Brunei bruisings and musings

Part of the trip - Brunei - Tropical Ecology 1
3rd August
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The rain has brought brief respite from my constant companions of the last four days, or if not constant, then at least whenever I have tried to spend any time sitting quietly to drink in my surro

The rain has brought brief respite from my constant companions of the last four days, or if not constant, then at least whenever I have tried to spend any time sitting quietly to drink in my surroundings or have been perched statuesque while waiting for a trick of the light. The constant companions I refer to are not my students but bees. Not just the little stingless sweat bees that tickle away at ones ankles while lapping fervently at bodily waste products and which are no bother at all. No, giant Asian honey bees which have a similar penchant for sweat but with the added annoying habit of creeping between ones toes and under ones clothes to get best access, thereby forever trapping themselves and venting their frustration in an uncomfortable fashion... at least for me. Earlier, I lay along a log near the streambed ambushing Rajah Brookes' birdwing butterflies as they too sought salts and I sustained five stings in less than ten minutes!

That streambed is now hidden below a torrent of leaf-strewn water but in no time it will subside and return to be pristine and babbling, the gin-clear Belalong river in Ulu Temburong, and I'll avail myself of its cooling qualities while snorkelling among some of the weirdest fish on the planet. The sucker fishes of Borneo are like vacuum cleaners in fish-form, and as their name implies, they have highly modified pectoral and pelvic fins to create a sucker disc on the underside, while the head has taken on the profiling of a Formula One spoiler to create down force in the turbulent glides and riffles. Thus, they can maintain position clamped to the rocky stream-bed and leave trails across the cobbles where they have rasped off the biofilm. Yes, these plucky little suckers are vegetarian. They have also evolved incredible colour morphs: blues and purples, greens and pinks, some with stripes and dots to boot... marvellous in miniature as they rarely exceed two inches. Mental note to self: underwater camera next year.

Fresh rain had encouraged amphibians abroad. I stumbled across a walking pile of leaves yesterday, which, upon closer inspection had morphed into a horned toad. So confident was she in her unique cloak of camouflage that she did not attempt to escape from my clutch, and when I placed her upon a suitable background for a shot, I could position her with ease, even to the extent of raising her chin. She was a she, I surmised from her ample girth. A researcher at the University of Brunei Darussalam Kuala Belalong Field Centre (my home for the week) lost one of his tagged river frogs last night. Several hours of careful radio-tracking resulted in the triangulation of nine feet of rat snake coiled in a tree, and with thoughts of reticulated python fangs having to be levered out of my left hand with a Bic biro while the rest of the snake was simultaneously unravelled from my right arm in a similar encounter last year, I decided retreat was the best option... ecology in action!

The rain had also given me some time to contemplate closely the diversity of form in the tropical plants surrounding me. Almost every plant of any size had a plethora of smaller epiphytes using and/or abusing their position. Light and space are at a premium in the rainforest and plants are cut-throat neighbours it seems. In particular I had noticed drip-tips. Plants need to shed the rainfall from their leaves ASAP, partly for weight reasons, but also because there are numerous orchid species which would soon take root on their very surface if given an opportunity. Orchids may be plants that many will be familiar with. Fewer may appreciate the etymology of orchid, deriving from the Greek for testicles.

But what of cuddly, charismatic megafauna? No orang utan in this neck of the Borneo rainforest... well, not strictly true; there are, and clouded leopard, and sun bear, and a whole host of weird and wonderful forest dwellers but rainforest being rainforest means that more often than not, it is a case of 'See that flailing tree branch... well a giant squirrel just left it and it's now in the midst of that thicket'. I've ticked off some primates such as maroon langur with their magnificent mohawks and awoken to the whooping of gibbon. I sat sipping steaming coffee while two females swapped tall tales from ridge to ridge and finally caught my glimpse of an arm-swinging ape in the canopy.  I've bagged a host of colugo in the mangroves of Selirong... the so-called flying lemur which isn't a lemur and cannot fly and resembles road-kill squirrel plastered onto a tree trunk. Less megafauna, more micro-, I have spent several hours with much more amenable plain pygmy squirrels... that's not me being derogatory, they're called plain pygmy squirrels... shrieking wildly (that's not me either) as they hurtle up and down vertical trunks at a pace that makes the eye water just trying to follow them let alone photograph them. Especially as all in, including their miniature bottle-brush tails, they're at most four inches.

