“SO there’s a ghost in there?!” the words come tumbling out before I can even control my tongue.
The figure in front of me clad in an all-khaki-coloured uniform, upon whose stocky back my juvenile exclamation had bounced against as I trail behind him, suddenly halts in his track, prompting me to come to an abrupt skid. And then he turns, so the full whack of the amusement on his face can be witnessed fully.
The corners of his eyes crinkle in mirth as he replies in that kind of tone that an adult would reserve for a bewildered child: “Err, not quite. More like jungle spirits. Because a jungle is never really silent as there are so many creatures in here. The birds, the insects, the trees. they have their calls. But when it’s really silent, we believe that jungle spirits are there.”
And with that explanation, Justin Juhun, Gaya Island Resort’s senior resident naturalist and local conservationist, motions for me and the rest of the group, comprising journalists and bloggers, to follow him as he takes us further into the jungle’s mysterious inner sanctum.
This guided nature walk forms part of the itinerary of my stay at YTL Hotel’s stunning Gaya Island Resort, Sabah.
Located within the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park off the coast of Kota Kinabalu in Borneo, the 121-villa resort, which incidentally won the Best in Protection of Natural Areas and Wildlife Conservation category at Wild Asia Responsible Tourism Awards a couple of years ago, rests along the coast of Malohom Bay, a natural sanctuary nestled in the hillside of an ancient rainforest with a stunning outline of Mount Kinabalu on the horizon.
Through this specially-crafted nature walk, guests get the chance to discover the exceptional botanic reserve, diverse wildlife, and a rare undisturbed mixed dipterocarp forest, which is found only on this island within the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park.
Juhun, who also works together with Sabah Parks as well as local governing bodies collecting data and documenting species of wildlife, is the one in charge of educating guests not only about the secrets of the rainforest but also on the intriguing mangrove ecosystem here via private kayak tours organised by the resort.
A cacophony of sounds pierces the stillness of the jungle. Transfixed, I listen contentedly to nature’s raw orchestra as Juhun’s words brush against my ears.
“That loud call sounds like a tailorbird. Know why it’s called a tailorbird?” he asks.
I shake my head, not even daring to guess in case I come out with another gem of an answer.
“It’s because of the way their nest is constructed where the leaves look like they’ve been sewn together,” he whispers, before adding: “That click-clacking sound? That’s the sunbird. We have four species here at Gaya. They’re very colourful, especially the male. And then that persistent sizzling sound, like a screech? That would be the cicadas.”
The sound of dried leaves crunching under my feet as I try to keep pace with Juhun, together with the natural ‘piped-in’ music around me, are the only noises to be heard.
For once, the boisterous urbanites are reduced to companiable silence as we lose ourselves in our surrounds, our eyes and ears trained on the slightest of movements and sounds.
The sight of a perfectly-uniformed row of fungi on a branch stops me in my tracks. I edge closer for a better look.
“That’s a bracket fungi. See their beautiful rings?” Juhun bounds over to explain. “The darker they are means that it’s a very dry season. Lighter denotes a rainy season.
Bracket fungi cause decay and rot in the heartwood of trees and produce bracket-shaped fruiting bodies on the trunk or main branches.”
As we continue with our trek, a peaceful silence reigns among the humans. Around us, the jungle acoustics rise in a crescendo, by now music to our ears.
Occasionally Juhun’s voice would be heard as he regales us with stories.
“The largest mammal recorded here was the samba deer,” he shares, as we huff and puff behind him.
“I haven’t actually seen one but there was one time we trekked deep into the forest following a stream, and came to something like a puddle. We could detect the smell of the deer.”
Other mammals that can found in the folds of the jungle here, says Juhun, include the long-tailed macaque, proboscis monkey, pangolin and red giant flying squirrels.
“If you go deeper into the forest, you’ll see mostly arboreal insects such as species of ants, spiders, lizards, stick insects and many different species of moths and butterflies,” adds Juhun.
Are there any snakes here, I couldn’t help blurting out.
Again that smile as Juhun pauses to explain: “The most dangerous snake you can find here is the king cobra, the largest venomous snake in the world. But it took me two years to actually locate one as it’s really elusive. Don’t worry!”
In a conspiratorial tone, he adds: “Actually, I do believe that there are plenty of elusive creatures out there, including extinct species, but I honestly think that the island is hiding them!”
Once again, a hush descends as the group allows for Juhun’s words to sink in. There’s certainly plenty to ponder as we manoeuvre the fairly challenging terrain, occasionally ducking from low-hanging branches and sudden inclines.
