Land of a Thousand Hills – or was it lakes
Drinking Tusker overlooking the valleys of Kigali City shrouded in wisps of dissipating cloud, the city appeared bottle green after flying across the brown plains of Africa.
The Virunga Volcanoes
The Embraer to Kigali was early but nobody was quite sure where to find it, not helped by the long way-lik lik arm wave of the dispatcher on the apron. There was an airplane next to Gate 21. The departures board showed Kigali Gate 22. There weren’t any other planes so I got on that one and watched a fellow passenger wander off across the tarmac.
A tall imposing customs official stopped me and pointed to my whisky. I took the bottle out of the bag and started to hand it to him, not happy he pointed to the bag. They must have a serious shortage of bags in Rwanda.
First impressions, there’s no litter, the penny dropped. Second I needed a glasses shop. The very nice African stewardess on Kenya Airlines and half the other passengers joined me in a hunt for my bizarrely disappearing glasses. In Kigali central Osman, my taxi driver found me an optometrist with a pair of disconcertingly red glasses.
That afternoon we went to look at snakes, ‘they’re all deadly’. We learnt about calamite or whatever it is that makes tin (actually the tin or sn ore is cassiterite). Oscar our guide, told me how the modern Rwanda came to pass, and why Kigali is where it is, which was something to do with the Germans. The Belgians took over until the country became independent in 1962. Tarzan was involved, I watched the film.
The land of a thousand hills or was it lakes, they go together, Kigali is hilly even mountainous, 1400 from the city center to where we walked at 1800 meters this afternoon.
Osman took great pride in pointing out how litter free the streets are. He’s right it’s a remarkably clean city, which made it seem strange when he threw his paper bag, sandwich wrapper and milk carton into the forest.
Muhbara Volcano @ 4100 meters Uganda
I had Nile perch for supper with tamarind or something that was sweet, spicy, delicious and expensive.
A man was lounging at the hotel reception counter. ‘You know me,’ he interrupted. I’d traveled all night, spent the day round the city and was not civil. ‘I don’t know you.’ I just wanted to go to bed. He pointed to his jacket, which had a small Volcano Safaris badge. ‘It would be a good idea if you introduced yourself,’ I said grumpily. ‘Come over here we will go through the itinerary,’ he told me. Also I wanted to shit. ‘Your picking me up at 8am I’ll see you then,’ and went to bed.
A weathered shrunken volcano with a sunken caldera near the Gahinga Lodge in Uganda
The wake up call for 7am came at 6 dragging me back from a sleep so deep I couldn’t remember where I was or what I was supposed to be doing. A sunny hazy day bathed the city below the breakfast verandah, buoying me with a positivity born of 8 hours solid sleep.
Today Robert looked different and professional. He lead me to the appropriately battered but immaculate Land Rover to take me to Uganda.
All smiles but why were we being pulled over. ‘Its clean up Saturday,’ explained Robert. On the last Saturday of the month the whole nation picks up litter, plants flowers and if all else fails carries a broom with them from 8 until 11am. Robert, who went up in my estimation (but later back down) managed to get us through without even a scrub. It would have been fun to join in but we were stopped 6 times and while contributing to Rwandan aesthetics is a worthy cause, gorillas were my mission.
It was an interesting drive through beautiful scenery though every last inch of the country appeared farmed, even the near vertical slopes were terraced. Fast running silt laden streams flowed down the lush valley floors. The trees are all eucalypt, introduced, planted and coppiced but there are no dogs and no hunting so a lot of birds. ‘Not like the Congo where they eat everything,’ said Robert. I thought of Cambodia.
The Congo, where there are still pygmies who hunt and gather in the vast un-gazetted forests and where volcanoes glow ominously in the night.
Rain greeted us in Uganda and veiled the countryside as we left the tarmac and climbed the dirt road to the lodge. Single story simple shacks with crude brick walls dull in the drizzle. Electricity poles compromised by an absence of wires promised electricity to come. High up the slopes of the Virunga Volcanoes but no where near the top was Gahinga Lodge. Umbrellas and wet welcomes, simple lodges, log fires and smiling Africans.
The food’s not good but the rest fantastic. I went for a walk. The view was primeval. That doesn’t make sense Man has shaped it but he hasn’t yet bulldozed the contours or filled in the lakes.
