‘Ere be Gibbons

At long last I finally found the opportunity to visit the Gibbon project at Veunsai in Ratanakiri province. I approached Conservation International a few weeks back about a visit and made arrangements to join them on their next visit, in return for taking some stills of tourism for the projects new website.

Yeak Lom

Yeak Loam crater lake, Ban Lung, Cambodia

The obvious problem with filming most primates is they spend almost all of their time up in the canopy. So, if you’re shooting from the ground, the best your likely to get is a lot of little furry bottoms. To get truly world class footage you really need to get up into the trees. I’ve used tree platforms before with great success, but I was not at all sure if that was even going to be possible with the gibbons. It was hardly the right time of year to be doing this and I fully understood the chances of getting some decent footage were slim to say the least. For me this was always going to be more of a sighting trip, with an eye to come back in the dry season.

I traveled up from Phnom Penh with Naven and Andrew from Conservation International, staying one night in Banlung, while they tried to find some willing tourists for me to photograph. This being the off-season tourists were pretty thin on the ground, but Naven managed to find 2 young couples to join us. Abel Schroeyers and Shana Vanhee from Belgium and French couple Gaetan Bzc and Juliette Darbou.

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Our four intrepid tourist watching the gibbon family browse for food

 

 

The following morning I had a couple of hours to kill, so I took my drone and headed up to the stunningly beautiful Yeak Laom lake, which is in an extinct volcano just a few km’s east of town. The journey to the Veunsai ranger station, where we would be staying, is fairly easy and even in the wet season it’s possible to get there from Banlung in a little over an hour.

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Enjoying a well earned breakfast before heading back to the ranger station

The following morning we arose at 4am, as you have to arrive at the site before they start singing. This species generally calls for just a few minutes each morning around sunrise, with the male and female combining in a haunting duet. They have a territory that is around 1km across so you have to find them before they stop singing or you can have a very hard time spotting them. Naven’s team spent 2 years habituating this family group, no mean feat with what is an extremely nervous species. I have only seen Gibbons a handful of times in the wild so it was quite amazing to be able to just watch them go about their lives with no concern for the giant primates running around on the ground. This particular group has 2 offspring of different ages and they were both very vocal as we followed them in their search for food. The squeaks and whistles they produce just make these already seriously cute animals, even more adorable.

 

 

Forest Walk5

Pitcher plant

I concentrated on taking photos, although that proved very tough due to the very overcast sky. Even with a fast f2.8 lens and opening the ISO up to 1600 I was only getting 25th of a second, way too slow for handheld shots. I soon abandoned the stills camera and switched to video so I could at least get some usable video captures. We spent a couple of hours following them before returning to the starting point for breakfast. On the way back we checked out the local carnivorous pitcher plants and visited a salt-lick where a wide variety of animals come to feed, including another local primate, the Douc Langur.

By this point everyone was pretty exhausted and we returned to the station for lunch. We spent the early afternoon relaxing and being soundly beaten at Boule by some of the rangers. We then headed off for a stroll through the surrounding forest where a guide showed us many of the plants that the locals use and eat. Everyone thoroughly enjoyed this, particularly Abel, who seemed to have an insatiable appetite.

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A great spread of food dinner

Dinner was a wonderful spread of Khmer dishes that went down extremely well. I have to say it was some of the best food I have had out in the provinces. Compliments to the chef.

 

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Mountain biking

The next morning, we headed off to take some pictures of the tourist’s mountain biking, which also gave me the opportunity to get my drone out for some experimental shots. I also tried to get some general forest shots while I was at it, but I was getting massive interference on the screen. With no phone reception, I couldn’t check if there was high sun spot activity, which can cause your drone to simply fly off on its own, so I decided it wasn’t worth the risk of seeing my drone disappear over the horizon and called it a day.

 

The tourists headed off back to Ban Lung after lunch and within an hour it started to rain, monsoon style. It didn’t stop for the next 48 hours and I reluctantly decided to give up on the Gibbons. In the dry season, they have many more fruiting trees and can hang around in 1 location for several days making filming a much more realistic prospect. At this time of year, you are chasing them around as they scavenge for what is available. With a huge camera to drag around it makes the task almost impossible.

Forest Walk4We decided to make a try for a waterfall that I understood was only a couple of hours away. However, as the journey unfolded it soon became apparent that it was going to take far longer and to make matters worse the road we found ourselves on is one of those that turns into an ice rink when it rains. I have been on a few of these here and they are scary to ride a bike on, it’s hard to even stand up when walking. We all agreed to turn back and with that my brief trip was over. It was hardly a great success from my perspective but I was never under any illusions I would get much. With any luck I’ll be able to return in the dry season.

I should mention that when I got back to the hotel, I discovered there was a huge cyclone approaching, so the next few days would have been a complete washout too.

For anyone wanting to see the Gibbons this is a great little trip and a wonderful snap shot of Cambodia’s amazing wildlife.  I’ll add a link when the website is up and running.

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Mountains and Crocodiles

Siamese Crocodile

Siamese Crocodile, the Areng Valley.

After a rather long break I have finally got around to writing a new blog. This is one I should have written at Christmas, but events conspired to delay that idea.

