Searching for frogs in the jungles of Borneo

Borneo’s jungle feels full of life during daylight, but it’s at night — when its wild denizens are on the hunt for food — that the forest really comes alive.

By Charlotte Wigram-Evans
Published 6 Oct 2019, 13:00 BST, Updated 21 Jan 2022, 15:24 GMT
Mist over Borneo rainforest
Early-morning mist over Sabah rainforest in Borneo — a place where cicadas scream, bats squawk and the babble of streams is interrupted by deep belches of giant river frogs.
Photograph by Getty Images

Darkness comes quickly in the jungle. It snakes around the branches of the acacia tree, rises from the crevices between buttress roots and envelops the mushrooms puffing up from the ground like clouds. It flows up the ironwood tree, obscuring the vines that hold its trunk in their slow, crushing embrace. It comes without warning, as though the sun has simply been plucked from the sky. And it’s only then, when it’s as black as obsidian, that the jungle wakes up.

I peer hopelessly into the gloom, my eyes straining for any signs of life emanating from the makeshift camp I’d trekked to earlier that day. My guides may be silent, but the jungle has turned the volume up to full blast; cicadas scream, bats squawk and the babble of a nearby steam is interrupted by deep, rhythmic belches — giant river frogs. It’s these monstrous burps that seem to rouse the group from their afternoon kip. Suddenly, Kajan’s voice roars out, his words escaping into the night: “Right, frogging time!”

I scramble frantically for my torch. Is this some kind of bizarre fairytale? Am I being led out into the wild to kiss frog after frog until I find a prince? My fingers find the plastic switch, and grinning faces suddenly appear above me: Munati, Rantau, Dali and Kajan, four members of the Iban tribe that has eked out an existence from Borneo’s forests for centuries. Their deep understanding of the jungle is unmatched. 

The amphibians, it turns out, will be my dinner, not my date. Rantau hands me a plastic bag and I wade out into a stream behind him as he regales me with tales of his frogging prowess. “I held the record in my longhouse for the most caught in one night,” he says gleefully. “More than 100.”

In the feeble beam of my torch, I watch as his hands plunge into the water ahead of me, and emerge with a frog as big as teapot. Its bulbous, saucer-sized eyes stare at me ruefully, before it’s dropped into a bag already bulging with others.

I splash on, creatures that have been ensconced in tree trunks all day peering down at me from the canopy. The paper-thin wings of a lesser bamboo bat hold me spellbound, before they unfurl to reveal a tiny, fang-toothed face, lamp-like eyes aglow. A few slippery metres further downstream I spot a jumping spider, busy weaving its web.

The rainforest itself feels more alive in the blackness, as though the trees have woken up with the wildlife. Sinewy vines seem intent on stroking my shoulders, leaves rustle around my ankles, branches lean out over the stream, bowing under their own weight. I’m so in awe of this ecosystem that Kajan has to make regular U-turns, dashing back to ensure the jungle hasn’t claimed me for its own.

Unsurprisingly, my bag remains firmly frogless. “No stew for you,” Dali jokes, holding his bounty aloft like a trophy. “I got 15; Rantau still beat me, though, he’s on 20. We’ll stew them with lemongrass and ginger back at camp,” Kajan says, as we turn around and head upstream. “A true Iban delicacy.” 

Food is the last thing on my mind, however — I’ve spotted an orangutan nest ahead, an expertly folded throne of palm fronds so fresh it might have been vacated only moments before. Was the great ape watching me from the trees, just out of reach of my torch beam? Two more eyes in the darkness, following my every move. 

Giant river frogs are a delicacy for the Iban tribe, who set off at night in search of the amphibians. The tribe has eked out an existence in this remote jungle for centuries.
Photograph by Getty Images

Jungle trekking: five considerations

1. Shelter: Keeping dry is crucial in the humid jungle. The easiest way to build a basic shelter is to find a long straight branch and lean it against a tree, propping up shorter branches down its length. Finally, cover it all with leaves and you’re good to go.

2. Equipment: The Iban would never dream of setting off into the jungle without, at the very least, a machete and a lighter. If a machete is unavailable to you, a penknife will suffice — a blade is essential when preparing food and splicing dry wood for a fire.

3. Water: Streams aren’t the only source of water in the jungle. Bamboo collects water in its stem, which can be accessed simply by bending the top so it flows out. Any of the giant leaves in the jungle can easily be fashioned into a makeshift cup to collect rainwater.

4. Food: Hunting requires expertise, so your jungle diet will be mainly plants, fruit, insects and fish, frogs, grubs and termites. Mushrooms can be lethal, so avoid if in any doubt. Also, rub leaves on skin and lips before eating to see if there’s any reaction.

5. Danger: From poisonous snakes to malaria-carrying mosquitos, the jungle can be a perilous place. Fashion a sturdy stick into a spear for self defence. When building a shelter, look for a dry clearing — this will keep you safe from leeches and falling branches.

How to do it

Borneo Adventure offers trips to Batang Ai National Park to visit the Iban tribe at Nanga Sumpa Lodge and explore the rainforest. Three nights with all meals from £250 per person, excluding flights. 

Published in the Adventure guide, distributed with the October 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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