Welcome to the Jungle: A trip up the Kinabatangan River

18 Feb


Arriving in Sandakan, a small city in Eastern Sabah, Borneo, we did what most do and headed straight for the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. In Borneo, the allure of seeing these endangered primates in their natural habitat is too much to pass up and Sandakan is one of the top spots to do so. With two scheduled feedings daily visitors are guaranteed to have amble time to observe the highly intelligent creatures.

The close proximity of the feeding platforms provides onlookers a chance to ooh and awe at the remarkable characteristics of their cousin apes. Their wide range of facial expressions and dexterity in their almost eerily human-like hands alone, stand as evidence why they are, in fact, not so distant relatives after all.

The ease of access, proximity and regular daily feedings indeed make Sepilok ideal for most people. Those well thought out conveniences, however, led to one major problem for us the two of us… HUMANS.

When we heard of the chance to see this amazing species and many more in the wild, virgin rainforest, we signed right up.  After a two hour drive from Sandakan, followed by a 45 minute boat trip up the Kinabatangan River we arrived at Kampung Bilit, our camp for the night. Our guide from the local village, Lim, stood smiling with an out stretched hand and in a loveable Malay accent said, “Welcome to the Jungle.”

Walking the long wooden dock to the camp we watched a two foot long, blue-tongued monitor lizard slowly crawl off into the dense thicket of trees. Above the entrance to the camp a Crested Serpent Eagle sat perched, waiting for his next meal to slither by.

Before getting back into the boat to search the river and its many tributaries we questioned our guide about the rich variety of species native to the area and how many we could actually hope to see. “Proboscis Monkey we see no problem. Macaques, of course can see too many. Birds of so many kinds. Kingfishers, Hornbills.  We just look, ok?  Crocodiles. Yes, I think. Maybe we go at night. Pygmy Elephants need to be  very lucky to see it. Snakes, Leeches, Scorpions all watch out for. Ok?”

While we hoped to avoid several of these inhabitants, we were excited to spot a crocodile albeit a bit uncomfortable with idea of doing at night. Honestly, we were so stoked to see the monkeys that we didn’t really hope for much else.

Almost immediately, our guide spotted a huge Orangutan just outside the jungle camp. Lim referred to the solitary male as  “our local resident”. Not far down the river we saw the first of several dozen groups of Long Tail Macaques. This particular family group was occupying the better part of an entire fig tree for their daily grooming session.

The area is know for its great variety of birdlife and draws serious birders from around the globe. While Chinese Egrets aren’t exactly a rare find, they are still impressive in their size and grace.

Most of the boat trip was spent viewing the ever so unique Proboscis Monkeys. Borneo is the only place in the world where they can be found and on the Kinabatangan we found loads of them. The single alpha male is easy to spot. Just look for the longest nose and biggest belly. While the females, have a smaller more upturned nose. These rather large, endangered primates are excellent swimmers and use their distinct noses as a sort of snorkel.

Nearing the end of our tour and the onset of dusk, we were satisfied with our sightings but still hoped for a crocodile when our driver suddenly sped towards an abrupt movement in the water ahead. We got there just in time to see two Borneon Pygmy Elephants climb out of the river and trample a path off into the rainforest. Aware of our great luck, yet wishing our sighting had been a bit longer, we turned in time to see a large male enter the river.

A full unobstructed view of this highly endangered, purely wild, magnificent creature swimming the width of the river just before our eyes was an unforgettable moment. The beauty of dusk cast yet another sense of awe over us, as we headed back up the tributary, ending our “so lucky to see” river tour.

During dinner, a very odd looking Bearded Pig walked right up to the camp. Luckily for the pig, most of the local villagers are Muslim. Instead of this unusual looking swine being treated as an easy meal, one of the staff called out “Maggie” and tossed some scraps her way.

The night cruise was a bit unsettling at first, knowing that in the darkness there was still  an endless amount of critters, crawlers, creatures, and crocs. Once on the river, the break in the trees opened to a sky littered with stars. The moon light with the slow hum of the nocturnal chorus actually turned out to be quite calming. We spotted a few Buffy Fish Owls and a pair of Blue Eared Kingfishers but no glowing red eyes of a crocodile.

Early the next morning, the river was a stunningly peaceful setting to view the wide variety of bird species. Storm storks, Broad Bills, Oriental Darters, Rhino-horn Bills, and fishing Hawk Eagles capped off our Kinabatangan sightings.

Just before leaving the jungle, we noticed a sign posted: tree seedlings for sale. Planting it seemed only a tiny contribution in the ongoing fight against deforestation. It still felt good though, physically putting in one more fruit bearing tree to help sustain the host of endangered species living there. After all, we plan to return one day for the crocodiles that eluded us and hope to again be appropriately greeted with a “Welcome to the Jungle”.

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8 Responses to “Welcome to the Jungle: A trip up the Kinabatangan River”

  1. Kongo February 18, 2012 at 12:28 am #

    What an adventure. Love those monkey pics!

  2. Nate February 18, 2012 at 12:44 am #

    Wow, this sounds like an incredible trip. Something I would love to do for sure! Great photographs in the post of all your sightings. Thanks for sharing with us and glad you enjoyed the adventure!

    Nate

  3. gemakatherine February 18, 2012 at 1:20 am #

    Great read, and love the pictures!

  4. stephaniegibbons February 18, 2012 at 8:14 am #

    What a great adventure. Love the pictures of the elephant.

  5. Todd Alperovitz February 18, 2012 at 1:16 pm #

    What a blast you got to see such a variety of animals out in their wild habitats!

  6. Vanessa Skelton February 19, 2012 at 1:15 am #

    Nice ladies!!! next time I want to join you…nesser needs some time in the jungle. looks like QUITE the adventure- xoxo

  7. Theresa Santoro (@Parentingtip2go) February 22, 2012 at 1:50 am #

    Brilliant use of light. I love these. What a great life you are living!

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