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  • Writer's pictureDirk Reber

Exploring the Cardamom Mountains by Canoe

Exploratory expeditions often bring unexpected challenges.

The wilderness has always made an adventurer's heart beat faster, a siren call of unexplored territory and the promise of discovery. Recently, I had the extraordinary opportunity to embark on an exploratory journey through the Cardamom Mountains, a journey that pushed the boundaries of adventure and forged a deep connection with the natural world. This six-day expedition, led by myself and another YEP Academy trainer, along with two participants, was not only an endurance test, but a deep immersion into the untamed beauty of one of the last great wilderness areas in Southeast Asia.

It was clear from the start that this was no ordinary adventure. Instead, it was an exploratory expedition, a voyage of discovery to explore the potential for future touring and training. The small size of our group - just four people - allowed for an intimate and intense experience, but also meant that we were very dependent on each other and our environment.

The Cardamoms hold natural beauty, mostly untouched by humans.

The first few days were a mixture of awe and challenge. As we paddled through the calm waters, we marveled at the unspoilt beauty around us. But as the hours turned into days, the reality of our expedition dawned on us: close to the coast, the river we were travelling on regularly experiences saltwater intrusion, depending on the tides. At high tide, saltwater intrudes inland, increasing the salinity in certain stretches of the river. At low tide, the saltwater flows back into the sea and fresh water dominates again.

These tides have a significant impact on flora and fauna. Plants and animals in the affected areas have developed special adaptations to cope with the changing salinity levels. Mangrove forests, which often grow in estuaries, provide a habitat for many specialized species. Fish populations use these areas as spawning grounds, and the mixture of salt and fresh water creates unique living conditions that contribute to high biodiversity. Moreover, saltwater intrusion also influences nutrient dynamics by transporting nutrients from the sea inland, which promotes plant growth. At the same time, they pose a challenge to drinking water supplies….

Consequently, by the third day, our water supplies were running low, and the oppressive heat was making it even harder. Always aware of the precarious situation, we had to consider how to proceed further. It is in these moments of hardship that we realize what is really important in life. As if nature, in its infinite generosity, had thrown us a lifeline, we finally found a source of water in the forest. The relief was palpable, and our spirits lifted as we replenished our supplies and continued our journey.

As we travelled further down the river, the landscape changed. The river became narrower, and its banks were covered with dense vegetation. Equally, the air became richer with the sounds of wildlife - birds chirping, monkeys calling in the distance, still waters suggesting the presence of crocodiles.

Calm waters can contribute to a calm soul and a fresh mind.

One of the most exciting moments of our expedition was the discovery of elephant tracks and dung. The realization that these majestic creatures were walking the same trails as us was both humbling and exhilarating. It was a stark reminder of the deep interconnectedness of all living beings and the delicate balance of the ecosystems we were witnessing.

As we progressed, the sense of remoteness grew. The deeper we went, the more we felt the embrace of the wilderness. It felt like travelling back in time to a place untouched by the relentless march of civilization. Every bend in the river, every rustle in the undergrowth promised discovery. We moved with a sense of awe, aware of the privilege of experiencing such unspoilt natural beauty.

However, with the beauty came challenges. Navigating the narrowing river required skill and intuition. The constant possibility of encountering crocodiles kept us on high awareness. Nevertheless, it was these very challenges that made the experience so special. They required us to be present in the here and now, to fully engage with our surroundings and to trust our instincts and each other.

Eventually, onn day six, we reached a point, at which our intuition told us it was time to turn back. This was not an easy decision to make, but it was guided by respect for the wilderness and our own limitations. It was as if nature, and the forest in particular, had put up a wall in front of us that stated: this far and no further. It was time to head back: the return journey was a time for reflection, an opportunity to process the experiences of the previous days and absorb what we had learned.

This exploration of the Cardamom Mountains was more than a scouting adventure: it was a journey of ecological connection and personal growth. It reminded us of the beauty and fragility of the natural world and the importance of preserving it for future generations. It challenged us to step out of our comfort zones, embrace uncertainty and find strength in our common humanity.

Unique biodiversity can often be found in areas, where human impacts on nature are highly limited.

As we paddled back to our starting point, tired but fulfilled, I felt a deep sense of gratitude. Gratitude for the incredible landscapes we had travelled through, for the abundance of wildlife we had encountered, and for the opportunity to be part of something so elemental and real. The Cardamom Mountains had woven their magic into our souls, leaving an indelible mark that would stay with us long after we returned to our daily lives.

With this journey, I hope to inspire others to seek out their own adventures, to explore the natural world with curiosity and respect, and to embrace the challenges that come with true exploration. The wilderness is a teacher, and the lessons it teaches are invaluable. May we all find the courage to answer its call and the wisdom to honor its gifts.



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