- Green pit viper found at night in Veal Thom grasslands, Virachey national park, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.
I arrived into Banlung, jumping off point for Virachey national park around 2100 hrs after a bumpy and uncomfortable 13hr bus ride from Phnom Penh. In this supposedly “remote corner” of Cambodia, I felt nonetheless positively inundated with other tourists. I hadn’t booked ahead to any hotels knowing full well that I would have a rich buffet of options when I arrived served up by touts, tuk-tuk drivers and peddlers. Though perhaps not the same rich and varied options as in the more touristed towns of Siem Reap or Kampot. All the same, a crowd of Cambodians threw themselves at the passengers as they exited the bus. Jockeying with the owners for their luggage, they would at times forcefully wrangle it from their hands in order to load it onto the back seats of tuk-tuks or scooters. I managed to hold onto mine by virtue of walking off the bus with it already strapped to my back. Other tourists were not so lucky and quickly fell to the first wave of drivers. Like mosquitoes, to the buzz of touts, the scent of indecision was like blood in the air and wherever I went they quickly followed. I singled out the one driver who seemed unconcerned and asked if he knew any reasonable hostels. He was taking a couple that had already reserved a room at the hostel and so agreed to take me on for free. That was all the news I needed and jumped in the car and rolled up the window so the mosquitoes wouldn’t get in.
Upon arrival I settled into a nice bungalow and chatted with the guide-cum-gopher boy for the hostel named Smiley. Now, I almost decided then and there to organize a trip with him. After all, wouldn’t it make for a great story to get screwed over by a guide name Smiley? However, I decided to go with a guide recommended by a friend who has lived in Cambodia for a long time and who even helped train the current crop of national park guides. Fortunately Smiley knew him, got him on the phone and later that night I was introduced to my guide, Sou. He presented me with a 7 day itinerary which would take us well into the national park via an interesting natural grassland, Veal Thom. It looked good though I did require some cajoling and convincing over the eye-watering price.
We decided to leave the following day to waste no time and I insisted on trekking into the park the first day rather than spend it in the village as the itinerary suggested. Sou said he’d contact the local guide and see what he could do. With that we agreed to meet early the following morning and I retreated to my room where I re-arranged my 30kg of gear into a more manageable 20+kg.
The following day Sou and I went to the market to purchase supplies for the coming week and then motorbiked 2hrs to a small village where we picked up our local guide. He was a young 20 something year old who had just discovered Emo style and had his hair swept up into some kind of mousse/gelled concoction that looked exceptionally out of place in the jungle and already gave me grave doubts as to his competence. We lunched and then walked a couple hours to a small hut that bordered the jungle. With several hours of sunlight that still remained I attempted to clean my sensor with some alcohol and cotton Q-tips, though I mostly just succeeded in making it even filthier and left the sensor a minefield of dust spots and cotton fibres. I decided if I used a large aperture it didn’t look too bad and finally retired to my hammock where I relaxed until 9pm. Fading in and out of sleep I was finally roused by a herd of buffalo passing within a couple feed of my hammock, their wicked horns passing just to either side of me. Their heavy breath as they exhaled putrefying the air and raising the hairs on the back of my neck. I remained motionless in the hammock gripped by an irrational fear that any movement might engender some kind of charge or stampede. They eventually passed, though theyremained in the area and returned several times throughout the night.
Preparing for a night of macro I wiped the sleep from my eyes and erased whatever fatigue remained by downing a red bull. Alertness restored, I walked about an hour having spotted nothing more than a couple jumping spiders and a weaver ant mimicking crab spider (Amyciaea lineatipes) of which I failed to get any respectable photos before being rained out. I quickly donned my poncho to protect my camera and beat a hasty retreat to the hut where I doffed my gear and subsequently returned to my hammock. There I remained wide-eyed and awake for most of the rest of the night, awaiting the cease of the rains which never came, red bull coursing my veins, and the bulls outside on their own course; their flared nostril breathing waking me from my reveries with a start whenever they passed by.