Rich volcanic soil supports cultivation up to the stonewall boundary of the national park. I saw the white markers from the track to the Irish potato Village (they’re all Irish). Cutting up the hillside along grassy strips between fields of potatoes as one would on dykes between paddy fields. I passed by simple houses surrounded by fences of woven vegetation to keep the chilly wind out.
My first site
The children shouted hello I assumed then ‘give me money’, which I understood. An amazing panorama spread below me. A weathered volcano with a sunken caldera that was completely cultivated.
And the town that we’d passed through on the way to Gahinga, where John friend of God had a guesthouse and over the border to the indented Rwandan lakes where and the next Lodge is.
On one side of the wall is an undulating sea of green ringing with the sound of birds that kept singing even when I got close. The Malachite Sunbird had a gown of emerald green but in case you’d missed him bright yellow flashes under his wings. An Auger Buzzard kept watch on a field below. I’d been given a glimpse of Eden over the wall. A forest fur covered extinct volcano 4100 meters high.
A guttural grunt at the back of his throat, warned us that we’d got too close. The female had a baby and Mac the silverback was looking after her.
The day hadn’t started well with the whisky I’d bought as insurance compounding the wine that came with the lodge. Yet another time change resulted in a mental mix up so 6 was 5 or the other way round.
Mac the silverback
The toast looked nice and there was honey but every time I tried to add butter it disintegrated into pieces like a paper napkin torn to shreds. The scrambled egg shot off the plate because the bacon was tough but at least the coffee was hot.
It started well enough until we got to the wild-west village down the hill. We’re not going back to Rwanda? I asked Robert. ‘No Muhbara in Uganda,’ ‘so I don’t need my passport?’ Half an hour later we were back where we started. I might have spent $600 on a park permit but I still had to prove who I was. ‘Not happy,’ I told Robert. A chill ensued.
A scramble along stone strewn alleyways between potato fields, past fences of drying vegetation that surround the local mud brick houses then we came to the park walls. The sign at the tracker station said 2400 meters. Robert bailed out, not that I’d noticed he was there, 2 trackers took over. A walky talky gabble and we were back outside the park walls traipsing over potato furrows.
A melodic hollow came from the forest and we were back over the wall crawling on our hands and knees between all things that pricked.
The prospect of spotting gorillas in these thickets seemed far fetched. A group of 3 trackers were waiting for us and pointed up to branches above that moved revealing a glimpse of black fur then a bit later a face with enormous nostrils and eyes framed by wrinkles. Well aware but not perturbed. We scratched and scraped our way round a dense patch of jungle to see different members of the 10 strong troop. Mac at 220 kg dominated the 2 other silverbacks but they were all enormous. 4 females, 2 youngsters and the 3 week old baby clinging to its mother.
Lemek, not a gorilla but part of the trekking team talked about their physiogamy. The trekkers recognized the different individuals, their characters, what they ate, where they nested and called the gorilla doctor when they were sick. ‘Doesn’t that compromise their ability to survive in the wild?’ I asked. ‘They increase but still so few they very important,’ answered Lemek. ‘What else, what other mammals live here?’ We’d seen civet, duiker and copious quantities of buffalo poo. ‘Elephants migrate between the parks around the Virunga Volcanoes in Uganda, Rwanda and the Congo but there are no big cats.’
For $600 you get an hour and time was running out. A fantastic experience but the best was saved till last. A juvenile made faces from up a bush, his face framed by the green fronds he ate. Mac came into the clearing and helped himself to a smorgasbord of vegetation until it all became too much effort and he lay down stretching and rolling in the sun.
The Batwa pretending to be wild
I got to know Be and Eddie at lunch and we got to know the Batwa that afternoon. The Batwa were nomadic forest pygmies moving around the volcanoes. An impossible life style for the 21st century but the nail in the coffin was the gazetting of the national park in 1992. They were evicted without land or recourse to make a living. The Batwa Experience was a couple explaining their former lives. The goat-skins were a little compromised by the tight black shorts with sequins that the lady was wearing.
We chewed leaves, shot arrows and lit a fire with a few sticks or they did. ‘If you had the chance would you go back to the forest?’ Yes.
The embers of the fire in my room still glowed, 2 hot water bottles warmed my bed and a stream sounded faint in the background. It was a very nice lodge.
I worked out how to butter the toast this morning. Put the butter on. Leave it till it gets soft then if careful you can spread without a toastal disintegration.