 

At long last I finally had another crack at filming wild Siamese crocodiles. I first filmed these illusive creatures back in early 2003 on a lake up the Sre Ambel River. That represented the first footage ever recorded of this critically endangered species. In 2006 the BBC recruited me to film them for the series “Saving Planet Earth”. I spent 10 days at the same site in the Areng valley that I returned to this time. Last time I had to battle my way there in the wet season, needless to say, the BBC presenter went in by helicopter a few months later. Sadly that footage belongs to the BBC and when I inquired about purchasing a few seconds of it, I was informed that would be GBP250 per second. Ouch! It’s a shame because I doubt that footage will ever be seen again as it’s not HD.

As with most of my wildlife filming this trip was out of my own pocket. I tagged along with a botanical team to reduce costs, while FFI helped out with arranging 2 guides/cooks for me.

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Hide number 1.

As usual I had a fairly significant amount of equipment for this trip. I took one very large camera rucksack, a 100 liter Bergen that was bursting at the seams and a large waterproof case for the 500mm and other lenses. To add to the fun, I also had a 45amp car battery and my new 180w solar set up, and of course the drone. The camera kit for this trip included 2 cameras, 3 lenses, 2 video tripods, shotgun mic, Macbook Pro, a wireless WD hard drive and an assortment of batteries, chargers and various odds and sods that you need for a trip like this.

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Two 90w panels providing more than enough power for everything you could need.

This was also my first time using my new solar set up in the field. It was very nice to have so much power available, but, there is a small downside… the panels pump out around 400v, which could very easily kill you. I had to make very sure no one touched it unsupervised. I also took some “luxury” items in the form of a large fly-sheet for the camp and a decent light for the evenings. Absolute luxury. Now if I can just work out how to get ice…

Once we arrived in the Areng valley we went by boat to where we planned to share a camp. I am more used to having to travel by bikes so it was wonderful to be able to take an almost unlimited amount of equipment in a boat.

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Me, my guides Mr Mao and Mr Eng and a photobomb from the botanical teams guard.

To help keep the guides happy I invested in a bottle of Black Label. Personally, I can’t stand whiskey but it helps to keep the guys happy… and away from my stash of rice wine. I don’t really drink at all these days, but I do when I’m in the forest. I like a small cup of a decent rice wine after dinner. The problem is if your local guides get a sniff of it, it’ll be gone in an instant. For those who aren’t aware, rice wine is a spirit, quite like Irish Poteen, but made from rice. It can be really nice (and very easy to drink) particularly in remote communities where they take great pride in their brewing and distilling abilities. Quite often though, it’s more like boot polish.

And so, to the filming.

Common Kingfisher

Common Kingfisher.

On arriving at the camp site location, we quickly set up and I headed off with my assistants to build a hide for the next morning. Already knowing the location is really helpful as this is quite a big lake and you could waste a lot of time searching for the right spot. Despite it being 10 years I assumed the Croc would be in the same area and sure enough there he was, hanging around where I had last seen him directly across the lake from me. It may not be the same animal but I am convinced it is. I refer to him as a “he” as this is an ox-bow lake and almost certainly his territory. The ladies will come here from time to time (as nest have proved in the past) but this is very much a territorial male thing going on here.

 

If I am honest Crocs are not the most exciting creatures to watch but if something does happen it’s almost certainly going to be spectacular. Given they can go months between meals the chances of catching a kill on camera are very slim indeed. I had a list of shots I hoped to get and much to my surprise I got pretty much everything I had expected on day one, as he was very active.

Siamese Crocodile

The Croc cruising along under the Silvered Langurs.

By mid-morning a troop of Silvered Langurs arrived and proceeded to slowly move through the trees along the bank opposite. I soon discovered that I needed to do some more gardening in front of my hide, as I couldn’t get a shot of the monkeys in the trees. I settled for filming the Croc who had positioned himself under them and followed them as they moved. Each time they moved he went to the next obvious place they might use to drink from. This went on for about an hour and I was really happy with what I had shot, but, frustratingly no monkeys. I took a gamble and with the small camera I left the hide and crawled around the back trying to find a shot. The trouble with primates is, while you can see some moving around, there are always a few on look out that you don’t spot. Once the alarm goes up it’s all over. I started filming and got a couple of ok shots, so I ventured nearer and set up again. I just started trying to frame the shot when I was spotted. Bugger.

 

I spent the rest of the day watching the Croc do very little so I went back to camp to get some help with the gardening. This entailed climbing trees and wading out several meters into neck deep water, which is a little nerve racking given there is a 3 meter Croc in the lake. They are very shy and not known to attack humans but still, it’s a big animal and I don’t think you’d have much chance if it was hungry enough.

Next morning, I was rewarded with another troop of primates, Long-tailed Macaques this time. They didn’t hang around that long but I did get enough shots and again the croc was similarly busy below. I couldn’t believe my luck, I had all the shots I expected in my first 2 days.

Day 3 was rather boring. With no monkeys the Croc settled in and moved very little. I decided I would leave a little early and build another hide with a very different view. I knew that from this 2nd location I couldn’t see the Croc when he was just sitting, but I was hopeful he would at least come out to the center to sunbathe. I also found a spot with a great perch for Kingfishers just 10 meters in front of the hide.

 

Dragon Fly

A Dragon fly relives the boredom, when not much is happening.

