Saturday, October 30, 2010


You know how the conversation goes, "Oh, you're from Australia? Do you know X? He's from there too."
And you carefully explain that no, you don't know X. (And is it any wonder, when the population of Australia is over 20 million...)

So I am wondering how the conversation went when a Malaysian friend of ours, who was staying at a youth hostel in London, bumped into my Australian niece there, whom he hadn't previously known existed, and they both found out that the degree of separation between them was ... 1.

Namely, me.

So what's your story about a huge coincidence?

Friday, October 29, 2010

Bits 'n' pieces

I had a load of fun over at Sia's Blog. Although I didn't imagine that we'd end up talking about cockroaches. Anyway, you can see the conversation in the comments section here.

And here's a few more photos from Borneo Rainforest Lodge.

Imagine, you are hot and sweaty and have almost been wiped out by a falling branch....

And then you arrive at a place that looks like this:
And you find a table, set with cloth, cutlery, napkins...cold chicken, cucumber sandwiches, fruit, cakes and jellies...
As Ann said, how Noel Coward! So I promptly withdrew my silver inlaid-with-mother-of-pearl card case from my skanky belt pouch, and gave them my visiting card...(no, not joking)
I mean, you can't miss an opportunity like that, can you?
Our guide, Edmundo Cafe, keeping in touch with his crew via walkie-talkie

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Want to hassle me? Want to know what my next book's about?

I'm over at lovely Sia's Blog, hiding out in the comments section. You can ask what you want...and I'll do my best to say something coherent in reply. I'll be around there on and off for the next 20 hours or so...

Tuesday, October 26, 2010


Tomorrow I won't be blogging here.
Instead I will be over at

which means you can chat with me there as I will be popping in and out all day.

That's tomorrow, US time. (Not sure which time zone.)

So if you want to ask me questions, that's the place to do it. 
Bring your own coffee.

There's small and then there's ... this

 I suppose to out the words "pygmy" and "elephant" together (see my last post) is a bit ridiculous. But the Bornean elephant is small, hence the name. Smaller than its cousin found in Peninsular Malaysia, the Asian Elephant.

But here are some photos of something that really does deserve to be called "pygmy" : the Plain Pygmy Squirrel. Photographed on the canopy walkway of Danum Valley Rainforest Lodge, this little fella is fully 4" (10cm) long from nose to tail tip. Which makes its body barely 2". And boy, is he fast...

Find the Squirrel...

Monday, October 25, 2010

Getting one's priorities right...

Forgive me for the lousy pictures in this post - I was much  keener on looking at these six Bornean Pygmy Elephants through my binoculars than worrying about taking photos through the dusty windscreen.

While I was away in Borneo, my husband was away attending a meeting in Cairo - in fact we went out to the airport together.

Internet reception was lousy at the rainforest lodge, so it wasn't really until I came back that I realised he had been gone for five days and there was no email from him or any other form of communication -  to anyone. In fact, his email account hadn't been opened, and usually he does keep in touch. So I started to get a little uneasy. I chatted to my daughter on Skype and she said she'd try telephoning his hotel in Cairo. While she was doing that, I continued the conversation with her partner, P.

The conversation went like this:

P: You've lost your husband!
Me: Yep. Saw pygmy elephants though. And orang utan. Had a fabulous time - luxury accommodation in the middle of nowhere, my own jacuzzi on the verandah...

As it turns out, husband was fine, but internet connection was beyond paying for in the hotel and he was never free to look elsewhere.

But here's what daughter posted on Twitter later:

 When P. said 'You lost your husband!' my mum's reply was 'Yes, but I saw some pygmy elephants in the rainforest.' My family is nuts!

Yeah, guess we are, kinda...but it's a glorious madness.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Rainforest: Burgeoning Life, Sudden Death

People often ask me about the dangers of the rainforest. They expect me to mention tigers, or something really exciting like that. (I've never seen one.) I am more likely to mention malaria-carrying mosquitoes, or the spirochete leptospirosis. (Although I must admit hearing a female elephant trumpet her displeasure nearby is definitely a different experience to hearing one in the zoo. And I wasn't at all surprised to see grown men scatter - fast - at the sound.)
This has got to be a Malaysian Ent, right?

