallen away and plump maggots wriggled gleefully. Upon trying to salvage a tusk, the jawbone fell away from the skull. I left them to it and went to locate the snare. The thick cable was wrapped and tangled around several branches and the ground showed signs of struggle. Still the noose was tight and empty, blood stains were absent. Somehow the pig had freed himself after a long fight, only to crawl 20 metres to his final resting place.

*

Away from the rich forest to the south, and the rivers that maintain them, the landscape drastically changed. Rich colours faded, the undergrowth thinned and the canopy vanished. The fiery sun beat down on the scorched landscape. Grey trunks rose from the black ground. Thorny shrubs reached out as we passed. Up on a ridge we could see for hundreds of metres, even kilometres in certain spots. Sometimes a bird would flutter among the bare branches.

Bush fires had marched here, smoking stumps revealing how recently. White strips of ash marked the soot, like chalk on a black-board, showing where logs had once lain. Apocalyptic came to mind.

It was late afternoon and our legs ached. The sight of the steep hill ahead demoralised us, but we had no choice but to climb. Water was low and desert-mouth had begun to set in. Hand, foot… foot, hand – we carefully tried not to slip while we slowly scrambled up the incline. Every step became harder. Images appeared of Frodo climbing Mount Doom.

Salvation came after one last steep section, in form of a green and shaded cashew grove. A road beyond it led us to voices…. and water.

*

Gati village sat upon a hill 500 metres above sea level and offered stunning views of the rolling landscape below. A rugged dirt road wound its way up through the burnt landscape to the flat top. Cashew plantations squeezed onto the edge of the summit, encircling the small settlement. Stilted huts and thatched shacks lay scattered around the main road. Fat pigs and skinny dogs scavenged amongst the plastic waste. Shy kids ran barefooted, kicking up clouds of dust, laughing. A relic of a man – thin legs in wellington boots, chequered krama around the waist, boney hand on crooked walking stick, bulbous pipe hanging from lips – sauntered to who knows where. A mobile shop on two wheels puttered along, bringing goods from below – nuts, jellies and jerkies swung among the other snacks. A water pump was the focal point of activity. Tubs were filled and bodies washed as laughter and conversation flowed. After re-hydrating our tired selves, we followed the road out and down the hill, into the darkening forest below.

*

It was last light as we reached camp. We merrily shouted and yelled as we crashed towards the orange glow of dinner. The fire had been recently stoked, yet The Kid was nowhere to be seen. Calling and checking the river gave no results. Only when we started to settle down did we hear a rustle from the bamboo above. Too large for a monkey, and with not enough hair, a cheeky face emerged from behind the thin leaves. The grin was only broken by a dirty cough and retching. We chopped a couple of the bamboo to hurry him down from his hiding spot.

***

“Teacher! Teacher! Waterfor!”

Ban pointed to the large pool below. We used vines to climb down to the bank. I tripped due to carelessly placing my steps. My eyes were glued to the wall of rock. It stuck out, a couple of metres above the water, and rose a further a five. A dark cave swept below it. Two streams fell from above, spraying the determined plants that held onto the side. I wished for a pair of swimming trunks,

*

The scouts zig-zagged across the dirt, stopping briefly to twiddle their antenna. Occasionally they’d bump into a comrade, exchange some info, then scurry off again – six little legs moving in rapid succession. When the first flake of dried fish fell onto the dirt, it was quickly picked up and brought to one of the many entrances to the city below. A guard’s head emerged from the hole, then ducked down to let the bearer past. He then emerged fully, revealing his size and angular figure. He inspected the surroundings. A grain of rice fell and he promptly seized it with his powerful jaws. With it raised high above he returned to the hole. Another guard popped his head out, then also made way. More treasures began to fall from above and word was passed around. Workers emerged from other entrances and started to collect the goodies. The guards would stay close to these gateways, helping with the larger pieces. They rotated door-man duty, with a pair of mandibles popping up from every tunnel. Larger loads of grub required a backwards descent, it being easier to drag something down than push it. As the bounty increased a full scale operation was launched…

TBC

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Sea Venture

Time for a change of scenary as I swapped the jungle for the coast.

