Hell on the Ho Chi Minh Trail: SOF Finds Elephants, Tigers and Khmer Rouge--but No Cow
Soldier of Fortune magazine
By Robert K. Brown & Robert MacKenzie
Photos by Tim Page
Lurch, jolt, lurch, jolt. Riding elephants for 12 hours a day at three klicks an hour was proving to be a mind-and but numbing experience as we moved through the desolate Cambodian Savanna-type jungle. Ant-covered bamboo slapped our faces in rhythm to the lurching gait of the elephants. Thank God and Gargoyle sunglasses we still had our eyes.
It was becoming another pointless, painful misadventure. There had been a point to it all, but at this juncture, after hours on the back of a "lurch, jolt" elephant, we found the purpose growing less and less noble.
Like most adventures it initially sounded more intriguing and glamorous than it was turning out to be--like jumping from a perfectly good airplane, where, while shuffling to the door, the bile trying to claw its way up your throat, you ask yourself once again, " Why am I doing this?"
It all started a few months ago when Nate Thayer, a young journalist whose career SOF helped launch, called the office.
"Brown, how ya doin'? How'd you like to go on a scientific expedition...to locate a species of cow that was thought to be extinct for 50 years?"
Well, we always thought cows were for eating, or if wild, e.g. Cape buffalo, for shooting and then eating. And a scientific expedition? Ho, hum. Dullsville. Maybe we are getting along in years, but the notion had as much appeal as Kissing Hillary Rodham on the ear.
The ever-resourceful Thayer has been pushing the envelope for years: He's had malaria 16 times; keeps a motorbike hidden on the Thai-Cambo border and periodically drives unannounced into Khmer Rouge country. He has also managed to get blown up when his truck hit a land mine, killing 10 of the other 12 passengers; and when he positioned himself to the right-rear of a recoilless rifle shooting Burmese from a Karen bunker, instead of a Pulitzer-prize winning photo he got a snap of the bunker ceiling and lost 95% hearing in one ear...you, know, that sort of envelope-pushing. Thayer must have sensed we were less than enthusiastic. So he started upping the ante.
"Brown, we'll chopper into the base camp; use elephants to recon."
On an interest level of one to 10, that's about a two.
"We're going into KR country in eastern Cambodia, near the Vietnamese border, along the Ho Chi Minh trail."
Interest level now at five.
“We’ll be carrying AKs and whatever else is necessary.”
Interest level six.
“Our tracker/scouts will be former FULRO (United Front for the Struggle of Oppressed races) Montagnards who fought the NVA for 17 years after Saigon fell,” he continued.
“If we find that extinct cow, we will all be famous.”
Thayer sensed Brown wavering.
“And there are marauding tigers in the AO. We’ll need someone to deal with that threat. An AK, even on full auto, won’t do the job quick enough. We need a big caliber gun and someone who knows how to use it.”
Bingo! Level 10.5 Brown bit and Thayer sank the hook, but, now, as our elephantine convoy continued to lurch and jolt through the bamboo like a sailor on leave, we both wished he had spit it out.
PHOTO LEFT: Nate Thayer, former SOF author and presently Cambodian correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review, organized ‘scientific’ expedition to locate species of bovine, the Kouprey, thought extinct for 50 years. Thayer, AKA Col Kurtz, was so disorganized he made RKB look like role model for German General Staff
PHOTO LEFT: One of Thayer’s more bizarre concepts was to place rubber masks, modeled here by ‘Col, Kurtz’ himself, with lights behind them on trees facing away from camp to frighten tigers. Cooler heads determined it was unnecessary to implement this concept.
PHOTO TOP: Maj. Robert Mackenzie, ten-year veteran of Rhodesian SAS, and Robert K. Brown logged more ‘elephant time’ than anyone could possibly want. Only access was by foot and elephant; Promised helicopters never materialized. MacKenzie carries Chinese Type 56-1 AK and Brown, whose mission was to summarily terminate any marauding tigers, is armed with Ruger .375 H&H Magnum with 1.5x-6x Bausch and Lomb scope
After losing several thousand dollars’ worth of camera gear to thieves who work at the pricey Sukhothai Hotel in Bangkok, we arrived in Phnom Penh to be greeted by Tim Page, a crazy Brit film shooter who made his bones big time as a combat photographer in the ‘Nam, and Thayer, whom we quickly labeled “Colonel Kurtz.” Thayer bamboozled Brown’s Ruger .375 H&H through customs, prattling about being a friend of the King; a close friend of the Prime Minister. Whatever works.
