City of Cats

March 2017

Time to leave Davao City and fly back across the Wallace Line – the third country on this trek around south-east Asia awaits.

Kuching skyline

Borneo. The name is so intensely intertwined with restless wilderness that even the view from the skies is evocative of untamed jungle. Muddy rivers and towering tropical trees shelter some of the richest wildlife hotspots on earth.

Borneo rivers

Silk Air have landed us in Malaysia, or to be precise, Kuching – the City of Cats. It feels a huge saucer, rimmed by impossibly rugged tropical mountains and pouring out through the mighty Sarawak River.

Kuching skyline

Even in a city of a third of a million people, reminders of the natural world abound. The rhinoceros hornbill is the state bird of Sarawak and was traditionally considered the chief of birds by the Dayak people.

Hornbill

There are cats here, but also mostly of the concrete kind – the name might be a play on the Malay for feline, but it is oddly fitting considering what prowls Borneo’s heart. The ubiquitous posters warning of penalties for poaching are also reminders that the most secretive cats on earth are sheltered by Borneo’s rugged wilderness.

Seeing a cougar or leopard is a once in a lifetime event for most wildlife watchers – but that’s a trifle compared to the elusiveness of bay cats. Until the 21st century, less than a dozen records existed, and they are still largely a mystery to science. No one knows for sure how many even exist, but all of them are in Borneo. Somewhere.

Borneo wild cats

I’m headed out to the jungle in due course, but firstly, there is Kuching to ponder.  In a continent jammed with towns of noteworthy history, this one takes a worthy place. In the 1840s, the Sultan of Brunei gifted Sarawak to a British adventurer in gratitude for his help in suppressing a rebellion. James Brooke – the White Rajah – was one of Kuching’s building blocks. So were the Chinese who worked Sarawak’s mines in the same era, and left their own imprint on the skyline.

Chinese temple

Kuching is also home to many Malay settlers, along with Borneo’s indigenous ethnic groups. And Melanau people fish in the rivers.

Fisherman

Fishing Bako River

Of course, they are not alone by the warm water. This beauty is a stork-billed kingfisher.

Stork-billed kingfisher Bako Mar 2017

We drive half an hour to a jetty, and a speedboat is soon painting white froth on the grey salty river. We’re headed around the peninsula to Bako National Park and whatever wild things decide to cross paths with us on its trails.

The jungle is waiting…

Natural Mindanao

March 2017

I’ve never seen a Philippine eagle – outside of a book, anyway. I do know that they are glorious, improbable, grey-beaked giants of the eagle clan, very nearly the largest of all. It might be a surprise that until 1995, the national bird of the Philippines was something far humbler.

The chestnut munia or red maya is a finch-like bird unafraid of urban life. It is found throughout south-east Asia, from Burma to Vietnam.

Chestnut munia Philippines

Tree sparrows are also strongly associated with people, and have an even wider range. They are clinging to survival in Britain, where they are far outnumbered by the also declining house sparrow. Tree sparrows have a huge international range however and not likely to disappear altogether.

Tree sparrow Philippines

The Philippines has significant environmental challenges, but there are whale sharks and dugongs (large marine mammals similar to manatees) off the coast, and critically endangered warty pigs roam remote areas.

And, naturally, some of these: golden orb-weavers, quite large but harmless. The tropics would not be the tropics without spiders.

Golden orb weaver Samal Mar 2017

Or without palm trees and sand, I suppose.

Samal Island

Samal Island watches us pass.

Banana seller Samal

Fruit seller Mar 2017

Across the Wallace Line

March 2017

Back to the map of southeast Asia. Draw a line across it, written in tigers, foxes and deer. On side walks the great megafauna of Asia. On the other, the strange creatures of Australasia hop, bounce and glide.

Wallace line map

The so-called Wallace Line was discovered in 1859 by Victorian naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace. Later, other scientists realised that it cut a bit further north, and I’ve taken the liberty of drawing that in red on in this 1863 map.

Few wild mammals ever cross the Wallace Line, but on this trip I’m flying above it, repeatedly, catching glimpses of the exotic Sulu Sea.

Sulu Sea

Sulu Sea2

It is not safe down there; once the Sulu Sea was famous for its pirates, and today for its terrorists. But from 30,000 feet, you can get some idea of the tropical beauty of the waters.

I cross the Wallace Line just east of Borneo. A little further, and the Philippines come into view. This island nation sits astride the line – Palawan, on the Asian side, once hosted tigers, and leopard cats probably still survive. I’m headed to Mindanao, which lies on the Australian side and has no native felids.

