Boys' day out
by Roy Bachmeyer
(A Bangkok Post Horizons article issued on November 15, 2002)

Kayaking through the wilderness is more fun when nature's orchestra and chatty gibbons keep you on the right track.

As the gibbons begin to wind up their distinctive morning whooping calls in the high jungle canopy, the Helmeted Hornbill pokes its red face out of a fig tree and swoons its cackling song to the troops of nearby langurs, monkeys and macaques.

This Khao Sok National Park orchestra plays every day. But one recent adventure to southern Thailand's largest park stands out in particular.

Phuket resident Steve Braggs, an adventurous retired organic gardener, brought along his son Tom, an eight-year-old visiting his father in Thailand on summer vacation from England. As it was made clear that Tom was full of questions and energy, it was suggested that one of our Thai guides [my wife] bring along Siwa, our six-year-old son. We were all hoping he and Tom would keep each other company.

It was important to select the right kayaks for the trip. Our boats allow us to travel in silence. The abundance and variety of wildlife seen from a kayak can be astonishing.

Trekkers simply don't see as much as wildlife is keen to their presence.

Steve suggested we bring our double kayak, thinking he could take the stern position and Tom would sit up front. I picked out two single kayaks for my wife and I, and a Piccolo kayak for my young son.

Siwa had recently proven himself in the versatile little Piccolo on his first solo paddle through some windy chop to an island a mile from Phuket.

The Piccolo would also prove to be a perfect match for a motivated and energetic little Tom.

We boarded the longtail boat at substation No 4 on the Cheow Lan Reservoir, tethering our kayaks behind us.

With the string of boats leaving civilisation behind us, we sped through the warm lake for an hour to reach the remote floating bungalows of Gai Son.

As we approached our floating accommodations, a White-bellied Sea Eagle circled overhead, not a common site this far inland. This was a sign of good things to come.

The bungalows we normally use, Ton Tui, were fully-booked due to the Queen's Birthday holiday weekend. But this new little oasis was very quiet and charming.

Steve showed an interest in paddling my kayak. I put Tom and Siwa in the bow cockpit of the double and I took the stern. Siwa took his plastic kayak paddle apart so each of them could help out. They attacked the water while I eased us along the shoreline.

Paddling the single kayak gave Steve some quiet time to enjoy the birds and wildlife around us.

We were only a few minutes from the dock at Gai Son when we saw our first hornbill passing over us. The boys were thrilled by the sound of its wings moving against the air.

We soon caught sight of a troop of Dusky langurs feeding in a tree next to the water. Langurs are lovely animals, a joy to watch. Even the boys enjoyed watching them.

Then the boys became restless so we paddled on, leaving Steve to commune with the langurs.

We could hear gibbons, but they were some distance away. It would take a different route and longer paddle time to be in position to observe them.

And that was assuming they travelled the same route each day.

Gibbons can travel many kilometers a day in their search for food. They may return to an area for several days, or they may not show up at all the next day.

Sometimes we hear them shortly after daybreak, sometimes not until mid-morning. So although gibbons are plentiful in the relative safety of the park, it is not easy to anticipate their route on a particular day.

If we were lucky, we could spot a tree rich with fruit and hope they would include it in their travels.

There were few guests other than us at the bungalows, so the boys had their own bungalow. They explored the few buildings built on solid ground, swam from the dock and entertained the staff with their antics.

Tom is a boisterous, handsome child and was popular with the Thais. He entertained a little girl whose parents worked at the bungalow. She did not show interest in the rest of us, but Tom had her mimicking his funny facial gestures to the amusement of everyone.

After lunch we set out to find the waterfall. The directions from the staff were wonderfully simple; ``Over that way, you can't miss it.''

It was an interesting paddle. We passed a number of what appeared to be islands, just small mounds covered with jungle. They were all that remained of small hills flooded when the river was dammed less than twenty years ago.

Then we approached the opposite shore, an unbroken wall of jungle. Where was the waterfall?

In the distance we heard the remarkable call of a Helmeted hornbill. These birds are not often seen but their call is entirely unmistakable. It is yet another reminder that Khao Sok is a healthy tropical ecosystem.

Closer to the shore we heard gibbons in the distance. It was already 1:30pm, beyond the usual time of day for the gibbon call. Then at last the sound of falling water prevailed and we looked expectantly to find its source.

Through the foliage we could see water cascading down to the shoreline.