But Juhun? He’s just like a modern-day bushman, steady in his steps and nimble as a monkey. I’m amazed to learn that he’s actually self-trained and has a background in hotel management.
He’s worked in housekeeping, at the front desk, and even as a pastry chef assistant. Despite his somewhat interesting career trajectory, he has never wavered from his first love — nature conservation.
A VERITABLE ZOO
The Tawau-born Juhun, who’s of mixed Kadazan, Indian and Chinese descent, hails from a family of wildlife enthusiasts.
“The jungle was my playground when I was a child,” he shares.
Our hour-long trek has ended and we’re enjoying a sweaty respite at the resort’s pool bar and lounge, feasting our eyes on the mesmerising vista of the open sea.
“We were the only family awarded a licence by the Sabah Wildlife Department (back in 1980) to foster wildlife rescued from within the parametres of the plantation where we lived.”
His eyes twinkle as he recollects his childhood days.
“We had a secondary forest behind our house. It was two hectares. My father fenced up the area so I could have my own reserve. At the time, dad was working for one of the biggest Sabah softwood companies and they’d clear areas and plant soft timber like albizia and acacia.
“Whenever they cleared a forest, there’d be ‘offsprings’ left behind by their mothers. And dad would collect them. One day, he brought home a baby python! I’ve been bottle-feeding animals since I was young.”
He’s swift to add that none of the animals that he owned were ever put in cages.
Smiling, Juhun, who has four siblings, shares: “Each of them got names and I could summon them to the house from wherever they were. I had gibbons, barking deer, samba deer, hornbills, brahminy kites, flying squirrel, all living in harmony.”
He remembers an incident that occurred when he was 8 or 9 that was to be the turning point in his (and his family’s) life.
“Some people from the Wildlife Department came with a warrant and complained about us keeping lots of animals. I was at school at the time and dad refused to entertain them until I got home. He told them to wait for me because he knew there was no way anyone could touch my animals without me being there.”
So, when the youngster reached home that day, instead of his mother waiting at the door, it was tetchy wildlife officers.
Chuckling, he recalls: “When dad told me about it, I was so angry that I took a hoe from outside and threatened to whack the officers if they touched my animals. I told them I’d been looking after them since they were young and that they were happy.”
Continuing, he adds: “It just so happened that one of the ‘uncles’ promised me that they wouldn’t take away my animals if I showed them where they (the animals) were.” The younster, duly appeased, led the men to the back of the house.
“When I unlatched the gates, they were confused. They’d expected to see cages with animals but instead, they got the view of jungle. ‘Where are the animals?’ they asked me,’” recalls Juhun, adding: “Then I told them that the animals were inside. And they asked me how I knew. So I called them by their names. And one by one the animals appeared. The officers were shocked to see how healthy they were.”
Blood samples were subsequently collected by the officers so they could check for any sign of virus.
It was a fortnight later when they (the officers) returned and informed Juhun and his father that the animals were indeed healthy.
Says Juhun: “So they made us an offer. They wanted to work with us. What transpired thereafter was that every time they confiscated animals or found babies, they’d send to us and I’d look after them. The idea was that once they (the department) found a place for the animal, they’d return to collect. But most of the time they never did. And that’s how my father got his licence.”
The childhood idyll couldn’t last forever. And soon enough, Juhun left the family home in Tawau to pursue his secondary education in town, returning to the family folds only once a month. This was also the only time he got to see his beloved animals.
“Each time I returned, an animal would’ve died. I was so angry with my parents, blaming them that they were not feeding my animals properly.”
His eyes misting, he adds: “But dad told me that they’d refused to come out for their food whenever I was away. It was like they were missing something. Dad advised me to let them go. So I did, with a heavy heart. Each time I did so, I’d cry. The last animal I released was that python that dad brought back.”
His voice low, Juhun confides: “One day, we released the python several kilometres away. He ended up returning to our house by noon. Another day we released it, he came back three days later. I remember crying and saying to him, ‘don’t go close to any settlements. Stay safe.’”
The silence that ensues is palpable. As his eyes begin to glaze, I gently throw Juhun a final question: What’s his ultimate dream?
“I dream of having my own wildlife reserve,” he replies, his face breaking into a big smile.
“All I need is a degraded forest and I’ll restore it. There’s a 200-hectare land in Beaufort, which I’m eyeing. It’s completely destroyed but I’d be game to change that. I’ll start with conservation projects, small ones first, maybe beginning with little creatures like insects and spiders. Just like how it all started when I was a boy.”