It turned out to be a good move. I got some really nice footage and photos of various birds including Common and Stork-billed Kingfishers and Green Bee-eaters among others. The Croc did make a brief appearance when the sun came out, but soon disappeared again when the clouds returned. Over the next couple of days, I got hours of footage of the Kingfishers and Bee-eaters as well as some great cruising shots of the Croc. On my second day at the new hide the Croc went straight across the lake to very clearly check out my first hide, stealthily disappearing below the water as it approached the hide. He came out to sunbathe a couple of times and did a slow roll. I’ve seen this before and it kind of looks like he’s stretching when he does this.

 

I went back to the first hide but got bored very quickly as I was getting the same shots. I took a day off to fly my drone and build another hide. This time along the river, at a spot where the botanists said they kept seeing a Croc each morning as they headed off to survey the forest. Filming there did turn out to be one very boring day, but right at the end I got some fantastic shots of a Stork-billed Kingfisher that made up for all the frustration.

Stork Billed Kingfisher

Stork-billed Kingfisher, great reward for an otherwise uneventful day.

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Preparing to leave.

I decided not to bother with the river again. The Croc can easily move away and it just seemed a huge gamble to spend more time there. I spent the remaining few days at the lake and getting more aerial shots with the drone.

Having all the extra equipment was wonderful. The botanists, Martin Van de Bult, Soren Brofeldt and Chhang Phourin all commented that this was real luxury camping. In addition to the lights and an almost unlimited charging capability, it turned out there was a village just a few km away, so we ate really well. Eggs are a genuine luxury in the field so a morning omelet was just a fantastic change to endless rice or noodles. Importantly, we were also able to keep a stock of rice wine to keep everyone happy in the evenings. It really does help, honest.

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Hide number 2.

All in all, this was a great trip. I got some fabulous photographs and video sequences, had a lot of fun, tested new equipment successfully and we all left in one piece, so all is good. One of my best trips in every possible regard.

I’d really like to go back to spend more time filming, but first I need to find someone interested in making a film on the Areng valley. For now, here is a teaser of just a small fraction of the video I shot.

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My Dad

I would just like to say a few words about my father, who sadly passed away a couple of weeks ago after a long fight with dementia and was laid to rest today.

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My dad on one of our many field trips to Cumbria, this one in early 1976. He’d always wanted to try black pudding. That’s me aged 11 looking decidedly unsure about the strange sausage.

I have to say I think my dad did a pretty good job as a father to me and I certainly didn’t always make it easy for him and my mother. He always tried to help me with joining sports clubs and I was out doing one sport or another literally everyday, often more than one. I particularly enjoyed the Royal Lifesaving Society and when the local branch was going to close he took over the organising it just so I could carry on. He enjoyed it too for sure but it shows the lengths he was prepared to go to for his kids.

Along with mum we went on some truly fantastic holidays. For a young boy having parents that dragged you down caves or ancient mines in search of amazing crystals, or off digging in the mud at Folkestone for fossils, it was just incredible and I loved every minute of it.

Nenthhead Mine in Cumbria stands out as my most memorable trip. We spent something like 10 hours underground. First we had to dig out the mine entrance, which you could normally have walked into. This was one of the coldest Aprils on record in the UK with several feet of snow. We dug a hole in the top and had to slide down into knee deep icy water. After that we walked, crawled and climbed for hours to reach the spot the mineral club people wanted to visit. This included a VERY dangerous walk across a bit of railway track to get across a shaft hundreds of feet deep. We were tied on but by the time you reached the other side, there was only room for 1 person to hold the other end of the rope. I am convinced had someone fallen the rope would have done nothing. It really was Indiana Jones stuff, especially as a 12 or 13 year old boy.

Those trips meant s much to me and I went back to many spots with friends. Clearwell Mine is one such place. It’s a labyrinth of caves and tunnels and you enter the ancient iron mine through a hole in the roots of an old Oak tree. Very Tolkien.

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Mum and dad having tea in Chiddingstone a few years back. Sadly I was not able to make the funeral today, but I will be traveling with my son to the UK in early 2017.

I also greatly appreciated the freedom I had. To be crossing London on my own to watch Arsenal at 13 years old was fine with mum and dad, as it was when I went to Brussels to watch a European football cup final aged 15. Today it seems kids don’t get any freedom like that, but I for one will encourage my son to be the same.

Dad, I don’t think I turned out too bad and that is down to you and mum, so thanks for everything.

With love from your son, RIP

Allan

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Here be Hefferlumps!

elecloseFor the past fortnight I have been shooting and editing a short piece for Jack highwood and Elephant Valley Thailand (EVT) about the arrival of their first elephants at the new sanctuary. EVT is an extension of the Elephant Valley project in Mondulkiri, Cambodia. It’s a sanctuary first and foremost, not a petting zoo or a place for elephant rides.

This job came up at very short notice and I had just a few days to book flights and get my ass to Chaing Mai in Northern Thailand. This was also an opportunity to fully test my new camera too. I’ve had it a while now but for the most part it’s only been used for a few interviews. It’s a significant step up from my last video camera and gives me the ability to shoot at double speed in full 1080HD for some stunning slow mo. In addition it gives me infrared capability too, which I intend to put to good use next month on some night shoots.

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Leaving the border with the first elephant.

Back to the film. We headed south around 500km to Maesot on the Myanmar border, where we were to collect 4 female logging elephants. We met the first elephant quite literally right on the border, with Myanmar just meters away across a tiny stream.

