I’ve been in Danum Valley, a protected forest in Malaysian Borneo, for just over two months. In addition to setting up camera traps in the canopy, I’ve also been setting a ground-level network of cameras, which have to be rotated every few weeks. Because of this, my field schedule involves a great deal of waiting, punctuated with bursts of intense weeks collecting, resetting, and deploying cameras all over the forest. Days in the field can be as mentally draining as they are physically exhausting, so it can be easy to just hike in and hike out thinking only about the next step. As my time in Danum Valley nears the end I made a conscious effort to be a bit more present while making my final collections and appreciate this remarkable place.
I just recovered from a cold, so just a few days ago I couldn’t smell anything at all. At various times in the forest I could have sworn I smelled anise, camphor, menthol, and on a couple occasions (perhaps swayed by a rumbling stomach), French fries. Many of the trees in tropical forests produce aromatic compounds used in soaps and perfumes, so my nose might not be far off in some of those cases.
Today on the trail, there is a potent musk in the air. There are a few piles of elephant dung scattered here and there, but they’re old and mostly grass, a few of them with mushrooms sprouting out – they really don’t smell like anything anymore. The musk is coming from an animal, however – probably a Bearded Pig, but Malay Weasles can also be quite pungent.
It takes a lot of work to get up the tree. I use a mechanical ascender with little spiked teeth that grip my rope to slide my way up the tree. Each time I pull the excess rope, I can advance an arm’s length further upward. The particular technique I use is not the most efficient, but it allows me to go down easily if for some reason I need to make a rapid descent (ants, bees, monkeys, an unnoticed broken branch balancing overhead). As you rise above the first layer of trees, the sun hits you for the first time all day. There’s a light breeze and the air almost feels a little dry, a stark contrast from the sweltering humidity of the forest floor.My view of Danum Valley from my perch 150 feet above the forest floor.
And then there’s the view. I try not to look around too much until I’m high enough to really enjoy it. I haven’t managed to figure out just how to take a picture that captures the height of the trees, the massive epiphytes that rest on the branches, and the vast forest surrounding me. It is truly spectacular, completely worth the climb. Sitting at the top of the tree, I take in a deep breath. A bug flies up my nose.
I can hear Rhinoceros Hornbills flying around the neighboring trees. Not just hearing them call, but actually hearing them fly. Whatever it is about owls that make them fly silently, hornbills seem to be made of the exact opposite of that. With every beat of their wing you can hear joints moving and air rushing through their feathers. It’s sort of how I imagine those early flapping-style flying machines must have sounded as they plunged off of cliffs into the water.
One of the things I’ve come to enjoy most at the end of a long, sweaty day in the forest taking the shortcut through the river (that probably doesn’t have crocodiles, otherwise I’m sure someone would say something) at the end of the day. Today I can hear the water roaring far more forcefully than the last time I was out here, and through the trees I can see the water is much higher. A refreshing river crossing is out of the question.
I settle for a cold shower back in my room. Standing under the water, I feel a small, familiar pinch. I pluck a leech out of my nether region.
**Update: I smelled the french fries again today and realized I had packed fried rice for lunch…as I often do. Mystery solved.