What's a little rain? A mere day or more of two-bit torrents that should not surprise and barely shock a country who owes its fortunes to the monsoons that met in the middle of a shallow shelf. Why should a seasonal shower dampen the mood of festivity that looks forward to another year of insulation from a world of change? Where can the water go, if not over low roads and parks of reinforced concrete that deny the earth a chance to savour the sweet drops that should sink under the roots of wild orchards or snake through natural terraces to swell streams with no chance of reaching the sea with tangled banks?
There are no bromeliads in this region to rob men of a resource vital to the health of putting greens and parched cars. In their place grow thieving strands of orchids, rattans, ferns, hoyas and lianas that suck in the storm before it comes to rest in unnatural reservoirs. The trees themselves steal a portion of the harvest, hoarding water in their tissues and forming high-rise pools of hollows and hewn-off branches that harbour tadpoles, worms and the larvae of midges, flies, damselflies. The latter beasts, in their winged, worn forms, fall prey in turn to a horde that huddles in holes and emerges when the day turns dark to haunt the edges of damp trails and dirty creeks.
One such hopper crossed our path on a recent trudge through an unprotected ridge. The lower reaches of this loop are plagued by dicroglossids that greet approaching footsteps by tossing themselves into the fringing vegetation with heart-stopping force and alarming leaps. Frogs are rather less common in this dryer stretch of the forest, so the appearance of one that crept about in start-stop rhythms prompted a closer look. The amphibian turned out to be one that traces its taxonomical ancestry to a swamp not too far away and though not especially rare, was sufficiently uncommon and cryptic to engage the curiosity of unprocessed minds.
Betrayed by its movements, the little frog was a comical, pot-bellied thing with skinny limbs that bore its body over heaps of debris with cumbersome strides. Dark blotches and grey flecks cover a flank that seems a few sizes too small for a head bearing two immense eyes. The toes are unwebbed and markedly curved at their tips, a feature reported to put at risk fingers that attempt to grasp the animal. But other than this digital threat, the frog possesses no apparent means of escape from either determined predators or the juggernaut who seeks to devour every possible wood and wetland in its search for concrete, constant returns.
On a more distant, dryer night, our hunt led us down a slightly wilder route in search of wandering spiders and walking sticks. An unexpected find on a leaf close to the ground was a painted chorus frog that had braved the safety of the litter for a more promising perch. Though abundant in disturbed habitats, the tiny amphibian is seldom seen for the male issues a chirp so soft it bounces off the blades of grasses to form a cycle of echoes that elude aural triangulation.
Despite a broken fingertip, this individual was a far prettier specimen than one spotted on the mainland many moons ago. An ochre stripe traced a broken wave between a back of rich brown and delicate orange spots that extend to powerful hindlegs with the strength to propel their owner into split-second invisibility. Which they did after enduring our flashes of attention, sending the frog into a bedlam of leaves that cracked and crumpled under the weight of our far clumsier feet.
It's hard to think of this rotund creature as a close kin of the chorus frog, but the brown bullfrog is a microhylid that haunts inland floodplains across southeast Asia, though not Singapore, where its tribe is represented by a semi-fossorial cousin. Both frogs, however, defy their ungainly build to ascend trees where they probably intercept columns of ants before returning to soiled and soggy retreats at dawn. After a day of broken showers, a cold stroll around the Danau Girang Field Centre revealed fair numbers of this microhylid on low branches as the Kinabatangan elbowed its banks and threatened to spill into the riparian forest with the seeds of floodplain revival.
The Selai is a tinier, though no less tame, waterway that courses by a camp used and abused by visitors who crave its beauty but cringe at the lesser beasts whose flight enriches life in this pleasant clearing. This gateway to Endau-Rompin National Park lies far enough from the sea to wear a belt of rocks that line its sides and slip under the waters to pummel the brook with riffles of cool wash.
A nocturnal survey of the riverside vegetation yielded a large green ranid that sat on a mossy log and ignored a shifting ring of pronate bodies. Her confidence, it seems, stemmed from the possession of dermal secretions with the power to maim other small creatures and cause severe pain if one pokes the frog and rubs the eyes thereafter. The next morning, a frog of similar size was seen in the vicinity but clinging to a thin branch overhanging a bubbling arm of the river. The perch seemed too exposed but probably made perfect sense to the frog who could skip onto the rocks below should a serpent or silly bird fail to question its boldness in broad daylight.
A quieter branch a little downstream provided a refuge for damselflies that light up the diffused air with dashes of electric blue and neon green. Come twilight, a different act begins as mottled crabs and marbled snakes pry the silty side pools for aquatic morsels. Both hunter and possible victim, a spotted stream frog staked out a cluster of rocks that provided ample nooks to creep in. Dead leaves and transparent decapods danced on the bottom of the still accumulation, which serves as a nursery for slight odonates as well as the young of a ranid with nothing to offer but songs that barely pierce the moist air and welcome the dirge of a cool, tropical patter.