A River Rages Through It

Chiang Mai Thailand, Dec. 16, 2010 — I am haunted by water… lots and lots of it. We had so much rainfall in the central highlands of Vietnam last week, during a rogue dry-season deluge, that we had to leave 5 motorcycles stranded at the Bidoup Nui Ba National Park ranger station while we swam a river that is normally crossed on a small wooden bridge or by a cable-pulled raft. To add to the adventure, one of the motorbikes had a broken rear axle, necessitating our having to push it out on slippery, washed out roads for more than 6 km before leaving it with the rest at the station. Along the way we had one raging waist-deep torrent of a stream to cross, normally mid-calf deep, that we had to hand-carry each bike across on a makeshift litter. This may have been the most dangerous part of the trip, since a fall on the downstream side of the motorbike would have resulted in being washed over a small escarpment and pinned by the bike in the swirling current. After our recent trip to Laos (see prior entry) that I described as difficult, this trip set a new standard for physically demanding. And I am not ashamed to say, in spite of a complete failure of getting any of our intended work done, it was the most fun I have had in years.


The river crossing on the way into the forest. Note the bent red pole that forms one end of the cable-pulled raft that we are about to use to cross. It was bent during high water the previous week and would be completely submerged in water during our high-water period the night before our escape.


The crossing going in, during what is already somewhat high water level. The bent pole changed the angle of the raft cable which resulted in increased pressure by the river’s force on the upstream side of the raft. This would make it impossible for us to get the raft across the river in the greater flow going out. From Left to right, Mr. Nam, Guong, Hui (red jacket), Truong and Patrick Brown.

The objective for this trip was to bring my colleague, Dr. Patrick Baker, from Monash University in Australia, into a one hectare permanent plot that we had set up last year in the national park, and to visit the so-named “Praying Hands” site (named after a tree species in the Witch Hazel family whose leaves are suggestive of a pair of praying hands), where there are hundreds of stems of old-growth conifers that we have been sampling over the past year.

patrick baker

Dr. Patrick Baker of Monash University, Australia, on the way in

Patrick, a highly accomplished tropical forest ecologist, and I are working on a research proposal to study tropical forest ecology in a location where we can get temporal tree-ring information from several of the species in this location, including Fokienia hodginsii, the species that was used for our long climate reconstruction. This project is a potentially huge deal for tropical forest ecologists who usually rely upon repeated visits over several years to get the temporal data they require, meaning that the best of their sites are comprised of fewer than 2 decades of data. We offer the chance to look at the past millennium and more, to see how species diversity has been affected by droughts of varying intensity and duration.

A second Patrick, Patrick Brown, a photojournalist based in Bangkok, accompanied us on this trip. He was conscripted by Columbia Magazine to do a story on my work in Southeast Asia, and he got a lot more from this trip than he had bargained for. Luckily for us, he has a wonderful sense of the absurd and contributed greatly to the overall positive vibe on this trip, and he never hesitated to pitch in to help with the hard work. Then there was the Vietnamese contingent whose role was to guide us, and to make sure that the 3 crazy Irishmen remained alive. The incomparable Mr. Nam led this group that consisted of the ever-dependable crew of Guong, Truong and Hui along with Nam’s advisor from Dalat University, Mr. Yoong, who is a top-notch botanist and oversees Nam’s Master’s project on the ecophysiology of Pinus Dalatensis. The idea was to get Yoong to help us accurately identify the species in our hectare plot while Patrick and I developed a strategy for the analyses we propose to undertake. We planned to spend a whole day working up 10 randomly selected 10 x 10 meter boxes, and a second whole day surveying the Praying Hands site for the location of a new 25 hectare plot we will put in later this year with researchers from the Center for Biodiversity and Development (CBD) in Ho Chi Minh City.

Mr nam

The incomparable Mr Nam

On this trip, however, we would never get to either of these sites, because the local streams rose to impassable depths during our first night, and it continued to rain so hard into the next day that we were worried we would not be able to get out at all. There were already several landslides on the road which forced us to carry the motorbikes over, and we were not looking forward to it getting any worse. In addition, the men slept the first night in a standing puddle of muddy water, while those of us in our jungle hammocks remained dry, and I couldn’t in good conscience subject them to another night of such misery. Furthermore the main river by the ranger station rose so high that it completely covered the middle channel with a raging torrent that would have been impossible to cross. A small stream on the road out, in a place where we usually cross about mid calf deep, was an absolute cataract that we had to pole-carry all the bikes across, with a treacherous falls just downstream that would surely have killed anyone who fell into it (I have no pictures of this as all our cameras were put away at this time, but Patrick Brown took photos with his film camera and will send me some when they are developed).


