Travelblog SA#22: Salkantay Trek – Peru

19th-22nd October 2018

The Salkantay Trek is an alternative to the – now, not only very busy but exclusively expensive – Inca Trail. You do not pass by as many ruins along this road but you do get to traverse a wonderful variety of landscapes, including glacial mountains, lakes, cloud forests and even jungles, whilst on route to reach its penultimate highlight, Machu Picchu.

I decided on this occasion to treat myself and do it as a tour. It is possible to do this circuit independently – and I passed many along the way who were doing so – but, whilst I do enjoy the freedom of roaming alone and hiking at my own pace, carrying all of your own equipment and food for such a long journey can be hard work. Personally, if it is just three to four days, I will always choose to hike independently but, any more than that, and it starts to become questionable how much you are going to enjoy the experience.

Booking Salkantay as a tour also meant that I had Machu Picchu – with its entry fee, reservation for climbing the mountain, accommodation in Aguas Calientes, and the train ride out – all organised for me. It was also a great luxury to be able to carry just a light load of a few essential items each day and not have to worry about food or pitching my tent.

This is one of my last big expenses of this entire trip. When I embarked upon this journey back in June, I set myself a strict budget of $25 a day and I have managed to stick to it most of the time. I did put aside an extra allowance for things such as this, the Galapagos Islands, the Amazon jungle and flying over the Nazca lines, but those extra funds are almost depleted now. Machu Picchu is supposed to be one of the biggest highlights of South America, and I wanted to make sure that the week I saw it was special.

 

Day 1

I was picked up from my hostel in Cusco by Simba, who would be my guide for the next five days. I and the nine people I would be sharing this journey with got into a van and dozed for the first couple of hours as we were driven to Challacancha. It was the early hours of the morning and still dark. By the time the sun came up we made a brief stop in a village to have breakfast and started getting to know each other better.

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After breakfast, we climbed back into the van and were driven for another hour. The road became rocky, and it wound through a series of steep mountains until it finally reached the beginning of the trail where we were dropped off.

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We didn’t have too far to walk that first morning. We saw lots of butterflies and Simba explained to us that they were currently in season. He also stopped us a few times to tell us about some of the plants and trees we passed and gave us all some cocoa to chew on to help us acclimatise.

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By lunchtime, we arrived at ‘Skycamp’ – located in a village called Soraypampa – where we were assigned the domes we would be sleeping in that night.

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It was partly because of the accommodation that I chose this company. Each night of the journey, you stay in a different style of shelter, and this first evening was a particularly novel one.

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After lunch, I went to my dome for a brief siesta but I was woken by a crack of thunder. A storm had entered the valley. It was awesome to listen to the rain hammering against the glass above me, but I was also very aware that I was soon to be hiking again.

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Luckily the weather calmed down a little by the time we all met outside to begin our walk up to Humantay Lake. It was still raining a little – and windy too – but manageably so, and the foggy air conjured an eerie ambience.

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By the time we reached the lake the mist had cleared. I and a few of the others climbed up a nearby ridge to get a better vantage point. It was worth the journey but, while enjoying the view, we glimpsed another wave of black clouds looming towards us and decided it would be wise to return to Skycamp.

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After dinner, I got to watch the storm play out from within my dome again, which was awesome, but it would have been even better if the sky cleared for a while so I could see the stars. You can’t have it all, I guess.

 

Day 2

Simba woke me up at 5am by bringing a hot cup of cocoa tea. I drank it down, got ready, and then, after a quick breakfast, we set off. We were crossing the Salkantay Pass that day, reaching the trek’s highest point at 4,630 meters.

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The ascent was actually easier than I anticipated – although, all the cocoa Simba kept giving us probably helped. Within three hours, we reached the top and then it was all downhill from there, through a grassy, rocky valley which reminded me of Narnia (or at least what I imagine it to be like).

