I had a transfer from Sepilok to Lahad Datu by road. It is a bit bumpy, but the road is straight and we made good progress through lots of little villages starting their Hari Raya Aidalfitri celebrations. The mosques were crowded with men dressed in brightly coloured silk pyjama-style suits. We passed many mopeds, driven by similarly dressed men, with their wives clinging to the back. At one point we went past a huge monitor lizard at the side of the road, ignored by everyone.
At Lahad Datu, I was dropped at an office belonging to the Danum Valley Rainforest Lodge where I was given a metal water bottle and introduced to Jannine, another London resident with whom I was to share the transfer the rest of the way to the lodge, and a guide once we got there. We got into a large 4×4 with a driver, who set off out of Lahad Datu and we were soon on the dirt road. It was actually in better condition than much of the tarred road from Sepilok. Our driver did not speak a great deal of English, but had printed cards to prompt him as he pointed out various highlights, such as a nice view over the canopy or a river. He gave us regular updates as to our progress towards the lodge. For me the highlight was a sighting of a rhinoceros hornbill which was not too high in the canopy or far away to photograph. Or at least that was the highlight until we came close to the final turn off to the lodge, where we could see wild orangutans high in the trees. It was a mother with a youngster. We could clearly see the youngster as he stretched mightily for a durian fruit and then went off to eat it once he had it within his grasp. If anyone is not familiar with durian, this is a tasty but foul-smelling fruit. If you are wandering through a market in this part of the world thinking the drains could use some attention, that is probably just the odour of an afternoon snack.
At the lodge we were met by our guide, Mike, a tiny ball of energy, who was to prove knowledgeable and enthusiastic, with a great sense of humour. I bought some leech socks from the gift store prior to our first walk. Leech socks in place, I sprayed on the insect repellent and was ready to go. For our first walk, we started along the boardwalk near the lodge, along the trail called the nature trail. It is not long and largely flat, and was meant to give us a chance to acclimatise a little to the jungle heat and humidity. The thick rainforest traps the humidity, and although most of the trails are shaded by the huge trees, it is extremely hot. Mike pointed out things like a hammerhead worm, and ancient plants which are the link between mosses and plants.
Within minutes all three of us were soaked in sweat, but the discomfort was forgotten when Mike heard over his radio of an orangutan sighting. We headed briskly on a short cut through the staff quarters towards the trail where a mother and baby could be found, and soon we were peering up at a mother with a year-old baby with a shock of mad scientist hair. We could see the baby clearly, but the mother was just a clump of fur with her back to us.
Photography is a challenge in the rainforest. Mostly it is very dark, and when light does penetrate it is very bright. All my photos involve the ISO pushed up to levels where there is a lot of noise in the photos, but it was clear to me that I would not be able to lug a tripod around on top of my camera gear and water in the heat and on slippery trails.
With our first walk complete, we headed back to the lodge. We then had a briefing from Mike to all the guests about what we would be doing during our time in the Danum Valley. It was hard to hear as it had begun to pour with rain. Also some small French children spoke all the way through the talk, which presumably they could not understand. Fortunately we were on a later night drive, and by the time we had eaten some dinner, it had stopped raining, and the children where nowhere to be seen.
We set off on the night safari, which is a short drive down the road in the back of a truck. I was sitting right at the back, so did not have a great view of the sightings. We saw an owl, some rhinoceros hornbills and a squirrel, so it was probably not their best night ever for sightings. The guide holding the spotlight got stung in the face, so he certainly did not have his best night!
The next morning we set off on the Coffin Trail. It is not called this because that is where you will end up, but because there are some old coffins on the route. The route is fairly easy for a while but then goes up very steeply. We started by checking on the wild orang utan mother and baby we had seen the day before, who remained in the tree we had seen them in the previous day. Leaving them to it, we headed off on the trail. After a very hot and steep scramble, we reached a platform. Before climbing up to it, we walked along a narrow ridge to see an old ironwood coffin. A blowpipe is all that remains inside. They believe that it house the remains of a chief of the village that used to lie below the ridge, and that he was placed there where he could watch over the village. It is amazingly small in diameter. Perhaps he was a skinny old man when he died.
After climbing up the stairs to the platform, we could see the remains of two other small coffins. One is believed to have been for an infant, and the other to have been used for skeletal remains, perhaps of someone who had died in the forest and been discovered after some time. Fragments of a skull and jawbone are also visible.
From there it is a steep climb but not far to the top of the trail. In places you have to haul yourself up on a rope, where the trail is steep and slippery. Once there, we could hear the distinctive call of gibbons. They were incredibly hard to photograph because they swing at a frantic pace and with amazing acrobatic ability through the trees. I will not share my photos of gibbon hands and backs! I was hoping to catch one as it paused on a branch.
