The mountain looms over the city, dominating my thoughts. In this hot, dry March it is a place of elevation and humidity, streams and undergrowth, magic ingredients that lead to herps when the lowlands are 100 degrees and baked to a crisp.
But even if herps were everywhere, I would still look to the mountain. The mountain is wild, and I need to go into the wild.
I began pedaling towards the mountain in the early afternoon. There are other options for getting there, but the bicycle gives me the feeling of relative freedom of movement, and it places me here. 11 kilometers to get to the mountain, another 7km of panting to climb the first part of it. I’m out of practice and know that as far as today goes, this is as much as my legs want to handle. I’m only up to 2,000 feet elevation, but the habitat has started to feel good.
In the early afternoon the joyful noise of Thais and foreigners playing in the waterfall reaches my ears. I load up my water bottles and hit the trail. Fifty paces later, the tell-tale black-on-green banding of a Green Keelback hits my eye. A juvenile. In disbelief I watch the snake with the noise of tourists coming around the corner. In this over-trafficked place, snakes are out? My t-shirt proclaims a simple slogan, “Life is Good”. Today looks like it will be a good day.
I pass bikini-ed tourists playing in the waterfall’s spray.
It cannot go unnoticed that just a week earlier, in my first hike of this trip, I had rushed down to this spot in a failed attempt to render assistance to a man who died falling from the heights above this same waterfall. I wonder if the tourists in front of me know. All of them are staying low, where it is safe. I head up.
I pass the heights of the upper waterfall without looking and head up into the jungle. Now begins a three kilometer stretch that I have taken a dozen times in the last 3 years. In those dozen trips, I have never once seen another soul on this particular trail.
Tonight will be the first time that I do the return trip in the dark.
At these lower elevations bamboo and trees intermingle and there are breaks in the canopy. The lizards enjoy these breaks, and both skinks and agamids are present in numbers.
I follow the stream up, the canopy takes over, a hint of coolness enters the air. Just past the waterfall, the enormous white feather of a Silver Pheasant lays across the trail. My legs are still tired from the bike and the route is steep enough that I am climbing more than hiking. New waterfalls appear at regular intervals.
As I navigate a log to make a stream crossing, a second juvenile Green Keelback moves away and disappears into the rocks. I don’t get a picture, though I have been so blessed with Green Keelbacks (4 sightings now in the last 3 hikes) that it doesn’t bother me in the least. This keelback is only 3 meters from where I had seen my lifer Khasi Hills Keelback crossing the stream last week, a rarely seen species that I felt fortunate to have found in the midst of hot season.
The last major waterfall of the route comes and goes, and I give it only a cursory search for snakes. Usually I would spend time here inspecting the area for stream frogs. But today is special, and their time is yet to come.
The rest of the climb is nondescript. I try a trail I’ve never done before, see some pretty plants, cross a few streams, but the early snake success isn’t replicated. Most notable is a cave/rock complex near the top of my hike, with Buddhist shrines of all sorts and 15m trees with 20m root systems clinging to the sides of the cliff.
I flip a few rocks, and am surprised by a large adult water skink under one of them.
This incredible semi-aquatic species is usually found in waterfall spray zones, taking on the ecological role of an American torrent salamander, though they are occasionally found away from the water. Earlier in the week I had seen juveniles of a closely-related species in remarkable (but difficult to photograph) hidden spray zones.
A birder hoping for sightings in the coming twilight is the first person I’ve spoken to in 2.5 hours. I throw out, “Evening”. He doesn’t reply. He’ll be the last person I speak to tonight. I reach the road. It’s almost 6pm, and I am still a shade under 4,000 feet high, but this is as far as I go today. The coolness at this height, in the midst of hot season, surprises me. Aren’t there nocturnal snakes at this elevation? It feels that it will quickly become too cold. I sit down for a spell, drink a little water, let the sun drop. Then I head down the road.
The last half hour of daylight is uneventful. No snakes come to take in the road’s heat. I move off onto a trail and head a couple kilometers to a favorite spot where a tiny creek keeps the surrounding depression humid. In daylight hours the previous week, keelbacks, agamids, smooth skinks, and tiny frogs gathered here, including my first Pseudocaleotes.
This time around night has fallen and I put on my head lamp. Being my first time on the mountain in the dark, the internal clock which exaggerates how little battery life my headlamp and backup flashlight have on them begins to tick away. But the trickle of a creek provides a distraction – for if I thought it was adequate for frogs in the daylight, it is hopping with them at night.
Invigorated by the frog life, I start down the mountain in the dark. My headlight plays on the ground, lighting up the eyes of large beetles hanging with unknown intentions on the edge of dead leaves. I am hoping for snakes while also cautious for the many species – kraits, corals, mountain pit vipers, Malayan pit vipers – which would be unwise to step on in the dark. Leaf litter is thick, and I give myself little chance of catching any arboreal snakes as I keep my headlight to the path.
Smooth skinks, not snakes, rustle in the litter. Three species of Scinella are officially recorded from the mountain, though I am not certain how well that has been verified. Right away I appear to find representatives of two different species, though I fail to remember the ID keys needed to distinguish the 3rd species from them.
I move from this slightly open route into the steeper, canopied hill forest. The trail narrows and its impact on the ground is light. Though it has been some time since I have seen a soul, this is where I feel like I drop from the world and am truly alone. In the light of my headlamp, every tree is beautiful, every vine special. The trail takes on a new intimacy as I only see the next few meters at any time. In the dark, under the canopy, I am surprised to find a smooth skink far from any openings. It is strikingly spotted, unique for the smooth skinks I have seen. Is this my third species?
