Sepilok – Kinabatangan

We arrived at the Mile 14 roundabout after dark. We were going on a trip with Uncle Tan’s Wildlife Adventures the following day, but they were asking for 50RM each for a bed at their headquarters… That is why I found Paganakan Dii Tropical Retreat, who offered beds for 35RM in a quite awesome place (ask Google for photos and details). For the sake of convenience, we asked Uncle Tan’s if they could match the offer, but as they refused, we booked space with this other place, which also offered a pick up from the above mentioned roundabout. I called them upon arrival, and asked if it would be possible for them to take us to the nearest ATM when they picked us up, as we did not have enough cash to pay for both the lodge and the upcoming trip all together. They agreed to do that, so when the van came, we drove a few km to the nearest ATM, where I could get some $$$. However, when we reached the lodge, they wanted to charge us 50RM for the trip to the ATM! I laughed in his face and refused to pay, as he had not mentioned anything about a charge, and most definitely not something so expensive! We had our dinner there (not that we had any other options), a cold shower, and went to bed. The dorm was inside a wooden longhouse, which are the original houses the Malay tribes used to live in. The place was quiet and gorgeous, surrounded by forest and its distinguishing sounds.

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We got up early the next morning to enjoy breakfast (eggs, toast and drinks included with the bed) and get ready to visit the orangutan sanctuary at 9am. The resort van dropped us off, we left our packs in the provided lockers, and after paying the entrance + camera fees, we started walking along the wooden plank. We soon spotted the first orangutans, a mom swinging around with her baby clinging to her chest. The signs taught us newly born orangutans travel attached to their mothers for about 2 years, after which they still follow her around for a couple more years learning how to survive by watching her, while the older siblings help socialize them. It was quite cool to see her easily swing around with her offspring, only stopping for a minute to look at us.

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At 10am they have the first feeding, so we proceeded to the corresponding lookout and waited for them to show up. A young female appeared about 5 minutes before the time came, knowing well that the food would turn up shortly. Soon enough one of the care takers came around with a big basket with papayas and bananas, and set its contents out in the platform, while he sat a metre away, looking bored and waiting. The lady ape soon climbed down, looked at him for a minute or so, and then went into munching some fruit, while looking around to make sure no one else was approaching. A few minutes later, a momma orangutan and her baby started  going down one of the ropes that leads to the platform, and our smaller friend quickly grabbed food on both hands and feet, and climbed up to avoid her. While momma was eating, she finished the food she had taken and made a spectacle for us, trying to get to a near tree first and just swinging around using her extremities later (all very amusing). We took some pictures, though we don’t have a proper lens to capture wildlife at a distance. Mum eventually finished eating, and our first friend returned to have some of the leftovers, and it became apparent that no one else would show up that day. All in all, it means the efforts of the conservation centre are paying off, and the apes are being reinserted into the jungle and gathering their own nourishment.

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They also have a nursery on premise, where the youngsters hang out. We proceeded there to watch them finish their meals and play with each other for a long time. The care givers were constantly telling them off for playing on the ground, as orangutans are arboreal in the wild (meaning they live in trees and rarely come down). With a big grin on my face, I enjoyed watching them thoroughly. The sanctuary is an amazing place, and it was an honour to learn about this close cousin of ours, as well as see them being reinserted into their habitat. Hopefully one day I will be able get to interact with them close up, but we looked at options to volunteer and they are currently way too expensive and out of our budget…

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Around lunch time, we were picked up by Uncle Tan’s van and taken to their HQ for lunch. The buffet lunch was abundant and delicious, featuring all sorts of curries and rice, of course. We ate as much as we could fit, and met our companions for the next few days, a German (Clara and Jasper) and an Irish couple (Tara and Shane). After the briefing, we climbed into the van that would take us to the Kinabatangan shore, where we would board the boat that would be taking us up the  river, into the jungle camp. The ride was easy and we enjoyed our conversation with our new friends on the way.

The time to get onto the boat came, and I got slightly terrified about how close to the water it floated, considering the river is famous for its crocodiles. Tim laughed at my fears and promised it was safe and that everything would be ok. After 15 minutes on the water I believed him and relaxed a bit. On the way we spotted a crocodile, an otter, and an orangutan building its nest, high up in the tree. As they do not have tails to help them balance while they snooze, they build nests every night.. Until they turn 35 or so, when they are too lazy to do so (according to one of the guides).

