The open sea was great enough under what the Greeks would have termed the ‘dome of heaven’ but which to me seemed more like the roofing of a giant marquee. The ocean itself had a curve to it as it tipped below the encircling horizon. Then we turned into the broad mouth of Kinabatangan, the glaucous sea became muddy brown and opaque. The riverbanks were dense impenetrable mangrove palm on one side and more open green bushes but still mangrove with gracile trunks and more tender branches on the other side. This pattern alternated every so often palm on one side and trees on the other side.
All around them in a ring of luxuriant vegetation bathed in the warm air charged with strong and harsh perfumes, the intense work of tropical nature went on: plants shooting upward, entwined, interlaced in inextricable confusion, climbing madly and brutally over each other in the terrible silence of a desperate struggle towards the life-giving sunshine above. Almayer’s Folly Joseph Conrad
We were staying in a lodge on the edge of a primary forest. Everywhere you looked there were giant trees, whether measured in girth or height. Of course, the dipterocarps predominated all the others for their sheer height, sometimes exceeding 50 meters. The variety of leaf structure was astonishing, to imagine that nature had seen and claimed all manner of design options, from the lanceolate through to the linear or palmate with crenated or dentate edges and hanging peduncular, or gathered in bunches or splayed open or closed, in all the shades of green that there was.
The bird life was active, first thing, cries that were insistent, full-throated and gallant emanated from the bushes. Every so often a dash would reveal a small 10-15 cm bird or a pair of the glossiest emerald, a pair of bulbuls and tiny flowerpeckers, and iridescent kingfishers. This particular morning there were as yet no cicadas, and frogs had yet to establish the background of endless trumpeting against the symphony of crickets.
Already at 9 am the heat was unbearable and the humidity stultifying. A thin layer of sweat had formed on my forehead. We woke up early to visit the forest center, and well before anyone else we were already on the canopy walkway, suspended 28 meters above ground level but only halfway to the height of the tallest trees. From the walkway, the sky was blue with ripples of clouds and the shapes of the trees were stylish and clean like paper cuttings on Chinese lanterns.
It is our last morning in Sandakan before we left for the remote hinterland of Abai- a riverside settlement with minimal modern luxury. We were traveling with at least three other couples: a young couple, a couple about our age and another couple (a man our age and his younger wife). This latter couple was a gift to comedy sketch writers. He was instinctively boastful, saying things like “ we saw the largest butterfly when we were in Cuba, didn’t we Lu?” And she would nod and say “we did, we did”. “Do you remember when we were in Costa Rica how you almost sat on a tarantula Lu?” and she would “Yes, I almost did, I was about to take my seat and there it was wasn’t it?”. They would go on like this all evening.
When I was a boy, even when I was a young man, a primary forest covered practically the distance between Lagos and Ibadan. But, what there was is now, at most, a fraction of what there had been. Even here in Borneo, the primary forest is being lost at an astonishing rate to meet the demand of loggers and palm oil interests. All this natural beauty will, no doubt, soon be lost to mankind.
Mulu was a forested highland. The hill was in the distance and jutted up into the sky. From Headhunters’ hill, we could see the river, Melinau, dirty brown as it snaked away cutting into the undergrowth. An occasional flying coffin, the local narrow canoe, with its outboard motor dashed like an alien insect in the water. It created quite a wash behind it. Even more rarely some fish jumped and dived back into the water.
Local headhunters controlled this area until about a century ago. The last known headhunting egress was in the 1920s. There are still nomadic tribes, the Penan for example, but now they are partly farmers and partly hunter-gatherers.
To get to the summit of Headhunters’ hill we had climbed for 10 minutes up a sharp incline surrounded by dense forest, Liana, and ferns clutching at the path from above and below. A wet carpet of leaves lays treacherously on equally slippery stones. But we made it up, heaving and breathing, limbs tremulous with fatigue. The view was a pure pleasure.
We were staying at a resort a quarter of a mile north of the river. A girder bridge, narrow and built of planks joined this hillside to our resort. A local cafe served food, drinks, and coffee. We had lunch, fried vermicelli noodles, chicken wings, and a dish of vegetables, washed down with tonic and sprite. Our guide, Desmond, named after Desmond Tutu, joined us to talk plans for the following day.
