The New Zealand Herald
Waking at Bau Sau has to be one of
the more peaceful experiences to be had in Vietnam, writes GRAHAM
You'd be hard pressed
to find a mention of Vietnam's Cat Tien National Park in any guidebooks.
It may have opened the doors to tourism,
but some places, it seems, remain off the tourist radar.
that fit comfortably on the Ho Chi Minh City-Nha Trang-Hoi An-Hue-Hanoi
route are overrun by buses and cars full of eager-eyed
tourists. Step off that trail just 20km or so and you might be
surprised to find a tourist-free biodiversity hotspot surrounded
rain forest and an abundance of wildlife.
Cat Tien National Park
is 174km north of Ho Chi Minh City and 20km off the main road to
Dalat. Getting there is half the fun and for
the moment at least that involves hopping on a ferry to take the
short jaunt over the Dong Nai river to the Park Headquarters.
is no bridge over the river to the park's main entrance, although
there are plans to build one. Such isolation, combined with steep,
muddy hills and dense Rattan forest, has helped to protect the
environment from destruction and it has also gone some way to help
the WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature) defines as perhaps the most
endangered large mammal in the world.
Between five and eight Javan
(Vietnamese) rhinos are thought to remain in one small, highly
protected area of the park.
There is no chance
to meet this giant of the forest as the area it inhabits is off-limits
to the casual tourist. But, it isn't just
rhinos that help to make this park special.
Cat Tien National Park
plays host to a cornucopia of species: birds, Asian elephants and
wild cats. All of which inhabit the forest surrounding
the park headquarters on the banks of the Dong Nai river.
you go with a guide, who knows what to look for and where to look
for it, you probably won't see all the park has to offer.
Forearmed with the knowledge that rhino
sightings were out of the question, elephants were extremely doubtful
and leopard cats were
for the lucky, the next best thing is to go in search of Siamese
crocodiles at Bau Sau lake, otherwise known as Crocodile Lake,
16km from park headquarters.
Siamese crocodiles were hunted for
their meat or captured and put into farms before and during the
War. The result being that
Siamese crocodiles haven't been seen in the wild in Vietnam since
However, December 2001 saw the reintroduction
of the species in Vietnam when park authorities released 10 relatives
from the original
Sau family into the park. These new residents were taken from farms
in the Mekong Delta area and rigorously vetted via DNA testing
in Australia to certify that they were indeed the genuine article
not a result of crossbreeding with their Cuban cousins which are
numerous in the Mekong Delta area. A further eight were released
last year and more are due to follow.
Bau Sau is deep within the
forest, a two-hour trek off the main trail, passing through dense
tropical woods, ferns and fungi. The deeper
you go, the more the forest comes alive as the birds and animals
become aware of your presence. Gibbons and langurs will call out
your approach, but you'll need a keen eye or an expert guide if
you are to catch a glimpse of them.
The path is clear and the trek is
relatively easy although the jungle on either side is dense. During
my trek I was accompanied by David
Murphy, a WWF biologist from Park HQ, who stopped to point out
the tell-tale gouge marks made by the paws of a sun bear - the
bear in the world. They are known to attack at short notice but,
fortunately for trekkers, they like to rest during the day.
is an unexpected oasis in the jungle. The only building around
the lake is the forest guard house which doubles as accommodation
for visitors whenever they are staying the night. Apart from the
resident forest guards, the only other regular visitors are conservationists,
researchers and bird watchers who come to spot some of the rarer
species that inhabit the park.
Twitchers the world over come in the
hope of spotting one of the four species of pitta, four varieties
of sunbird or hornbill, or
the ultra rare and endemic orange-necked partridge and white-winged
Easier to spot, but just as rare as
the birds in South East Asia as a whole, are the Siamese crocodiles,
one of which could be
hanging in the water just below the guard house.
Murphy goes crocodile
spotting once a month, after dark during the middle of the lunar
month, to monitor the density of numbers.
spotters take a row boat in a circuitous route around the lake
waiting to pick up telltale red eyes in the torch light.
And so far
so good, the population has taken well to their new home and numbers
The Bau Sau guards will rustle up a
basic but tasty meal for you, usually consisting of fish caught
from the lake, rice
and water spinach.
Accommodation in the guard house is
basic. You'll need to bring a hammock with you or rent one from
the park HQ.
The guardhouse sleeps
a maximum of eight, although some people choose to string their
makeshift beds up in the forest for the night. There
is no running water, only a well. The abundance of leeches during
the wet season gathered from the forest trek coupled with basic
living conditions can be uncomfortable. Just spare a thought for
guards who live there day in, day out managing the lake and protecting
the wildlife from poachers.
Bau Sau lake is best seen as the sun
melts over the canopies or on waking just before sunrise.
In the morning, the lake is often covered
with a thin layer of mist which slowly evaporates with the sun's
Osprey can be seen
hunting for breakfast, and the occasional flock of ducks or great
flit across the lake. While on the far
side, opposite the guard house, the troops of gibbons, macaques
and black shanked douc langurs make their presence known as they
to greet the morning.
Even with the sounds of the jungle,
waking at Bau Sau has to be one of the more peaceful experiences
to be had
In a country
so densely populated and polluted by noise, Bau Sau deep within
Cat Tien National Park is a welcome retreat.