Monday, October 25, 2010

A Misty River in Borneo

Whenever I see photos of a misty forest, I imagine it is cool there.....but in Malaysia I learned that this is not the case.  Although there were wonderful mists in verdant green forests, it was hot....but the beauty was still there.  This photo doesn't capture it, but serves as a reminder of a gorgeous place with gorgeous wildlife.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Combed Agamid Lizard

 We ran into this combed agamid lizard in the Danum Valley in Borneo.  There were two fairly close together, and they didn't mind posing for photos.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Amazing Roots, and Ancient Burials in Borneo

 One morning on a long hike in the Danum Valley, a primary growth rainforest in Borneo, we went to an ancient burial site.  Supposedly the indigenous rainforest people of the past were animists who believed that the higher you are placed, the easier you will get to heaven.  At the top of a peak there was a wall of rock.  From the top of the rock, tree roots grew down - at least 30 feet.  I've taken a photo of the roots looking up from the ground as well as one looking down from near the top.  Photos can't capture it, but it was a very cool tree.

Near the tree, on top of the rock, there were some ancient burial caskets.  Bornean Ironwood (a very hard wood) logs were hollowed out, and inside the body was placed along with weapons - the blow dart used for poison dart hunting.  Supposedly the higher the casket was placed the higher in the society a leader was placed.  We saw the remains of one casket on which the carving was still evident, and the tools were still visable inside.  However, the body was no longer there - supposedly the casket rolled down from above at some point and no one knows what happened to the contents.  According to our guide, it would have taken at least 50 men to carry the casket up through the forest to where it had been, the highest point in the forest.  Since it was not an easy climb, I didn't envy that experience.

It was a beautiful place, to live and to die.  Whoever that warrior leader was, long ago, he obviously got quite a sendoff.  I could only imagine the life he led in that forest, as I stood surrounded by trees so old, they might have been already growing when he was alive.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Pool of Biting Fish

At the Borneo Rainforest Lodge deep in the rainforest, there is a beautiful pool fed by a waterfall.  It is known as the Jacuzzi Pool and several of the trails from the lodge lead there.  The pool is filled with biting fish, but the bites are supposedly not painful.  A popular treatment in asian spas, the fish, a kind of carp, bite the dead skin off human feet.  I found it hard to believe that anyone would pay to get bitten by fish.  In nature, the experience was free, but I wasn't sure it was one I wanted to have anyway.

One day we went on a long hike to a viewpoint, and given the heat and humidity I was completely drenched.  Although I dreaded the idea of getting back into my sweat soaked clothes, I was hot enough that I decided to brave the fish and swim in the pool.  The water was nice and cool - not very cool - but much cooler than I was.

The fish swarmed me when I stepped into the pool and I was surprised by how much I could feel them biting.  It wasn't really painful but it was like getting pinched pretty hard by small fingers.  My guide told me to keep moving if I didn't want them to bite me.  I swam out to the waterfall to get in deeper water and then kept my arms and legs moving.  This, unfortunately, resulted in me getting bit on the ass.  So I began to try to wiggle that too - and keep all portions of my body moving underwater.  Although the water was cool, all that moving heated me up again, so eventually I decided to get out.  I probably got about a dozen bites in 20 minutes. 

It was a beautiful place to be - biting fish aside.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

View of the Primary Rainforest in Borneo

I will go through a lot to see animals in the wild....but I am not one to want to endure harsh conditions just for a view.  I never want to pass up a chance to see those hard to find animals, and I accept that in order to do so, hiking through leeches, in extreme humidity and heat, in rain, through jungles, up steep slopes, are all required.  When there is an animal at the end, it's all worth it, and I never regret the effort, no matter how many bug bites or thorns I endured, no matter how much sweat it took.  When there is not an animal though - especially on long hikes where there is just not one mammal to be found - although I realize it's a risk you take, I am always disappointed, and the suffering of the hiking and the conditions seems oppressive.  I actually envy - and do not understand - that some people can get to the top of a hike, find no animals, and actually think the view alone is worth it.  That's not how I'm wired I guess.  Yes, there is a nice view - but was it worth what I just went through to see it?  No, my friend, NO, it is not!!!  What's done is done, I usually make the best of it and snap a photo, but photos never begin to capture landscapes in my opinion, so it's nearly pointless except to remind me of the place I was, where I didn't find the animal I was hoping for.