She had a short journey to make to meet up with the other 3 for the start of the big journey the next day. I have to say it was hard to watch her being loaded. The locals seemed clueless how to deal with an elephant, much to Jacks frustration. Once on the truck she was fine and none the worse for wear after her short trip. The next day we met the owners and the trucks and Jack and his team were soon caught up in renegotiating a previously agreed deal. They wanted more money.

It took a while but all was eventually agreed and we then headed off to the elephants to have them scanned by a local official. Elephants in Thailand are micro chipped in an effort to avoid trafficking, but along with the mountain of paperwork involved this makes the process of moving an elephant very difficult.

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Thai officials checking the elephants data chips.

As someone trying to shoot this particular scene, it was hard work. Lots of people turned up with the officials just to see the elephants so it was a hell of a bun fight to get the shots I wanted. Once it was confirmed the chips matched the paperwork, loading finally commenced. It’s fair to say it wasn’t easy but it could have been a lot harder considering none of these elephants had been in a truck before. The trip was uneventful and we stopped for the night at a plantation for the elephants to rest up and exercise. Transporting elephants is very stressful for them and sadly it is not unusual for an elephant to die a few days after a long trip. The owners had wanted to do the trip in one day but they were eventually persuaded otherwise.

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On the road.

The next morning getting the elephants back on the trucks was much easier and we arrived at EVT a few minutes early, just before midday. The elephants were taken to a grassy area to feed and rest while a small ceremony was performed to welcome them to the sanctuary. The afternoon was spent taking them on a tour of the land and starting the re education of the mahouts. These guys were used to working the elephants and kindness doesn’t really come into it so getting them to understand the aim was to get the elephants to move to verbal commands and get rid of their chains. It was soon apparent the chains would be required for a few days at least. The younger one was particularly unpredictable and decided to make a beeline for the river followed by 2 others. The mahouts managed to catch them just as one made it to the edge of a neighboring field of corn. To try to calm the younger one, Jack decided to put her with the oldest elephant, Maddy, who was a calming influence and the next day went much more smoothly.

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Maddy happily grazing at EVT.

My part was simply to film everything and conduct interviews with Jack and the owners. While the journey was simple enough, filming the elephants at the sanctuary was not quite so easy. This was largely due to noise as so much was going on, people talking, people working on the fence etc, so getting clean sound was almost impossible. The issue of chains was also a problem, because I was only there for a few days and the chains were unlikely to come off fully before I left. I was making 2 short films, one of the journey and one as an introduction to EVT. The links are below. The introduction film obviously needed to have footage without chains, which means most of what I shot was unusable until day 3 at the sanctuary, when I managed to get some nice footage of them grazing with chains off. Jack advised me the chains have now come off on two of them and the others should be fully free in a few more days.

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Maddy checking me out.

Editing was interesting. I had way too much footage, which made things harder than expected. I find short films are often harder to edit than longer ones because you have to cut so much. I was very pleased with the results, this camera gives wonderful images and I was amazed at how good the dynamic stabilization was. A lot of the footage I shot from the back of the pick up was rock solid. I absolutely love working with elephants, they are such intelligent animals and incredibly gentle, so this was not really what I would describe as ‘work’.

I hope Jack succeeds with this project, too many of these places are just tourist traps for elephant rides. If you want to see elephants up close in their natural habitat and be sure they are not being abused or exploited, I’d highly recommend either the Elephant Valley in Thailand or Cambodia.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RMcNyXtV19w

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ssv6FBK6dDU

 

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Where the Ho Chi Minh trail ends – Part 2 Drone Strike

Dense forest cover obscures the trail.

The dense but colourful forest obscures the trail.

I decided to take an assistant out with me the next day, as my drone catcher. These things can flip over in an instant on landing, no matter how careful you are, so it’s well worth paying someone to grab it as it hovers. We spent a few hours in the early morning shooting the forest and I also tried to recreate an aerial photo I had seen of the nearby Firebase Brown, scene of a fierce battle on 13th May 1970. We went out again in the afternoon after I had finished recharging the batteries.

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Some of the bamboo I had been through while looking for the radio.

Having used up 2 batteries we returned to HQ. I was playing around filming the hundreds of confiscated vehicles in front of the Seima office, when I foolishly forgot to take note that my battery was low. While trying a particularly tricky maneuver under some trees and a cable the low battery warning came on. When this happens you have about 10 seconds to hit the cancel button or it will try to ‘return home’, which entails going up to a preset height, in this case 200m, then returning to where you took off. I hesitated just a few seconds as I tried to avoid drifting into a tree and suddenly the aircraft shot up, straight into the welcoming branches above. Not good. I had to watch helplessly as the drone plummeted to the dirt. The plastic shell was cracked in a couple of places and one rotor blade was broken. A quick check showed everything else was working but one rotor was now hitting the shell so it was impossible to fly. Bollocks, there goes my plan to film a few of the beautiful waterfalls in the east of Seima. What with the boots, this trip was suddenly becoming a little expensive.

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The US/ARVN invasion started in the area between Memot and Snoul, where they came across a base they called “The City”. The invasion caught the Vietnamese off guard and within a week the Americans started to head north east to Seima where they spent the next 7 or 8 weeks on their search and destroy mission.

