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SOS Rhino : In the News : Articles : COME HELL OR HIGH WATER!


  By Dr Christina Wong

"Come Hell or high water, I am going into the jungle to see what it is all about", those were my thoughts when I set out on my journey to Borneo in February 2006.

I had just spent four idyllic days on the island of Mabul and indulging in my new passion of scuba diving on the beautiful islands of Sipadan, Mabul and Kapalai (just off Semporna in Sabah). The sea was warm and the fish plentiful. I swam with hawksbill turtles and green turtles, 'watched' the white tip sharks 'watching me' and looked up in awe at the schools of barracuda swirling above me. The coral fishes in their multitude of colours just too beautiful to describe but a vision to behold. Watching the beautiful sunset over the sea in the evenings was both romantic and spectacular. Sipadan Island is one of the world's best diving resorts and long may it last, for diving here is an experience of a lifetime. Alas, time flies when you are having fun and before I know it, it was time to leave this little piece of 'heaven' as I traveled north to find the jungle experience that I have been threatening to conquer.

Pix shows Dr. Christina Wong at Sipadan island.

We drove from Semporna to Lahad Datu on 3rd February after a slight delay leaving Mabul Island. The next day we travelled to Dagat village to begin our journey into the forest. We overnight in Dagat and met up with RPU 2 of SOS Rhino Borneo. This RPU (rhino protection unit) is under the very capable leadership of Suzali and comprise of four other young men. Their job is to protect and track the rhinos and other wildlife in Tabin Wildlife Reserve. There are five such units in SOS Rhino, each team being assigned a specific area of operation although there are some crossovers occasionally.

Putting on the leech soak while RPU prepared camp under heavy rain

The weather had not been too kind, as there had been heavy rain over the last few days and the river was swollen and flowing fast. The normally clear river was the colour of milky coffee…. More like cappuccino, complete with froth and all!! The froth is the result of the water churning and mixing with mud as it flows swiftly downstream carrying with it, much debris. It all looked very ominous the morning we left Dagat , headed for the campsite at Sungai Burung (Bird River). Our leader, Dr Edwin Bosi deemed it safe to travel and off we went, our eagerness not even slightly dampened by the weather. As we motored upstream in our narrow boat, we had to negotiate over a tree that had fallen across the river but not too many rafts of water hyacinths, which usually choke the river. They must have been washed away to sea by the raging river. The rain fell in heavy intermittent showers, but the rain was warm and not too intimidating. In between showers we saw birds that were not deterred by the rain, going on with their daily routines. Oriental darters fishing away, egrets surveying the rapidly rising water and 'fast fish', pied hornbills squawking to announce their presence and the odd kingfisher resigned that 'fast food' (fast fish!) was the only thing on the menu for the day!

Pix shows the foams on the surface of the Tabin river

We got to Sungai Burung and the team very quickly set up camp. It was an education, watching the 'boys' work. They all seemed to know what to do with very little verbal communication between them. In no time at all, the flysheets were draped over the crude cross members made out of saplings that were cut and left from a previous trip. The hammocks were set up and the fire lit for the 'wee cuppa'. In the meantime, I was being attacked from all quarters by mosquitoes, midges and jungle leeches!! Armed with only half a small container of mosquito repellent I was rooted to the spot where I stood, with arms flailing, in a vain effort to keep the airborne attackers at bay. Little did I know that leeches too can be airborne, even when they are supposedly terrestrial. They lurked under every leaf that I could see. There is a saying, "You get what you think about most"…. yes, in the situation the only thing a 'townie' can think about are the leeches! So at every turn all I saw were leeches stretching, craning, elongating and leaping to get at me! A couple of painless bites later, I settled myself to the fact that these little invertebrates are here to stay especially as I was invading their territory. The least I could do was donated a few drops of good 'O' positive blood. The rain continued to fall steadily, but under the canopy of the forest (and fly sheets) it was cool and pleasant.