On the following day, a Sunday, we had a late start. First was a trip to the forest for a canopy walk. This was a walk of over 450 meters and 35 meters above the ground over the tallest trees. The walkway was held up by ropes supported by massive trees with their buttresses and it swung as you walked along it. The flooring was simple planks tied together that shifted with each step. This was not a walk for the trepid, or for anyone without a head for heights. And I was one such, a coward for punishment but even I lived to tell the tale- ‘been there, done that but sadly no shirt was given out at the end’.
In this forest, there were butterflies the size of little birds, flapping their wings in the deliriously slow clap of I’m drunk on nectar. Then stick insects, camouflaged in every conceivable manner on tree trunks, stems and branches, even on the ropes at the sides of the paths. At dusk, frogs that croaked, others that barked like dogs and even others that called clear as bells. When we finally saw them they were mere midgets with the sound of Buffo buffo. These were tree frogs that were emerald green and perfectly hidden in the green vegetation.
We explored Deer and Lang caves- if I might call walking on well laid out boards exploring. The stalactites and stalagmites in Lang cave were the delight of anyone with an eye for design. Every conceivable way of water flowing and solidifying had been explored here. Deer cave was home to at least 3 million bats in 3-4 groups. The cave had the longest cave passage open to the public in the world- all of 2 km.
In the end, we waited to watch for the evening bat swarm but unfortunately, the bats decided not to have a display of their spiraling cloud. The excuse, no doubt, was that there had been a torrential downpour that put them off.
In the end, we had walked 8 miles and were thoroughly drenched in our own sweat and physically exhausted.
The next morning we made an early start. We took a long boat, a flying coffin, along the Melinau river. The banks were lush and green. The water clear and the river ran furiously across some submerged rocks, fallen tree trunks, and sandbanks. At every turn the Mulu hills in the distance with mist rising from the forests around were picturesque. Some scenes were like paintings, others like film sets in Vietnam, depicting the Mekong.
Along the riverbanks, ordinary human life passed on. A family was performing their morning ablutions- the father was cleaning himself with a cloth, and two sons were brushing their teeth, toothpaste foaming through their lips. Further on, an elderly woman was washing, fully clothed in the river. And another was doing her laundry. Each path down from the homesteads lead to jetties where there were flying coffins anchored singly or in groups. In at least one of these, a family simply sat, watching the world, and at ease with everything around them.
On the opposite bank, there were fewer if any houses. Here the bank would sometimes form a semicircular indentation and canoes would bob in the wake of traveling boats or there might be a disused boat rotting in the water. The canopy of trees would sometimes meet above the river like an avenue and the atmosphere would become sublime, greyish and somber. In some spots, the river had cut into limestone to create a sheer cliff of marble grey. Suddenly, a radiant blue, turquoise kingfisher would fly straight out of the lush green and back in again like an apparition that was there and swiftly was gone again that I doubted my sight for a second.
Our first stop was Windy cave and then Lady cave and ending at Clearwater cave. These were all different types of caves. The windy cave was named for the fact that it was open at both ends and there was a rush of wind from one end to the other. Lady cave had a stalagmite in the shape of the Madonna at the entrance. Here we saw a racer snake about 1 meter long, pale green and lean. It took its time crawling along the ground not so far from us. Clearwater cave had a magnificent and palatial main cavern, some 30 meters in depth. An underground river rushing at 10 mph. The grandeur of this cave was impossible to capture in words.
These caves required you to walk approximately 600 steps, many uphill and in Windy cave, the atmosphere was rarified and humid, a bad combination so that you were out of breath even before you started your climb.
We had lunch after Jan’s swim. Rice, chicken in soy sauce, aubergine with salad dressing and pumpkin and spinach washed down with water. Whilst eating we talked to an American woman sitting next to us who was from Chicago. She had flown out to Shanghai, 14 hours and then caught a connection to Kota Kinabalu. She hadn’t gone along with her companions on the headhunters’ trail, because she had realized after walking through the caves that she wasn’t fit enough for an 11 km trek. On the other side of us was a young Indian couple from Mumbai. He’d studied for his masters at the LSE and had once been to Birmingham to Crufts- his abiding memory was an English dog owner and his three Irish wolfhounds sharing an ice cream. His partner had been swimming at the same time as Jan. She spoke in that singsong tone of educated Indians.
