A great time on our first camping tours

Before the tours

When our first customer, Zoe Gillard, contacted me to ask if she could experience some of our camping tours over the Christmas period, I was more than a little nervous. We have had some significant problems in getting our little business set up and are way behind where I had hoped to be at this time. Anyway, after some deliberation, I decided to go for it and I am so glad I did! Zoe booked in for 4 consecutive nights and, with a good idea of what Zoe likes, having taken her on tours in the past, I worked out an itinerary.

The run-up to our first camping tour was more than a little fraught. Piarom and I were very busy guiding tours with Rainbow Lodge customers – no time to go in advance and prepare campsites. We had one day (Christmas Day) “free” but I ended up spending most of that in Koh Kong, registering the Gee’s Nature Tours business, and at Koh Andet Ecoresort, organising kayaks that were need for the very next day! I towed the kayaks back in the dark! Piarom was busy all day helping to build a roofed platform on the river bank for our customer to sit and enjoy views of the river and any passing birds. Sadly, it wasn’t finished until the day that Zoe left us but she had a pretty good viewing platform from our house, during the rest periods between camps. Some of those rest periods were fairly short because the itinerary included the Hill Top Meadow Tour, which takes longer than all the others.

Zoe had offered to bring some stuff out from the UK for me, so I got onto Amazon and started ordering. The main thing was a new camera (Canon SX60 HS, which has a 65x zoom) and tripod so we can photograph birds and other things that we can’t get close to. When Zoe arrived at Gee’s Nature Tours, it really did feel like Christmas, with a number of parcels to open. Unfortunately, there was no time to learn how to use the new camera or new night vision monocular. As a result we had no success with the latter, but some reasonable shots with the camera (see below). Apart from camera accessories, the other purchase was a couple of LifeStraw water filters, which are light and extremely useful on camping tours. Highly recommended!

With the tail end of Typhoon Tembin on its way, the forecast was for rain on all four of the scheduled camping tours. Obviously, we were very strongly hoping that the forecast was wrong. It was raining when Zoe arrived in Cambodia, on her journey from the border, though she still opted for a moto) and the boat ride downriver to Gee’s Nature Tours.

The First Tour

After a short time at Gee’s Nature Tours, Zoe and I set off for  the Kayak and Walk Overnight Tour in light rain. So, no photos with the new camera! Thankfully, my Olympus TG-4 is waterproof. We kayaked across the wide expanse of river in front of Gee’s Nature Tours and around the far side of Koh S’met, an island in the river. We entered the beautiful stream, lined with aerial-rooted mangrove trees.

We paddled gently up the stream, taking in the surroundings and looking for things of interest. Zoe remained smiling, despite the rain.

When we got to the campsite, Piarom had almost finished getting it ready and no help was required from me, so Zoe and I went off to explore the stream some more, returning to the camp just before dark.

After our meal around the camp fire, we went for a walk in the dark. Zoe was really tired so we cut the walk short but we still saw a few things, the highlights for me were all spider related:

  • a new, for me, species of Argiope (St. Andrew’s Cross Spider)
  • a new, for me, species in the Spartaeinae subfamily of Salticidae, according to my friend and jumping spider expert, Mario Freudenschuss.
  • a style of jumping spider web I have never seen before, looking like a miniature harvest mouse nest.
  • A ghost spider (Anyphaenidae) – a new family for me. Wish I had managed a better photo.
  • probably the weirdest spider I have ever seen. It was identified by Marcus Ng as an Ariamnes sp.

Oh, I almost forgot, a young Calotes emma (Forest Crested Lizard) resting on Murdannia macrocarpa (a kind of Spiderwort)

After our little stroll, we warmed up by the still burning fire before going to bed in our camping hammocks, with built in mosquito nets. For those who are wondering, we might be in Cambodia but when you are wet here in December, it is very possible to feel cold. Our blankets were much appreciated!

We were treated to a display of fireflies, which we could see even from our hammocks, through the clear plastic roof.

In the morning we got up early for coffee. I was worried that our 3-in-1 coffee, which is very convenient for camping, would not meet the approval of our guest but, much to my relief and surprise, it turned out that Zoe loves the stuff!

Piarom enjoying his morning coffee

We helped (a bit) with packing up the camp but Piarom did the lion’s share, allowing Zoe and I to have a looked round.

Piarom climbing a tree to untie a rope.

