By Rachel

Crash. Rustle. Crash. Crash. Trumpet. Crash. Crash. Rustle. Flashes of gray. And then, “Sorry, it’s 6:30 and it’ll be dark soon – we need to get back.” As our guide turns the river boat around, we all crane our necks further to see into the jungle, hoping to get a glimpse of the pygmy elephants that we could see the shadows of behind a thick brush of trees. We were RIGHT there – we could hear it as it crashed about, chomping on the tree leaves and other plants in the jungle. UGH, SO CLOSE!

It was our third day at the Nature Lodge on the Kinabatangan River (try say that five times fast – I still have to ask Samir to remind me how to say it!). We were supposed to leave that morning, but decided to extend our stay an extra night. The Kinabatangan River area is one of the great places to see wildlife in the jungles of Borneo. Unfortunately, the area is being logged with palm trees to make palm oil, which has forced the wildlife in the area into smaller and smaller areas of the jungle. We originally were supposed to stay at the Lodge (another dorm experience) for three days and two nights. In this time, we would go on 4 river cruises, 2 jungle night walks and 1 jungle day walk.  We left Kinabalu Park and went to the city of Sandakan where we spent the night. Not much to do there – it’s the second largest city in Sabah and on the waterfront, but not very exciting. We really just went there to be picked up for our jungle experience.

On our first day, we arrived in the afternoon and the three of us (including my brother) got settled into our little dorm room that we shared with a fourth girl. We met up for our first afternoon river cruise and set off on the Kinabatangan River. It’s amazing seeing the animals in their natural environment. And since they’re still on the banks of the river and aren’t used to people, they don’t pay much attention to us and go on their way. We saw plenty of long-tailed macaques – the most common primate in Borneo. It was fun trying to spot animals or birds as we went along the river, though our guide was definitely much better at this than we were! I also really like the proboscis monkeys that I liked to refer to as the Gonzo monkeys because they reminded me of the muppet Gonzo (I think that’s where the creator of Gonzo got inspiration from 🙂 ). It was fun watching the monkeys jump/fly (proboscis) or scamper (macaques) around the trees. I especially liked watching the Gonzos jump from one branch to another – they seemed to just fly through the air with all their limbs outstretched! Locals call these monkeys “Dutch Monkeys” because they think the dutch also have big bellies and big noses! Lol. Our guide also pointed out a few types of hornbills and kingfishers (birds) unique to the area. My brother somehow spotted a monitor lizard that even our guide missed! And that first cruise, we saw a big crocodile that was partially underwater and then scarily came up out of the water with its bared teeth before disappearing under again. As the sun set, we cruised back to the nature lodge.

After a break and dinner, it was time for our night walk. We donned ugly rubber boots and long socks and tucked in long sleeve shirts into our pants – not only because the path we were trekking in was incredibly muddy, but also to avoid the leeches! We had been warned by a couple people that had already done a nightwalk that there were a bunch of leeches in the jungle and to make sure we checked ourselves carefully because sometimes they are hard to feel! The nightwalk itself was kind of uneventful, except for getting stuck in shin deep mud a few times. We did see a small kingfisher that was sleeping on a branch – we literally could go up and stroke it and it wouldn’t move! We saw other insects and stuff, but I decided it would be my last night walk – it was cool hearing the jungle sounds at night, but sloshing around in the mud without all that much to see didn’t seem like it would be worth it again. My brother kind of held back from the group and would wait til we had advanced so that he could take his time and look for stuff without making as much noise as our group. He saw a few more crawly things than we did, but didn’t find any snakes (which I know he was really looking for 🙂 ).

Luckily, no one in our group had any leech issues. Though, when I went to go change my clothes in the room, I was taking off my pant when I brushed one that had been on the outside of my clothes that we missed and it stuck to my hand briefly before I flicked it off. Someone told us later they had a leech in their pocket! And that night, while everyone was hanging out, this German guy comes up rather calmly (I think he was a bit drunk) and tells us that he has a leech on his stomach and that it had already gotten big (i.e., the leech which is skinny was now swollen with his blood) so he couldn’t pull it off. We found some Off! and sprayed it till in came off – it was super gross – the leech fell to the cement floor and was literally oozing his blood out. Ick. And he was bleeding for awhile after too.

But anyway, aside from the leech incident, we had fun hanging out with our fellow lodge mates and playing “Mau Mau” which is a modified version of Uno with regular playing cards – seemed like it would have been a great drinking game!

The next morning (after going to bed at 2 am), we had to wake up and be ready for our morning cruise by 6am! We saw much of the same as we had the day before, though we saw a small croc sunning on the riverbank and some macaques mating, but I was getting anxious – I really wanted to see an orangutan. I had given up hope on seeing the elephants because we were told in Sandakan that the elephants had already moved down to Sukau (we were in Bilit) and even the Nature Lodge folks said that the elephants had been there for a while and they could sometimes find fresh tracks kind of close by, but we probably missed them by about a week. Boo. But another group had seen orangutans so I was excited to see one as well. But no luck on the morning cruise or that afternoon’s cruise. I decided to skip the jungle walk and opted to take a nap instead since it rained and I figured it would be super muddy again and trekking around in mud was not quiet so we probably wouldn’t see much anyway. Samir and Manu Bhaiya went however, though apparently I didn’t miss much. That evening, we made the decision to stay an extra day since there wasn’t much to do in Sandakan anyway and it was pretty cheap for us to stay (3 days, 2 nights had been 380 RM / $125 per person including all activities, food and lodging; an extra night for a dorm bed was only another 50 RM / $16 per person including all activities, food and lodging).

