The torrential downpour left a layer of mist in the night air, and out of the mist, the great silent shapes of Borneo pygmy elephants float into the muted beams of our headlights. One by one they emerge out of the darkness like a fleet of ghost ships drifting at sea.

Photo: Margarita Steinhardt

Photo: Margarita Steinhardt

This is the third night of 10-day wildlife watching trip in Borneo’s Deramakot Forest Reserve. Lying in the heart of the Malaysian state of Sabah, this selectively logged forest supports an impressive 75 percent of Sabah’s mammals, including all five species of Borneo’s wild cats (Borneo Bay cat, Sunda Clouded leopard, Marbled cat, Flat-headed cat and Sunda leopard cat).

It is the rare tropical cats that bring our small team of mammal-watchers to Deramakot. On top of our bucket list is the notoriously elusive Sunda Clouded leopard — a cat so rarely seen that even the researchers studying it almost never see one in the wild.

Led by Mike Gordon from Adventure Alternative Borneo, we go ‘nocturnal’ to match the leopard’s activity pattern. Like the cats we seek, we laze around during the daylight hours and prowl the jungle roads at night, hoping that the stars will align and a Sunda Clouded leopard will emerge on the road as we are driving by.

The first cat we spot is the dainty Sunda Leopard cat chasing some unseen prey in the wet grass. When it emerges on the road, its coat glistens with droplets of water it collected during the chase, and like any self-respecting cat, it spends the next ten minutes fastidiously cleaning its fur.

Photo: Margarita Steinhardt

Yet, this trip is not all about cats, as we discover when we find ourselves surrounded by Borneo’s largest mammals, the Pygmy elephants. While we wait for them to drift off the road, a young female becomes obviously interested in us. Flaring her ears and bobbing her head up and down, she walks towards us dancing from one foot to the other.

Caught in her own excitement, she turns around mid-step and continues walking towards us bum-first, turning her bobbing head back to see where she is going.

Photo: Margarita Steinhardt

She almost touches the front bumper of our truck with her great leathery bottom before quickly walking away, as if she is afraid to get in trouble with the adults. She needn’t have worried; the adults pay no attention to her antiques. They are too busy consuming immense quantities of grass.

When by day seven we still haven’t spotted the Sunda Clouded leopard, Mike changes strategy. We head out at 2 PM — an early morning in our nocturnal world. Driving to the sound of singing gibbons, we come across a giant snake slithering across the road. Impressed by its formidable size, we flip through our field guides attempting to identify it.

“Clouded leopard!” Mike’s urgent whisper comes like a bolt out of the blue. Our safari truck lurches to a sudden stop, and we scramble out still too shocked to fully comprehend what is happening.

I follow Mike at a ninja trot for a couple of meters up the road, crouch down, look in the direction he is pointing and see the back end of the most exquisitely-beautiful cat. It is walking into the thick vegetation on the side of the road; its exceptionally-long tail held off the ground and coiled at the end.

As it walks higher up the slope, it turns sideways, and suddenly, I see the entire animal — its beautiful feline face and the sharply-defined black clouds on its velvet grey coat. It is walking completely at ease, undisturbed by our arrival.

Photo: Margarita Steinhardt

I stare at the footprint she left in the mud and realise that it has taken me a total of 21 nights in the field to spot a Sunda Clouded leopard in an encounter that lasted about 30 seconds. But it is the 30 seconds that I will remember for the rest of my life.

The following night we get word that a Marbled cat has been sighted near the kilometre 10 marker. Not as well-known as the Sunda Clouded leopard, the Marbled cat is just as elusive and rarely seen. We all but inhale our dinner eager to hit the road. By the time we reach kilometre 5, the sky suddenly opens up, and a solid wall of rain drenches us in seconds. The rain is so heavy, we can barely keep our eyes open.

“Rain is good,” yells Mike over the thundering sound of raindrops hitting the roof of the truck. “In the rain, the cat will stay put under the relative cover of the tree”.

We make it to kilometre 10 and escape the deluge in a small shelter on the side of the road. When the rain is reduced to a light trickle, we climb back into the wet truck, turn around on the slippery road, look up and immediately spot the Marbled cat, curled up on a branch 40 meters above us. The beam of Mike’s spotlight isolates the small patch of forest from the surrounding darkness, and we stare at the sleeping cat in mute amazement.

Photo: Margarita Steinhardt

Just as we are ready to leave, we notice another pair of shining eyes higher up in the tree. Unbelievably, it is another Marbled cat staring at us from above. Not as happy at being discovered as its neighbour on the lower branch, it slinks off into the thicker part of the canopy, leaving us guessing whether it was the parent of the younger and more tolerant cat below.

Photo: Margarita Steinhardt

On the way back we come across the elephants again. They send us off with a bout of loud trumpeting as if reminding us who the real masters of this forest are.