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We had lunch in a hamlet lodge along the way and then plunged into a terrain of cloud forests, reaching Chaullay – a picturesque village, surrounded by green, towering peaks and waterfalls – by mid-afternoon. We were staying in small, Andean-style huts that night and the air was considerably warmer. There was the option to have a warm shower and even access wifi there, for a small fee, but I decided to give it another day before I resorted to such luxuries.

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Day 3

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Of all days, this was the easiest of the trek. We were all acclimatised at a much higher elevation so wandering these lower elevations was easy. The air was still cool enough for the walk to be a comfortable temperature and most of the terrain was flat. We were following a path which snaked along a river, heading deeper into the Sacred Valley, and saw lots of orchids.

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We reached Sahuayaco around lunchtime, and the rest of the day was free to our own leisure. Everyone else went for a trip to some hot springs which were about an hour’s ride away, but I was also feeling a little introverted that afternoon and it was beyond my budget so I chose to have a few hours to myself. I sat in the camp and read a book. There were lots of interesting birds in the trees.

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Day 4

This was my favourite day of the entire trek, but it was also the most arduous and long. We were at 2000 meters altitude now, so the air was considerably hotter. We were also walking upon an actual Inca road.

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We climbed up a mountain, rising seven hundred meters in just a couple of hours. It was foggy, at first, but when we reached the top the mist began to clear. We rested for a while at a viewpoint which had a sky swing (video here). The views were fantastic.

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The highlight of the day was reaching an old Inca site called Llactapata. It was a mysterious place. They don’t know all too much about it, but it is situated on a bluff facing Machu Picchu. Its main building appears to be ceremonial and has two large chambers with a series of alcoves in the walls – which in most other Inca sites are used for the placing of offerings. I noticed that its arched entrance has a water duct pointing directly towards Machu Picchu.

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We caught views of the hydroelectric plant on our way back down into the valley. It isn’t a natural waterfall, but it is still very beautiful. I have a video of it here.

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For the last couple of hours of the day, we were walking along the side of the train tracks which run to Aguas Calientes. It was a little strange. It felt like we were on a pilgrimage because we passed hundreds of people along the way, all either on their way to Machu Picchu or back out. Every now and then a train would pass us and we would have to move aside. Most of the seats in the carriages were empty. It is one of those bizarre anomalies of capitalism. Hundreds of people walk this route every day, while mostly-empty trains roll past, and dozens of little restaurants have been set up along the side tracks to refresh those taking this long walk. An entire micro-culture and economy has evolved from of an adamantly over-priced train system which refuses to adapt.

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We reached Aguas Calientes by the mid-afternoon. It was here that we reached the end of the Salkantay Trek. That night, we were staying in a hotel with real beds and hot showers. In the morning, we were going to see Machu Picchu.

 

For more photos from the Salkantay Trek, click here.

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Travelblog SA#15: Amazon Rainforest – Peru

6th-10th September 2018

 

Day 1

Leaving early, myself and a group of girls I was sharing this Amazon experience with left Iquitos for the jungle.

It took the entire morning to get there. First, we had to be driven to Nauta – a small port town on the bank of the Marañón river – where Vily, who would be our guide for the next five days, showed us around the market while he purchased some last-needed supplies. And then we boarded a boat.

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It wasn’t long into the journey that I began to see herons, cormorants, and other kinds of birds. When we reached the channel where the Marañón, Amazon and Ucayali rivers met, schools of dolphins appeared. Most of them were the grey kind – which are plentiful throughout the Amazon – but we also saw some of the rarer pinks ones too. I caught a video of one of the grey ones breaking the surface of the water in front of the boat.

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Arriving at the lodge, we were given a lunch of fried catfish and shown to the rooms which would be our homes during our stay. Jungle Wolf Lodge is located within a privately-owned reserve of primary rainforest. I took some time to wander around the grounds whilst waiting for the afternoon activities to begin and spotted lots of tropical birds. I also saw stirring in the branches of one of the trees which I suspected to be a monkey but it was too high up for me to see.

