The Jungle Book article as originally printed in Esquire, along with introduction as one of their New Self-Reliant Six, sentence of the month honors and a generous book plug to boot. What follows is the pre-butcher– oop!– pre-edited friends-and-family edition– enjoy!
There I was...
In Borneo. On the Kinabatangan river. In a boat. At night.
Cat, the wife, was back at the lodge, having a rest, popping antibiotics and overcoming the second of her three infections (my time would come). Though I missed her at the time, had she been along for this particular nighttime boat ride, things wouldn’t have unfolded quite so stupidly. Besides, during her various recuperations I fell in love with the jungle at night. The creepy-crawlies. The outrageous sounds and smells— even louder and stronger than outside our flat in Soho and yes, that includes the screaming drunks and whore puke. I mean, check out:
Anyway, THERE I WAS…
Borneo. Nighttime. Wind in my face. Cruising down the Sungai Kinabatangan with three Malaysian river guides. I turned to Tonchong, the man in charge, and peppered him with wildlife-related questions.
“Has anyone been killed by a crocodile recently?”
“Last year,” he said matter-of-factly. “June. Crocodile eats man’s leg. He is bleeding to death very fast.”
This amused me greatly—not that someone was killed, mind, or the fact it was currently June. What amused me is that earlier Cat and I had observed the young, bored staff of our resort goading each other into jumping off the dock. Meanwhile, on the opposite bank, we watched this five-meter saltwater crocodile slide into the river’s opaque waters.
Russian roulette, Borneo style.
“Do you ever see leopard?” I asked Tonchong.
“Sometimes. Very shy.” He shrugged as if to say, Get over yourself, white boy— you’re not going to see a leopard.
“No, too many crocodile.”
Tonchong grimly set his jaw. “Python ate my chicken.”
He explained how one morning he went below his stilt-house to find a hole in his coop, fresh python tracks and his most-productive egg-hen missing. We continued to speed along the river bank, slowing to creep up on sleeping birds, furtive civet cats and the occasional wannabe man-eater.
The night spotter, sub-contracted by Tonchong, outclassed us all in terms of skill. Barefoot, smoking, steering the outboard motor with his toe, he used a flashlight hooked up to a car battery to pick up not just eyeshine—which is (sort of) obvious— but also tiny shapes and colors amid the foliage. Within five minutes of our leaving the dock I turned off my own torch so as not to interfere.
The sleeping birds were adorable. Apparently, the safest option amid so many predators is to perch at the end of a long, thin branch and catch some z's with your head under your wing. Tonchong demonstrated how you could even stroke their tails while they're asleep. What you can’t do is rustle their branch which trips the snake-alarm and rousts the bird to instant flight.
The one creature which defeats this strategy is the slow loris— an adorable, critically-endangered primate— which moves (wait for it) very, very slowly; hand-over-handing it down the branch until they reach the sleeping bird. Which they then reduce to a not-so-adorable mass of broken bones and bloody feathers. Their bite can also cause anaphylactic shock and even death in humans, which I kina almost wish upon the people who defang, smuggle and/or keep them as pets, which is part of the reason they're critically endangered. Kina almost.
Suddenly, there was commotion behind me.
Excited shouting amongst the Malaysians. Tonchong grabbed my shoulder.
“Python,” he exclaimed. “You lucky. You very, very lucky.”
Night guy cut the motor and we drifted bow-first into the reeds. In front of us, the earth was hard and dry as opposed to the usual riverside muck. I fumbled on my torch but could not see the snake.
“Stand on the front of the boat,” instructed Tonchong. “Stand on the front of the boat and take picture.”
Obediently, I broke out my camera and stood on the bow of the rocking, fiberglass craft. From that vantage point I could see a few feet of reticulated midsection— about the thickness of my thigh—stretched out on the forest floor. How night guy picked this up from the middle of the river is beyond me.
“Take picture,” Tonchong demanded. Ever the professional, he regarded the photos taken by his clients as a source of personal pride. Again I steadied myself and raised my camera but the shot was just not there.
Plus there was the very real possibility of pitching headfirst into the croc-infested river.
Fuck this, I Thought, I’m going in.
I hopped off the boat and into the jungle. Behind me came a mutter of dissent but ultimately, cultural differences aside, we were four men, manly men, doing manly things on the river at night. We were trading cigarettes and sneaking up on crocodiles and making fun of one another’s clothing. Therefore, when one of us left the boat to chase a massive python, everyone else was quick to follow—
lest the goofy tourist learn the Malaysian word for “pussy.”
The snake was indeed massive. Six meters.
The length of our boat, if not more.
It would be the talk of the village for several days. It lay stretched completely straight, nose to tail, camouflaged amid the leaves. A powerful constrictor, it was waiting for an
orangutan, monitor lizard, bearded pig or Long-Tailed Macaque to brush upon it...
Or, you know, an idiot.
