Wednesday, October 28, 2009

An Ordeal and a Half

Note: For those not familiar with Cambodia place names will not register, still, you'll find it interesting.

I recently went for a hike with a friend, Nicolas, up in the mountain above Touk Chhou rapids, which is about 9 kilometers from Kampot town. I’d been on the trails in that area several times before and had a pretty good idea, or rather thought I had a good idea, of what I was doing.

I had intended to get high enough on the mountain to get a view of Kamchey dam which is under construction, which I’d been told had been seriously breached in the heavy rains last month, and in fact was responsible for the worst of the flooding in Kampot. The authorities gave their assurances that the dam was in fine shape but a friend had his Khmer staff go up disguised as a worker to check it out. He was able to take pictures that showed a gaping hole in it. I also heard from someone who lives near the road to the dam that rock trucks were rolling all night, obviously to try to patch it up.

From Wat (Wat = Temple) Touk Chhou which sits up above the village there’s a trail that leads straight up the mountain to a small shrine and then follows the ridge for quite a long distance and meets other trails. That trail, however, is steep and eroded and in full sunlight so pretty rough trekking; I prefer going down it. I can go a long ways on level terrain or downhill without tiring but uphill I’m very slow even when the grade is not very steep.

As an alternative, there’s a trail that starts in a sharp bend in the road that leads to the wat about 200 meters below it. That trail rises gradually up the valley and passes through plantations and past makeshift living quarters, many abandoned. After about two kilometers you head up away from the habitated area and in 50 meters or so of bushwhacking, you hook up with the ridge trail. I had done it that way two or three times previously so felt confident of where I was going. There probably are trails that go from the habitated area to the ridge trail, but if so, they’re hard to find.

However, the last time I headed up that way I came to a fork in the trail and thought sure the left fork was the proper direction but instead of following the valley laterally, it climbed straight up through a very large cut over area that was no fun at all to walk through. We eventually found the steep trail that heads straight up the ridge and went up to the hillside shrine and after a suitable rest time headed further up the trail. We didn’t get very far since a tree blown down from a big windstorm last spring had completely blocked the trail, at which point we gave up and headed home.

Once again trying to avoid the steep climb uphill, I, as the one who was experienced in the area, led us up the valley. I also figured the ridge trail that we were seeking to hook up with had to have been cleared by now. In fact, last time I had done those trails I thought I should bring a big knife with me next time, and as it turned out not having something to cut through the brush was our biggest problem.

We reached the fork in the trail and so this time I was sure the right fork must be the one to follow. Ah, but instead of heading up the valley it went down to the creek and over to the opposite side. At this point I must say that both times, right and left fork, I followed the most traveled, primary trail; however, there obviously must be other secondary trails that I missed because I had hiked one previously that took me up the valley where I wanted to go.

One other point of clarification, just in case: There are no signs whatever on these trails and while there is evidence of human activities, you don’t necessarily see people that often, so can’t depend on asking directions. In fact, during the day we often wished somebody, anybody, would show up to help us out of our predicament. If so we would have made his day with generous recompense.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Well, after heading up the other side a ways, sometimes steeply, the trail just disappeared. Mm, I’m thinking, there’s got to be a trail on this ridge top as well and it’s most likely to meet with the trail on the opposite side at some point so let’s bushwhack a bit until we find the trail.

We found the trail, all right, but not until after nearly two hours of rough slogging. In an old intact tropical forest, the dense canopy shuts out most sunlight from ground level and it’s relatively easy to hike off-trail. When most or all of the larger trees are cut, the ground level often becomes a maze with areas of impenetrable thicket. I’d bushwhacked in the general area several times before and always found a reasonable way through it. Not this time.

I was sad to see the locals are slowly but surely cutting the few big trees that are left in the area. I don’t know if they have titles to the land and the rights to cut the trees or are just squatters. I tend to think the latter since many of their dwellings are ramshackle to say the least.

When I have a destination in mind, I tend to plow on through till I get there. Headstrong is another way to put it. This doesn’t work too well when you’re trying to go through a thicket filled with thorny vines and plants. My legs are crisscrossed with scratches. It’d make a great picture but unfortunately I lost my camera on the hike. From hours of rough jostling the leather case attached to my belt fell apart. I actually had had it repaired at a shoemaker once, but as it turns out he stitched up everything but the part that was still together, which is, of course, where it came apart and allowed the camera to slip through. I loved that little camera and almost cried when I discovered its loss.

