At this time of year I like to make a visit to Phu Khieo Wildlife Sanctuary. It’s a long drive from Bangkok and I need a couple of days to get there and back as well as time to recover from the journey. However whilst planning this year’s foray to take place over the Christmas holiday period I had a painful bout of sciatica. This meant the long drive would not be physically possible so I decided to spend a few days in Kaeng Krachan National Park exploring some lesser known trails.
Well I woke on Xmas morning feeling the worse for wear, a night in a hammock was not the best thing for the sciatica and out came my bottle of pain killers before setting off up the mountain to explore a new trail we had been told about. The trail has recently been refurbished and was a delight in its first kilometer or so, passing through open and light forest in the higher reaches of the park.
Sadly the refurbishment stopped after a kilometer and we were back on animal tracks again, something neither of the party were in the mood for. So we decided to head back down the mountain and take the K18 trail for an Xmas day easy treat.
So there I was enjoying the K18 trail with a holiday spring my step. The pain killers doing their job well, the weather great, and my new Xmas boots from 5.11 were working a treat. Not a care in the world. Then the pain killers began to wear off. It was not the sciatica that was causing the pain now. My new boots had removed the skin off one heal and were doing their best to repeat the gift on the second heal. There was no other option – a 3 km trek back to the car in my socks! My poor feet!
And so there I sat on Xmas night, a wee dram for comfort, keeping the ravages of age, sciatica, blistered heals and painfully sore feet at bay.
So why am I telling you all of this? Sharing my ailments? Well there is method to my madness. It was because of these ailments that I had a truly fascinating experience.
I was now limited to going only were I could walk to in my flip-flops and it would have to be sedentary at best. So I pottered off to one the birder’s spots and spent the day watching a dry log in the hope a bird or birds appearing. I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed it and had a visit from a male and female White Rumped Shama as well as small blue flycatcher, I think, to keep me company.
The following morning I was feeling up to something a little more daring, but still repose. A few weeks ago I had built a small hide as part of my pet project to photograph squirrels and tree shrews. It was off-piste but not a long walk per se. So I set off at six thirty to spend the day seeing if a squirrel or shrew would make a showing at my target tree. By seven I was happily sat in the hide, pointing my 500 mm (the 600 mm was too heavy for me in my state) fitted with a better beamer at my tree of choice.
The morning was passing slowly, this particular valley gets the sun later in the day and is in deep shadow until around 10 a.m., hence the better beamer.
The first two hours passed without a sign and then a troupe of Dusky Langurs moved into an adjacent group of trees. Their noise brought a nice respite and I was following them around the trees by their sounds as I could hear them better than see them. I then heard a flutter of small wings and coarse shrieking of some forest bird. It was a group of Bulbuls, male and female, that seemed to be locked in some never ending squabble of some sort.
Then they were suddenly gone and the quiet returned the shadowed forest floor. Then a new sound appeared.
It was not the boisterously jumping langurs moving from tree to tree, it was on the forest floor. I froze, pushing my concentration in the sound's direction. There it was again. It was footfall. A mammal. At about 9 o’clock from my position but moving towards to me. It stopped. It shuffled. It continued.
I could now see the forest floor foliage moving. It was not big but I could see the foliage moving above it as it continued toward me. Then another noise. There were two?
And then suddenly, right in front of me, no more than 6 or 7 meters away stepped two dhole. I had to look twice, they had been completely hidden to me, the noise of the ones I had been following were still heading my way. I stared at them, what to do? I had a 500 mm lens on the camera – any shot would be unusable. But I figured what the hell these chances are rare. And at the moment I pressed the shutter button I heard a noise right behind me. And then another shuffling sound to my right. I was surrounded.
I turned around, I was still in control, I could see 4 dhole staring at me and there were another two still in the undergrowth but moving. They were on all sides. I moved my thoughts to the two in front of me. I was sure that as soon as I let off another couple of flash bursts with the better beamer that they would be off, terrified. So I lined up the camera on the closest one’s face and pressed the shutter repeatedly.
The lead dog did not run. None of them ran. The lead dog dropped his haunch and took a step closer to me. Now my mind began to calculate the odds of the unheard of. I sat, he took yet another step towards me as did one behind me from the sound of it’s footfall.
I knew this was not correct. It made no sense. This may be Thailand's premier pack hunting carnivore but surely not .... I only knew I now wanted this situation to be over with. I quickly unsheathed my bear repellant spray that Jonathan had given me a few months ago just in case. I conjured up my best bear grunt noise from inside the hide. I was confident that the grunt would send them on their way.
There was no reaction to the grunt except the dog I was staring at lowered his head as if concentrating more on what he was looking at, as if trying to decide something. He had a look in his eye, it did not make me feel good. His stare had an intensity.
I had one more play. I jumped out of the side of the hide and did my best irate bear impression and bear roared for all I was worth!
They all took a step back, all six of them, I can still hear their movement on the dry forest floor now. Six, on all sides and all within 15 meters. And then one made a sound, a communicative squeak, and they all turned on heal and continued on their way. They did not flee in haste – they just seemed to decide this was over and they continued on.
I sat back down in the hide and ran it all through my mind. What happended. The most likely possibilities, the most unlikely possibilities. I was surprised how calm I was. I sat and smiled to myself, not sure why. Escape or Experience?
I then heard the communicative whistle again. Then again but closer. There were 3 more members of pack following. This time I could see them. Walking through the forest in a line spaced 10 meters apart, one higher on the hillside, one at my level and one lower. The one at my level walked straight in front of me as its predecessor had. I rattled off a shot with the camera. It stopped in its tracks and stared at me. This time, having no wish to repeat the previous encounter I simply stepped out of the hide. Upon seeing me it looked genuinely startled and they all headed off after the pack, using the communicative whistle as they went.
And there was the answer to the conundrum. The first pack could not see me whilst I was in the hide. They were simply aware there was an animal of some kind hidden behind the netting, branches and foliage. Its for me to bear in mind for the future when I am sat looking out of my hide, the animals are sometimes even more eager to see in and understand any potential threat to them, it is me who is the anomoly in their world.