The python could have easily taken down one of us, leaving the other three to attempt to either pry or knife it off. Unless it dragged us into the river— something I refused to ponder. The next day, a village elder would tell me how a man was literally popped in half a few years ago. The victim’s torso ended up inside the snake while his hips and legs were found beside the river. Later still, I would read that an adult python has the strength of twenty men. But I didn't know that then. Instead I was thinking,
Wow, what an amazing wild animal. How great it is to be alive, among manly men in the jungles of Borneo at night!
I decided not go to anywhere near the creature’s head but really, what was the harm in stroking its tail? You know, like Tonchong did with the kingfishers? The wife would surely not approve but hey…
The python flinched slowly at my touch then began to inch away. It was a beautiful creature, recently shed, with striking, iridescent scales. The Malaysians spread out to get a better look. They were marveling just like me. Tonchong leaned over and spread his arms to lend the shot a sense of scale. My flash was not quite strong enough and I found myself leaning in, perhaps a bit too close…
The python picked its head up off the ground and the muscles in its neck went tense.
I noticed that the lower third of its body had coiled itself into a ‘u’.
“Careful,” said Tonchong. “Snake getting angry— snake getting angry!”
Then there was movement. Violent, directionless, powerful movement. All of our light-beams went skyward at once, plunging the angry snake into darkness. Water splashed, branches broke and everything manly got chucked out the window. We screamed like little girls and fled, each in a separate direction. The only thing uniting our paths was the fact they were all Away From the Snake. Finally, someone local had the wherewithal to aim their torch and we watched the last few feet of python disappear quietly into the river. A head-count revealed that we were still four.
“Ha-ha-ha!” Tonchong exploded, stumbling forward to slap my back. “Very dangerous! Ha-ha-ha! Very, very dangerous!”
We filled the night-time jungle with laughter— laughing not at the face of death but at the back of death’s head when he’s well out of earshot.
Afterward, my heart still pounding, I picked my torch up off the ground and joined the hunt for Tonchong’s missing shoe. He would try to omit this precious detail when he relayed this tale the following day. I made sure that he did not.
“Just like the snake that ate my chicken,” he concluded.
Just like the snake that ate my chicken.
Happy birthday, Dickface!
According to US Navy research
published in a recent edition of the New England Journal of Medicine, combat troops given morphine directly after serious trauma have a significantly lower chance of developing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The reasoning behind this is relatively simple: though you’ve lost a leg or worse, a friend, this memory is also associated with something physically pleasurable, thus reducing the chance of future mental trauma.
With this information, Cat decided that my turning forty should be surrounded by exceedingly positive circumstances— thus preventing (delaying?) a mid-life crises. Her strategy worked a treat, in no small part because of her excellent companionship, braving, as she did, the heights (with her vertigo), the depths (with her ear infections) the snakes (in particular the oriental vine snakes which have, OMG, mildly toxic saliva), the bird-watching, the giant bugs, the tiger leeches, the sweaty husband who felt the need to document the attacks of said tiger leeches, and—
who could forget?—the neck-aching hours (and hours and hours) spent fruitlessly staring at leaves.
But mostly her strategy worked because for me, the jungles of Borneo were like a speedball of uncut, emerald nature mainlined into my optic nerve.
This was quite addictive. In fact, I forced upon us every sweaty trek I could which nearly destroyed both of our immune systems. Consequently, after the trip debrief (and a bit of a grovel of my part), we decided that next time every day of trekking would be followed by a day of sun-loungers and Chablis. Maktub. It is written.
Wonder Wife aside, the morphine surrounding my 40th birthday was also partly thanks to a 37-year-old, alpha-male orangutan named King.
Much like the panda is for China, the orang utan is the logo for brand Borneo. (Orangutan meaning person of the jungle as opposed to orang Maliau, person of the Maliau basin or orang Malibu person of— you get the idea). To a larger extent, they are also the logo for brand Malaysia. Pictures of these shy, complex primates grace tourist brochures, guidebooks, in-flight magazines, town statues, souvenir key-chains, supermarket shop-fronts, whiskey bottles and condom labels (okay, I made one of those up). Furthermore, as with the panda, if you’re not keen on the zoo, don’t have a lot of time and don’t feel like bawling your way through slash-n-burn rainforest before trying to convert your friends to eco-terrorism, you have a very slender chance of seeing an orangutan in the wild. Besides, even when you make the effort, chances are you get something like this:
In Borneo and Sumatra…
…the only places orangutans live, their main threat is timber concessions giving way to palm plantations. Ever buy a Kit-Kat bar? Curry paste? Any product that lists “vegetable oil” as an ingredient? Well, dollars to donuts (yes, those too) “vegetable oil” translates to palm oil— currently untraceable— which in turn translates to clear-cut jungles in places like Borneo. And, unlike when you’re driving through, say, Iowa and all you see is mile after mile of monocrop corn, where if it wasn’t corn it’d be prairie (nothing wrong with prairie!), when you’re driving though—or, sadly, flying over— Borneo, and all you see is mile after mile of monocrop palm, you're looking at what used to be the most diverse, endemic-rich, primary rainforest on planet earth.
