Paddling in Khao Sok

By Peta Bassett

From Sawasdee Magazine, the inflight magazine for Thai Airways (Dec 2002 edition). Photos by Dave Williams

"I'm having multiple ear-gasms", proclaims Dave Williams. This, just one of his many signature sound bytes, is in response to the morning orchestra on Cheow Lan Lake in Khao Sok National Park, southern Thailand. The faint clamor of what could be a construction site grows as we paddle into a cove. The source? "A Great Slaty Woodpecker", determines an increasingly excited Dave. Sure enough, moments later the bird, one that is rarely spotted, darts out from the dense jungle growth only to vanish just as quickly. For Dave it's his second sighting in two days and something that will, undoubtedly, make him the envy of his 'birding mates'.

Sunrise.It's 7am and we have been paddling for about half an hour. The founder and director of Paddle Asia is in his 'office' and before too long we will all be birding converts. All eyes are on the curtain of green before us. Where will the next sighting be? Which direction will it come from? It turns out to be a still but vibrant splash of blue and orange perched on the bare branch of a partially submerged tree. Exactly who is watching who? The kingfisher, or nok gin pla (bird that eats fish) in Thai, soon tires of the game and flies on to a new perch.

Kayaking is usually the domain of the well-buffed and those who eat a certain brand of breakfast cereal. I fall into neither of those categories and am desperately trying to suppress thoughts of the thick banana pancakes that will apparently greet us when we return to our base at 9am. Weeks of training didn't precede this assignment. Nor did rigorous weight sessions and daily 2km swims followed by a 5km run. None of this even made it onto the 'To Do' list. The priority was simply to make the late afternoon flight for an evening rendezvous on floating bamboo rafts deep in the heart of Khao Sok National Park. It was only upon arrival that the panic (and regrets about my laissez-faire approach to training) had set in. A solid weekend of kayaking was about to begin.

The welcoming committee consisted of 4 sturdy kayaks laid out on the landing raft. This was serious! Images of televised triathlons sprang to mind. Even in the dim light, the other 2 guests looked the part. One was an Australian travel junkie (no surprises there) who had traversed Africa as a guide for the past 5 years while the other was a Bangkok-based adventure sports enthusiast. Both appeared to be more than qualified to wield a paddle. And naturally, our 3 guides had all been rafting and kayaking for many years.

Beautiful Khao Sok.Finally there were the beginners - us. 12 hours of kayaking over 2 days lay in store. Basic paddling lessons on this, our first morning, had been a must, although exactly who they were targeted at is still hotly debated. "No honey, he was talking to you not me!" A double kayak teetered on the edge of becoming a divorce kayak but thankfully the spectacle of the forest took over.

Again first impressions from the previous evening proved correct. The glassy lake had appeared to be infinite in size as a longtail had ferried us deeper and deeper into the park and the full moon flickered on and off, disappearing intermittently behind dramatic limestone outcrops. Daylight confirmed the scale. So thankfully, our first destination only involved a short crossing to a nearby island at a 'sensible' pace.

The forest was awake long before we were. Fig trees in fruit were the focus of attention and attracted a lengthy roll call. Families of macaques scampered along the tops of branches, silhouetted by the morning sun, while ever-graceful gibbons swung arm over arm beneath. An infant gibbon was spotted clinging to its mother's belly as she went about her daily routine. Nearby hornbills took flight, scared off by approaching macaques and all the while we gently glided in and around the many inlets of the island quickly forgetting the exercise component of the trip and focussing on the wildlife before us.

Grey wagtails, a male Asian Fairy-bluebird, a Blue Rock Thrush and Vernal Hanging Parrots were just some of the many birds that we apparently saw. And no doubt we did as Dave later pointed them out in a birding manual. To recognise them visually was understandable. He soon had us spotting the signature white stripe on the underside vent area of a flock of Bushy-crested Hornbills. However, identifying the majority of them from their calls prior to seeing them is definitely not a weekend course. These amateur ears could only recognise more distinctive forest sounds such as the rat-a-tat-tat of woodpeckers and the glorious 'whoop-whoop' of gibbon songs. The latter volleyed their 'comments' back and forth between the islands, almost as if in conversation. Or at least it appeared that way as we paddled towards waiting pancakes and refuge from the heat of the day.

Gibbon.Wildlife spotting is contagious and mealtime discussions inevitably revolved around the topic. Answers sparked more questions. "What do the gibbon songs mean?"
"We can only guess. They could be territorial calls. Females saying 'Hands off. He's my man!"
"Do they swim?"
"No they hate the water."
Regardless of what they're saying you can only assume that all the singing back and forth between gibbons on one island to neighbours that they will never meet on another must amount to a lot of frustration.

Despite it being the wet season, there had been little rain to date. Graphic testimony could be found in the stark watermark that lined the faces of the limestone cliffs throughout the park. An overnight downpour was exactly what was needed. Our surrounds were rustic but by no means luxurious - a row of floating bamboo bungalows linked by a walkway. The luxury was being cocooned from the rain and yet being so close to it. Simple thatched roofing cushioned the sound above as we slept about 2-feet from the water below. Meanwhile, full immersion was only a few short steps away and diving off the tiny front porch for a midnight dip or an early morning plunge was yet another decadent treat.

I woke for a second day of kayaking with a mixture of surprise and relief. Free of the expected (and dreaded) aches and pains I even dared to think that this wasn't such an ordeal after all. Undoubtedly, having the correct equipment distinguished this from my previous (and limited) paddling adventures; lightweight carbon fibre paddles and a rudder to aid steering made all the difference. So yet again the focus was on the spectacular scenery rather than aching joints and binoculars and cameras were within easy reach as we set off. Perhaps we would spot something larger today. The only certainty about our agenda was that it would be another full day on the water. What we would see around each bend was an exciting unknown.

Entering a cave.Occasionally, a sound not unlike a gunshot pierced the morning calm. Initial reactions pointed to poachers. Thankfully though, a more likely explanation was the creaking of bamboo as animal families scurried through the forest rush hour. Often they were macaques, a frequent sight no matter which part of the park we paddled into. In one grove, however, it was a group of dusky langurs (monkeys), easily identified by their black faces and lengthy tails, that was putting the bamboo to the test.

Bamboo can also reveal clues to larger animal sightings. A trampled clump with fresh footprints leading down to the water's edge indicated a likely elephant pit stop. Would they return anytime soon? We were hopeful as we waited offshore, ears straining for a signal to their approach and cameras at the ready. They didn't emerge but as we paddled out of the inlet, I kept turning to check in the vain hope that they would. Another time perhaps.

Having stayed relatively dry up until this point, it was time to leave the paddling behind and dive in. We savored the final moments of the trip in a water-filled cave. Treading water with a torch in hand, I found myself marveling at the ceiling of a quartz-lined air pocket. Fellow kayakers' legs were visible just a few feet away in the main cave but their conversation was sealed. Alone, but for my thoughts, smug notions of being 'off the tourist path' that had surfaced all weekend were increasingly hard to suppress. So was my surprise. Even though I don't breakfast on the 'right' cereal, 2 days of paddling had almost been relaxing. I doubt my training regimen for the next trip will change in anyway.

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