We left Piarom to finish off packing and set off again by kayak. As on the outward journey, we took our time to look for things along the way. The weather was a very pleasant surprise with no sign of rain and, thankfully, we had no more for the rest of Zoe’s visit. That meant I could finally try out my new camera. An obliging Loriculus vernalis (Vernal Hanging Parrot) landing in a tree near the stream. I am pretty impressed with the camera’s efforts, at 65x zoom, taken handheld from a kayak.

Loriculus vernalis (Vernal Hanging Parrot)

I didn’t manage quite so well with the Halcyon pileata (Black-capped Kingfisher) we saw but it was a really long way off.

Halcyon pileata (Black-capped Kingfisher)

By the way, the plastic bottle is tied there deliberately because, when the tide is high, most of the wood is under water and the bottle stands up to alert boat drivers.

The tour was slightly truncated to accommodate the longer Hilltop Meadow Tour on the following day but we didn’t manage to get back as early as planned and had a late breakfast and short break before heading out again.

The Second Tour

The Hilltop Meadow Tour starts with a short boat trip up river and then up a beautiful stream to the start point for our walk, through a meadow to a stream, over which we have built a bridge from trees that locals had cut down and left lying around.

Copyright: Zoe Gillard.

On the other side of the bridge we entered the jungle. Though we were generally walking uphill to the meadow, which is approximately 120m a.m.s.l., the high is not steep and walking is not difficult. There are quite a few little streams to cross and even walk up, in places. At the largest stream, Zoe stopped for a much appreciated cool off.

Here’s another stream we passed crossed along the way:

When got up to the meadow, Piarom got on with setting up the campsite, while Zoe and I wandered around the meadow looking for things of interest (see photo gallery below). We did have one little mission: to find a stream nearer to the campsite than the one we crossed about 5 minutes before getting to the meadow. We failed but had a great time trying. Later, when we were walking around the edge of the meadow on our way to the stream for a wash, we stumbled upon a different part of it that, very conveniently, runs right along the edge of the meadow.

On this shot of the meadow, you can just make out the campsite on the other side.

The meadow is pretty large and longer than it is wide. This is a view from the campsite, looking up the meadow.

When we returned to the campsite, it was all set up.

… including a kitchen-diner room with a view, complete with hand-made table.

While Piarom was preparing the food and Zoe was getting changed, I had a little play with my new camera, testing it’s zoom on the moon. This time I used a tripod. Again, pretty impressed with the result and wishing I had bought two, so Piarom can use when when he and I on on different day tours.

When we sat done to eat, Piarom produce some “medicinal” Khmer whisky. It is classed as medicinal because it is made by soaking wood that is used in traditional Khmer medicine it the home made liquor. According to the locals here, it helps to avoid back ache. I could do with some right now, having sat at this desk for way too long writing this post! It turned out that Zoe was rather partial to the local whisky. Of course, we only drank a little because we still had a night walk to do and an early start the next day. There were still some tofu and vegetable skewers cooking on the “stove” that Piarom had set up next to the glowing fire.

The skewers were great but they had required a special effort because we had forgotten them in the morning and had to get someone else to bring them part way up to the meadow, while Piarom went down to meet him.

After our meal, Zoe and I went for a stroll around in the dark for an hour and a half, while Piarom clear up and went to bed. He had an early start in the morning because he had to do another tour that afternoon/evening and still had some prep to do. The highlights of what Zoe and I saw are in the gallery below (numbers 33 to 49). The last of these is a mosquito filled with blood, which was at the campsite, so we can only assume it was Piarom’s blood because we weren’t there.

One of the things I love about camping is getting up early to watch the changes in the light as the sun comes up over the horizon.

Below is a gallery of some of the things we saw on this tour, which includes a new species of orchid for me, Doritis pulcherrima, and a new bird, Chloropsis aurifrons (Golden-fronted Leafbird). Seeing the elatrid larva grab a termite and disappear within the papery bark of a Melaleuca cajupti tree was pretty cool, too. If only, I had caught that on video.

Tour Number 3

The third tour was the Lowland Walking Overnight Tour. For a bit of a different experience, we modified the start of the trip and traveled on a trailer pulled by a local style tractor.

Copyright: Zoe Gillard

When the tractor could go no further, we got off and walked the rest of the way to the campsite, which had been pre-prepared before our arrival. Piarom was not with us because he was doing a fishing tour for Koh Andet Ecoresort, so our support for the night was another brother-in-law, for some reason I have never learnt known as “G’jan jayk”, which mean “tree frog”! He is normally called “Jayk” for short, which actually means “banana”!

