Sukau and the Kinabatangan River
21.01.2011 - 22.01.2011 32 °C
21st January 2011
We need a holiday! These early mornings are not good for us and they seem to be getting earlier! Still more than half asleep and badly in need of coffee we fell in to our punctual taxi and zoomed off to the airport, forgetting that it was a domestic flight and we only needed to be there one hour before departure...We got there so early, in fact, that we had to wait a long while for the check-in desk to open. We stood in the short queue happy in the knowledge that not only had we paid extra for the privilege of carrying heavier bags, but that we’d actually reduced our baggage weight by half! The check-in girl looked bemused by this as well but didn’t say anything about it and we were soon on our way to gate number 5. We were so early that even the passport control staff hadn’t opened the gate! A lady turned up after about 10 minutes and waved us through to the small departure area where we sat down while she turned the TV on for us! We were thankful of the distraction, even though we couldn’t understand a single word being said! We were the only ones there for ages and we began to wonder if we were in the right place! Even the small display screen next to the gate exit was showing a different flight number to ours....
After a long and boring wait, a couple more passengers arrived followed by the coffee counter staff and Stew gave them just long enough to get their jackets off before presenting himself to them in front of the counter and demanding caffeine via the largest Latte they could muster! He shouldn’t have bothered... it was pretty awful stuff! Thankfully it wasn’t too much longer before the small gate was almost full, the sun was up and our flight was being called in pidgin English for the hour long journey to Sandakan.
We landed smoothly at the small airport, retrieved our bags from the carousel and walked outside into bright sunlight and searing heat and found our tour rep, Wan, a pleasant Malaysian man born in Borneo with a pockmarked face, fierce eyes, small pony tail and a penchant for finishing every single sentence with “Yeah? OK?”! After we had introduced ourselves we climbed in a small minibus and waited a few minutes for a family of Aussies who were joining us on the trip to the Sepilok Orang-utan Rehabilitation Centre. We were both looking forward to this so much as this was the main reason for coming here – seeing orang-utans in their own habitat. The journey was only around 40 minutes and we were pulling into the car park, along with a hundred other vehicles, and Wan started telling us what we should expect, what we should and shouldn’t do, and what was in each building before us. First off, we had to go and buy tickets to allow us to use our cameras and video camera in the centre. The ticket office hadn’t opened yet, so we went and had breakfast first – a disgusting coffee and a sandwich – before returning to get our tickets. Once done, we went to see a short video presentation of the centre and the work they do, explaining the circumstances under which the orang-utans entered the rehabilitation centre (either being orphans or removed from people keeping them as pets) and the work they did to help them return to the wild. Depending on the individual, this could take anything from five to ten years and, sadly, some of them never gain the confidence to leave. They are quite happy returning to the centre feeding stations every day to be fed and never stray too far away! The centre itself is on the edge of the jungle and there are 3 feeding stations. The first stage is the nursery, for very young ones where they are under constant supervision and have human contact most of the time. The second stage is further away from the buildings and this is to encourage them to climb and explore the area more freely, and learn to find food instead of being handed it. The final stage is further into the jungle, and this is the one everybody gets to see. A huge platform has been erected about eighty yards away from the station and it is generally full of people watching the orang-utans feed and play – and fight off the marauding Macaques after their bananas! This feeding post is where the orang-utans have the choice of whether to feed from the platform or head into the jungle and into the wild. Not being allowed to take any bags with us, we found an empty locker to store them in before rejoining Wan and heading for the boardwalk. As we entered the walkway Wan explained the reason for not allowing bags into the area. Apparently a little while ago someone dropped their insect repellent and one of the orang-utans picked it up and ate it. Sadly she was a mother with a new born baby and she fed the baby it too. The baby orang-utan died quite quickly but it took ages for the mother to die. So now no bags or insect repellent are allowed inside. We walked down a long boardwalk to the feeding station viewing platform with Wan pointing out the flora and fauna along the way, including a bright green viper sleeping in a tree, lots of macaques and various trees along with their uses for medicine and hunting. There were already lots of people there waiting when we arrived at the viewing platform but we managed to pick two prime spots right at the very front and waited, cameras poised and excitement building, for the orang-utans to arrive. Feeding wasn’t actually until 10am so we had a little wait before we saw two carers climb the ladder holding buckets of fruit. Lots of eyes – not just human eyes – were watching them closely. They belonged to macaques who just stared at the feast in front of them, agonisingly just out of their reach. A couple of them staged an offensive but these were quickly snuffed out by the carers who, amusingly, just started pulling on the rope the macaques were holding onto. The monkeys started hanging on for dear life and quickly retreated back to the safety of the trees! It was great fun to watch and they started getting more and more daring! It was a quite a while before the first orang-utan ventured into view to the oohs and aahs of the expectant audience before them! It seemed to wait until it was joined by another before they both effortlessly and gracefully climbed down the tree trunk and onto the feeding platform, grabbing a handful of bananas and sitting down to eat. They were just so wonderful to look at, with faces that just seemed to constantly smile at you! They were soon joined by a couple more mature looking orang-utans but they all seemed very happy in each other’s company, eating and playing together. It was just fantastic to watch them and there was definitely more than a little bit of showmanship going on too as they started playing on the ropes, hanging upside down while eating bananas, chewing on the fruit and then poking it out of their mouths at us as though they knew they were there to entertain us!
