A TNT Travel Writing Awards entrant

Author: Stephen Spencer


“Did you hear that?” bellowed the stubby blond-haired Irish girl, excitedly. Her machete help up and bandana dirty with sweat. It pulled her skin up on her face, her nose pointing unnaturally towards the sky. She looked like a warrior and impressive.

I had heard it. A quiet, bassy growl. Adrenalin rushed quickly and my senses now acute and useful. I stood erect and quiet and scared.

I look up and right, the beam of light attached to my forehead led my sight through intertwining vines, that strangled thick branches, up and eventually onto two very large, sky blue, feline eyes which hovered body-less before the shrub. In a panicked voice “I…is that a cat? What is that?” I whispered. I had given my game away. Not so cool and calm anymore.  The eyes disappeared and the sound of feet trotting lightly away was some-what relieving.

“Clouded leopards!” exclaimed the now-apparent mammal expert, proudly. His floppy brown hair dribbled sweat onto his gaunt, young face. Toby was the leader of the project and had proven to be an adept naturalist.

Logging and the increase of rubber and palm oil plantations have pushed the Bornean Clouded Leopard populations into few protected rainforest areas. I was in Danum Valley, North-East Sabah, Borneo, the centre of the rainforest conservation area and home to a massive array of mammals, reptiles, birds, amphibia, and flora that have experienced the same ecological pressures; a result of deforestation.  A zoologists dream location, but I am scared and feel out of my depth. I am not the top predator here. The Clouded Leopards, Sun bears, five metre long Monitor Lizards, several predatory snakes have evolved in the rainforest for millions of years. They have adapted to this ecological niche. I have not. I am their prey.

Going to sleep is not easy. I grip onto my machete, handmade from a local tribesman. The rainforest is noisy, which makes it hard to tone into a snake’s slither, a growl, a crunch on the ground or a breaking branch, anything to indicate a predator is on it’s way.  I lie still in a cocoon, wrapped in my hammock and mosquito net. This helps to make me feel safe, but I am aware this is only a psychological comfort.

My eyes burst open. I hear a second thundering whoosh from above. Dark, green leaves hide the greyish cloudy sky. It is early morning. I can just make out a hawksbill, the famous and enormous tropical bird I have only seen in photos before this moment. Another whoosh as it’s wings flap and it erupts into laughter. I am reminded of my Mothers friends, hysterical at her 50th party. The laughing bird incites me to giggle.

As I begin to wake, I notice the forest is alive with sounds. I am surrounded by a polyphonic madness.  Choirs of birds each singing it’s own solos. Several birds’ success in mating depends on their ‘singing’ ability. Some birds try to locate possible mating partners by calling to one another. In other species, the males try to impress their female conspecifics with the quality of song, or the number of songs it can sing, in his attempt to mate and breed.  It dawns on me, the precariousness of this tropical dream and the importance of its conservation.