We got back to the camp, had some lunch and snoozed in the shade. I was exhausted by the effort of concentration that morning and fell asleep deeply, but woke with a start soon after, as I realized how little time I had left here, and how much I still wanted to see.
Komg sensed my restlessness and started putting things in the truck. He said I could charge my batteries at the ranger’s station down the road, as there was no electricity during the day at the research station. Piak and Ooh climbed in the back with the drone and I got in the front with Komg.
We bounded down the rocky path, churning dust and pausing to see some animal we had disturbed, or to move debris from elephant tracks across the road.
I asked Komg what elephants were like here. His expression darkened but he continued to smile, as he withdrew his phone and tapped the translation app on his phone. He held up the screen to show me a single symbol-ดุร้าย with only one translation- fierce.
We chatted with the rangers at the station and they let us their power to recharge the batteries. I had a lost in translation moment with one of the rangers, as I answered one of his questions in broken Thai. He assumed I knew more than I did, and launched into a speech about (I think) the forest and borders, which had I understood it, would have probably been very interesting. However at the end of his spiel he looked at my slightly exasperated and blank smile, registering that I understood nothing, he stomped back inside to watch TV.
We drove a little way with one of the batteries to one of the forest plots known as Kapuk Kapeang and launched the drone from there. Something burst out of the forest right behind me, and I turned the airborne camera around to find it, the footage didn’t actually show any thing in the end, so I assume it was a frightened deer or a lurking macaque. After a long flight over the plot with video and photos, I brought the drone down and we drove back to the station to collect the last battery. On the way we passed a truckload of soldiers, off to patrol the border.
We drove in the direction of camp along a steeper and narrower road. After about an hour of being thrown around in the cab, I realized we weren’t going to camp. I asked Komg where we were, he looked back at Ooh and Piak and burst into laughter. ‘We going to see Chang.’ He smiled- chang means elephant.
Salt licks are a very important feature for forest mammals. The sediment, usually clay, is rich in minerals and animals travel huge distances, risking predation and lack of food to get these scarce vitamins. The clay is rich in iodine and calcium, and are vital to the health of the mammals that feed here. Predators will therefore often come here to hunt, so deer are on high alert for the approach of predators.
As we got out of the car, I felt slight electricity in the air, or a heightened sense of stillness. The leaves beneath my feet crunched loudly. I swallowed nervously and the wet grind of my throat sounded loud and obvious. As we got out of the car, Komg impressed upon me again that elephants are not be messed with. He put this succinctly, “When we run, you run.”
We walked down to the first opening in the trees, where a dry mineral lick simmered in the grey, evening light. The canopy was very open, so I sent the drone zipping up overhead easily. Once hovering happily above us, we started walking to the main mineral lick, about 300m away. I noticed big, round footprint indenting the ground next to the river, it was around this point that everyone made an effort to keep quiet. I noticed that Piak when Piak snagged his shirt on a rattan vine, he stopped to carefully unhook the little thorns, rather than pluck it off loudly. The same vine caught my sleeve. We walked until the path opened up to reveal a small ledge. Piak waved a hand for us to stop. Piak has been working in Haui Kha Khaeng for about ten years, and the forest completely. He also understood how to move without scaring things, which is a difficult skill to grasp. I took two short steps and tottered to a halt, my flip flops slapping the wet ground loudly. He squinted into the forest and we waited. I sent the drone higher, quieter.
The forest fell silent as we waited. I peered hard into the forest. The words ‘Jurassic park’ rattled through my head. Something crunched distantly, soft enough to have been imagined. Something shimmered distantly, like light being blocked for barely an instant by some big movement. I narrowed my focus on a long corridor into the darkening, hazy forest and gaze shimmered with the concentration. No one moved.
I practically shat myself.
A barking deer plunged out of the forest. It scrambled onto the path in front of us, gave another truly ear splitting shriek and launched itself back into the forest on the other side. I let out a huff of relief and the guys laughed at me, my other hand was white and red, grasping the hem of my jeans tightly.
We stalked a little closer, just past the bottleneck before the mineral lick. I noticed that this path wasn’t man made, but rather cleared by the persistent trampling of generations of elephants. I stepped into a fresh, wet elephant footprint, the size of a dinner plate. Piak stepped forward and then stopped in frame, knee crooked in the air. His left flapped wildly while his eyes remained unshifting on some distant point. The tree crown of a dipterocarp twitched, betraying the presence of something very big beneath it.
I was scared, definitely, but not terrified, despite what I had heard. I felt aware of my surroundings, ready for my instincts to kick if we had to move quickly, I had a sense of being in control. How naive.
Somewhere not far from where we stood, several liters of air had just vanished from the forest undergrowth. Only moments before, it had been wafting lazily through the canopy, enjoying the lazy nibble of the mosaic of a billion tiny stomata covering the dense chatter of leaves. A second later it found itself being sucked down a long, dark tube, with incredible force and speed. It whooshed into an enormous organ and felt itself swirl and compress into the gigantic chamber. The chamber was inside of an even bigger, greyer animal that was gearing up to do something very scary. It tightened tremendous muscles in its diaphragm, pinching its stomach and expelled the contents its massive lungs between two small, but incredibly strong muscles in its head, and out again through the long tube. The hot, humid air shot back into the forest, looping up into the canopy in a whippy little vortex. A few milliseconds later, this powerful exchange of air produced an immense and horrifying sound that reached the eardrums of four humans who had been waiting nearby. The terrifying sound precipitated the shrinking of their own smaller, different organs and they leapt into action, running as fast as their clumsy legs could carry them as glands emptied panicked hormones into their bloodstream. The hot jet of air continued to rise high above the canopy, until it reached the propellers of a small robot. The robot had been observing whole process with a keen, vacant eye, and merely gave its flight stabilizing algorithms a quick squeeze as the warm air offset its tilt.
Can you see the elephant? (Left hand corner by the stream). Sorry about the quality of the picture, screenshot from the video I’m editing.
The sound of the elephants scream was probably the most horrifying noise I have ever heard. It thumped out of the woods, with such depth, weight and strength that I think I could see it. It flicked a deep seated, primordial switch and knew to run. Not to slink of gracefully back into the woods, or hold our ground for some standoff. Just get the fuck out. So we did.