Mount Gahinga (3500 m) crater-lake
The gentle stroll up the road to the national park HQ gave a false sense of security. The 3500 meter volcano above was a slight hint of what was in store on my Gahinga Hike. Gruyere, that’s the closest to her name I could make out, explained to me everything that had been explained before apart from what we were going to do. She was very nice. Quite a big lady made bigger by her army fatigues. Felix joined us. Tall and tough with a large gun to protect me from buffalo G explained. Single males ostracized from the herd can get grumpy – tell me about it.
Other worldly plants & Felix (below)
Its green! This part of the world at least in the rainy season is green. An explosion of verdant vegetation populated by a lot of wild buffalo judging from the poo. About 20 minutes in G stopped to look at the view. There’s a lot of mountain left, I thought and pressed on.
Elderflower seemed strange, something to do with the British I expect, excepting which the flora appeared undisturbed and adapted to the increasing altitude. There were bark shredding trees near the HQ, bushes, bracken then great forests of bamboo.
Civet, serval, gennet and critically endangered golden monkeys dependent on the bamboo, sleeping up the stems holding on with their tails & prehensile fingers.
A duiker watched us for a while giving G the chance for a pause. Felix and I left her at a forest hut as the path tended towards the vertical. Slippery ladders took over from steps cut into the mud. The altitude diluted the intention and my legs became harder to work while my head hurt. Strange trees clad in beards of trailing lichen heralded the summit. The crater-lake covered in a floating carpet of virulent green made me wonder if we’d wandered onto another planet. It’s very deep and goes to the bottom of the mountain or so the legend goes. A pregnant lady was pushed in to punish her for adultery but because of God’s mercy she reappeared in another lake 2000 meters below. So now they don’t push in any more pregnant ladies.
G had nearly made it and offered pineapple for a pause, ‘we’ve had a pause,’ Felix and I kept going followed by G clutching her pineapple. A bushbuck aside we raced down the mountain chasing the prospect of a Nile Special (beer).
Eddy and Be worked for KLM. They are planning to open a lodge on the land they’d bought near Lake Victoria. Airlines like route directions are easy to talk about so we got on well.
Tonight’s beef tastes just like last night’s pork, it will be interesting to try the chicken.
Gorillas are what I came for not Australians, the happy clappy African guides tried to get us to introduce ourselves, it was like an NGO workshop.
At the Gahinga Park in Uganda by myself with the trackers finding the gorillas in the forest, was an experience, a discovery. Here on the Rwandan side in the Virunga National Park it felt like we were being processed. Our 2 guides were lovely as they told us now for the third time what we could and more particularly couldn’t do. After an age we set off through the potato fields to the edge of wilderness stopping every 200 meters to let the group catch up.
We might have been processed but the gorillas weren’t, their star quality transcended the touristy build up. Black shapes between bamboo poles. We circled round but with no clear sightings. A clearing later we found them having a break from replacing 15% of their body weight in edible vegetation every day. Pandas spring to mind but honestly gorillas have personality. The photos speak for themselves.
Gorilla’s with attitude
So much is being thrown back in my face on this trip in particular the interaction with those looking after me, both professionally and personally. It doesn’t justify the cost, it’s a holiday and the gorillas and the travel have ticked that box but it was useful. Helping me to understand how our customers must feel with some of the interactions we give them.
The Rwandan gorillas in The Virunga National Park
5 am it must be time to get up but no I had another half hour as the Golden Monkey bureaucracy is more efficient because the tourists come to see the gorillas and there’s not the $750 per person per hour involved.
A couple of the many species from my verandah
On the way to the tourist station at Muzanze, young men with corded arms wearing green and yellow waistcoats sat astride simple bicycles with a back seat. Why became clear when we got to the top of the hill 5km on.
They pick up passengers at the top of the hill free wheel to town then peddle back. Team Rwanda, a cycling cooperative, up and down that 1000m hill all day. Team UK wouldn’t have stood a chance if they’d entered the Olympics.
The mountain rose above us obscured by cloud, green fields sloped down from the park walls. We walked along potato furrows to grazing pasture and there in front of us were a troop of russet mantled Golden Monkeys.
A male Golden Monkey
A Glossy Ibis honked as it stabbed its bill into the soggy turf. Oliver our irrelevant guide pointed out the obvious monkeys plucking at the grass in front of us.