Our camp near the edge of the primary forest at Bidoup Nui Ba National Park.


These remarkable hammocks enable one to sleep in the wettest of conditions and remain bone dry and comfortable. I won’t go into the forest without them any more.

Because the roads were so greasy from rain on the packed clay, we had to walk nearly the entire 10 km road on the way in from the station, while the bikes were pushed through mud and carried over landslides. We had to walk every step of  the way, and for good measure pushed the bike with the broken axle more than two thirds of the way, and all of this while the rain fell in a steady, river-raising downpour. It was not an easy day.


Mr. Hui carrying a 30 kg bag of food over around one of the landslides that obstructed the road.

For our second night we stayed at the ranger station while the river rose to its absolute peak level, and we resigned ourselves to hiking out to Long Lang station over the top of Bidoup Mountain, and then bushwhacking down the mountain to where we heard there was a bridge over the river. None of us was really sure if we would be able to make that trip either, but for sure it would have been at least 20 km, and no doubt treacherous. Instead, the rain stopped in the night and the river came down about a meter by morning, and stabilized at a flow too high to negotiate the usual crossing. But that didn’t stop us from trying the raft, which was nearly destroyed as the current threatened to push its upstream edge under and began a certain dismantling of the rickety raft.


The river had already dropped about a meter by morning, but was still too high to cross.

During this hilarious display we almost lost Mr. Guong, who dove for the cable to see if he could pull the raft across, and lost his shorts in the process. He was laughing so hard when his pants came off that Mr. Truong had to grab his arm or he would have gone downriver into the awaiting cataract, no doubt still laughing while being swept away. In the meantime, we had a crew upstream about 1.5 km trying to fell a tree across a narrow part of the river (i.e., cataract) but when the tree fell in, after more than an hour of very difficult machete work, it got swept away in the current and became an obstacle for our subsequent swim.


The great pants episode


Mr. Guong still laughing, tries to pull up his pants, while Mr. Truong comes to the rescue.

For the swim, we decided upon a wide section of the river, with swirling eddies, using an inner tube that we had found wedged in the tree tops near the original crossing. One hilarious moment came when, after we got our most important gear across the river, the inner tube began hissing as air escaped. Convinced we were about to lose this lifesaver, we erupted with laughter at the thought of it. Luckily it turned out we were inadvertently pressing the valve, and there was no hole in the tube. In pairs we swam with the inner tube, with all of our gear tied to its top, and we finally made it with no mishaps. After the big swim, we had to walk the next 10 km stretch out the main gravel road to the highway where Mr. Nam had arranged a “taxi” to get the 8 of our wet, muddy selves and all of our gear, and bring us back to Dalat. It was a crazy trip from start to finish, but as I said, it was perhaps the most fun I have had in years!


Ferrying the gear and keeping it all dry was quite an accomplishment.

4 comments to A River Rages Through It

  • Larry

    This is my favorite blog on the site. Between this post and the one about Bourikhamsay, you really give a good sense of what people go through for science. I must say that facing the challenges of the forest & river does sound like fun (though mostly in retrospect I bet). However, herding a bunch of disinterested office workers sounds like not so much fun.

  • Brendan Buckley

    Larry, great to hear from you and I am happy that you like my blog. The field work is always fun, even when it is miserable! I have always enjoyed that part. The hard parts are, as you allude to, the human dimensions at times, both in the field and even back in the office. Now I am doing the very hard work and that is writing, not only papers but research proposals. It is the most challenging part of the job. It also stings when you get nasty reviews back, but again that is all part of the game. Best of luck to you, and Merry Xmas too.


  • Brendan Buckley

    hey paula and bobcat! yes, muddy water and dirty living, not to mention those delicious crawdaddies, po boys and all the other great food. nice hearing from you guys. we do have to get down to see you sometime. let us know how long you plan to stay around bayou country, or if you have plans to visit new york this year.

  • Richard and Paula

    Brendan, you old wet dawg! You never cease to amaze us, but if it is dirty living and muddy water you need, baby we have it here. Come to Louisiana. You will find adventure here too, we promise.

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