A great many Malaysians, though, will mutter about djinns or forest spirits as the thing they fear. In truth, death in the forest is likely to be much more prosaic. And on this trip, I certainly had a narrow escape from serious injury, which might possibly even have been fatal. As it was, I escaped unscathed.
The road to Borneo Rainforest Lodge
And the cause? Something very boring. 
A falling branch. 
We were walking in single file. I had lagged behind the person in front (my assistant, Eileen) because I was chatting with the gentleman behind me, a tourist from UK. (Thanks, Merv. I owe you one.) It had rained heavily the night before, and a water-soaked branch - about as thick as my forearm and several metres long - came crashing down from a huge height. It landed several metres behind Eileen, a mere arm's length in front of me and shattered under the force of its fall.

A split second later and I would have been toast, or at least someone with a very, very bad headache. The heaviest, thickest part of the branch was squarely in the middle of the narrow trail. When I picked it up later, I was amazed at just how heavy it was.
A determined tree doesn't let a rock bother its quest for life.
 And the irony? We were walking down the Coffincliff trail at the time.
Such is life.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Working conditions: they can vary

On the very same project I am now working on, we were once offered free rooms in the staff quarters of a tourist site*. The only rooms available (for my two male colleagues and me) were ones no one wanted.

And no wonder no one wanted them. Shared bathroom facilities with no hot water (and we were at 5,000m asl --- oops, that should have read 5,000ft, as has been pointed out to me: 1,560m). The shower head was missing. Bathroom was basic cement in tones of grey, with no working light. No bed sheets, no curtains, no towels, no nothing...

Someone had bashed a hole in the bedroom wall. Someone - perhaps the same person - had written in lettering half a metre high above my bed: FUCK OFF. I shared the sentiment. (Mind you, the view out of the window was stunning.)

And then there's Borneo Rainforest Lodge, where I have just spent a couple of glorious days:
View from the verandah dining area
My balcony jacuzzi...
One of the chalets
River view from my balcony
Another view from my balcony
The main lodge building overlooking the river
The Borneo gibbons woke me every morning, followed by the Rhinoceros Hornbills flying in to the trees opposite my room, on the other side of the river.

Sipping my early morning coffee, I drink it all in... Yep, it's all worth it.
*Not, I hasten to add, the same site as the one pictured above!

Friday, October 22, 2010

One of my favourite places

The canopy walkway at Borneo Rainforest Lodge.
Dawn in the mist. The morning sounds of gibbons.
Breakfast while watching a trogon, or a pygmy squirrel.
The ringing call of the Chestnut-necklaced Partidge.
The monotonous tone of the Black and Crimson Pitta.
The diabolical laughter of the Helmetted Hoirnbill.
Looking down on the river
Looking down on the canopy and the walkway from far above in the tree
I am privileged. I have been there. I have heard the sounds of the Bornean rainforest.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The First day on the job...

You all know that I work hard, right? And I have a boring job where nothing ever happens...

Like on Monday. I flew out from Kuala Lumpur to the eastern coastal town of Lahad Datu, Sabah. There we were met by a 4WD from Borneo Rainforest Lodge, Danum Valley...
Which is one of my favourite places ever. And it is in the heart of Borneo.

So we are driving along when a 3 metre long King Cobra crosses the road in front of us. Our driver, Calixtus, stops the car. And while we are looking...

...a Crested Serpent Eagle flies down, legs outstretched to grab it. The snake zips away like it was pursued by death - which indeed it was. The eagle misses. It sits in front of us on the road, disgustedly shaking his head.

We wait until it decides to move so we can drive on.
And some time later, after we've collected a few brilliant bird sightings - pair of Rhinoceros Hornbills, a family of 7 Bushy-crested, a Wreathed and a pair of Black Hornbills, a murder of 7 Slender-billed Crows -  we see this: 
(So I was excited, ok? You try to take a photo out of a car window in a hurry with a digital pocket camera!) 

The female crossed the road first, and the male orang utan wasn't going to leave her, so he hurried in pursuit.

 But hurrying is tiring...
After that there was a scatter of Bearded Pigs, a full grown Sambar Deer, another lot of panicked pigs, and finally we were there, just as the granddad of all tropical downpours decided to pour down.

We had arrrived. As I say, it's a hard life...

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Monday, October 18, 2010

More about that memoir I talked about yesterday

The book is At Home in the World. It is by Joyce Maynard, and the man who sucked her into his realm of total adoration was J.D.Salinger. (I hasten to say no physical abuse was ever involved here, not that its absence lessens his crime.) Do read it if you can get hold of it. It's fascinating and Maynard is a fine and honest writer.

