slow! clouded leopard lane
leapin' lemurs! rushin' rhinocerii! just when he thought he was lost at the bottom of the deep blue sulu sea, he miraculously flash gordoned out of an unforeseen anti-sink escape hole in the green-turtled aquashere and catapulted skyward back to the hum drum safety and routine of mega-malled kota kinabalu. not to worry...
it's another dazzlingly black east sabahan night filled with the twinklings of an infinity of stars and the huge yellow "bulan" crawling up the horizon. he and his girl are on night safari in the "tabin" wildlife reserve, not far from the wild east borneon cowboy town of lahud datu. illegal filipino migrant workers, unemployed indonesian day-laborers from just across the kalimantan border, thriving sulu sea pirates, lots of drinking, crime, and more; it's a thorn in the side of orderly, islamic malaysia. the three of them have driven over the spectacular kinabalu range again, this time past sandakan, the formerly-elegant timber, palm oil, and rubber tree capital of sabah – before it was destroyed by the greedy japanese in world war two – and parked their little proton outside one of the poor wooden stilted homes of the palm oil plantation guard. they've come looking for big game.
he's more than a little skeptical however. the tabin brochure pictures all these flashy photos of wild asian elephants, mud-bathing sumatran rhino, seven species of flying native borneon hornbill, the endangered sun bear, the even rarer clouded leopard… monkeys, birds, insects…. but – they guarantee nothing. it's not like the wide open-plain african safaris, they caution, where it's so easy to spot entire herds of comfortably-grazing lions and tigers and gazelles, oh my. no, here in the thickly-growing malaysian secondary forest, you have to be patient, the animals are shy, tend to stay away from humans, they have their own needs and rhythms. this isn't a zoo. right. he knows all that. but, he's thinking to himself, it'll probably be more like the over-priced kinabatangan cruise where the guide would suddenly call out "crocodile! crocodile!", pointing enthusiastically towards the muddy river bank, upon which they would all jerk their necks practically off their spinal cords in the appointed direction, only then to have the guide casually say, "oops, he just slipped back into the river".
three, you say? yes, he's been unexpectedly joined by a fellow "orang puteh" (white person) from across the great china sea. yes, really, one of his fickle angelino pals has been heady and foolish enough to actually take up his invitation to come and visit. it's a little strange, having someone from his "former", sedentary LA life show up on this sort-of solo borneon adventure. seeing himself as the great traveling poet-adventurer, what was he going to do when someone could actually check up on his overly-romanticized riffs & references? anyway, now they're three-across the wooden plank of the once-white, now beaten-up, four wheel pickup truck, humping and bumping along the gravel and dirt road deep in the secondary rain forest. the eagle-eyed native guide, jasni, is jerking his hand-held, battery-run, high beam torch light from one side of the road to another, from one tree canopy to another, from one palm oil tree clump to another.
this place tabin is incredible. it's the vision of one man. his name, wilfred lingham. he had met wilfred's sister, judy, sitting around the comfy likas square pool in kk, and judy had given him fred's card, telling him to give her brother a call. it had taken three months to set it up, but now they were finally at tabin. "datuk" wilfred, "datuk" being a bahasan title of authority and respect, was a native kadazan sabahan, and had worked in sabah's bureaucratic government for many years as a minister of tourism, ecology, and wildlife preservation. until about five years ago, datuk decided to listen to this calling he had and take over the vestigial tabin reserve as a private venture. you see, tabin had been designated for development by the government several years before, sitting as it was on hundreds of hectares of protected primary and secondary forest land, but nothing had been done. until datuk came along and listened to the music of the wind and the water. datuk studied the land. the water level of the rising river. the interaction between nature and its inhabitants. then datuk started to recruit people, resources, and money to build this ecologically and economically self-sufficient nature retreat and sanctuary. retreat for humans, sanctuary for wildlife and forest. still incomplete after these five years, tabin will be ready, allah, god, and the spirits be willing, by the end of 2002. it will house up to eighty visitors at a time, in an elaborate scheme of simple to up-scale housing units, from sleeping on open air platforms in mosquito-tented mattresses (as the three of them did), to soon-to-be-completed hot water-running tree houses, with overhanging river balconies, and the natural symphony of the forest available twenty four hours a day. build it and they will come…
"look, over there", jasni's high beam is boring up in the canopy of one of the local hardwood trees. rottan or ironwood, he can't seem to keep all the species straight. at first, it's hard to acclimate his eyes. "quick", he tells himself, "before it gets away". he doesn't wants to be the dummy who misses the crocodile as it slips back into the river, so to speak. "look, it's a something-something eagle," one of the tabin staff calls out enthusiastically. "where?" "where?" he and the girl can't seem to locate it in the bare crown of the tree. "no, it's an owl", mountain mike, the visiting orang puteh, says. "no, eagle," says harjinder, the young punjabi tom boy staff member. she asks jasni in malay -- and -- it's an owl! damn if that mountain man from LA isn't right. the owl peers right into the gang of them in the truck. it isn't fazed at all. they all get to gaze into its cool, assessing eyes. then, quicker than a beat of a sparrow's heart, it takes off into the sky – right into the yellow moon now rising higher into the night. "ah, never mind, it's only an owl. what's the big deal." they bump and crawl along. jasni jerks his high beam back and forth like the movements of his eyes.
