You can tell you’re off the beaten track when your motortaxi driver asks you to dismount half way through the journey. He needs to navigate an unmarked path which is entirely submerged in murky water. It’s rainy season in Cambodia, and after two long bus rides from Sihanoukville, a questionable bike ride to the ferry and a saunter across the river on a boat which suspiciously resembled a plank of wood attached to a motor, I’m very much representing the stereotype of a dirty backpacker. Note to self: next time don’t bring the ukulele.
Despite the downpour, I’m on my way from Chi Phat (the ecotourism Mecca of Cambodia) to the Wildlife Alliance Release Centre in Koh Kong province. The centre is based near the Cardamom Mountains and is home to a hoard of exotic creatures including sunbears, gibbons, pangolins, bearcats and tropical birds. Cambodia’s Protected Cardamom Forest is a heavenly prospect for conservation-loving, save-the-planet hippie types like me. Having already seen the incredible Irrawaddy River dolphins in Kratie, I’m eager to throw myself headfirst into a wild jungle experience.
When I arrive I’m shown to my very own private eco-chalet. The chalet bungalows are made of sustainable wood and run on solar power. It might be eco-friendly, but I quickly clock the spacious double beds, private bathroom and a balcony with hammocks. This is luxury compared to the shared dorms I’ve been affectionately calling home for the last four months. The literature inside explains that fees from visitors directly fund conservation efforts to prevent illegal wildlife trading and logging in the area. I couldn’t be happier.
Once I’m settled in I meet my guide – he’s actually a keeper as I’ve spontaneously booked last minute in low season. I’m the only one here and to be honest I feel like I’ve won the lottery: all the wildlife and staff to myself for 24 hours! We begin with drinks in the main bungalow where all the meals are cooked. I lose myself for over an hour talking about poaching, endangered species, world politics and the fate of the planet. Contrary to their self-assessment, I find the keepers speak very good English. However, our attempts at putting the world to rights are interrupted by the sudden appearance of unexpected company.
The Mynas announce their arrival with a series of squawks, shrieks and ‘Hello?”s which are definitely phrased as a question. They even have their heads tilted sideways quizzically. Surveying my surroundings I also notice a pair of larger birds lurking in the rafters. “Those are the Little Hornbills”, my guide informs me, “The male sometimes attacks tourists”.
By far my favourite visitor to our hut is a small red breasted parakeet whom I have decided to name Paulie (after the 90s parrot movie). Paulie and I instantly take a liking to each other and it isn’t long before she’s sharing my breakfast, drinking from my tea cup and sitting in my lap. Unfortunately, it seems my appeal is not universal, and the guide’s prophecy regarding the male Hornbill is quickly realised. Whilst I’m blissfully absorbed by the chatty Myna birds and the rather adorable Paulie, he takes the opportunity to sneak behind me, then violently attacks me with his beak and talons. We decide it might be a good time to start the jungle walk.
I can’t resist the temptation to hum “the lion sleeps tonight” under my breath as my guide hacks our way through the beautiful, dense forest with a machete. Looking around I unwittingly unnerve myself with thoughts of deadly vipers, cobras or other dangerous animals that may be hiding in the trees. It turns out I should have been looking down, as within minutes my legs and feet are covered in leeches. My guide is completely un-phased and calmly plucks the blood-suckers off me, whilst joking that all tourists in the forest become involuntary blood donors. He then stops to show me a branch he has cut from one of the trees: “Water vine” he says, “try drinking from it”. A vast volume of delicious, refreshing water gushes from the branch into my open mouth. Another of the jungle’s little surprises.
When we reach the river I remove my socks and hiking trainers and allow the force of the stream to cleanse my tired feet. It’s a beautiful clear oasis in the midst of this wild, mysterious predator. Strangely, in that moment, the unruly jungle instills in me a sense of endless calm and peace. It feels timeless, transcending the trivial noise of our day-to-day human worries with a deeper understanding of what being alive really means. After a brief rest, we decide it’s time to head back to camp and see the animals.
First I meet Lonely the macaque and her baby. When I ask where the animals come from, I’m told that most are rescued because they have been illegally kept as pets, hunted for traditional Chinese medicines or caught in snares. Next we stop at the feeding station to pick up lunch for the Sambar deer and I meet the Great Hornbill for the first time. Thankfully the Great Hornbill is far better natured than his Little friend.
