5am wake-up call and in the jeep for 5:30, bouncing along the uneven jungle road to the drop-off point where we would begin our trek. Our goal: to catch a glimpse of the elusive family of wild gibbons that inhabit a tragically diminished share of the Cat Tien National Park in Vietnam. Gibbons are apes with very expressive faces and exceptionally long limbs that allow for fluid, fast movement between trees. Once abundant in number, they have been hunted for decades, initially for meat and then as pets for wealthy Vietnamese city-dwellers. The gibbons that we were tracking had been rescued from captivity and painstakingly persuaded back to the wilderness, and remain wary of humans.
By the time we arrived at the drop-off point it was only 5:45, but even then it was so humid that the air felt like damp cotton wool. Sweating profusely already, we began to follow our guide through the thick undergrowth along a narrow trail. Not one of us spoke: the human voice sounds unnatural in the frantic beauty of the dawn chorus. The Cat Tien National Park is home to a teeming variety of birds, each species more vibrant and striking than the last. Within 10 minutes we had spotted a scarlet minavet, a pair of green-billed malkohas, and a blue-winged pitta. The park is a dream for any birdwatcher with a powerful lens and a keen eye, but sadly many of the birds are still hunted by forest-dwellers and so take refuge high up in the jungle canopies.
However, what the birds lacks in exhibitionism, the insects more than make up for in unabashadness. We encountered a lime green caterpillar the size of a Cuban cigar, butterflies that resembled small bats in their flight and proportions, and curious white insects that resembled dandelion seeds. Monstrous spiders with webs spanning entire trees; giant snails that Dr Doolittle may have had a go at harnessing: everything in the Vietnamese jungle seems larger than life.
Fortunately it was the abundance of ground-abiding creatures that first drew my attention to my boots. To my horror I discovered that what I had thought to be mud or leaves were indeed writhing and squirming – leeches! My first instinct was to stamp my feet in a bid to shake them off, but that made them cling on even more steadfastly. Even as I stamped, they continued to flip from end to end up my gaiters, so that one had almost reached its desired destination: my juicy plump thigh. I pleaded desperately with my partner for immediate assistance, only to see that his shoe was covered with at least 10 leeches. As he swore and crashed his boots against nearby rocks, I knew that no help from his direction would be forthcoming.
In a near state of total panic I grabbed a long stick and after just about desecrating a number of the poor things, for they were as tough as cockroaches, managed to rid myself of their unwelcome embrace. My gaiters and shoes were covered in bloodstains, which were thankfully not my own but evidence of the leeches’ previous victims. Cursing, repulsed and foul-tempered, my partner and I looked to our guide for comfort only to see that he was killing himself laughing, having watched our desperate antics to his great amusement. In broken English he explained that they were largely harmless and could easily be dissuaded by a violent flick of the finger. To demonstrate this he bent down and flicked a leech off his leg, only for it to stick to his finger. “Don’t worry,” he grinned, “these nothing. In other place they fall from the trees.”
Let it be said that this did not cheer us and I resolved not to lift my eyes from the ground for the rest of the walk, come hell and especially high water. Nothing, not even the sight of the resurrected Ho Chi Minh himself, could have swayed my vigilance. Then, soaring through the trees, came the early morning call of the gibbons. We all stood transfixed, gazing towards the canopy as their haunting song weaved its way through the treetops. It is impossible to describe the aching beauty of the gibbon call; I wanted to laugh and cry, was spellbound. My heart felt like it wanted to break free of its ribcage, gravity ceased to exist. It is as if part of the soul begins to ascend.
As the last of the gibbon cries melted away, I looked at our guide. He gave a soft smile, and I could see that he had a tear in his eye.