As with most things in this part of the world the females were more attractive than the males. Not exactly golden but russet compared to the grey boys. Golden Monkey society is a lot more liberal than Rwandan, as everyone seemed to be humping each other. We climbed over the wall into Eden and watched the monkeys using bamboo fronds to cross the swamps.
‘You haven’t eaten your cheese cake!’ The chef confronted me. ‘It wasn’t a cheesecake, it was melted ice cream.’ He started explaining to me about his cheesecake so in case he didn’t get the message, ‘it wasn’t very nice.’ I’ve not seen him again.
The world catches up with a computer so I tackled the emails I’d ignored then went for a walk with Emmanuel. There’s Lake Burrera below my banda on the East side and Lake Ruhondo down on the West side. Burrera is a deeper and higher by a couple of hundred meters and used to flow across an isthmus of land over a waterfall into Ruhondo. Simple logic that this potential energy could be converted into power so a hydroelectric plant was built between them in 1952. It now supplies the electricity for Kigali.
Next fact is that the government is relocating 60 families from Bushongo Island in Lake Burrera to live on the slopes of the volcanoes, maybe the island can be left alone, without people.
Bushongo Island in Lake Burrera
Capture it in my memory banks and then replay as if it were there in front of me. I thought about what I’d seen while waiting for lunch in a corner of the balcony looking down to the islands in Lake Burrera.
On a walk beside Lake Burrera with Emanuel
Emanuel gave me a more gentle and intelligent perspective of Rwanda than Robert’s aggressive party political broadcast such that I dared to ask the gay question. ‘We not say anything but we not respect. Its against God,’ said Emanuel.
Burrera came in and out of view as we walked beside green terraces of beans, sweet corn and cabbages. Every inch of land farmed or coppiced with eucalypt. Simple mud houses with corrugated roofs on red earth shelves cut out of the hillside. We reached the dam and made friends with the soldiers who told us we were welcome in a menacing sort of way.
An Angkorian Paddle
The rise and fall of the Angkorian Empire, which lasted 500 years from the 9th to 14th century, was centered in what is now Siem Reap Province, around its greatest monument Angkor Wat. A population of a million in an area of 1000 km2 serviced the empire and built the religious structures the remnants of which we see today.
Angkor Wat Moat
Key to the success of the civilization was the management of water in a region of inundation and drought. An elaborate system of canals and barays or reservoirs channeled water from the Kulen Hills to the North into the city.
The availability of water ensured that food went in and shit went out. Canals facilitated the construction of the temples conveying the stone from the quarries to the North. And the temples were built with defensive moats that maintained ground water levels preventing their subsidence.
Runta Dev, the tunnel under the 8m high walls of Angkor Thom that channeled waste-water into the moat
It is now thought that the decline in management and maintenance of the hydrology coincided with that of the empire.
In recent years the importance of these systems has been recognized again as the massive increase in tourism has lead to ground water levels falling and the potential collapse of the temples. It is no coincidence that the best preserved are those with functioning moats.
One man has been championing the restoration of the Angkorian water management. He has overseen the construction of canals that channel the Siem Reap River into the North Baray, the moats of Preah Khan, Ankgor Thom and even Angkor Wat. Reducing the possibility of Siem Reap flooding as it did in 2011, while maintaining ground water levels.
Overseeing our progress up the North Baray Channel
These small matters aside obviously the most important function of Angkorian hydrology is to allow us to paddle through the Angkor Park, Cambodia’s best preserved 400 km2 of lowland mixed evergreen and deciduous forest.
And so it was one Monday morning that his excellency the Director of Water Management at Apsara, facilitated by Jady together with Buntha and myself kayaked through the heart of a Unesco declared world heritage site. Jady and I had previously recced Peou’s canal that diverts the flow from Siem Reap into the North Baray and round to the West Baray. This time we didn’t get lost and anyway Peou knew the way, but – we hadn’t followed the river as it heads South towards the Tonle Sap Lake.
The current had cut deep into the soft ground leaving 7meter high banks that we had to scramble down with our kayaks and then awkwardly get in them.
Paddling down the Siem Reap River
A few fallen branches had accumulated enough flotsam and jetsam to block the river with no way through but a messy scramble. Jady and Buntha paved the way. Poeu and I made it easy.