On our way back to the airport we saw a juvenile crocodile swim slowly out of the water, its head above the water line and literally heading for the bank. It was some four foot long, narrow-headed and narrow-bodied. Its back glistened from the wetness. We stopped at a clearing in the bank and stepped off the boat, voila we were at the front of the airport. That was the strangest arrival at an airport in all my years of traveling.
Next stop Abai.
Abai was a village of approximately 200 souls on the river Kinabatangan. It was 47 kilometers from Sim Sim jetty where we had embarked on our launch. The journey took 75 minutes, partly on the open sea, clinging not so closely but close enough to the coast for 15 kilometers or so and then upriver.
For all of 30 miles, there were no villages no break in the monotony of the defenses, only a sky that was blue with white clouds strafing the blue and the brownish violet of the opaque river. Even the river traffic was modest if at all. We slowed once to view a proboscis monkey on a branch. That was it.
Our lodge was about 500 meters upstream from Abai village. When we arrived, a welcome party met us: cool towels to refresh ourselves, lunch of rice, sweet and sour prawn, chicken followed by watermelon. The coffee was locally grown and was bitter and syrupy.
The highlight of the day was the afternoon boat ride upriver. The river bank was secondary forest, dense with some dipterocarp that had yet to be fully grown. Giant prawn traps were visible intermittently. We sighted a large crocodile swimming with its eyes just above the water line, swimming in a straight line almost like a laser-guided missile. It was oblivious to our presence. Then an eagle with a wide span crossing the river, high above us.
It was a feast of sightings- hornbills, grey macaque monkeys, proboscis monkeys in a herd, kingfisher, and to our surprise and delight, a herd of Pygmy elephants (a dozen or so), langurs and the extraordinary fireflies of Borneo. What was most remarkable was not any of these sightings but the miraculous pristine nature of the environment. Here was the broadest river, lined by impeccable verdant lushness, and a sky that was large, so immense and visible all around, and then the silence and noise of eternity. The light changed as dusk drew close. What had been clear, absolute clarity turned to the blue and black of dusk with a red golden tinge showing over the heads of the line of foliage. Then what was deep set indigo turned into the densest darkness except for the sky which retained something of light even when the sun had been extinguished and slowly the stars became visible, then in a rush, the multitude of pinprick silver went on display.
After dinner a brief night walk was rewarded with further sightings of an owl, a viper stretched out on a branch, a starburst spider docile on the boardwalk, stick insects, a juvenile scorpion and then an astonishing kingfisher dressed in Joseph’s cloak of many colors, red, blue, purple and orange.
On our last day at Abai, we woke early at 5:30 am, first to catch the sunrise and then to head out on a boat tour. The first light here in Abai was surreal. The sky was grey and the air equally soft with the slightest hint of mist. The opposite river bank seemed like a watercolor painting, the mangrove trees merged into an Indistinct Kandahar ink soaked into blotting paper. The river too was pewter colored, molten with some ripples on the surface. As the sun rose, the leaves became more distinct, with discrete edges and the greenness of the riverbanks emerged from their previous opaque blackness. This transformation was impossible to describe as it was beyond words. Something eerie and miraculous.
The boat tour took us upstream to a secluded oxbow lake. On the way we sighted a yellow ribbed viper, lying on its belly on a branch, several proboscis monkeys, grey macaques, hornbills, and kingfishers. The kingfisher flashed its royal blue wings and its orange breast and orange beak. We were surprised at how serene and quiet it was sitting there on a branch, on the river’s edge before flying off. There were also a couple of snake birds.
The mystery of mangrove plants was also solved for me. Abbas, our guide, talked about the various varieties. So what I had assumed was a raffia palm was actually a mangrove palm and there was also a tree with light green leaves, like an Ash that was also a mangrove tree. It had slender aeration roots, poking back up much like the pile in carpets, or the end of straw stuck in the ground.
We turned from the main river into the creek leading to the oxbow lake and were met by an avenue, a glade if it were not on a river of interlacing tree branches from opposite ends of the riverbanks forming a most romantic aisle, darkened and mysterious, also beautiful, for us to traverse.
