She’s graced theatre stages, film screens and podiums worldwide, but the rainforest proved to be a thrillingly novel environment for Judi Dench during filming for her two-part documentary, Judi Dench’s Wild Borneo Adventure.
“When you’re in the middle of it, you can’t express how remarkable it is,” says the 84-year-old actress, whose fondness for forests was highlighted in last year’s BBC One program, My Passion for Trees.
As part of her latest wildlife project, she spent two weeks in the jungles of Borneo with her ‘chap’, conservationist David Mills, meeting a plethora of exotic animals and finding out about conservation work being done to protect their habitats.
“I’ve been to a lot of places in the world, but I’ve never been to anywhere like that,” Dame Judi says of the world’s third-largest island, which is divided between Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. “It does take your breath away. It’s wildly beyond your imagination.”
These are some of her highlights from filming:
Climbing one of the world’s tallest trees
On a light aircraft ride above the island, Dame Judi discovers she is looking at some of the oldest rainforests in the world, which have been in existence for more than 100 million years. They are also home to some of the tallest trees on our planet, towering up to 100 metres high.
To get a closer look, she is strapped into a seated harness and hoisted to the top of one. “I wasn’t remotely nervous at all,” Dame Judi insists, recalling the experience. When asked what it was like to be high up in the canopy, she smiles and replies matter-of-factly: “It’s tall.”
Catching a baby croc
One of the most nerve-wracking scenes takes place at night when Dame Judi joins biologists on a mission to take DNA samples from crocodiles on the Kinabatangan River. Recounting the moment a baby reptile was hand-plucked from the water, she says: “It was calling for its mother! Thank God I’m short-sighted.” Despite her initial reservations, she did eventually connect with the croc. “While it was being tagged – I got to hold its foot, a soft palm. It was very, very nice.”
Getting intimate with insects
Creating a riot of noise and colour, up to 80,000 insects can be found in Borneo – one-tenth of the number existing on our planet. Dame Judi is fascinated by the creepy crawlies; she’s stunned by a beauty of a dung beetle called Bob that comes within centimetres of a deadly centipede and even has to fend off an amorous stick insect. “It was the biggest stick insect in the world,” she says. “I said, ‘Oh, that’s charming’ and it went and sat straight on top of my head.”
Planting trees for a green future
Although deforestation is a major threat to the wildlife of Borneo, Dame Judi is upbeat about work being done to strike a sustainable balance between the economic necessity of a palm oil industry and conserving natural habitats. She joins a group of multi-generational women who are replanting trees on a patch of land donated by a plantation, with the aim of creating a wildlife corridor.
Demonstrating their commitment to the cause, Dame Judi and David Mills have been announced as patrons of the South East Asia Rainforest Research Partnership (SEARRP), a charity supporting scientific research concerning environmental issues in the tropics.
Holding hands with an orangutan
For some time, Dame Judi has been touched by the plight of orangutans, and even before arriving in Borneo, she had adopted three of the great apes. So, meeting three-year-old orphan Bigiya was always destined to be a “never to be forgotten moment”. Recounting the episode, she’s choked with emotion. “He didn’t take my hand immediately. It was like a child looking at me … waiting until he was absolutely sure.”
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