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Messages from Penang — A night safari

I’ve been on a few safaris in my time. The word evokes a standard series of images to most people — wide open savannah, endless sky, flat topped acacias, moving carpets of antelope and zebra, Land Rovers, khaki gear, binoculars, cameras and yes, even guns. And, as the cherry on top, the serious big game contestants — lion, elephant, rhino, leopard and buffalo.

I label myself as super lucky because I’ve seen all of ‘The Big Five’ and more, including my all time favourite, the cheetah. I’m not a hunter — I belong to the binocular-and-camera gang. It makes me feel privileged to be able to observe and study wildlife while not interfering with it in any way. I accept that hunting for the pot is a way of life for many people in this world — ecosystems work and that wildlife is constantly hunting in the name of survival after all — but I abhor it as a blood sport.

Still, I digress.

There’s a story I heard once about a traveller seeking directions. He (sorry, perhaps I should say ‘she’) asked a passer-by for help. The local said, “You’re on the wrong road. You need to keep going until you get to the next road on the left. It’s at the bottom of a hill. You’ll see a copse of trees on the right and some rocks just before the road itself and there’s a big white house with a timber five barred gate just after it.”

The traveller was relieved to hear such a comprehensive description and committed all this to memory.

Then the passer-by said, “It’s not that one.”

I’ve described everyone’s idea of a safari. In Penang, it’s not like that.

That doesn’t mean it’s not good by the way.

Our safari was nevertheless an adventure — well organised and professional from the start. The local lady who made the arrangements has done this many times before and her custom group outings are legendary on this island. I’ve subscribed to her email newsletter for several years in anticipation of ending up here and participating in her events, with the Night Safari and Fireflies evening trips top of my list, even in the dark days of not knowing whether we’d even get out of the UK. So, finally, I got to go on safari in South East Asia.

Someone asked if we’d see any tigers. I do hope they were joking. Yes, tiger spotting is also on my bucket list, but I can’t do it here. Apart from tourists, you won’t find anything much larger than a long-tailed macaque. They’re very common and, like many monkeys around the world, tend to cause a few tourists/residents vs wildlife shenanigans. But, also like most monkeys, they’re very entertaining and full of fun. There’s another type here though — the dusky leaf, or spectacled, langur. They’re less common and harder to spot, we were told, but when we stepped out of the vehicles at the top of Penang Hill, at The Habitat, there were two of the langurs and a macaque right overhead in the trees and on the cables.

There was also another incredible photo opportunity directly overhead — a giant squirrel going about its business amongst the leaves — and Muggins here wasn’t quick enough on the uptake, wasted precious seconds hunting for the phone in a suddenly bottomless bag and it was gone. Fortunately for this wannabe and ill-equipped wildlife photographer, the langurs hung around a bit longer.

I did manage to get a bit of video of another giant squirrel later, from the ‘Langur Walk’ walkway in the forest canopy. It moved about a bit, foraging, and then got back into its nest. I singled out a few frames of this very distant subject and applied my modest Photoshop skills. Well I never said my name is Frans Lanting, did I?

The guides up at The Habitat are no less skilled or knowledgeable than their big game African counterparts. I mentioned in a previous blog that a wildlife guide’s artistry is in the ability to locate every animal, bird, insect or flower of interest when their tourists are seeing nothing but a landscape scene. The Night Safari walk begins in daylight, as the wild residents of the Hill start to wind up their day. The forest is a noisy place and the sounds alter depending on the time of day so it seems everyone gets their chance to shout or sing.

The first thing I personally spotted, and that came as a complete surprise, were several jacaranda trees. We had stopped and were watching a pair of sunbirds feeding. I moved closer to the edge of the path and went to lean on the timber handrail and there, on top of the rail, was a slim, tube-like, lilac flower. I’ve not seen one of these since I was last in Southern Africa.

I’d been looking past the slightly spindly tree it came from to watch the birds. The flowers had mostly been shed and the feathery leaves were starting to put in an appearance — these trees tend to appear either green or lilac, depending on the time of year. In Harare, they flower in the spring (September-October) with a pretty cloud of blossoms taking over the whole canopy so that avenues lined with the jacarandas are a spectacular sight. They originated from South America but have been transported to many parts of the world now, although I have to say I never expected to see them in this equatorial region. It will be interesting to find out more about their flowering habits here when the temperature barely varies all year round.

After dinner we ascended the Treetop Walk in the hopes of watching the sunset but the weather decided it wasn’t going to oblige and I got to be thankful for my foresight in bringing an umbrella. It didn’t rain hard but the views were a bit misty and the setting sun wasn’t quite as amazing as it might have been. Never mind — there’ll be other days.

“Dealing with pesky obstructions 101. If you can’t eliminate it, make a feature of it.”

The night safari in earnest began shortly afterwards, complete with powerful spotlights, hushed voices and liberal amounts of mosquito repellent on exposed parts. Many members of the party were in shorts, sandals and vest tops, which kind of made me doubt my own decision to come over-dressed for the occasion in my jeans, boots and long sleeved shirt but at least meant I had fewer bits of skin to douse with rocket fuel strength insecticide. To be honest, in the four hours or so we were up on the hill, I didn’t clock a single mozzie, nor did I get chomped, but these Malaysian ones are smart, believe me. I grew up in Africa and I’m well acquainted with blood-hungry mosquitos but I’ve never known such sneaky little buggers as this lot. They’re skilled at hiding and they know damned well when they’ve been spotted. Get a bead on one in bright electric light, keep your eyes on it while reaching slowly and quietly for the can of Fumakilla from under the sink, blink and it’s gone. Boom. Vanished into thin air, like a figment of your imagination. Until you’ve forgotten about it and then it punctures you on the back of the ankle while you’re doing the washing up.

The larger animals had retired for the night so the victims of the spotlights tended to be insects, frogs, toads and spiders, apart from a civet spotted — initially just as a pair of eyes — from the Langur Walkway. When I first came across civets in Africa we called them ‘civet cats’ but they’re not cats. This one wasn’t coming anywhere near us. We had to be content with following the movement of the tree branches and the occasional glimpse of those two bright orbs.

Wildlife viewing on safari is always a bit of a lottery and we didn’t get to see the other well-known mammal up on Penang Hill, the ‘flying lemur’. This is also a misnomer — the lemur is not a lemur at all. It’s a colugo, apparently closely related to primates so there’s some loose connection there. Sort of.

We descended the hill at around 9pm in the hands of a skilled 4x4 driver — private motorists in vehicles with unknown service histories are understandably not allowed on this steep, switchback road.

I foresee more of the Penang Night Safaris in the future.

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