Getting there

Getting there was going to be an adventure in itself. From The capitol of Laos, Vientiane, I took an overnight bus to a town in the southwestern part of the country called Pakse. There I met up with my WWF colleagues and we took a car east. With every mile that we traveled the countryside changed. The roads, at first paved, became gravel and then dirt and finally didn’t resemble roads at all. The towns we passed became simpler and poorer. So, too, did the people. Amenities like electricity and running water became rare. It was as if, by going east, deeper into the heart of Laos, we were also traveling back in time. We stayed the first night in a town whose name I’ve forgotten. Unaccustomed as I am to the Lao language, the names, especially in those first few days, seemed to wash right over my memory. The hotel was decent and I savored the last taste of civilization that I would have for several weeks. On the second day we stopped at a town called Kaleum. There we had to cross a river by barge. As we waited for the car to be loaded onto the platform I sat and talked with the villagers. When traveling to new areas I try to use every opportunity I can to ask the locals about wildlife in the region. In this case, I was particularly interested in reports on Saola. We squatted in a circle. The men, who were also waiting for the barge, stared out at the muddy river, which was oozing along at the pace of thick semi-dried molten lava. They told me that serowmuntjac, and sambar lived in the forested hills surrounding the town. They even claimed that there were a few tigers left to the north. But they had never heard of an animal resembling Saola. It confirmed my suspicions that this area was too far west, and the forest too dry, for the species. I thanked them. We loaded our car onto the barge, puttered across the river, and resumed our trek.

Halfway through the second day we reached a point where the driver wouldn’t go further. The road, a term which is applied here very loosely, had been almost impassable for some time now: a mired mess marked by deep gouges and puddles of mosquito-larvae-laden stagnant water. The driver ushered us out. “What now?” I asked. It was a naïve question. Now, I was told, we walk. “How far is it?” I asked. Kai, one of the two government representatives that would be accompanying me, twisted his mouth and narrowed his coffee-black eyes. “About three days to Ban Kalo,” he said, and then added, “if we walk fast.” I turned to Son, our second government representative. “And Ban Kalo is our final stop before entering Xe Sap?” He nodded. The three of us shouldered our packs and waved to the driver. The forest, which had been tumbling past the blue-tinted windows of the car, now hemmed us in from all sides, dark and solemn. We set off.

Crossing the river by barge
Crossing the river by barge
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