Some of the stories from American pilots and GI’s are quite incredible, such as the story of Firebase Brown (Keo Seima), which was the size of a football pitch with 1 piece of razor wire and a 4 foot tall earth berm around it. Here just 2 company’s of GI’s armed only with small arms and 1 mortar, managed to fight off approximately 1,000 highly experienced NVA troops for 3 hours, until reinforcements arrived at dawn. Amazingly they suffered just 1 death and 8 wounded. This story is told in incredible detail in the book Raiding the Sanctuary: Redcatchers in Cambodia, written by Robert Gouge. His book also includes details of the helicopter attack on Gati village, which resulted in the Wat being destroyed. It also recounts the downing of the helicopter we seemingly found parts of (see below). It also tells a story of incredible bravery, of a helicopter pilot Robert Gorske and John Rich, who died on his 22nd birthday trying to save a company of men surrounded by NVA troops. The radio that I have been looking for is in the same area as this particular incident took place and may well be left over from that fight.

To give an idea of how fierce the fighting was in Seima, this was the main support base for the NVA and they had been developing the area for some 15 years. They were well dug in and they did not want to let it go. As one GI put it afterwards. ”I had done 2 tours in Nam already and thought I had seen everything, then we went into Cambodia”.

It's hard to convey just how steep some of this area is.

It’s hard to convey just how steep some of this area is.

I had also paid a guide to spend the day asking locals who still went into the forest if they knew of anything out there that might be interesting. I was aware that there were at least 5 helicopter crashes inside what is now the Seima protected area, but the chances of anything remaining was slim to say the least. Only one of those was in a fairly remote location.

A small part of a topographic map from the 60's. 1 square is 1km. It gives some idea how insane it is on the ground.

A small section of a US topographic map of Seima, from the 60’s. One square is 1km. It gives some idea how insane it is on the ground if you don’t have a trail to follow.

In the morning the old boy who had sent me down the wrong moto track turned up and said he could take me to an area full of bunkers, “The American Base camp” where he said had seen some documents of some sort in a bunker. This all sounded very unlikely to me but I was stuck for things to do. In the end it turned out to be a wild goose chase. He took me on a roughly 5km ride through the forest (scaring off loggers as we went), which took about an hour. Now I have a very good sense of direction so I was pretty sure where we were. As we left the bikes and started to climb a very steep hill, I’m looking at my GPS in disbelief. This was Shakey’s Hill. Seriously? I know the place better than him and he’s been here all his life, some 60 odd years. We could have driven to within 500m of this spot without ever leaving the tarmac road and walked up a relatively easy trail. No need for a knackering ride through the forest or the slippery slog up through the bamboo. I’m not going to trust this guy again in a hurry.

fuseboxStill, we did find something to film, albeit an old (used) artillery shell and a metal box that had contained fuses. I am assuming they were used to blow up the hundreds of bunkers that pepper the hilltop. Over 326 tons of weapons and ammunition were found on top of this hill, the second largest weapons cache of the entire Vietnam war. The biggest cache of all, named Rock Island East by the Americans, was found just a few km to the south, right on the border. While Rock Island had more tonnage of weapons it was more of a staging area to cross the border, whereas Shakey’s Hill, 5km to the North, had all the logistical support, communications, training camps, hospital etc. The Americans came across just about everything you can imagine in Seima, including bicycle repair shops, truck repair shops, medical caches and many thousands of tons of rice.

Sadly even these hills are now being stripped of the forest here. Without the trees the topsoil will wash away in a few rainy season. Madness.

Sadly even these hills are now being stripped of the forest to be farmed. Without the trees the topsoil will wash away in a few rainy season. Madness.

When we got back to the HQ, I was told about someone who had seen the rotor from a helicopter just 3 months earlier. This was very exciting news but my boots were clearly not going to be up to the fairly serious walk involved. I decided to try my luck in the provincial capital of Sen Monorom, where locals told me I could find a Vietnamese man that could repair them. It took a whole day but it was well worth it as he did a great job. When I got back I found that no one had been able to get in touch with the rotor guy but I was told that someone in Gati village to the north knew where it was and plans were made for the next day.

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It’s not very clear but this is where the turn off from the main trail crosses a small stream. The hospital was in the clearing behind and there are hundreds of bunkers in the forest all around. Nothing remains today except for the trail.

For the first time in a very long time I risked going on the back of someone’s moto. Generally I never do this in the forest as I have had a few idiots in the past and I don’t want to have someone else wreck my equipment or put me in hospital. This time my bike was simply not an option; with the road tyres it would have been a nightmare. I was more than a bit worried about the track as the last time I did it in the dry season and 1 small part was really scary to ride down. Very steep with rocks the size of a small car to negotiate. You were definitely getting badly hurt if you fell on that. Adding to my concerns the new Barang (foreigner) boss here and a few WCS staff tried to go there a few days earlier and gave up! Expecting a seriously hard slog I was rather disappointed to be honest. The road was a mess in parts but entirely manageable and we did the roughly 15km in only 2.5 hours, just hours after a huge storm. The road had been repaired in places since I was last on it and the nightmare bit was much easier despite being wet. I had to get off and walk here and there but I never even had to push or help drag the bike out of any big holes, as is often the case. We even passed a couple of very young girls on a bike, carrying a clearly new-born baby up the hill to Gati. I’m not sure why the others bottled out. Bunch of lightweights.

It turned out to be about a 5km walk from Gati to the crash site, the last bit was a real killer, almost straight up through bamboo. It’s far too steep to walk so you have to pull yourself up each step. I was feeling every one of my 51 years when I reached the top.

