When I was in my final year of primary school we studied the rainforest and I was fascinated by the topic – partly because we had an amazing teacher who built a rainforest in the corner of our classroom, but also because they contain so many different species of plants and animals in such large numbers. The fact that some of these species may never have been discovered by man made me want to leave school and become an explorer. So when I found out I was moving to Borneo I was filled with a childish excitement, tempered only by my dislike of spiders and other creepy crawlies that my eleven year old self hadn’t considered at the time.
Brunei’s rainforests are pretty amazing. Seventy per cent consists of primary rainforest, and there is so little tourism that you can practically have entire swathes of it to yourself (aside from the wildlife). I haven’t had a ‘proper’ rainforest experience, by which I mean that my ventures have been along pre-cut trails with picnic benches along the way, but that doesn’t take away anything from the beauty of it and you can easily forget you are close to civilisation in between the trail-markers.
What struck me most on my first foray into the forest was the noise – a very loud, unnatural noise which sounded like a dentist’s drill or road works, and which is actually caused by cicadas. There are the calls of birds, frogs and other amphibians, the occasional rustle of an unseen creature lurking in the bushes, and even more rare the crash of monkeys swinging through the treetops. In fact, apart from enormous ants, butterflies and of course the greenery, you actually see very little wildlife in the rainforest – it can hear you coming a mile off and tends to keep its distance. We see far more in the camp, where there are open spaces, than we have seen in the rainforest itself.
When we first arrived I loved watching troops of monkeys wander past the house, I would run out and take photos of them (as do any visitors we have). I have to admit, I still do enjoy watching them playing – especially the babies. But the macaques that wander our neighbourhood are far from friendly; instead of worrying about gangs of anti-social teenagers we have a monkey problem. It’s not really their fault: more and more of their habitat is being chopped down to make way for houses; people exacerbate the situation by feeding them; and they have a ready supply of food in the form of raiding people’s dustbins. But the alpha males can be very aggressive towards people and their numbers are increasing, never mind breeding like rabbits… I was never overly concerned until I got charged by the alpha male last year in a completely unprovoked attack and now I give them a very wide berth. Unfortunately, they seem more afraid of men than women and they are so used to people that they are not in the least bit intimidated. I think also they can sense when you are bluffing so any feigned bravado on my part is entirely unconvincing. It does mean that I am reluctant to go for a walk on my own now as you can very easily find yourself in amongst the pack before you know it, or come back and find your house surrounded. But with a few detours it’s generally ok, and there haven’t been too many actual attacks – just a lot of threats.
The other wildlife is friendlier, although again I give all wild creatures plenty of space. My favourite is the hornbill – a clown-like bird with an enormous beak which has no idea of its own weight and often tries to land on slender branches which clearly can’t support its bulk. These tropical-looking creatures are usually seen in pairs, they mate for life, and emit a loud cackle when they are finding somewhere to roost for the night. I also love watching the monitor lizards as they crawl or swim up and down the drainage ditches. They look like slow, primeval creatures but when they want to they can really move – as I once found out when I want to get in the way of one!
My contact with less desirable species has been minimal: I haven’t seen many snakes; the house spiders are tiny and provoke no fear compared to the monsters in the UK; and I haven’t seen any sign of leeches or other slimy jungle creatures. We do have some pests – mosquitoes, sand-flies, and geckoes (which leave their poos all over the house, although they do eat the mosquitoes) – but luckily we do not live in a malaria zone and there are few cases of other mosquito-related illnesses.
Borneo is now becoming something of a tourist destination, with flights from the UK to neighbouring Malaysia becoming cheaper and there is a lot more in the way of catering to tourists compared to Brunei. So if you don’t want to take my word for it, you can easily see all of this wildlife for yourself!