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.
For some reason, we all got up 6.30am- far too early for people who stay up with the frogs. After a quick round of instant noodles, we began our morning routine of photographing frogs. One Flying Frog was particularly difficult to photograph, throwing his hands up in his face in a comical threat display (above), and playing dead- literally dropping off any tree branch I placed him on. I struggled to get any “natural-looking” photos of him.
After we’d finished recording information on all the frogs we’d found the night before, I called home again on the satellite phone. It was the hottest day so far, and I had to stand in the sun to get satellite reception. Dozens of flying, sweat-licking insects crawled over my skin. It made me happy that the clothes I had washed in the stream only 2 hours ago were already dry, instead of staying wet for days, but it did not make me so happy that my shirt smelled like pee- possibly an unfortunate combination of sweat and the natural insect repellent I was trying out.
The afternoon at camp continued to be oppressively hot, however at 3.30pm we got ready to hike up a nearby mountain to search for amphibians further in limestone forest. We climbed from about 4pm to 6pm, stopping often by necessity. It was insanely steep in places (most places), and occasionally we were reduced to a crawl. Thankfully I was now recovered from my stomach bug and I was less of a wobbly mess than during my climb into the forest. This time we were all equally drenched in sweat and panting as we climbed.
During the latter part of our climb, the slippery red clay underfoot was replaced by crunchy white gravel and the vegetation thinned out- marking our arrival in limestone forest. Our end point for the hike, a cave with a view of Cham Chu peak, was about 1000 m (3300 ft) above sea level.
While waiting for nightfall, I explored the surrounding streams. They were very different from the streams at lower elevations; the narrow limestone streams contained a slow trickle of water, stained brown with tannin. The vegetation around the stream was much pricklier. I excitedly imagined the frogs that would emerge at night from such a different habitat.
Once it was dark, we hiked further upstream. Tiny tree frogs were now calling from spikey leaves along the stream. I recorded the call of a few of these frogs, each about the size of my fingernail, and watched them impressively inflate their vocal sacs, nearly doubling their size and creating a very loud call for such a tiny frog.
Often high-elevation sites are a lot of effort for only a handful of frogs, but on occasion, we do find amazing frogs that we wouldn’t find if we didn’t make the effort to climb there. Unfortunately, this was not one of those times. We spent about three hours looking along the stream and in the surrounding vegetation, but we found only a few common Cascade Frogs. A Flying Frog called from high up in the canopy, safe in the knowledge that it was out of reach.
Hiking back to camp took about two hours. Although it never seems like it should, hiking down is just as physically exhausting as hiking up – I started sliding down extra-steep parts on my behind, as half of the time I ended up on it anyway.
We arrived back to camp exhausted and starving. Dinner was cold pumpkin, rehydrated mushrooms and rice.