The green boat was about eight metres long – long and thin – with a basic tarpaulin roof covering the middle section. Between the platforms at the prow and stern, benches lined the open sides. Two long-tail engines hung off the back. This would be our vessel for the night.

Iskander had arranged a fishing trip for my birthday, and a month later we were setting off from Otres beach, just down the coast from the resort town of Sihanoukville.

As we headed off into the sunset, I dreamt of Barracuda, Trevally and Red Snapper. I’d fished in the Gulf of Thailand a few years back and reminisced the good times we had. We had beer, rum, smokes and a pirate attitude. The Boat Man was relaxed and we anticipated a quality night on the water. Just us, the stars and hopefully some fish to join the party.

By the time we dropped anchor, the nearby islands were mere shadows in the background. White and green lights of fish and squid boats twinkled on the horizon.

Instead of rods we were presented with hand-lines. Squid was sliced up and threaded onto hooks. A single weight sunk the bait to the sea floor, at least 20 metres below the hull. I pulled the weight up just off the bottom, and with my finger on the tense line, felt every vibration of the current. It wasn’t long before I could detect a twitch twitch – nibble nibble.

Wait for it….. wait for it… Still again – mere trembles once more. Be patient Max.

10 minutes later another twitch. Visualise that little fishy tasting the squid, smacking it with its lips. You know he wants it.

And then it comes: the pull, he has it in its mouth. Your turn to pull – sink that hook! Hand over hand I begin to bring the line in. I feel resistance. Then nothing – dead weight. Damn! The hook slipped free.

20 more minutes pass and this time the hook takes hold. Hand over hand once again as I feel the line jerk about. Nothing heavy, but you don’t complain at your first catch. I see a flash of silver as my prize approaches the surface. He senses the end is near and makes some desperate final turns, but to no avail. The line is strong and I yank him from his world into mine. Small, thin, with stripes and spiny fins, he’s a mere snack. Once un-hooked, Boat Man lifts a plank from the decking and throws him under and into the hull, which is shallow with water. This water seemed intentional at first – a good way to keep the catch fresh. But when Boat Man deploys the extractor pump, I realise we have a leak.

*

The following couple were also small fry, but it wasn’t long before I felt a larger weight on the end of my line. The flexing muscles had more strength in them, and I was surprised to see a foot long catfish break the surface. The dinner pot was growing. The size of the catches increased and my thoughts turned to Barracuda once more. Oh how I was looking forward to a real fight.

Arghhh,, Ho Ho Ho! How sweet the rum tastes when swigged from a bottle out at sea.

Only the sound of gentle lapping contributed to our scheming murmurs. With all electronic gear switched off and buried, and with no other distractions, future plots were freely discussed. Fishing is as social as it is sporty. Relaxation is also a big draw. No need to take Valium when your at the waters edge.

*

Something began to vie for my attention, distracting me from the future and the sea floor. The hairs on my arms began to tingle as cool air flowed over them. My ears pricked to a new sound – a splattering approaching from behind. My eyes noticed the Boat Man jump into his water-proofs. My water-proofs lay 400km away on the edge of the jungle – I cursed myself. Different tones of downpour swept over us, hammering unique beats onto the tarp above our heads. White flashes flickered from unwelcome clouds. Boat Man sprung us into action and the lines were quickly withdrawn from the depths.

Once de-anchored we headed to shallower waters to sit out the storm. We parked next to a larger fishing craft and hoped for the best. The weather had originally come from the east, but once in it, the wind struck from all angles. The swell rose as more water poured into our simple craft. Boat Man now began to frantically pump water from the hull, plunging the handle up and down the tube and sending a constant stream out into the sea. All we could do was try to not get too wet. We stood to one side to avoid the angled rain, but would have to move as the boat spun on its axis. The wind became fiercer, making our evasive actions worthless.

The boat rocked from side to side, a traumatised vessel waiting for the madness to end.Water gushed in from the roof as it tipped steeply.

