Friday, 24 October 2008

Hornbills are forever

As we passed through the imposing gates of Khao Yai National Park, I half expected Dickie Attenborough to come mincing out “Oh welcome, my dears, welcome to Jurassic Park!’.

The scenery certainly looked suitably primeval - densely forested slopes smoothered in dense vegetation, partially covered by the early morning mist - and sounded so as well, with a whole range of strange whoops and calls echoing around us as our vehicle climbed up the steep, winding road.

But of course no dinosaurs. Indeed, given the current inhabitants, it would perhaps have been more apt to have been greeted by David, rather than Dickie, Attenborough.

The legendary naturalist would certainly be at home here, for Khao Yai is a nature lover’s paradise. As Thailand’s flagship park it boasts over 3,000 species of plants, 320 species of birds and 70 species of animals (including bears, elephants and - yes - tigers!).

Surely then, even a couple of pasty Londoners could be in with a chance of spotting something you wouldn’t encounter on your average stroll across Hampstead Heath.

We certainly looked the part for our jungle adventure, though our faces dropped when we were given the equipment our guide considered essential for protection from the beasties lurking in the bushes: leech socks.

No pith helmets, no machetes, just a large, bright white pair of rather natty-looking knee-length socks.
Squeezing their comical-looking farang back inside the pick-up our guide, ‘Mr Birdman‘, and his three young helpers, hung themselves off various parts of the vehicle as it crawled along the road, chattering excitedly and scanning the treetops for signs of life.

It didn’t take them long. A shout from an eagle-eyed acolyte and Mr Birdman dropped the anchors. Immediately they eagerly piled out, setting up telescopes, uncapping enormous camera lenses and pointing frantically into the canopy above. A white handed gibbon - or at least one of its hands - the startled primate swiftly making a bolt for it.

We pressed on, into the heart of darkness, cruising past a Barking Deer chewing nonchalantly at a bush by the side of the road, an empty Elephant salt lick, a ’warning: cobra crossing’ sign and small groups of western tourists in matching sensible trousers and floppy hats.

The road stretched on, empty except for the odd obnoxious pig-tailed macaque, snarling for a handout. There was nothing for it but to hit the jungle trail on foot. We parked up and dived into a gap in the thick green undergrowth.

Straight away the vegetation closes in on you. Great thick trees crowd out the light above, huge draping lianas, hanging down like electric cables in an unfinished house, block your path, giant trees roots trip you up and large quantities of rotting leaves and persistent precipitation combine to leave the paths muddy, the going treacherous.

We slipped and slid, tripped and tumbled, in the process generating enough noise to scare the entire population of the Cotswold Wildlife Park.

But perhaps this simply added to the noise of the jungle; the hum of the insects, the call of the birds and the myriad other exotic and mysterious sounds emanating from all around us.
With some trepidation, we followed the bouncing figure of Mr Birdman, leading us deeper and deeper into the maze.

Following intently behind him, I missed the bright green, and highly venomous Pit Viper dozing on a twig just inches from his elbow. And so did our experienced guide. But then he could be forgiven for his mind was on other things, namely baiting large, hairy, black scorpions.

Spying a small hole in the path up ahead Mr Birdman was on to it in an instant, brushing aside the leaf litter and poking a short little stick into this rather foreboding-looking hole.
A few minutes of twiddling with his stick and his persistence paid off: a large pair of angry-looking claws emerged, surely belonging to an equally irate owner annoyed at being so rudely awoken from his daytime slumbers. Our small group drew a collective intake of breath - this loon is actually poking a live scorpion, and a very large one at that.

But there’s no stopping the intrepid Birdman. With careful persuasion he’s soon got the beastie out, all five furious inches of him, holding him by the tail and triumphantly dangling him in front of our cameras.

I still don’t know why I agreed to hold this fearsome creature. Perhaps it’s because others did before me, and they didn’t seem to drop down dead. Well it made a nice photo.

Creatures of a more gentler persuasion followed with our chancing upon a family of White-handed Gibbons. These agile apes entertained all with their daredevil antics, leaping from one branch to the next against seemingly impossible odds. Humans may rule the earth but the treetops are theirs.

Beyond the Gibbons, the birdcalls intensified: Laughing thrushes, Bubus, Mynahs, Bluebirds and a whole host of other unidentified species. A couple of Wreathed Hornbills flew overhead, their wings generating the most extraordinary sound, as if a steam engine were passing above the treetops.

With our eyes to the sky we neglected the ground at our peril and soon we were encountering another unpleasant resident - the place was crawling with leeches. These weren’t the great slug-sized bloodsuckers of film fame and medieval medicine but rather small, insidious, cunning little blighters which moved with surprising speed.

There’s something very disconcerting about watching one of these wee beasties hook onto one’s boot, crawl up one’s sock and inch up one’s trousers, seeking out a nice patch of exposed flesh upon which to feed.

They move not like slugs but rather like slinkies, the coils-shaped toy you used to run down the stairs as a child. As the leeches feasted, the two burly young Canadian lads in our small group begin to regret turning out that morning in hangovers and bemuda shorts…

At last the forest opened up and we entered a large rolling plain covered in elephant grass, as high as your shoulder and sharp as a kitchen knife.

Heading gingerly for the safety of a viewing tower, their hands held high over their heads, none of my companions were interested in my sighting of an impressive-sounding Crested Serpent Eagle. Not even Birdman - his mind was on lunch.

Post-prandial we took in a range of Khao Yai’s charms: a one metre long Giant Squirrel, the waterfall from the film The Beach (no, we didn’t jump) and numerous Macaques at their roadside grooming parlours, holding up traffic.

The finally, as the sun started to sink, we found them. The highlight of our day: Giant Hornbills.
A pair of these splendid birds gazed down on us, from their home in their generous boughs of an old fig tree.

I’d read up beforehand about these magnificent creatures, our guesthouse kindly providing me the night before with an ancient dusty tome devoted to them as bedtime reading. They seem to be somewhat revered locally and, at first hand they didn’t disappoint.

They were simply enormous: from their long, slim black and white tail to their huge bright yellow bills they must have measured almost a metre from beak to tail. I had to concur with the slogan inside the book: Hornbills are forever.

Finally dragging ourselves away from this most glamorous of couples we carried on, hopeful that the descending darkness might bring out a few more shy creatures. A tiger perhaps, some wild elephants, or at least a python warming itself on the tarmac.

We got wild boar instead, the noise of our engine sending a whole family of them into a frenzy and Lara into peals of joyful laughter.
We called it a day and pointed our pick-up in the direction of the exit. We'd seen a most impressive menagerie, but even not a sniff of a tiger. As we sped through the dark I resolved once more to try again, in another jungle, another day.
And next time I won't forget my pith helmet.

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