“There are crocodiles in the river,” 2 cute little boys told me just before I went on the boat to cruise down the brown-colored crocodiles-infested river. Thanks a lot! Fortunately there were lots of wildlife to keep me entertained and not let my imagination went wild.
Cruising down the Kinabatangan
There were thick rain forest punctuated occasionally with oil palm plantations on both sides of the river. As we sped up the river the boatman suddenly slowed down and inched closer to the left bank of the river. The 5 of us on the boat looked around frantically trying to locate what the boatman saw. Just when we spotted a black silhouette about 50m away up on a tree, the boatman nonchalantly proclaimed “orangutan”.
We all gawked in awe at the black object, too far to see clearly, yet I felt that I should be more excited than I was feeling then. That was my first sight of the “men of the forest”, and it left me wanting more.
The boat continued to speed along the river, the cool breeze was a welcoming relief from the afternoon heat and humidity. We stopped occasionally whenever the boatman spotted some animals or birds. The Kinabatangan River is indeed teeming with life.
Nice to meet you Mr. crocodile
On the first night we went out on a night safari. I felt like a kid on Christmas eve. Cruising down the river in the dark was both scary and exciting. The stars were out, illuminating the night the way only stars can. The river was serene and the jungle quiet; it seemed that the world was asleep.
Then with a sweep of a powerful torchlight, our guide showed us sleeping birds, hunting owls and preying crocodiles – the 2 reflective dots hovering just above the water gave me chills. What impressed me was how he could spot these wildlife in the dark and from a distance. I had problem spotting them during the day not to mention in pitch black.
Exhausted but happy I crawled into my bed and with the crickets and frogs serenading me to sleep, dream came quickly that night.
Sleeping in the jungle
Unlike most lodges that offer this kind of river safari, Uncle Tan, where I stayed, is a rustic and basic place. The wooden doorless huts blend nicely into its surrounding, with mosquito nets as the only defense against the ever present insects and mosquitoes.
Electricity runs until 12 midnight and there’s no running water. The brown water from the river didn’t look very appealing even when I was drenched in sweat. So when it rained hard the second day, I peeled off my sweat drenched clothes and stood under the rain and had my much needed shower. Standing partially naked in the middle of the jungle with tropical rain washed over me was an amazing feeling, I felt embraced, one with mother nature.
We were woken up at 6am the next day and went on another river cruise. The boat sliced through the peaceful river surface as the morning mist lifted slowly, revealing more wildlife; macaques playing in trees, 2 otters sunning themselves, a gibbon swinging itself off a tree as we got closer and many more birds – hornbills, eagles, kingfishers, etc. In the subsequent 2 boat rides, we encountered more screaming macaques, kingfishers, hornbills and flying foxes at dusk. As the sky darkened, we sat on the idle boat in the slow flowing river gazing at the dark creature making their exodus from one side of the river to the other. Quite a sight!
A feast for mosquitoes
The lodge fattened us with a sumptuous breakfast preparing us as a feast for the jungle mosquitoes. We soaked ourselves in insect repellent but to no avail, we got bitten and those mosquitoes even bite through clothing!! The euphoria of scratching myself was comparable to seeing a stick insect, camouflage lizards, millipedes and orangutan’s nest.
The night trek was much bearable – cooler with less mosquitoes. We were entrusted the task to look for wildlife, so there were 11 torchlights shinning in every direction, instantly the jungle took on a disco-like feel. We saw frogs, spider, sleeping birds and a slow loris – the highlight of this expedition. A primate that looks like a raccoon without tail. It moved lazily and slowly on the tree brunches searching for food.
Covered almost in mud, we dragged our exhausted body back to camp, instantly the news that we saw a slow loris spread. The camp manager came over to congratulate us. That’s a compensation for not seeing the pygmy elephants and the cloud leopards.
Uncle Tan is one of many businesses that do this river cruise. Most can be found in the village of Sukau and Bilik – 2-hour bus ride from Sandakan – offering essentially the same deal – 3D2N package – in varying degree of comfort and amenities.
It might be a little difficult to do this independently. I was glad to have gone with Uncle Tan. Although it’s slightly on the pricey side, the experience of staying in the jungle where macaques play and civet cats roam was priceless.
Sitting with a heavy heart on the boat, I waved goodbye to the people who had shown me the wonder of and beauty in wildlife, that I had taken for granted living in Borneo; I’ve learnt to appreciate nature and wildlife in my own land.