Boron Carbide armor plating from under the pilots seat.

Boron Carbide armor plating from under the pilots seat.

At the site no sign of a rotor. We looked around the area for an hour and eventually gave up and headed back. It turned out these guys had not been up here in years. After a few hundred meters we came across some bits of green painted metal, some were clearly involved in an explosion and one of the Gati guys with us found a piece of some kind of armor plating. It was so heavy I couldn’t imagine it coming from a helicopter, but I decided to take it back as it was covered in mud and it wasn’t possible to get a good shot of it. I figured I might be able to work out what it was from. It’s made of 2 layers, the back is just plywood about ¼ inch thick with a layer of a very heavy brittle metal on top. After a little research online and some helpful replies on Facebook, it turns out the ‘metal’ was Boron Carbide and this was almost certainly part of the armor panels under the pilots seats in Huey. Frustratingly we were probably very close to the rotor.

This is all we could find of the helicopter, but it does prove the location in the official report is incorrect.

This is all we could find of the helicopter, but it does prove the location in the official report is incorrect.

This helicopter site is interesting as it was mentioned by both people I interviewed in Gati and yet I can’t see it in the declassified docs. It’s quite possibly a typo because there is a crash site listed near Gati, but to the south, not the north. The villagers also don’t recall any other crash.

We took a very different route back, first heading away from the village and coming back via the old French road. It was certainly a lot easier than the direct route but it turned out to be just over 9km. At least I got some good exercise. On the wildlife front we saw another troop of Doucs and at one spot where we stopped to rest there were a couple of giant squirrels that seemed to be having a chat. It was quite odd as they didn’t seem at all bothered by us. I am assuming they were either having a neighborly dispute or it was a guy squirrel trying to chat up a lady squirrel. It certainly sounded more seductive than aggressive. The ride back from Gati was very uneventful and a half hour faster as the track had dried a fair bit. Ten out of 10 for my driver (I doubled his money I was so impressed), best moto driver I have ever had in 15 years in Cambodia, as for the others… Wimps!

Thr forest near the crash site was very beautiful and full of wildlife. Shame about the background sounds of chainsaws.

The forest near the crash site was very beautiful and full of wildlife. Shame about the constant background sounds of chainsaws.

I didn’t do much the next day and spent most of it researching the armor and backing up everything. I decided to head back to Phnom Penh the next morning as I couldn’t do the other filming I wanted due to the dead drone and it was simply too hard to get to many of the places I wanted to visit. Additionally, plans to do a follow up on Sambo the elephant also went out the window as it turned out the interviewee I needed was not going to be back for a few more weeks.

trail

The Ho Chi Minh Trail

Despite the setbacks it was a very interesting trip and I now know exactly how and where I want to go. As for this film(s), I have no idea when I will be able to put something together, for a start I need to find some work before I can spend anymore time and money up there. I estimate I need to spend at the very least another $2,500 on more filming and on proper translations of all the interviews, which are in Bunong. I doubt I will see any change out of $1,000 for the interviews alone and I can’t do much until that’s finished. Hopefully I can get back up there in December or January and get the rest of the footage and interviews I need to record.

I actually think there’s more than enough material to make a fascinating short series, maybe 4 or even 6 parts. It certainly would be good to be able to include some of the US soldiers stories as well as give the local’s accounts. I am still not sure where this will go but I am very keen to have a strong environmental side to the story too. I am not interested in getting into the politics at all, no patriotic bull, no glorification. It’s not needed as the various stories are so incredibly compelling. I think it could basically follow the events from start to finish over the 7 or 8 weeks that the American’s were in Seima. Who knows, I might even be able to end it with a good old fashioned love story. At the moment I am seeing Seima as a beautiful backdrop to the story. The all-important human element is certainly there to interest broadcasters and if nothing else it would be a great opportunity to show the incredible beauty of Seima and it’s wildlife to the world.

To end, some links.

A 10 minute film of mostly stills from FSB Brown and written excerpts from “Raiding the Sanctuary”. Warning to anyone squeamish, graphic images.

A  trailer for a film about Shakey’s hill. I have not seen it yet, it was shot by a CBS cameraman who was on the ground when they were fighting for the hill. I understand he bought the footage back from CBS in 2007 and made this documentary. So far the only way I can find to buy it is a DVD, which is a bit silly in this day and age.

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Where the Ho Chi Minh trail ends.

Keo Seima in Mondulkiri is by far and away my favorite place in Cambodia, it’s stunningly beautiful with an incredible diversity of wildlife and has almost every type of habitat found in Cambodia. This time however, I was looking for something a little bit different. A little bit of History.

For sometime now I have been researching what took place in and around Keo Seima in May and June 1970, when the US invaded Cambodia to go after the North Vietnamese bases along the border. Over the last couple of years I have trawled through thousands of pages of declassified US military documents, conducted numerous interviews with local people and both mapped and searched this rather inhospitable terrain for the locations of various places and stories that I have read about.

seima-map

Some of the various wartime sites around Seima.

Today not much remains and the most significant items were sold off for scrap metal years ago. It’s mostly just a lot of holes in the ground, either from the massive 5 year bombing campaign or the hundreds, probably thousands of bunkers blown up by the Americans during the course of their brutal 2 month search and destroy mission. While the Vietnam war has been well covered, my intention is to put together a documentary on this story, but from the perspective of the Bunong hill tribes people, who were unwittingly caught in the middle of the Cold War.

