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.
This morning we are moving. From our base camp in the forest, we will shift to a nearby village closer to some interesting-looking limestone mountains (hopefully with interesting amphibians!). Moving camp is never easy, with all of our personal gear, scientific equipment, cameras, huge bundles of plastic tarp, tins of food, and about 30 kg of rice. Anticipating this, we’d organised ahead of time for two of our previous team-members to return at 8am and help carry our gear to the village.
At 5.30am an impressive storm wakes us from our slumber- lightning, thunder and torrential rain splashing onto our hammocks. We scramble in the half-light to move our gear into the middle of the camp, where it has slightly less chance of being saturated. I immediately pack my still dry sleeping bag and mostly dry hammock into my waterproof duffel bag and then, panic over, just sit under the tarp, watching the rain. The forest does look truly beautiful in the rain- all misty and picturesque- but wet-weather is not so appealing when you’re in the forest! Although everything in the forest was saturated, we manage to light a small fire using a pile of sodden sticks, and boil enough water to make coffee and instant noodles while we until our departure at around 8am.
At 9.30am, there’s no sign of our extra team-members. The storm is over, but it is still raining steadily and we suspect that the weather has deterred them completely. We decide to move everything ourselves- a challenge that I am not excited by!
Each of us strap a heavy bag on our back and pick up bulky gear in our hands. Several of us also have a bag strapped to our chests. With everything attached to someone, we begin hiking up, towards a nearby ridge. From there we plan to descend down the other side of the ridge, towards the village.
The trail up to the ridge isn’t too bad, although we pause often, putting our gear down on the forest floor and panting, but the trail down to the village is steep. Because of the rain, the path is saturated and it is like trying to walk on ice down the mountain. The extra gear makes maneuvering (and stopping) extra tricky. Steep section after steep section we slide and slip downwards. I generally descend a lot faster and a lot closer to the ground than I intend! It’s funny how in every day city-life, falling over is something that almost never happens and you’d probably be pretty upset if it did. However, in the forest, suddenly slipping off your feet and on to your backside can happen ten times an hour, and you somehow just get used to it.
At every “flat” bit of trail, I keep hoping that we are off the mountain- it seems like we can’t possibly descend more and still be above sea level… and then another drop looms. I only start believing that we might have slid down the worst of it when I start seeing more and more signs of people. Finally, we hit the village boundary- marked by a wooden fence that we have to step over. I am so pleased that I let my guard down, and, distracted by the amazing limestone mountains on the horizon, I slip, feet rising in the air, and land hard on the slick clay. Everyone around me looks shocked- I really did make an awesome thud as I hit the ground, but I manage a quiet “I’m okay”, before grimacing on the ground some more- there is no way I can get up immediately. It turns out that while my backside hit the ground with force, my right wrist and palm took the brunt. It’s all swollen and purple. I also took a chunk out of my finger grabbing on to prickly vegetation in an effort not to fall down or slide off a cliff. And I must have swiped a stinging tree, as my hand hurts like crazy when it gets wet (which is almost all the time in the forest!).
Once we are within the village boundaries, the mud path widens gradually into a mud “road”, and wooden houses start replacing the forest. We traipse along the road, soaked to the bone and muddy, and understandably getting some strange looks from the locals. One of our team has recruited a few friends from the village with motorbikes, and I gratefully accept a motorbike ride for the last bit, holding a baby-blue umbrella for the driver so he doesn’t get wet from the rain. Our journey out of the forest was only three hours, but it felt like a lot longer.
We are all staying the night in the village, and spend the afternoon happily washing ourselves and our clothes, and eating a more delicious array of food than we’d had in a long time.