Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Rainforest




We leave before dawn for a 7am flight to Lahad Datu. The airport is empty except for the few waiting for this flight and I wonder where all these people are heading to. They certainly don’t look like they are going jungle trekking. One elderly couple comes on an ambulance; he has a hospital band around his wrist. Perhaps he was discharged from the hospital and is going home to this remote village. On the tarmac is a small propeller plane. We board and much of the plane is empty allowing everyone a window seat. We fly at a low elevation and thus get a wonderful view of Sabah, the northern part of Borneo. Borneo, the third largest island in the world is represented by Brunei representing 1%, Malaysia 26% (Sabah and Sarawek) , and Indonesia 76% (Kalimantin). The Borneo rainforest is rich in diversity with 221 species of mammals and 420 species of birds, one of the most biodiverse places on earth, home to one of the only remaining species of endangered Borneo orangutans, and refuge for the Asian Elephant, Sumatran Rhino, Borneo Clouded Leopard, and Dayak Fruit Bat. We hope to see a few of these on this trip.

We take off over the South China Sea and coastal Sabah (northern Borneo) where we can see the islands, the houses on stilts along the island of Gaya, and then heavily forested mountains. Heading east, we can see Mount Kinabalu, its peak at 13, 435 ft. rising above the clouds. People have told us it is possible to trek the mountain, which takes 2 days, the second requires setting out around 3am. The rivers are brown curly ribbons running through lush green forest. Soon we see acres upon acres of what appears to be trees that are pinwheel shaped, forming interesting geometric patterns. I soon realize these are palm groves and my heart sinks to think that all of this land has been cleared of forest to plant palms. Apparently half of the annual global timber (hardwood plywood) is supplied by Borneo and thus logging has taken away much of the rainforest. Palms grown for palm oil encroach on the remaining forest.

The area is remote and tiny villages of a few lone houses appear between the groves. There is a clearing below and a single landing strip runs next to a line of metal shacks that are people’s homes. This is Lahad Datu - an actual small town with a few stores and gas station; much more developed than I had imagined. The airport is a single room with a whirring fan that does a fairly decent job of creating air movement in the very heavy and moist warm air. Gray clouds threaten rain. There is a single baggage conveyor sitting about 3 feet off the ground, that is not more than 10 feet long. A few plastic chairs line the wall and most of the local people are standing outside the main door. We are greeted by people from the Borneo Rainforest Lodge with a 4 wheel drive, who take us and another couple to their main office a few blocks away. We are met by the people we have been emailing and settle our account. One young man shows us where we are on the map and gives us some basic information; our bags are loaded on the back of a Toyota 4 Runner. The other couple is also from the US and we will be hiking with them. Guests are grouped by 4's and remain together throughout the stay. The 4 of us crowd into the SUV and are ready for the drive, having taken our Dramamine, and are prepared for a bumpy ride to the lodge.

The Toyota 4 Wheel Drive, fairly new, with A/C and good shock absorption, bumps along the sometimes gravel, sometimes muddy, sometimes dirt road, passing through a few checkpoints, each leading to more undeveloped roads. Although not terribly windy, there are some potholes and dips where we are jolted upright! Dense forest lines the road which is basically uninhabited-we encounter only one other SUV from the lodge going the opposite direction. We all agree, that it is not as bad as we had anticipated. After 2 1/2 hours, we finally arrive at the Lodge and are greeted by several staff who take our luggage and present each of us with a bamboo leaf lei. They take us to the top of the stairs, and it suddenly feels like we have been transported in time. In the middle of the jungle sits this beautiful lodge built of hardwoods, with high ceilings, which is beautifully decorated, open air on all sides with hardwood floors and several seating areas of rattan and upholstered armchairs. There is a large bar in the center of this huge area and small dining tables toward the back and on the adjoining balcony, all overlooking the river and forested mountainside. The lodge rooms are individual units all connected by elevated wooden boardwalks. The lodge is surrounded by lush vegetation - bushes and flowing trees. It is a lovely setting and we are treated to a nice buffet lunch of both Asian dishes and salad fixings. After lunch, we are briefed and scheduled for our first nature walk at 3:30. We learn that there is a set routine of activities, 4-5 day walks, night walk, and evening ride.

