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Asia diary - Part 1

Your editor shares the excitement, the trauma, the danger, the agony and the ecstasy of palm hunting in the Himalaya.
Martin Gibbons, c/o The Palm Centre
Chamaerops No. 17, published online 23-07-2002

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Trachycarpus 'Doi Chiang Dao' in its mountain home.

Last October and November, Toby Spanner & I undertook a 7-week, self-financed expedition to northern Thailand, China, Burma, Nepal, Sikkim and Pakistan. We were looking, as usual, for Trachycarpus in all the countries we visited except the last, where we went to find Nannorrhops ritchiana, the Mazari Palm. I daily recorded the story of our adventures in a diary, and for the next few issues it will be serialised m Chamaerops. Highlights of the trip included the discovery of three new species of Trachycarpus and the finding of 'the rare' Nannorrhops by the hundred thousand! I will make introductions and explanations where necessary, but the majority of the story is, as written, straight from our journal.

Our first port-of call was Doi Chiang Dao, a mountain in northern Thailand, where grows the first of those new species. We had visited the place before in 1992 and the story was told in the January 1993 issue of Chamaerops. However, we rushed it somewhat on that occasion and hardly had enough time for a good look round before it was time to descend again. This time we vowed to take things just a little easier....

14th October 1994

Left London Heathrow on a rather old Thai Airlines Jumbo 747. Refuelled in Delhi (1 hour) and touched down in Bangkok, Thailand, at 6am local time.

15th October

Took the plane north for Chiang Mai, arriving at 830am. Phoned our friend Rachun Pooma and took a taxi to the Huey Knew Arboretum [which he runs] and chatted for an hour with him and his colleagues. Then slept for 5 hours as exhausted. Up and out to do some shopping for provisions for the trip. In the evening went to wonderful open-air Thai restaurant on several tiers of decking. Fabulous meal just as good as I remembered from last time.

16th October

Picked up by jeep for the few hours' drive to Doi Chiang Dao. Drove up the muddy road passing Livistona speciosa as before. Arrived at base camp and had lunch of soup. At about 1pm four of us (we 2 and 2 workers from the Thai Forestry Dept.) set off on the 2 1/2 - 3 hour climb up the mountain. We were expecting the porters to 'port' but they had their own bags to carry so we were left with ours. Good job we packed light! Up and up we climbed through quite tall vegetation, rather wet. Saw a few of the rather dangerous, poisonous caterpillars, as we got ever closer to the Trachy-lined peaks. Gosh, it's beautiful! At about 3.30 or 4 we arrived at our campsite - a burnt-out hut. Rather dirty with all the burned wood but absolutely the only level area available to us on the steep slope, so we had to make the most of it. Pitched our tent and 'the boys' built themselves a lean-to with a plastic sheet. One of them caught - of all things - a tortoise! about a foot long. Incredible that these creatures could occur here. Lit a fire and cooked a meal of sausages, washed down with Singha beer. Saw fireflies as it was getting dark. A 3/4 moon rose very bright, but it was dark by 6pm. Millions of stars.

17th October

Had a reasonable night's sleep and got up early. Packed the minimum of gear leaving the rest in the tent and set off on the final leg to the summit. Rather hard going. Very steep and difficult terrain with big rocks studding the ground, and eye-high grass too, soaking wet, though the weather was good. Up and up we climbed, resting every so often. Got nearer and nearer to the Trachy's and, at just below 2,000 metres, reached a fairly level 'saddle' not far from the top of the mountain where we descended a little. Carried on up a slight incline along a valley and on reaching the end had a rather difficult stretch to cover, ending in a very steep climb down, through trees.

But the sight that awaited us there made the pain well worth while for there were 20 or 30 Trachy's, all quite big and beautiful, and reasonably accessible. Perfect for photos. Toby discovered a huge cave disappearing down into the ground. A rock dropped down took seconds to reach the bottom. One of the porters climbed a palm tree to collect some seed but it seemed to be last year's, and it was the only one in fruit; a bit disappointing....

