Darkness had descended into Imbak Canyon by the time we embarked on our first night trek, a snake of red head torches glowing dimly in the gloom. I have never known such darkness; dense, heavy, almost claustrophobic. A faint scatter of stars, partly obscured by gently swirling clouds, glittered down through a gap in the trees, pinpricks of light in a sea of darkness. I hadn’t replaced the batteries in my head torch for a while and my failing light barely illuminated the path in front of me. My chances of seeing any wildlife, except for the spiders’ eyes glinting from the trees, were almost zero.
But what I couldn’t see was more than compensated for by the cacophony assaulting my eardrums. The rainforest never sleeps, an orchestra of biodiversity screaming out from every branch, root and stem. Cicadas sang, frogs croaked, birds crooned, and something…purred? A clouded leopard? Fairly unlikely, yet not impossible here in Imbak, the ‘lost world’, one of the few truly unexplored places on Earth.
Fear was almost tangible in the suffocating blackness, a metallic taste on my palette, unknown terrors lurking in unseen trees. At one point, the girl in front of me stopped, motioned for me to go first. The people at the front were too far ahead, leaving a dark void between us and them. Setting forth into that void was both terrifying and exhilarating.
I tried to gauge where we were, for we had walked this route, the all-but-forgotten ‘Big Belian Trail’, before. By day, the sun had shone brightly through a veil of emerald, casting dappled shadows onto the forest floor. ‘Big Belian Tree’, the focal point of the trail, took seven of us, linked hands, to encircle it. ‘How old?’ we asked our guides. A thoughtful silence. The reply: ‘Very, very old.’
The forests of Sabah are, indeed, very very old, dating back to the age of the last dinosaurs. Another tree on the trail, ‘Kapur Hollow Tree’, you can stand up inside and feel the age pressing in around you, as you look upwards at the patch of blue sky above. This lost path runs through Imbak’s unique and mysterious primary rainforest, a rarity in this destructive modern world. It was a circular route, with decaying footbridges that we were helping repair.
In the dark, I counted. One bridge. A stumble on an entwined tangle of roots. Two bridges. A cold sweat, for once not from the humid heat of Borneo, breaking out on the backs of my arms. Three bridges. A slip on the bridge itself, the final bridge, curses muted by the living symphony of the jungle. Finally, the whirring of the generator and palpable relief as we saw the single light bulb from the guides’ tarpaulin shining out of the darkness. Our camp: a safe haven.