Some of the rainforests of Sabah (Malaysian Borneo) are among the oldest in the world, over 130 million years, much older than the Amazon rainforest! It’s got to be experienced to be believed. My friend Joddy at Kota Kinabalu, on the other side of Sabah, had prepared me a little: ‘you’ll sweat like a pig so do not wear anything more than a cotton half sleeve shirt, jeans, and yes a good pair of trekking shoes’. It was hot and damp and I was oozing sweat from every pore, my shirt stuck to me like an extra layer of skin. Barely had I walked into the forests, the deafening sound of Cicadas set the tone, millions of them in one thick multilevel harmony. Trekking in the pristine rainforests in Sepilok near Sandakan was a very different experience from the mangroves of Sunderbans or the deciduous forests of Corbett or Chitwan.
Minutes later I saw a large beautiful Orang-Utan gracefully swing from one branch to another, not too far above in the trees. He was accompanied by a couple of youngsters. In Malay Orang-Utan appropriately means ‘man of the forest’. I couldn’t take my eyes off him – he was awesome, but gentle. He fondled the youngsters’ cheeks and ruffled their hair. It is very rare to see such a large male in the company of other Orangs. To the far side I noticed another face peering through the branches – obviously checking the mood of the large male. Later it became obvious that the three youngsters were females and the odd guy was a male – hence the wary approach. As I watched in silent admiration, a group of marauding macaques arrived. The young Orangs tried to reach out and whack them but the macaques would simply duck out of reach. Quickly bored with the goings on, the big Orang disappeared into the forest. Soon, the rest melted into the dense foliage on their own. Those few precious moments I was so close to the orangs. I never heard a sound from them but could sense a wide range of emotions expressed through hand movements and those ever so intelligent eyes; Fear, curiosity, happiness, aggression, playfulness-command – My God, what a wonderful creation.
The jungle was teeming with birds and the fallen trees were like huge log houses that hosted a million tiny lives. Giant Merkubong leaves drifted to the forest floor and lay in a carpet of rich fodder. The trees went up some 200 feet high and above creating a second canopy. Down on the forest floor however, plants seemed to grab the opportunity to spring from the ground wherever light could be captured. On a particular dense and narrow trail, it seemed someone put out the light for a good two minutes- it went almost twilight dark as a very large black rain cloud passed overhead. When the sun returned, a few leaves seemed to glow green as the first shafts of light struck a small branch. It is almost impossible for a photograph to capture that magical moment and transport the reader into the magical realm of the rain forest.
The track continued to wind deeper into the forest when suddenly the air hung heavy with the smell of a rotting carcass. I was a little nervous. It reminded me of the time, many years ago, when I accompanied a friend’s father to the half eaten carcass of a villager’s buffalo that had been killed by a leopard near the edge of the Sal forests in Salboni, West Bengal. There are no big cats in these jungles so my curiosity overcame me as I moved toward where the smell seemed to be coming… there in a darkened clearing was the awesome three foot large Rafflesia Flower, the largest flower in the world. It is rare to actually see one, because they bloom once in a year maybe and stay in bloom only for six to seven days. After taking a few photographs and inspecting it carefully, with a wet hanky over my nose, I quickly got back to the trail, lest I forget the way. That’s the worst thing that can befall you in the jungle, especially in the rain forests.
Lee had helped me with ankle guards; it’s something like what the army wears, from the shoes to the shin. That protects against getting bitten by insects or reptiles on the ground, but there is no protection against anything above waist level. Therefore it is imperative that one is alert at all times. There were spider webs across the pathway at eye level, snakes aplenty and leeches. Then at one turn I scared a wild boar from his rummaging at the roots of a rotting tree. As it dashed off into the undergrowth, I could hear the excited call of a squirrel – a warning call that was a little delayed.
My calf leather hat (gifted to me many years ago) was dripping with sweat. Any discomfort quickly melted away when I noticed in a narrow stream flowing to my right, a movement of something large- a closer inspection revealed a python in the throes of squeezing the life out of a smaller animal. I could see clearly as it rolled over and over and finally into the undergrowth and out of sight.
I walked the entire distance of ten kilometers slowly; this was a lifetime experience and no way was I going to rush it. Every moment had to be savoured. My father a one-time shikari (Hunter)-turned-avid conservationist once told me, “If you want the forest to reveal itself to you don’t make a sound. You need to learn to be part of its creatures so keep shut and keep your ears peeled.” It was exhausting but I only felt it hours afterwards when I put my feet up to rest. I realized how important it was to be appropriately fitted – correct clothes, good trekking shoes, a hat, and of course water !