We tied the boats, ate our lunch and clambered ashore. It was a classic stair step waterfall with multitudes of drops and pools.

It disappeared into the jungle some distance away, enticing all of us to climb and find its source.

I looked for a trail beside the waterfall but the others started climbing straight up the falls. Steve and I made our way upward, climbing each little section of the falls. Where the water plunged downward, the rock was easy to climb, not slippery at all.

The rock along the side of the falls was covered by a thin film of slick green growth and was very slippery.

So we climbed straight up, into the falling water. I stayed right behind the boys, still rather apprehensive, but they went up without mishap.

Soon we reached the origin of the falls. It began as a small creek which meandered through thick jungle.

I was willing to follow the stream into the unknown but the boys preferred the noise and excitement of the falls.

Anya and I went down first, stopping every metre or two to assist the boys. I was relieved to reach the bottom and stand in the nice calm non-moving water of the lake.

The boys, lithe creatures with low centres of gravity, were naturals for this place.

Us adults had to be more cautious, especially on the descent.

We returned to the bungalows. Anya played with the boys and that was good to a point.

But the rather fragile bungalow environment was not made for active boys and their ``adult'' playmate, all running at full speed.

So I introduced a new element to the programme _ Tom's first kayak lesson. Steve took the single kayak, I secured Tom in the Piccolo and joined them in Anya's boat.

Paddling a kayak for the first time is similar to being on skis for the first time in that the student appears pretty awkward for a while.

Trying to paddle a kayak in a straight line is not nearly as easy as it may look.

Tom's primary ``skill'' was paddling around in a circle.

This, however, was not his goal.

I gave all the standard instructions. ``No, paddle on your other left side,'' and after a while he looked more comfortable in the boat.

We headed out for our late afternoon paddle.

Using our mobile wildlife viewing platforms _ kayaks _ in the early morning and late afternoon to see birds, monkeys and other inhabitants of the jungle is a standard aspect of PaddleAsia's Khao Sok trips.

This afternoon was to be no different. The one unique feature was having our youngest guest paddling his own boat.

The outbound portion of the paddle _ leaving the bungalows and going to a nearby cove _ was slow going. Tom followed a classic zig zag course, a good naval tactic if enemy subs are about, but not exactly what he had intended.

The sun went down behind distant hills and the boys wanted to return for dinner. We paddled from the cove around a narrow spit of land. There were many dead trees in the water, making it a natural slalom course. Tom looked at me as if to say, "how do I paddle through all this?" I said "Tom, you know all you have to do is paddle past these trees, just paddle slowly so you stay in control. He did well. Indeed, after negotiating the slalom course with only a few collisions, Tom was able to paddle up to our double kayak, slide up next to the bow and chat with Siwa.

As we approached the dock, the Thai staff came to cheer Tom, the newest kayaker. It was a nice ending to the day.

The next morning, we again saw langurs and again we heard the gibbons far away. I was disappointed not to have seen them, but even hearing gibbons is a fabulous memory to carry home from Thailand.

We returned to the bungalows, enjoyed a late breakfast and began preparations for our return to the dam.

Then we heard gibbons very close to us. They had approached from behind the bungalows and were in a tree within easy sight of us. We had not heard any gibbons for over an hour, and then they were upon us. Steve went for his camera, the boys and I looked through the binoculars and Anya began mimicking their call.

I have heard people mimic birdcalls and have "conversations" with birds, but have never heard of it being done with gibbons. Anya mimicked them a couple times, then Tom became interested and gave a fair imitation of the gibbon call.

Moments later the gibbon called again. Tom again gave his version of the sound. And again, the gibbon replied.

Everyone paid attention. The odd duet between our eight-year-old primate and the one in the nearby tree continued. The staff and the motorboat driver gathered around and observed.

It appeared this sort of thing didn't happen every day.

I returned to my bungalow to finish packing. The conversation between Tom and the white-handed gibbon continued. We were ready to leave and still it continued. The boat driver looked at me and I shook my head "no"; it would have been most discourteous to the participants of this conversation to interrupt it.

Finally boy and gibbon became quiet. We boarded the motorboat and began the journey back to Phuket. I will remain the richer for the experiences of this trip.

Siam Kayak
22/5 Moo 10, Chalong, Amphur Muang, Phuket, Thailand
Phone 076 280 275   Mobile 01 970 8664 and 01 594 5961

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