Monday Sept. 29th, the morning of the trek we got up around 7.30 for one last proper shower – the Thai method with stalls of ice cold water you pour over yourself with little plastic pots. I am glad I was with it enough to savour every cleansing moment of this as it was to be the last time I felt anywhere near refreshed for the next 80 hours or so.
Before that, I made a fruitless search around and under the car for the missing key and Mr Moo was there already, laughing as I explained the situation to him. He had the idea of putting my phone to the car while having my wife press the electric opening button on the spare key down her phone – I would have loved to have seen if this actually worked, but alas the spare does not have the alarm button on it. In the end he gave my wife his address and she arranged to send the key by 24 hour EMS which usually takes between 3-4 days.
Showered and dressed up like commandos ready for action, Mr Moo took us to meet a strapping young park ranger called Me. He had massive arms, dark skin and a wide smile and truly looked the part, plus he spoke great English, so we were glad to have him onboard. We drove to the breakfast place where we found the lady from the previous night had our orders spot on (Khao Tom Moo with 2 boiled eggs for me, and American breakfasts for the others). Short on cash and without any alco-fuel, we picked up a couple of Thai delights – small bottles of Sang Som and Hong Thong, it’s the kind of booze than nobody really knows or cares whether is rum, whisky or brandy, but is known to get the job done.
From here we left Mr Moo and jumped in a pickup truck stocked with bottles of water, eggs, bread and bags of food and headed to our departure point, ‘sub-station 6’ about 25KM down the road. Phil was in the front cab with Me, while Rich and I sat in the back of the truck admiring the spectacular view of the jagged limestone cliffs and mountain vistas. The last time I was in the back of a pick up like this I ended up with a gruesome compound fracture of the wrist, but luckily I escaped injury on this occasion. After pulling off the main road we found ourselves on a long windy dirt track and had already spotted a few snakes before arriving at the sub-station.
Once here we were introduced to our guides, an old fella with a pump action shotgun- P.Sanan, a young guy with good English – Klong, and his younger but much bigger brother- Chang, both with machetes and all smoking Thai style roll ups (which they somehow managed to do continually throughout the entire adventure). They loaded up the backpacks and at this point Me said himself and P.Sanan wouldn’t be coming with us, though we later found out they would be joining us a few hours into the trek.
So we began, and immediately, Klong and Chang started hacking through the jungle, I suppose where we expected some kind of pathway to be. After not too many steps though, some form of uphill pathway did open up and so the sweat started to pour and never stopped. At some point it was explained to us that we were the first group of the year to do this trek and that it was 4 weeks prior that anyone had been through it to clear the path. That’s a long time in the rain forest, bamboo, of which there are 1500 varieties in Khao Sok, can grow 1 meter a day!
I soon realized it would have been worth spending a few thousand Baht on waterproof boots instead of wearing trainers, as a lot of the journey involved being ankle deep in rivers, puddles and streams and 99.9% of leech-checks yielded slimy, wriggling results. Luckily leech bites are not painful or harmful, after the first dozen or so, you get used to peeling them off and flicking them back into the jungle, though there is always the fear of finding one in private territory, we have all seen the movie ‘Stand By Me’!
After a couple of hours in, a puffed out Me and ever-placid P.Sanan caught up with us, explaining that they had run all the way to do so with 25KG backpacks on. It was the first and last time I ever saw Me looking out of breath. Somewhere during this initial trek, we were shown which leaves not to touch as they result in horrible burn-like rashes. As they all looked exactly the same to my novice eyes, I just vowed to try and touch nothing. We took a quick rest and headed on to the cave and a lunch break which consisted of a pouch of fried rice wrapped in banana leaf.