A brief respite was mistaken for the end. The hammering dimmed to a pitter-patter. The rum and late hour combined, making us stretch out on the benches and close our eyes. Then an unwelcome wall of sound approached from the east. Or was it the north? A second wall followed, this one more liquid in nature. Horizontal stances were exchanged for vertical ones. There was no hope for the bags under the bench. Standing only delayed the inevitable. Once resigned to our fate we went with it. The three drenched sea rats sat back down. Anchors pulled down our eyelids. We descended into that state half way between consciousness and dreamland. Elbows rested on knees, palms supported foreheads, wet clothing chilled the flesh. The Boat Man passed me a life jacket to use as insulation. There was no chance of sleep, only the prospect of dry land remained…

3.30AM

Shivering was now routine. The skies finally cleared and we could now see the outline of the coast. The riders had come out on the other side. Motivation for more fishing had long been swept away and Boat Man agreed to calling it a night. The anchor was hauled up and motor yanked into life. Our pilot dropped the propeller into the darkness and revved the engine. Then….. nothing. Silence.

This happened twice more and then the tools came out. Tweak here, adjustment there – try again. This time we managed 20 seconds before it died again. Time to try the spare. No better. Back to the first. More tools. More tweaks. More adjustments. Take one. Take two. Off we go.

An hour later we emerged on to land like the first amphibians evolving from fish. In the darkness we saw no other signs of life. We shed our wet skins and sought a dry place to rest. There was no question of finding rooms at this time. I collapsed onto a couch and used my hammock as a quilt. Somehow it’d remained dry. Iskander was not so lucky in finding comfort. He roamed the beach until sunrise…

*

I awoke to fresh people buzzing around me. One of them was kind enough to make me a mojito. Deck chairs were acquired on the beach front, while all our possessions dried in the early rays. Friends arrived and we quickly readjusted to terrestrial settings. Wide brimmed hats passed, from under which came offerings of massage from middle aged ladies. Kids pestered us to buy bracelets. Fat, bald German men with big bellies put towels on the neighbouring deckchairs, then went back to the bar.

The sky was still heavy, yet the wind moved aside some clouds, releasing outbursts of good looking sunshine. Western girls in bikinis, Asians in t-shirts, splashed about in the gentle surf. A jet-ski roared past. Indifferent beach dogs lazed on the sand.

*

As afternoon progressed we remembered that we had six fish sitting in the guest-house kitchen from where we’d hired the boat. Way too lazy to cook them ourselves, we let the chef work his magic on them. Chilli, lime, garlic….. wonderful! Was the storm worth it? I’ll let you decide that…

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Close Encounters of Different Kinds

Our second survey of the season threw up all sorts of encounters. It was a productive trip with plenty of stories to tell. So let’s get started…

Once again we were positioned to the south, close to the border. The grid to be surveyed was close to where we’d done the majority of our testing. We now knew the trail in well, yet it was no easier to walk due to the advancing dry season. With Ban, Nan and I we had a young local kid, of about to 16, to play role of porter and camp minder. He may have had trendy, bleached orange hair, but his bag was bigger than him, making us take many breaks to let him catch his breath.

A bear once climbed this tree

Nan, who knew the area well, lead us down to a camp spot along the Ou Rolea. We descended to its banks and stumbled upon a basic camp. Pots of food still lay around, making it look like the occupants had left in a hurry. Part in the water, part along the bank, were two, long drift-line funnel traps. We decided to deal with these later.

Our camp spot was taken, but luckily it was Panha and his monitoring team staying for their last night after completing the nearby line transect. We set up 30 metres down the bank, clearing a bunch of rattan and slinging our hammocks. The water level was low and a brown/red colour – early stages of stagnation. Nan dug a pit in the nearby gravel to act as a basic filtration system. I busied myself by building a simple bamboo hammock-side table. My mosquito repellent was nearly out so I experimented by trying to make up my own. After building a small fire to bring water to boil, I threw in some lemongrass, lime rind, garlic, tobacco and tiger balm – all ingredients that mosquitoes are supposed to hate. After it had cooled I decanted it into an empty spray bottle. It came out a dark brown colour and certainly stunk. I’m yet to prove its effectiveness.

These first days of setting up camp are some of my favourites. The work of making your living space comfortable is rewarding. You want to be able to relax after a hard days trekking. And we had two very hard days coming up…

*

We had our first wildlife observation the following morning as we headed along a track into the first cell. Luckily I was looking up and caught sight of a large, shaggy shape bound across the path. It didn’t seem to be a primate at first, but turned out to be a Stump-tailed Macaque, also know as the Bear Macaque. Considered rare in this forest, it’s probably the only time I’ll lay eyes on one.