A leech on a branch waiting for passing warm-blooded victim

Dr Edwin and the boys felt sorry for me as I flailed about, so my hammock and mosquito net was put up as a matter of urgency and I climbed into my little haven… safe from the aerial attacks of the flying insects and the dreaded leeches (or so I thought!). This is the life…. Cup of hot chocolate in hand and good book….what more can a body want? This was when I realized that leeches are like commandos because they managed to scale up the struts two feet above ground and work their way into the mosquito net. All for the sweet taste of my blood! Citronella spray and Mopiko cream to the rescue and the enemy was soon defeated but that did not deter them.

Reading inside the mosquito net

The river was rising fast and before we knew it we were surrounded by water. Dr Edwin made the decision to move camp. A very wise move as by the time the other site was established (which was less than an hour) the original campsite was totally submerged in water. That was a close shave! Even the boat had to be brought into the forest…. a first apparently! By now it was dusk and the mosquitoes were rife so I stayed well in my little haven …..the service was excellent, I asked for 'room service'. The food was simple but delicious, all freshly cooked by the boys. Over dinner the forest orchestra provided the background music (or cacophony).

First camp under water

I was woken in the middle of the night by a slight nip on my neck, a vampire perhaps, no it's the dreaded leech giving me a love bite! Shortly after that a loud crack followed by a resounding crashing noise woke everybody up. A large branch has fallen about 20 meters away from our campsite, an unnerving experience for all of us.

The rain continued through the night although the river had somewhat subsided by daybreak. The decision was made at breakfast to abandon the trek as the rain would hamper any prospective work. We motored downstream to Dagat in half the time it took us to go upstream. The river was still murky and flowing quickly and the rain unrelenting but it did not stop a wild boar foraging by the riverbank. Not too many birds braved the wet morning as they stayed under the forest canopy to keep dry.

Back at Dagat, we were told that a lone male orang utan had been seen across the river eating the shoots of the thorny 'nibung' palm. We did not have to wait too long before he turned up for his dinner of four palm shoots. That evening the monkeys were having a dinner party! A troupe of grey leaf monkeys came to feed and play among the nipah palms across the river, they were a sight to see! In between showers the brahminy kites glided overhead while surveying the river for a quick supper while the red breasted swallows swooped for low flying insects for theirs. Lo and behold a pair of leeches were at the bottom of the stairs waiting for me, having followed me back from the forest… that's what I call determination!

Viewing the orangutan at Dagat village

The weather did not improve much overnight and the next day we were rewarded with a very close look at the bold and hungry orangutan. . According to Dr Edwin, who is quite an authority on orangutans, this is a male of approximately 20-25 years. In the pouring rain he diligently and methodically made a quick meal of five palm trees. How he swung on the thorny palms is still a mystery to me, the thorns of this palm are thick and very sharp. He seemed quite relaxed as he scaled the palm tree and was totally unfazed by the prickles as he peeled off the outer leaves to get at the tender shoots. Apparently, this indicates that the food sources for the orangutan are scarce which makes him resort to eating palm shoots. As quickly as he arrived, he departed with his belly filled to perhaps return on another day.

Adult male orangutan eating the palm

At Dagat, I learnt quite a lot about village life. The village chief earns his living by fishing for prawns in the river, helped by his wife. The prawns are sold to middlemen who take the prawns to the towns and sell them on. The prawns are either caught in fish traps called "bubuh" or in cast nets. These fresh water prawns are large and very tasty. The chief's wife also make "atap" which are wefts of palm leaves sewn over a palm rod, the effect is of thatch roofing. These versatile wefts can be used not only for roofing but also for walls as the leaves are quite water-proof.

Huge freshwater prawns and learning from the expert (village chief's wife) to make atap roof

As the saying goes, "All good things have to come to an end", it was soon time to leave. I never got conquering the jungle but I got close to the "hell or high water". I think I have conquered my fear of the leeches or at least I know what to take with me the next time, if there is a next time! Knowing my determination (taking a leaf out of the leech's book), I will be back! This time I will be armed with large canisters of citronella mosquito spray, large tubes of Mopiko ointment (kills leeches on contact!), special trousers with zipped gussets for quick toilet purposes, freshening wipes (in case of floods and poor washing facilities), a couple of pairs of leech socks, beekeeper's hat (to keep mosquitoes and leeches out of my ears!!), a flash light, a pair of binoculars and a good book!


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