Our third day, we all decided to skip the morning cruise – i.e., woke up at 5:45 am, looked at each other and decided to go back to sleep! Nice and refreshed, we rejoined our afternoon cruise. However, it was pouring rain right before the cruise (Manu Bhiaya had decided to take out a kayak after lunch and got drenched as he was trying to paddle back!) and we pushed it back 30 minutes, and we went out while it was still raining. Because we had already damaged Samir’s camera in KK (our waterproof dry bag turned out to not be waterproof – fail), I decided to not take my DSLR as I didn’t want to ruin it as well. As we got onto the boat, I had a sinking feeling that we’d see the elusive orangutan today. And I was right. Not ten minutes after we set off from the lodge, we spot not only one, but two orangutans in the trees by the river bank. And to top it off, the one that was further back was a mother and was holding a baby. Geez. I watched as the closer orangutan seemingly posed for us as it went along the trees looking for the fruit from the trees to eat. At one point, she was standing straight up, on one leg with her long arms outstretched to reach a tree branch which she held with her leg which was almost right angled to her other leg. And she was pregnant so her belly stuck out even more as stretched as she was. Well, at least I have mental picture of it 🙂 The other one was in the back, preparing a nest. Apparently, orangutans can make three or four nests a day in different trees – what a busy life! And considering how big they are, making a quick nest to take a nap in is an incredible feat of engineering!

Then, suddenly, the guide tells us excitedly that one of the other boat guides (there were about four boats by this time looking at the primates) heard a herd of elephants by Oxbow Lake. Pygmy elephants are smaller than Asian and African elephants – they are about 6-8 feet tall and the ones in the area moved in herds of 20-40. As the guide was saying this, in my head I was like, “Seriously? The one day I don’t bring my camera!” but was excited nonetheless that the pygmys were in the area. So off we went to Oxbow Lake – which was cool in itself because our little boat had to navigate through a narrow channel off the river to get there. Sure enough, there were about five other boats in the area but all the other boat guides were signaling that they could only hear them but not see them. Our guide pulled in and out of several little areas off the bank and we could definitely hear the elephants, trumpeting and clodding around. These guys may be the smallest elephants, but they can cause all kinds of destruction. In fact, our lodge now has an electric fence around it because a herd of elephants and plowed through it the year before, not only endangering the guests, but destroying some of the property! Anxiously, we kept on trying to get to the bank of the river where we could hear the elephants, trying to track where they were going. Finally, we stopped at a point where we could see flashes of gray through the thick brush and could definitely hear two elephants, one maybe fifteen feet in front of us, the other a little further away to the left. We peered in silence as we heard the elephant make its way through the trees and get closer and closer to us. It was right there, behind a really thick brush of trees – we could make out its outline behind them and kept willing it somehow to eat through the trees so we could see it. At the same time, it occurred to me that if it did break through the trees, there was pretty much a clear path from it to where we were on the river bank and our boat was having engine trouble and it took a few times for it to start so hopefully it wasn’t an angry elephant! But alas, we waited and waited and it just teased us from behind the trees for several minutes, even trumpeting a couple times (I think it heard us while we were talking). Finally, our guide told us we had to head back because it would be dark soon and we could try again in the morning. Just as we exited the narrow channel onto the main river, we saw a boat looking at the backside of an elephant – just walking away back into the jungle as we got there. Missed one again!

The next morning, we decided to meet even earlier at 5:45 am to get an earlier start then the other boats from other lodges might and headed back to the same place. The sun was just rising and the weather was clear, cool and beautiful. We raced back to the lake, the first ones there, and sure enough, we see at elephant drinking water from the river! We watched for about an hour and moved around to find different places where we could peer through and see the pygmy elephants. They were so pretty! Not as graceful as I think larger ones are, but almost playfully cute! At one point, two elephants were linking trunks and grazing each other’s heads. Sigh. And they always look like they are smiling! What an unexpected surprise – from thinking the elephants were gone from the area to see and hear them roaming around in the jungle – so glad we stayed the extra day! And to top it all off, on our way back, we saw the same orangutan in the same tree. Again, just hanging around, relieving the branches of their fruit.

Overall, I had a great time at the Nature Lodge – it was a little different from what I was expecting – the walks were kind of overrated but the cruises were really cool. And the guides did a great job spotting stuff that we would have never seen!

Wildlife we saw:

1)      Pygmy elephants

2)      Orangutans

3)      Long-tailed macaques

4)      Proboscis monkeys

5)      Crocodiles

6)      Monitor lizards

7)      Hornbills, including a rhinoceros hornbill

8)      Four different types of kingfishers

9)      Buzzards, eagle, owl and egrets

10)   Bats

11)   All kinds of insects and spiders (cicadas, rhino beetles, centipedes, walking sticks, mantises, etc.)

12)   Icky leeches – I could have done without these!

A sample of our pictures – check out the photo albums link for more!

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