It wasn’t long before we bumped into another rare mammal. I was struggling up a hill of bamboo, trying to reach the others who’d reached the top, when Ban lightly whistled to me and put a finger to his lips. Just as I reached them I fell into a dead stalk, loudly crunching it to pieces. Actually that wasn’t loud compared to the racket that followed. I first thought that we’d upset an Elephant, but fortunately the sounds of destruction moved away from our position.

“What the hell was that?” I asked.

Banteng.” I was told.

Nan showed me a blurry picture of a big black shape through the bamboo, indicating that it was a male. Once common, these wild cattle are now critically endangered. Domesticated Banteng are used for labour and meat in Indonesia, but wild populations are few and far between.

The elusive Banteng

*

The Ou Pam river also cut through our survey area. As we came up to cross it I noticed some green tarpaulins above us on the over bank – a camp. This time it wasn’t colleagues of ours. The bamboo shelter was built about a year back but was clearly still in use due to the recent litter scattered about. A winter-melon, not a week old, lay on the platform. As we inspected the site Ban found a rubber sports shoe that fitted him well. He liked it so much that he spent the next few minutes rooting around the bushes saying “Where one more?”.

Nan checking the scene out.

*

The remainder of the day was spent covering two more cells which kept me busy noting logging signs. The last section was tough as we negotiated a high ridge back down to the Ou Pam. We cleaned the grime and dirt from ourselves in its water, then skipped stones across it’s still surface. Doucs crashed around in some trees nearby. We were knackered, yet dug into our energy reserves to climb a picturesque stream that led us up the side of the valley. A logging track followed the high ground back to camp.

Ou Pam relief

No snares were found that day, or the next in fact. Day two was even more physical than the first. It was a needed reminder that the jungle can be extremely tough at times. One particular kilometre took us three hours to cross. The hills felt like mountains, the rattan like barbed wire while the ticks brought on parasitic paranoia. If left too long the bites swell and itch far worse than mosquitoes. It’s no fun when you find one down your pants.

I have no idea what this was

Ban had a cold coming on and wasn’t too happy when I kept leading them up and down these steep, slippery slopes. It was more enjoyable following the narrow streams along the valley floors, but we needed total coverage. Well close enough to anyhow. My favourite rubber shoes were finally falling apart, making it harder to keep my footing without their studs.

The highlight of the day was when we finally found the Ou Rolea. The stream that led us to it had 10 metre wall of rock overhanging its feeble flow. For once there was a surface where vegetation couldn’t get a hold. The odd creeper dangled down across the horizontal layers of stone. Shade gave way to beaming rays of sunlight as we freed ourselves from the clutches of the jungle. Another well deserved rest was taken along the banks of a river. Luckily a thin trail led us back up to flat ground. Amazingly Nan ran up the first section, probably re-energised after realising the worst was now behind us. Ban had displayed no such vigour, so I told him to take the following day off to recover from his cold.

Ou Rolea Relief

*

The next morning we had the The Kid come in Bans place. He seemed eager, not letting his wretched cough damp his enthusiasm, which was good as we had our most adventurous day so far. Our first port of call was a snare line that Panha had spotted while on his transect. The tip was good as we recovered 63 cables. Fortunately it was an old line and none were set. I’d been with The Kid, and once we’d reached our end of the line, we turned back to look for Nan. His end was longer, and it took us a few hundred metres until we heard some sounds of movement. But what we heard was not Nan, well not at first. Rather than footsteps, I could hear the crashing of branches, from at least three locations. One of them seemed to be heading directly my way. The Kid had wandered off but I kept still and quiet. The creature moved into a bush nearby, rustled around, then emerged – leaping over a log before casually sitting down three metres in front of me. A Blank-shanked Douc!

It would have made a brilliant photo, but somehow the Douc had no idea I standing within spitting distance, so kept up my best statue impression. He was looking away from me, but slowly turned its head in my direction. Its face was strikingly beautiful – almost blue cheeks, orange around the eyes, white whiskers, all surrounded by thick dark fur. I could almost see its expression change to one of horror as it noticed me. Then it was gone, leaping back through the undergrowth and up a tree, surprisingly with no warning call given.

