Woken by the dawn chorus in the bush

Rafting The Cardomons On Dirt Bikes

The first 12 days had been a breeze for a dirt bike tour of the muddy north of a Cambodian November. The main tour had finished in Siem Reap. A hardier splinter group, mainly returnee riders on their 2nd, 3rd or even 4th tour of Cambodia, had opted for the extra 5-day Southern Route over the Cardamon Mountains. Dirt Bike Heaven. Jungle trails, rivers and ridges. All we gotta do is get to Koh Kong…

I should be sitting in a cocktail bar in Koh Kong, sipping ice cold G and T’s, celebrating my wife’s birthday with her, tucking into the 2 kilo chocolate cake that I’d had made as a surprise, along with the trail hardened dirt bikers from the Southern Group. Drinking Hard, Partying Hard.

Not sleeping on the hard ground in the jungle surrounded by an exhausted group of trail weary dirt bikers, by a river we’ve crossed twice in one day. By homemade raft. Dinner of half a bag of dry instant noodles and the scabby left-overs of a pork rice lunch.

How had it all gone so wrong?

Enough bridge for you Leng?

Enough bridge for you Leng?

Lengs fault. It had to be Lengs fault.

The whole deal had started to go south pretty soon after we left Osom. That first river crossing had been deep. The first bridge just three lengths of bamboo tied together. Scary. Then we’d hit the first major mountain ridge and taken our first pounding.

Myself and Leng have been riding this trail – in its many guises – since the tail end of the 3rd Extreme Rally Raid in 2001. That time the route had just been bulldozed and the trail was throttle-wide-open, straight up and down the ridges and there was a hint of bridges to be built. Even taxis and Kamaz 6×6 trucks were using it. Three wet seasons later and the trail had leached back to rock and hill climbs that would test the most accomplished trials rider.

Around 2011 the trail was opened again for the fibre optic cable, and for one season Camry taxis raced up and down it. Full throttle was on again. Koh Kong to Osom in less than 2 hours. And then, once again, the pounding rains and the marching greens slowly retook it.

But I’d not seen it this over-grown.

The ground green and slippery, like sheets of green ice. Bamboo sharp and accurate. BAM you went down. BAM the bamboo pulled you over again. Like being grabbed by a 200kilo Rock and Roll Wrestler and being thrown to the canvas. BAM. Hang on this should be the easy bit…

Bloodied by bamboo cuts to the nose and nerves slightly shaken we get to the river. We knew that the river would have to be crossed by raft so Leng had gone to the market the day before and purchased a truck tube to float the bikes over with. So on hitting the river Cambodia’s own ‘Mergyver’ immediately sets about making a raft.

Previous moto-mounted river crossers, traders and smugglers had very kindly chopped down the fibre optic internet cable that had once run through here, joining Battambang to Koh Kong on the cyber highway. The jungle had made short work of that connection. An omen. So the redundant cable was now strung up by local former raft users/tree cutters/smugglers to secure their vessel to stop the current taking it away. The vessel was gone. Taken by high rushing waters of the wet season. Another omen.

Hot and cheerful in the late morning sun everyone keenly set about the task of getting the bikes across the river, diving into the cool inviting waters of this remote river. Each bike took over 15 minutes to load and tow across. A puncture later, and several more bike tubes added to the raft. The water flowed fast and was around 3 metres deep in the middle. No place to loose a bike overboard. The whole escapade had taken 3 and a half hours. Nine bikes. Nine riders. Nine helmets. 18 boots. Tools. Non swimmers. All floated, swum, towed across.

Unloading the last bike onto the sand bank at the far side it occurred to me that we hadn’t thought to check the condition of the track ahead of us. Why should we – I’d ridden it at prior to the wet season with the Event Shelter Group and we’d got to Koh Kong by mid-afternoon having had one of the best days off road riding I’d ever done. Anywhere. The Cardomons were tough but we were tougher.

OK lets go check the trail. A whole tree truck, 10 metres long has washed over the entrance. No problem – there’s plenty of us. After a puff and a heave we shift it. Look behind it. There is no trail. It’s gone. Not just overgrown but gone. Like it was never there.

I refuse to believe it at first, knowing that the old crossing was slightly further down river. We just have to hook onto it surely. An hour of hacking and bashing around in the Bamboo and even Leng has to admit the trails not there anymore. The smugglers have stopped using it. And the jungle has reclaimed it. Gone. Shit.

Right. We’d better get our gear off and get back across the river. We’ve got the gig down pat by now, and the groups earlier goofing around is replaced by a new determination. I’ve got a birthday party to go to. I can’t get stuck here. It still takes well over 2 hours to get all the bikes and gear over, and the last bike goes back in the dark. This is getting serious, we don’t want to lose anyone to the current out here in the dark. We’re a long way from help. No telephone signal out here butt.

Safely across we review options. The green slime will have dried in the sun surely. The track will have loads more traction. The arse kicking we had this morning will be just a distant memory. Nope. After an hour of trying to get back up the 2k climb up the thickly jungle covered ridge we’ve managed to get 300 metres. Exhausted we’re in danger of having a serious accident in the dark. Or at least burning out a clutch or two. Which would have the same result. Stuck.

Get the hammocks out we’re sleeping here…No chocolate cake tonight amigo.

Woken by the dawn chorus in the bush

Woken by the dawn chorus in the bush

Dawn wakes us early and we trek back to where we had abandoned the bikes the night before on our failed attempt to escape. Back into the bamboo and green slime. Down we go again, BAM, BAM, BAM. Finally we get back to the tiny bamboo bridge – I’m totally beat and make no attempt to hide it – Can you take my bike across please Leng? I can barely walk the narrow bouncy lengths.

We empty the little lean-to drinks shop, at the village next to the bridge, of any and all consummables – leaving a satisfied heap of drinks cans, snack bags and candy wrappers – on the rough cut bench that serves as the display table. Everyone is a bit giddy and buzzed out from having escaped their tangle with the Khmer jungle.

We hit the dam road to Koh Kong, which is mainly a graded dirt road that snakes between Chinese Hydro-Electric projects, hidden in the jungle covered mountains, and 3 hours later we are in the coastal town enjoying a slap up lunch. Bloodied, bruised, late and a touch ripe! But we made it.

A good feed revives spirits and we head off for a night in the wilds of a homestay in the eco-village of Che Pat before after another days hard trails. The following sunset its motocross boots in the Ocean, cocktails on the beach. And Chocolate Cake. Lots and lots of chocolate cake. Give Leng an extra slice – I think he’s bloody earned it.


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