It’s fair to say that the last two weeks have been polar opposite from the last two, swapping beaches for leeches, sunburn for mosquito bites and flip flops for trainers.
Leaving the beautiful Philippines behind, where everything had become so familiar, we touched down, with little to no preparation, on the third biggest island in the world; Borneo.
Borneo was the promise of green jungles, endangered Orangutans and – from what Lucas had read at least – some of the deadliest animals.
Actually, I’d like to start by congratulating us both for even getting off the plane after learning what lay within. His book had put the fear in us from the first page.
We arrived in Tawau, Malaysia, the cheapest AirAsia fare, where we spent the first few days acclimatising to the local language, hypnotic muezzin, new cuisine and lack of watering holes, but we soon began to get a feel for the Malay way of life.
Before we moved on, we were able to dip our toes into the Bornean experience at Bukit Gemok, just down the road. We went for a mooch in the jungle as casually as you would go for a dog walk at home.
As we stood at the entrance, I watched everyone walk past in full jungle gear (we were in tshirts and shorts) wearing Lycra long sleeves, khakis, knee length socks, boots… it seemed to be quite the fashion show – and highly unnecessary. And given that it was 30+ degree heat and even higher humidity, what I really thought was ‘fuck that, the keenos.’
How wrong was I. There was method in the madness as I was soon to learn.
On our third minute into the trek, I felt something on my ankle and assuming it was probably mud, I tried to brush it off.
Nope. It was my first leech.
Rather than deal with the situation in an adult and calm way, my immediate reaction was to shriek hysterically with uncontrollable limb spasms to match.
I lost my shit. And looked like a right dickhead.
I also frightened half the wildlife with my sudden outburst, as well as those unlucky enough to be within range – sorry, Lucas.
So this is what Bornean jungle trekking entailed – and this was Kindergarten grade. The book was true. And I was very unprepared.
I reluctantly got over the fact that there were leeches on pretty much EVERY leaf, stick or plant, and towards the end I (nearly) became indifferent to their vampiric tendencies, flicking them off, one by one, hour after after. Little did I know this would be great training for Danum Valley, our next destination.
A few days later, we headed deep into the rainforest to stay in a research centre that I had read about on a blog post some weeks before.
Everything about it screamed ‘school trip’ – from the minibus there, to the 48 person bunk-bed dorms, boys in one and girls in the other. We were issued (after high recommendation) branded leech socks, we had a timetable to follow, and were encouraged to mingle with the geeks, ie, the onsite researchers.
But in all seriousness, Danum Valley was great and a proper introduction to the Borneo we’d come to experience. Lush green trees as far as the eye could see and wildlife that would make Sir David Attenborough proud.
Credit where credit is due, Lucas took half these photos. Sharing is caring.
Using what I could from my bag of beachwear and inappropriate jungle clothes, I dressed – to give you a mental image of the hilarity of my outfit – in Nikes, multi-coloured yoga pants and a fake Adidas sports top from a street market, topped off with a poncho. And the leech socks, of course. Photographic proof available on request.
Our first night, we set off on the back of a truck – proper safari style – and headed out in search of the nocturnal wildlife. Within 50m down the drive we saw a snake, slithering its way along the track, as commonplace as if you were to see a pigeon in a big city. It was incredible seeing everything just as it was, in its natural habitat. We went on to see, without much effort, flying squirrels, a beautiful leopard cat, a civet and some samba deer, among other selvatic creatures.
The second day was the real jungle trek, into real leech territory. Leaving at 9am we went to explore the ‘primary rainforest’ on the Rhino Trail (despite there not being any rhinos) with a rewarding waterfall at the three hour interval. I lost count of how many leeches I had to remove along the way – I even found one under my boob and later down the waistband of my leggings. Stealthy bastards.
As if that wasn’t enough, when we went back after lunch to change out of our sweat-drenched clothes before our next trek, we were greeted by a tarantula chilling on the rafters by our dorms. Definitely the most unique hostel experience to date.
Later that night, we set out into the jungle again but this time in the pitch black, armed only with a friendly ranger and a few torches (mine was especially pathetic).
Within seconds of stepping into the depths of the jungle, as the darkness swallowed us up, the most terrifying thing wasn’t the spiders or the insects, but our vulnerability as we became prey, not predator, in a territory that wasn’t ours. Needless to say all senses were heightened to the max.
A mile in we were stopped dead in our tracks by a low grumbling roar and instantly fight or flight kicked in.
Adrenaline soared through our bodies and we scanned the dimly lit path for an escape route. Terrified, we were glued to the spot, save for our ranger guide who advanced, calling back in louder roars to scare whatever it was away.