After checking out the campsite, …

… Zoe immediately went for a swim in the stream

Again we had a cozy camp fire – it is winter after all!

We had a whisky-free evening meal (it was forgotten) but Zoe made sure it was remembered the following night. Then we went of for a night walk a short way through the jungle to a small meadow. We saw a few interesting things, including a Malayan Pit Viper (see the gallery below). We really must stress mosquito repellent on this tour – I have never seen so many of the little vampiric critters in one place in Cambodia before. We didn’t let that deter us.

In the morning, I got up early and took a few photos of the stream. It is quite a pretty stream, and freshwater all year  round, unlike some of the other streams we use.

Zoe had another swim.

After breakfast, we helped pack up the camp and we walked back to the little meadow. “Jayk” and I left Zoe there looking for birds and things, while we took the camping gear back to the tractor. I then, rejoined Zoe and he had a more detailed look around.

We then walked slowly back to Gee’s Nature Tours, continually looking around for things along the way.

It is a nice walk back with many open areas along the way.

Below is a gallery of some of the things we saw on this tour, which includes:

  • another new bird for me: Anthreptes malacensis (Brown-throated Sunbird)
  • a new frog Kurixalus bisacculus (Hainan Small Treefrog)
  • Calloselasma rhodostoma (Malayan Pit Viper), which I never tire of seeing
  • a new family of spiders for me, Eutichuridae (Long-legged Sac Spiders). It was pretty cool seeing it with its newly caught prey.
  • a planthopper (in Lophopidae) that is very likely a new species to science and either a new genus or a significant increase in the geographic range of an existing genus, only previous recorded in New Guinea.

Tour Number 4

Because we weren’t squeezing a long tour, we had more-or-less the standard 4 hour break between tours, giving plenty of time for showers, lunch and a nap for Zoe before we set off by kayak for our fourth and finally tour: the Mangrove Kayak Overnight Tour. We kayaked down the main river before turning off up a beautiful stream. We had plenty of time, so we decided to explore a narrow side stream. It was well worth it but, unfortunately, someone is developing something at the end of it. It is always a blow when you find somewhere so beautiful only for there to be developments underway. Anyway, back to the tour, we had a great time kayaking back down the narrow stream and then up the big stream to the campsite. Zoe explored every nook and cranny that she could, but many parts were inaccessible because of the low tide. They would have to wait until the morning.

Here are a few scenes from our kayak to the campsite.

With the light fading, we got a little glimpse of what the sunset might have looked like.

We had something to eat before setting out on a night kayak, going upstream from the campsite. The sky was clear and the moon was shining so brightly that we were often able to paddle along with our head torches turned off. It was a fabulous experience that we both thoroughly enjoyed. I kind of wish I had managed to take some photos to portray to you what it was like but I am also quite glad that I didn’t. It was so calm and peaceful that Zoe even managed to fall asleep on her kayak! More than once! To be fair, she had had a very tiring trip, starting with sea kayaking off Koh Chang in Thailand, before coming to us.

So we had our last night of camping, probably for a long while for Zoe but hopefully not so long for me!

In the morning, we got up early again for coffee and breakfast.

While we sat drinking coffee, the sun broke through the trees.

After breakfast, Zoe and I set off to explore upstream in the day light, leaving Piarom to pack up and take everything away. We kayaked beyond where we turned around the night before but had to keep an eye on the time because Zoe had a plane to catch. After turning around, we paddled downstream past our campsite and out of the stream into the main river. The last stretch was a a little choppy with a bit of a breeze. It was pretty tiring but we still managed to get back almost on schedule.

Here are some scenes from the morning’s kayaking.

Below is a gallery of things we saw, and were able to photograph, from our kayaks. It includes:

  • another new bird for me, Cinnyris asiaticus (Purple Sunbird)
  • a new butterfly for me, Euploea phaenareta drucei (King Crow). I have seen approximately 300 species of butterflies around here, so I get pretty excited when I see a new one. It seems to be a new country record, too! Shame I didn’t get a decent shot.
  • a new orchid for me, Eria sp. It has not yet been identified to species level.
  • an osprey and a white-bellied sea eagle circling, one above the other. At one point the osprey swoop down to attack the larger eagle.

It was with more than a tinge of sadness that we got off the kayaks and headed up the land, but looking forward to Zoe’s next trip, and hopefully plenty more for me in between.

As an aside, I really must learn to write blogs efficiently. It has taken as long to write this and it took to do the four tours!

Gerard Chartier
Author: Gerard Chartier

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