As the feeding went on and the camera shutters clicked, the waiting macaques grew both impatient and bold. Some of the larger ones started moving along the ropes and down the trees towards the fruit even while the orang-utans were feeding. This is not a good move because an orang-utan is immensely strong – 10 times stronger than the average human male and with an arm span of about eight feet! They can rip a human being to pieces, so a small macaque wouldn’t be too much of a problem! Every now and then a macaque would get too close and an orang-utan would lunge for it, but the macaque seemed to know its limitations and kept just enough distance between them.
All too soon, for us anyway, the orang-utans had had their fill and drifted away back into the jungle leaving the way clear for the other monkeys to steal what fruit was left. They descended on the platform like ants and a big male decided he was going to be the only one to eat and started chasing all the others away. Not a single one of them resisted, but what they all did was watch for him to be distracted. A couple of them would creep up behind him and as he turned to chase them away, a couple in front would dive onto the platform, grab what they could and retreat as quickly as they could before he was on them! It was hilarious to watch but we’d seen enough and walked through the crowd to rejoin Wan and make our way back to the minibus to start our exciting journey to Sukau and the Rainforest Lodge.
Wan asked us if we had any dietary requirements and we told him we didn’t, except that we both hate seafood. His face dropped and he told us that we would be stopping at a seafood restaurant for lunch! Thankfully, he called the restaurant and ask them to change our fish dish to chicken! We had a ride of just over an hour before we arrived at our lunch stop, a large, drab, smelly eatery overlooking the marina. When we pulled into the car park, Wan informed us that there was a fish market downstairs and a local market next door to the restaurant. He also asked us if we had purchased our leech socks for the rainforest yet. We looked at each other and then back at Wan and asked if they were really necessary as we didn’t have any (travelling to different countries makes you very cynical – you always think everyone is out to rip you off!). He said there would be many leeches in the jungle and he highly recommended we get some. We decided we would have a look in the local market after eating our lunch and he gave us an hour before we were to meet back at the van. The doors to the minibus opened and we were nearly knocked out by the pungent stench of fish and seafood coming from the market! It was enough to put us off our lunch, which turned out to be really awful anyway. After having left half our lunch still on our plates we decided we better go in search of some leech socks which we had been told, come in a variety of colours but only one size. We wanted black ones to match our trousers!! We wandered up and down the aisles before finally asking someone where we could get the socks. An old lady pointed to a stall opposite so we went to take a look. They turned out to be what can only described as cheap Christmas stocking fillers in an off white colour with string tied around the top! We asked for different colours but there only seemed to be off-white. We went from stall to stall asking the same question but got either the same answer or a blank, puzzled look! In the end Jen turned on her bartering skills and managed to get 2 pairs of leech socks for £2! With time running out we darted around looking for a suitable day bag and happened across one that fit the bill perfectly. Stew asked the girl at the stall the price and she said 15 Ringgits and Stew hadn’t quite heard her and repeated “15 Ringgits”? She thought Stew was bartering with her and immediately dropped the price to 10 Ringgits - £2! We bit her hand off, paid the money and ran out the door and down to our van in time to set off to the jetty a very short drive up the road. We thought we were going to be joined by other passengers at the jetty, but it turned out we had the big speedboat to ourselves. It was a lovely vessel, with white leather seats throughout, and two big Yamaha 150 outboard motors hanging off the back. Our luggage was carefully dumped on board as Wan handed us a couple of bright orange lifejackets that we were required to wear and we reluctantly put them on before choosing our seats at the open part of the boat at the very back. The engines started up and we gently chugged out of the