Team Awesome & The River Kinabatangan

Trip Start Oct 24, 2005
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Flag of Malaysia  ,
Sunday, May 6, 2007

We'd scouted out our travel options the night before, and had decided to relax and take a late bus to Sandakan. Of course, by the time we made it to the bus station, the bus we'd planned to take was sold out. However, there was another bus that left an hour later, so we bought our tickets and walked across the street to get some lunch. In the end, the bus left about 45 minutes late, so, rather than arrive in Sandakan during daylight, we pulled up under the cover of darkness. We hadn't planned to do much in town anyhow, so we just found a cab and tried to locate a reasonably priced hotel for the evening. It took some doing, but we finally found a very cheap hostel that was brand-new. We were warned that it would be difficult to find food it we waited any longer, so we sped to the nearest restaurant and had a very sub-par meal.

Sandakan is situated on the northeastern coast of Borneo and, as such, is a great jumping off point to some of the surrounding islands. It's also historically significant because during World War II, the Japanese set up a prisoner-of-war camp here. According to our guidebook, by September 1944, 1,800 Australians and 600 Brits were imprisoned here. In its early days, camp conditions were tolerable, but, as the end of the war approached, the Japanese needed to send more and more soldiers elsewhere, and, as a result, they didn't have enough people to staff the camp. Their solution was to deprive the POWs of regular meals, which led to a huge increase in deaths amongst the prisoners. In addition, the Japanese decided to move the camp from Sandakan to Ranau - a 250 kilometer hike through the jungle. Seemingly impossible, the conditions during the hike were even worse than those in the camp. The men often were forced to walk through the thick underbrush without boots, and they were given even less food than the meager rations they received in Sandakan. As they progressed, a number of POWs, weakened by the inhumane treatment they'd received, were unable to continue with the walk. Rather than carry them on a stretcher or halt the march, the Japanese abandoned them (I have a feeling they were often killed on the spot as well). Those POWs who survived the march to Ranau were forced to haul 20 kilogram sacks of rice to a village 40 kilometers away. The Japanese repeated this march two more times, each time losing an increasing number of prisoners along the way (e.g.: during the second march, 570 POWs left Sandakan but only 118 made it all the way to Ranau). By the end of the war in July 1945, of the 2,400 prisoners at Sandakan in September 1944, only 6 remained - and they had managed to escape from the camp. As a result, these marches became known as the Sandakan Death Marches. Today, there is a park near town to memorialize the prisoners who died during that time.

But it wasn't the beaches nor the park that brought us to Sandakan; we'd traveled all that way to visit the River Kinabatangan. The River Kinabatangan is Sabah's longest river, measuring in at 560 kilometers from start to finish. It is allegedly one of the best places in all of Malaysia to see wildlife, and that was the big draw for us. Over the years, clear-cutting to make way for new palm oil plantations had really thinned out the forest. This logging had resulted in much less forest space, which in turn led to a greater number of species huddled in one area, making it easier to spy some amazing wildlife. We'd booked ourselves onto a three day/two night excustion with Uncle Tan's, a legendary outfit operating jungle trips along the Kinabatangan. It involved parting with a rather large chunk of change, but we felt it was a must-see and signed up.

On Sunday morning, we bought a few supplies (e.g.: Adidas Kampungs, which are rubber shoes with cleats on the bottom - perfect for walking around mucky areas, etc.), and then caught a bus out to the Uncle Tan's office. We had lunch, bought some more raingear, and then filed into the van. In all, there were nine of us in the group leaving that day: Lisa, a British babe who'd been traveling for nearly two years; Geert, a Belgian bloke who was in the midst of a two month journey through SE Asia; Oliver and Fiona, a Canadian couple who'd just begun their travels; B???, a Dutch dude who'd spent a bit of time living in Singapore; and Michael and Charlie, two Brits who were jetting around Malaysia and the Philippines for a few weeks. We spent an hour and a half getting to know each other while we drove to the river. Unfortunately, during our drive, it started to rain - and it wouldn't stop until 8:00 that evening - so much for the wildlife! Rain or no rain, we still had to get to the camp, so we all grabbed a plastic bag, threw on our raingear, and hopped in the boat. An hour and a half later, we arrived (more or less soaked through!) at our destination. However, the journey wasn't over yet - we still had to hike through the mud to the camp - good thing I had bought those Adidas Kampungs!

After a very precarious hike, we arrived at the camp and were shown to our new abodes. The camp was comprised of a series of "cabins" all raised on stilts and set off a main walkway, leading to a main structure that housed the kitchen and dining room. The "cabins" were all basic square structures with wood floors, ceilings, and walls on three sides. The front of the house was a wire/mesh combination that was intended to provide a barrier between us and the creatures haunting the jungle - it wasn't the most substantial of structures, but it was certainly more than we'd expected, and we happily set up camp beneath the mosquito nets that hung from the ceiling. It was still raining, so we headed to the "camp headquarters" to further acquaint ourselves with the people we rode in with, as well as those who were still there from the day before.