I've seen some weird and wonderful birds too... racket-tailed drongo, crimson-breasted flowerpeckers, and blue-winged leafbirds are all that their names suggest. One pair of rhinoceros hornbills taunts me by flying back and forth across the Belalong stream but they go from emergent to emergent. These emergents are the 40-50m tall trees that push through the canopy, the canopy that is hoisted a further 150m above me by the steep-sided relief of the Belalong valley. So, although I can clearly view those magnificent casked beaks through my bins, I am left pictureless and will have to turn to AngelaR's video upon my return. My one hornbill trophy was opportunistic to say the least. I had clambered up a tree at Tasek Merimbun 10 days earlier to capture a rainbow and then was treated to a fabulous electrical storm. Soon, sharing my part of the forest was a spectacular southern pied hornbill which seemed intrigued by the clad ape on the branch. Closer to home or more precisely, my posterior, was a platoon of large and well-mandible'd ants that took umbrage to my presence, let me know it, and caused me to fall from my perch mid-shot. However, not before I had managed to capture fork-lightning across the rainbow that was stained sepia by the approaching storm.

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  • 3rd August by Rhoda1

    Wonderfully evocative!  Almost makes up for me not going anywhere.  Almost.  Still feeling very sorry for myself as I sit here at home, despite having all these wonderful images conjured up before me.  Sob!

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  • 4th August by ttbko

    My heavens John, this was probably the most interesting lecture I never attended!!!  Just how much information can one man cram into a small space?  I learn so much from your postings and, can I add, you would be so skilled at travelling with people who cant see, such is the power of your description!  I'm sorry that thank you and 5 stars is the best accolade I can offer.  P

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  • 4th August by Fintown Trekker

    Ok learns something new everyday! I muse on a moniker so ordinary, yet heretofore unknown to me, and a wee tad of guilt emerges at the my own faceitous attachments of FITBYC and FITDW! But don't take 'ordinary' to heart, sure the name is also biblical and there is more than a sense of creation and the beginnings of nature in the above. Absolutely extraordinary word pictures of the primeval rainforest.....jeez, I'm here at the PC with a river of sweat running down my back as your sucker fishes and all else consume me....well written.
    Moreover, love the linked words to photos.

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  • 6th August by John T

    Wow! What an astounding word picture!  Not quite sure where you are - it's well over twenty years since I was in Brunei - but your unbelievably colourful narrative reminded me of the jungle and of trips up the Temburong and Limbang Rivers in a prow(?), a long boat, with all the new animals, birds and flora (lots, as you say, just disappearing out of sight); the humidity; the friendly people and the enormous sense of wonderment at such an alien environment to a UK city dweller.  I can smell it all again.  Pity about the tree frog!

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  • 11th August by Angela R

    What a wonderful piece.  Your students surely can never find your lectures boring.  I was back in the rain forest myself.  Glad my video clip is of use, so lucky to have seen those magnificent birds so close.

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  • 18th August by Angela R

    HI John, in answer to your question we were in Borneo in March 08.  It just takes us a year to get our fingers out and edit our videos and then I gave up waiting for my husband to individually edit out the bits I wanted to post, I wanted seperate titles etc, and just used a capture programme myself which is why they always seem to start and end a bit abruptly.

    You are brave to have a go at that stick dance, I would never had done it without breaking something!  I tend to hide behind my camera when they look for volunteers, that or make a beeline for the loo!!!!

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  • 25th September by Fintown Trekker

    "Wow! What an astounding word picture! 

    Wonderfully evocative! 

    My heavens John, this was probably the most interesting lecture I never attended!!!

    What a wonderful piece.

    Ok learns something new everyday! I muse on a moniker so ordinary, yet heretofore unknown to me..... "

    No blushing Jon boy!! That's what they all said - years ago! The newbies are missing out on the MOTW! And whilst I learned a load of new things that day about the primeval rainforest that caused a river of sweat to run down my back I have forgotten what 'moniker so ordinary' I was musing on. 

    Cheers G - it takes a good doctor to render up worthy wordy medicine of a rainy Sunday morning!

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  • 20th January by JayR

    Fabulous ... cuddly, charismatic megafauna ... love it.  Did you ever see a sun bear?  I think one might have been lurking in the bushes near the longhouse in Temburong where I stayed ... or so my Iban friend told me.   believe the bears are quite few in numbers these days. (Thanks for reading Franglais and Scones ... it was quite a breaktrough for entente cordiale.  If Cameron and cabinet ever have trouble with the French I'll suggest baking scones ... with little children)

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