A few days at Uncle Tan's

Trip Start Nov 06, 2006
Trip End Jun 15, 2007

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Flag of Malaysia  ,
Wednesday, May 16, 2007

They begin just kilometers away from the coasts. Row upon row of neatly spaced, spiky palm trees. Where just thirty years ago dense virgin jungle supported an incredibly diverse habitat of flora and fauna, there are now enormous plantations stretching off to the horizon. Palm oil has given boost to the economy, but the visible effect on the natural environment makes my head spin. The amount of change here is almost impossible to believe, and I wonder if at this pace anyone can know how much is too much, if we might easily pass some tipping point without knowing it.

A boat speeds us down the Kinabatangan River past more palm plantations which finally give way to lush rainforest. Our home for three days is Uncle Tan's Jungle Camp, a grungy cluster of wood and wire mesh cages and community areas connected by nearly submerged boardwalks. We've arrived during flooding season and the water has been rising quickly over the past two days. Lan, a gregarious smiley Malaysian with a close-crop haircut, bellows "Welcome to the jungle!" and makes each of us feel like a famous explorer as we step off the boat. Posted around the room are glossy photos of tarantulas, shiny black scorpions, green venomous snakes, and various other poisonous and potentially deadly creatures who will be our neighbors for the next few days.

On a series of boat trips, we spot countless species of colorful and impressively-sized birds, silver leaf monkeys, and the proboscis monkeys identifiable by the comically bulbous nose that hangs off their faces like an appendage on a Jim Henson puppet. They make athletic leaps from one tree to another in the canopy five stories above us. The trees bend and rattle and the leaves rustle as the monkeys move, and every once in awhile a large branch breaks off and crashes into the water near our boat. The night-time air is alive with the clicks, buzzes, chirps, and squawks of cicadas, bugs, and frogs. After dark, many of the birds sleep on branches near the water. I'm amazed as they sit unmoving while the group of us photographs them repeatedly with blinding flashes of light, hoping to capture the brilliant reds, yellows, blues, and greens of their feathers.

The boat trips are nice, but my favorite outing is a night-time romp where we pull on knee high rubber boots then wade out into water up to our waist in search of nocturnal critters. Within minutes our guide spots a scorpion hidden in the folds of a tree, but it skitters out of sight. Two minutes later, he's found another scorpion, this one a shiny, deep black and as big as a man's outstretched hand. It's a bit unnerving that in a few minutes he's found two of these within twenty feet of one another, and I project out how many there must be crawling around this entire jungle if they're this common. The guide suddenly plops it onto his palm, then asks us if we'd like to hold it. Fantastic! This goes pretty well except for a few times when it starts to skitter up the person's arm.

Todd spots something swimming near us and the guide casually says, "Oh, that's a water scorpion." The water we're in is well above our boots, and as I'm scrambling backward to get away from it, I wonder what it would be like to have a water scorpion swimming around inside of my pants leg. "They don't sting," our guide tells us, but the group of us continues to scan the murky ripples within view of our flashlights anyway. A bit later we come across an impressive 10-inch tarantula perched on a tree with 40 or so of her babies positioned around her.

All the wildlife here is captivating, though I'm a bit jumpy back at camp when I have to make a trip to the loo. (Alone! Without a guide!) But by this point I know that the big millipede on the floor is not a poisonous variety, so I don't need to worry about it.

The jungle has been fun and next we're off to Mt. Kinabalu!
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