This forest has the largest recorded population of Blank-shanked Doucs in the world. They are easy to spot up in the trees, but to see one this close up and on the ground was amazing. Hannah later told me that they are considered exclusively arboreal (living in trees), yet there has been the odd sighting of them on the ground. Hearing that I was really gutted that I took no picture.

*

Once we had Nan back with us it was time to head to the south-eastern corner of our survey grid. Chainsaws could be heard close by, and we passed another old camp right on a main track. Once over another small river, we left the track, instantly hitting a snare line. This was rigged and we found the remains of what looked like the pig. A dismembered, decayed leg hung from a sapling and a skull that had been picked clean lay along side. Nan seemed to think that it wasn’t a pig, so I bagged the skull for further opinion. (Back at base camp, Samart and Menghor – the head of the research team – thought it might have been a Serow, a goat like creature. I sent photos of the skull and hoof to others in the WCS, an expert was shown them, and it turned out that it was a pig after all.)

Pig skull?

Another 25 or so cables were bagged, but we didn’t stop there. The whole square kilometre was a network of drift-lines, and by the end of the day we had close to 250 cables to take home. The two main ways they were triggered was by trip-lines and pressure pads. Many were clearly old and not being maintained, but we soon found out that poachers were still very active.

We’d just dismantled our third or fourth line, and were walking through part of the forest that was a little more open. Old Vietnam War bunkers and trenches were scattered around this patch, mostly on slopes facing the south and east. We casually crunched our way over the thick leaf litter. As we rounded the brow of a slight hill, Nan halted us with the palm of his hand.

Great, more wildlife.” I thought to myself. Then I heard the voices.

The Kid started to talk so I shut him up with a finger to my lips. I re-focused my attention forwards and saw two men moving around, not 20 metres away. I could tell that they weren’t loggers. Nan crouched down and we followed his lead. He turned to me with the expression of “What now?”. I pointed to an old bunker to his left, and he leaped into it with one, swift movement. The Kid and I took cover behind a wide trunk. Astonishingly we went undetected, though we could hear every sound the men were making.

It turned out that there was three of them. We spied from our hiding spots as they cut saplings, dug holes and hammered stakes into the ground. Then The Kids damn cough started up. He desperately tried to subdue it but to no avail. He curled up against the tree and tried to keep his mouth shut. I was in two minds as whether we should approach the men, or try to remain quiet. In the end I couldn’t help but smile. Nan saw the funny side too and was grinning towards us from his hidey-hole, occasionally peeping over the top towards the men, though I doubt he could see the irony of his where he was hiding.

I’d hoped the men would move, but they stayed working in that same spot. One even came up the hill towards us, and still didn’t hear The Kids muffled coughs from 10 metres away. After 15 or 20 minutes I was becoming bored and my knees ached from squatting. Nan also seemed keen to move, and with hand signals we motioned to retreat to where we’d come. We crept from tree to bush until out of range, then skirted round to a suitable spot for lunch.

*

Over another meal of rice and dried fish, Nan confirmed that the men were poachers building a new drift-line. The WCS advises us not approach loggers or poachers, as dealing with them is the job of the law enforcement teams and may be dangerous for research teams such as ours, but if we had they’d have probably ran away. This is apparently what normally happens. Yet you never know, and I think it was wise to play the safe card.

*

Walking back to camp along the trail, we heard the sound of a motorbike bearing down on us. The engine was whining as it struggled up the hill. This was due to the huge piece of timber strapped to its back. Nan speaks Vietnamese and said something brief to the old guy in dirty clothes as he slowly rode past. I tried to take a picture, but was too slow as he rounded a corner. The second moto gave me a better chance. This guy seemed to have stalled at the bottom of the hill, and for some reason Nan and The Kid ran off towards him. This confused me. They stopped just short as the driver slipped into first gear and started to climb the hill. Nan fired off a few phrases at him in a mocking way, making this younger man nervously smile as his beaten up machine struggled under the weight of the timber. This time I snapped a clear photo as he hurried off.

He couldn't get away from the camera!

