Last year I spent 5 months working as a research assistant on Koh Ra, and recently I was lucky enough to have the chance to return to this rich and diverse island. After 6 months of teaching English in Bangkok it was a welcome break from the craziness of the big city.
Upon arrival we were met at the pier by the Koh Ra Ecolodge team (including the dogs) who gave me a warm welcome back. After spending some time catching up, I sped over to the beach and dived headfirst into the azure waters. As I surfaced and looked back at the jungle canopies cloaking the ridge, I wondered why I had left.
After a quick dip, I joined Naucrates Conservation and Koh Ra Eco Lodge staff, Piero Becker and Bastian Finner, on a challenging hike, deep into the jungle….. Following the course of a waterfall, we climbed towards the hilltops, stopping occasionally to investigate strange and unusual species along the way. Although Koh Ra is a relatively benign jungle, we took care with every footstep we took and branch we clasped. There are some species of plant that can cause skin irritations and palm trees that are equipped with razor like barbs. Apart from that, the only other potential danger comes from the largest species of venomous snake in the world: the king cobra. This reptilian predator can reach lengths of up to 5m and is armed with venom potent enough to kill 20 people in a single bite.
As we reached a plateau in the water course, I stepped down onto a rock and immediately saw a thick black tail about 3m ahead of me. My heart jumped out of my chest and I shouted back to warn the rest of the group. As I turned to face the snake, the tail quickly slithered away from me and under a fallen log. Indeed, in most snake encounters the snake would rather look for an easy escape than confront a human. The vast majority of all snake bites happen only when a snake is cornered and threatened. Was the snake I saw a cobra? I wasn’t sure, but we took great care to give the snake’s hiding place a wide berth and tapped the ground repeatedly to let the snake know we were passing by.
Once we reached the summit, we realized that we could go no further into the jungle. The vegetation became too dense and old trails that once took people beyond were overgrown. The Koh Ra team is currently working to extend jungle treks and connect them with beaches on the West coast. For today, we headed back down taking care to remember the hiding place of our reptilian friend. As we reached the lower levels of the tree canopy we were treated to a cacophony of cicadas as they warmed up their wings in the evening air.
The next day, Piero and I headed out on an early morning bird survey. We started on the beach observing olive backed sunbirds hopping from branch to branch as they supped nectar from orchid flowers, displaying their iridescent wings and throats. The sunbirds were joined by chesnut-headed bee-eaters that flashed with vibrant red and green tones in the morning sun. Upon the ridge, a bird of prey stood proudly, too far off in the distance for us to accurately identify. It surveyed the beach and forest as if it was waiting for the moment to take flight and dive bomb towards its prey. Sea eagles often hunt for fish along the coast of Koh Ra, plunging their talons into unsuspecting surface dwellers with laser guided accuracy.
Our morning walk finished in the savannah where a small flock of vernal hanging parrots were socializing in a tall dead tree. Some hung upside down like small monkeys, playfully swinging from branch to branch. Just as we were about to head back to the club house we heard a swooshing noise from above, like a helicopter preparing for takeoff. We looked up and saw the broad wing span of the Great Hornbill partially blocking the sunlight as it soared over the tree tops. This impressive bird has been an important icon in many tribes and cultures and it’s not difficult to see why: with a bright yellow casque atop its enormous bill, a wingspan of 1.5 m and a weight of up to 4.5 kg, it resembles a mythical creature. Fully satisfied by the morning bird watching session we returned for a delicious breakfast with warm friends at the Eco Lodge club house.
The time passed far too quickly on Koh Ra and due to work commitments I could only stay for a short window of time. Right now my memories seem like a dream, but I’m looking forward to returning to Koh Ra very soon. I hope you will get the opportunity to visit too and we can continue to discover what this mysterious island will reveal to us. Keep your eyes open.