Canopy Tower Borneo Style

By midmorning the heat was oppressive. I was doused in a thick layer of sweat from hiking one of the shorter trails, winding through the tumultuous jungle of the Danum Valley in southeastern Sabah. The rainforest here was dominated by scattered giants, looming far above clearings and lower growth. Groups of larger trees provided shady patches with a relatively open understory. Gentle, sloping hills were intersected by ravines choked in vines and tangles.


Scarlet-rumped Trogon Photo Stephan Lorenz


The morning had started very promising. I had barely left the clearing of the campground and entered the first patch of forest just after sunrise when I came across the endemic Black-and-crimson Pitta. With a bit of patience I was able to spot the bird hopping on the ground in an open patch next to the trail. Crossing the bridge I wandered the transect lines cutting through primary forest. The undergrowth was filled with the disyllabic calls of the Blue-headed Pitta, another endemic, with a light blue crown and darker underparts. I followed the calling birds and eventually spotted one close, perched on a fallen log. While standing still in the thicket, waiting for the bird to approach, I picked up a fair load of leeches. After ridding myself of the most obvious bloodsucking annelids I continued down the trail and promptly stumbled across another male Blue-headed Pitta, a bird I wasn’t going to get tired of anytime soon. In a particularly dense stretch bordering a small creek I even heard, or maybe imagined it, the mythical Giant Pitta, a bird that seemingly exists between reality, imagination, and the stubborn hopes of dedicated birders. Needless to say I didn’t catch a glimpse. I retraced my steps across the wooden bridge and explored trails near camp.

if there is one bird to see in Borneo it’s this one Photo Stephan Lorenz

Resting near a small creek bed, dry this time of year, I watched a Short-tailed Mongoose methodically nose through the dense leaf litter below the earthen bank. The animal sniffed me out only five feet away and scurried into the undergrowth. Wildlife was abundant. Flying lizards zipped across the rail, squirrels, more species than I could keep track of, rustled in the canopy, and I stumbled upon a large Bearded Pig, which reluctantly withdrew into the forest. Quiet periods, with the steaming jungle seemingly devoid of birds, where followed by hurried and nervous feeding flocks of babblers, ioras, fantails, and monarchs racing through the canopy, mainly seen as moving branches or shaking leaves.

It became clear quickly that the majority of animals sought the safety of the canopy. Startled groups of monkeys would fling themselves from branch to branch, leaving just blurry impressions of fur, gray, brown, or red. I discovered an especially large congregation of Pig-tailed Macaques, feeding quietly, more than 60 meters off the ground. Apparently, I wasn’t quiet enough, within minutes of an animal sounding the alarm the whole group, more than thirty, vanished. I caught glimpses of the shy and beautiful Red-leaf Monkey, or Langur, and heard Bornean Gibbons in the distance, but much remained hidden in the concealed canopy.

I scanned through trees looming far above, their canopies encompassing enormous space. One fruiting tree harbored a flock of Large Green Pigeons, birds I could actually identify from a distance, due to the oversized bills. Otherwise dozens of birds remained just unidentified shapes silhouetted in dapples of distant sunlight and shade.

Bornean Gibbon Photo Stephan Lorenz

So here was my chance, a set of aluminum ladders, clamped to a mammoth trunk with rusty wires. I was unsure when the contraption had last been inspected or how much of the nails was sheer rust versus metal. Straining my eyes through leafy green, I could make out something above that looked a bit like a platform. I got a hold of the lower rungs and started climbing, one hand, one foot, one hand, one foot…  the aluminum slippery from humidity. At least there was a cage of corroded metal wrapped like a tunnel around the ladder for psychological aid, but my backpack just kept getting hung up on that. The ladders were so close to the trunk of the tree, it didn’t leave much space for hands and feet. Yet step by step I got higher and higher. I heaved myself through on opening much like a trapdoor and lay down on the wood. Closing my eye I felt the tree gently sway in the breeze, which at least cooled me down.

up Photo Stephan Lorenz

Opening my eyes, I realized I had just reached the first level. The bent aluminum undulated further up the tree. This needed to be finished. I got up, readjusted my backpack, and stepped into the cage, moving one limb at a time, always maintaining at least three contacts in case something started cramping. Soon enough dehydration took its toll and my hands starting cramping, I relaxed my fingers a bit, but the holds on the slimy aluminum became tenuous. Well, up was where I wanted to be so I kept climbing. After another hundred pulls, I finished at the last platform right amidst the crown of the tree. Stout branches spread in all directions. The platform wrapped around the trunk, giving about a four foot walkway and offering 360 degree view of the steaming jungle below. I could see many other giant trees in the distance, each lifting their massive crowns over the chaotic growth below.

Canopy Tower Photo Stephan Lorenz

Birds flitted about at eye level and I could hear Gibbons, looking for the apes along a horizontal plane now, they still remained hidden. I finally spotted the birds I had been hearing all morning. Now a bit below I spotted several Black-and-yellow Broadbills giving the frantic insect-like trills. The birds were common in the forest, but stayed well out of view in the canopy. Sunbirds flitted between trees and Spiderhunters put in their typical brief appearances. After some time, waiting, soaking in the view, catching the rhythm of the breeze and sway, I noticed more and more movement all around. Raffle’s and Chestnut-breasted Malkohas skulked between their hiding places and a few flowerpeckers stayed frustratingly distant.

Danum Valley Photo Stephan Lorenz

A rustle in a tree nearby caught my attention. I leaned over the low railing a bit to get a better angle and saw a tuft of reddish fur stick out from behind a trunk. Suddenly, a large Orangutan shuffled into view. Maybe bothered by my presence, it gave its distinctive lip smacking sound, a lot like an exaggerated kiss and then micturated freely into the empty space below. After some lazy scratching it moved off into a dense part of the tree and I noticed a smaller bundle of fur, quietly clinging to thinner branches. It was a female with a baby. Once both had settled into the shade and stopped moving, presumably to wait out the midday heat, it would have been impossible to locate them or even recognize them. All I could discern were little knot of red hair poking through dark shiny leaves. If a large ape was able to remain completely concealed, I wondered what I had missed that morning in a forest full of life.

By noon I was thirsty, hungry, and didn’t want to copy the great ape. The muscles in my hand were cramping by the time I reached the last dozen rungs, but I knew I would be back up there the next morning.


One response to this post.

  1. fantastic stuff, sounds like quite the adventure!


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