Cats may be famous for their sleeping, but here a volcano dozes instead.

Mt Apo

Mount Apo towers 2,954 metres (9,692 ft) above southern Mindanao. It is sleeping, a comatose monument to the blazing power of the Pacific Rim of Fire.

The rest of Mindanao rolls up to Apo’s feet in ridges.

Mindanao

At ground level, green, white and blue dominate.

Jack's Ridge

It’s hard to visit Davao City without noticing exotic fruit. Durian is famous, possibly infamous. This sign on the Metro back in Singapore caught my eye:

No Durian

Maybe Davao’s jeepneys don’t object to durian?

Jeep

The reason for the anxiety is durian’s fantastically horrific smell. It is, however, known as the king of fruits because the taste is valued so highly. I sampled some in a milkshake; it’s complex, and your taste buds process it in stages. Very ripe melon is probably the closest description.

Meanwhile, Davao’s streets brim with coconuts…

Coconuts

…and venders turning them into buko.

Coconut sellers

Certainly that is appreciated in the tropical heat.

Settling in

“Home’s not merely four square walls,
Though with pictures hung and gilded…” – Charles Swain

Perhaps not, but fox photographs and a new banner do help a blog feel more homely.

Fox One Eye 6 Oct 2017

One-Eye is the dominant male of the Horse Meadows Group. This large fox family calls a sizable part of my parish their territory. His eye injury is at least two years old and doesn’t seem to affect him.

This blog is still an infant – under a month old – but, like all children, it is hungry for stories. Everywhere I tread, from woodlands splashed with gold at sunset to chalky hills cradling sleepy flowers, offers its own scripts. At the same time, I have to introduce this blog to its ancestry: journeys through truly wild lands that consumed so many posts on Opera.

I will move some of my old travelogues here and store them under their own pages, hopefully to be joined by my more recent adventures as time permits. First up: Gujarat in northwest India. Here’s a little nostalgia – a post from Velavadar National Park, which I visited on 26th November 2012.

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Originally posted on Opera on 11th December 2012

Dust is a canvas. I’ve left the car to explore the edge of a little lake, human-dug, I think, to provide seasonal water for the park’s wildlife. Blackbuck appear in fragments through the long grass but the dust is more exciting for me. Written in it are the tear-drop tracks of a wild cat, the first I’ve found on this trip. They’re not huge – about fox size – and I think they are the insignia of a jungle cat Felis chaus. I just have an inkling…I scan the bushes, and I scan the grass.

There is nothing.

Back to the car, then, and back on the quest for the hyena, and back past wildlife that would monopolise my attention anywhere in Europe, but is so common here that it hardly wins a second glance.

Montagu’s harrier

Pallid harrier

The hyena isn’t being cooperative; down we head towards the little lake again, and there – a cat! A jungle cat, a big male cat, fox-red, greyhound-sleek, bounding across the road. He stops, for a fraction for a second, and stares back through the grass, and then melts away as if he had never been. I suspect that I was within metres of him at the lake, and saw nothing. Cats…

Half an hour passes. And then, incredulously, another jungle cat materialises. It’s not adult size, and not quite as stealthy as its peers. Apart from the trailcam’s capture of the bobcat last spring, it’s the first time I’ve ever caught a wild cat on my own camera.

The cat family is comprised of around 36 members, most of which are quite small and very poorly known. Jungle cats are about a third larger than domestic cats, and enliven wild areas from Egypt to China. This one doesn’t stay in view for long, but still – a wild cat!

We drive onwards. And then someone else appears on the road.

Striped hyenas are a rare example of a wild species whose appearance lives up to its name!

This hyena is much less social than its spotted African cousin. I’m curious at its gait; it waddles, almost, rather than walks. The hyena, for its part, is more curious in the local scents.

It might be merely wandering, rather than hunting; the nilgai do not seem to be concerned.

The sinking sun catches its ruff.

And that, by any standards, makes for a successful safari. The day is over: the flamingos mark the sunset.

But something more is there – the Indian subspecies of the animal that has compelled me to travel the world from Vancouver Island to Madhya Pradesh. What it is to look into the face of a wild wolf – those are the moments that no wildlife photographer can ever forget.

The light is terrible, and the wolves do not tarry. They lope across the track and stride back into the heart of Velavadar.

Tomorrow our path turns southwards towards Gujarat’s most famous park. I will remember Velavadar as a good place. It is the home of wolves.