This is a picture taken from a viewpoint I hiked up to in blazing humidity, with an injured foot, hoping to see Bornean Gibbons.  Those elusive, fast moving, loud calling gibbons that I could hear around 4am from the lodge.....I wanted to see them badly enough to undertake the hike even though my foot was killing me.  The humidity and heat, and leech socks and tucked in clothing (trapping more heat, ug!) made sweating a constant, so all my clothing was completely soaked and my backpack was stuck to my back.  I crossed my fingers for Gibbons, scraping the leeches that were crawling up towards me off my walking stick, climbing over roots and slipping on leaves on the forest floor.  And in the end:  I got this photo.  Note the absence of gibbons.  Damn. I look at this and think "This is the place I didn't find gibbons." 

This is a primary growth rainforest in Danum Valley in Sabah, Malaysia on the island of Borneo.  It is hot, but it really is beautiful.  The photo doesn't begin to capture the experience.  I would never have make the trek just to see it, but it really was pretty amazing.  Though I didn't see them, I know the gibbons were in that forest somewhere, and so were orangutans and many other species of primates, not to mention the other mammals, the bees and insects, the birds and flowers.  It would be nice to feel an elation or sense of accomplishment or some thrill at finding such a good view, but for some reason, for me personally, those feelings don't come up after a an arduous hike unless there is a mammal, or at least a rare reptile or frog!  If you are one of those people who can actually say (and mean it) "What a great view!" and be happy, enjoy that!  Take some massive hikes and see the world - be glad that it is worth it even if you don't find the gibbons.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Tiger Leeches (Terrestrial!)

Leeches that live on land are, fortunately, NOT something I have to deal with in Idaho!  I first learned about them before my trip to Madagascar, but I was lucky enough not to get any of them on me that trip.  I did get some in Australia in the Daintree rainforest, and it was gross.  In Borneo, I did see them - and there were two kinds.  Brown leeches were supposedly on the leaves on the forest floor and "painless," while tiger leeches, pictured here, are on leaves throughout the forest, not just the ground, and supposedly "hurt a little bit."  Luckily, thanks to vigilance, leech socks, extensive shirt tucking and covering of skin (hard to do in the heat) and some pure luck, I didn't get any leeches that attached to me.  I *did* get a few on my hand...because the leeches crawl up the walking stick!  It is creepy to see them on the forest floor straining up towards you as you walk by, looking for a meal.  My guide, Ryan, put this tiger leech on his hand to show how the leech moves on you looking for a good attachment spot - eeeewwww!!!  Something about these critters is just unpleasant!  That being said, I am glad that a fear of leeches does not keep me from going to some of the world's most interesting rainforests.  I will probably find myself in many more leech areas before my life adventure is over....if I'm lucky.

It is interesting how when you or someone in your group gets leeches, you get hypersensitive and every little thing freaks you out as being a leech.  I am sure to live there you have to get over it.  Everytime I found one on my hand I felt like there were more.  For women, there is the additional complication that if you have to, at some point, eliminate all that water you have been drinking while hiking in the humidity, you put delicate parts very near the forest floor, and risk attachments of leeches in areas you dare not dream about!  I met two 80 year old ladies who were birdwatching in Madagascar when they unfortunately got leeches in their private parts, a tale that horrified me so much I vowed to never, ever pee in a forest with terrestrial leeches!  (Men have it so easy on that front!)  This trip, one girl in my group got a leech in her bra and one on her butt.  Ug!!! I know I can't avoid them forever...but I do hope to keep them out of certain areas forever!!!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Wild Male Orangutan

Well, though I am a bit bummed that I only saw one wild orangutan, I am thrilled I saw one.  It was very hard to get photos as we were in a boat on a moving river, and it was never still....and these are the best I got.  Orangutan means man of the forest, and this lone male orang certainly seemed like a gentle man of the forest as I watched him having breakfast over the Kinabatangan River.  Most of the time he was facing away from me, but these shots are from the rare 2 minutes he chose to give me a glimpse of his face.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Longtail Macaques

I often saw longtail macaques in Borneo.  Medium sized to small, these playful primates live in family groups.  One night froma  boat on the river we watched a family with many youngsters playing in the trees.  This page shows an adult that is about to lean down and get some fruit on a branch above the water, and a mother and baby.  The mother is about to climb up and is scoping the path, while the baby clings to her.  I saw this species interact with orangutans at the sanctuary, sit near proboscis monkeys without incident, and play with one another with pretty clear joy.  I would guess we ran across them at least a dozen times in 10 days, if not more.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Monitor Lizards

