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Lucy Cooke

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Borneo: A Land of Dwarves and Deadly Giants

Posted: 07/24/2012 12:09 pm

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A female proboscis monkey, looking a bit like the child catcher from 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang', Borneo

Borneo is a bit like Alice in Wonderland: a topsy-turvy land where animals have been drinking magic potions that make them grow into giants or shrink into midgets. The kind of place where the world's smallest frog, about the size of a pea, is dwarfed by the world's longest bug -- a stick insect that grows to over two feet.

I love freaks, so when I hear that there are even pygmy elephants, I have to film them for my new National Geographic show, Freaks and Creeps. But this particular adventure almost ends in an intimate encounter with one giant you really don't want to meet close up.

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A recent saltie caught in the Phillipines was over 20 feet long, photograph by AP

The Danau Girang biological field center is situated on the banks of the mighty Kinabatangan river, which winds its way into the heart of Borneo. When I arrive, director Benoit Goosens welcomes me to his jungle kingdom and informs me there is just one rule: no swimming in the river. Its chocolate-colored waters are home to the world's biggest reptile: the saltwater crocodile. These ancient monsters grow to over 20 feet long and have a taste for human flesh; almost 40 people have been attacked in the area in the last decade. Rarely has swimming seemed less appealing.

Our primary reason for visiting the center is to join Benoit's team on a mission to radio tag a wild proboscis monkey -- a freaky primate with a giant bulbous nose, massive pot-belly and Donald Trump hair. This can only happen under the cover of darkness. So I persuade Benoit to take us up river to see the elephants before sunset.

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The lead male proboscis monkey takes quite a shine to Lucy

It's a gorgeous, sunny afternoon and I'm in a great mood. I love biology field stations as they allow me to release my inner geek. Everyone here is as obsessed with nature as me. Nobody thinks you're weird to be totally over excited about an encounter with a pygmy pachyderm. What could possibly go wrong?

The journey itself is pretty exciting. Benoit has to take care to avoid the massive tree trunks, deadly detritus from Borneo's logging industry, hurtling towards us in the swollen waters. An hour and a half of weaving speedily upriver and we spot the elephants, about twenty of them hanging out on the bank. From the safety of the boat we can get quite close, although Benoit doesn't want to get too close and frighten them. They are much less aggressive than their African relatives and only two-thirds the size. They really do look tiny. Especially the baby, which is having a ball learning how to use its trunk by squirting water on its back. I shudder to admit it, but it's really rather cute.

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Benoit measures up an adult pygmy elephant

Elephants are not native to Borneo. The origin of these miniature mutant mammoths is shrouded in mystery but the most popular story casts them as royal refugees. Back in the fourteenth century the Raja of the nearby island of Java gave two Javanese elephants to the Sultan of Sulu. Centuries later, the descendants of these two elephants were sent by the Sultan to Borneo to help with the shipbuilding industry but were released into the forest. With Javanese elephants extinct, these exiled specimens are ironically the last of their species. Sadly their population has also shrunk by half thanks to deforestation but Benoit is working hard to establish a conservation plan for them.

On the way back we are all in high spirits when suddenly a storm looms and we're engulfed by a menacing black sky. Then, for no apparent reason, the boat starts taking on water. Phil, my intrepid field producer, asks me to pass him something to start bailing out but all we have is my sun hat. At this stage it doesn't seem very serious and Eric, the cameraman, and I are laughing at Phil doing his best to eject water with a floppy boater whilst Benoit tries to re-start the engine.

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Lucy filming on the Kinabatangan

But very quickly the mood changes. The engine is flooded and we begin to drift with the current and the giant logs. Filthy water sloshes around our ankles as the boat pitches violently from side to side. This is no longer funny. At all.

My first thought is for the camera gear. We are only halfway through the shoot and both cameras are in the boat. If we sink we have no back up. Eric starts to paddle. He is built like the Incredible Hulk but even he's struggling to make much progress. Without the power of the motor the true strength of the current is revealed. Then the boat catches on a submerged tree. We are stuck. Water is now flooding in at an uncontrollable rate. Plus it is getting dark. And fast thanks to the billowing blackness above our heads.

Then we realize that we've left the life jackets in the other boat. The power of the current will render the relatively short distance to the bank an Olympic challenge for even the most enthusiastic swimmer. Then of course there are the crocodiles. Forget the camera gear. If the boat sinks it is unlikely that there will be a presenter to film anyway. In the space of ten minutes a jolly trip to see the elephants has morphed into a class A life-threatening emergency. Suddenly I feel like I am in a seventies disaster movie.

There is only one thing for it. Benoit decides to break his one house rule and dives into the water with a rope between his teeth. He begins dragging the boat towards the shore whilst Eric paddles for all our lives. As Benoit hauls his waterlogged body onto the riverbank I think I am in love with the man. I have never witnessed such a selfless act of heroism in my life. And hope I never have to again.

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On dry land but not out of the woods yet

But once on the bank we are greeted with further challenges. It is now dark and we're stranded in the middle of the Borneo jungle. Benoit's phone has no signal and the producer's has no credit. Bitter irony. We are also being savaged by mosquitoes, which presumably can't believe their luck that four sweaty freaks are stranded on the shore with no repellent. Plus it is now raining. Hard. I'm doing a mental recce of all the ways we could die during an overnight in the Borneo jungle and run out of fingers to count on.

After a couple of hours spent swatting mosquitoes and seriously bonding, we spot a light coming towards us. It is Benoit's colleagues come to rescue us. Phew. We are safe at last. It is only once we get onto the boat that the true narrowness of our escape is revealed. Eric tells us that when he went for a pee, he stumbled upon a very large nest of eggs next to us on the shore. The scariest giant in the Borneo jungle is a protective saltwater crocodile mother defending her eggs. She's one big freak I am relieved not to have met.

Watch 'Freaks and Creeps: Weirdest Monkey Alive' on National Geographic Wild Tuesday 24th July at 10pm and then again on Saturday 28th July at 10pm

 

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