We arrived in the Mergui Archipelago, in the Indian Ocean just off the southern coast of Myanmar, on a powerboat, following a bumpy two-hour ride from the port city of Kawthong. Tropical darkness had long since enveloped the ocean by the time the captain dropped anchor. Somewhere off the bow, amid inky shadows and starlight reflected on the waves, was the faint outline of a tropical isle. The sound of surf carried on a warm breeze. Stripping naked, we tied our clothes in garbage bags and leaped overboard. Ten minutes later, exhausted, salty and sandy, we were tossed ashore by a crashing wave at the feet of the island's caretaker. After nibbling on an enormous papaya, my wife, Christine, and I collapsed into our small mesh tent, the world around us quickly fading to a point, like the image on a TV as it is turned off.
The eastern sky was already flushing pink when I was awoken by a deep snort, which I assumed to be from Christine. Rolling to elbow her, I found myself face to face with a wild boar, peering in through the mesh. White tusks curving up from grey whiskers, it sniffed, tossed its nose defiantly several times, and then waddled away to continue rooting through the undergrowth.
Seconds later, a troop of long-tailed macaques raced past. Christine and I watched from our sleeping bags, giggling with excitement. Monkeys? Right outside our tent?! Babies clung to their mother's bellies. Bold adolescents approached the tent and peered in, our slightest movement sending them racing away in shrieks. At the end came elder males, aloof and bulky, swaggering on their knuckles. Chasing crabs along the beach, the group danced and screamed, slowly melting away. Offshore, a pair of white-bellied sea eagles hunted the shallows, schools of fish rippling the surface like rain in their dance of escape.
Tracks from a busy night covered the sand outside our tent: civet cat, monitor lizard, sea turtle and mouse deer (small, hoofed creatures with a tapered snout, standing just 30 centimetres tall). In a bamboo grove, we spotted the thick coils of a reticulated python. Feral elephants roam these parts, and the Moken (a nomadic sea-based tribe) claimed to have occasionally seen tiger prints on the beaches.
The abundance was in stark contrast to Borneo's north coast, where we were a month earlier on a long sea-kayaking voyage. There, we saw not a single animal apart from domestic cows grazing in clear-cuts. Rivers stained the sea red, bleeding topsoil from a ravaged interior, and the orangutan, once rumoured to swing from one end of the island to the other without touching the ground, had been relegated to tiny preserves.
Here, in the Mergui Archipelago, we were seeing what Borneo once was.
Glittering schools of fish clogged the ocean. We snorkelled above cities of wondrous coral, sponges the size of 50-gallon barrels and forests of elkhorn. Paddling a kayak into a narrow sea cave, just two metres wide yet taller than a house, we were blinded by darkness. Something rushed past, close to our heads - then there was a growing cascade, the beating of a thousand wings, for we had disturbed a bat colony. The cave belched a stream of grey bodies that coalesced into a swirling ball in the cloudless sky. Several sea eagles, sensing an easy meal, slammed into the airborne congregation and flew off slowly, dark twitching bodies clutched to their chests.
We spent our final afternoon hiking a nearby island. The sun was crimson and dropping toward the Indian Ocean as we reached the summit. Soaked in sweat, we sat in the tall grass, eyes on a fruiting fig tree protruding from the canopy below - a known hornbill roost.
These enormous birds with long curved beaks (something like the Froot Loops bird) are rare. They're threatened by tropical deforestation, travelling great distances to forage the canopy for nuts and fruit. Gregariously social, they often return to a communal roost each evening.
Something large flew past in the shadows of the canopy below, the slow, rhythmic wing beats pulsing like an old steam engine. A trio of hornbills arrived, circling below us, squawking loudly. Returning from surrounding islands, the birds hooted and swooped over the canopy, beaks silhouetted against a violet sky. Landing on the fig tree, they jumped about its branches, shouting loudly. Soon, there were 20, then 30, 40. We watched until the last rays of light faded from the sky, and then stumbled down through dark forest and swam back to our waiting powerboat.
Smoke poured from the crest of a nearby island, but it was actually swarms of flying foxes - fruit bats with a metre-wide wingspan - setting out from their colony to scavenge at night. We passed thousands in the darkness, skimming low and so close we could almost reach out and touch them. A glowing green trail stretched behind the powerboat, the result of a massive bloom of phosphorescent algae. As we sped along, fish just below the ocean's surface streaked away like green missiles. It felt like a dream.
Of course, patches of such raw wilderness exist around the globe, though most are shrinking. In fairness, their wonders are no more remarkable than those hidden in Vancouver's Stanley Park, Toronto's Don Ravine or St. John's Signal Hill. Whether you find yourself peering at a delicate spring flower or traipsing through a rain forest on the far side of the planet, we remain part of nature's great web.
Special to The Globe and Mail