Sarawak: Jungle Nights

March 2017

Twilight does not exist in the tropics. In Scotland or Canada, the sun falls gently out of the sky and the land shines in golden half-light for an hour or more. But on the equator, there is no such patience. One moment there is light:

Mangroves Bako Mar 2017

And then it collapses.

We’re headed out into the jungle by torchlight. It is the only way to glimpse Bako’s most mysterious creatures. You tread softly, on boardwalks overshadowed by darkening trees, and illuminated by beings of magical beauty.

Bornean keeled pit viper1 Bako Mar 2017

Keeled pit vipers hunt birds and rodents high in the trees.

Bornean keeled pit viper2 Bako Mar 2017

Other predators try their luck on the ground. There are fewer spiders here than I remember from the dry tropical forests of Mexico, but they still make for an impressive sight.

Large spider Bako Mar 2017

Some spiders surprise you with their girth. Others, with their colours – this is a long-jawed orb weaver.

Blue and red spider Bako Mar 2017

Not everything is fully awake. Swiftlets rest on the rock face.

Swallows Borneo

A stick insect of implausible proportions watch us pass.

Stick insect

High above, a whistle sounds – the branches shake, and a palm civet leaps from tree to tree with the agility of a lemur, far too fast to photograph.

The night continues, and the snakes continue their hunt.

Viper2

Sarawak: Hiking in Bako

March 2017

Humanity is a puppet danced by a tyrant called Weather. We have moments when we delude ourselves that we are free – we sit under roofs, delight in air conditioning, and warm ourselves with fires – but we all secretly know that respite from Weather’s commands is temporary. Walking in the tropics brings this home: temperature and humidity are with you at every step.

Northern Bako awaits!

Bako map

Plants are living things. We underestimate them because they are less mobile than animals, but they have a presence, a purpose, and sometimes even a menace. Bako is a rainforest and the trees are its soul, its master, and they are not abashed to remind paths of their supremacy.

Path of roots Bako Mar 2017

Within the tangle of leaves and roots, many animals thrive. Borneo giant ants are an impressive sight.

Bornean giant ant Bako Mar 2017

The top of the ridge is pock-mocked with erosion from rain. Limestone always remembers any bruises from water.

Top of the rock Bako Mar 2017

Far more than the jungle below, this is a harsh place for a plant to make a living. And if they cannot take nutrition from the ground, there is always another, more proactive way to make a living.

Pitcher plants are carnivores. They lure insects with nectar but they are a one-way trap. Hairs on their flanks prevent the prey from climbing back down, and if the animal falls inside, it is consumed by the plant’s enzymes. Most of their prey are invertebrates, but they occasionally catch frogs and have even been known to ‘eat’ rats.

Pitcher plant Bako Mar 2017

Dozens of pitcher plant species exploit the animals of Borneo. Some rest like pitfall traps on the ground, and others dangle from trees.

Pitcher plant2

And they raise an interesting point. We think of clouded leopards and crocodiles as Borneo’s top predators, but perhaps that is just the human whimsy of wanting nature neatly organised into tables. Ecological food chains are much better described as ‘food webs’. Pitcher plants are kings of their own part of the forest, feasting on species that will never catch the leopard’s eye.

High above the sea in this thin forest, the sun burns hot, and then hotter. We hear stories of tourists who died here; never, ever, underestimate the power of dehydration.

Our path continues down rickety stairs.

Staircase

The South China Sea lies ahead.

Bako scenery Mar 2017

A little boat drives us around the headland back to our starting place. Bearded pigs watch the sun falling into the sea.

Pig on the beach Bako Mar 2017

Bako at sundown Mar 2017

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…