This opened up into the lake. This was a large space with an abundance of water hyacinth and another plant, probably a lily or iris, with giant leaves that had been introduced from South America only to take over and smother the lake. Sadly this wonderful lake is likely to die since these plants will eventually clog up the entrance and make the lake impassable.
We returned for a jungle breakfast under an umbrella of trees. Around us were wild pigs, macaque monkeys, butterflies in the air drifting and flapping their wings, floating in midair and settling on the abundance of foliage.
Our final boat trip was in the late afternoon upstream. The air was clear and the ubiquitous sound of cicadas was in the background. Again it was a feast of the now familiar troop of macaque monkeys except that there were newborn monkeys hardly larger than a swallow, already climbing and jumping from branch to branch, often balanced on the most delicate branches whilst eating fresh leaves and berries. Not far from this troop were also proboscis monkeys, high up on the treetops, jumping and screeching. Their peculiar noses against the light were dramatic for its length and oddity. Once again kingfishers, egrets, and egrets that once were rare but now so common as to be passé. But, their stylish posing for the camera, turning this way and that before lifting their giant wings and floating into the sky, and with a flap or two easily, effortlessly soaring before landing again. These birds were majestic and enchanting. In my childhood, they were regarded as rare, so rare that when we saw one, we held our fingers out and sang “leke Leke…” and then searched our nails to see whether the egret had left a whitish streak on the cuticle or not. I found myself thinking of this childhood ritual and quickly checked my nails to see whether there were any white streaks. alas, there were none.
Again it was dusk and the sun shone through a blanket of dark blue clouds. The river turned from brown, muddy brown to tarnished silver and the outline of the trees once again retreated into a mass of darkness. There were flashes of lightning followed by the growl of thunderclaps. The rain started and we hurriedly put on our raincoats and swiftly turned around for home.
At lunchtime, we traveled across the river to the village of Abai. The jetty was anything but secure for one had to walk briskly across it to the landing stage. A Muslim imam sat under a shed next to a young man building what seemed like a speedboat. We toured the village to see what poverty looked like in Sabah. These were traditional houses built on stilts, above the ground, and constructed in wood. These abodes were modest. The village had a nursery where they grew saplings for trading with other communities. They also grew orchids, some rare varieties that sold in America for thousands of dollars for single stems. There were signs of failed government projects- growing and processing rice. There were political party flags everywhere- the Malaysian elections had only recently ended and resulted in a change of government but the flags were still of the previous government.
The solitary cat was attacking a gecko. A dog wandered aimlessly around. And the local Imam called for the afternoon prayers. Our lunch was exquisite, paid for by the tour operators but cooked by the fair hands of village women. It was rice, chicken curry cooked with sweet potatoes, pumpkin and pakchoi, and a chili unguent that was sweet and sticky. Dessert was pomelo and watermelon.
The next morning, we left Abai well before sunrise. It had rained all night and when we woke up it was still raining. The sky was that dull grey-black color that seemed pregnant with foreboding. Our guide decided that it was too risky to travel on our own, on an open small launch, as the river was full and flowing quite fast. There were indeed logs and other flotsam and jetsam coming down. He arranged for us to travel with another group who were larger in number and hence traveling on a bigger launch.
We left and the launch was quickly into its stride, moving fast and leaving a heavy wake behind it. The wash pushed against the riverbanks. We headed upstream. First as before the riverbanks were bordered by mangrove, mangrove palms and other varieties of mangrove with delicate green leaves and slender branches. But soon we left the dense vegetation behind and the banks were bordered by firs, pines, maybe even spruces. These must have been introduced since the climate here can hardly be described as alpine.
The river was muddy brown and opaque. It had been black and molten before dawn. There were giant egrets. A few hornbills flew high up in the sky. We must have traveled 30-40 km before we came upon any homesteads and here the launch slowed in respect for the boats moored up for the night. If the wash was too strong the boats were liable to be pushed against the banks, quite hard and damaged.
These were villages of at most a few houses strung along the bank, set back a few meters from the banks. We came upon barges that were moored up, rusting and empty probably from a time when the river was being dredged to deepen it for larger boats or perhaps when logs were still being ferried downstream.