*

Back at camp Ban seemed jealous that he’d missed a busy day, but was laughing along as we told him of our close encounter with the poachers. He was better now and keen to come find some more snares. That next morning we collected about 50 more from just across the river of the previous days patch. As we headed north the evergreen gave way to the more open deciduous forest – not the best for snaring. There were more signs of logging and we could hear the odd chainsaw.

Ban was back to his cheery self and was singing duets with Nan as we criss-crossed the hills. Nan came across some old wild cattle bones, and while inspecting them Ban picked up a vertebra and spied through it like a range-finder – “Ha ha, I can see you”.

I Spy...

*

The last section of surveying threw up one final encounter. We were on a track, cutting through thick bamboo, when a chainsaw announced itself nearby. I turned off the track, wanting to check out this last part of forest, but the other two kept going. Within minutes they were in front of me, and I rejoined them on the track. Here the high-speed, mechanical gnashing was especially loud. Within moments Nan halted us and pointed off into the bushes. Not 10 metres away were the two loggers, completely oblivious to our presence. Nan & Ban began talking, quite loudly, and ignored my protests to keep quiet. I was just getting ready to note our observation, when the chainsaw stopped and Nan let out a loud “Oiii!”. Here we go…

The guys spun round in alarm as Nan confidently marched towards them. He began scolding them in Vietnamese (as Ban later told me). The loggers sheepishly shuffled their feet and quickly pulled out some cigarettes to calm their nerves. Ban pulled out his camera. The loggers looked away as he snapped off a couple of shots. I stood there, not knowing what to do. After telling them off Nan relaxed, as did the loggers. We walked back onto the track and sat down. One of them grabbed an empty bottle, ran round the corner, then re-appeared with it full of water. He offered me it, but I refused, showing him my own water.

Caught in the act

A moto then approached, nearly running the lot of us down as it roared round the blind corner. The driver skidded to a surprised halt, with a look of blatant shock smeared across his face. His companions quickly filled him in on the situation as he dismounted. He reached for a large pot of food that he’d had strapped on the back, and began to offer it to us. Nan wisely took this as our cue and announced our departure. The apologetic loggers seemed to thank us as we left, for what, I don’t know? Law enforcement is obviously not our job, and it was clear that the only thing we could do was report them.

It was 1pm as we headed back to camp, survey done. Ban called our driver to arrange an early pick up. Panha’s team were back to complete their line transect, and we swapped stories while our team packed up. We now went back to those funnel traps and burnt them, as well as the nearby mess.

Somewhere, under all that, walks The Kid

I couldn’t help but laugh as we headed off. Nan had acquired a number of large containers from an old logging camp. The majority of these were strapped to The Kids bag, making him disappear under the load. I had my own souvenirs: the pigs skull and a chainsaw blade I’d picked up. Overall it was another successful trip. Once in the 4×4, and on the highway, I immediately passed out…

 

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Between Then and Now

My last post, Snare Testing 4, was based on events of a few weeks ago. A lot’s happened since, but I haven’t the time to detail everything, so I’ll summarise..

After that last, successful round of testing the survey, we went on one more small field trip. Hannah had made some small changes to the protocol, one being the size and layout of the grids we’d monitor. Before the Grid was 9 km² cells in the shape of a square (3×3). Now this had been changed to 12 km² cells, spaced around existing monitoring transects. I’m having trouble trying to explain this, so here’s a photo to clear things up:

The layout of our survey grid

We also wanted to see what sort of coverage we’d get in a different type of terrain. The earlier tests had been to the south, where hills dominate, valleys are steep and the forest thick. These were also hunting hot-spots – taking apart snares is a time-consuming process. This time we’d head to the north – flatter, more open country.

*

Due to Hannah having to shortly leave for the UK, we only spent a couple of nights away. A day and a half was spent surveying, with not too much of interest to write about. The ride in was something though. Driving The Green Beast was Mr. Mao, our main mechanic and driver at the site. In his late 40’s, a lover of the local wine, he has a tough exterior but is really a big softy once you get to know him. Hannah and Maggie rode in the cab with him, while the rest of us hopped up back.

After a short stint on the paved highway, we turned north onto the dirt road that led through a series of indigenous Bunong villages, Sre Khtum, Sre Preah, Pu Char. As the kilometres fell away, so did the roads surface. Deeper ruts emerged and larger bumps rose. Mr.Mao wasn’t caring though, ploughing The Green Beast through, barely taking his foot off the accelerator.

