Sunday, October 27, 2013

Hike difficulty

One question that loomed prominently in my mind before coming to the GVI Thai Elephant Project was just how hard were the hikes going to be? Was I fit enough? Were my new hiking trainers going to be hard core enough? Were all of the other volunteers going to be superhuman hikers and leave me in the dust?

GVI provides information on the hikes and gives you pointers on how to be prepared, including suggested gear and going for hikes before arriving in Thailand.  Previous to joining up, I had been doing lots of yoga and taking long walks but mostly on flat terrain. I increased my distance on the walks but without many hills around me I wasn't able to increase my endurance in that respect.

The duration and difficulty of the hikes vary every day. Currently, there are 3 elephant herds, so the 17 volunteers and staff are split across the 3 herds daily, less one staff member who stays at base camp to monitor the groups via radio. 

The adult herds can obviously cover great distances in their hikes, and the two herds are spaced away from each other. We set out with their mahouts at 7am to find them. In the three weeks that I've been here, we have hiked as little has 20 minutes to reach them (mostly downhill) and as long as two and a quarter hours to find them (up, down, up, down, up, downhill). 

Once we have found the ellies, we study their habits including foraging and the distance they keep from each other. We also perform a weekly health check to make sure they aren't sick or injured. They  require loads of greens for foraging, so the mahouts rotate their locations to keep them from totally depleting an area. The adults are more confident  in scaling steeper terrain, so once they are let loose from their overnight spots, they could very well disappear around a ledge that we cannot traverse. Depending on the distance out to them that we've hiked, sometimes we don't get back until 1pm or later.

The "babies," as we refer to them though they are actually more like toddlers, are still too young to sleep in the forest on their own so they spend the night in the village. They don't move as fast or as far as the adults, so we meet them at 8am and peel off onto trails closer to the village. Being clumsier and less sure footed, Mario, Pbee Mai and Lulu are fun to watch. Mario has a big personality and is the most vocal so his antics keeps us quite entertained. If it's a hot day, we often end the hike with a dip in the pond, where the babies squirt water out of their trunks and roll around on each other. We're usually done with the baby hikes around 11am

We are at the close of the rainy season, so there is occasionally a passing shower, and always lots of mud which can make footing tricky. Some people bring old trainers, some bring high topped hiking boots (as suggested by GVI), but the mahouts can make these hikes in everything from galoshes to crocks to flip flops. I came with a low topped hiker from Merrel which have worked fine, though a high topped pair with more ankle support wouldn't be a bad idea with all of the slipping and sliding that goes on. Bottom line, don't bring anything you're attached to, because it will be muddied. 

Overall, I have found that while the hikes can be challenging, there's always time to rest in the middle while we watch the ellies do their thing. The staff and other volunteers all have varying abilities and gaits, and there is always someone who feels like charging ahead or taking it slow depending on the day. And a bucket shower has never felt so good.