Half way there

We surveyed the area for several days and collected more than 1000 leeches. Not the lottery-level numbers I was hoping for but not a bad haul. We were getting good data—though we had certainly paid for it. The weather is notoriously unpredictable during the monsoon season: One day we were suffering through scorching dry tropical heat and the next we were slogging through cold rain coming down in torrents that would make Noah seasick. We were all dead tired. As we approached the midpoint to the survey the Forest Guards became livelier. We had worked out an arrangement beforehand where they would complete half of the trip, go back to Nam Dong, and send in replacements. They were going home—to their wives, friends, warm beds, dry clothing, and real food. Thien and I would stay on an extra day in the forest and wait for the new team to arrive. Then we would survey for another week. I was excited to start another leg of the journey but I had to admit that physically this one week had pushed me to my limits. It felt quite literally as if I had been run over by a truck—or, in this part of rural Vietnam, perhaps the better analogy would be to say a buffalo-drawn cart. Part of that was probably the result of a nasty spill I took while climbing down a near vertical ledge. I lost my footing and tumbled down the mountain. Fortunately I was stopped by a tangle of thorns. When I came to my team was huddled around me. “You don’t have to be so impatient,” one of them said. He flashed a wide toothy grin.

Life grows everywhere in the jungle
Life grows everywhere in the jungle

The Forest Guards were singing while they packed their bags. Later that night, over the last of our instant coffee, we held a group meeting. We needed to decide on a game plan for the next part of the expedition. Thien spread a large map of the area out before us and we all huddled around it. There were several options open to us. We could stay in this area and continue surveying. This was promising because the forest here looked good. However, I was concerned by the amount of human sign that we had come across. Between the two teams we had encountered more than a dozen snares. Two of them held the gruesome remains of wild pigs—they had been caught, forgotten, and left to starve. A pile of bones was all the remained. But would the situation be different anywhere else? I put the question to the team. There was a flurry of conversation in Vietnamese. I caught scraps of their rapid back-and-forth talk. There seemed to be one area that was very remote and inaccessible. According to the Forest Guards even hunters seldom went into this jungle. I turned to Thien before he could translate the reply. “Do you think there are there Saola there?” I asked. Again they spoke amongst themselves. Thien said “This region it is one of the best areas for Saola. It is as good as the forest here. Perhaps better.” That settled it. We would go there for the second part. We dispersed. Then Thien caught me alone. “It will be very difficult to get there. The hiking will be very hard.” I nodded and returned to my hammock. Would I have enough strength to finish the survey strong? I didn’t worry about this very long. I passed out.

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