The sounds of the highest waterfall begin to reach my ears. I cross the first small trickles of water, hoping they bring life, but nothing shows up. It takes time to make the descent, and in the dark every minute stretches out for me as if it were five. I clamber over roots and down rock faces, taking every precaution.
I reach the waterfall. And it is alive.
All the work that I’d done hunting stream frogs in the daylight feels meaningless and naïve as my eyes lay upon this sight. Sprinkled across the stream, on exposed rocks, in quiet pools, the reflecting eyes of frogs look at me from all around. Marbled Sucker Frogs sit in and above the torrent sprays. Taylor’s Stream Frogs float quietly in the shallows of the pools. Dark-sided Frogs call meekly from within submerged litter and underneath overhangs. I am blessed to be here, in this night.
I cross the stream on a log, climb some rocks, make my way up to gaze at the 30-meter heights of the main falls. I could already tell that frogs were sitting at the base. But I don’t expect the sight I get when I turn up my head lamp and play it across the falls themselves. Frog eyes sparkle like stars in the night. They are at the bottom, the top, the middle, everywhere in between. I try to count 20, 30, but lose count past there. Cascade frogs have always been a special and beautiful species to me, the kind of frog I might find once here, once there. Yet right now, those beautiful green Muppet-like creatures are everywhere, from 100 feet above my head to right in front of my face. In the night, photos cannot do justice to the sight before me. I play my headlamp across the frogs and take it in.
I force myself to turn around and carefully scoot down the rocks back to the bottom. As I pass a large rock, a large and gorgeous gecko scurries across. A lifer – both the first Cyrtodactylus I’ve ever seen in northern Thailand and the largest and prettiest one I’ve seen, anywhere.
That moment, the gecko, the frogs on the waterfall, I realized that it was a magical night.
As I worked my way down the stream, the magic continued. Every pool, every riffle, every waterfall was the same. There were frogs everywhere.
At the next waterfall I played my light around the dry cliffs and found a bird nest.
I swept my light from there to the top to catch an inexplicable sight. 25 feet above the water, on a perfectly dry spot on a perfectly dry cliff, an enormous Green Cascade Frog sat like Simba surveying all that was below him. The first one I’d ever seen! I couldn’t tell which excited me more – seeing a big and beautiful frog for the first time, or marveling at the inexplicable situation he had chosen to rest in.
Frogs, frogs, frogs continued as I went down. Before I knew it I was at the top of the main lower falls. In the dark, alone, I stood in the same spot where a crying Spanish-speaking women had rushed to me a week before and told me that her boyfriend had fallen off the cliff.
I stood there, thinking about the life that had been lost, thinking about his soul, praying to my God.
From the viewpoint at the top of the waterfall, a gap in the trees showed a thriving city below. I was reminded of my contact with civilization, both the regret and the safety that entailed. I took a photo.
Then I looked up, and saw the moon. Eclipsing. It had slipped my mind that tonight was the night of a lunar eclipse, but events had come to frame the moon right there in the middle of another gap in the trees, a bite taken out of it by our collective shadow. I watched as the shadow slowly passed off into the darkness of space.
After taking in the scene, I again explored the stream, and again was met by frogs everywhere. In this low-gradient bend right before the waterfall’s drop, a clownishly fat species sat in the water’s edges, the male version of several female frogs I had seen earlier.
I approached the frog, staying on safe and stable ground but concerning myself with how close to the waterfall’s edge I was straying. The frog took two, three hops, and jumped over the edge.
It’s a frog. It lives on top of the waterfall. It does this thing. I could not see where it landed, and it could well be just fine. But the parallel thumped on my mind and my conscious, and I was shook. I moved back away from the edge and thought again about a man I never met.
More of the frogs were in the stream behind me, along with others.
Another five minutes and I had reached the bottom of the major waterfall. I looked to the waterfall and almost expected him to be there. Lights appeared on the cliff face, different colors, some big and some small. I turned my head lamp away…and the lights remained. I turn off the light…and their light is still there.
A moment’s disquiet is calmed when I realize that there must be glowworms and fireflies on the cliff. It is an interesting array – I see colors of bio-luminescence that I’ve never seen before. At least three different species are plying their trade on the cliff. Down at the ground floor I find one variety.
Like all the waterfalls before, the abundance of frogs in this last pool was amazing.
As I moved away from the falls my eyes caught a reptile pattern. At first I thought I had spied a wolf snake in the dark, but I was not disappointed to see that it was actually the tail of another Cyrtodactylus gecko.
That would be my last herp of the night. I hiked the last stretch back to the bicycle uneventfully. Reaching the bike (still there!), finding my key in my bag’s pocket (still there!), I sighed relief at being out of the “lonely zone” of the mountain. It was difficult to adjust my headlamp to work with my helmet, then I was on my way, nearly silently floating down the mountain road as fast as I wanted to go. The road was smooth, and snakes were not out. Soon I reached the main road, my headlamp lighting up the incredibly bright and frequent road reflectors. Not for the first time, I was struck by the beauty of pinpoints of light sprinkled through the darkness.
Just as I turned onto the main road, I heard a crashing in the forest besides me. Deer! I parallel their movements with my bike. I have never seen deer on Doi Suthep before. I still have never seen deer on Doi Suthep. They move unseen through the trees, I coast, and silently we go alongside each other in the night, their forms made out in my imagination. I felt an intimacy with them, moving together there in the dark. The sounds stopped, and I float the rest of the way down the mountain, again alone in the night.
An hour later I was home, happy to see my wife. I am safe and in one piece.
In two hours it will be Easter.
He is risen.
Life is good, says the tee-shirt.
There is more to life than herping…but herping too is life. I enjoy the night I have been given, the nature that still exists around me, and am happy for what I have.