The adventure begins here as right before 3pm, the rain begins to fall, a drizzle turning into a downpour right before our nature walk. The guide decides to give us a video tour and introduction as we wait out the rain. The afternoon shower usually only lasts a few hours. After watching several dvds about the area, the four of us opt to go out in the rain, eager to see some wild animals! We are highly encouraged to purchase leech socks, simple loose stocking shaped covers that are sewn of cotton/polyester fabric and tie below the knee. You wear them over your socks and pant legs, inside your shoes. Fortunately, we had brought waterproof hiking boots. We are given large umbrellas since it is way too warm and humid for rain ponchos. The trail runs in the woods and we climb over tree roots and slosh through puddles; the ground is very wet and muddy. There is the sound of frogs, insects and animals, and falling rain. Leeches, what are they? The leeches are a lesson and adventure in themselves and we get an in depth lesson as they like the rain and warm wet bodies. They look like skinny worms that can extend and stretch their bodies. Apparently, they have suction cups at each end of their bodies, which they use to attach themselves to you. They look like a dancing worm, stretching themselves out toward us, trying to reach any part of us in order to adhere. They then crawl to find open skin and proceed to suck your blood. We weren’t too concerned at first, as the guide didn’t make too much of the fact that we would encounter them. However, we come to realize after the hike, that they can quickly burrow around your clothes, land between your fingers, or in my case, land on my neck. Feeling a sensation that something was on my neck, I brushed my hand back there to find something attached to my skin. I got to him before he began to suck and uncoupled him from me. They are difficult to get off as they quickly can attach to your finger! B. who was hiking with us, found one between his fingers, which left a bloody mess and continued to bleed, not profusely, but more like a shaving cut, for an hour. Leeches apparently deposit an anticoagulant as they suck. If you watch them on a leaf or rock, they seem to stretch out toward you as they sense your body heat, and almost jump to attach to your skin or clothes. Not dangerous, but they can quickly cause you to become phobic, thinking they are all over your body! Certainly not for the faint of heart.

We didn’t see any animals on this hike but did hear that others had seen an orangutan near the road. We were still hopeful and enthusiastic, despite the rain. We retired to the lodge to remove our soggy and muddy gear and check each other for leeches, reminding me of monkeys in the wild, which we didn't seem to be that far removed from. Dinner was buffet style, an interesting and delicious assortment of Asian and Western dishes. I am particularly attracted to the Malaysian curries and chili prawns. There is a table of fresh mangoes, melons and papayas at each meal. After dinner, we head out for a night drive in a misty rain which clears to a decent evening. We start out in the 4 wheel drive pick up truck, with our guide riding on a garden bench tied to the floor of the cargo area. In the middle of the dark jungle, we transfer to the flatbed of a truck, equipped with benches along both sides. We ride along the bumpy road, holding on tightly as the road is bumpy, while our guide, perched above the cab, shines a huge spotlight into the dark forest. Amazingly enough, he finds a leopard cat, civet, and flying squirrels by looking for eyes reflecting off his flashlight like little dots in the trees. My vision is not so sharp and I have a difficult time seeing them, even when he points them out with his green laser pointer. Through the binoculars, I am amazed to see the face of a leopard cat staring back at me. After a couple of hours of looking at eyes in shining back at us from treetops, we head back to the lodge.

Our room is closed in, with screens and glass on the doors and windows. There are no mosquito nets, and no need for them, as we had read about online. The floors are varnished wood and a powerful ceiling fan provides cooling. The bathroom is modern with a wonderful shower. The sliding glass door leads to a covered patio. Some of the rooms overlook the river, others the forest. We spend some time drying our clothes with the hairdryer - the air is so damp that our clothes seem to absorb moisture as they hang there. We fall asleep to the sounds of the rainforest - the insects and frogs calling and the pattering of rain.

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