marina and headed for what seemed like a small island in the distance. We were going at a fairly slow pace and we both wished we could go a bit faster! It wasn’t long before we had passed the police checkpoint, and it was only then that the captain gave it both barrels! The roar grew louder, the bow went up, the stern went down and we were pushed back in our seats as the full power of the engines came to the fore and we were suddenly hurtling through the water, through a gap in between two islands and onto the Kinabatangan river, the engines turning the muddy brown waters to pure white in their wake. Both sides of the river were lined with brilliant green mangroves, and the captain didn’t slow when the river curved left or right. The boat just tipped slightly, smoothly took the bend and then we were back onto the straight. It was exhilarating as the warm air and hot sun hit our faces as we looked at the beautiful jungle zipping past us. It was as though the river was ours as, throughout the entire journey, we saw maybe three other boats in total! After around two and a half hours, the captain started to slow the boat right down, almost to a standstill, and Wan called us to the front. He had spotted an elephant feeding close to the water’s edge and the captain moved the boat right up to the bank. We could see the animal just the other side of some scrub, and then, all of a sudden, the bushes disappeared and there it was standing right in front of us. angry and confrontational. It started thrashing around and turned its back on us ready to kick out at us if we came any closer. It was clearly very uncomfortable with us being so close, so Wan whispered to us to move slowly back into the boat, and remove our brightly coloured lifejackets. We did this and the elephant turned round to face us once again and just started eating the grass and leaves. She seemed to accept that we were not a threat to her and seemed quite happy munching away while our cameras clicked. She was so close that she literally only had to take two more steps to be standing on the bow with us. It was such a fantastic moment – that is the closest we have ever got to an elephant in the wild, and in its own habitat. Even Wan said that in all his time of guiding tours, he had never got that close to a wild Borneo elephant before!
That set a good tone for the rest of the trip and we playfully set Wan a target of showing us the big 4 (elephant, orang-utan, crocodile and Proboscis monkey) before we set foot on the Sukau Rainforest Lodge! That was a pretty tough challenge as we only had about half an hour of the trip to go, and he failed miserably, but said he would do his best to have shown us the big four by the end of our stay. We pulled onto the jetty of the lodge and climbed the steps into the restaurant area where we were met by the lodge staff who placed a flower garland round our necks and presented us with a cold, scented towel and cold fruit juice each and showed us to the reception area where we were seated and the rest of the check in procedure was completed. The house rules included listening out for the gong which signalled all meals, no shoes allowed past a certain point and, the most amusing of all, the ‘no sarong, no supper’ rule. We were told there was a sarong for each of us in our rooms and that we would be required to wear it to dinner in the evenings. The young girl booking us in then proceeded to show us how the sarongs are worn by males and females! Jen couldn’t wait to see Stew in a skirt! Stew wasn’t quite sure about that one, but we were soon all booked in and given our key and shown to our room and our luggage was already inside waiting for us. We opened the door and both had a smile from ear to ear as the room was absolutely stunning. It was wooded throughout, with highly polished floors, two huge, thick sliding doors that led through to a dressing area and a large, walk-in shower and a toilet, all sumptuously presented. At the end of the dressing area was a huge glass window that looked out into the small area of untouched jungle which was constantly frequented by some beautifully coloured birds and butterflies. All you could hear was the sound of the jungle and its inhabitants – hornbills, Borneo Gibbons, and all manner of birds, insects and reptiles – crickets, cicada and giant geckos. It was utterly fantastic and you just could not wipe the smiles off our faces for the next half an hour! We only had an hour to settle in before we were off on our first trip – a sunset safari on a small power boat with Wan at the helm.