I saw three or four monitor lizards in Borneo.  One was in a tree, and it came down and wandered across in front of me while I was alone in a wildlife preserve.  The others we saw along the banks of the Kinabatangan river.  These look exactly like Komodo dragons, only smaller.  They clean up anything dead in the rainforest quite quickly as they are effective scavengers.  It is interesting to see their forked tongues and tough, scaly skin.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Rhinocerous Hornbill

I am not a birder.  I cannot really understand the checklist approach to wildlife viewing, or enjoying something I have to see through binoculars.  I like that birders support ecotourism and wish them no ill, but I definitely don't like to travel with them!  I was lucky in that this last trip no one was a birder - two people liked birds but they were not obsessive about it!  I do see a lot of birds in my travels, and when there is no mammal to photograph, sometimes I take photos of the birds just for practice.  I saw lots of hornbills in Borneo.  This is a rhinocerous hornbill.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Western Tarsier

I never expected to see the Western Tarsier, as it is very rare, nocturnal, and small - a bad combination for viewing chances.  However, on my last night excursion in Borneo, I lucked out.  A Western Tarsier was on a branch near the road and we were able to view it with flashlights from very close up, for several minutes.  We also got to see it jump - and it has GREAT jumping skills, like a little spring with hands!  This is one cute animal!  The big eyes, the long fingers, the long toes and tail - it is just everything you could want a cute little mammal to be.  It eats mainly insects.  It is considered the Holy Grail of night walks and night drives in Borneo and everyone hopes to see it without expecting to.  One of our night walks, the guide found one, but no one got to see it before it moved off...which was a bummer since we were hiking in the dark, in the jungle, with leeches and snakes, in mud, sweating like crazy...hoping to see some sort of mammal.  It is particularly frustrating to know you JUST missed it!  Surely we could not be lucky enough to get near one twice, so I stopped hoping....only to have an EXCELLENT view of one the last night there!  The beauty of wildlife travel is you just never know what great thing you might see!

Night photography almost never works out for me - I don't have the skill set or the right camera.  Even though these photos are not perfect, I was thrilled to get them so that I have some record of seeing this great creature!  A friend I met on the trip also shared her photos with me, so I credit Melissa with the photo on the left and the one on the right is from my camera.  It is always a challenge in a vehcile that is never quite still, at night, using zoom, and the illumination of a flashlight - to get a good picture!  Hopefully it captures enough of the cuteness for you to get an idea, until of course you go looking for this creature in the jungles of Borneo or Indonesia yourself.  I wish you luck in finding one!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Pygmy Elephants

I was lucky enough to see and spend time with some pygmy elephants in Borneo, along the Kinabatangan River.  The first night we were there, we looked for the elephants and could see where they had been - areas of pushed down grass along the river bank, but they did not come out.  We stayed out looking for them until after dark.  The guide and the boatman said they could smell them nearby...and sure enough, we did hear them calling to each other. 

The second night (apparently the elephants typically make their appearance in the evening) we were lucky enough to find the elephants.  My group of 7 people were really interested in wildlife, and everyone was very quiet and patient and so we sat with the elephants and watched them for over an hour.  At one point another boat came by, but most of the time we had them to ourselves, which was great.

I was surprised by many things.  First, they are SO cute because they are SO small compared to the African elephants I have seen!!!  They are about 5 or 6 feet tall.  It is really hard to get a photo with any sense of scale at all.  But, I tried to get the trees and the grass and the elephant in one of these shots for some perspective.  The grass is about 5' tall, that would be my best guess - but it is hard as I was sitting in the boat and not walking through the grass. 

I was also surprised at how close we were to the elephants.  In the water, we were only a few feet from them.  They were tolerant, so they must be reasonably habituated to the boats. 

I saw a baby pygmy elephant playing in the water with obvious pleasure for a very long time.  I was surprised that all of the elephant, even the trunk tip, went underwater.  I was also delighted to see the elephants blowing bubbles in the water, like when kids blow through a straw.

Overall, these elephants looked like mini versions of the elephants I have seen in Africa.  The ears are different, and the fact that these females don't have tusks. 

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Proboscis Monkeys

Although I did not get any really good photos, I did get to see proboscis monkeys several times in Borneo.  These monkeys have large stomachs as they process poisonous fruits and leaves as ruminants do and they can't tolerate sweet fruits.  The males have very large noses and the females have smaller noses.

These primates were smaller than orangutangs but larger than the other primates we saw there.  For some reason their legs look much more similar to human legs than legs of other primates I've seen.

