Return to Aur

On the morning of the sixth day in the field we shouldered our packs and started the hike back to the village of Aur. It had been a tough, but productive, trip: we had visited two of our hardest and most remote locations in the Quang Nam Saola Nature Reserve. The cameras were now set: for the next two months they would be our unblinking eyes in the forest, giving us a glimpse into this hidden jungle world. And with any luck we would capture rare species like the crested argus or Annamite endemics like striped rabbit. The hike back was long and difficult: a cold steady rain fell, turning the mountain trails into muddy quagmires that nearly sucked the shoes right off our feet. It took all our energy to climb the steep mountainside paths. We didn’t waste energy on speaking: the only sounds were the rain drumming against the leaves around us and the suck-slurping of our shoes sinking into the mud. It was a slow, silent procession.

Early that afternoon we stumbled back to the village. The rain had stopped. We were hot and tired and sweaty and must have looked like—well, like we had just spent a week living in the jungle. The village was a welcome sight. It felt as if I were coming back home, albeit a second home, a home-away-from-home deep in the forests of central Vietnam. We dropped our backpacks off at the central communal hut and collapsed. I passed out for a full three hours: it was the sleep of the dead, as deep and dreamless as the sleep of the ceremonial animal skulls hanging above me. I woke as the last light was sinking below the mountainous horizon and made my way to a nearby hut, looking for dinner. The rest of the group was there, laughing and chatting and drinking shot after shot of Katu homemade wine. I sat down to join them. It was nice, I reflected, to come from the wet, cold solitude of the forest into such a warm atmosphere. We ate and drank until late into the night.

We woke early the next morning and prepared to make the six hour hike back to the Ho Chi Minh Highway. But something was eating at me—and it wasn’t the dried sardines that we had had for breakfast. No, this was something deeper: I had missed an old friend. And for the moment my trip to Aur village just didn’t seem complete. I let my backpack fall to the ground and made my way to a Katu hut at the far end of the village. It was at this hut that, two years ago, I had seen a pair of Saola horns that were the most spectacular I had ever come across: horns over a meter long, midnight black, and sharp as talons. Horns that displayed the full magnificence of this striking species. I wondered: Were they still here? Or had they been sold, perhaps to an outside enterprising vendor, like so many other Katu trophies? I found the hut and an old man sitting outside it. On seeing me his face lit up with recognition: a smile that burned brighter than the overhead tropical sun. He gripped my hand in a vice-like handshake and said that he remembered me well. After the usual pleasantries, I cut straight to the chase and asked him if he still had the Saola trophy. He beamed back and nodded. I glanced inside the hut and just caught a glimpse of long ink-black horns. Saola.

Saola horns
Saola horns
Aur village
Aur village

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