The heart of darkness

Posted: May 31, 2011 in Malaysia
Tags: , , ,

We checked out of the sanitised wildlife experience in Sepilok and headed south to the Sungai Kinabatangan, an area of dense jungle that Conrad would have written a book about. Kinabatangan is Borneo’s largest river (sungai), stretching for 560km from the jungle to a marshy delta in the Sulu Sea. Whilst primary forest is low on the ground, the secondary forest is thriving and in many places, an impenetrable wall. The deforestation for logging and oil-palm production has stripped nature of much of its virgin rainforest; ironically a by-product is the migration of a rich variety of fauna to the dense jungle and the river’s flooded plains. Eagle-eyed Joes hoping to catch a glimpse of a rhinoceros, hornbill, Orang-Utan, Proboscis Monkey or Pygmy Elephant, fuel the tourism boon.

Sukau is a sleepy little hamlet on the bend of the mighty Kinabatangan. It has a reputation for being the most relaxed place from which to organise independent travel by foot and on the river for wildlife spotting. We arrived mid-afternoon on Saturday 28th and signed-in to Sukau B&B, a basic shack at the far end of the road. Though basic, it’s clean and offers direct views of the river. It’s also has a quick-access self-guided trail through the forest if you want a bit of DIY adventure. At MYR50 per night for the room (£10) including breakfast, it’s a steal. It’s also as quiet as a whisper carried on the breeze.

Don’t hike in the rainforest in Vans

A French chap we met in Sepilok gave us the number of a local guide who he assures us would “give you ze real nature, not zis tourist big boat, snap snap rubbish”. So we called Ahmed and arranged to meet later that day.

To walk off the aches of the taxi ride, we opted to explore the trails behind the B&B. As it was ‘clearly marked’, I opted for the Vans instead of my heavy-duty hiking boots. What a mistake! After the heavy rains, the path was covered in slimy, slippery mud that sucked my feet down and into its pain. After a few minutes, the purple vans were as brown as the river and my feet soaking. Schoolboy error. To add insult to injury, the trail was rather dull and apart from a few cheeky monkeys, it was void of animals.

Ahmed turned up shortly after dinner and we discussed the options for Sunday. He wasn’t overly encouraging but we stuck with the plan and booked a morning cruise & trek, leaving at 06.30. Queue exit stage left to bed.

I used to walk down by the river

But now I prefer to take a boat. Ahmed turned up bang on time at 06.30. Punctuality is not de rigeur in Asia, so this got the nod of approval. We set off up river against the swift current. Within minutes our choice of guide was validated; as we turned the first bend, he veered off course and headed straight to a limestone overhang covered by trees. We were non-plussed until he pointed out the 2 groups of Proboscis Monkey playing in the branches. Eyes like an eagle.

As the morning unwound we discovered how adept Ahmed was at spotting wildlife. His experience, having been born and grown up in these surroundings, meant that he instinctively knew where to look and when. He picked out other monkeys, hornbills, monitor lizards, small birds and bats with his own eyes whilst driving the boat. Impressive.

Sungai Kinabatangan, Sukau

After about 1h30 of boat action and a brief circuit of Ox-Bow Lake, we moored on a mud bank. We spent the next hour trekking in the dense jungle, with Ahmed in the lead hacking away like a true explorer with his machete to forge a path. He was a fountain of knowledge; every few minutes, he’d stop and explain something about the forest or the local culture. We learned, amongst other things, how to remove leeches and which tree the locals would never cut down because they believe spirits live inside. Back on the boat his leech lesson proved handy; despite wearing long trousers, I had 4 of the little suckers bleeding me dry. They’re really quite horrible creatures and I quickly removed them, leaving behind a few bleeding wounds.

Forest gimp, Sukau

We returned to Sukau B&B satisfied with an interesting and informative morning. Add to that the fact that Ahmed was entertaining with it led us to agree in principle to go back out that afternoon with him to look for elephants, provided his sources downstream confirmed sightings.

Find me an elephant Jeeves

Ahmed called as we were having lunch to give us the good news; there was an 80% chance we could see elephants if we set off at 14.30 and went on a long mission by boat to the other side of Bilit village. We didn’t need a second invite and a German girl from the B&B tagged along for the ride.

We set off around 14.30 in blistering sunshine. Ahmed turned up in a newer boat with a more powerful engine and his trusty boatman, a burly local chap with a hearty smile who proved equally adept at animal spotting. From at least 100m distance and whilst driving the boat at high speed, he picked out a young monitor lizard lying on the river bank. We didn’t spot it until we were within touching distance. These guys really know their environment.

We soon relaxed into the afternoon and started chatting to Ahmed about his work and life. He has been working for himself for 4 years now and owns 3 boats. He loves his job and has an affinity with the local area. Mid-sentence he flung his binoculars to his eyes and signaled the boatman to head over to the bank. We soon discovered the reason for his distraction; in the fork of a tree was a young male Orang-Utan. Unlike Sepilok, this boy was fully wild. I’ve only ever seen 1 truly wild Orang-Utan before and this moment was just as special.

The true goal of the trip was to track down the Pygmy Elephants that had apparently been spotted the other side of Bilit village. As we approached, the weather turned suddenly. A torrential downpour hit us and the rain got harder and harder. After 15mins of soaking, we saw 4 boats circling ahead of us. Ahmed announced elephants. As we pulled the corner, we could see the heads of two elephants bobbing in the waves near the shore. Moments later we saw the other two heads. We pulled up within 5m of the elephants and spent the next 30mins oblivious of the rain as we absorbed the wonder of the pygmy elephants. They were playing in the rain and eating from the grass on the banks. From time to time they would stop to tussle with each other, casting furtive glances our way. It was incredible.

Malaysian Pygmy Elephants

We headed back to the B&B through pouring rain and driving wind. It was a long trip back, about 1h in total, but the weather was irrelevant to us; we had seen wild Orang-Utans and Elephants. I was stoked for my bro that he had seen them as I had already had the privilege in Africa and Indonesia. Not that it diminished my enjoyment, they are two of the most wonderful species on this planet and long may they enrich our lives.

Love jamer & bro senior x

  1. Muneeza says:

    wicked sounds ‘AWESOME’ x

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