Day break came and sleep eluded me. With a groan I got up, and faced the relentless rain which greeted me as a slap to the face. We ate a slow meal, trying to draw it out as long as possible in the hopes that the rain might abate somewhat. However, more than an hour later and we still marched into the rain. I found myself especially grateful for the two garbage bags I had insisted on finding in the market for wrapping around my camera gear and which proved immediately useful as we were quickly drenched. Sou and the local guide were bowed under the weight of the food and I under the weight of my camera gear. We all struggled with the rain, and the consequent leeches. At least they had the benefit of their loads becoming lighter over the coming days, I grumbled to myself more than once. A luxury not afforded to me unless I started jettisoning equipment, a strategy which seemed more and more appealing with every grinding hour that passed. 4 hours later and the rain which wavered only occasionally in its dedication and ferocity diminished just enough for us to enjoy a short reprieve for lunch. However, having stopped our energetics, the chill of our drenched clothing ushered the warmth away from our bodies and ensured that we were more concerned with shovelling our mouths full of noodles and rice rather than enjoying the calm jungle setting and the brief respite on the assault on our bodies. We shivered, caught in a foggy landscape, wishing neither to continue nor to remain in place. Eventually we buckled under the cold and so buckled up and continued the trek.
We crossed what Sou referred to as the ‘buffer zone’, a ring of mountains forming a natural barrier between the park and the forested area just outside which was rife with supposedly legally felled trees (though I had my doubts). Upon reaching the top I waited for the guides who struggled with their heavier packs. Mists swirled and the temperature seemed to plummet, especially after the efforts required to reach the hilltop. I hugged my core and hid my hands under my armpits. It was hard to believe how many times I’ve frozen in the tropics, not just atop mountains and volcanoes but even in the dense lowlands when pounded with heavy rains. I tried to count off the minutes on fingers which had frozen into claws and stubbornly refused to open. When they did finally arrive we scrunched together to preserve what little warmth we had. Fortunately the difficult part was over and we only had an hour or so left until we reached camp. We trekked mostly in silence with only the occasional grunt or gasp for air shared between us. At last, after a slippery final section which found us mostly inching forward on our asses, and 8hrs after we had first started the trek, we arrived at camp. I promptly set up my hammock, washed my clothes (with little hope of seeing them dry anytime soon), and ‘relaxed’/shivered, shook and rocked myself into a state bordering on warmth.
Despite relatively clear skies and only the faintest patter of rain I remained in my hammock. I nursed a pounding headache which persisted through the night and which at some point in the early hours was accompanied by a sore neck and the blush of a fever. I was exhausted and drained from the day’s hike, and yet however I tried, I failed to fall asleep.
Nevertheless at some point I must have fallen asleep because I awoke to a few stray rays of sunshine falling on my hammock. I didn’t have more than a few moments reprieve before my dormant headache awoke as well, and the dull pounding at the back of my skull resumed. It took me a moment to realize that I was completely soaked, not just my shirt and shorts, but my blanket and hammock as well. Had it rained and I not felt a thing? I looked around at the dry leaves and ground and slowly it dawned on me that I had apparently been sweating, a lot. Even now I wiped the beads of perspiration from my arms and forehead with a towel. It was about 0700, I had no idea how long I’d slept but I still felt utterly drained. Sou and Emo boy were already up and preparing breakfast. I put out my blanket and clothes to dry and then retreated to my hammock. Fortunately yesterday we’d covered a fair bit of ground and so today was only a 3 or 4 hour hike to the grasslands, Veal Thom, or so Sou promised. Thank God for that! I decided some more sleep or at least rest was in order and so after breakfast I remained in my hammock in a half-conscious state until 1100. Finally I was forced to rouse against my body’s protests. I shakily put on my pack and we began the uphill battle towards the grassland.
It was undoubtedly a struggle, although even Sou’s lower estimate of 3hrs turned out to be high and we made it in just over 2 hrs. Even so, the final 1/2 hr hike across the grassland with the full sun crushing down on us was punishing, and threatened to unravel what little resolve remained. When we finally did arrive into a small oasis of shade I collapsed on an uncomfortable outcrop, rocks jutting into my back and was incapable of further movement for a good hour. When I finally came to I found the guides huddled over a spitting fire cooking a late lunch, and ants crawling over what they must have taken to be my dead body. And then there was also my ever-present headache and clothes which I had sweated through, again. Somehow on unsteady legs I managed to pull out my hammock and tie it before falling in and falling ‘asleep’ or at least what passed for sleep nowadays ie. a sweaty, head pounding, feverish and half-conscious state.