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We were taken on our first boat safari, where we spotted three kinds of kingfisher, a yellow-headed vulture, buzzards, blue macaws, and other birds.

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We also encountered a sloth and our first species of monkey; a group of pygmy marmosets which were busily drinking sap from a tree.

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Day 2

I had been coughing and sneezing the previous day and didn’t think much of it at first but overnight it escalated and by the morning I had accepted I had a cold. I didn’t have a temperature though so it was more annoying than debilitating. I slept quite well throughout the night, as the air seemed a little cooler here in the forest than in Iquitos with its concrete buildings.

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Just after breakfast, I spotted a group of squirrel monkeys in the canopy near the lodge and ran to alert the girls. I caught some videos, including this one. Later on, Vily along with Norbi (who was our secondary guide and boat-driver) took us for a hike in the jungle and showed us lots of interesting things. A tree whose sap can be used to treat stomach complaints. Another whose sap can be used to form a cast to set broken bones. We were shown an Acai tree, whose berries have become fashionable among health gurus in the west but here they use the roots to prevent malaria and the sprouting leaves at the top are an ingredient used in salads. Termite nests, which can be broken open and smeared across your body to ward away mosquitoes (the termites can’t bite you and they eat so many leaves they have a woody aroma).

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Vily also spotted a green-backed trogon, some big spiders, a frog, and the infamous bullet ant, whose sting is the most painful in the world. We also came across the nest and a ‘highway’ for a huge community of leaf-cutter ants, whom Vily explained do not actually eat the leaves but use them to help encourage mushrooms to grow (which they eat).

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In the afternoon we were taken on another boat safari but this time down the other side of the river, where we saw woolly monkeys, a monk saki (which are exclusive to this area and north-western Brazil), and a green iguana resting on the branch of a tree. We also saw a Chestnut-eared aracari.

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And then, just before sunset, we moored up on a beach by a small lake, where we swam, took mudbaths, and saw more dolphins.

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That night, we were taken into the jungle again to see nocturnal life and found lots of spiders, scorpions and tarantulas.

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I walked on ahead for a while at one point and saw a small mammal scurrying across the ground. At the time I believed it to be a rat, but when the others caught up and I told Vily about it he said it was more likely a possum.

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The highlight of the night for me was a huge toad we saw towards the end.

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I didn’t sleep well that night. My cold was getting worse. I had a temperature and I didn’t get much sleep.

 

Day 3

In the morning I was still feeling unwell but I was determined to power on through and experience all I could during my limited time here. I took a paracetamol and got onto the boat. That day we were going fishing, and our main objective was to catch a piranha. We weren’t very lucky in that regard but we did come back to the lodge that afternoon with several catfish which we gutted ourselves and ate for lunch. We didn’t see much in the way of new wildlife, but there was a large group of macaws in the trees above us and it was interesting to see them interact with each other. On our way back, Vily spotted a tiger heron on the bank (video here).

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After lunch, we packed our things and got onto the boat. We were camping in the jungle that night.

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The boat took us down a river we had not explored yet. One which doesn’t have an official name on the maps but runs all the way to Brazil. On the journey, I fleetingly saw a small monkey – the size of a tamarind, but a different colour – leap between the trees, which was likely a coppery titi. An hour later, Vily chose the place we would stay for the night and we began to set up shelters using a series of tarps and sticks we gathered from the forest floor as frames.

Vily and Norbi took us on an evening safari further up the river to try to spot caiman but we were unlucky and only saw a group of electric eels jumping the water. The ride was pleasant though and it was interesting to float through the Amazon at night. There was a storm going on in the distance which occasionally lit up the sky.

When we returned to camp, we lit a fire and were just discussing what to have for dinner that night, when we were suddenly hit by a series of gales followed by heavy rain.

It seemed the storm had caught up with us.