Here are some extracts from what Maynard herself said about the furore it generated:

"It appeared that to many of my critics the sole significant event of my life had been sleeping with a great man. This was disheartening not just personally, but for what that portrayal of me and my story indicated about those writers’ perceptions of women. One day I hope some feminist scholar will examine the way in which a woman’s recounting of her history is so often ridiculed as self-absorbed and fundamentally unimportant…"

"… I believe it is a measure of the hostility toward women is still deeply woven into the texture of our culture that when female writer gives voice to the struggles that are the stuff of women’s lives, she is so often dismissed as emotional, self indulgent, and trivial. One need not look far for examples of male writers who have written freely and with no small measure of self-absorption about the territory of personal experience, who are praised for their courage and searing honesty…"

"…The pursuit of privacy has been portrayed by many as evidence of purity of character, just as the refusal to bow to the genteel notion of secret-keeping has been depicted as inappropriate and invasive—a profound betrayal of trust. I have come to believe that sometimes what is truly inappropriate and invasive are certain activities on the part of the very individuals who will later invoke their sacred privacy as a cloak for the concealment of their behavior. To suggest that an individual enjoys immunity from scrutiny or accountability for his actions because he holds some position of power (whether as a priest, a professor, a politician, or a man of great wealth or accomplishment) is to clear the way for the exploitation of the very people most vulnerable to influence and manipulation—generally, the young. There lies the true betrayal of trust…
…So long as we question a woman’s right to her own story, we allow the perpetuation of the same dangerous and damaging patterns generations before us experienced."

Sunday, October 17, 2010

So does a writer have the right to write about her own life?

I have just read a fascinating memoir. The writer is a novelist and essayist in her own right, but in this book she concentrates on her own life and the way it was (mostly adversely) affected by the machinations of a manipulative very much older man, who twisted her thinking and her perceptions of herself in ways that tainted her life for years and years, even though she only lived with him for a year before he unceremoniously tossed her out.

It wasn't until her own daughter (from a later marriage) was 18 that she really confronted what had been done to her, "the dark side of the Pygmalion myth" as another woman writer remarked.

There is no doubt that her account keeps as close as a memoir can to the truth - she had the man's letters, and carbon copies of her replies to remind her of his manipulations, after all. And since her memoir was published, there has been evidence that she wasn't the only 18 year old that was prey to this man's colossal arrogance and ego. (He was 53 when they met).

Yet, when she published her memoir, many people villified her for making such things public. The man was known to be intensely reclusive, hating publicity of any kind. She was attacked in the media, brutally, for daring to write the memoir.

So what do you think? Does a writer have a right to tell the story of her own life, even if those she writes about don't come off very well in the account?

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Back to Tasmania

To me, one of the most fascinating and wonderful experiences was how much wildlife we saw, and I don't mean just the birds.
Like this Green Rosella, endemic to Tasmania
Many people, on coming to Australia from elsewhere, are disappointed. They expect to see kangaroos every day and are surprised to find it's not so easy, even when you actively go looking. At least, not wild ones. Part of the reason for this is that most Australian marsupials are nocturnal.
Green Rosellas in the leaves...
Tasmania is different. You see things in broad daylight. Everywhere.

We tripped over wombats, had to stop for echidnas trundling across the road, stepped around wallabies in parking lots, said good morning to Tasmanian Pademelons outside our door in the snow, and even saw the magnificent Forester Kangaroo, which is now uncommon in Tasmania.

And one that did pose nicely
And of course, there were birds too. We had obliging endemics like the parrots above, in the historical site of Pt Arthur.
Lapwing stalks away from the camera
 Or the Masked Lapwings, who appear to loathe having their photos taken, yet were all over the place.
In fact you had to be careful not to tread on their eggs, or their fluffy young.
There were Ubiquitous "robins" - actually flycatchers - on every fencepost it seemed at times: pink ones and brown ones and flame ones and scarlet ones.

Currowongs fixed us with greedy eyes every time we stopped for a picnic. You know, the ones that make you feel guilty about not feeding the highly unsuitable junk food.

Wombat mum and offspring, Cradle Mtn
Black Currawong

Scarlet Robin, Freycinet
Bennett's Wallaby in the parking lot

...Bennett's with young
Sperm whale remains on the beach in Mt William Nat.Pk
There was even a sperm whale...

I do apologise for the quality of the photos: I have only a tiny digital pocket camera.
This field was actually dotted with eating-machines - six wombats.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Some more photos from Royal Belum State Park, Malaysia

A foot in an elephant footprint
A camp building at Sg Papan and note the strangler fig behind

Elephant footprints near camp
Talking to our local guides
Evening, listening to the song of the bulbuls, watching the Grey Wagtail bobbing on a rock...