‘I’m going to get devoured in the jungle by a huge human-eating beast!’ I screamed, inside my head, an irrational – but understandable – fear of the unknown overpowering any common sense or self control (again).
‘It’s ok,’ the ranger said, ‘don’t be afraid.’
‘So what was it?’ we asked timidly.
‘Don’t worry, it was just a bearded pig,’ he laughed, in the face of danger.
We breathed a collective sigh of relief as we tried to trust him, cringing at how much of a pussy we were, and tried to laugh it off with him. But we were unable to shake the feeling we were being watched for the rest of the trek. Pig or no pig, it was bloody terrifying.
Then, no joke, not even ten minutes later, we practically fell onto a 2m long hungry python stalking across the path to hunt for mouse deer.
Ok, time out, get me out of here! Enough jungle vibes for now; Danum Valley, it’s been emotional.
We headed back into civilisation just for a few days, mainly to do a lot of laundry and soothe our bites, before embarking on our second immersive jungle experience, this time on the Kinabatangan River.
Joining with a fun group of Antipodeans, we stayed at Uncle Tan’s, along the swollen river – 4m higher than in drier months. ‘It’s the rainy season,’ our guide explained in our briefing, so we were told to expect a flooded campsite, welly-wearing and limited activities due to the water level, scaremongering us to be prepared for a very (very) wet and swampy experience.
We were pleasantly surprised. Swampy and damp yes; waist high water, ok; but floating mattresses, not quite.
Our camp was elevated, made up of a network of boardwalks and stilted huts standing over the water. It was amazing, a proper swampy jungle experience. That said, the water wasn’t enough to deter the jungle rats and we were advised to put all of our toiletries and perishables in a bucket outside the hut where we slept in case the they got at them in the night. I put the thought of nocturnal rodent roommates out of my mind pretty quickly.
Our guide, Lan, probably one of the most enthusiastic nature lovers I have ever met, took us out on boats to explore the dense jungle lining the Kinabatangan River. If we thought we were spoilt for wildlife in Danum Valley, this place took the biscuit. Even on the way to the camp on the first afternoon we saw a crocodile and three different kinds of monkeys, not to mention countless species of birds.
Waking up at the crack of dawn the next day we went on a search for the elusive, wild and endangered Orangutan, who came out to feed every morning between 7-9am at the fruiting trees. Unfortunately, and despite the guide’s best efforts, we weren’t able to see any (we saw fugly proboscis monkeys and ‘jungle mafia’ macaques instead) but Lucas and I had lucked out and seen a baby one and his mama a few days before in the Sepilok jungle.
He was right up close, swinging on branches and acting up like an attention seeking toddler. He even stared us right in the eye, dangling, legs akimbo, and peed straight into the canopy 😂 Unfortunately we didn’t get that bit on camera.
Due to the swampiness of the jungle there were no leeches (hurray!) but who knew what was lurking beneath the murky brown water that surrounded us. Lucas’ book had taught us to expect everything and anything harmful. So much so, after lunch we even saw a monitor lizard swim right past us in the flooded campsite. Five minutes later – and totally unperturbed by it – the guides jumped in and challenged the boys to a game of water volley ball. I guess that’s how you roll with nature in the jungle… Kudos to the boys, I didn’t get in.
On our last evening boat trip, Lan took us out onto the river to watch the flying foxes (think fox-faced bats with a 1.5m wingspan) take to the skies, jungle-bound for their evening meal. ‘They will come out at 6.23pm’, he said confidently.
We killed the engine halfway down the river, drifting with the current, and turned our heads to watch huge silhouettes appear as if from thin air, in the hundreds. It was like something out of a CGI Dracula film and right on cue; 6.23pm.
It was incredible. We watched until our necks ached, mesmerised by these majestic creatures flying through the sky as the sun was setting behind them. Definitely one of the coolest things we did and what a way to end our Kinabatangan jungle experience.
Right now, we’re de-jungling for a while and we’re prepping – more mentally than physically* – for our next adventure: climbing Mount Kinabalu at 13,000+ feet. Apparently the sunrise is ‘totally worth it.’
*I would say physically but it’s a struggle to motivate when cigarettes are £0.53 a packet and there’s Tiger beer in every fridge.
A quick Google couples the summit with words like ‘challenge,’ ‘feat,’ and ‘tackle,’ and the official site advises a fitness level of 3.5/5. So combined with potential altitude sickness and my aforementioned impractical Nikes, I’m not feeling so confident. But no one likes a moaning Myrtle.
If it was the jungle that gave me the fear before, it’s now Mount Kinabalu. Oh, may the mountain gods help me. I think I’d prefer a leech instead….