Our shelters had no walls, just a roof and groundsheet, so the winds blew everything around. Myself, Vily, and Norbi ran around the camp, taking down the mosquito nets and storing all the blankets, food and bags in places safe from the rain. As I was adjusting one of the ropes, a gust knocked a dead branch from the tree above me, missing my head by inches and breaking the frame of our main shelter. We made a quick fix to ensure our possessions were safe from getting too wet and then huddled together in the second shelter while we waited for the rain to end.

Eventually, the thunder stopped and the rain weakened to just a light downpour. Vily and Norbi began to rebuild the shelter in a place with better wind cover and further from the possibility of falling branches. Mosquitos, less shy now the winds had gone, came out in swarms. I covered myself from head to toe – and the few parts of me which weren’t covered, I kept spraying with repellent – but it seemed that nothing could completely stop them. They bit my fingers, my face, and even my legs and knees through my trousers.

By the time Vily and Norby managed to get the shelter ready again, I scrambled under the mosquito net but some of the mosquitoes followed me inside so I caught them all in my hands and crushed them.

Just as I was drifting to sleep, I heard a voice outside. It was Vily, saying that he and Norbi had managed to get a fire going again and were making food. I thanked them but declined. It was late, and I finally had a haven safe from the mosquitoes. It would take much more than a fried egg to give up my sanctuary.

 

Day 4

I slept surprisingly well and it seemed my cold had lifted. I was the first up and I went for a little walk around the forest and then sat by the river to watch birds. I saw a yellow-headed caracara.

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Once we packed up camp, we went fishing again and this time were luckier. One of the girls finally caught a piranha.

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We then returned to the lodge, where we showered and had a lunch of rice, vegetables and the fish we caught. We went for a trip to San Pedro village in the afternoon, which was a little bit touristy, but not untastefully so. It had a pond full of Victoria amazonica lilies, the biggest in the world.

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There was also a place where, for a small fee, you could pet a sloth but it wasn’t a form of tourism I wanted to encourage so I politely declined. When I first saw the sloth, I asked how it had come to live with them and they claimed it was an orphan they found and rescued, but that story didn’t quite add up considering that (I found out later) they had a total of four of the creatures. I also happen to know (from my time volunteering at Merazonia) that sloths are one of the easier species to rehabilitate and adapt very quickly once set free. They belong in the wild, and I was pretty sure the only reason the family was keeping them was to make money from tourists (many of whom are naïve and experience warm, fuzzy feelings when they get the chance to pet fluffy creatures, but don’t properly consider their wellbeing).

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I enjoyed wandering around the village and soaking up the atmosphere as adults sat on their porches listening to music and kids played football on the street. One of the houses had a display of some rather interesting ayahuasca-inspired art too.

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Day 5

The final morning we were taken out on the boat one last time and for a short walk. Our guide happened to know where a pair of night monkeys were nesting so he took us to see them.

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Their tree nest was also home to a pair of bats (which the monkeys do not mind sharing with because they eat bugs, including mosquitoes). Night monkeys are nocturnal and always live in pairs.  During the day at least one of them is always keeping watch for intruders and predators, but we were lucky and got to see both of them. I have a video which you can see here.

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At the end of the tour, we were taken to see the ‘Avatar Tree’ (which is actually a group of parasitic figus trees strangling other trees). Apart from being stung by a wasp and seeing a woodpecker, the rest of my last day in the Amazon was uneventful.

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Overall I had a great time with Jungle Wolf Expeditions. I got to see lots of wildlife, the food was great, the lodge was a comfortable base to explore the jungle and, most of all, Vily and Norbi were very dedicated guides who have a genuine passion for nature. I highly recommend them.

 

For more photos and videos, click here.

Travelblog#47: Danum Valley – Borneo

25th February-3rd March, 2015

I returned to Borneo: a place I visited during my last adventure around Asia three years ago.

And why? Well, firstly; I discovered that when one flies from the Philippines to Nepal, it actually works out cheaper to go via Kota Kinabalu.