At 3pm I join the staff at the feeding of the sunbears. The female sunbear is a returning resident. She was confiscated as a cub from wildlife traders, then released back into the wild with another female. Unfortunately both females were subsequently caught in snares and she is the only survivor, so now she’s back at the centre. I think that it must be heartbreaking to grow attached to these bears and try to do the best for them, only to have your efforts thwarted by people who see them as commodities.
When I get back to the hut I notice that the Little Hornbill has positioned himself in-wait inside my bungalow. The guides shoe him away, but I can’t help but feel on edge. As I walk over for dinner later that evening he swoops down over my head, luckily once again the guides are nearby. Still, I’m beginning to feel like an extra in Jurassic Park.
That evening we share a delicious meal of spicy vegetable curry with rice. Paulie makes a reappearance and attempts to chew the buttons off my Hornbill-deflecting waterproof jacket. I also discover her deep love for shiny teaspoons. The Myna birds are absent, but I can see evidence of their presence nearby in the form of a wide splattering of bird poo on the floor. Lovely.
After dinner I’m given a head torch and we walk back into the forest. This time I get to hand feed bearcats and pangolins. I feel like a real game keeper as we slip inside the cages adorned with buckets of fruit and bags of dead red ants. I admit I’m nervous as I feed the bearcats. Any aspirations I may have had about a future as a gamekeeper may be somewhat compromised by my occasional girlish screams and the fact that my ratio of drop-to-delivery of bananas was roughly 5-1. In my defence, it is dark, they have sharp teeth and that Hornbill has put me seriously on edge.
The pangolins are a completely different experience. I have never met sweeter, more gentle creatures. You can’t help but love them instantly. How tragic it seems that they are critically endangered as a direct result of human activity. The female here is missing two legs from snares. It wrenches your heart to see her struggle to climb the structures in her enclosure whilst her playmate consumes the lion’s share of their meal (dead ants). I stroke the dusty scales on their backs and then watch in awe as their anteater-like tongues whip around the feed bowl.
I’m not going to lie. This evening I’m mildly terrified by the concept of Hornbill-bungalow invasion during the night. I spend a very hot and sleepless night hiding like a complete coward beneath my blanket with the minimal possible surface area of body exposed. I’m sweltering and it is difficult to breathe, but my head is protected. All night I hear noises. Pileated gibbons call to each other, frogs converse loudly in the lake, birds join the chorus and a disconcerting sound of shuffling comes from within my bungalow. With bated breath I turn on the light. It turns out to be an enormous gecko. I decide that the gecko is a blessing as it might act as a deterrent for other nasties like mosquitos, so I climb back into bed. The shuffling continues all night and I tell myself repeatedly, like a mantra, that all sounds must come from that one gecko.
I survive the night without incident and after breakfast we prepare for the morning feed. As we conceal ourselves behind the hide for the sunbear enclosure, familiar feathers appear. The Little Hornbills are perched in the trees about twenty metres away. The male’s piercing red eyes are trained on me, he flies closer and lands in the tree that forms the support structure for the hide. He watches me, but doesn’t come closer because my guide is with me. We leave to feed the deer, then head for the larger Hornbill enclosures. Understandably I’m a little reluctant to feed them, but after many reassurances I enter the cage and place the fruit on the ground. The bird is positively pleasant or “polite” as my guide puts it. We exit the cage and my guide goes round the corner to relieve himself in the bushes.
During this very brief window in which I am unprotected, the Little Hornbill comes swooping from the trees at break-neck speed, then I feel his beak break the skin on the back of my head and his talons grasp frantically at my hair. I scream and the guide comes rushing back. This time I’m crying from shock. But it also hurt. “I’m so sorry Katie” says the guide mournfully “I don’t know why he tries to kill tourists. We don’t know what is in his mind”.
I started to wonder if this bird has been mistreated in the past. Might he be suffering from a form of trauma-related psychosis? Then I thought about how many animals are targeted, injured and killed by humans every day. Could this be a one-bird crusade, acting in anger as a response to our unforgivable actions against the natural world? I was still afraid, but it made me reflect on how much we separate ourselves from nature. In one evening I had been so frightened because for once nature had full and unrestricted access to me. I could be bitten or beaked or eaten (unlikely in the absolute sense).
I’m not suggesting we should all stop living in houses or throw ourselves back into “the wild” like our caveman ancestors. But perhaps we could think about how much we take nature for granted. We feel like we are above it, separate and in control, but in reality we are connected to and dependent upon everything around us. All I can say is that my jungle experience has forever deepened my respect and sense of wonder at our natural world.