Dispatch from Top Camp

From the Field posts

This fall, a team of vertebrate specialists from the Museum—Brett Benz, Chris RaxworthyPaul Sweet, and Neil Duncan—is heading out to one of the most remote areas in the world in search of new species and specimens on the Explore21 Papua New Guinea expedition. Ornithologist Paul Sweet’s last post mentioned how two team members surveyed at a satellite camp at high elevation. One of them, herpetologist Chris Raxworthy, sent this update about his time in the mountains. 

[Filed October 23] Finally it was time to strike up for the mountains. The research survey work has been largely completed at Wigilia Camp—my climbing strength has fully recovered after two colds—and I was fully acclimatized to the local conditions. Our camp assistants warned us it will be cold up there, so I packed four layers of clothing to bump up the pathetic insulation in my tropical grade sleeping bag. I have been now dreaming about wine, crackers and soft French cheese every night, but we packed noodles, rice, tinned fish, and the famous Papua New Guinea chocolate frog cookies for this trip.

On the first day, we climbed a muddy freshly cut trail through bamboo and moss-laden trees to reach 1,260 meters (4,133 feet) and a small camp situated on a knife-edge ridge, swirling in clouds and fog. That night I saw a huge mountain rat (about the size of cat!) sitting on a tree branch but oh, so few frogs. 

Part of the Explore21 team stopped at a camp at 1,260 meters (4,133 feet) en route to higher elevation. © AMNH/C. Raxworthy

Part of the Explore21 team stopped at a camp at 1,260 meters (4,133 feet) en route to higher elevation.

© AMNH/C. Raxworthy


At this elevation you have to work so hard to find anything. Even worse, there are some large-sounding frogs calling from high up in the canopy, out of reach, who are so skittish that they shut up as soon as they see your headlight from afar. So near yet so far. Luckily on my next night I finally found one hiding at 5 meters, and I reached it with a handy bamboo cane.

We spent the next two days cutting a thin trail along the ridge to our top camp, at 2,460 meters (8,070 feet. The forests at this elevation are often full of twisted stunted trees, covered in a deep layer of thick moss, which make us feel like giants walking through an eye-level canopy. 

The forests at high elevation are full of twisted trees covered in thick moss. © AMNH/C. Raxworthy

The forests at high elevation are full of twisted trees covered in thick moss.

© AMNH/C. Raxworthy


Brett gets excited about the birds at this elevation, but our food will only last for two precious days here. I had hoped to strike on for the continental divide, at around 3,000 meters (9,842 feet), but my GPS shows this final ridge is still 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) away, and we have run out of time. So it becomes even more important to make the most of our two nights here.

And what two nights they are! Near the camp there is a small stream diving through rocks as it descends rapidly in the valley below. It’s not much to look at, and full of stinging nettles that hurt like crazy, but it’s frog heaven! 

Chris Raxworthy found beautiful bright green tree frogs, including this one, at top camp in Papua New Guinea. © AMNH/C. Raxworthy

Chris Raxworthy found beautiful bright green tree frogs, including this one, at top camp in Papua New Guinea.

© AMNH/C. Raxworthy


Here we find one of the most beautiful bright green tree frogs I have yet found in PNG, and other species that do not seem to fit the species descriptions I have at camp. That climb was so worth it! Some frogs are infected with leeches, even under the skin, reminding us that this forest is still a tough place.

This tree frog was among the frogs herpetologist Chris Raxworthy found at high elevation. © AMNH/C. Raxworthy 

This tree frog was among the frogs herpetologist Chris Raxworthy found at high elevation.

© AMNH/C. Raxworthy 


After two days, we break camp and run for home (Wigilia camp). The razor-sharp cut bamboo sticks on the trail slash my shins as we race down to beat the rain. It’s like a six-hour mud slide off the mountain. But I have a huge smile the whole way down!  My head is still in the clouds with those beautiful montane jewel frogs.

Read the next post in the series here. 

Tags: Explore21