There were a few places I wanted to see last time but sadly missed, due to not having enough time.

But the main reason, really, is that I fricking love Borneo, and the five weeks I spent there back in 2012 were some of the most memorable and exciting from that entire trip.

So, on the morning of 25th of February, James, Chloe and I boarded a plane from Manila. Pedro, who had been our travelling companion for the last four weeks, was flying back home to Taiwan, so it was now just three of us. James and Chloe (the lucky bastards) were going to be spending six weeks in Borneo, in all, but I was just going to be accompanying them for the first few days.

The plane touched down upon Kota Kinabalu in the morning and, after booking tickets for a sleeper bus heading south that evening, we went for a little wander around town. I spent most of that day experiencing flashbacks and feeling fondly nostalgic: walking past a bar and remembering it was where me and a friend drank beer a couple of times, popping into a restaurant to examine the menu and realising that I had eaten there before. Remembering some of the things that I love about Borneo. Such as the crazy equatorial weather: the constant flux between dark clouds and blazing sunlight with blue skies; that damp scent of a storm about to happen, frequently in the air; the occasional rumble of thunder in the distance.

In the evening we boarded the sleeper bus. It was fairly comfortable but unfortunately we had to get off at 3am because it rolled into Lahad Datu early. Luckily there was a 24-hour café open so we took refuge there, eating mie goreng and roti canai while we waited for the Danum Valley Field Centre office to open.

 

Danum Valley

Day 1

By lunchtime everything was organised and we were upon a 4WD for a bumpy two-hour journey to the Danum Valley Field Centre. We were all very tired by then, so our heads were slumping and our eyes kept rolling back. At one point I was sputtered back into a state of consciousness by James yelling my name. I opened my eyes and, as my vision switched from blurry to focussed, I saw that he was pointing to something outside the window and scrambled for my camera.

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A group of bornean pygmy elephants; our first sighting.

A while later we rocked up at the dormitory, where we claimed our beds, and then James and I rustled up a vegetable curry in the communal kitchen. As we were cooking, a middle-aged German guy turned up with his parents and, as soon as I saw his face, I knew that I recognised him from somewhere.

“Errm, this might sound a bit weird…” I said. “But… did I meet you three years ago, when I was last in Borneo?”

“That depends,” he said. “Did you do any diving in Semporna?”

It turned out that he owned the outfit which I had done a few days of scuba diving with – the very same outfit which James and Chloe had booked to do their PADI Open Water courses with next week.

It was one of those ‘Small World’ moments.

We chatted for a while, as he cooked dinner for his parents. And after he left a group of Malaysian students came into communal area to make their dinners’ too.

Danum Valley Field Centre is primarily a research station for scientists – tourists are accepted, if there is room, but they are a minority – so it is not like a hotel or resort: the lodgings are very basic, and specifically designed so that people can do things independently. The Malay students were all from a university in Kota Kinabalu, studying subjects which ranged from the bio-diversity of ferns to renewable energy. They were all quite friendly and talkative, when they weren’t busy tapping away upon their computers.

 

Day 2

At the crack of dawn James and I went to the river, hoping to spot a few birds but we weren’t having much luck. I heard a rustling nearby and saw movement in the trees – and I could tell it was some kind of ape by the size of the disturbance it caused – so I went over to investigate.

I was expecting it to be an orang-utan, but what I found was even better; a small group of bornean gibbons.

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I think we were very lucky to see them so close; gibbons are creatures which you hear all the time when you’re in the jungle, because they make such a distinctive sound, but they are usually so high up in the canopy and moving so fast that they can be hard to see properly. During my four days in Gunung Leuser National Park in Sumatra, I saw only one gibbon, and that was just a fleeting glance as it swung between the trees.

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We went back to the dorm for a while to eat breakfast and, while Chloe was brewing the porridge, this bizarre little creature crawled across the veranda. Apparently it was some kind of mantis.

