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Beyond The Valley of the Frogs

April 2016 – Part 1

By the end of my second year as custodian of Jinja Island, I had managed, by accident or design, to generate a bit of a buzz about the place. Word-of-mouth is a big thing in the backpacker community, and since Jinja is conveniently located at the entrance to Dolphin Bay, I found myself “dropped in on” by wonderful waifs and strays on their way back to Bocas Town.

Some came from Coco Vivo:

Others just, y’know… turned up!

The crown prince of “just turning up” had to be the renowned wildlife photographer Paul Bertner, who had come to Bocas on an assignment to get pictures of the various morphs (varieties) of our famed strawberry poison dart frogs (oophaga pumilio): the frogs that give name to Red Frog Beach, Rana Azul and Valle de los Ranas.

Apparently, 10,000 years ago, when we were still in the grip of a major ice age, the sea level around what’s now Bocas was a lot lower, it was a hilly, wet, tropical land and the strawberry dart frog was ubiquitous. However, when the ice caps receded and sea levels rose, the valleys filled with water and the hilltops became the hundreds of islands we now all know and love.

Since the frogs were cut off from their cousins on the other islands (salt water and frogs do not mix!), evolutionally divergence did its thing and each island got their own fabulously outfitted strawberry poison dart frogs. The extreme variations in colour and pattern to be found around the archipelago are a joy to behold.

Paul had been staying at the Palmar tent lodge, but after talking to the owners, Aaron and Sebastian, he felt he’d be better off crashing with me as Jinja Island is perfectly located at the heart of the archipelago, I have my own boat and a well-established a sense of adventure!

Over the course of the following few days, Paul and I toured the length and breath of the Bocas Del Toro archipelago, visiting Isla Cristóbal, Isla Popa, Loma Partida, Isla Pastores (Shephard Island), Rana Azul, Smithsonian Island… we even got out as far as Cayo de Agua.

Paul taught me how to locate the frogs (which are super tiny) by listening out for their calls, where to look for them at the base of certain trees and how to gently catch them without causing the wee beasts injury or discomfort.

And don’t worry, they’re only really poisonous if you eat them (which is why they can afford to be brightly coloured). If you wash your hands with soapy water after handling them, you’ll be fine.

I got sunburnt to hell riding around on the boat, but it was an amazing experience. I got to explore the archipelago like never before, to check out new exciting places and have a (small) hand in getting the pictures that Paul took… wow.

For other amazing pics (or to purchase HQ versions of these), check out Paul’s website: https://rainforests.smugmug.com/

It was a joy hosting Paul, possibly the most fascinating Jinja Island guest yet. What he didn’t know about the natural world would fit into a pamphlet. I wished him well on his future expeditions and thanked him for my new-found appreciation of our teeny-tiny amphibious buddies that pepper the glorious eco-system of Bocas del Toro.

Small but perfectly formed.

The next guest to ruck up on Jinja was Corien from the Netherlands, a fellow wayfarer on the road less travelled. Needless to say, we got on like a house on fire.

Just after Corine left, I got dropped in on by a panga full of good times, as Erin and her mates invaded my boat dock for the afternoon.

And then, for the first time in a while, I was all on my own.

The stillness of an island is a strange one. It’s never quiet, there’s always insects buzzing, birds calling, crickets chirping, and waves lapping at the shore. I’m never alone, I have Campesino and the chickens, not to mention a decent internet connection. But the feeling of isolation can sometimes be surprisingly overwhelming.

A few weeks earlier, a Greek production company had got in touch with me about presenting a series of short videos promoting Cyprus for Aegean Airlines.

While they were happy to fly me out from the UK, getting me all the way from Panama to Europe was a bit out of their comfort zone.

I could always fly home, which might help seal the deal, but after getting my fingers burnt with last year’s Tremendous fiasco, to go all the way back to Liverpool without anything being signed on the dotted line seemed like one hell of a risk.

However, while I’ve been away, my dad’s health has been in steady decline. At the age of 79 he’s certainly not getting any younger. “If I had known I was going to live so long, I’d have taken better care of myself,” he once said to me. Should things to continue along this particular path, the next few months might be my last opportunity to have any real interaction with him.

I confess I also had a modicum of excitement about the prospect of seeing some of my favourite faces again. One in particular.

If I stayed in Panama, I definitely wouldn’t get the presenting gig. If I went back to England, there was at least a chance… and fortune favours the bold.

I fired up my laptop and booked me a ticket.

Graham Hughes

Graham Hughes is a British adventurer, presenter, filmmaker and author. He is the only person to have travelled to every country in the world without flying. From 2014 to 2017 he lived off-grid on a private island that he won in a game show, before returning to the UK to campaign for a better future for the generations to come.

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