Some of the stories told by the locals are enthralling.

A 10 year old girl was looking after the families small herd of waterbuffalo when a US helicopter suddenly appeared and shot several of the buffalo as the girl ran for her life. A few days’ later US soldiers arrive at her community and apologise to the villagers, giving them some money as compensation. US dollars. The girl and her family didn’t know what to do with the dollars and put them away in a corner of their house and simply forgot about them. A few years pass and the Khmer Rouge come to the village and begin searching houses. They find the dollars and drag her off accusing the girl of being a CIA spy.

One dreadful story tells of a Bunong village completely wiped from the face of the earth by a B-52 strike. Others who were young at the time recount the wonderful sweet snacks the GI’s gave to them.

A new story I heard on this trip but have yet to record is, strangely enough, a story of love. The Americans were only in Cambodia for 2 months yet a young soldier based at Firebase Speer managed to fall in love with a Bunong girl and ended up marrying her and taking her back to America. I will have to pursue that story when I am next up there as apparently the lady concerned has recently returned to Cambodia.

junglejpg

Bamboo forest along the trail.

The main task of this trip was to find some things to film, basically anything other than more holes. Two years ago I went on a trip to find an old US backpack style radio someone found and I wanted to have another try. I know the approximate area from the GPS track I took at the time, but it’s still like looking for a needle in a haystack. To make matters worse it’s the rainy season, not quite the worst possible time to be here, but not far off it. In this terrain rivers and streams can flood in minutes and you can easily find yourself cut off for hours at a time. The mud is also incredibly sticky and quite often you find yourself clambering up very steep slippery slopes, while at the same time fighting your way through dense bamboo. Leeches are also in season and you have to check yourself regularly to clean them off. Along with the leeches, swarms of mosquito’s are also obligatory and of course there are various ants, termites and other insects that will happily take a bite out of you if you give them half a chance. Even most of the plants here seem to want a piece of your flesh as you pass. Add to this 36 degree heat and humidity that must be off the charts and you start to get the picture. Still beats being in an office.

The ridge where the trail runs parallel to the border.

The ridge where the trail runs parallel to the border.

After an exhausting 2.5 hours I finally arrived at the point where I planned to start looking for the radio. Almost immediately I managed to catch the side of my boot on a sharp tree stump tearing some of the stitching. With my sole hanging off I had little choice than to slowly make my way back to the road and eventually to the Seima HQ. I was convinced the boots would fall apart as it’s very rough terrain in this spot with almost no trails, but somehow they survived. Out with the gaffer tape for day 2. Never leave home without it.

Having spent a lot of time looking at maps and knowing many of the trails here I enquired about ways to get nearer by motorbike. One of the local guides showed me the ‘correct’ moto trail to follow and I decided to have a go at it the next day. Sometimes my faith in the locals can be very misplaced.

The main Ho Chi Minh Trail that runs through Seima. Still good enough to drive a car on in places.

The main Ho Chi Minh Trail that runs through Seima. Still good enough to drive a car on in places.

I didn’t get more than 1.5km off the road before it became utterly impassable and it hadn’t exactly been easy to get that far. I decided to park up and see if I could find an old trail shown on the GPS. As I headed uphill I came across a maze of small trails, some even had steps built with rocks in a few places and there were bunkers seemingly everywhere. As I reached the top I came across a large clearing next to a small stream. Checking the GPS I realised this was the location of the small hospital the Americans had found. I took some shots before heading on. Just another 300m further and I came to the main trail along a ridge. The trail here is huge, it’s as good a road as you could imagine. Even 45 years later, much of it is in excellent condition and as I discovered there is an amazing network of roads, including several ways to the border. That’s definitely one for the dry season. Although I ended up walking some 15km, in the end I still didn’t get to the area where the radio is as I ran out of time. But I did find a good trail with clear signs of motorbike traffic and decided to follow my own nose the next day. This was also a great day for wildlife spotting. Everywhere I stopped there seemed to be either Douc Langurs or Longtailed Macaques hanging about; it’s primate paradise here.

Signs of elephants at the smaller of the two hospital sites in Seima.

Signs of elephants at the smaller of the two hospital sites in Seima.

I had hired a bike in Phnom Penh (Honda Dream, not off road style as I can’t get much equipment on those) and while a road tyre is ok in the dry season, it can be very hard work in the wet, especially when you start adding 15 or 20kg of equipment. I set off early and went to where I thought the trail must start. It wasn’t too bad going at first but to get up on to the ridge you have to get through one particularly gooey stretch, about 100m long. That took about 20 minutes to get through but it was not too bad after that, it would have been really easy with the right tyres. I found more trails and it finally dawned on me that the apparent “logging trails” (marked on the GPS) left by Samling (Malaysian logging Co that left in 2002) were almost entirely built by the Vietnamese in the 50’s and 60’s. This was the Ho Chi Minh trail, or rather the end of it. I spent so much time exploring the various turn offs and working out where I wanted to try in the future, I again failed to get to the area with the radio. As with the previous day, it seemed as though there were Doucs and Macaques everywhere I stopped. By mid afternoon, with water getting low and running out of gaffer tape I headed back.

A partiicularly deep bunker I came across. Approximately four meters deep and right on the trail.

