by Simon Hodgson
There are many eyes in the jungle, lots of them on you.
There are no crocodiles in my creek. For minutes I stare in silence at the brackish water before me, hoping, dreading, to see air bubbles. Nothing. Nothing but three men in the Borneo jungle.
The forest is both loud and quiet as we walk towards the lake. I can hear my breathing above the cicada sonata and try to soften my footfalls. Our guide Rashid barely makes a sound in his flip-flops. Chuck generates enough noise for the three of us. I follow his meaty calves, thick socks folded down over boots, and wonder whether all the pockets in his shirt and shorts actually contain anything.
We are three miles downriver from the road and I’m three days from the end of a journey which started five months ago in Kathmandu. Hornbills clattered from the low branches as our canoe passed, the racket as startling as the banana-colored casques on their beaks. Uncle Tan’s Jungle Camp is two hundred yards from the brown, slow-moving Kinabatangan River in Sabah. We left camp this morning on foot, tracking through the jungle to this little ox-bow lake.
Uncle Tan himself seems friendly enough, with his pot belly and talkative hands. But I’m tired. Tired of wearing the same clothes, tired of energetic travellers with clean shoes and to-do lists. Tired of the veterans with their hateful experience, their thong sandals and competitive questions about prices. Where do I fit, a skinny English kid armed only with an itchy little beard (which I won’t shave off) and a side order of sarcasm?
Ahead of me, my little curve of ox-bow lake. Fifty yards behind me, Rashid, smoking a homemade cigarette on a log. Chuck yelled over a while back, but neither of us responded. I felt a moment of unspoken kinship with Rashid. The clearing is quiet; geography classes seem like years ago – this kidney-shaped lagoon looks surprisingly like the ones in my school textbook.
Brits have been coming to Sabah for centuries. They followed the footprints of the Austrians, Americans and Chinese, leasing the country from the Sultanate of Brunei in the 1880s and exploiting it for lumber. When they retrieved Malaysia from the Japanese after World War II, the British moved the capital from timber-rich Sandakan to Jesselton on the west coast, closer to the trade and traffic of Singapore. My father was here as a Royal Naval midshipman in the early 1960s. It feels weird that we were both here at the same time in our lives. Home suddenly feels a long way away.
Jesselton is now called Kota Kinabalu, a bustling state capital which takes its name from Mount Kinabalu, at 4,095m, the highest peak in Borneo. I climbed the mountain a week ago, spending the night at a monastic hut before waking at 3am to trek up the windswept gray granite for a shattered sunrise. A week later and my knees are still sore. I only made it to the top by taking a step each time the girl ahead of me did. I seem destined to see the world in the calves of the person in front.
It’s a curious thing to do, to travel. Most of the world never ventures outside its own country. Budget airlines have shrunk the globe, turning it into a bouncy ball for rich kids. Am I just the latest in line, the latest ‘traveller’ to taste the stinky Durian fruit, to see Proboscis monkeys leaping between branches, to smell the rotting red and white flesh of the Rafflesia, the world’s largest flower?
They call it a ‘gap year’ in Britain. A year off between school and university, where you can goof off to somewhere hot and foreign, find yourself, work with refugees, teach English or just get a tan and smoke strong marijuana. I was taught how to smoke in Delhi by Boris, a Croatian waiter with an incredible vocabulary and Belsen bone structure.
He’d been waiting there for four years, reading fat paperbacks and smoking skinny joints. All his family were already in Adelaide, Australia. He was the last one to get a visa. He showed me a complicated technique that looked like the way cons smoke in a prison yard, cupping the cigarette inside your hand.
“If you want to smoke the J,” he’d wheeze, with the J sounding like “Chay.” His accent sounded like Russian villains in 1980s movies. Because he read so much, his language was phenomenal, but he had no idea on pronunciation. His reading was widespread, and recklessly indiscriminate. It was as if his brain already had the visa and was ranging round the world, while his body languished in a rooftop dorm bed in Delhi. He got the call while I was in the city – his visa had come through; though when I came back from a three-day trip to Jaipur, his bed was empty and his books were gone.
I’d gone to Jaipur to see Hawa Mahal. The Palace of the Winds was featured on the front cover of the Lonely Planet India guide and I’d fallen in love with it even before leaving Britain. It’s a five-tiered structure with more than 900 windows hidden in its pink stone facade, which wink like facets of a sapphire. It’s actually just that, a facade built so that the court ladies could look out on the market without exposing their faces. I’d felt slightly cheated by the struts to the rear which held the fascia upright, like the set of a Hollywood western, and never quite trusted the guidebook again.
Actually, I was disappointed that Boris didn’t leave his books. I’d run out of novels too and was secretly considering trading in my treacherous Lonely Planet for something with fewer pages, more plot. Lighter too; that thing weighed a ton. Why are those books so hefty – if any books deserve to be lightweight, they should be the books of a guy confined to 24 kilos of luggage by Royal Nepalese Airlines.
