Watch your step

It was yet another public holiday in Thailand, this time the anniversary of the democratization of the country, although whether this is still the state of affairs in the country is debatable. We had another spare day, so I decided it was now or never for using the drone to get some autopilot footage of the canopy, I figured that flying at a very low altitude might allow the signal from the radio to continue despite the crowding of trees blocking the transmitter.

Benita and I went out to the field, I let Benita drive, following my accident in Koh Lanta and we headed out to the field site. It was crowded with people during to the public holiday, and we heard shouts of ‘Forang!’ meaning foreigner, as we passed over the bridge where everyone was swimming. We made it to the car park and I hopped off with my large, conspicuous drone case. It took us about two minutes to reach the river, as now we had a good working knowledge of the site and its paths. I took out the drone, turned on, set up the autopilot and we chatted whilst the drone collected satellites.

Finally it was ready to launch. It was in an overhang of forest, and there was only really one spot to launch it. I was extremely nervous because of this, and imagined it getting caught in branches and slamming into the rocky river. However, Benita held it steadily up, and I launched it into the air. It whirred and spun for a few seconds whilst my heart re-booted in my throat and then ascended with a press o my thumb, out of the forest and into the air. Out of the frying pan, into the fire, I thought. In the open, it could receive signals from satellites, and the waypoints uploaded easily. Benita pressed go on the iPad and I looked down at the console briefly, when I looked back up, it was gone.

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I could hear the sound of the motor, someway above crowd of branched high over me. Or could I? I wasn’t sure if it was my imagination or the drone of cicadas in the bushes. I spun around, looking for some sign of it. The autopilot was still working, and I could see that it was following the path set out on the screen. After a few minutes, it moved into view again. The little robot carried placidly on, photographing the canopy, us in the gap down below, without pause or tremble.

At the last waypoint came the moment of truth, would it come back? Nothing happened for what seemed like an aeon, then the sound built up, and little Colin, as I named it after a robot in the Restaurant at the End of the Universe, whirred happily into the opening above the trees. I switched it to manual control quickly and steadied it above us. Benita went to the stream ad held her hands open to catch the happy little robot, casually unaware of all the hazards presented by the looming limbs of branches around it. I descended slowly until it was only about six feet away from us. Benita held out her hands to grab it, but a slight breeze shifted it to the left. I moved backward to get the blades away from us and flew it about two feet over our heads. There was nothing for it now, so I flew it toward tome, descended a few feet and killed the power. It dropped heavily to the ground, but only from a few feet, so I knew it would be ok.

It had worked and I could hardly wait to see the footage but I still wanted to fly it again in another part of the plot so we walked further in to find a gap in the canopy. The trees crowded over us, and the places where there were gaps were in too dense scrub to actually launch or even stand so we kept on walking.

We had been going for about ten minutes when Benita whipped suddenly around, the whites of her eyes wide and shocked. ‘Shitshitshitshitshitshit!!” She yelled. I looked down the path where she had been, expecting to see a wild pig, monkey or some kind of wild cat and getting ready to do something stupid, like throwing the drone at it. Instead, nothing came toward us and Benita, now next to me, pointed into the bushes, only a few feet from where she had stood, at a long, yellow reptilian tail, slinking quickly back into the woods.

I didn’t know what kind of snake it was, but on the failed instinct of self-preservation I plunged in afterward. I had got a few feet in when it turned around and reared up ever so slightly to reveal precisely what kind of snake it was. Two folds of skin next to its head extended quickly outward as its tongue tasted the air. The cobra paused then continued on, slipping down the side of the valley, investigating nooks and burrows in the forest floor as it went. After a moment’s pause I followed it, taking pictures of the beautiful, deadly animal.
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It’s only really in hindsight that I realize how dangerous that situation in fact actually was. It was the most dangerous for Benita, who had come within a couple of steps from one of the most poisonous animals on the planet. The look on her face for the rest of the afternoon revealed that she had been aware of this fact from the get go, and her life was still flashing in front of her as I laughed and feverishly photographed the toxic reptile. These animals definitely deserve more respect and awareness than I give them, and each time I go into the forest now, I watch my step.

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