Dark, bigger than you, and full of weird.
That being said...
... feeling privileged, counting blessings, Cat and I had the extreme good fortune to rest our heads at the exclusive Borneo Rainforest Lodge in the heart of the Danum Valley. Yes, the price will make you weep but nowhere else will you find such understated luxury amid such throbbing, screeching, parasite-infested, teeming old-growth jungle. Nevermind the awesome food and service, or the fact our personal guide, Denny, had worked on the BBC’s excellent Expedition Borneo Series and
forgetting for a moment the view from The hot tub outside our cabin—
THERE I WAS…
In the Danum Valley, on the morning of my 40th birthday. Denny banged on our door and told us us to hustle getting dressed. This was no easy feat. Jungle trekking is the equatorial opposite of mountain climbing: sea level, oxygen rich, teeming with life, ninety-some percent humidity and 96 degrees in the shade. Hiking there is akin to hitting the elliptical-trainer, in the sauna, covered in a soul-sucking combination of nylon, DEET and sunscreen. At one point during our time in Danum—and Cat insists I relate this detail—I was pretty sure I’d crapped my trousers. When I adjusted the elastic strap on my leech-sock, however, a pint of sweat cascaded down my leg and filled my boot to overflowing.
At least I hadn’t messed my drawers (my mother is so proud)
Cat necked two pills to combat her swelling, suppurating tonsils.
I slathered Baby’s Bottom Butter on my chafing bollocks. Then we threw on socks, leech-socks, boots, binos, trousers, back-packs, water-bottles, camera gear, sunscreen, more DEET, contacts, sunglasses, et-freaking-cetera… and, expecting yet another 10 mile trek, we ran towards Denny’s voice only to find the area’s dominant male orangutan, King, munching on his favorite bush not fifty meters from our cabin.
“Happy Birthday, Mr. Ian!”
Over the next two hours, we anthropomorphically narrated the great ape's ad- and misad- ventures.
So last week– THERE I WAS…
Infected. Sitting in the “urgent referral” office of the Royal National Throat, Nose and Ear Hospital, King’s Cross, London. A young, blonde doctor had just stuffed a lubed-up, fiber-optic scope down each of my nostrils— twice— hoping to glimpse my larynx. No dice. The area was too inflamed.
Though the procedure was unpleasant, I asked if she could take another crack just to get it over with. I had just spent four hours in a crowded, under-circulated waiting room full of other coughing, sneezing, disease-vectors like myself. For all the gratis wonders of form-free, socialized medicine, The British National Health Service was not improving my health that day.
“Sorry,” said the doctor. “We’ll have try again next week. I’m going to prescribe you a thousand milligrams per day of ciprofloxacin— but it’s probably not going to do much good. The infection is likely viral so recovery may take several weeks. Sir? Did you hear me? You look a little pale…”
I asked for a glass of water and lay down on a gurney. The doctor took my temperature and pulse. I was trying to follow Cat’s example— to be all British like my passport— but I am of neurotic East Coast Jewish stock, raised in fruity, whole-grain California and the thought of some incurable jungle nasty laying me low for several weeks was making my head spin. At least I had the courage to ask how many Bloody Marys I could drink on top of cipro. Her reply— “You can drink in moderation”— didn't quite answer the question.
“Well,” said the obligatory med student while the doctor headed upstairs to consult with unseen masters. “Was it worth it? Borneo, I mean?”
It took me less than a second.
“Fuck yeah,” I Told him, fighting my way through another black whirly. “Borneo was awesome.”
At this point I would like to thank…
...(yes, his name is actually) Mr. Rhett Butler, who Cathy and I met, along with his lovely partner Alyson, at the Bunaken Cha Cha Resort. Not only is Rhett a world-class photographer, he runs the internet's biggest environmental news site, mongabay.com. Check it out.
Special mention must also be given to our guides: Emiko on Bunaken, Denny at BRL, Tonchong at the Myne Resort and Mr. Irwin at Sepilok. Without them there would be a lot more pictures of leaves and maybe not so many critters. I would also like to thank Esquire editors Sam Coleman and Lennard Gui for their laudatory treatment of my nonsense (though while I'm extremely grateful for your sentence of the month honors, I would like to point out it was, in fact, two sentences).
Finally, terima kesih to all of you who’ve read this far. You give me quiet hope.
(And if you're wondering: what about the stuff…
...I didn’t capture with the cumbersome, insufficiently-powerful but also bloody invasive camera? Like the sharks, sea-snakes, clownfish, pipefish, batfish, rays and reefs and turtles? Or the dugong, mother and calf, that we swam with off the coast of Sulawesi (one former park ranger had been on 6,000 dives and never seen one)? Or the gibbons calling from the treetops every morning? Or the smell of fresh urine from the nearly-extinc Bornean rhinoceros? Or the flying lemurs actually flying? And BRLodge aside: what about the lodgings that maybe weren’t so perfect? Or the torpor induced by heat and humidity? Or, most tiresome of all, the relentless consumption of oyster sauce, pak and bok choi?