Not all (in)too the Wild
Getting into the wild part of Malaysian Borneo is not as easy as one might expect. Most natural reserves and national parks are difficult to access independently and prices for safari tours and lodging are certainly not targeting low budget travelers. The most accesible alternative is Sungai Kinabatangan Wildlife Reserve, a protected area of swamp land bordering a huge river about 2 hours drive from Sandakan, through kilometers and kilometers of palm oil plantations.
Staying downriver at Kinabatangan is not exactly what one would call a tropical into-the-wild-experience, as the area is quite developed for tourism, so several retreats, tourist lodges and eco-hotels lie clustered around the same handfull of river bends. That said, the riverbank is vast and the place still sleepy enough to give the appearance of an escape from civilization. Not even mentionning that for urbanized Westerners as we are, the abundance and diversity of wildlife around gave us the feeling of being deeply inmersed into the Amazonas.
If I say abundant wildlife, that does not necessarily refer to the kind of animals we came to see. Our most frequent companions were oversized, flying bugs, mosquitoes and nasty leeches, which were seemingly hiding behind each and every single leaf, able to make their ways to our unsucked skin even through impermeable full-body-wraps… converting each “jungle” walk we did into a nightmare for Letitia.
But to tell the truth, besides the leeches there was nothing serious to criticize about our stay at Kinabtangan, as the days on the riverbank were to become one of the top experiences of our whole trip.
We had booked our tour there directly from our lodge in Sepilok for 3 days and 2 nights, the most budget version available and admittedly, the wooden huts where the four of us slept together in a moisty smelling dorm were no luxury at all. But the rest of the service was and as we were the only guests at the small lodge, we could enjoy it completely in private.
Days were structured by three delicious meals, prepared by a Filipino lady from Mindoro, and three 2-hour boat rides upriver to spot animals. Our Philippine-born boatman, Marino, was one of the most suitable examples to confirm that Filipinos are probably the most friendly and service-oriented people in Asia. Each time we went out with the boat he used all his knowledge about the river and its inhabitants to allow us to see exactly what we were looking for.
And what we were particularly looking for was to spot a species of monkeys that is endemic to the island of Borneo: the Proboscis Monkey. Males of the species are easily identifyable by their unusually long noses, which can exceed 10 cm (3.9 in) in length, and hang lower than the mouth. The monkey also goes by the Malay name monyet belanda (“Dutch monkey”), or even orang belanda (“Dutchman”), as Indonesians remarked that the Dutch colonisers often had similarly large bellies and noses.
The proboscis monkey is a large species, being one of the largest monkey species native to Asia. Males have a head-body length of 66 to 76.2 cm and typically weigh 16 to 22.5 kg, with a maximum known weight of 30 kg.
With their particular morphism and grey-orange-yellow coloured fur, Proboscis monkeys look quite different from all other species of monkeys we’d encountered so far on our trip, so that getting out on the river to spot them became our favourite pastime. The best time to see them is early morning and half an hour before sunset, when large groups populate the treetops along the riverbank. They usually live in large families of one male patriarch, some females and their offspring.
Despite their imposive figure, Proboscis are very shy with humans around them, so once the numerous tourist boats swarm out they tend to withdraw from the river bank. Fortunately, we had Marino who would always take us out before or after the other observers arrived, giving us some time on the river by ourselves.
Those solitary moments just before sunset were magic, as once the boat engine was turned off and we started floating with the current on the small river canals, we could fully appreciate the smells and sounds of the awakening swamplands.
Even though we were most enchanted by the Proboscis Monkeys, there were of course many more species of exotic animals to spot in Kinabatangan. Rare encounters are crocodiles and the (relatively) tiny Pygmy elephant, the smallest elephant species in Asia, unique to Borneo and critically endangered of extinction; WWF estimates a total remaining population of 1500 Pygmys in whole Borneo. The primary threat to these elephants is the loss of continuous forests. Mammals of their size require large areas to find sufficient food. The large blocks of forests they require are fragmented by encroachment and conversion of natural forests to commercial plantations. Logging, expanding agriculture, and palm oil plantations are reducing contact between sub populations, as well as shrinking the forest area available for each sub-population. Shrinking forests bring the elephants into more frequent contact with people, increasing human-elephant conflict in the region.
We didn’t have the chance to get a glimpse at any of the Pygmy elephants, but we did see diverse species of colourful birds, among them some very rare species like the rhino hornbill, and many many many types of other monkeys, as the longtailed macaques, pigtailed macaques, shy grey monkeys with black faces… we were unable to remember all the names Marino cited.
When we were not on the water and were not having food we enjoyed ourselves hanging out on the terrace with beautiful river view, playing a card game our Frenchies made us addicted to: citadels, a fantasy strategy role game, which turned out to be the most effective language class for Javier, as his passion for the game let him practically forget that instructions on the cards were all written in French.
In the end, we ended up staying one day longer than initially planned and when we left felt like we were leaving a little piece of our hearts at Kinabatangan – especially with our boatman Marino.