We were lucky enough to see a few babies, but not lucky enough to get photos.  I've decided this photo is the best one I have of a proboscis.  I always saw them from a boat, they usually moved higher or a bit away when we were near, and as I had to zoom in, there was never a totally still moment to get a great photo.  Ah, but it was nice to see them and watch them anyway!!

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Borneo: Land of Orangutangs, and much more!

I've wanted to go to Borneo for a long time.  Having seen gorillas and chimps in the wild, I wanted to see oranutangs as well, and Borneo is the best place to do that.  I anticipated it would be a harder trip, so I wanted to do it sooner rather than later...and I recently got to go as a 40th birthday present from my husband!  It was a very good trip and I would like to go back! 

As it turns out, I did not go at the best time to see orangs in the wild because it was "fruiting season," and when fruit is available widely, the animals are widely dispersed and it is harder to see them.  It's also a year when trees that fruit only every few years were fruiting, so that means even more choice for the animals.  I did see a large male in the wild, but only one.  The rest of the orangutangs I saw were in sanctuaries.  The sanctuaries are not like zoos, they are simply protected areas of natural habitat, but they contain feeding platforms and the orangs are given two meals a day on the platforms.  The orangs are orphans which are being rehabilitated, and all of the orangs you can view have been released into the sanctuary and they forage for food naturally, but have the supplement of the feeding platform when they need it.  They are not caged and are free to leave anytime.  As a result, some feedings only one or two young orangutangs may show up, and other times, 10 or more, it all depends on how available food is in the forest.  Whether to appear is completely the orangutangs option, which is nice.  However, I much prefer seeing animals in a completely natural habitat, not habituated to humans, and since I only saw one orangutang under those conditions, I would like to head back sometime, in April when my chances are better for seeing wild animals.

I was a bit concerned about three things this trip - none of which proved to be a real problem.  First, scorpions.  I have heard some stories of people getting stung, and while I generally do not fear snakes when traveling as I know they will move off, I don't know enough about scorpions and I did not want to get a nasty bite in a remote area....but I only saw one, and it was already dead of natural causes. 

I was also concerned with getting terrestrial leeches, which I was told was basically "guaranteed."  They are very plentiful int he forests and there are two kinds - brown leeches and tiger leeches.  While I did encounter leeches, I was lucky enough to get all of them off of me before they attached, so I never had to go through the detaching or bleeding process.  There were a number of close calls - but I made it!  And, the truth is, leeches are a gross out factor not a real danger or health hazard, so even if I got them I would have gotten over it.

The third concern was traveling in a largely Muslim area of the world as an American.  While I personally do not have anything against Muslims, I am well aware that there has been a lot of anti-Muslim hysteria post 9/11 and I could easily see Muslims resenting that view and resenting being blamed for the actions of a few nutball extremists.  Certainly the average Christian does not get blamed for the acts of the extreme right wingers who shoot doctors who perform abortions, yet for some reason, many people blame Muslims for the acts of the extremists who acted on 9/11.  I was angry that two days before my trip the fruitball in Florida was planning the stupendously stupid Koran burning stunt...which though canceled, was yet another insult to Muslims.  In the Bush administration, I had some uncomfortable moments holding the American passport at various checkpoints and I had some concerns about what it would be like to travel in a country that is largely Muslim in this era of fear and prejudice, particularly since I am female and traveling alone.

I had absolutely no problem whatsoever with the Muslim population, and I think any discomfort I had at holding the American passport was largely my own fear and guilt/embarrassment about the actions of other Americans towards non-extreme Muslims.  I did have a strange encounter with a young Muslim couple who wanted to have their photo taken with me (I don't understand why at all, but it was a harmless request and the young woman was so excited about it that I didn't have the heart to refuse her request - spoken in tentative English).  However, that was more amusing than anything else.  I do not envy the Muslim women their headscarves in that super hot climate, and it was definitely different to have everyone at airport security be a Muslim woman in a police uniform with a headscarf, but hey, different is part of the fun of travel.

In the days to come I will put up pictures of the wildlife I saw, with the caveat that the photography conditions were overall not great!  The humidity was near 100%, which can cause fog in the lens.  There were rainstorms, some of which doused the cameras despite my best efforts.  The lighting when we saw animals was often bad, the animals move quickly, and often we were in a boat or on a platform that was constantly moving, causing most of the photos to be out of focus.  I did my best, and hopefully got a few good photos along the way, despite my cameras quitting on me now and then! 

This starter photo is a young orangutan at the Sepilok sanctuary.