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Published: April 5th 2017
As with some of the other places on this trip through south and central Vietnam, I also went to Bach Ma National Park on my 2015 visit. On that trip I stayed at one of the hotels up near the summit of the mountain. I really enjoyed my time there. Although the birding wasn't as profitable as I had hoped I had a fun time spotlighting in the forest up there, seeing my first ferret-badgers. For this visit I wanted to spend more time at the summit, both for birding and for spotlighting. I hoped to see an Annamite muntjac properly after maybe almost seeing one last time (a black blur of about the right size), and it is a good location for Owston's palm civet. I also wanted to spend some nights at the HQ accommodation at the bottom of the mountain because that is closer to the Pheasant Trail which I didn't really get to explore last time. And, finally, the park is home to another one of Vietnam's endangered primates, the Annamite gibbon. I have decided I like the name "Annamite gibbon" better than "northern buff-cheeked gibbon". It is shorter and easier to say, and it has a
more distinctive sound to it as a name.
The main problem with Bach Ma, as a visitor after wildlife, is that there is accommodation at the bottom, there is accommodation at the top, but in between is just 17km of winding rising road. Motorbikes aren't allowed in the park (except for those of the staff) and transport up and down is restricted to the tour buses and to the park's own mini-vans which cost 900,000 Dong for the trip up and down. So if you are a solo money-poor traveller looking for gibbons you don't have much choice but to walk. I had a survey of Bach Ma's gibbons from 2007 which showed that they are found in the altitude range between 400 and 800 metres - so not at the bottom and not at the top, but only in the middle stretch. The forest doesn't even start until at about the 8 or 9km mark; below that is just scrub and bamboo.
When I arrived at the park HQ I found there had been some pricing changes since 2015. Firstly the HQ accommodation was now 300,000 Dong per night instead of 250,000. That wasn't too bad a
rise (300,000 is about NZ$ 19), but much worse was the increase for the Phuong Lan Villa up near the summit. In 2015 this cost me 550,000 Dong (c.NZ$35) per night and that was the cheapest accommodation up there. Now the price was 1,050,000 Dong (c.NZ$66). Three nights there would set me back almost two weeks budget, and that's not even including food and the transport up there.
Straight away this meant the summit was out of the question. In my original plan for the trip I would have had enough money to cover staying at the summit for several nights (well, at the old price, not so much the new price) but because Sri Lanka was added in and then I went back to Ladakh a second time, that meant I got into Vietnam about a month behind my planned arrival and about a month over-budget. I'm running out of money but still want to try and fit in all - or at least most - of the places I intended to visit in Vietnam. I decided that I'd have to forget about Owston's palm civets and concentrate instead on just the gibbons.
The rooms at the HQ are worth about a third of what they are charging. The one I had looked more like they had just stuck some beds in an abandoned room. However the lady in charge of it is really nice and helpful, and she gave me the third and fourth nights at 200,000 which meant the average was 250,000 per night. She also brought me over a water cooler to refill my bottles, which saved me a bit of money on buying water, and a bag of bananas and dragonfruit. The impression I got was that they don't get many people bothering to stay here, probably especially for several nights.
For the first afternoon I just went to the Thuy Dien waterfall. It's along a 2 or 3km road from the HQ, and is outside the park so you don't need an entry ticket. The "waterfall" is more of a big rock over which the river flows. According to one trip report there is a watch-tower there which is strange because not only is there no watch-tower but there would seem to be no reason to have a watch-tower there anyway. Just past the huts by the waterfall I found a trail into the forest. Judging from the slashed-back vegetation and the crumbling state of the concrete path, it appeared to have only recently been reclaimed from the jungle. It was a nice trail, only a couple of leeches, but with few birds being the middle of the day. Puff-throated bulbuls and buff-breasted babblers were the first for the trip, and there was a green vine snake on the path at one point. I also saw a slender-tailed tree shrew, making this the third place I've seen them in Vietnam (after Cat Tien and Dalat).
At 6am the next morning I walked up the road to the Pheasant Trail. According to the park map the trail is at km8. The HQ is at km3 (the kilometre markers start at the highway). I figured a 5km walk should take about an hour at most, and going very early should avoid the worst of the heat. Last time I was at Bach Ma I had walked down from the summit to save on money and it was the dumbest thing to do. I swore I would never do that again. However even this early in the morning it was dreadfully hot, and within half an hour I was absolutely drenched with sweat. It took almost an hour and a half to get to the trail - I didn't think I'd been walking that slow! I figured I should keep walking up the road a bit and find a viewpoint for scanning the valleys and hillsides, to see if I could spot any gibbons. I'd go onto the trail on the way back down. It wasn't more than a hundred or so metres before I came to a kilometre marker, showing that in fact the trail is just before km9 which makes a bit more sense of the walking time, especially given that it is all uphill.
