Race to the spice highlands: An expedition to the Cardamom Mountains

Part I: Getting There
Part II: The Impenetrable Forest

Chiang Mai, Thailand, Feb. 17, 2011 — We had arrived in the mountains by late morning, and with superb weather we set up our camp along a stream by early afternoon. We all had jungle hammocks, so the lack of flat ground was not an issue, and after a bit of “gardening” we had ourselves a fine, sheltered campsite. With little time to waste we set out to explore the area downstream of camp before day’s end.


Sarit (left) and Viboth set up camp.

On the flyover we noticed several large Dacrycarpus stems along the stream and these were our targets for the afternoon. The stream was at low water level and clear of the dense vegetation that covered the surrounding landscape, hence we were able to use it as a conduit for travel. However, the streambed was a jumble of cabin-sized sandstone boulders, often moss-covered, and was quite arduous in its own right. Travel into the adjacent forest was met with immediate scrub and rattan, necessitating machete work to travel anywhere. It was therefore quite slow going out of the streambed, but we cored our first few Dacrycarpus and took herbarium specimens from a variety of trees and shrubs, flowers and ferns, mosses and orchids. It was clear that the botanists would be hard pressed to collect much on this trip, and I would be met with similar difficulty in coring many trees.


Getting to the coring site was slow going.

One of our newly formed objectives, therefore, was to combine our efforts and work at least one of the days in the dwarf forest above our camp to collect cross sections from tree species that we could also get proper herbarium specimens from, in order to evaluate the dendrochronological potential for as many broadleaf species as possible. This has really never been properly done for tropical broadleaf species, and what we managed on this trip was a drop in the bucket, but it is a start. All told, on this trip over three days we collected such samples for 15 species of broadleaf tree, and took multiple core samples from 15 Dacrycarpus trees. Given the difficulties of access, we felt pretty good about these modest accomplishments. We made duplicates of all samples for the herbaria in Edinburgh and Phnom Penh, respectively, and for cross sectional samples for the LDEO tree ring lab and Phnom Penh.


Collecting samples: All told, on this trip over three days we collected such samples for 15 species of broadleaf tree, and took multiple core samples from 15 Dacrycarpus trees.


A makeshift lab to organize the specimens.

There were several notable things about this short visit to the Cardamoms. Each morning we were treated to flyovers by a flock of at least 30 great hornbills that seemed to have a commute over the mountain pass directly above our camp. They made a terrific noise as they buzzed overhead, their giant awkward wings filling the air with sound. We also had a full moon that lit up the forest with its eerie glow on the cold and crisp nights we experienced. In fact, we needed every bit of warm clothing we brought to sleep, and a small cooking fire that we kept going well into the night. We also ate exceptionally well, as Viboth organized a fantastic menu for our trip, complete with homemade dried beef and chicken, a case of coca cola (seriously), and even a bottle of scotch. Such comfort, made possible by the use of the helicopter, was in stark contrast to the difficulties encountered immediately beyond the boundaries of our humble encampment. During our stay Philip and I schemed of a way to use the helicopter to drop in camps at several spots that we would walk to, but after we saw the area from the air on our way out we realized this was not going to be practical.


Who brings cans of coke into the forest?

Early on Friday, the 21st of January, Volker landed the chopper in the veal next to our packed up camp, and within 15 minutes we were back in the air. Looking down through the dense canopy, there was no way to see where we had camped for the past three days, and the entire range of the area we traversed seemed pathetically inadequate. Within moments we were off in the air. I had instructed Volker to take us over the very heart of the Cardamom range, so we could see if there were any locations of Merkus pine or other conifers, and to assess the extent of the Chinese hydro and mining interests that were making their presence felt in the region. It was a remarkable flight, and the sheer magnitude of this wild place was surprising, but the hope of undisturbed conifer stands was more or less put to rest. It was also painfully clear that our idea of multiple landing spots near these high peaks was not likely, with most of the possibilities found in the rivers themselves, where the low water exposed sandstone platforms that were big enough to accommodate the chopper. In the upcoming months we will pore over the maps and photos and see what might be possible in the future.


A view from the helicopter of the impenetrable forests of the Cardamom Mountains

On our way out we flew over a hydro project work site and a titanium mining operation, both marked by gaping wounds on the landscape. The politics of these operations are noteworthy, but I don’t pretend to understand their intricacies that well. And as awful as they seem, these projects are necessary for the development of Cambodia, for the power and resources necessary to sustain this developing country. After leaving the Cardamoms, we flew over Kirirom National Park where there are Merkus pine stands, and from our aerial perspective we identified some rather old-looking stands on high ridges that would be worth a further consideration. By midday we had arrived back in Phnom Penh, 2 days earlier than planned, so we had to make hotel arrangements on the spot. We spent those days organizing gear and samples, paying our bills, and meeting with colleagues at the University. After 3 nights in the serenity of the Cardamom range, Phnom Penh was a stark contrast of sensory overload, though the beer was most welcome.

While the bounty of our sample collection was fairly anemic from this trip, I am left with a sense that we have stumbled upon something really special. This surprisingly wild area of Cambodia has scarcely been studied, and it seems promising with regards to using some new broadleaf species for dendroclimatic analyses, and it seems we have found some previously undocumented species of plants as well. It is too early to tell much now, but within a few months we will have a far better idea of what we have found, and what might be possible. It heals my heart to know that such wild places still exist, but it breaks my heart to think of it rapidly being exploited and destroyed before we have a chance to even know what we are losing. It is this battle between humanity and nature throughout our history that compels me to scour these last remaining wild places while they are still fairly intact. Beyond the science there is a part of me that needs wilderness as sustenance. Even if I cannot make it into a place, just knowing it is there is important. I think we need wild places for so many reasons, and I am encouraged that there are many who are trying hard to preserve this amazing place. The Cardamoms, I believe, will remain a wilderness area for many years to come, and I that is fine by me.

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