Trip Start Jan 12, 2005
47Trip End Ongoing
Boating to the rainforest
After seeing the orangutans in the Sepilok sanctuary, we were still in awe of Borneo's wildlife. But we had no idea that the best was yet to come. Our next destination was Sukau, a remote village far up the Kinabatangan river known for its incredible fauna.
Getting there was an amazing experience in itself. It was pouring rain when we and a group of older New Zealanders boarded a speedboat in Sandakan. There was still some lingering lightning, so we headed across the Sulu sea with some trepidation but felt a little better when we reached the shelter of the mangrove forests across the bay
Foolishly we had recently been watching National Geographic shows, showing giant crocodiles lunging out of muddy waters to grab antelopes and other big mammals on the shore. Our guide told us these mangroves had lots of aggressive saltwater crocs, some as big as 4 metres long, but that didn't stop many locals from taking a cautious swim. But that, in turn, didn't stop us from staying away from the edges of the boats.
Heart of Darkness
About 45 minutes into the trip the boat turned upriver and began winding its way deep into the rainforest. You couldn't help feel as though you were in a scene from Heart of Darkness, or maybe Apocalypse Now. A few sleepy villages and palm plantations along the way gave into darker and thicker jungle. Eerie calls along the river let us know that we were vastly outnumbered by primates.
We saw some of our best wildlife on this boat trip. First, we spotted a family of river otters along the shore, something our guide had never seen before. A few minutes later we saw a big male orangutan making a nest high up above us in a tall tree
We finally reached the lodge by late afternoon. While there were other wildlife lodges upriver from Sukau village, ours stood alone on one side of the river. Our movie deja vu continued as we walked up a long path lined with kerosene torches. The place was run by a former army officer named Winston Marshall who some might say had gone a bit nutty in the jungle but had acquired a very loyal band of workers. If we were to stay at his lodge, he told us, we had to obey his environmentally friendly rules and remove our shoes. Also, all men and and women alike had to wear provided sarongs to dinner. No questions asked. We were on his turf, so we obeyed.
Anjali and I were by far the youngest members of our group and this gave us a certain celebrity status. The elder group of Kiwis nearly fought to get seats next to us in the boat house at dinner time. But their travel stories put ours to shame. After smugly telling them about our rigorous four day trek in Sikkim, the 72-year-old woman sitting next to Anjali calmly explained that her twelve day trek in Nepal three years ago was a jolly good hike as well! And wasn't it a shame that we young kids were braving the Sukau jungle for only one night, when they all were staying four nights. We left dinner feeling a little sheepish.
We needed to make the most of our one-night stay, so we decided to take no less than three river cruises to see as much local wildlife as we could
What comes out after dark...
But probably our best and scariest experience was the night cruise we took after dinner. They warned us that night cruises were often hit or miss when it came to wildlife, but we landed several good hits. Our local guide was a wiz with the spotlight, shining it up and down clumps of trees and shorelines looking for the slightest glimmer of colour that would give an animal away.
Big birds like owls and bright yellow kingfishers would freeze in the spotlight on branches just a few feet from our boat. He found a giant water monitor lizard lying flat along a tree trunk looking over the river. (The next morning we saw perhaps the same one along the shore ripping apart a pig's carcass with its sharp teeth and claws).
Our guide also took us to a shore where baby crocodiles paddled in the shallows calling out for their mother. So where were the big crocs? We found out soon enough as our guide flashed a beam of light across the muddy water, illuminating several pairs of red eyes which disappeared below the surface before we could see them
But the most unnerving experience was when the quiet night was pierced by a sudden screeching and rustling along the shore behind us. We swung the boat back to find a group of macaques shrieking, peeing and defecating while clinging to the ends of tree branches. Guiding the spotlight down the tree we saw what was terrifying them. Halfway up the trunk a great big python was winding its way up towards the monkeys who had no nearby trees to jump to. We stayed for 15 minutes but the python kept still, so we left without knowing who got the better of who.
So even though we stayed one night in Sukau, we saw enough of the wild animal kingdom to satisfy us. We were now ready to leave Borneo.