We then left P.Sanan with his shotgun (this was just for poachers, not animals) and all our gear and headed into the cave. Klong kindly insisted I wear his shoes (which were about 8 sizes too small) to wear through the cave while he went barefoot. The cave was around 300m long and a river flowed all the way through, the walls home to giant spiders and ceilings home to bats, meaning the walls were also home to a thick layer of bat poo. The cave was tough going, I think mainly on account of the pinching shoes and loose slippy rocks underfoot the whole way, obviously it was pitch black also. We got to see some interesting stalactite and stalagmite formations as well as a lot of weird and wonderful insects and frogs, though it was a real relief to get to the end of it. You then have the choice of turning back and doing it again (no way) or going through rough jungle to get back to the start – this option we chose, though looking back, I might actually have returned through the cave, maybe because of the hammering rain that started or the fact Klong was going barefoot through the jungle which made me feel really guilty. There were a few points climbing over rotten felled trees and across brooks and uphill in slippy mud, wearing Klong’s shoes flip flop style, where I thought I would be lucky to get out with only a twisted ankle, I think Phil was in the same boat with his giant feet squeezed into another of the guide’s tiny plastic shoes.
The rain was coming down pretty good by the time we got back to the cave entrance and good old P.Sanan had moved all our gear into a dry spot. Right then a group of park rangers showed up with an injured girl so we gave them some Betadene and plasters for her grazes. I think I understood they were a group from Bangkok doing a survey in the jungle for some reason. Foolishly, I got changed into dry(ish) clothes thinking there wouldn’t be a better place to camp than the cave mouth and its natural shelter. However, we packed up and moved off through the rain about 80m to another spot, totally exposed and drenching my second set of clothes.
Full credit to the rangers and guides, they managed to not only set up our hammock beds, but also make a fire and collect firewood for it in the pouring rain. By this point everything was wet and muddy and that was the way it was going to be from then on in. The thing about being in the jungle, is YOU ARE IN THE JUNGLE. Everything is jungle. The only things that are not jungle are you and what you bring with you. Everything you touch is jungle. You cannot put anything or any part of your body anywhere and not get it molested by jungle – water, mud, leeches, bugs, leaves, and God knows what else. I think this dawned on me while trying to function normally in surrounds that were really alien and very uncomfortable to me. Thankfully as alien as the jungle was to me, it was home for our 4 guides who clearly were as comfortable there as if they had never been anywhere else in their lives.
As the guys efficiently got things in order for us, we bungled and slipped around getting in their way and were generally being utterly useless. It was time to warm the old cockles so we opened up the Hong Thong and mixed it with water and passed the plastic bottle around the smoky camp fire. It was good. Rich made a seat out of rocks and Klong knocked us up a wooden bench in 5 minutes flat.
This was to be the first time I witnessed proper outdoor cooking. The guides somehow managed to cook one of the best green curries I have ever had in shafts of bamboo in a camp fire in the rain. They also made delicious barbecued chicken and pouches of rice and even set up a dining set with chopped bamboo and giant leaves. This was real tasty food and worth the long wait, only slightly embarrassing that we demolished their hours of culinary efforts in just a few minutes.
Thankfully the hammocks were more or less dry, so we got set up for bed and laid back, swinging, to the first night in the jungle. The jungle is loud at night. The cacophony of sound fills your head and creates a bizarre imagery as you drift in and out of sleep. The darkness is so absolute you cannot see your hand in front of your face and you have no sense of depth perception. We all slept on and off with very vivid dreams and 2 of us had the experience we thought we were being spoken to (my ‘auditory hallucination’ was Phil telling me there was a nest of kittens pooing on my chest which I was powerless to move to brush off). The only thing louder than the combined hum of the jungle was Richard’s snoring, which sounded like someone sawing logs 2 foot from my head, but I was too tired for it to bother me.
No telling how many spiders we swallowed that night, though there were plenty around that’s for sure. After 24 hours, we all remained constipated, which was a good thing, as the last thing any of us wanted to do was to stumble out into the pitch black jungle to ‘drop trou’ on a snakes nest or worse.
TO BE CONTINUED …