I’m not a big fan of canopy walkways. OK, so you’re up there on a level with the tree tops. Someone helpful and/or more knowledgeable than yourself might point out a distant brightly coloured dot, which they then might identify as some bird with an unfeasibly long name (possibly in Latin if they’re really knowledgeable) – and it might even be a rare sighting. But that’s usually about as exciting as it gets.
We were on the walkway at the Rainforest Development Centre in Sandakan, watching (distant) hornbills feeding in (distant) trees: so far, so expected. But then, the unexpected. Someone spotted a young orang-utan swinging through the branches – swinging through the branches towards us. A wild young orang-utan.
He paused in a tree next to the walkway, his fur glowing russet in the morning sunshine. He moved to the handrail and sat watching us, hoo-hoo-hooing softly to himself. He had a genial look in his eyes but nobody was in any doubt: he owned the walkway. He slurped at a puddle of rain-water; he walked along the handrail with us following at a respectful distance (on the footway); he hung from a branch with gangly grace as he breakfasted on bread-fruit, completely unconcerned at our presence, completely unconcerned at the chattering of our camera shutters. He entertained us with his antics for about an hour before climbing up into a tree, breaking off some leafy branches to make himself a comfortable nest and having a little snooze.
Our guide had never seen an orang-utan in that area before.
We also saw some distant colourful dots. I have no idea what they were. Nor do I particularly care. Nothing could come close to the thrill of that chance encounter with the orang-utan that day.
We’d come to Sabah in the hopes of seeing wildlife: we saw lots of it. As we made our way up the Kinabatangan River, we saw pygmy elephants feeding on the grassy banks. In a creek near Sukau, we watched from a small boat as flashes of cobalt blue solidified into kingfishers; a black hornbill parent fed a young one with a delicate precision that belied those enormous beaks; a seldom seen Bornean ground cuckoo, coaxed out of hiding by our guide and his tape recorder, flew past us in a flurry of purple feathers. There were black bees with a single broad yellow band across their abdomens; a sleeping yellow-ringed mangrove snake curled in a branch above the water’s edge; broadbills; trogons; monitor lizards; and we watched as a susurration of long- and pig-tailed macaques made their way along the riverbank, saplings and slender branches swishing in their wake.
The proboscis monkeys were my favourites. We watched them settling for the night high in the trees, their fur shades of rose-gold in the late afternoon sunshine; their noses too. We found them again the following afternoon. Little goblin faces glowered at us from the foliage as we watched them feeding, playing, jumping from branch to branch. It was a large family group, including mothers with babies whose faces had yet to mature beyond the charcoal-grey of infancy. The alpha male, easily distinguished by his huge pendulous nose, treated us to an X-rated display as he exercised his rights, heedless of the young ones clambering over him.
Another day, we watched an exodus of bats crowding into the early evening sky, with bat hawks picking off one or two unlucky ones for dinner; we saw a Buffy’s fish owl hunting in the dusk; and as we returned to our lodge at nightfall we glimpsed the red eyes of a salt-water crocodile reflected in our boat’s spotlight.
We moved on to the Danum Valley, there to discover more secrets of the rain forest: bright-eyed lizards, lantern beetles, giant pill-bugs, fungi … but where also lurked blood-thirsty tigers, silent as leaf-fall on a forest floor.
We’re not talking about furry 4-legged man-eaters, obviously. The tigers in these forests were shiny and had no legs: they were tiger leeches. They swayed from leaves, alert to every passer-by, out for the blood of the incautious.
We’d been warned about them. We were prepared.
Forget the little strappy numbers, the bikinis, the elegant sandals. Every girl’s (and, for that matter, every cool dude’s) holiday wardrobe essential is, of course, a pair of leech socks. Our guide had undertaken to purchase some in Sandakan for those of the group who needed them – ie most of us. I’m not sure if his wife/mother/sister or cousin had run them up on their sewing machine – or whether any or all of the afore-mentioned had set up a little cottage industry – but the leech socks looked decidedly home-made. They also looked as though a Christmas stocking had been used as a rough template at the design stage. One size fitted all; one size fitted nobody.
The socks tied below the knee over our trousers. Style icon that he is, [cough!] Tony’s socks and trousers co-ordinated perfectly. But despite our scepticism, they seemed to work: no leeches found their way through the tightly woven cotton to our legs or feet. However, leech ‘onesies’ might have been a better idea. Somehow the leeches managed to find the gap twixt trouser and top and wriggle their way in … and the first we knew about it was when someone pointed out the bloodstains on our t-shirts. Needless to say, the (very happy) leeches were long gone by then.
Wellington boots and umbrellas were also wardrobe essentials. In general, mornings were hot and humid, but you could guarantee it would rain at some stage during the day. It might rain at noon, it might rain at 2 pm, 4 pm, 6 pm or 8 – but it would undoubtedly rain, suddenly and torrentially. It might last a few minutes; it might last a couple of hours. And it would stop again just as suddenly as it had started. That’s what happens in rain forests. That, and clouds hanging in atmospheric swirls of mist among the trees. And when I say it was hot and humid, that’s exactly what it was. There’s a saying: horses sweat; men perspire; ladies glow … I was definitely in the horse category.
One lunch-time a troop of red leaf monkeys took up station in a tree across from the lodge’s restaurant at Danum. We watched them for quite a while, willing them to come closer; they were frustratingly just that bit too far away and just that bit too masked by leaves, although we could occasionally catch a glimpse of little ones playing in the topmost branches. But evidently it was siesta time; they weren’t going anywhere.
Eventually I gave up watching and went back to our cabin. At much the same time, the monkeys decided it was time to go – moving first to the lower branches of a tree directly across from our balcony; they sat there for some time as though considering what they were going to do next – or what we were going to do. What sad little black faces they have.
Eventually their curiosity about all of us was satisfied, they decided they’d posed for everyone’s cameras for long enough and they scampered off towards the forest.
The flora in Sabah was just as fascinating as the fauna.
We were taken to see a rafflesia, a plant that’s not really a plant: it has no stems, no leaves and no real roots. It’s a parasite. All it has to show for itself is a flower – a flower the size of a dustbin lid and the delicate perfume of carrion to attract flies for pollination. Needless to say, it was a ‘must-see’! We clutched at slender trees and lianas to stop ourselves sliding into undignified oblivion as we scrambled and skidded down a precipitous slope of roots, rocks and mud to get to it …
Perhaps dustbins are smaller in Borneo. I wasn’t aware of any smell either, although there were one or two flies crawling over the petals. There was also a bud which looked just like an old leather football.
Then we had to get ourselves back up that slope …
This first rafflesia was fairly early on in our trip, near Kota Kinabalu. We did see others later – in various stages of bloom and in more accessible locations – but I didn’t really notice much smell from any of them.
Pitcher plants were another curiosity of the plant world that we were to see. Some were slender as test tubes, others more like goblets; some were green, others a rich burgundy colour all over, and yet others specked and streaked. All were killers. They attract insects; their lids close on the insects, trapping them and drowning them in the rain water collected inside; the plants then ingest them at leisure. We’d seen one or two small ones but the best ones are to be found in Mount Kinabalu national park – at about 2000m. Their preferred habitat is on steep exposed slopes, often in areas prone to rock fall – not a reassuring thought, especially as there had been a serious rock fall there just a few days before our arrival.
Sabah: it’s a fascinating place – and I haven’t even mentioned the frogs, butterflies, dragonflies, orchids …