There are 700 Angkorian structures inside the Angkor Park but only 180 of them can be called temples, they’re the ones with moats. These monumental stone edifices need solid ground for their structural integrity, without it they crumble to a pile of stones. Siem Reap is a built on a light sandy soil, water gives it substance, which is what the moats do for the temples.
Contemplating our adventure
A few hundred meters on either side there were no doubt bus loads of Asian tourists but here in the heart of Angkor we paddled passed explosions of bamboo erupting on either side. White-collared Kingfishers taunted Buntha to catch a photo. A Snake Eagle followed our progress from above, while a Shikra watched us with disinterest from a fallen branch. All manner of other birds sang from the trees on either side obliterating any thoughts of tourists or even other people.
We’d catered for 5 pax kayaking but one of the water management guys came along for the ride so the third kayak was one paddle power short and we had visions of Kosal, Jady’s assistant unable to move his shoulders for a month or 2. They’d had the sense to share the work and caught up beaming and claiming the big adventure.
Our driver had accumulated helpers by the time we reached the sluice gates at the French Bridge (confusingly built by Americans), who pulled us up the steep stairs to Jady’s vehicle.
It took a while to sink in that we had paddled through one of the wonders of the world, visited by 3 million people but seen none, instead thick riparian forest as if we were discovering it for the first time.
A BeTreed Adventure
Waived away by the staff, who’ve sort of got used to my bizarre behavior. Legs aside my trusted steed. In this case a new 125cc Honda Dream. Gloves, scarf, helmet, a hat in the front basket and most importantly an incredibly complicated set of directions to get there, I set off for ……. Yes you’ve guessed it, Little Red Fox.
On my way to – Little Red Fox
‘Head North’, said Buntha. I did and avoided the ever-increasing traffic around Siem Reap and the death defying kamikaze pilots on NR6 to Phnom Penh. I bypassed the ticket checks around Angkor Park, passed by Phnom Bok heading North through the cassava fields towards the Phnom Kulen hills that run for 40km West to East. Turned right and came to Svay Leu 10km early.
The slightly absurd Tela petrol court in the middle of a logged landscape that featured as a milestone in my weighty tomb of directions, couldn’t be missed. I passed the rubber plantation with the fence to the right as instructed and drove on until the fork to the left.
A red earth road through the DDF
Stretches of enchanting open dry deciduous forest (DDF) interspersed with green jungle lifted my spirits, which fell with a clang when they gave way to felled clearings.
I had the local village to thank. They burnt the rubber company HQ and filled its wells then overturned the earth moving equipment. ‘They could have waited until the company had finished the road,’ commented Ben.
My trusty little Dream made light work of the red earth roads but didn’t like the sand on the last 10km of oxcart trail. Ben had been laying gravel, which relieved much of the sandy slip sliding.
A river crossing where the floods rise 3m above the bridge and the open forest merges into green jungle. Ahead a hill could be seen rising proud of the trees. Monkeys shrieked, peacocks honked, a ferret badger ran across the path and I was there.
Ben and Sharyn’s house
Ben welcomed me to his family’s home. A 3 legged soppy dog to see off the monkeys. A love-sick gibbon who periodically eloped with her boyfriend. The previously mentioned ferret badger and Sharyn, Ben’s wife, their 2 daughters and visiting Burmese Australian family.
We said grace and tucked into a delicious vegetarian dinner. ‘It’s so good, especially the homemade chutney,’ I beamed. ‘We bought it in Siem Reap,’ said Sharyn.
I’m writing this perched on a platform 10m up in the fork in a tree.
Precarious you might think except my platform has a double bed that lets me gaze at the shining sickle of a moon and the stars casting a spotlight on my tree house. I looked for a chair but its not needed as I can lean back against a tree trunk.
GQT on Radio 4 as the moon disappeared into the forest.
Trees are alive. Trees bring life. Trees are ……. God? I thought.
Streaks of orange in the East. A golden glow bathed the vally as the sun rose. Too much beauty to be clocked. Quickly masked by a cloud that turned the gold to gray or so it seemed at the time.
Breakfast was a jolly affair as different members of the family appeared and Koy, who was greeted by the Long-tailed Macaque who’d fallen in love with him after he rescued her from the village.