The other part about being headstrong is that you don’t think enough about what you are doing or look carefully enough where you are going. Thus Nick, who was far more tuned in at how to negotiate the thicket than I was, had barely half the scratches on his legs as I did.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. On the way to finding the trail, we wound up going to the highest point on the ridge. The trail was a short ways down the other side. At the top someone had set homemade small animal traps. I’m not sure what they were after, the only animal I saw was a squirrel or something akin.

It was a relief to find the trail after our ordeal but our luck was short lived. After about 15 minutes of easy walking we hit an impasse. A large blowdown of several trees had covered the trail for maybe 15 or 20 meters, and all around it was difficult going. The trail had to restart on the other side but we couldn’t figure out how to get to it.

Once you start into a thicket it sometimes becomes a maze with lots of dead-ends. You start through the best opening you can find, and follow through logically where you see a way to go in your preferred direction, but then you can find yourself almost surrounded by thicket and are forced to retrace your steps. It’s also possible, with all that changing of direction that you’re no longer sure where you are. We should’ve concentrated more on finding the trail because we knew it was leading in the right general direction. We just kept getting diverted from our path. In fact, we always knew where we were in a macro sense; that is, we could often see in the distance where we needed to go, but just couldn’t find a way to get there.

It was another three hours of hard slogging, during which we found and lost another trail that was blocked by a blowdown. During that time, by charging ahead without looking very carefully, I disturbed two bee hives. They were small, translucent blue bees and not terribly aggressive. If they had been I would’ve been really suffering. The first time I got stung on my finger – it was still swollen five days later. At that point I was on a steep overgrown area and in my haste, shall we say panic, to get out of their way, I slipped and fell and bruised myself up a bit.

At this point, let me say, though I have a lot of stamina and can keep plugging away without a lot of rest (we stopped frequently but only for short periods) after two or three or five hours of it I get very sloppy and careless and fall and bump into things. That’s especially true when it’s getting late in the day and I can imagine the very distasteful possibility that I’ll be out there all night. The one sting from the second hive, which happened about 4pm knocked me for a loop as it got me right in the eye.

I’m of the belief that events like bee stings are instant karmic reminders, or rejoinders. Just as that bee stung me I was thinking, gotta slog through, gotta slog through, whereas I should’ve been thinking about how to stay calm and be careful. I fell down lots of times through being hasty and pushing too hard; it’s only luck that I didn’t really hurt myself in a way that made walking difficult and our ordeal ten times worse.

Sometime after 3 we had come across a spring which led to a nearby little creek. I had thought following the creek downhill might provide a way out but didn’t recommend it since it meant walking through the water. A trail that would’ve gotten us to the other ridge where the car was parked would’ve been preferred but at that point just getting downhill would’ve been good enough. I knew there were plantations and dwellings at the bottom of the valley so it would be easy walking even if there wasn’t a clear trail and that a trail would appear soon enough.

At about 4.30, after more than an hour of hard slogging trying to find a way downhill or anywhere out of the morass, and after getting stung and barely able to see, we found ourselves back at the little stream. At this point I have to say I’m glad Nick was able to see and think clearly because it was he who realized we were back at the creek. We followed the creek and it was easy going for a short time at which point we came to a very difficult spot. I was in the lead and in my haste made a bad choice and fell through the thicket covering the stream. Nick, just behind me, saw a much better way and helped me out of the thicket. At that point it was getting on to 4.30pm.

It wasn’t more than a few meters after that before we came to a clearing and banana plantation. We soon found a good trail and we were home free, at least in terms of not being stuck on the mountain all night. It still took more than an hour of walking before we reached the main road and a village where we could grab beers and rest a little. By that time my cheap, but previously very comfortable, shoes were in shreds and I was walking in my socks. At that point Nick hired a motorbike to take him to the car which was 3 or 4 kilometers away and then picked me up and drove us home. I would never have been able to drive home from there.

I’m thankful I was able to keep my eyes open long enough to make that last hour’s walk because once I sat down I could barely open them at all. Adrenaline and Necessity. After I got home at about 7 I was so burned out I couldn’t keep my eyes open enough to eat, let alone not having the energy to do same, though we hadn’t eaten all day.

An adventure and a half and, all things considered, not bad for a near geezer.

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