Just after the km10 marker-stone I heard a gibbon calling. It was somewhere reasonably close. That bode well, so I kept going. I heard a couple more gibbons further up but again didn't see any of them. Gibbons are actually pretty difficult to find. You might think they would be easy to see, with the way they are always swinging about in the trees and hollering at each other, but they also spend a lot of time just sitting in the branches. And here in particular, you are restricted to a single road from which you have to just use binoculars to scan the surrounding slopes. So you're basically trying to find an animal about the size of a dog, hidden somewhere in the canopies of a hundred trees on the other side of a valley.
The road up the mountain is 19 kilometres long. I am obviously something of a masochist because even though I'd sworn I'd never walk down that road again, I just kept going until I ended up at the top of the mountain. My thinking was basically that there could be a gibbon right around that next bend so I just kept pressing on. And also this time I didn't have a pack on my back, just my shoulder-bag, so coming back down wouldn't be as bad. At around km14 I came across a troop of red-shanked doucs in the trees right beside the road which gave excellent views (as I predicted in my last post about Son Tra). They eye-balled me curiously, but of course as soon as my camera came out and there was a barrel pointed at them, the monkeys fled. This is typical of the larger mammals and birds in Vietnam (and to a lesser extent in the rest of southeast Asia) - anything which looks like it might be a gun is cause for immediate panic.
I stopped for lunch at the Chicken Restaurant next to Phuong Lan Villa. The guy who manages it remembered me from 2015. Opposing what the pricing sheet at HQ had said, he told me that the rooms there were 650,000 Dong - but that was still too much with my current funds. He also said that for gibbons it would be best to look on the Pheasant Trail. I did the Nature Trail at the summit, just as it started raining. It had been fine and sunny up to that point, but then it didn't stop raining for the next two days. At the start of the Nature Trail there was a flowering tree with lots of orange-bellied leafbirds and maritime striped squirrels but after that I saw nothing except a red-bellied squirrel, until right at the end of the trail when a long-tailed broadbill appeared in a tree followed a few seconds later by a pair of silver-breasted broadbills.
I walked back down the road, freaking out just a little as lightning and thunder crashed above me. It is pretty darn scary being on an open road on top of a mountain with a lightning storm literally directly overhead.
About half an hour down, after the storm had died to drizzle, I saw something disappear off the road at a bend up ahead. Then a couple more animals dashed after the first one - stump-tailed macaques! These three must have been the tail-end of a larger group. When I got to the bend I saw one animal run across an open space much further down the slope. I put my binoculars on the spot and managed to get looks at two more. There must have been a lot of them though because I could hear them calling to each other from the forest below the road for quite a while as I walked. A few kilometres on, a guy on a motorbike stopped and gave me a lift the rest of the way down.
In the morning it was back to the Pheasant Trail. Today was alternating between rain and drizzle, so the walk up there wasn't as hot because there was no sun. I spent from 7am to 1pm on the trail and saw almost nothing. Gibbons don't call in the fog, and it was difficult to see very far so most of the birds I could hear went unseen. The trail leads to a waterfall - an actual waterfall this time. At the river I did some "rock-pooling" to see what I would find. At Mt. Kinabalu I always stop for this in the mountain streams and there is always masses of life - insect larvae, freshwater crabs, tadpoles, fish. Here there was very little, although I did see a number of hillstream loaches on the rocks in mid-stream and some pools of tadpoles. I came back out onto the road after six hours. I was going to try scanning the forest from the road but the mist and clouds made that impossible so I just went back to the HQ.
The third morning was basically a repeat of the second. I walked up to the Pheasant Trail in the drizzle but kept going along the road for a couple more kilometres to try and look for gibbons. However most of the time it was impossible to see the trees through the clouds and mist so I returned to the trail at around 9.30am where, once again, I found almost nothing because of the weather. Out of only seven birds seen today, the highlight was an eye-browed thrush. I'm really not sure if the road or the trail would be better for gibbons. I was back out on the road at 1.30pm, and everything everywhere was whited out with the mist.
I had become a little weary of walking for six kilometres uphill every morning just to get to the point where I can start
to look for the animals, and then being able to find nothing in the mist and rain, so after three days of this I gave it up. There are still places I need to go before my money runs out.
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