….. 10m up a tree
Koy was our guide for the hike up Phnom Tnout. Tall trees, no chain saws. A canopy too thick for the light to penetrate so the way was clear while we stayed under the evergreen forest. Thick bamboo grass hid our path when we emerged into the DDF. Deliberately lit fires have started to sweep across the landscape now the rainy season has finished but there have been no fires here for 4 years thanks to Ben.
Climbing up the side of Phnom Tnaut we heard the whooping calls of 3 gibbons or so said Koy who saw them.
In between the buttresses of a Silk Cotton tree with Koy
Tall trees with buttressed roots towered above us. Strangler figs that having strangled their host continued to grow finding strength in their self gratifying entwinement.
Our first stop a dried out pool deep in the forest but still soft enough to catch the prints of Banteng and wild boar that routed there. We ate Sharyn’s carrot and chilly muffins (an acquired taste) beside a trapaeng and a flurry of butterflies attracted by it’s remaining muddy water.
At the next pool we spied 3 Wooly-necked Storks but they took off out of range of my little lense.
Phum Barang was a pile of rocks on a ridge amidst the open forest (lit. French Village). It was where a French flag had flown, Ben told me.
More important were the views across a plain of trees to a blue hill in the distance that not even the evil plume of a forest fire beyond Ben’s boundaries could spoil
The forested Kingdom of Betreed
I spied blue irrigation pipes beside a stream. ‘Its where we get our water from,’ said Sven my hiking buddy.
A fantastic walk but after 4 hours lunch and the lodge was becoming a more compelling prospect. Instead of following the pipes, counter-intuitively we went back up the hill to find another pile of stones. This time put together as Prasat Tnout (lit Tnout temple) in front of a reeking bat cave.
The family were home. Badger the ferret badger. Mikey the three legged dog and Little Mut (not his real name) his sad sidekick. The Green pea-Fowl honked, while the little punk macaques sporting their mohecan hair cuts chased each other after Ben’s bananas.
Molly the love sick Pileated Gibbon
Lunch over we were graced with a visit from Molly who swung arm by arm from the trees onto the balcony. She peeled the 12 bananas offered then inspected worktops and shelves for anything edible. We’d finished lunch but left the plates and glasses on the table, which got the once over as Molly inserted her long prehensile fingers into the containers, letting her fur soak up the liquid before sucking it. A close contest between the jug of milk and a glass of fruit juice, the fruit juice won. She let Ben scratch her feet then languidly swung off into the jungle teasing the macaques as she went.
Ben and I set off on the motorbikes looking for Banteng, He on a rusty collection of red pipes and mine my trusty Dream. Guests would pay for the ride, twisting and turning on a bumpy path through the tall grass, shaded by magical trees glowing as the late afternoon sun sank between their branches.
In search of Banteng
We didn’t see any of the 60 or so Banteng that roam round the mountain but Ben told me about his anti poaching patrols and how he came to be here. ‘Set up a community forest,’ the Forestry Administration told him so he did together with the local village.
A dappled sunlight lit the leaves around my tree house this morning as I lay for a while enjoying the cool and effervescence of green bursting with life around my platform.
Breakfast is a nice meal at BeTreed (they’re all pretty good), coffee, fruit, yoghurt and more coffee. An Oriental Hornbill flew across our view, while a Crested-serpent Eagle hungrily watched the peafowl.
Ben as in BeTreed (as opposed to Hur, he bares a striking resemblance to Charlton Heston) was waiting expectantly. ‘Zipline?’ ‘Ok lets go,’ I resigned. We retraced our steps of yesterday up the side of the valley to a wooden platform with a wire stretching to infinity. ‘Hmmm,’ I thought to myself as I stepped into what seemed like an insubstantial harness and hooked a worryingly small set of wheels over the wire. A piece of tire was supposed to be the break. I hurtled off into oblivion before I could think (as it turns out this is standard high spec equipment).
After a few seconds of abject terror and a tree that threatened to bring me to an abrupt halt, I started to enjoy the experience despite a vague concern about the ground, which was no where to be seen. Apparently my momentum wasn’t sufficient so I had to haul myself for the last few meters to the receiving platform then it was back again. Apart from my legs heading in a different direction from the rest of me, the view was stupendous, unbroken forest as far as I could see.
