As the small airplane banked right over Sabah in Malaysian-Borneo, the valley and the river snaking through it came in to full view. It was resplendent a thick shaggy green blanket swathed the hills. I was convinced there wouldn&rsquot be wiggle room for a finger in there. But as the plane flew lower and the coast came in to view, my heart sank. The green had been cleared in neat tracks all the way down to the sea, like someone had run a giant fork through the landscape.
We flew into the tiny Lahad Datu airport in Sabah, on the northeastern tip of Borneo. What lay ahead of us was about 430 square kilometres of almost completely primary forest, some of the oldest in the world &mdash the Danum Valley Conservation Area.
The Danum Valley Field Centre, a research centre, lies on the eastern edge of the conservation area and hugs the banks of the Sungai Segama river. On the drive in, we&rsquod already seen a couple of orang-utans and a host of other animals, reptiles and birds, a number of which I hadn&rsquot seen before. Orang-utans are the only great apes of Asia and are highly endangered. Their fast dwindling numbers are attributed to massive swathes of their habitat being clear-felled for palm-oil plantations. To see one in the wild, and so soon after we stepped into the forest, was a huge privilege. We reached the field centre just as dusk was falling. Our rooms here were functional and comfortable and we settled in for the night after a quick simple meal.
The next morning, we set out early, for the drama in the forest begins with the first light of dawn. We crossed the Sungai Segama on a suspension bridge and walked up a trail that led to a canopy-viewing platform perched high on a dipterocarp. Dipterocarps are lofty trees (they soar forty to seventy metres high and our platform was a dizzying sixty metres up). A ladder on the side of the tree needed to be negotiated let&rsquos just say it&rsquos not for the faint-hearted. It was like climbing the outside of an eighteen-storey building.
I was now in the emergent layer, way above everything else. Only a few dipts and some other fantastic, white-boled emergents were higher than me. Life in these rainforests is lived in the canopies. I could see red leaf monkeys jumping around and chasing each other in the canopies twenty metres below. The sounds from all around were almost dizziness inducing, closing in around me. The lodge was a speck in the distance. The nature of the forest was all too apparent from up here and I developed a new appreciation for the scale of this rainforest and the many levels on which life subsists here.
On the way back, we heard a loud, throaty &ldquowowwwow&rdquo &mdash a call you have to hear to believe. &ldquoWhat&rsquos that&rdquo I asked. I thought I&rsquod be told they&rsquore cicadas, pretty much the standard response to my queries about odd sounds. This time, it was an argus. Aah, I said, with a sage nod. Mental note remember to check the Borneo Field Guide. I did and &mdash wow, I had to see one somehow.
The night was full of forest sounds and a deep dark. The research centre had no electricity after midnight, so if you were to wake up at night, you couldn&rsquot even see the palm in front of your face. Flashlights are your best friend here. As dawn approached, the sounds changed slightly the hooting territorial calls of gibbons. The occasional call of an elusive rhinoceros hornbill and the chattering of the red leaf monkeys added to the medley that morning.
We got out early and immediately encountered a huge old orang-utan quietly chewing on dillenia flowers. He watched us unperturbed. Not quite ten steps from the lodge, we froze. About three metres away from us was one of the most elusive sights in the world. A clouded leopard &mdash head bent low to the ground, thick tail almost longer than its body &mdash crossed the road and disappeared into the bush. Just like that. Researchers live for years here without seeing this very shy cat. There was something very special about how suddenly and quietly it happened, like an unexpected cameo by a reclusive, very famous star.
Back at breakfast, no one spoke for a while and then everyone burst out chattering with excitement at what we&rsquod just seen. I could not wait to get out again, on the West Trail this time. Those trails were enchanting&mdashlike unexplored fairylands. Even at the leaf-litter level, they seemed charmed, with mushrooms, fungi and toadstools in colours I&rsquod never seen before. Some looked like fairy tutus, some like the backs of spotted deer. Others were frilly black and still others pristine white.
Mike, a researcher, was leading us on this trail. &ldquoShhhh&hellip,&rdquo he kept saying and we plodded along behind him as silently as we could. Someone or the other always ended up flouting rules and either guffawed or yelled out to another and drew frowns from our guide. Soon, the rain of the previous night made the going slippery and concentration stole our tongues.
Mike hurried along on the &lsquocoffin trail&rsquo (it takes you to an ancient burial site) and kept beckoning us to follow apace. Then there was that call again, the argus. It was somewhere in the forest ahead. We were tracking the argus &ldquoWe go 500 yards, then turn right. Then climb to see lekking [or mating] ground,&rdquo said Mike in his thick East Timori accent. The foot-chase was right out of an Indiana Jones movie, slick leaf litter over thick clay soil. Slippery terrain, if your shoes are not in great condition. The forest was wet and thick and the walking seemed to involve a great deal of climbing over fallen logs &mdash not something you can do with dignity. Then came decision time should we cross the stream on the creaky, mossy plank that lay across it We ditched that plank and waded across the stream. And then there was more climbing through slush.
As we crested a hump in the trail, Mike hunched and beckoned urgently, with a finger to his lips. We inched forward and, in the clearing up ahead, was the argus. The resplendent great argus pheasant stood four feet tall, blue-headed and spiky haired &mdash him of the lovely ocelli tail feathers. Lekking ground prepped and feathers preened, he was calling out to his mate. I wish we could have seen the dance routine too &mdash where apparently he flares his lovely feathers, full of eyespots, and hides his own eyes behind them, peeking out at her. He swished this way and that, unsure of us, and then strutted off pompously.
What a morning it had been. We&rsquod seen the forest in all its glory and two of its star performers. Could things get better still As it turned out, yes.
On our last day in Danum Valley, we woke up at 4.15am &mdash easy, because I did not want to miss a thing. A quick shower and we were all out by the 4WDs. We were going to the observation tower. The forests around us were swathed in mist and we climbed our way up a mountain just as the sky was beginning to get an indigo-purple hue that announced pre-dawn. I ran up the stairs to the observation deck and gaped at the scene before me. Mist pools, with the odd tree clumps peeking out as the haze ebbed and flowed around the forest. A changing, shifting scene.
The emergent layer was just catching the first rays of the sun, revealing bare, long white barks and red leaves. The mist was catching the pink of the nascent rays and lifting, shifting. The gibbons and the orang-utans were all there, hidden in the mist pools, as was that magnificent argus and that clouded leopard.
My mind rushed back to those fork scrapes on the landscape we had seen from the sky. It&rsquos all going. Fast. But in the clarity of that morning, I saw that nothing was more important to hold on to and preserve.