Once again it was just the three of us, and we set off in bright sunshine and powered along the muddy brown waters of the Kinabatangan River, Wan telling us we were going down a small, quiet stream just off the main river in search of the remaining big three! The amount of detritus in the water was amazing - even whole tree trunks with huge branches sticking up, easily capable of damaging a motorboat, and Wan had to keep his eyes out and manoeuvre the boat around to miss it. After around fifteen minutes we were slowing down and pulling into a gap between mangroves. To enable us to hear and see more without scaring the animals off, Wan switched from the standard outboard motor to an extremely quiet (but underpowered!) electric motor. It was incredibly peaceful and serene, the silence broken only by the screech of a macaque or the booming call of a hornbill, or any one of a hundred birds calling out. Keeping a close eye out for anything to show us, Wan motioned to us to look in a tree where a small family of macaque monkeys were playing and we sat there for a little while watching them. They were all ages and sizes and seemed to play quite happily together. We moved further downstream still in search of the illusive Proboscis monkey and we both studied the trees either side in our desperation to find one! Every time Wan stopped the boat and motioned to us to look up we got excited until he told us it was a hornbill or another macaque or a snake! There were other boats on the same stretch of water full of people looking for the same things and it became quite busy in places. We slowly and silently drifted down the river trying to take in everything around us, our heads turning left and right, straining our eyes to see what was in the trees. Suddenly Wan stopped the engine and said “There” and pointed up and to the left. We held our breaths and looked at the dark shape in the trees ahead as Wan passed us the binoculars. There, sitting quite contentedly, munching on leaves was a large female proboscis monkey. And she had a young one with her! It was just brilliant seeing her in her own home instead of in ours, on a David Attenborough DVD!
Wan explained the difference to us between a male and a female proboscis monkey. First of all, the male is much larger than the female, but the biggest difference is the nose! The female has a short, pointed nose while the male has a huge bulbous one. Apparently the bigger the better in the act of attracting the females! They are just so great to look at but are very clever at hiding themselves away from prying eyes! As soon as she had spotted us watching her, she began to climb higher and into the thicker foliage of the tree out of harm’s way! We moved on and spotted a couple more of them, but they were all quite a distance away. The sun had long gone and the light was just beginning to fade, so we bade farewell to the monkeys and started our journey back, looking forward to our dinner as, by now, our bellies were complaining quite forcefully! Wan put the main engine on low revs and we chugged out of the stream and into the main flow of the river where he put the hammer down and we were soon climbing out of the boat and onto the jetty, heading for our room and the shower before we both changed into our evening skirts!
We heard the gong at 7pm and made our way along the boardwalk and down to the river’s edge to the restaurant. To our relief, everyone had made an effort and were all wearing sarongs! It was a beautiful clear night and very warm. What a wonderful place to eat dinner, just listening to the sounds of the night creatures under a million stars. This was going to take some beating! The buffet food was both delicious and plentiful, with a variety of meats, fish, vegetables and rice with plain and curried dishes. We sat and ate, chatting about our day so far and what we had seen and done. However, our day wasn’t quite over yet as we had opted to take the additional night safari too so, with empty plates and full bellies we hurried back to our room to get changed once again, and returned to the jetty at 9pm to board our boat – this time without Wan but with a different guide. On board the boat was a huge, powerful searchlight and we set off at quite a rate with our guide lighting the brown river ahead of us, sweeping the beam from side to side in order to spot the poor, sleeping creatures we were about to awake! Suddenly the engine note dropped and the boat slowed down as we were steered to the shore. “Look, crocodile” our guide said. Neither of us could see it. There was a plop and it was gone. It must have been very small for both of us to miss it. The bright beam continued its sweep across the river as we moved on and once again, we were moving slowly to the one side, the beam focussed on a low tree branch overhanging the water on which were two Black-and-Red Broadbills huddled together, sleeping. They were absolutely beautiful and we slowly moved away from them after taking a couple of snaps, so as not to disturb them any longer. We also got to see a couple of vividly coloured Kingfishers, one of which was so groggy and still half asleep that he sat there while we got to within a couple of feet of him before he suddenly realised what was going on and he took flight as quick as he could. The other Kingfisher we happened upon was much larger and it didn’t take him too long to disappear into the night when the spotlight found him in the trees! That was about all we saw of note, and we were soon speeding back to the lodge after an hour on the water. We bid our guide goodnight and headed into the reception area, grabbing a couple of coffees on the way, and went to our beds exhausted but more than happy with our day’s activities.