"look, over there!" jasni has settled the beam deep into the palm tree plantation, on the opposite side of the road. "what is it?" everyone squeals. again it takes a moment…then… "there… there" – right in the center of the beam – it's one… no two… long-snouted wild boars. they're caught in the light. they stare straight at us. amazing. he's seen these guys before. in the sarawak natural history museum in kuching. stuffed. again in bako national park, also in sarawak. the same, long-snouted bearded pigs walking around the park, waiting for food scraps from the campers. domesticated "wild" boars. but these – here in jasni's high beam – these they really found out in the wild. out in the pitch of night. caught them in their light. exciting!
"slow. clouded leopard lane. 15 mph." that's what the seemingly comic sign cautions at the two road dirt junction in the middle of their tabin night safari. there's not another vehicle in sight. for about a million miles. it's a long way from kansas. or disneyland. or pirates of the caribbean. ten minutes later and again, the thrill of a sudden find, "what's that? in the light?" it's a weasly looking thing coming straight out of the palm tree plantation right onto the road behind their truck. "yeah, dude, it's like a weasel," he says. weasly but beautiful. strange exotic black and white geometric markings – but no, it's a common "palm civet". like a long hot dog skunk, but no smell, no stripe, no long hair. "man, it's a CIVET. stop comparing it to other shit you know." like mountain mike's jokes about everything reminding him of topanga canyon – the nepali coast in kauai, the copper canyon in mexico, and now the secondary rain forest borneo! comparing the unknown to the known. the need to be comfortable. familiar. in control. shit, what's the point of traveling? "c'mon, dude, it ain't fucking topanga canyon, it's clouded leopard lane. get with the program." but then slow mike looks up at the gigantic star-filled sky and says, "look, it's the big dipper. in america it's right side up, but here it's upside down." cool, mountain man. that's pro-found…
over the next two days, they see a family of pig-tailed macaque monkeys, one mother fiercely protecting her young from the frightening intrusion of jasni's light, two bristling porcupines, a three pack of asian elephants, a sleeping flock of six giant orange-beaked rhinoceros hornbill, even the endangered sun bear – so cute with his white-rimmed chest and koala shyness, and eventually the ultimate safari trophy - the elusive clouded leopard. far from being a disappointed or cynically fleeced tourist, he – they - are absolutely enthralled. enthralled – and grateful. they hike down to a pristine waterfall, get freaked out when a team of leeches crawl up the girl's legs and feast themselves on her unprotected feet. she screams like a child. he has to bend over and pull the bloated-filled bodies off her one at a time. they rest. calm down. the guide takes off - and gives the girl - his own worn green leech socks.
wilfred has been gracious and generous. they have their own private chef. "beh". used to be the sultan of brunei's personal food buyer. he's maybe fifty, chinese-malay, missing a few front teeth, a recovered alcoholic, but cooks the best tasting soups in borneo – cream of curried pumpkin, sweet corn and crab, carrot and basil – followed by sweet and sour prawns or black pepper steak – medium rare, however you like it. and naturally, fresh papaya or water melon for dessert. beh keeps talking about recipes calling for marijuana and poppy flowers. next time, he promises. they're given their own bungalow for meals and simply for - relaxation. everyone is friendly, knowledgeable, and helpful. they are treated like visiting dignitaries. at the waterfall, however, he's stupid enough to take the girl's ring and put it in an unprotected makeshift plastic camera bag. when they hike back up and the leech alert is lowered, they realize the black onyx ring is gone. swallowed by the forest. they're really perturbed. but – jasni hikes back down, and an hour later he's back with the ring. those eagle eyes – good for daytrips too apparently. the girl is pleased. he's pleased. mountain mike is in heaven.
two days later they're back in mega-malled kota kinabalu. the girl is off to bali for a month. to visit her sister and her sister's new fiancée from holland. she has to give permission, as the older sister, to be passed over in the traditional batak family marriage sweepstakes. he and the girl have been together for eight months straight. seems like twenty four hours a day. intense. wonderful. risky. alive. she a child. he a grown man. sometimes. he's never learned so much about love, patience, himself. she'll come back and join him in KL in a month. he hopes.
mountain mike is back to LA on the 16th. be sure to say hello. and remember to ask him about the big dipper… and clouded leopard lane.