Because I’m a wildlife veterinarian, an avid animal lover, and… perhaps most importantly… the gal planning our travel, many of our trips *somehow* turn out to be animal-centric.
Once we knew we were headed to Southeast Asia, I immediately imagined a side-trip to Borneo. Which is how Mr. M & I ended up spending three days trekking through the jungles of Malaysian Borneo searching for wild orangutans, rhinoceroses… and another underestimated member of the local fauna.
Day # 10,678 (Danum Valley, Sabah, Malaysian Borneo):
For our final day in the Danum Valley rainforest of Borneo, our guide Ed wanted to take us on one of the forest’s newest trails, in the hopes of finding the as-yet elusive orangutans. He cautioned that this new trail necessitated some off-roading, but we were a hardy group (Mr. M & I and four hard-core Australians who eschewed leech socks and called any insect smaller than a sparrow a ‘mozzie’- short for mosquito)… so we guffawed and haughtily announced that we could handle it.
The trek began beautifully. We spotted a pack of long-tailed macaques foraging for fruits in the canopy above. The birdwatcher in our midst spotted a rare Bornean Bristlehead. In a gesture of goodwill from the jungle, the humidity dropped from 99% to around 96.
The jungle was magnificent.
Then the trail got narrower. And steeper. I may be a city girl, but I come from hardy and stubborn stock. But damn.
Even with machete in hand, Ed could only clear enough of a path for us to squeeze through. We were tripping over massive tree roots, crashing through brambles with three-inch spikes on the bark, and getting stuck in foot-deep mud. I couldn’t stand upright in the density of brush we were traversing. I stopped watching out for giant spiders or snakes or fire ants whose bites we were told felt like lemon juice poured into an open wound. Plants that we had previously been told were poisonous were now unavoidable.
Alright, Borneo, I got you… trying to put us through our paces before letting us leave, right? And I agree- I would’ve felt cheated out of the experience if we escaped without having to hack our way through the jungle with a machete.
Then one of the fearless Aussies exclaimed, “Crikey. Certainly are a helluva lot of leeches, aren’t there?”
A bit of back story: Before arriving, I read many travel guides warning us about the presence of leeches in the jungle. Mr. M googled ‘leech’ on the internet and came up with horrific photos of foot-long, man-eating leeches and innocent jungle trekkers dripping in blood.
He was displeased, to put it mildly, but such are the dangers that come from allowing your adventure-thirsty wife to make the travel plans.
On our first hike, Ed had easily found a tiger leech to show us. They’re actually quite cute- very small and slimy- and they attach themselves to leaves, waving their sucker mouthparts around until they latch on to their next meal. Once attached, the leech will inch its way to the warmest parts of your body. Ed told us they loved armpits and belly buttons. Which begged the question: why did we get leech socks instead of leech underpants?
The requisite leech socks were Christmas stocking type things that went over your regular socks and tied up around your knees. They’re made of a much thicker fabric to which the leech can attach, but through which he’s unable to sink his teeth.
In essence, leech socks buy you time to spot your leechy intruder and pluck him off before he travels up past your knees and finds his way into an armpit, belly button, or… worst yet… crotch.
Leeches were surprisingly rare on our treks. I might find a tiny one attached to my shoe, pluck him off, and that was the end of it. Until the middle of this day… when I was so focused on making my way through the Borneo jungle that I forgot to do regular leech checks, looked down, and found myself COVERED. Leeches were inching down into my shoes, crawling their way across pants, shirts, everywhere. I shrieked for Mr. M to help (for some reasons the leeches didn’t seem to like him as much), and we literally couldn’t get them off fast enough. While we plucked & chucked, bent over in the middle of the jungle “trail” (newsflash, Ed: NOT a TRAIL), new leeches would attach.
Our “trail” was too narrow to back away from the vegetation, where a ridiculous number of leeches were waving around at face-height trying to latch on. There was nowhere to step, and no way to avoid them… and the leeches sensed this and were slowly moving into position to feed. Falling in the mud, sweating, plucking huge leeches stuck on to my stomach- and there was Mr. M, videotaping bedlam.
When we finally made it off the trail, we sprinted back to our cabin to work on removing all the leeches. We dumped leeches out of our shoes, pulled them off our leech socks, and then went inside- and like monkeys grooming one another, we had to inspect every inch of each other for blood-sucking insects. I showered and scrubbed like never before.
The whole incident became ridiculously funny a few hours later on our Indiana Jones-esque drive back to the Lahad Datu airport (at one point our 4 x 4 drove across a bridge made from two felled trees… Mr. M & I were singing the Indiana Jones theme song while holding on for dear life in the backseat).
While stopping for a bathroom break at a village outhouse- read: hole in the ground, no toilet paper- a poor bat and I were equally surprised by one another.
It’s not often you get trapped in an outhouse with a bat.
Or get your hair inspected for leeches.
I think we really did get to experience the jungle. So thank you, Borneo. You’re a crazier gal than I.
Details of The Day:
Lodging: Borneo Rainforest Lodge in Danum Valley. All meals and jungle treks included.
Gettin’ There: Fly into Lahad Datu airport in Sabah, Malaysia. The Lodge will arrange for transportation to Danum Valley (2-3hr drive… take Dramamine if you have any ounce of carsickness).
Insider Tips: You can buy leech socks at the Lodge. Wear them on your hikes, no matter how hot it is. Wear. Them.