Further upstream, the dense primary forest gave way to palm oil plantations, that is to monoculture and the loss of vital ecological space for the many and varied plant and animal life that had lived and sustained the tropics for possibly millions of years.
We came upon a family of red langurs and waited a few minutes to watch them; of particular interest was the mother-infant pair. The rain stopped after a while and we were able to draw the canvas covers and feel the wonderful breeze coming off the river.
We arrived safely at our pick up point, another lodge upriver and after breakfast transferred to a minivan and traveled for an hour on a tarred road to Lahad Datu. This was a journey of 130 km, mostly along various palm oil plantations. There even newer plantations being created. The palm oil palms tightly squeezed together with little space between them. There were puddles and pools of water in the furrows between the plants. There was the occasional homestead of a few houses, long traditional houses leaning awkwardly on their stilts. And dogs everywhere, stray and feral dogs with mangy coats and a leanness that spoke to poor feeding and a hard life.
Suddenly we came upon a small town on its market day (I cannot now recall what town this was). The women sat in colorful clothes and headscarves before their wares. The wares were laid on the ground. What gave the scene its peculiarity was that the traders sat under awnings, large colorful umbrellas and marquees. We drove on without stopping. Finally, we arrived at Lahad Datu, drove past the aerodrome and headed for the headquarters of our next tour operator where we registered and signed the necessary documents. Then we transferred to another minivan, a larger one and shared the next phase of our journey with another couple and a single man, all traveling to the Danum valley like us.
We arrived in time for lunch. Then we were shown to our rooms. There was hardly time before we set off for our first walk in the tropical rainforest. We went in search of an orangutan in the wild. It was hot and humid and it was barely 15 minutes before I was soaked right through. We had made all the preparations to avoid the plague of leeches that was the Danum valley – leech socks, avoidance of brushing against leaves, etc. But no luck. It took no more than 5 minutes for me to find 3 leeches hanging off my fingers. I tugged away at them and threw them down. It was a disconcerting experience because it rendered me sensitive to any skin sensation. Our guide Adrian drew one from his armpit and talked about leeches seeking the warmest places, armpits, groin, and genitals. Gross! Well, you can imagine what that did for my imagination!
This was our introductory walk in a rainforest. Adrian pointed out an ebony tree, a very dark/black wood. Even though this tree is named after its African cousin originating in West Africa probably Nigeria I had never seen one before this encounter. It was a hardwood that is resistant to termites and lasts scores of years. Next to it was an ironwood tree, equally hard and termite resistant. There’s one at Osogbo grove. And next was a red-barked tree that’s used to prepare a red dye that I assume is the Asiatic equivalent of camwood.
There were fungi, lianas, immensely large trunked trees with extensive buttresses and the incessant calls of the cicadas. Adrian showed us a wild banana, brightly colored skin but miniature tree and fruit. Then word spread that there was an orangutan about and all effort was diverted to finding this ape. More and more people turned up to spot it. Eventually, it was located up in the top branches of a tall tree and the small crowd now went into the Bush to photograph this ape. Jan joined the others whilst I waited patiently in the footpath for fear that if I ventured into the Bush I just might once again find myself with leeches on my arms or fingers.
After dinner, we went for a night safari- a ride in an open-topped lorry. We sighted only a handful of animals- a kingfisher, a black-headed pitta with its head tucked underneath its wing and a sambar deer. All in all, it was an eventful introduction to a virginal rainforest.
Next morning we woke up early, had breakfast and met up with Adrian. Then we set out to trek to the viewpoint, 3500 meters up the hill. First though, was the business of finding an orangutan that had been spotted. These apes were up in the trees eating fruits for breakfast and throwing down half bitten fruits. They were just a blur even with binoculars. You could just about see their shaggy orange vestments and their arms stretching to pick a fruit and put it to mouth.