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We then set off again, deciding to walk along the ‘Coffin Trail’, which turned out to be a great place for spotting birds. We kept seeing this really beautiful black bird which had a distinctive feather sticking out from its tail, but none of us managed to get a good picture of it as it was moving around too fast. I did manage to get a fairly decent shot of this small spider hunter though:

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About halfway along the trail I suddenly heard a branch snap. What was that? I wondered, expecting some kind of primate. A large tree was obstructing whatever it was from view, so I primed my camera ready and sneaked up behind the trunk to get a peak.

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And that – to my utter shock – was the photo I took. I should also mention that it was taken with absolutely no zoom.

I immediately backed away.

“What was that?” James asked, noticing that something was up.

“It’s a f**king elephant!” I exclaimed. “Stay back.”

The creature immediately made a distressed trumpetting sound, followed by a growl. I never knew that an elephant could growl, until that moment, but it sounded like the kind of noise a predator would make.

I carried on pulling back, eventually veering to the side a bit to see if it was still there.

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I then discovered that there were actually four of them, and that one was a calf – which was why the the older ones were being so protective. They carried on growling, and Chloe was – quite understandably – scared. I was a bit scared too, but I couldn’t resist taking a few photos as I gradually backed away.

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Eventually the elephants stomped off into the trees, their trunks blaring out loud noises along the way. The path was clear, and we could carry on walking.

We reached the coffins shortly after that: they were placed there over 400 years ago by the Orang Sungai (literal translation: ‘River People’) tribes who used to inhabit the banks of the Segama.

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We did encounter the elephants again on our way back, but the second incident was far less dramatic: the creatures were busily eating leaves on a little ridge above us and, once they heard us coming, they calmly walked away.

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In the afternoon we came across a group of red leaf monkeys, which we observed for a while. They, and the gibbons I saw that morning, were the only primates which I didn’t manage to see last time I was in Borneo so, from that moment on, I could proudly say that I had glimpsed every species of monkey and ape on the island.

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At the end of the afternoon we visited Danum Valley Field Centre’s Tree Platform. Due to my fear of heights, I never made it up to the upper level – I barely made it to the first! – but it was still an enjoyable view. We stayed there until dusk.

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Day 3

We wanted to do at least one long trek while we were in Danum Valley, so on the third day we decided to hike along the ‘Rhino Pool’ trail.

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We weren’t quite as fortunate with the wildlife that day, but we were so grateful for how blessed we were on the previous one that we didn’t mind. The trail was a very nice one, passing through stunning primary rainforest, and there were lots of sounds, making it audibly one of the finest jungle treks I have ever been on.

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We reached the spot for which the trail gets its namesake (a rhino was spotted there by someone in 1995) after two hours, and then we took a different trail to loop back to the headquarters, arriving just in time to eat our lunch by a small beach on the bank of the Segama river.

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In the afternoon we took it easy and strolled around a series of small paths near the headquarters. We spotted black squirrels, pygmy squirrels, a few birds, another group of red leaf monkeys, and came across a decomposing tree which was covered in mushrooms and looked like something out of a weird fairytale.

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Just before sunset we sat upon a platform overlooking the river and were lucky enough to witness a pair of hornbills land upon the tree opposite us and swoop between the branches for a while just before they flew back to their nest.

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That night we were taken out on a guided night walk, where we saw a fleeting glimpse of a sambar deer, lots of spiders, and this lizard:

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Day 4

The three of us decided to venture off our own separate ways for our last day in Danum Valley, so we could spend it pleasing ourselves. I began it by getting up at 5am and walking over to the Observation Tower just before sunrise, so I could hear the dawn chorus, which was a very magical experience.

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I wandered aimlessly for rest of the day and saw a few creatures along the way, including a group of red leaf monkeys, more squirrels, and lots birds. Towards the end of the afternoon I came across a group of long tail macaques, and I sat down to watch them for a while as they bonded with each other.

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For more photos from Danum Valley, click here.