10 Nov 2008: Somewhere in the bowels of Taman Negara, the oldest rainforest in the world, eating glorified pot noodles, whilst pulling a reluctant burrowing leech from my trainer.
I abhor these disgusting creatures with their insatiable erectile persistence and total lack of respect for personal space. They must be able to smell my fear, as I seem to be the only one in our group focussed exclusively on evicting bloodsuckers from my person rather than scanning the undergrowth for a much larger inconvenience: the tiger our guide fears is stalking us.
Bizarrely, I am unfazed by the prospect of being eaten by a three hundred kilo pussycat in comparison to being sucked dry by a three-centimetre leech. I figure my odds are good on that score; I’m skinny and, currently, low to the ground. The tiger is bound to go for one of the larger, more rotund members of the group. And whilst they’re being munched on, I can make my escape.
Having persuaded myself that self preservation is paramount, I dutifully put in some scan time of my own, complete with “did you see that leaf move?” and “I think I saw something orange over there”, and then get back to spraying myself with more leech deterrent. No one can say I’m not a team player.
Before long, our group moves off: the guide at the front, a brave volunteer bringing up the rear. I, unashamedly, squeeze myself between a buxom Swedish woman and her body-double husband, feeling much like a crash-test dummy trialling twin airbags.
Our guide tells us to be vigilant and stay close to one another; that it’s important to make ourselves look as big as possible. I feel sure the Swedes must have been briefed before they arrived, they are doing exceptionally well both at looking big and staying close to one another. Can they not see me?
The next two hours are replete with endless squeals from the two American girls who apparently see several tigers, and some bears, and a crocodile, and I feel sure that if there had been a tiger once there certainly isn’t anymore.
We soon arrive at the cave where we will be spending the night. It’s impressive to say the least and, according to our guide, large enough to house several elephants. The evidence of which lies steaming at the entrance. Apparently, they aren’t home right now, and won’t come back as long as we make our presence known by lighting a fire at the mouth. I feel bad for kicking the elephants out of their home, but our guide assures us it’s more of a retreat than a regular abode, somewhere they come to get important minerals; much like an elephant day spa.
It is agreed amongst the group that we will each take turns to check the fire throughout the night, as none of us relish the prospect of being trampled in our sleep. I am allocated the first slot and set my watch alarm.
Night falls rapidly and soon the cave is swathed in a darkness so black that the light from the fire seems more of a homing beacon than a deterrent. The only one now awake, I feel positive that most of the nocturnal inhabitants of the forest will go towards the light rather than away from it, and no amount of bug spray will protect me from being eaten alive.
So I make an executive decision that I am sure our guide will disapprove of but hope the rest will thank me for; I put the fire out.
Content in the knowledge I won’t wake up swollen to the size of the Swedes, I settle down to sleep, serenaded by the distant (thanks to me) nocturnal chorus of the rainforest.
I’m not sure what it is that wakes me, and as I lie there questioning whether my eyes are open or closed, I try to listen beyond my own increasing heartbeat.
There is crunching of stones underfoot, and is that my heavy breathing? I rummage in my bag for my Christmas-cracker torch and flick it on. There, looming at the entrance to the cave is a huge, dark, foreboding shadow – likely sent to judge me for making a decision that wasn’t mine to make.
The elephants have arrived and we are in the way.