A wooden boardwalk weaved through the 130 million-year-old rainforest that grew down to the coast on the South China Sea in Sarawak, Borneo. Dense jungle trapped the moisture in the air. Under the rainforest canopy as we walked to our cabin, gibbons swung above our heads, poisonous vipers wrapped themselves around trees, almost luminescent in their greenness. A critically endangered possum-like creature, lazily wrapped around branches unaware of the marvel of its own existence. Our cabin was barely visible under the umbrella of trees that towered higher than any chimney I had seen, clambering over each other to reach the sun. Leaves parachuted to the ground, wider and taller than me. The undergrowth buzzed and crawled with life.
That afternoon, my young children witnessed a Bornean cobra try and kill an equally terrifying and large poisonous python. The snakes’ bodies wrapped around other. The cobra delivered his poisonous bite and the python tightened his grip; dying together in the undergrowth. A mass of patterned skin, interlocking. “They usually eat small monkeys, like the size of your son,” the guide said, pointing at our one-year old happily running up and down the wooden ramp, oblivious. The boys ran off to play. I moved them away from the cracks in the café boundaries that plummeted down to the where the snakes were.
That evening, we pushed the beds together, so I could keep our children close. I stayed awake with a torch strapped around my wrist and my finger permanently poised over the on/off button. Like a paranoid security guard, I would intermittently switch it on and off shining it at the windows which were wide open covered only with mosquito wire. There was no phone, no internet just the sound of rustling in trees, singing cicadas, howls, rustles and creaks. But it was the silent ones I was most scared of. I was looking out for the deadly snakes who I imagined were mapping out my little ones with their infra-red vision as we slept. They hadn’t accounted for me though. I would not succumb to sleep. But, I am only human so sleep I did only to be awoken by a bang inside the cabin.
“Wake up,” I said, shaking my husband, “There is something in here with us”.
“It is probably just a rat, don’t worry about it.”
My South African husband was more used to the wild than me; a self-confessed English country girl who fears even an owls hoot in the night. I could not rest. I went on patrol. My heart beat rapidly. I imagined Agnes in her wilderness, ‘Everything in the jungle that day united in a malevolent effort to defeat me…A hundred times I’d told myself, never again, never again.’
I yelped. A big, brown rat scuttled away from the bin. I ran and jumped into bed tucking my feet up high out of reach. I glanced at the clock. It was 5am. It was time to pray the dawn prayer. That meant I had to kneel on the floor with the creature. I decided to be brave. I could do this. After I prayed, I was relieved that soon dawn would come. Waiting there, the rat sat under the bed watching me. I watched it. In that moment, we understood each other. It was hiding from the snakes too. Just like me. Eventually, the sun peeped over the horizon and illuminated the dark corners of the jungle. Birds tweeted, insects rustled in the undergrowth and butterflies filled the air in search of their first taste of sweet morning nectar.
With the children in tow, we walked down to the secluded beach cove with the stunning jungle backdrop alive with pygmy squirrels and birds and creatures I had never seen, swinging on the branches. Noah slept in the shade of the trees as I wandered along the coastline. I remembered what Agnes had wrote about her coastal walks with the indigenous island people she met, ‘It is natural to follow in the shallow waters and search for the wealth of the sea.’ I could see the beautiful shells and brightly coloured fish darting between my feet. In the quiet ripple of the ocean I heard the trees come alive. A group of gibbons swung into view, swinging effortlessly from branch to branch, one holding a bright orange fur-coloured baby. I was watching in awe, unused to the wild so close to us when my husband called out to me.
“Stand next to him, just in case.”
I jogged towards my baby laying on the beach mat, wondering how wild this place was, to think our baby could be snatched into the rainforest. I imagined him, hanging from the gibbons high in the tree tops, effortlessly stolen away as I watched helplessly from the beach. Why was I here I wondered? As Agnes answered once in response to the same question, ‘I guess I’m afraid of too easy living’.
I don’t think I share her sense of adventure.
*The italics are extracts from Land Below the Wind, by Agnes Keith. I read it on my travels throughout Borneo.