Thursday, December 15, 2011

Borneo: Small wonders at every step

It's the little things that really matter in Borneo's lush, exotic and life-giving rainforests

When naturalist Mark Watson pursed his lips and pretended to kiss a beautiful - but carnivorous - pitcher plant, I could almost understand how he felt.

Pitcher plants, which lure insects with the promise of sweet nectar and then devour them, are certainly ... intriguing ... and the elegant red plant he was puckering up to was a particularly attractive one.

But perhaps more importantly, they're typical of the rich diversity of plant, fungus and insect life which makes a walk through the Borneo jungle such a fascinating experience.

The animals may be the stars of the show - the woop woops of gibbons from the treetops or signs of rooting by bearded pigs in the forest floor are always exciting - but, unless you're lucky, you probably won't see them.

What you will see, if you look carefully, are massive strangler figs looking poised to walk on their roots like Ents from The Lord of the Rings, or prettily patterned fungi creating works of art amid the leaf mould, or delicate orchids blooming colourfully in the gloom created by the thick canopy of leaves, or great armies of ants on the march along fallen branches.

During a cruise around Borneo on the expedition ship Orion II, we had the chance to explore several jungle national parks, all different and all fascinating.

At Tanjung Datu National Park, for instance, four of us wandered slowly along the Pasir Antu Laut Trail, managing to make its 2.7km last about 3.5 hours, pausing every few metres to admire some ornamental bracket fungus, a particularly twisty liana, a tall, thin tree supported by a massive set of buttress roots, or a butterfly with elegant black and white patterns on its wings.

There were certainly animals around. From time to time we heard monkey calls and the birdsong was superb. At one point I heard the beating of heavy wings overhead and caught a glimpse of the massive black shape of a hornbill. On another occasion I spied a small, dark brown squirrel poised unmoving on a branch above the path.

There were plenty of signs of pigs rooting and a group on another trail actually saw "a particularly ugly" Borneo bearded pig.

Down on the beach, which served as our return pathway, three sets of tracks showed where green turtles had come ashore to lay eggs during the night (the park staff dig the eggs up and rebury them in safe enclosures). In a cave at one end of the bay, dozens of tomb bats swooped around us while we explored its recesses.

But it was just as interesting to watch a route march of thousands of large, brown, ant-like creatures carrying white eggs - our guides later had an argument about whether they were termites or ants - a bright orange fungus glowing in the gloom, a magnificent yellow and black butterfly floating just under the leaf canopy, or one remaining flower from the night-blooming putat tree, whose glorious pink and white blossom produces a poison used to kill fish.

On the island of Pulau Tiga, we found the same incredible biodiversity ... plus mud. That was partly because of the heavy rain that fell as we landed from our zodiac, making the jungle track a bit slushy. But it was also because the island was formed by a volcanic eruption as recently as 1897 and there's still a sort of mud volcano in the jungle where crazy people like me can have a soak.

Continue reading (Incl. Pic) at: Borneo: Small wonders at every step

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