Ben dangling from his zipline
Sharyn and Ben, your hosts have been working in development in Cambodia since the 90’s but as they say on their website;
‘Seeing Cambodia losing its forests at an alarming rate (the worst in the world right now!) was disheartening and seeing (and attending!) all the workshops talking and talking about the problems but not actually doing anything was getting, annoying, frankly. They were often talking about forest that was no longer there. People just needed to do something… why not us?
Their mission is to preserve the Phnom Tnout community forest and protect its furry and feathered biodiversity while educating the local community as to its value. The Community’s involvement and employment shows villagers how they financially gain from the project.
Ben and Sharyn are doing something wonderful in this little and increasingly rare forested pocket of Cambodia. We can contribute by having an amazing experience in the jungle and directly contributing to its preservation.
Indochine Exploration is very pleased to promote and work with BeTreed. Its an exciting journey to get there which we can organize in a 4WD with the option of cycling the Oxcart Trail on a mountain bike.
Profits from this trip will be given to BeTreed.
300km later back where I started from, Little Red Fox
Prek Toal by Way of Phnom Kraum
All adventures start with The Little Red Fox Coffee Shop and the morning crew; Jady this time with temple water management people and Darryl the Angkorian historian.
Feathercraft on top of Dy’s electric blue Highlander. Our Solar kayaks, Lors, Bunthy, Visoth and me inside. Another latte then pick up Buntha on the way to the lake.
Our route decided last week as we had climbed out of REP Airport on our way to SIN. 5000 foot above Phnom Kraum we could see pockets of bush surrounded by a sea of water and not the usual other way round. Direct channels lay clear to the open lake and onto the floating village of Prek Toal.
We launched where the water lapped the hill. Bunthy together with Lors, Visoth and Buntha. Laden with dinner and drink. 2 bladders of wine and merlot in the cool box for me.
From left to right; Visoth & Buntha, me, Lors and Bunthy
I came with my Werner paddles so light I barely felt them kissing the water as I effortlessly slid across the lake. The 2 Solars exploded with muscle like a moon rocket launch then stalled as Bunthy paddled one way and Lors the other. Buntha and Visoth quickly found a rhythm. Fizzing with excitement we set off for Prek Toal.
The lake was not quite so high that we could paddle unimpeded. Lead by lines of vegetation and fishing lines caught in the Solar fins, we zigzagged across the floodplain.
Past midday and Bunthy running on empty. ‘When are we going to eat?’ He whimpered, while Buntha and Visoth the buffalo paddled on regardless of hunger, fishing lines and fences.
We entered the forest at the edge of the lake and moored to the branches beneath the canopy near the tops of the now submerged trees. We perched on the branches and ate lunch. Lors the gibbon swung from an outlying limb.
In the canopy forest at the edge of the lake
Swinging down from the trees we made ready for the lake crossing just as the wind died and left barely a ripple on the dull grey expanse of water. The calm made a mockery of my safety briefing. ‘Tie down the equipment, stick together and wear life jackets.’
Above and below, Phnom Kraum behind, Prek Toal ahead
Lors inevitably started the horseplay by sitting up on the cool box at the back of his and Bunthy’s
kayak nearly capsizing them both. They couldn’t get a rhythm going but his massive muscles powered through their lack of technique.
A huge cloud lay heavy over Prek Toal cumulating and shifting like an upset stomach. All the while darkening until the 3 telephone masts that marked out the village, punctured its nebulous vapour releasing a wind that held us stationary and blew off my Akubra hat.
Arriving at Buntha’s pool hall
Bunthy and Lors’s calls for 5 minute breaks were becoming more frequent and faint as Buntha and Visoth, apparently unfatigued paddled on while I just sort of glided.
The whiffs of decomposing fish from the prahoc platforms and the reverberating staccato of the 2 stroke longboat engines reached us before we got to the floating shacks at the edge of the village. We paddled between the more substantial houses buoyed up on clumps of bamboo lining the main channel.
Buntha’s pool hall, floating garden, crocodile cages and Mother in Law’s house lay opposite. ‘Do you want a shower Nick? Buntha asked me. ‘Not in your shit!’ The lake is high so well diluted but the crocodiles and Buntha are defecating on 1 side of the house while the family bathe on the other. I got back in the kayak and paddled away from the village with a bar of soap, managing to bathe standing on the branches of a submerged tree.
