Nocturnal Perambulations in Borneo


It had been a long day.  Trekking through the rainforest had been fun and we staved off fatigue for a long time, riding the adrenaline rush from sighting animals and plants of great interest.  However,  5 hours of exertion in the tropical heat and humidity eventually sapped our energy and enthusiasm and we were all glad to get back to the luxury of hot showers and a warm meal at the Borneo Rainforest Lodge in Danum Valley, Sabah.

Darkness fell quickly as we sat round the table in the Lodge’s dining area.  Many of us were enjoying our soup starters while a few had raced on to the main meal.  It had been a great day and we were satisfied and sated.  It felt as if we sat in a cocoon of light while enjoying the sensation of warm food and pleasant conversation even if the latter was muted on account of tiredness.

Suddenly one of the Rainforest Lodge’s nature guides runs into the middle of the restaurant and shouts,”Attention! We have spotted the rare Western Tarsier.  If anyone wants to see it, come now.”

It was electrifying.  There was immediately the sound of cutlery being dropped and people rushing out after the guide.  There must have been thirty of us in the restaurant but almost all rushed out without hesitation.  Many of us were expecting to have our dinner and then retire for the night.  Like many others, I was not dressed nor equipped to go into the jungle at  night.

Until now, I had been very careful to avoid being bitten by leeches, snakes or any other stinging insect.  Yet, there I was rushing into the inky blackness and crashing through the undergrowth wearing sandals instead of shoes, in shorts rather than long pants, not wearing my leech-proof socks and not carrying any torchlight.

Indeed there were not more than 4 torchlights in the hands of the nature guides to shine the way for the whole group of about 30 and when often we had to walk in single file, many of us could see no light at all.  The only thing that was just barely visible was the dark shape of the person in front of you as you try to follow feeling your way along the uneven trail and trying to avoid thorns and hooks.

Nevertheless, we managed to cover about 300 metres when we were rewarded by the sight of the Western Tarsier.  This animal is rarely seen even in this wilderness area.  Some people have been there as many as ten times before but had never seen this unusual animal.

While it was truly a wonderful sight, in the darkness, some of us had ended up standing on a fire ant’s nest.  Before long, we were yelping in pain as the ants bit with ferocity.  I withstood the pain for about 3 minutes but was then forced to flee.  Fortunately, my colleague Azizul was made of tougher stuff (but he was also wearing boots) and captured this wonderful video below so that our tale would not be about the one that got away.

So I am proud to present this video for your viewing pleasure although I still sport 5 very itchy ant bites on my feet.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

* “Nocturnal Perambulations” : I spent a year in my youth where I slept in a residential school dormitory with 20 others.  I always remember the dorm monitor saying before the lights are switched off, “On no account, are any of you to participate in nocturnal perambulations on pain of punishment.”   My nocturnal perambulations in the Bornean rainforest had a painful consequence but it was worth the prize of seeing the Tarsier.

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22 thoughts on “Nocturnal Perambulations in Borneo”

  1. Great video! The background sound is so loud! Did it keep you awake at night? Hope your bites heal quickly.

    This is off the topic – but i caught a vid today that i’d seen before of a squirrel going across a complex series of weird obstacles in order to get the reward of food. It occurred to me to wonder if you’ve an opinion on this. Do you think it is wrong to create an obstacle course for the squirrel to earn its food?

    Another thought that i had – are you related to tree squirrels, or do you consider ground squirrels cousins? So many people seem to denigrate ground squirrels but tree squirrels seem to have more acceptance.

    Just some thoughts i had in my head. And i just put some nuts out for our squirrels here. The only obstacle course they have is what they already do, climb trees and land on our deck. 🙂

  2. I am deeply impressed, Lone Grey Squirrel. I have never seen such a creature before. The eyes, ears, fingers, shape of head and body – compares to nothing I know of in Europe. I wonder how the skin would feel like. Does this animal belong into the ape-family? Great video. I hope your wounds heal quick.

  3. Leeches, Fireants and Headhunters? … my goodness!!! … and I thought Africa was a dangerous place to live …

    If a Leech latches on to you how do you remove it? … do you just rip it off or use more subtle methods? Also, if you get enough of these creatures clinging to you can they result in death?

    What a gorgeous creature the Western Tarsier is … great video … thanks for sharing.

  4. What a cute little fella! I’m glad you got to see that, even though you paid with your skin.

    I was just reading some stuff about malaysia and wondered what language do you and your wife speak to each other at home and do you use that same language when you are out at restaurants or shops? If not, what do you speak there?

  5. I guess your fire ant bites were payback for you interrupting your dinner to race out and interrupt Western Tarsier’s breakfast. I was actually most amazed to see it had opposing thumbs which in itself makes it fairly unique in the animal world.

