First night flood
It took three hours of up and down climbing to find a place flat enough to camp. I’d never seen terrain this steep before: searching for horizontal ground was like searching for Saola. We hiked along the base of a canyon. Sheer walls loomed on either side of us, blocking what little tropical sun filtered through the rainy season clouds. The jungle scene looked like an old black-and white grainy grey-tinted photograph. At four thirty in almost complete darkness we found an area beside the stream that was flat enough to build camp. It was dangerously close to the river and I worried about flash floods. But we had no choice: it was too late to keep searching and we were all tired, hungry, exhausted. We built camp, started a fire, and had a silent dinner. The night sounds of the jungle mixed with the dull sounds of chopsticks scraping against metal bowls. At seven o’clock we piled into our hammocks. Then the rains started. There was no gradual build-up, no slow crescendo: the skies opened and a thunderous downpour crashed into our camp. Through the mosquito netting of my hammock I saw a dark figure crouch by the fire. The strike of a match momentarily lit up an old, wizened, wrinkled face: it was Anh (uncle) Thanh, our Forest Protection Department guide, and the most experienced member of our expedition. He’s staying awake to watch the river, I thought. Should I join him? It would be nice to give him company. But I was too tired. I felt a ping of guilt as I drifted off to sleep.
I awoke to excited chatter. It was midnight. Everyone was huddled in a muddy circle near the hammocks. What was going on? I unzipped my sleeping bag and was shocked by how cold the night had become. Why weren’t they sitting by the fire? I looked down to where the campfire should be. Instead I saw rapids. The river was less than fifteen feet from our hammocks and the rain was still coming down hard. I sat down in the circle. Without prompting Anh Thanh said that the river was steadily rising and that I should make sure that my bag was packed in case we needed to leave. I shined my flashlight past my hammock: our camp backed up to an almost vertical rock face. I turned back to Thanh. And where are we going to go? I asked. He shrugged and replied that we would figure that out when the time came. He told me to go back to sleep. He would wake me if needed. I trudged back to my hammock. I tried to fall asleep but was wide-awake with worry. I climbed back out of my hammock and started toward the circle to join the guys but before I made it I noticed two large eyes glowing like cigarette ends in the beam of my flashlight: at my feet was a tree frog. I snatched my camera and began snapping pictures. One of the Katu guides noticed this and joked that we were all river refugees at this point. I thought about this for a moment, slipped on soggy shoes, wrapped myself in a raincoat, and began searching the vegetation around our campsite. It was full of frogs. Our small peninsula had indeed become an island refuge. For the next hour I photographed every amphibian I could find. It was the most amazing collection of frogs I have encountered. When I climbed back into my hammock I was inwardly beaming. Whatever happened in the coming hours this would be a night to remember. Sleep never came that night and we never had to evacuate. In the end everything had turned out for the best.