A partiicularly deep bunker I came across. Approximately four meters deep and right on the trail.

We had a fair bit of rain overnight and I decided to give off roading a miss for the day. The gaffer tape had held up pretty well but it was clear I couldn’t do much more walking. I headed up to the location of what the American’s named “Shakey’s Hill”, after a young GI who died in the initial fighting in the lead up to the capture of this place. It turned out to be the main NVA base in Cambodia with massive stockpiles of weapons, ammunition, food and even a fully equipped 500 bed hospital, right in the middle of the forest.

Rusted artillery shell on top of Shakey's Hill.

Rusted artillery shell on top of Shakey’s Hill.

I had been here before and was mainly looking to find a trail I saw on the GPS, which seemed to lead down to the site of the hospital. I doubt there is anything to see now but I would like to visit it anyway. I tried to get there previously but couldn’t find a way down, this time I did, although it will have to wait until dry season for me to try it. Another issue for me was the large number of illegal loggers I could hear in there and being on my own I was a little wary of the situation. Many of these are kids off their heads on Meth and they often carry long home made swords. Generally they all take one look at me a run, thinking I am some kind of law enforcement but it does make me a little wary when on my own.

The next day I spent most of the day entering locations into the GPS, cleaning clothes and equipment and updating the software on my drone. I also did some more exploring by bike around the villages to the north, but there’s nothing much left in this area as the forest has been cleared and most sites are now cassava fields.

To be continued in part 2. Drone Strike!

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Rain, Leeches and 100,000 views on Facebook

Just a short blog before I head off to the boonies, Mondulkiri this time.

I recently finished 2 films on Prey Lang, one for the University of Copenhagen/Danmission about their wonderful smartphone app that is helping the indigenous communities in Prey Lang record and geo-reference illegal activities and map natural resources.

English      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lywMlY4ZpZs

Khmer      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3bSADYBJk5Q

The other film was for Winrock and their Supporting Forests and Biodiversity Project. Essentially this film was a much shorter remake of my film Cambodia: Forests, Water, Life film from 3 years ago, but with a lot of new footage and it’s only 16 minutes instead of 45. It’s now 5 weeks since Winrock released it and they have informed me it has now been seen by almost 100,000 people on Facebook alone. This was helped in no small way by opposition leader Sam Rainsy posting it on his page where 10,000 people saw it and many shared it. The client seems pretty happy, apparently it’s a good 10 times the numbers they have managed for a video before, so hopefully I might get another job out of it in the future. For me personally I couldn’t be happier because the film of 3 years ago was due to be broadcast on the most popular TV channel in the country, when local paper the Phnom Penh Post ran a ridiculous article on their front page that resulted in it being pulled at the last minute. I believe Winrock are going to offer it around the TV stations so hopefully this one will eventually get broadcast.

As with most of my films I have deliberately tried to take a fact based approach rather than trying to be confrontational, as I for one don’t think that works in this part of the world. Hopefully the message is strong enough to get across because the country really cannot afford to let the rampant destruction of their forests continue.

40,000 https://www.facebook.com/Supporting-Forests-and-Biodivers…/…,

10,000 https://www.facebook.com/rainsy.sam.5/videos/1160992663957465/,

45,000 https://www.facebook.com/USAIDCambodia/videos/513744525487968/.

For anyone wanting to watch it, here is the Youtube link

https://youtu.be/ZSBETyo3Irc

Anyway I am off to Keo Siema in the morning, to get wet and do my bit to conserve the local leech population. I am going to be taking a lot of aerial shots with my drone and plan to visit several waterfalls as its’ rainy season and they should be pretty spectacular now. The main point of the trip is to search for a few places that I turned up in research into the 1970 US incursion into Cambodia during the Vietnam war. Basically Keo Seima was one of the main bases for the North Vietnamese and included the 2 biggest weapons caches discovered during the 10 years of the US war in Vietnam. It also included a fully equipped 500 bed hospital, which is one of the main sites I am trying to get to this time. I got near it 18 months back but didn’t have my machete with me and couldn’t fight my way through to where it was. The other main thing I am looking for is a US radio (backpack style) that some guys from the WCS ranger station came across. That would be quite a find because from my maps, the area it is in means it may well have come from a well documented and fierce battle that took place.

Lastly I am hoping to finish off the trip with a visit to see Sambo and film a bit for a potential follow up to the film of 18 months ago.

Nothing like traveling light.

Nothing like traveling light.

As the saying goes, there is nothing like traveling light… and as you can see from the picture, this is nothing like traveling light. And I am not even taking my big 500mm lens, no camping equipment, no second (bigger) tripod, no climbing equipment and no solar equipment, which would entail a 2nd waterproof case, a car battery, the roll up solar panels and my 120 liter Bergen. This kit weighs in at just 60kg, the full kit is well over 1ookg, without the car battery.

In case anyone is interested the kit includes:

Stills body and 4 lenses (14mm to 200 range, including a macro)

Large selection of Lee filters

Video camera with assorted accessories

Drone and assorted accessories, ipad etc

Sennheiser lav mic and wide angle camera mic

2 lights for interviews etc

A huge selection of batteries and chargers for the above

Macbook pro

WD 2gb portable hard drive for backing up

Camera slider and 2 stands (double up for light stands)

Video tripod

1 change of clothes and most importantly a half kg of freshly ground coffee.

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