Cycling the Spine of the Elephant Mountains

It was an ambitious trip: up Kirirom Mountain and down the mountain via the previously unexplored backdoor, then a beeline along the spine of the Elephant Mountains to Kampot.

Steve and I had accomplished the Kirirom stage with little difficulty, enjoying a campfire on the lake at the top of the mountain and a beautiful downhill ride through dense forest and clear rivers (I believe it is one of the funnest biking adventures in Cambodia – check out the GPS tracks from my friend here).  Flush with excitement from the final harrowing 500m descent off of Kirirom, Steve and I headed south to Kampot – this is the backdrop for my short story today.


After 15km of villages, the road starts to deteriorate and all signs of civilization came to an abrupt end.  Dark thunderclouds are rolling in over the mountains to the southwest, and Steve and I stop to waterproof our gear.

Steve waterproofing his bags

We’ve only logged around 50km that day, but the difficult 30km ascent up Kirirom and sleepless night in a freezing hammock are taking their toll.  Steve and I have our GPS and poured over different military maps and Google Earth to develop our route.  We’ve never heard of anyone doing it before, though I am sure someone has since a trail exists and us expats in Cambodia are a consumed with wanderlust.  Based on patches of deforestation, we expect there will be a few areas with small villages to resupply, as well as a number of streams from which to filter water.

Unfortunately, we were wrong on both accounts.

After enjoying the company of the banyan tree, we descend the small hill and enter a maze of oxcart trails.  We quickly abandon our route, as some trails are overgrown (this is a landmine zone) or impassable.  We are simply focused on continuing south toward Kampot, approximately 130km or so in the distance.  Trails that head south inexplicably turn west deeper into the mountains and then north, sending us in circles.  Even worse, the trail dotted with sharp softball-sized stones, requiring intense concentration to maintain balance and avoid damaging our bikes.

Progress is excruciatingly slow – 4km/hour, mostly in zigzags or circles and switching between rough single-track and rocky ox-cart trails.  Without my absurdly detailed GPS map of Cambodia (thank you Aruna) we’d be completely lost.

As the day wears on our water supply dwindles.  We start to ration our water – I am down to one small water bottle mixed with rehydration formula and Steve has a bottle and a half.  Every so often we stop to look at my map and figure out the most likely option for a water source.  We push for each stream marked on my map, but all are dried up or stagnant and repugnant.

Darkness approaches as we pass the 90km mark and we’re forced to stop to set up camp.  Already dehydrated, I’ve had to summon all my willpower not to finish off my half bottle of water.  We’re both deflated and exhausted, and don’t talk a whole lot.  I set up camp while Steve heads off down the trail to filter water from one of the stagnant puddles we passed.

Steve returns to camp a bit later with a liter of smelly, cloudy water – the kind that isn’t kind to the filter and takes far too long to pump.  We’re in a bind, since the area is a landmine zone and the trail is relatively rough.  We don’t want to wander off the trail to camp, but there is little choice.  To compound the issue, there are few sturdy trees to support our jungle hammocks – we manage to get the hammocks up, but I am not entirely confident they’ll last through the night.

I am starting to set up my camping stove when I feel a tremor.  We both look at each other, and then we hear a faint rumble in the distance.  Thunder.  Though rainy season hasn’t yet arrived in Cambodia, there is the occasional thunderstorm in May and this gives us a glimmer of hope.

Steve immediately recalls a trick he learned in Man vs. Wild and starts to build a rainwater collector while I waterproof all of our gear and set up the hammocks on top of each other in a bunk bed fashion (we only have one rain tarp to share).

We wait with growing excitement and the mood in the camp changes drastically.  To pass the time, we test out the double hammock, which is a spectacular failure.  The trees are too small to support the weight which causes the person in the top hammock to essentially be vertically spooning the person in the hammock below.  We both accept the arrangement under the circumstances, and agree that whatever happens that night in the Elephant Mountains stays in the Elephant Mountains (no – it didn’t rain so we didn’t have to sleep on top of each other).

We wait and wait.  The sky is getting darker and it is hard to tell which way the storm is headed.  There is a large mountain ridge to the west and we’re afraid it is keeping the storm at bay.

Just when we start to deflate, the first drops start to fall.  Steve and I immediately scream and dance.  The rain gets harder and harder and we bask in its warmth, letting it soak our dusty, aching bodies.  Steve’s rainwater collection contraption struggles to funnel the deluge of water, but I get a flash of inspiration.  I run to my rain canopy over the hammocks and fold one end into my mouth.  Clear, cold rainwater runs down my parched throat, causing an explosion of simultaneous sensations.  Steve grabs the other side of the canopy and takes a drink.  We drink as much as we can – a very bad idea when you’re dehydrated, but we neglect commonsense.

Then we fill as many bottles as we have with fresh water.  We end up with four liters of water – we now know that we have enough to last us to Kampot and even allow us to treat ourselves us a nice cooked pasta dinner that night.

As the rains die down and darkness descends, Steve and I sit down to enjoy our pasta dinner with fresh green pepper and gratuitous amounts of raw garlic (to keep the mossies away).  We turn off our headlamps – the sky is illuminated with stars and there is barely a sound.  We’re deep in the forest – it is sublime and, despite the waves of emotions, there is no where I’d rather be.

After dinner, Steve pulls out a bottle of shampoo, which turns out to be Sambuca – a bit of a nightcap for a long, tough day on the saddle.

It’s only 7PM, but its pitch black, our bellies our full, and we’re exhausted – I settle into my hammock and stare up at the clouds drifting by the full moon like old clippers headed out to sea.  There is nothing that compares to the first few moments in your hammock at the end of a long day on the road – thoughts marinate and you reflect on why you’re doing what the hell you’re doing.

I am not sure why, but I recall a quote from a speech Jimmy Valvano gave just before his death:

“To me, there are three things we all should do every day. We should do this every day of our lives. Number one is laugh. You should laugh every day. Number two is think. You should spend some time in thought. And number three is, you should have your emotions moved to tears, could be happiness or joy. But think about it. If you laugh, you think, and you cry, that’s a full day. That’s a heck of a day.”

Those sentences blindside me and I laugh out loud (probably causing Steve to think this trip is going to end like the film “Deliverance”).

Laugh, think, cry: it’s why I ride.  It’s so simple and I don’t know why I hadn’t thought about it that plainly before.  For me, these adventures are a way of putting myself in a position to acknowledge and embrace these fundamental states of being.  Thoughts and emotions wash over me with each kilometer, person I meet, hill I climb, river I ford, tire I mend.  In a relatively short period of time you experience major upward and downward swings, and, in the end, you learn to embrace the full spectrum and see the joy in each.

It’s why I ride – that gives me solace.  Everything is simple when your needs are minimal.  You instantly realize how overly complex we tend to make life, and feel – not just understand – that there are two ways to have enough: acquire more or desire less.

In my hammock, I don’t worry about what the next day is going to bring.  We’ll get out of there – I am sure of it.  I smile, pull my sleep sheet up over my head and fall into a deep slumber.


~ by responsiblenomad on January 14, 2011.

2 Responses to “Cycling the Spine of the Elephant Mountains”

  1. […] since Steve and I took (survived) our cycling trip from Kirirom National Park to Kampot, we’ve both been accumulating a bucket list of trips in and around Cambodia.  I am surprised […]

  2. […] east toward Cambodia’s highest peak (Phnom Aoral),  and west toward the Elephant Mountains (a ride Steve and I barely managed to complete back in May 2010).  Birds, squirrels and Buddhist monks saunter around the lake at the top of the mountain, setting […]

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