It was only years later that I realized the particular appeal of those heavy-duty guidebooks with their bright bindings. A friend in New York had moved into a new apartment the month before. Her carpets were clean, her television suitably massive and gleaming and her bookshelf half empty. On it were two or three novels, and a dozen Lonely Planet guides and I realised. For some, these were the adult equivalent of Star Wars figures, football stickers or Top Trumps. There’s the world, here’s your passport: collect ’em all!
I know that it’s not just about collecting guidebooks, but I’m still skeptical. There’s so much faith involved in travel. You never really know why you go. I think there’s a little of Christopher Columbus in anyone who packs a rucksack: something which makes them look for the new, or at least see it with their own eyes. As for me? I’m sitting in a clearing beside an ox-box lake with a kid in flip-flops and an American who’s a walking caricature in size 13 boots and I’m wondering why I’m here.
For the first time in weeks, maybe longer, I’m aware of the space. Not physical space, this swampy little watering hole in Eastern Malaysia where we came to find birds, or something bigger. Thinking space. For four months, I’ve been on and off buses, in and out of little cafes and grubby hostels. It’s a struggle for elbow room, especially in India, home of a billion human beings.
It’s a calming feeling. In the middle of the jungle, in the middle of almost everything which is foreign, to find room for myself. The air is still. The Philippines to the north are typhoon territory, but Sabah is known as “negeri di bawah bayu” in Malay: ‘the Land below the Wind’. I’ve traveled from the palace of the winds to the place beneath them.
A few feet away from my boots, the pond-skaters plot their own tiny paths and the midges hover a few inches above the water. There’s half an ache in my legs from sitting on the log but I don’t want to move or break the spell. A leaf drops into the middle of the creek, spiraling as it falls. I track back to where it fell from, up the tree, over the creek, to a branch where a leopard has been watching me all the time with jungle eyes of five-fathom green.
The silence is absolute. My chest is tight. I can feel the heat in my face. The leopard does not blink, does not move. Adrenaline follows a flutter of fear – this is Borneo’s biggest predator. The cat is incredibly still, as if he’d been sitting there for centuries.
Those who survive earthquakes say afterwards that they last far longer than those fractured seconds. For maybe as long as a minute, during which neither the leopard nor I look away, I feel a sense of timelessness, even immortality. Eventually, I signal to Rashid, who creeps over. The leopard’s location isn’t obvious; he’s only 25 feet away but motionless against the mottled green-gray branches that overhang the creek.
“Tiger!” he whispers. Fleetingly, I’m annoyed, fearing that Rashid’s lack of English might mar this transcendent moment; perhaps the last for an idiot Brit, a back-packing nit-picker who’ll make the news for getting eaten by a rare jungle cat. I don’t say anything though. We watch the leopard in silence for less than a minute, then he turns, crashes down the tree, melting into the jungle and we realize that there’d been two leopards up there all along.
The whole event is so sudden and the noise disappears as abruptly as it arrived. Chuck stomps up, attracted by the sound and our excited babble. Far from being disappointed at missing the cats, he’s delighted for me and pleased at being part of a successful expedition. He claps me on the back with a massive paw and I feel guilty for thinking about his clod-hopping boots.
Uncle Tan says that I am the first person ever to see a Clouded Leopard at the camp. “Very rare,” he says. He’s delighted. I tell the story four times in the space of two hours and go from scruffy kid to seasoned traveller in half the time. By the fifth iteration I’m a combination of Livingstone and Jacques Cousteau. I fall asleep with savannah dreams: Thompson’s Gazelle. Grevy’s Zebra. My Leopard.
Thinking back on it now, it’s not so much the image as the frisson of fear, the pure exhilaration. For those few frozen moments, my hair stood on end, like the ridge of fur on a leopard’s spine. I shaved when I got home; I didn’t need the beard anymore. If I hadn’t exactly earned any stripes, I’d found my spots. Years later, writing and remembering that hyper-real scene, I look across from my kitchen table into another apartment where a white cat with yellow eyes sits very still on a window sill. It catches my movement and turns to look directly at me, an unblinking yellow echo of the wild in the eye of every predator.
On Thursday 15th March 2007, conservation group WWF and US geneticists revealed that the Bornean Clouded Leopard was a new species. For more than 50 years, naturalists had thought that the Borneo cat was the same as the one which ranged across mainland Malaysia, Myanmar and southern China. The leopard’s secrecy makes it difficult to study, but until this year, no scientists had noticed the distinctive spot patterns of the Borneo leopard or its double stripe along the spine.
Simon Hodgson‘s story won the Gold Award for Animal Encounter in the Second Annual Solas Awards.
About Editors’ Choice:
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