Into the ravine

Against my better judgment I looked down: Below me was a 100 foot near-vertical drop that ended in a boulder-strewn river. I closed my eyes and imagined falling. I pictured myself crashing into a granite slab the size of a pickup truck. Then then I imagined the icy water squeezing me until my chest burst and carrying me to an unmapped location downstream. Yes, that would something to avoid. I felt my fingers clutch tighter to the slippery rock surface that I was clinging to. Over the din of a roaring waterfall my guide yelled words of encouragement. But I couldn’t make out what he said. I was frozen with fear. Slowly I crept along the ledge, this time not looking down. Maybe there was something, I thought, to the old saying that ignorance is bliss. If I tried hard enough I found myself not thinking about the river below. Four more steps to go. OK, now three, two, one . . . and safe. Until the next ledge. There were many more to come. I started to take out my camera to snap a picture but my guide scolded me sharply. “Do you want to take pictures or live through this?” he said. I replied that, although I wasn’t ready to see Ho Chi Minh just yet, I needed to document my trip for my readers. He scoffed. “I’m sure they would rather have you alive than have pictures.” So, for that matter, would I, if my vote counts. The man had a point. I managed to snap a few pictures during safer moments. But even during these relative lulls I remained in a state of shock. This was jungle unlike any that I had ever encountered before: Thick vegetation cascading down vertical slopes. As we hiked further into the ravine I wondered if I would be able to pull through the second phase of the expedition. And I wondered what had brought me to such treacherous terrain.

I knew the answer to the second question. On even the most rudimentary map one can see that this area is the most remote in the Quang Nam Saola Nature Reserve. Look at a digital elevation map and you can also tell that it is the most rugged. Both attributes make this piece of jungle real estate a prime location for large mammal surveys: In Vietnam animals persist in areas that poachers cannot access or are unwilling to work in. The forest compartment we were hiking into was a nightmare to travel to and in—and that’s why I wanted to survey here. Mr. Tren, the headman of the Katu village we had stayed in, provided further evidence that this would be an ideal location. Before we left he said that ungulate sign was abundant here and that it was one of the few places in Quang Nam that still held bears. If this last fact was true it would be a good sign indeed: the presence of large carnivores would indicate reduced hunting pressure. The only other place I had seen bear sign had been in the Hue Saola Nature Reserve in an area teeming with wildlife. I pressed Mr. Tren for more information. It was then that he told me that this was the area where he had last seen Saola sign: mon tuc leaves cropped close to the ground, saplings broken, musty paste smeared onto nearby vegetation from the animals’ large maxillary glands. I asked him how long ago this had been, expecting his answer to be measured in years, even decades. His reply: seven months. If Mr. Tren was correct then this cliff-ridden jungle hideaway still held one of the rarest ungulates on the planet. That thought alone was enough to keep me going during the toughest moments of the hike. It didn’t make it any easier or any less dangerous but it gave me added strength when we were going up a 90° rock face using roots and branches as anchor points or going down using vines as climbing rope. That thought latched onto me like a leech. That thought made it all worthwhile.

Going down steep terrain
Going down steep terrain

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