“We go out?” Sou asked. I would have thought that the slick sheet of perspiration over my entire body and the occasional moan would have been answer enough, though Sou is an optimist. I managed to raise my head just over the lip of the hammock and shake my head before plunking back down with a heavy sigh from the effort. “Okay, tomorrow then” Sou said in a voice that just a little too upbeat for my current state. I didn’t have the energy to grumble or curse and so I just stared listlessly at him in the hopes of conveying my current state. It must have been at least partly effective because he came over a few minutes later with a handful of colourful pills. “You take pills, they give you power!” I felt wretched, nevertheless I didn’t feel quite desperate enough to down a random assortment of mystery pills, especially in a country where you can get morphine over the counter. “Thanks Sou but I think I’ll pass”. He shook his head as though he were the doctor and I were refusing a perfectly reasonable treatment. He brandished the pills and shook them in his closed fist a couple times for good measure as though about to perform a magic trick. After seeing that was still not enticed, he placed the the rainbow pills back in his pocket and went back to tend the fire.
Night fell and it seemed like all my symptoms worsened. My arms and face were hot to the touch and I had to douse myself in water several times throughout the night to cool down lest I boil down to nothing. The soreness in my neck which I had initially attributed to simply hiking with a heavy pack had now become a tense, rigid knot which had stiffened to the point that I had trouble moving my head from side to side. I must have sweated several litres in a few short hours because I was literally bathing in a puddle which formed a steady drip from the bottom of my hammock to the ground. When I opened my eyes I hurriedly shuttered them to the light as pain lanced the sockets (photophobia). I hid them in the crook of my sweaty elbow and massaged my temples to ease the headache which bordered on a migraine. I knew it was bad when I got up partway through the night to go to washroom and stumbled across a green pit viper. It was no more than 10 feet away from my hammock. I offered it no more than a glance before falling back into bed, my heavy camera gear which I’d carted for 20+ kilometres sitting beneath me, useless. Once I struggled to sit up and perhaps rummage through my equipment but I promptly fell back down breathing heavily. It was no use, I was finished, all used up.
I went through a mental rolodex of tropical and potentially fatal maladies and repeatedly came back to falciparum malaria, and bacterial meningitis both of which can be fatal within a very short time period if left untreated. We were currently on day 4 of what was supposed to be a week-long trek. However, in light of my worsening condition I decided I had to get some form of treatment or at least determine that what I had wasn’t too serious. I tried to assure myself that what I was experiencing was at least partially psychosomatic and that my isolation left me with nothing else to think about and so my symptoms mirrored my thoughts and theories. Unfortunately this realization did little to actually calm or resolve anything and I would gradually return to the rolodex and oscillate between fear and reason, with the scales steadily tipping towards the former.
Day came and yet another sleepless night. Fatigue settled into every limb and I knew already I wouldn’t be able to make the trek out. Sou got up brought me breakfast and upon seeing my pale, inert form actually felt the need to shake me to make sure that I was still alive. My eyes fluttered open and despite the pain from the strong sun, I managed a weak smile and accepted the bowl of porridge he offered. At least I still had an appetite…well sort of…I half finished the mush in front of me before it was overtaken by ants.
Sou didn’t bother asking whether I wanted to go on a tour of the Veal, it was evident from the way I couldn’t even bring myself to leave my hammock for breakfast that I was in no condition for a hike. So we remained in the shade and over the course of what could have been several hours or several minutes, I felt myself go from fever to freezing chills. I knew that my temperature must still be high but I found my teeth chattering and I was shaking with the cold. I crawled out of the hammock and towards a patch of sunlit rock. There I basked like the reptiles that I so often photographed. In fact I saw a skink not a foot away adopting a posture not so dissimilar from my own. On unsteady feet I peeled off my clothes, changed and put the sweat-soaked garments in the sun to dry. From my perch I pointed out the pit viper which hadn’t moved from the night before. Sou took a quick look before declaring “Very dangerous” with a vigorous shake of his head. I nodded feebly. “I take photo for you?” I had serious doubts whether Sou could manage my camera, however, no harm done so I gave him a quick tutorial and set all the buttons to automatic. The sun felt awfully strong…I saw Sou delicately easing toward the viper…I looked around and suddenly couldn’t make sense of anything around me. The heat, it felt like I had been in the sun for hours. How long had it been? 5 minutes, 10? I looked around and it was as though I was swimming in a Salvador Dali painting. Shapes melted away and my vision became a swirl of colours. The golden grassland became a blur of pastel strokes from a painter’s brush. The ground swelled and rolled under me, there was the brief realization that this was it, that I was losing consciousness and couldn’t hold on much longer. Then there was a streak of motion as though the painting tipped from the easel, which must have been me falling and then there was nothing.