The weather then closed in; it was misty and rather chilly. We decided to stay for an hour to see if it cleared. The visibility was down to 20 feet, then it began to rain quite heavily. It was miserable standing there in the cold, on this steep incline. But after half an hour it did clear - suddenly and dramatically, absolutely clear, you could see for miles. The mist would come and go so quickly. Took lots of photos then set off back down. It was not warm! The new boot spikes were wonderful, making life so much easier and safer; even so it was no picnic. Everything was drenched with water, including us. That was the end of our Trachy collecting at Doi Chiang Dao.

Climbed down and down through the mud and the rank vegetation that snaked across the path and tried to trip us up all the time. Very steep in parts but the spikes were of enormous help. After about 3 hours, and many slips and slides, we arrived back at our campsite. The tent had let in some water, though not too bad, of course everything outside was soaking wet. We re-lit the fire and cooked a meal. Finished it in the dark, sitting under a banana-leaf shelter that Toby had built for fun. Then it started to rain. Very heavy, like some kind of monsoon, completely blocking out the view. It chucked it down! Very noisy in the tent, and so heavy some of the rain was coming through. Despite this, managed to get some sleep, not easy with water dripping on my face.

18th October

Woke at dawn after not-too-bad a night's sleep. It had finally stopped raining. Getting up was awful. Getting into wet clothes was worse, but it's a big mistake to use up all your dry clothes, and after half an hour you've forgotten the initial discomfort. Packed up the campsite, needless to say everything absolutely soaking wet, took a last look at the Trachy-lined peaks, then set off for the long trek back to the base camp where we arrived at 10.30am after a stiff 2-hour walk. Had some soup and spread out our wet clothes and sleeping bags etc. to dry in the welcome sunshine. It was so warm they were steaming in the heat.

A jeep arrived to take us down and after a very long and very muddy drive, we arrived back at Chiang Mai for a welcome shower (though cold) and a change of clothes. In the evening we went to the Babylon - a great Italian restaurant - for a fabulous and well-deserved meal of spaghetti.

Well, no peace for the wicked, as they say, and no time to relax. Next day we were off to see the huge and fabled Giant Caryotas (Fish Tail Palms) of Nan, which we'd read about and seen photographs of, but never seen. Rachun offered to drive us there...

19th October

Up at 6.30am for the very busy day ahead. Set off in a pick-up for the long drive to the town of Nan, in the east of the country. Rachun drove, rather fast, but quite well. Good roads, but a very long way. Stopped for lunch. Toby has toothache. Drove through Phrae and Nan. Very hot and humid, maybe 305C. I thought we would never arrive, but after reaching a town called Khoa (?) we began to climb and after seeing a few Livistonas of unknown name, the temperature fell, and at about 1500m we saw our first Fish Tail Palms. The Latin name is Caryota gigas ('Giant') though this has yet to be published. Huge trees with enormous flat leaves and tall trunks. Dozens - even hundreds - of them, growing on steep, wooded slopes but only very locally distributed. Same as those in Xishuangbanna [China], we thought. Took lots of photos, not easy because of the density of the vegetation, so we had the worker who came with us hack a path for a good shot of one huge, old tree.

Spent a couple of hours at the site then instead of overnighting as planned, decided to drive back the same day. My goodness, what a long day and what a long drive! Stopped in the town of Phrae for a Thai meal but apart from that it was just drive, drive, drive, in all about 6 hours. Total 12 hours' driving for the day. Bed at 1.30am very tired as quite impossible to sleep in the bumpy pick-up. Rachun is a very fast driver but the roads were good and not too much traffic. Glad to be back in Chiang Mai once more.

20th October

Toby up first to visit dentist for an extraction! Packed slowly, said goodbye to Rachun, a good friend indeed, and had a lift to the airport.

To be continued. Next time: China and another new Trachycarpus

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