Flying east from Kota Kinabalu, we descended on Sandakan, on the trail of orangutans in Borneo.
Our first glimpse of the reddish brown fur was in Sepilok, at an orangutan rehabilitation centre, and with that we were hooked.
Though these orphaned apes are fed at the sanctuary, they are the closest thing to wild — they live in vast acres of forest preserve and are on their way to being fully rehabilitated and able to fend for themselves out there in the jungles in the near future.
From here, a two hour drive into Sabah’s forests, through interesting Malaysian towns and across a landscape of jungle giving way to palm oil plantations, brought us to a ramshackle wooden jetty. Here we stepped onto a boat that carried us ever deeper into the rainforest, along the Kinabatangan River, to reaches inaccessible by road.
For the next three days we would putter up and down the river with our guide Ampong, and with newfound friends Shaun and Alex. We would search by light of day and by dark of night. We would set off into the jungle on foot. Throughout it all, the elusive orangutans remained, well, elusive — though we did hear their grand and striking calls echoing through the forests on one occasion.
So, as far as orangutan encounters were concerned, we’d have to settle for what we’d seen at the sanctuary and for hearing them at home in the wilds. But as we were soon to learn, there was plenty else in this jungle to keep us company. In some cases, far closer company than we might have liked.
Our first brush with this company happened on the very first evening, over a few beers in the common area with Shaun and Alex. Meg was midway through telling them some story or other when she, and I, noticed that both Shaun and Alex had given her a quick, startled, silent, breathe-in look — the kind normally given when a story takes a shocking turn or delivers a wondrous punchline. The trouble is, Meg hadn’t got to that part yet. Nope, something else had caught their fancy. “What…” said Megan, not really a question, and not wanting to know the answer at all. The answer, it turns out, was that a jungle rat had scurried down the pole Meg was leaning against, coming within millimeters of her head.
As tends to be the case with rats, this one was gregarious. It had plenty of friends. Those friends managed to chew through just about every backpack in the camp that night. We were lucky to escape with only minor damage to a small backpack.
But they didn’t stop there, these jungle rats. Not by a long shot.
The huts we slept in were stilted four-sided wooden structures, closed on one side, semi-open on two sides and completely open the fourth. Six people (and countless other life forms) to a hut. The beds were nothing more than small Borneo-sized mattresses on the floor, presided over by weather-beaten mosquito nets that dangled from a corrugated tin roof overhead. Upon this corrugated tin, the scuttling and scurrying of creatures great and small (monkeys, rats, geckos, even chickens) could be heard all night long, so it should have come as little surprise when, in the middle of the night, with my 6’2″ frame pressing up against the net, testing its elasticity as my toes protruded off the mattress, that a rat paid me a visit. First a ticklish nibble then a rude chomp on the big toe of my left foot, which, fortunately, did not break the skin but did very little for my ability to sleep at all that night.
I was not alone in having my feet attended to by rats. It happened to Shaun (who very wisely didn’t come clean about it to the ladies until the very end of our time in the jungle) and at least one other guy also too tall for his mattress, also with his feet pressed up against the mosquito net.
But not very far on. Only about four hours or so, in the cool of the predawn mists. Still sleepless and listening to the wonderful cacophony of nature’s sounds all around us, I felt a slight stinging sensation in my upper arm. I slapped at it, thinking it might have been a spider, and felt fairly confident it just had paid with its life for biting me. But the pain worsened. Soon it was burning with the intensity of several bee stings and a small welt had sprung up. My heart rate was noticeably elevated as the poison — whatever it was — seeped its way into my body, and, not wanting to do something so obnoxious as wake people up with my groans of pain in the wee hours of the morning under a mosquito net, I got up and tried to walk it off in the dark. Half an hour later I returned to bed, feeling the sting for everything it was worth but freshly confident about my continued survival.
Within two minutes of my return, Meg was suddenly sitting bolt upright rubbing her arm. A scramble for the flashlight revealed that she had received not one, not two, but FOUR of the same bites I had. I can only imagine the pain as the minutes wore on and the venom took hold. We shone the light around a bit more and found, crawling around in our sheets with us — sharing the sanctity of our bed with us — a 5 inch Bornean arsehole centipede (official name). Since the dawn of time, no human in the history of the world has ever shaken a sheet with more vigorous unfurling fortitude than we did that morning. Nor will they ever.
Poor Meg was up and pacing, swatting her thigh to balance out the pain in her arm, and breathing heavily as the puncture marks and ugly rash began to redden and take hold.
I do love her resolve though. I quietly gave her the option of leaving on the next boat we could catch downriver that morning to the ramshackle jetty, but she resolutely and indignantly told me no, she was not going to let a 5 inch Bornean arsehole (she calls it asshole…tomato/tomato) centipede get the better of her.
And it was good that she didn’t; from here on out Borneo was simply amazing.
To walk through the dense jungle and hear the woofing of orangutans and the squeals of gibbons; to cut the boat’s engine and drift alongside a 3 meter crocodile as it slithers its way down the river; to see a troop of bizarre-looking big-nosed proboscis monkeys leaping so impossibly acrobatically from tree to tree; to watch gibbons in the canopy swing down as they chirp out their high-pitched calls; to fish for catfish off the side of our boat — and eat them later that night back at camp; to watch macaques cradle their young against their bellies; to see the purple sky at dusk filled with flying foxes as they soar overhead in search of food; to see nocturnal civets and owls and eagles on the hunt for prey in the dead of night; to take shelter from an almighty thunderstorm and some of the heaviest rain we’ve ever experienced under some cheap ponchos with beers in hand; to hear the rainforest come alive with more birds and beasts than we could have imagined — these experiences are what we’ll take with us for a lifetime.
Although I’m pretty sure we’ll remember the arsehole centipede for quite some time too.