Bangkok, 30 September, 2015
I’ve often used the expression “drenched with sweat” in my life, but I’ve never actually been thus drenched. This time, though, on staggering out of the jungle after a six hour trek, my wife and I were were literally soaked through. We couldn’t have been wetter if we’d stood under a shower with all our clothes on.
A bit of background is in order. We were in the Malaysia’s easternmost province of Sabah, on the island of Borneo. We were visiting the Danum Valley Conservation Area, which is in one of the few remaining tracts of primary jungle in the province. We arrived there after driving down from the town of Sandakan, passing mile after mile of oil palm plantations. So dreary! And so depressing to think that beautiful jungle stood there not that long ago. But it’s hard to sell jungle, easy sell palm oil.
Leaving all those oil palms behind us for a few days, we wanted to see some jungle – and maybe, if we were lucky, some orang utans. Danum Valley is one of the few places in Sabah where orang utans still live in the wild, along with pygmy elephants, Sumatran rhinoceroses, clouded leopards, various other species of feline, several species of monkeys, and of course hordes of more humble forms of life, botanical and zoological.
So it was that we attached ourselves to a group of young people, part of that army of gap-yearists*, between-jobbers**, and others, who are all on the move these days across every continent, living cheap, telling tall stories about their travels, and swapping information on the good places to eat, sleep, and have fun along the road. They had hired a ranger from the Danum Valley Field Centre, where we were all staying, to take them on one of the shorter trails. Early the next morning, we took our place in the line which filed across a rickety suspension bridge and set off briskly into the jungle. At first, we commented appreciatively on the surroundings, looked eagerly into the undergrowth for signs of pygmy elephants (they had left dung piles and shattered tree limbs along the track), and inspected fearfully every overhanging leaf for leeches (there had been much excited chatter on the net about the presence of these horrible animals along the trails and we sported a set of bright green leech socks for the occasion). But gradually, in the sauna-like heat of the jungle, as we climbed up and down over successive ridges, our breathing grew raspy, the sweat stains on our clothes grew and coalesced until clothes and stains were one, our speed slowed to a crawl. We neither saw nor cared anymore about what was around us (which in truth was not much; at the very last minute, a macaque monkey was sighted high above us, otherwise a few millipedes and some leeches were the total of our bag). The only thing that mattered was to make sure that we lifted our legs high enough to step over the roots, branches, and other jungle paraphernalia that littered the trail. Some of the group kindly held back so that we didn’t get completely separated from the rest, otherwise we would still be in that jungle stumbling around in a total daze. When we got back to our room, we unsteadily peeled off our sodden clothes, stood for a minute under the shower, and then collapsed onto the bed, lying there in a stupor for a few hours.
So when we heard at dinner that our young friends had booked a ranger for an even longer walk the next day, we smiled and promised to be on hand to wave them off at breakfast. We kept our promise, wishing them a safe journey over our fried eggs. And then, after some more tea, toast and marmalade to fortify us, we ambled slowly back into the jungle to an observation tower, from which we had decided to watch jungle life in peace and tranquillity. Observation tower is a misnomer. It was actually simply an aluminium ladder encased in an iron safety cage, attached to one of the tall, tall trees that dot the jungle.
The ladder led to a wooden observation deck at the top and another half way up. It must have been all of 60 meters to the top deck (110 rungs; I counted). One of our young friends, between jobs, had shinned up the ladder as we lay, inert, on our beds the previous afternoon. His last job was as tester of the mechanical soundness of pipelines, and he informed us at dinner that it was his professional opinion that the whole contraption was exceedingly corroded and ready to peel off the tree at any moment.
With these words still ringing in my ears, I commended my soul to Jesus, Mary, and all the Saints, and started climbing, fixedly looking at the bark in front of me and pulling myself up rung by counted rung. My wife followed. We stopped at the mid-level observation deck for a breather before continuing on. Again, fix the bark and pull up rung by counted rung. We made it in one piece. We took a photo down the ladder we had just climbed.
But the view compensated for all the fear and the sweat to get there.
I like being in jungle canopy. At ground level, I find jungle quite monotonous. There are no sweeping vistas through the thick vegetation, and unless you are into insects there is precious little animal life on the jungle floor. Even the plant life is not that interesting, unless you like fungi (are they even plants?). If you happen to spot something in the trees, it’s hard to watch through all the intervening foliage. But in the canopy, or above it as was our case, it’s completely different. You appreciate the grand sweep of the jungle: the tall trees, the Lords of the place, the smaller trees greedily growing towards the light and waiting for their moment of glory when the Lords will be toppled by wind, rain, or sheer old age, the parasitical plants of all descriptions – lianas, vines, ferns – using these trees as their path towards the light, strangling, suffocating, and sucking their life juices from them; flowers, coloured leaves, and fruit peppering the whole. And above and through all this botanical profusion you see the silent flitting of animals. As we stood there, looking out over the canopy, we saw a butterfly which did a long glide past rather than flying drunkenly along as do most butterflies, the bright aquamarine streak of a bird shooting over the canopy (a kingfisher?)
several black squirrels, which scurried fearlessly up tree trunks and out along branches
and at the end, a troop of red leaf monkeys, who suddenly appeared out of the vines loading down a tree, gracefully jumped over onto the next tree, disappeared into the foliage, and then reappeared further along the canopy.
It was time to go. A new prayer, and down we went, rung by rung, all 110 of them.
* young persons, normally school leavers waiting to go on to University, who have decided to take a year off and travel the world. It can also apply to somewhat older persons who have decided to take the year off between undergraduate and graduate schools.
** even older, but still young, persons who have decided that they are fed up with the boring job they have and want to see the world, or have decided to change jobs and want to see the world before they start working again, or simply decide that it’s now or never if they want to see the world.
Dipterocarp: http://images.travelpod.com/tw_slides/ta00/da3/d08/towering-dipterocarp-bilit.jpg (in http://tripwow.tripadvisor.com/slideshow-photo/towering-dipterocarp-by-travelpod-member-dan-melanie-bilit-malaysia.html?sid=14302472&fid=tp-8)
Kingfisher: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a6/Ein_Eisvogel_im_Schwebflug.jpg (in https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kingfisher)
Black squirrel: https://worldbirdwatching.files.wordpress.com/2013/04/mamilanutria.jpg?w=500&h=374 (in https://worldbirdwatching.wordpress.com)
Red leaf monkeys: http://il2.picdn.net/shutterstock/videos/5039030/thumb/1.jpg?i10c=img.resize(height:160) (in http://www.shutterstock.com/video/clip-5038946-stock-footage-rare-red-or-maroon-leaf-monkey-presbytis-rubicunda-in-the-jungles-of-borneo-this-is-a-beautiful.html)
Other pictures: ours