PHOTO ABOVE: Thayer was/is an operator par excellence. Who else could lay on the Cambodian equivalent of Air Force One to transport our motley crew from Phnom Penh to jump-off point at Sen Monorom, dreadful capital of Mondolkiri province of eastern Cambodia. This particular aircraft serves as personal transport for King Sihanouk, who had blessed expedition. Dude with parasol—just what you need for Khmer Rouge territory—is Mike Hayes, editor of the Phnom Penh Post
PHOTO ABOVE: Team plots next elephant recon at insect-farm base-camp located on Ho Chi Minh trail about 20 klicks from Vietnamese border. Leader of Montagnard scout/tracker team, in yellow T-shirt, fought NVA for 17 years after Saigon surrendered.
We headquartered on the second floor of an old mildewy French villa that serves as an office for the English-language daily, the Phnom Penh Post.
As we dumped our gear on the floor, Thayer popped beers and said, “Welcome to the freest country in the world!”
Our puzzled glances prompted him to open a large cabinet containing an old French MAT-49 sub gun, a selective-fire Chinese M-14, several AKs, an M-79 grenade launcher and cases of ammo. Obviously no 4473s required here.
As if too reinforce his assertion, Thayer rolled and lit up a joint, continuing, “Anything you want. You can get a 50-kilo bale of pot at the market; there is an opium den down the street and you can pick up a case of AIDS without much difficulty.” Hmmm.
One might define freedom that way: all in the light of what you are smoking. The arsenal was intriguing, but we passed on the offer of dope and communicable disease.
Thayer’s prior planning primarily consisted of drinking, smoking, and banging the local bimbos. Even though Tim Page had assumed S-4 responsibility and acquired a fair amount of equipment, there would be considerable delay. Food, weapons, communications and transport were among ‘minor details’ not resolved for our 25-man foray into the KR-controlled, tiger-infested jungle.
PHOTO ABOVE: Brown examines wreckage of U.S. aircraft shot down over Ho Chi Minh trail. U.S. POW/MIA search teams had already visited crash site. Photo; Robert MacKenzie
PHOTO ABOVE: MacKenzie administers first aid to results of Brown’s folly—failure to apply moleskin when hotspots started to develop from new boots. Lesson learned.
Over the next days, we cleaned weapons and scrounged equipment in Phnom Penh markets, and met other expedition members. An experienced Italian veterinarian and author of the definitive book on camels, Maurizio “Mo” Dioli was the scientific member. Mo, Phnom Penh Post publisher Mike Hayes, his reporter Ker Munthit, and a Thai TV cameraman Praparn were ready to go. We awaited the four-man team of FULRO Montagnards with American escort from stateside.
We marked time visiting the battle-zone at Pailin (watch for a sit-rep next issue) and catching some rays. As we tanned, the plan evolved to final form. Alternative transportation had to be organized: The three Cambodian choppers Thayer promised were not to be—the Cambodian army only has three choppers. But continued shopping/scrounging had us at operational status when the Montagnards arrived.
Thayer had convinced Cambodia’s Prime Minister of the expedition’s merit, so we had a government airplane. The first staging point was at Sen Monorom in Mondolkiri province, where the governor organized a truck for the next leg and provided a 12-man detachment of Cambodian paramilitary police because of Khmer Rouge in the area. The governor issued the Montagnards AK-47s to increase expedition firepower. The SOF team members brought their own.
The next morning our party and supplies boarded a clapped-out truck and headed north on a dirt road. Most Cambodian roads boast only dirt and potholes; this road ran more to potholes and less to dirt. The plan was to drive until we ran out of road, to be met by elephants arranged by the provincial governor.
But, no elephants. By the time some showed up, we had lost another day.
We hung out at the trail head in hammocks, impressing local villagers. They were so impressed the headman invited us for rice wine (as Third-World villages go, it could have been worse) and a pitch for American aid, lest his village vanish. The chief had three wives and the village was knee-deep in children and pregnant children; vanishing didn’t seem imminent.
At daybreak we continued north. All walked except the overweight American who escorted the Montagnards. By mid-afternoon, it approached 100 degrees. We became separated into two groups, since elephants walk more slowly than men. The command element, the English speaking Montagnard and Thayer, were two hours behind. We were told to expect a river a couple hours out. By 1400 there was still no river, so we stopped and waited for “the leaders.” When they appeared at 1600, the priority was water, so we moved west towards the nearest watercourse.
PHOTO ABOVE: Members of Montagnard team pose with MacKenzie and RKB prior to patrol. Cambodian (center) in olive drab is member of 12-man security unit provided by provincial governor
BELOW PHOTO: Another member of the Cambodian security team, less than thrilled with his assignment. These troops, who had fought for the communist Cambodian/Vietnamese-supported government, did not inspire confidence. They were responsible for the only round fired-an AD which resulted in their giggling a great deal. ’Nuff said.
An hour of bush bashing brought us to the blue line on their map, and huge pools of water. Soon elephants were in one pool, Cambodian soldiers in another and the expedition was drawing water from a third. A Third-World car wash was underway in the elephant pool with much splashing and frolicking as the mahouts scrubbed their charges.
