Jungle Hiking in Borneo

A morning hike

After a floating breakfast amongst the purple water hyacinths, Shah parked the boat on the side of the lake and took us on a jungle trek.  “Breakfast is done, prepare yourselves for hiking.”  Shah put on giant rubber boots and plenty of repellent.  “There are very many mosquitoes and leeches here”.

By prepare, he meant put on mosquito propellant (which I forgot) and put on leech socks (which we didn’t have).  This didn’t bode well.

I stepped off the boat avoiding the muddy soup, but waded into a cloud of mosquitoes.  They landed on my pants and arms.  Luckily, I had tested my shirt and pants and was confident the mosquitoes would not get through.  Alyssa was not so lucky.  She contributed to the well being of at least fifteen mosquitoes on that morning as they bit her right through her pants and socks.  (I sure hope the Malaria medicine works).

At 7:30 in the morning, the air mixed with the light breeze off the water creating a cooling effect.  However, after a few steps into the jungle the breeze stopped.  Only hot humid air remained.  Sweat started to drip off my brow.  My shirt started to stick to my body.  Uncomfortably hot and sticky is the only way I can describe it.

The path looked more like a wild animal path.  It was narrow, and impassable without ducking to avoid vines, branches, or spider webs.  Frequently our legs and hands brushed against leaves.  This disturbed the perches various flying and fluttering insects such as stick insects, beetles, moths, and other UFOs, they fluttered about banging into us.  Every time we brushed against something, we would look down and check for leeches.  My only experience with leeched was water based leeches.  I had never seen forest leaches before, and didn’t know what to look for.  So in effect I was looking for anything on my pants that was not nylon or mosquitoes.

A walk through this rainforest, what could possibly go wrong? 

“Oh my god there is something crawling on Kylie’s butt.”  Sharleen screamed half terrified and half concerned.  I looked and there were two, two-to-three inch long inch-worm-like things in the crack of her but on her pants squiggling around.  I tried brushing them off, but these things were undeterred.  I yanked one off and it snapped on to my hand.  I tried to flick it off and it would not budge.  I could feel it start to bite, so I rubbed it off and went for the other one.  “Oh, that’s what a tiger leech looks like,” stated Shah.  Yuck!

A tiger leech

The forest was dense, and after just a little bit of walking I could not see the lake from which way we had came.  Moreover, we were on a patch of land between the Kinabatangan River and the Ox-Bow Lake (an off shoot of the river) that could not have been more than 75 meters wide.  Yet I could not see or hear either the river or the lake. The dense forest muted and absorbed all sound.  The dense bush and canopy kept me from getting my bearings.  I was pretty sure that if I lost sight of Shah, I would get very lost, very fast.  I found this much more challenging than navigating the dense fog of the pacific northwest.

We came across some fresh orangutan poop and disturbed a few birds that fluttered out, scaring us.  There were some massive creepy-crawlies that made us squirm.  Shah twisted and turned frequently going off what little trail there was, looking for an angle to see an Orangutan in the canopy above.  Alas, trying to view things in the canopy from the forest floor is a lost cause.

One more turn and we were back at the boat.  I hadn’t even realized we had gone in a circle.  I had been totally disoriented the whole time.  It was an uncomfortable feeling.

Night Hike

Apparently, one hike wasn’t enough and day time was too easy.  I agreed to go on a night hike.  I love night hikes in my home area.  I rarely take flashlights and I love the silence of the night.  However, after a night hike in Costa Rica, I became a little more fearful of night hikes in the tropics.  Undeterred I thought I’d give it another go.

The first thing I noticed stepping into the forest at night was that the leaves that were so good at keeping everything shaded during the day, also trapped in the heat at night.  It was so hot.  Much hotter than just a few meters outside on the road.  It was almost like sitting in a sauna – no airflow, just heat.  Sweat streamed down my forehead into my eyes.  I could feel the sweat flowing down my sides from my armpits.  This was just three minutes into the hike.  I had never sweated like this before.  My hiking companion said that the DEET makes you sweat more (I looked it up, and he was right, it does interfere with thermal regulation).

We walked cautiously up a hill, and through the forest, pushing foliage aside.  Moths fluttered around and kept bumping into my face and neck.  The little ones didn’t bother me, but the big ones always made me jump.

We stopped frequently to listen and look with our spotlights.  Shah warned us about the fire ants, so I always looked down after stopping.  I had to move once because I had stopped right on a fire ant trail.  We came across some jungle ants, which were the largest ant I had ever seen.  At a little over an inch they were massive.  They also scattered at the sight of light.  They sure kept me from putting my hands on anything.

A bubble of quiet followed us.  The cicadas and other insects would become quiet as we approached, letting all the other night critters know exactly where we were.

I could feel the sweat dripping down my legs, back and chest and I regularly had to wipe my face so I could see. It was only two kilometers of walking for nearly an hour and I was wiped out.  I was soaked in thick sweat. Peeling my shirt and pants off my body for a shower was like separating two pieces of duck tape stuck together.  I showered, and was sweating again by the time I got to the room.

Both this day and night hike took place in the Kinabatangan Forest Preserve which was declared a protected area in 2008.  According to the World Wildlife Fund, the Lower Kinabatangan Sanctuary and its Corridor of Life represents the last forested alluvial floodplain in Asia.  (Click here).  Witnessing this amazing wealth of life through a riverboat and through hiking was an amazing treat.


I took one more jungle trekking jaunt in Sepilok Forest Preserve.  This forest was not in the alluvial flood plain and therefore boasted much larger tree growth.  This time I tried an afternoon walk.  The short path offered a different look at the Bornean rainforest. Mosquito and bird filled, it was just as dense as the river hike.  Rich with bird life, there were quite a few bird blinds setup for people to do wildlife photography.  I didn’t want to stay in one place long enough to allow the mosquitoes to feast.  The cicadas roared accompanied by a menagerie of bird calls while black and pygmy squirrels ran about.  Amazing!

The edge of the Sepilok Forest Preserve

In all forests, the air was highly oxygenated.  Even though it was hot, it was refreshing.  I prefer it to the smoke filled air of the city.  For brief moments while walking in these forests it was easy to forget that they are under siege by logging and palm oil plantation growth.  All of this biodiversity and habitat is disappearing.  It’s a special place.  Even though I didn’t weather it well, I certainly appreciated it’s unique contribution to my life.

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