First Time Doing A Night Walk – Rainforest Discovery Centre – Sepilok
If you haven’t already picked up on it, I’m quite enthusiastic about the natural world. I’ve always enjoyed documentaries, books and virtually anything explaining about the bizarre and diverse creatures in the animal kingdom. So naturally, the Rainforest Discovery Centre’s night walk was a dream come true.
It started off, however, with a nightmare. We spent the afternoon at the Rainforest Discovery Centre in Sepilok, incorporating a canopy walk. I’m not great with heights, practically to a point of seizing up, and the groaning of the slightly rickety looking walkway did not help. A couple of nights before, at Panganakan Dii, we’d befriended a couple of Americans – Brittany and Andy – who we’d agreed to meet for the night walk. I didn’t realise we’d unwittingly invited them to a front row seat of me wrought with terror.
We arrived late – as traffic out of Sandakan was horrendous – to find that the night walk had already departed and we had to walk quickly along the canopy to catch up.
We soon joined with our group of prospective wildlife hunters milling about on the canopy walkway. I found a solid looking section, took out my camera and tried not to look down.
The guide told us that a couple of giant flying squirrels would likely come out at about 6:30. We waited around, and sure enough, at the allotted time, a squirrel came out of its tree and flung itself across the gap over to the neighbouring tree. In the fading light, we saw another couple of squirrels take a number of flights.
Walking a little further along the canopy, emboldened by the fact that it was dark enough to prevent me from seeing the bottom of the forest below, the spotter pointed out a small green snake in a tree. Apparently a baby keeled pit viper, with distinctive red eyes. This was the first of many times during the night that I was glad to have the spotter with us, as we would have missed virtually everything on the walk without them. Or worse, we could have found something without them that wished to make a meal of us.
We (thankfully) came down from the canopy and began the night walk, our guide laid some ground rules. First, he said, do not walk closer than 2 metres behind the spotter, so that he could find things to point out to us. The second rule was not to flash our torches ahead of us, as that could startle anything we could hope to find. Finally, he asked us not to use flashes, unless told otherwise, as it can damage certain animals eyes.
The spotter certainly had his work cut out for him. In the daylight, the jungle was dense and the range of visibility was fairly short. In the dark, it was even more so. He also had a group of 7 westerners tramping about with him, flashing lights, making noise and generally acting like a group of tourists.
Shortly after being read the riot act we had our first taste of why it was needed. Walking a little along one of the main trails, one of the guests at the front had pushed a little too far forward, and was flashing his torch ahead of the spotter. He spooked a tarsier – an unusual, large eyed creature that looks like it shouldn’t exist outside of the Harry Potter universe. Before the rest of the group could assemble to see it, the small critter bounced – literally a metre up in the air, into and out of the road, before disappearing into a thicket of jungle. It felt unreal to see something move like that. Half of the group were fortunate enough to see it, but the stragglers at the back sadly missed it.
Winding our way deeper into the jungle, we spotted a number of things. A scorpion, sitting in a hole in a log, was an interesting highlight. The tarsier spooker from earlier on tried to elicit a reaction by tapping on the outside of the scorpion’s abode. Thankfully it didn’t react, and we were spared having the walk cut short by an impromptu hospital trip.
A couple of kilometres passed under our feet as we saw frogs, giant millipedes and long beaked sunbirds.
After hanging back to photograph a really impressive ant – it sounds like a contradiction, but it was almost 2 inches in length – Laura and I found ourselves at the back of the group. Making use of this momentary seclusion, we turned our torch off. It was abyssal. Save for the light of a multitude of stars – visible through the canopy – the way ahead of us was oppressively pitch black. So was the way behind us. The only time I remember experiencing such blackness was literally down a mineshaft. As we hastily followed the trail to catch up to our group so as not to be lost forever, my phone vibrated in my pocket, letting me know that I’d just received an email. I guess we weren’t that far from civilisation.
Eventually we came to a junction, as our smaller trail joined one of the main trails, it was here that our spotter noticed a flying lemur clung to a tree. It did not look overly impressed with our assembled group shining torches at it and firing off our camera shutters in its direction. We were there a good 5 minutes before moving on, allowing the disgruntled lemur to get back to its business.
As we started back towards the Rainforest Discovery Centre, the tarsier spooker – from his vantage point at the head of the group – spotted a whip scorpion, this allowed me to tick off an item from my ‘weird creatures to see’ list. A little further along, our spotter found a tarantula holed up in a recession in the bank along the trail, the spooker repeated his act of trying to get bitten, but it appears that none of the creatures we came across had much interest in being provoked.
As we rounded the final corner of the night walk, a curious intensity seemed to fall over the group, torches were flashed in every direction with renewed vigour, as if people were trying to make the most of the jungle before heading back to their hotels. It was, unsurprisingly, the spotter who had the last word, pointing out the adult version of the pit viper that we had seen at the beginning of the trip. Coiled up in a tree, its bright red eyes sharply contrasted against its bright green scales, it was an awesome way to round off the night walk. So long as we could admire it from a distance.
We arranged a taxi back into Sandakan from the stand at the Rainforest Discovery Centre, and spent the remainder of the evening chatting and drinking cocktails with Brittany and Andy at Balin, the rooftop bar above Sandakan’s Nak hotel. Along with picking up other hints and tips for our travels to come, it was a perfect slice of cosmopolitanism to debrief after several days in the rainforest.