After a tasty dinner (lots of veggie friendly foods!), we had a short induction, where we were briefed on the planned activities for the next two days, and we were told there would be a slight change to the schedule because of the heavy rains. While the rains hampered our chances to view the wildlife we'd hoped to see (monkeys, birds, etc.), they were actually a blessing in disguise. Apparently, it was the ideal weather to see the frogs, spiders, snakes, etc. that we would see on our rainforest hike. As such, the hike was moved from the second evening to the first, and we ended up seeing an incredible number of frogs, spiders (including tarantulas!), scorpions, and so on. All in all, the rain was a bit of a pain during the boat ride in, but it ended up being a boon to our wildlife viewing experience. After our eventful hike, we returned to the camp headquarters and chatted with the other campers for a bit, then hit the hay around 1:00 AM.

Somehow, we missed the 5:45 wake up call the next morning, but still managed to get up in time for the early 6:30 AM river safari. We didn't see as much as we'd hoped for during the hour and a half that we cruised up and down the river, but it was still a great time. We got our first look at the proboscis monkeys (monkeys that apparently only live on the island of Borneo and have amusingly large noses) and saw tons of birds, including a variety of hornbills that are native to the area.

After breakfast, the group that had already been at the camp for two nights headed back to "civilization," and we set out on a rainforest hike. Unlike the previous day, the skies were clear and the sun was shining, which made for ideal conditions under which to see more of the local flora and fauna. The forest had transformed from the night before, and, while the frogs had retreated to swampier areas, many of the critters who had been in hiding had emerged. We saw (and touched!) a variety of leeches, centipedes, millipedes, and snakes, as well as numerous trees and plants. The highlight of the trek was our chance spotting of a family of orangutans. As we were walking, we happened upon a mother, father, and their 3-4 week old baby during feeding time, and we stood and watched them for about forty-five minutes. The day before, many of the people in our group had been to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center, a center near Sandakan where tourists flock regularly to witness the amazing animals in a protected habitat with the aim of increasing their dwindling numbers and protecting them from extinction. All of the people who had visited Sepilok readily agreed that what we witnessed, in the middle of the jungle, in a completely uncontrolled environment, was far better than that they had seen the day before - it was a much more genuine experience. While the orangutans weren't as close, it was far more awe-inspiring to see them in their natural habitat, where they were foraging for food on their own, rather than being fed mangoes and bananas by their human handlers.

Because the clouds had dissipated, the sun was out in full effect, resulting in an incredibly hot and steamy day. We were all exhausted from our early morning antics, and most of us sought refuge in our huts or one of the many hammocks, where we all took a bit of an afternoon snooze. I awoke before Dan and decided to do a little wandering. I ran into a few of the other campers, and while we were chatting, one of the guides stealthily slinked up behind us whispering notice of another orangutan sighting. We followed him and discovered another group of orangs foraging amongst the leaves of the guava tree near the bathrooms. They didn't stick around long, but, nonetheless, it was another great animal spotting that really made the experience worthwhile.

By 5:00, we were back in the boat for another river safari. Whereas we hadn't seen much during our morning boat ride, our evening cruise was far more eventful. The skies were chockfull of birds, the trees were crawling with monkeys, and the sunset was absolutely stunning. Since the sun was setting, it was getting too dark to really see much, so we cruised back to camp to meet the new group of campers. They didn't seem terribly interested in getting to know us, so we headed to the main shelter and started playing cards. It was the first time I'd played Spoons since I was in eighth grade, and it was a riotous good time.

After dinner, we split up into three different boats and set off on another river safari. As we walked towards the water, we dubbed our group Team Awesome - hence the name of this blog. During the boat ride, we were treated to a completely different array of visual delights. The nocturnal creatures were out in full force: some monkeys, huge lizards, kingfishers, and scads of owls. Because we were in three different boats, each group saw something a little different: one group saw an owl eat the head off a kingfisher, and two of the groups saw crocodiles... unfortunately, we weren't in either of these boats.

Most people slept in the next morning, but Lisa, Konrad, and I decided to wake up early and go for one last river safari. Of all our boat trips, it was definitely the least eventful, but it was nice to be out on the river again. We had breakfast, packed up, and got back in the boat to return to the Uncle Tan headquarters. Our group members were going in a number of different directions, so we bade one another farewell and dissolved Team Awesome. Like us, Lisa and Geert were KK-bound, so the four of us hopped on a bus and settled in for the seven hour long ride. On the way, we drove by Mount Kinabalu one last time, and our timing couldn't have been better - the sun was setting and the skies were clear - it was utterly gorgeous.

The four of us found ourselves rooms at North Borneo Cabin, immediately hopped in the shower, and then located some fairly tasty pizza for dinner. True to form, KK was disappointing; Dan and I had to change hotels again (apparently they'd made a mistake with our reservation and had only booked us a room for one night) and the new hotel was far inferior to the other. And that was all before we'd missed the ferry to our next destination, Labuan....
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