Wow, very bumpy.” Ban chuckled.

By that point the four of us in the rear were standing up, holding onto the bar that ran along the back of the cab. It was the only way not to get thrown about. We tore through the villages, barely giving the kids time to point at the strange white man standing on the back tray.

The only thing he slowed down for was a large pig that ambled its way into the road. Two chickens also ran into our path. These were not slowed down for. One we seemed to run right over. I looked back, expecting to see a puff of blood and feathers, but mysteriously the thing had vanished. No sign of it either side of the road. Maybe it had somehow clung onto the underside of the truck.

The villages and fields gave to a plantation which led into the forest. If the road was bad before, then it became far worse. Ruts dropped into canyons and bumps grew into mountains. Mr. Mao now had no choice but to slow down as The Beast lurched violently from side to side. We held on tight, but had to quit standing as we went deeper into the forest. Bamboo leaned over from the side and vines hung from above, causing us do duck and dodge these reaching limbs. Branches scraped the side of The Beast and hands had to be kept safely off the edges. I was hunched behind the cab, holding onto front and side, while giving the occasional peek over the top to see what was coming. It was like an extreme roller-coaster ride but without the heights. Uncomfortable as I was, it was still great fun. Even the local guys, who are used to Mr. Mao’s erratic driving, were laughing.

After what seemed an age, the forest thinned out towards the open area we were heading to. The road smoothed out a little and The Beast sped up again. Just when we thought it all over, Mr.Mao brought us to a sudden stop. The road continued onwards, but for some reason he reversed a few metres then turned left into a bamboo thicket. Ban and the others were just as confused as I: there was no path through the bamboo, but two minutes later there sure was! Not caring about this wall of tubes, Mr. Mao rammed us through, sending bamboo crashing all over the place. In the back we dropped to the floor and huddled up with our arms over our heads. “Whoa, whoa!!”

Luckily this didn’t last long, and apart from a few scratches, we all came out in one piece.

Now off-road and in grassland, our enigmatic driver sprinted the last kilometre to Sre Pleng Substation. We quickly jumped out the back onto steady ground, as Mr. Mao popped out of the cab laughing in the deep, rolling way that he does, in a seemingly more cheery mood than normal.

Ban with a chuckling Mr. Mao

*

Sre Pleng Substation is a simple wooden structure that is normally used by patrol teams. We slung our hammocks on the 1st floor platform, each pining for the most comfortable spot. Ban and the local guys set about preparing food while I enjoyed the view from a horizontal perspective. My eyes were able to wander beyond the tips of my toes, taking in the panorama beyond. For once this was no ‘jungle’. Short trees rose barely 10 metre high. Below there was no undergrowth, just patches of grass and scorched earth I attempted to steady my binoculars against the swing, yet spotted nothing of note. It may have been devoid of mammals, but bird-watchers would have loved it. Ban wandered for a long phone call (potential wife?), and upon returning announced that he’d spotted three Green Peafowl.

Water pump

Maggie taking in the view (photo taken last wet season)

The ground around was black rather than green or brown. It seems that for centuries natural fires have hit this landscape year after year. But you also hear that some are caused by people, whether by accident or intent. All the trees in this area are naturally fire-resistant, so this is no new phenomenon.

Ban hanging up the beef to dry

To have a view felt exceptional. Rather than five meters, I could gaze 300 metres. My mind wandered even further.
When used to the urban world, life in the field is fantastically cleansing. We showered at a hand-pump out in the open, with only a
krama for privacy. Dinner was cooked on locally collected fire-wood. The only interactive, self-entertainment was in pen & paper format or direct human contact. No phone, no internet, no TV, no screens, no worries. Music I did miss, but after being denied for a few days, it sounds all the better once you go back to it. Instead I happily opened my ears to the un-orchestrated sounds of the wild, un-filtered, un-edited – in its raw form.

*

Boringly enough, the only thing worth mentioning about this short time in the field involves an insect. But it sure was no normal insect.