We set off with slow steady progress uphills, traveling the just over 1 mile that was as effortful as a 5-mile walk. We stopped to seek out hornbills high up in the branches and waited to see them fly off with their wings stretched out and their characteristic bills pointed forward and distinctive. There were several types of fungi but the most remarkable was Maiden’s veil fungus that is rarely sighted and that infrequently flowers. Well, we sighted it and yours truly actually found it! It looked exactly as its name- a lace veil like a bell covering a central stalk with a flowering head. It was already attracting insects with its pungent smell that we did not pick up. There were wild ginger, ancient ferns, flat backed millipedes & other varieties, wild begonia, ventilation tubes for termite hills, yellow anthills, stingless bee, bracket fungus, and white-crowned shama.
Walking up an incline in a tropical forest not only taxes the muscles and stamina but one sweats endlessly and because of the heat and humidity the sweat clings to the body and does not evaporate. The humidity here can be upwards of 120%- it’s like walking uphill in a sauna. My shirt was wet and clung to my back, hanging limp like a rag in front. My forehead was wet and the sweat dropped off it, dropping on my eyes and spectacles. But we persevered and trudged onwards.
The soil was slippery because of the heavy rain from the previous evening. In some places, it was clayey yellow, ochre yellow and dangerous. We had walking sticks and they came in handy, helping with grip and additional leverage.
We first came to the turning for coffin cliff. This was a sacred burial site for the first royal family of the Dusun nomadic tribe who lived around the Danum Valley. On the cliff face there were holes that were either dug in or naturally occurring and within these holes were human skeletons. The most visible was that of a young child, including its skull. The tradition is to treat these remains with respect and we did our best to make the necessary observances.
Then upwards unto the viewing point that was reached by ladders. And there it was, the Danum Valley before us. The forest canopy was beneath us for once. We could see the layers of the forest including the tallest trees, the Dipterocarpus. It is impossible to describe the sight of an unbroken canvas of immensely large trees stretching for 1 million hectares. There it all was before us. The original men who discovered this land, either Malay or some tribesmen would have been astonished and awed to face the vastness of this land.
The earth has these rich and diverse niches: the plains of East Africa, the deserts such as the Namib desert, the incredible tundra in North America, and the astonishing forms of life that make up life on this planet. The truth is that any thoughtful person is awed and humbled by the magic and miracle of it all.
We came back down, retracing our steps. It had been effortful to climb but the descent required caution and care for the path was slippery and walking downhill has its own risks. But, we made it back to base camp.
In the afternoon we went for a walk. The highlight was our sighting of a male orangutan that was hidden in the bushes noisily munching on wild ginger. He then stood up and walked nonchalantly across the road to our delight. He was indifferent to our presence as he used his knuckles to assist his walk, hunched forward, across a manmade road back into the bushes to continue eating wild ginger. This was a surreal moment- here I was filming on an iPhone and J taking photographs.
We too continued on our walk to the canopy walk, a boardwalk up 35-40 meters high but still only halfway up the height of these giant trees, all of their 70 meters. This boardwalk was divided into sections that departed from platforms and the next section rising in height until the zenith and then the descent. The board bounced if there were two or more on it and the sides swung from side to side. It was frightening but after having been on two previous canopy walks, I felt less anxious and just that much more confident about these structures and their safety.
On the way back, after the canopy walk, we saw a Pygmy squirrel, a small but very active rodent, leaping with gusto and traveling in fits and hops. There was also the tree shrew that we had mistaken for a squirrel. And our final sighting of a mother-child pair of an orangutan. Then it was time for dinner.
The rain started and it was a veritable tropical thunderstorm. Flashes of lightning and thunderous thunderclaps, ferocious winds and the patter of rainfall on the roofs sounding like bullets or rocks. This went on for over an hour and cleansed the air.
And this is how I see the East. I have seen its secret places and have looked at its very soul; but now I see it always from a small boat, a high outline of mountains, blue and afar in the morning; like faint mist at noon; a jagged wall of purple at sunset. I have the feel of the oar in my hand, the vision of a scorching blue sea in my eyes. And I see a bay, a wide bay, smooth as glass and polished like ice, shimmering in the dark. A red light burns far off upon the gloom of the land, and the night is soft and warm. We drag at the oars with aching arms, and a sudden puff of wind, a puff faint and tepid and laden with strange odors of blossoms, of aromatic wood, comes out of the still night- the first sigh of the East on my face. Youth: A Narrative. Joseph Conrad
Photos by Jan Oyebode