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.
In northwestern Vietnam, approximately 200 miles northwest of the claustrophobically crowded city of Hanoi, lies a tract of rugged limestone mountains covered with forest. Although the forest is used by the local people, no biologist has ever documented the creatures that call this forest home. It is here that I am now headed.
Even though I’d been warned that the roads to this particular part of Vietnam were bad, I naïvely estimated that it would take about 8 hours from Hanoi to the edge of the forest (how long can it take to travel 200 miles straight-line distance?!). It didn’t take me long to realise that I’d been kidding myself. Although the road started off well, as soon as we began winding around the mist-shrouded Hoang Lien mountains, the road became narrower and less paved, and then finally ceased being an actual road and became what might be better described as a construction-site clinging to the edge of a cliff.
After almost two and a half days in the car, and two nights sleeping in towns of ever decreasing size, the five of us are now standing on the side of a narrow concrete road in a the middle of a tiny village. We’ve reached as far as we can go by vehicle, and we have been evicted from our vehicle, along with all our bags. We happen to be right outside one of the dozen or so wooden houses in the village, and from it at least four generations of curious women emerge to see the spectacle. Piles of gear, a minivan and a handful of biologists gathered right outside their house in a village that doesn’t get a whole lot of visitors, especially ones from afar that look like they’re staying for weeks. While they look on, I’m busy admiring their beautiful skirts and delicate silver earrings, and feeling increasingly unfeminine in my field-attire (sandals with socks!). I feel both excited and privileged to be in such a lovely village so close to a forest that I hope is full of amphibians.
Slowly, our numbers build as men from the village join our team. Most will continue on from our future base camp to conduct a community patrol of the forest, but some will stay with us and help us search for amphibians. In total, of twenty-one of us leave the village together, the biggest team I’ve ever been a part of. We hike through wooden houses with brightly coloured clothes hanging out to dry, past ducks, chickens and an occasional pig, across rice-paddies and grassland and then finally into the forest.
As beautiful as it is to look at, the forest is absolutely hideous to walk through. The ground is not solid. Instead, it’s made up of a sea of limestone boulders- jagged, mossy, and generally very unstable. The vegetation growing on the boulders makes it even more of a challenge to traverse, as it is impossible to tell solid ground from a waist-deep hole. This is the first time that I’ve been in this kind of limestone forest, and it seems like the kind of place that ankles twist.
The forest is drier than I was hoping for. After crossing a handful of dry streams, or rocks with water gurgling away underneath the surface only, the locals tell us that the relatively small stream we are now facing is the biggest stream for miles. That’s it then. We need to camp near a large, flowing stream so that we can get enough clean water to drink and cook with. So here is where we’ll set up base camp. I’m slightly discouraged that we aren’t deeper into the forest, but I’m also slightly relieved that I don’t have to balance on wobbly rocks with my heavy backpack on for much longer. I’m excited that we can venture from here nightly in search of amphibians deeper in the forest!