We’d just finished covering a couple of uneventful cells and had broken out onto an old logging track. My hand brushed my right thigh, grazing against something prickly. My first thought was that a piece of rattan had attached itself to my trousers. That thought vaporised the moment I realised the thorny alien was in fact very alive… and kicking. What appeared to be a dead stick in fact had four legs sprouting from its body, which firmly gripped onto my thigh. The other two limbs were folded out front, almost doubling the length of this phasmid insect It clung tight to my protective clothing, but I finally managed to pry it away with a large stick, where I’m certain it felt more at home.

A very large living twig

We had lunch at this spot and lay the specimen on the ground. But between every mouthful I’d glance over to see what it was up to. Nothing much evidently. It remained frozen for a good 20 minutes before taking a few wobbly steps on.

I was so fascinated with this extraordinary living twig that I nearly missed the appearance of a far larger, furrier animal. Like always your ears are first to alert you, and a forceful rustling turned my head just in time to spot a slender, orange-red shape spring upon a nearby fallen tree. It hopped along the dead branches with grace and ease, stopping to lick itself not 10 metres away from where we sat. Some how it didn’t spot us, but its nose gave it a warning that all was not right, making it change course, hopping off out of view.

What was that?” I asked, thinking it might be a type of Civet,

Yellow-throated Marten” Hannah replied.

Similar to a Civet, but actually related to the Weasel family, this carnivore is the only type of Marten found in the tropics. And so far it was the closest wild mammal I’d met in the wild.

*

Testing was now over, Hannah shot back to the UK, and I popped down to the city and coast for a little holiday. I gorged on Western food, drank cocktails, swam in the sea, tore crab apart and listened to loud music.

I returned to Mondulkiri refreshed and ready to get stuck into the survey. I roused Ban and recalled his fellow Bunung, Nan, from his nearby home village. Nan was to be our third man on the snare team, as he was known to be the top snare-finder on the research staff. Also in his early 20’s, Nan came across as a much more serious figure, with his staunch, hard face. Out of all the local research staff, he was one that I’d never got to know. This partly because his English is very limited.

Myself, Local guy, Nan, Ban

Our first survey grid fell right along the Vietnam border (see image of map above), and upon being dropped off we embarked on a long trek to our camp spot. Along with Ban, Nan and I, we had a local guy to mind camp as we surveyed. Due to some sensitive issues, I’m not at liberty to divulge what we encountered. But I can say that overall this survey went well. Nan turned out to be an excellent addition to the team, with a keen nose for snares and a surprisingly ready smile. Around 175 snares were recovered, most of them old. Our closest wildlife encounter was a turtle that Ban chanced upon along a river bank.

not sure who's more asleep...

We’d finished the survey a day early and Ban called our driver to notify him of this. We turned up at the pick up point to discover that we’d missed our rendez-vous. We waited, chatted to a border guard that drove past, waited some more, trekked a few kilometres to the edge of the forest, had lunch, waited some more. It soon became clear that we weren’t going to be picked up for some time due to the pick-up breaking down. Another few hours sitting around didn’t sit well with me, so I got the guys to trek another few kilometres through open farmland to the nearest road. The sun beat down, sweat dripped and dust puffed up with every step. The dry season was really upon us. We tramped along the red road past wooden shacks and small schools of bare-footed children. Finally my phone came into reception and I tried to give Samart a call. Luckily I got through. Doubly luckily he was at base camp. 10 minutes later he was pulling alongside us on his moto, with a friend in tow. Ban and I jumped on, as Nan and the porter rode upon the second moto. The cold Anchor beer tasted especially good that day.

A long,dusty road

*

Three days were spent back at base camp before heading off on our second survey. This threw up all sorts of stories, and will be written about in my next posting.

These in-between periods are refreshing, yet still busy. I spend the best part of a day entering data into a spreadsheet, writing a summary report and sorting through photos. I’m plugged back into the world, catch up on the latest revolution, reply to emails and respond to Facebook messages, check up interests back home and listen to a lot of music – all during entwining myself with local friends and customs. Today we had Tarantula as a side serving for lunch, and during a drink in Samarts room after dinner we ate cows stomach. “Dr. Dung” came back today with his greatest haul of DNA samples yet, which heralded a small celebration. Tick bites itch all over my body, power cuts kick in, yet tonight I heard the roar of wild Elephants barely a kilometre from my room…

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