  6. Night time walks are a dangerous thing to do and to give up a meal? I don’t know!!
    I see where you didn’t have to dress for a meal in the lodge (too bad for you) that night.
    But look at it from the Tarsier’s side. Here he is just hanging around and he see 3 lights coming at him and as they get closer he sees much larger forms moving towards him.
    Should he panic and climb higher? He isn’t the best social animal. Then he hears the noise. These forms are making sounds of discomfort. What to do? No wonder my eyes are so big he thinks. I hope they leave soon. I’m so glad my neighbors, those nasty ants must have wanted the forms gone to.

  7. Kathryn,
    I have no problem with the sound which is mostly of cicadas, insects and frogs. In fact, I quite like the sound when I am trying to sleep. As to having obstacle courses for squirrels, I don’t think it is a problem as long as the payoff is worth it. Squirrels naturally try to steal from bird feeders anyway.

    Grey Squirrels are indeed tree squirrels but we are charitable to our ground squirrel cousins. Flying squirrels are kind of the show-offs of the squirrel family.

  8. Mago,
    It is indeed a member of the primate order like the apes but belongs in a family all its own. I suspect it was the inspiration for Gizmo, the cute version of the creature from the movie Gremlins. The bites and bumps normally itch for a week and disappear in about 3-4 weeks.

    OneStonedCrow,
    Leeches in the rainforest are quite small; about 1-2 cm and are not usually a big problem although the wound will bleed for a long time due to an injected anti-coagulant. Although disputed by science, the traditional wisdom is not to pull the leech off because it would leave its biting parts in the wound and that would lead to an infection. Instead, we are advised to let it drink its full when it would fall off or to apply some salt, tobacco juice or irritant chemical which will also cause the leech to drop off. There are larger water leeches (about 3-6 cm) which can drink a substantial quantity of blood and could theoretically be a serious problem if large numbers are involved but I have never heard of any fatality from leech bites.

  9. Geewits,
    The official language is Malay but English is used as a language of instruction too. Apart from that, within the Chinese community, the dialects of Cantonese, Hokkien and Hakka are quite common. We also have a sizeable Indian community and finally many tribal languages of the aboriginal peoples. My wife and I use English at home; English and Malay at work; and also Cantonese and Mandarin when shopping or at Chinese restaurants. My Chinese is actually quite poor but sufficient to get by in placing orders.

    Mark,
    It is considered a primate due to its opposable thumbs. But it is a very unusual and rare creature. It is not as defenceless as they may appear. In fact it will hunt and kill snakes and small birds.

  10. Joyce,
    As I mentioned to Mark, this isn’t as defenceless a creature as one might think. I don’t think it was very disturbed by our presence at all. This species are actually great jumpers but we did not worry it sufficiently for it to try that. Good on you to worry about it though.

    cabcree,
    It was great but it is itchy still from the bites.

  11. You could put a leech on the ant bite, it should remove anything that is still reacting in your skin. Leeches were a traditional means in the medieval and Early-Modern medicine here. They are used sucessfully today for some skin conditions.

  12. Have you addressed the new law changing English language in schools? Wikipedia says:
    The government has decided to abandon the use of English in teaching maths and science and revert to Bahasa Malaysia, starting in 2012
    Have you posted about this already? If so, direct me to it. If not, I’d love to hear your opinion.

  13. Wow, what a fabulous animal, though perhaps a little shy of the lights. Hopefully there will still be forests and their inhabitants for our grandchildren to enjoy… but at the rate we are going, I wonder.

    Sorry to hear about your feet, but I’m wondering why you didn’t scurry up the nearest tree to escape the pesky ants ???

  14. Owen,
    Not being nocturnal, the Lone Grey Squirrel was not in proper attire for scampering around the forest at night.

    Secret Agent,
    I think we all can be forgiven for “running around”. After all, it was worth it …..even with the bites.

  15. I love this! We are traveling to Sabah in April and will be staying for three nights at the Borneo Rainforest Lodge. I am so excited that all I do in my spare time is search blogs for info about the places we’ll be visiting! 😉 We are all trying to set our expectations properly, but my 8 year-old’s biggest hope is that we will see a Tarsier, as unlikely as the odds may be! I will show her this video tomorrow morning!!

  16. Jenny,
    Thanks for coming by and leaving a comment. I think you will not be disappointed with the Borneo Rainforest Lodge experience. It is one of the better run ecotourism destinations in Malaysia. Their guides are top notch. I recommend going out with a guide on early morning walks. There is a good chance of seeing some 7 species of hornbills and I was fortunate to also see an Orang Utan. The other thing which was fun was the night drive in which we ran into a herd of pygmy elephants. And I could spend a day watching the wildlife on the canopy walkway even though I am scared of heights. I am sure your daughter and you will have a great time.

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