The boys played pool, I scribbled notes then the family emerged from Mother in Law’s house with our dinner. Bunthy had bought plastic skins of cheap vinegary red wine, I’d put a couple of bottles of Chilean merlot in the cool box, which rapidly disappeared when Buntha found out how much nicer they tasted. We finished dinner. The alcohol combined with the day’s exercise, rounded off by 5 mg of Valium left me contentedly numbed. I turned off the Mother in Law’s radio, lay down next to the crocodiles and fell asleep.
Saying goodbye to Buntha’s Family (excluding the Mother in Law)
A horrific fire had burned for day’s leaving half of the Core Bird Reserve reduced to charcoal. We paddled between the blackened branches saddened. The irrepressible Lors quickly diverted our attention and the presence of any wildlife with the continual noise he emitted.
The fire was an environmental disaster but still the floodplain is a wonderful and alien world of water and blissful quiet, excepting Lors.
Dy was waiting with his ice cold Highlander at Maichrey. It was past noon so rice was the priority. We diverted via the Baray now swollen with rain and a bamboo platform over the water for road kill chicken rice and tamarind paste. A look of total exhaustion on the boy’s faces. It had been fun!
Exhausted waiting for lunch at the West Baray
We are very pleased to take our guests on a day trip by motorboat to the floating village of Prek Toal with an early morning boat journey in the seasonally flooded forests of The Core Bird Reserve. On the return we explore the village by kayak with lunch on a floating platform then paddle to Buntha’s house and meet his family (and crocodiles).
If you have a bit more time an overnight stay means you start to get a glimpse of what life on the lake is really like. And we’d be delighted to paddle with you all the way if you’re up for the challenge!
THE NORTH WEST PASSAGE Our mission to boldly go where no kayak had ever been before.
As an avid reader of the Indochine Exploration Blogs you will be aware of my sexual fantasies around water management in Angkor. I am not alone and discovered over a latte at Little Red Fox another closet water fetishist Jady Smith.
Jady represents the New Zealand Government in their support for restoration of the infrastructure that allowed the world’s greatest empire of it’s time to flourish.
I had been lucky enough to explore and understand – a little, Damian Evan’s explanation of how the Angkorians built canals, reservoirs and diverted river systems to make Angkor inhabitable 12 months of the year a thousand years ago.
Siem Reap is no more hospitable now, well yes you can get a latte and a glass of wine but mid-March we’re 3 months into the dry season with no rain, temperatures over forty and if you’re lucky a dribble of water when you turn the tap on, the problem is even more prescient.
There’s also the implicit threat of what water mismanagement did to the Angkorian Empire – caused it’s downfall so the theory goes.
The site of the Angkorian Bridge where water is now diverted from the town to The North Baray (photo taken during dry season when water a lot lower)
In an attempt to mitigate all of that and return the Angkor Park to it’s original state and so raise the ground water level to support the temple foundations, a canal had been cut from the Siem Reap River North of the Park to the North Baray Reservoir and on to the Great West Baray.
A mission needs a plan and today’s master architect Jady Smith devised a wicked scheme, we’d launch the kayaks beside the dam on the Siem Reap River and paddle. ‘What next JD?’ I eagerly enquired. ‘We’ll see when we get there’, ?
The dam diverting the river had caused it to flood the surrounding countryside creating a maze of waterways, which we spent a happy half hour exploring. Not wanting to pour scorn on our plan but feeling slightly cheated if getting lost was the main aim, we decided to try again and retraced our route back to the dam where we’d started.
By following the current we found the channel we’d been looking for. An ugly scar across the landscape 12 months ago when it was dug now a naturally landscaped water feature of beauty.
The North West Channel
Delicate yellow saray flowers floated proud of the waterlily leaves. Kingfishers flitted from the overhanging boughs and cormorants and darters dried their wings on the skeleton branches of dead trees.
The current had caught us and carried the kayaks towards the West Baray, I thought but Jady’s plan had a different destination in store. We reached a cross roads in the channel; right towards to Angkor Crau Village and the West Baray and left where the current lead to the open sluice on the North Baray and hence to Neak Pean and Preah Khan Temples in the heart of the Park.
A welcoming committee of Apsara temple workers had assembled on the banks to greet us
And wanted a ride
Todays trip had been a very special adventure and I was humbled to have paddled through the middle of the ancient cities of Angkor, a common place boat ride for the inhabitants a thousand years ago but not oft repeated since.