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Boat into Cat Tien

We were ready to go a bit after nine. Cuong was waiting outside to lull us into a false sense of cool with his air conditioned car. It was about a two and a half hour trip up to Cat Tien which took us initially through the outer suburbs of HCMC. The city was a large urban sprawl and it took quite some time before we broke out and into the countryside. The traffic was pretty busy, probably because it’s the weekend, and lots of people were out on their scooters with family and all sorts of stuff attached to the back.

We turned off to follow the road to Dalat and then further on turned off again to Cat Tien. We passed small villages along the way which were only distinguished from others we have seen by the crop they were growing and drying. Outside most of the houses were large bamboo racks all covered with drying tobacco. The further we went, the higher we climbed and the cooler it became outside. Here it was only about 33C in the morning compared to 38C in HCMC.

To reach the national park you have to cross a river by boat. When we got to the landing stage the park entrance person and boatman were nowhere in sight. Each side of the road was lined with a small bamboo shack selling cold drinks and we eat had a coconut to quench our thirst. The coconuts here are green and full of refreshing water. Each much easily hold more than a pint and I had to give up and leave mine unfinished.

As we were completing the paperwork necessary for park entry an obnoxious American got off the boat coming back from the park. He had just arrived but claimed they were trying to rip him off by inflating the prices for accommodation and trips. Erica reassured him that the prices are all fixed and they are not in the scamming game but he had decided he was heading somewhere else. I think we were all quietly relieved as the prospect of a weekend with such a whinger on hand did not bode well.

We waved farewell to Cuong and made our way down to the boat. It was a small rickety affair with a slightly hiccupy engine but it got us across safely enough. Most people only come to this park once so as comparatively frequent visitors Tim and Erica are well known and received a very warm welcome. Erica ensured that not only did we have our accommodation but that transport was booked up, and written on the board so it could not be “forgotten” for the various bits and pieces we were going to do.

Our accommodation was wooden stilt house out towards the end of the park grounds. It was simple but cosy and a big gecko was waiting on the wall to welcome us in. We found the mosquito nets and set them up, storing all of our stuff under one to prevent any unwelcome visitors from crawling into our boots or clothes. We wandered down to meet up with Tim and Erica, had a quick picnic lunch and then set off onto the trails.

A jeep took us a few kilometres down the path and dropped us by the river. There is a small set of rapids here but a group of local people had beaten us to it and spread out and relaxing, and dropping their litter all over the shop. We headed back up to the main path and carried on down.

Neither Stef nor I are much good at spotting wildlife, or putting a name to what we have seen, but Tim and Erica are dab hands and it wasn’t long before they were pointing things out to us. We spent the afternoon wandering down the path, enjoying the landscape and seeing what we could see. We had left the park headquarters in burning hot sunshine and were grateful for the cooling wind that had picked up. Our pleasure was soon curtailed though as the wind brought in clouds and then built them up into big dark ones. Before it started to rain, unusual for this time of year.

We sheltered under some trees for a while but with no sign of the rain letting up we soon carried on walking. The rain mingled with the sweat and I couldn’t tell which one was most responsible for me being wet. The rain brought with it a new experience for us – leeches. We expected to get leeches in the walk we will do tomorrow rather than today. Both of us were prepared to come to terms with leeches like those that beset Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen so our Cat Tien experience was somewhat of a relief.

Here the leeches weren’t big black slug like creatures. They were about two centimetres long and the thickness of a pencil lead. They are amazing climbers though and crawl up your shoes, inside your trousers and if they don’t decide to head through your socks they just keep on going. One made it up to the middle of my thigh which I only realised when I had a shower later in the day. It had obviously had its fill and dropped off when it was full. The thought of the leeches was much worse than the actual experience. With most a quick flick soon saw them on their way, the difficult ones were those that were half way through your sock when you found them.

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Spotting wildlife with Tim & Erica and a big scope

We saw quite a wide mix of birds and also spotted some gibbons swinging through the trees. Tim opted to walk back to the park buildings but Erica, Stef and I all hopped on to the jeep that had come at five to pick us up. We had a quick drink in the bar and were entertained by long tailed macaques, then Erica showed us something that they don’t publicise. Around the back of one of the park buildings is a small enclosure which is now home to some bears. They had been caught by local poachers but the park confiscated them from the poachers. They are still wild animals but have now been kept here for about a year. With no release scheme they have ended up here in these cages. It is a very sad sight to see and the bears themselves look very sad and are totally listless and bored.

A small pond beyond the bear enclosure is home to two crocodiles. A few years back the park ran a project to reintroduce pure Asian crocodiles to one of the lakes here. They genetically tested sixty crocodiles from different sources to ensure that they were pure Asian before they released them into the lake. For some reason a few crocodiles are still here. They too looked as if they were not being kept in the best of conditions.

We headed back to our room to shower and freshen up quickly regretting that we had not brought more clean clothes with us. We had an early dinner and, again with the benefit of past experience, Erica toured the kitchen to point at what we wanted rather than relying on the menu. One member of staff was on the verge of kicking us out of the kitchen but the cook turned round, saw Erica, recognised her and her face broke into a huge grin. Shortly after we were served up a tasty meal with a goodly dose of very fiery fresh chillies.

In the evening we went on a night drive to a different area of the park that was less mostly open ground. We climbed onto the back of the open jeep and a guy from the park joined us shining a very powerful flashlights backwards and forwards along the side of the road in the hope of spotting some wildlife. We were lucky and had a good show with lots of deer, a pig and civet cats. It was good fun but it seemed to be over far too quickly as I could have quite happily carried on for another hour or so.

We headed to bed for an early night doing a quick bug check as we got into the room. On a previous trip Tim had found a scorpion perched on his mosquito net but fortunately all we had was a frog on the shower hose and a large moth. We were soon snuggled up in our sleeping bags, glad that we hadn’t sent them home in Hanoi.