Jodi Rowley is a National Geographic grantee discovering and documenting the diversity, ecology and conservation status of highly threatened amphibians in the forested mountains of Vietnam.
Well, that was a rough start! After 6 hours in a minivan on a bumpy, pot-hole-riddled mud road from Hanoi, we arrived at Cham Chu Nature Reserve Headquarters and I came down with a surprisingly intense bout of an ‘upset stomach’. It’s always polite to share a few shots of rice-wine with new colleagues, but I unfortunately had to decline both dinner and drinks, and instead lay on a wooden bed trying not to be sick again.
The next morning I felt much better, although very dehydrated. I managed to eat some instant noodles with a mostly raw egg (and keep it down- a big achievement considering the runny egg!). After drinking some strong green tea, we piled into a truck (four of us in the back seat). Our bags of gear were stacked in another truck, and both vehicles then bumped up a mud road towards the forest until it got too steep- time to get our bags and start walking. On the way, the truck had picked up 10 men- there were now 15 of us in the amphibian team.
As we began walking up the hill, I started feeling terrible. The path was very steep, winding up through orange plantations, then through long saw-grass. Red clay underfoot, it was incredibly slippery, and near-vertical. At one point I had to sit down- I felt so sick and weak, and every step up the mountain was a huge, shaking effort. I was so embarrassed, and as much as I didn’t want to, I told the team that we might have to return and try again tomorrow, after I’d recovered. However, thankfully, they fed me a series of white-lies, telling me the river was “only 20 minutes away”, for several hours.
We finally made it to the river 5 hours after leaving the headquarters. I passed out on a pile of banana leaves for a few moments to recover, while hundreds of insects, mostly sweat-licking flies and bees, crawled over me. This place appears to be the land of insects- giant furry caterpillars, little black flies with white or yellow patches on their backs, biting March flies of many varieties, and honey bees. Somehow the caterpillars kept sneaking up on us, and we’d find them on our backs.
We sat on the ground around the river and ate some instant noodles, and then 6 team members left (they were helping us carry our gear and find a good spot to camp), leaving a team of 9. We proceeded to make camp using tree trunks as a frame, plastic tarp for a roof, and banana leaves for a floor. We tied our hammocks to the frame, side-by-side, and sat inside them and prepared our gear for the night, momentarily avoiding the insect-life.
Frogs began calling from throughout the forest as we ate dinner. The first night in a forest is always so exciting- what frogs live here?! It was even more exciting as we couldn’t identify all the frogs calling, and so speculated wildly (and incorrectly!) for some time, trying to rush down the food and begin our survey. The calls of frogs can be incredibly useful in identifying what species they are, so I tend to spend a lot of time in the dark, with a microphone pointed at a frog.
Once night fell, we donned headlamps and walked up the stream, spotting frogs. I recorded the call of a tiny Asian Leaf-litter Toad, and was just about to record a second when it started sprinkling, then pouring with rain. I stood in the middle of the stream in the rain for a while, hoping it would ease up, but everyone else disappeared back to camp. I followed once the stream began rising dramatically. The camp was now under attack and our gear needed to be rescued from being saturated. We defended our gear, piling our bags up in the middle of camp, and making sure that water didn’t pool in our fragile tarp roof and collapse it. By the time the rain slowed it was late, and so we decided to call it a night.