We reached the proposed base site the next day and pitched camp. The following day we split into two groups to search for the cow. Both groups saw herds of Banteng, another wild ox with which the legendary Kouprey often cohabits. One group also saw packs of wild dogs and wild boar, but no cow yet. The next morning, as we were getting ready to leave our overnight site, Thayer’s walkie-talkie crackled with the words we didn’t want to hear—a sentry had spotted a Khmer Rouge soldier, who had also spotted him. The sentry returned to camp firmly convinced the KR was not alone and that this did not bode well for our mission.
Despite Thayer’s assurance from the KR representative that the area commander was aware of and approved our mission, there was no certainty all local Khmer Rouge commanders had the word. On return we had a hurried conference to discuss options.
We could continue stumbling through the bush looking for the Kouprey; we could try to talk to the KR and assess the situation we could bugger out. The SOF mission opted for the second choice since the KR surely knew we were there and showed no hostile intent. Prevailing sentiment, however, was that no one wanted to get killed looking for a cow, so everyone upped sticked and returned to base camp: The KRs reputation for ferocity and unpredictability was enough to tip the scales in favor of flight.
PHOTO: Robert MacKenzie: Elephants are primary transport in isolated areas of eastern Cambodia. Tenderly cared for by their mahouts, elephants are their only major possession, only means of livelihood, and are passed from father to son. Our elephants ranged in age from 25 to 50, their mahouts from 18 to 70.
Elephants came equipped with box of wood slats and bamboo about three feet square and 18 inches deep. Carved in the shape of elephants back, box sits on thick cushion of fibrous bark, secured by bamboo cables, one of which runs around the tail, with another around the chest; a plaited rope of bark and bamboo goes around the neck. Cargo capacity is about 500 pounds, including the mahout. Elephants walk all day, foraging as they go, but need 12 hours rest between marches to relax and forage. “Speed” on trail is about 3 klicks an hour, during which time they eat everything from grass to tree roots.
At night elephants were loosed to forage, encumbered by a 13-foot chain heavy enough to gouge a furrow in the ground, making it easy to track them if the wandered off.
Boarding the ponderous critters is accomplished in one of two ways, depending on agility of boarders: if nimble, like Mackenzie, the mahout would have elephant extend front foot and passenger would step on and climb up. If old and decrepit, like Brown, elephant would belly down in the dirt—front feet forward and read feet backward—at which point passenger could be shoved into box by available bystanders.
Things were not well back at camp. Suffering from the heat, Page had convinced himself he was in serious danger of dying and needed a helicopter casevac. News of KR in the area corroborated his premonition and strengthened his demand to go home. The American Montagnard advisor was also down with excess heat and poundage—another candidate for casevac. With no radios to call the non—existent helicopter, we sent them out by elephant the next day. The TV shooter—with several hours of footage already, and the Post reporter with a deadline, also returned with three of the elephants and four of the Cambodian cops.
The remaining crew spent the next several days looking for the Kouprey in an area clearly devoid of any animal life (but far from the KR), as there was neither hoof print or cow pie anywhere in the barren landscape. But, as we could not convince the semi-intrepid Montagnard leader to go back where we had seen herds of cows and the lone rifleman, we ended the futile search and returned to base. We broke camp in the evening in order to get an early start back to Sen Monoram.
PHOTO BELOW: Another member of the Cambodian security team with RPG-7. Maybe we would run into armor-plated elephants?
Photo above: Maurizio Dioli, only ‘scientific’ member of the abortive expedition, is Italian veterinarian with 10 years of experience in northern Africa and the author of definitive books on camels. His sad/PO’d demeanor sums up the whole trip
PHOTO ABOVE: Elephants take a dunk with assistance from their mahouts. Riding elephants was an interesting experience—but once is too often
Late that night, the dry season ended and in the next hour more than three inches of rain inundated our campsite, now devoid of tarps. Amid curses and mutterings around the camp, our hammocks took water in at a slow but constant rate and did not let out.
As the noise of the storm faded, it was replaced by a din such as we had never heard during many campaigns on many continents: The rain was reveille to all the frogs in Cambodia, who had been waiting underground for the monsoons. Hundreds of thousands of frog voices in varying tones, timbres, pitches and strengths joined in a vast jungle cacophony loud enough to elicit sympathetic vibrations in the intrepid expeditioners’ chest cavities. It was an incredible, surreal experience—national geographic should have been there to record it.
Musing on the phenomenon, MacKenzie tipped more water from his hammock and wrapped himself in a sodden but still effective poncho liner, finally drifting off into a broken sleep to dream of giant frogs. We won’t be back again for a second try.
Robert K. Brown is SOF’s Publisher/Editor. Robert MacKenzie is an SOF contributing Editor for Unconventional Operations. They’re still friends.