There were a number of groups which had all met at the top, and the guides pointed out a bay cat. We could just about see it peering from a fork in a tree, and just when it looked like it was going to come into the open, along a clear branch in sunlight, a small child discovered a leech on her tummy and let out some piercing shrieks. Bay cat and gibbons vanished.
Bay cats have only ever been photographed five times in the wild. I was sure I was about to secure a rare photograph, so while the child’s dismay was understandable, it is very frustrating that she spoiled the wildlife viewing for everyone that day. What the parents were thinking, allowing such young kids to undertake such an arduous trek in that heat is anyone’s guess. They were lucky none of them ended up with heatstroke.
The view from the top is of the lodge on one side and the canopy stretching out below on the other. We watched some hornbills hopping about on a tree far below for a while. It was impressive to see how high we had climbed.
We headed on to the Fairy Falls, a pretty spot for a short break, and best of all, rather cool as the falling water generates a breeze, which was very pleasant. It made a nice break, especially since heading down was harder than heading up the steep and slippery trail. Fortunately there is a rope to hold on to, so I turned around and sort of abseiled down the steep bits. We headed on, crossing the stream about five times before arriving with wet feet at the natural pool called the Jacuzzi Pool where we could have a swim. I decided not to swim, as I was not sure I could bear to put my wet shoes and socks back on if I removed them to swim. The pool contained fish about the size of my hand that came to nibble on the heels of the swimmers. After that, it was a short walk back to the lodge.
After a shower and lunch, we set off for another walk in the afternoon. That afternoon was particularly oppressively hot, and I really felt it badly, feeling dizzy. It was very muddy in places, and eventually I slipped and fell. Fortunately Mike was carrying my camera and other than a jarred wrist, I was fine, if rather muddy. I felt bad for Jannine, who was feeling full of beans and had to go at my glacial pace. We saw nothing on the trail, but just as we got near the lodge, we saw a flash of red in the trees. These were red leaf monkeys, who sat and ate fruit in a tree right above us as we watched. They were not too worried about us, as we watched and photographed them. Unfortunately it was almost dark and not many of the pictures came out, but they were fun to watch. Two youngsters swung high on a branch just being kids as the rest of the troop fed. It was lovely to see these monkeys which are endemic to Borneo, with their huge and rather mournful eyes.
When we got back, Mike suggested Jannine and I should avail ourselves of the jacuzzi feature in our rooms. This was a large outdoor bath, with no bubbles, but after my fall a soak sounded nice. He sent us to the bar for a G&T while the staff filled the tubs. We may have waited too long for this to be done, because the the bath was cold and not appealing even in the heat, so I did not linger in it. After dressing, I went to dinner. As I got there, I felt something soft through my trousers on my thigh. I went to the loo to see what it was, and when I pulled my trousers down a fat leech dropped to the floor, engorged on my blood. It had attached itself to the front of my thigh, just in the crease of my hip. Goodness knows how it got there, presumably it got on me when I fell earlier. It did not hurt, but bled copiously. It was still bleeding when we got back from our night walk, hours later.
Our night walk was short but yielded some lovely sightings. We started at the pond near the entrance to the lodge, where there were lots of frogs and a couple of little snakes fancying frog for dinner. We pressed on around the staff quarters. Passing a huge tarantula on a tree, we saw a beautiful kingfisher which had found a roost for the night but was not yet asleep. I was proud of myself, as I photographed the tarantula without any histrionics, as I do have a phobia of spiders. I would not have been happy to see this chap in my room, but on the tree I could admire him from a safe distance!
The next morning we had an early start on the canopy walkway. The walkway is about 30 metres above the ground, linking several huge trees, and is about 300 metres long. It was a misty morning and we saw no wildlife. There was no time to linger on one of the platforms to see if any birds would appear, as we were being pursued by the French families with the noisy children who had disturbed all the animals the day before. With the din they were making, there was little hope of any sightings, and we headed back so I could pack and head off to my next destination, Sukau on the Kilabatangan River. It was a bit of a shame that we rushed the canopy walkway. When done I realised I had taken no decent photos, as it was all a bit of a mad dash, and I had been looking forward to it. Maybe one day I will have to go back and do it again. Just not during the school holidays!
After saying goodbye to Mike and Jannine, I headed back along the road to the Lahad Datu office. I was hoping we might be lucky enough to see elephants along the way, as evidence of their presence can be seen all along the road, but sadly I had no such luck. Perhaps the Kilabatngan River would deliver in that regard.