It’s 4.15am, and the day’s racers are stacking plates of breakfast meats, doubling up on Folliet’s new pod coffee offerings, ripping into Voelker-supplied rolls to make impromptu bacon-egg-and-cheese sandwiches. Every one seems in a pretty good, humble mood.
The athlete sitting across me downplays his heroism. “I don’t know how I’ll finish, I’m just doing it for fun.” Farther down the table, a lively conversation springs up about the logistics of the post-kayaking, pre-farmland scramble swim. “So are we supposed to wear our shoes in the swim? Then how about our headlamps?”
“Get ready for the dust and dirt!” another says, to no-one in particular.
At 5am, the scene shifts to the clearing next to Cat Tien National Park’s tourist HQ, with the day’s white-shirted competitors standing on a podium under the banner of the first Ta Lai Trophy — Corporate Challenge. Participants are paired in twos, in jerseys decorated with the names of their sponsor. Francois Bouvery, organiser of the race and co-founder of Ta Lai Longhouse, the race’s fulcrum, does roll call:
“Refinery here?” — “Oui!”
“Marou here?” — “Yes!”
“Bellany here?” — “Oui, oui!” — “Very good ice cream!”
As the sky lightens, the participants stampede down to the boat launch, where 22 kayaks await. Teams push them, over broken asphalt, down to the murky waterline. Some try a delicate balancing act — pushing their kayaks from the back end, and trying to embark while still on dry land.
“Put your feet in the water!” Francois says. “Allez, allez, allez, go, go, go! Keep right!”
Stage 1: 12km of Kayaking, 300m to Swim
On a borrowed Honda Wave, photographer Kyle and myself bump down Cat Tien’s unpaved main trail, planning to head off the racers at a bridge overpass. Arriving 20 minutes before the first kayak, Kyle takes pictures of the sunrise sky as the gravel-packed steel planks tremble in the commuting bikers’ wake. One by one, we see them pass beneath the bridge, aiming for a dry dock some 50m further on.
As the crew on the dry dock assists, the racers climb out of the watercraft and surrender their headlamps. They keep on shoes, helmets and life jackets, however, as they walk to the other side of the dock and clumsily jump back in.
Stage 2: Farmland Scramble to the Longhouse
We drive down the 300m of road to the swim’s end, and take pictures of the disoriented racers emerging from the water. Locals pass by on motorbikes, as the racers strip off their life jackets and amble soggily down the country road.
At a caution tape-wrapped tree, we turn off the road in our motorbike, passing racers and barbed wire as we bang along the path. Approaching some steep rocks — the scramble part, we realise — we turn back and take the proper road.
Stage 3: Longhouse — 25km Cycling — Back to Longhouse
The proper road soon leads to an improper road, near where the racers pick up their mountain bikes. On the way, we catch Team Osprey walking. When Kyle brandishes his camera they start running.
Not so for Team Alien Armor. When Kyle has his camera ready, he says, “Run for the picture!”
“Too tired,” one of the racers replies, as they keep walking. We pull off, heading towards the Longhouse they’d just come from.
The Ta Lai Longhouse is a joint venture of between the World Wildlife Federation (WWF) and local villagers. Thuy of WWF explains the process: “The Ta Lai Longhouse [was donated by the WWF]... All the local villagers built the house themselves, and we just financially supported them.”
What WWF did was facilitate, providing materials and knowhow. “We had discussions and meetings with the elders and the whole village, and they said they want to have a longhouse, that’s their traditional house. And they want to restore their culture.”
Now an established tourist destination, 12km from the entrance of the park, the Ta Lai Longhouse is an exemplar of the type of community-based tourism WWF is trying to push. This brand of tourism attempts to integrate rural peoples into the economies where they live, and gives them an alternative to relying on the resources of vulnerable areas such as Cat Tien. In a picturesque hilltop location, overlooking a sunset-facing lake, this project is the first of its kind. It’s going quite well.
On our own after being bussed in the night before, we don’t find it. Sliding into rain-driven trenches, barely keeping our balance in the late-morning sun, we decide to beat a hasty retreat, and enjoy the finish line a little early.
Stage 4: Paradise
We sit with the volunteers at race HQ, awaiting the racers next to the prize podium, massage tables and ice baths of beer and water. From 11am they start trickling in, until every one is stretched out on pillow-laden tarps, in line for tender quiche and plump international-style sausages, sticking to the shade line of trees and table umbrellas.
Yves, General Manager of Saigon French bistro The Refinery, smokes a cigarette. He looks like he’s enjoying it. “It’s pretty good,” he says, “and I must say that one time in Madagui...”
Several of the day’s racers were participants in the Ta Lai’s spiritual predecessor, the Madagui Trophy, which took place in a similarly varied landscape 30km from Cat Tien. It was an eight-hour course — two hours longer than this one was supposed to take.
They reminisce a bit — “What broke people was the push uphill,” one says. “Yea, but the pace on this is higher.”
AsiaMotions’ Paul and Baptiste take home first overall — finishing in five hours and 51 minutes, just after the one ineligible solo racer. Partners with Ta Lai in outdoor kids’ camps, they’re no stranger to the terrain. “We were pretty lucky,” Paul says. “Do we deserve it? Maybe not.”
All through the post-race wrap up and bus ride into the Ho Chi Minh City night, these warm vibes stay in the air. And then we’re back. We disembark in the Metro parking lot — where we’d met 36 long hours before — and brace for the drive home.
For more information on Ta Lai Longhouse and the activities they organise, visit talai-adventure.vn