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We arrived at the camp, met our guides, revised the upcoming activities for the tour and ate some local mangoes with sugar. Bornean mangoes are much sourer than the ones I had tasted previously, so I thought they had mixed some lemon with the pieces.. Turned out, they had not, but that was the reason sugar was added! We had an hour to kill before the first cruise started, so we shared a game of cards with our new friends. The game was called Napoleon, which I had only played  once before, during our work ski trip the previous year, when I played with some of the lads from our Napier and South Island offices (at least similar rules)… I was rather drunk at that point (completely wasted some would argue), so I had a vague memory of the game, but it turned out to be quite simple and I was ahead of the others when the time came to get ready to depart.

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We then left for our first afternoon cruise. We went down the river, to one of the smaller reserves. We saw plenty of short and long tailed macaques, aka the jungle mafia. They acquired this name because they are cheeky and naughty. They will steal from you at the very first chance they get, and are not shy at all. I absolutely love them, but most locals don’t, as its a constant war between them. We also spotted some amazing kingfisher birds, with their colourful bodies, and plenty more birds of species I cannot recall. Some crocodile eyes were lurking around, but they all went underwater as the boat came closer, not really letting us admire them much. We did manage to get real close to one of them, who did not move at all, and let us take us many pictures as we wanted. The joke from then on was, that the camp guides set up plastic animals around and pretend they are real when we come across them…

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After an hour we returned to the camp for dinner. Again a buffet dinner was served, with wonderful flavoursome curries, so we gladly stuffed our faces with food. Once satisfied, we decided to have a shower. We followed the raised wooden path to the end of the camp, surrounded by hundreds of frogs croaking their tunes. The shower was not so much a shower, more like a platform out in the open, surrounded by a few buckets with river water and some smaller scoops to poor it over yourself. It was strange to get naked surrounded by trees, frogs and mosquitoes like that, but it was also a fun and new experience.

The six of us shared a room that had some queen mattresses on the floor, topped by mosquito nets. Tim barely fit, which meant he kept moving the net while he slept, thus letting bugs in. I still wrapped myself in my sleeping bag liner, head net and slept like a baby (very unlike me, I know)

We were meant to be woken up at 6am the next morning, to leave on our dawn cruise and see the jungle wake up. Unfortunately, it  seemed like the person responsible for the wake up call might have drunk to much arak (rice wine) the night before, as he never showed up. Luckily Tim had already arisen, so he woke us up at 615 instead, once he realised no one was showing up for the briefing. We got up ready quickly and picked up a cup of tea on our way to the boat. As promised, the animals were waking up with us, and we saw quite a bit of movement all around the place, as we made our way downriver once again, to the smaller reserve. When we returned, breakfast was ready. I showed off my ninja egg peeling skills to the crew, and we all ate quite a bit, as the morning cruise had awoken our hunger.

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Once the food had quite settled, we left for our morning trek. Not many animals hang out at 10am (as hot for them as it is for us) but the guide was very knowledgeable and showed us lots of plants that the locals use for different purposes: food, medicine, shelter, etc. We tasted some of the fruit we found and walked around for about two hours, though we were advancing very slowly while learning about the jungle and asking questions. One of the most astonishing things for me were the twisting and strangling vines.

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By the time we returned to the camp, lunch had been served, and again we enjoyed plenty of amazing food, and got ready for an afternoon nap. I used the time to read instead, immersed in the Borne universe. I had never  been interested in reading thriller/action books before , but I must admit that these books are written marvellously and are very intriguing. FYI the story has very little to do with the movies… Only his amnesia remains the same, which is rather odd as the book story is much more profound and interesting. But that is Hollywood for you!

A few hours later, it started raining really hard. The water poured down with no mercy, soaking everything around us, turning the football field into a pool. Our afternoon cruise got postponed, but finally it cleared out and we set out to explore the bigger conservation area, upriver. This was by far the best trip in terms of  wildlife activity. Too bad we did not take the camera due to the rain! We saw about six families of proboscis monkeys on both banks of the river, swinging around, fighting, playing, eating. This funny-nosed big-bellied monkeys have four stomachs, so they pretty much eat all day long. They looked hilarious and I could sit for hours unendingly watching them interact with each other and gracefully make their way through the jungle. They seemed incredibly smart and aware of their own capabilities; while a young female rocked a tree until she was able to jump to the next, the older one caring a baby tried the swinging herself but gave up, climbed further down and did a small jump, effortlessly getting back up onto the top once she was secured onto the new tree. A mother and son were perched at the top of a topless palm, hugging each other tightly and barely moving. It looked almost as though they had done something wrong and were being punished, and did not move all the time we were there, looking. Further along, we saw a huge piton snake, coiled on top of a tree, barely visible thanks to its camouflage. We also spotted a lot of birds and macaques, and were well satisfied with our dusk cruise.

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After another fabulous meal, we put our wellington boots on and set for our night jungle trek. We were hopeful we would see tarsiers or slow Loris monkeys, but if there were any, they stayed well away from us (if you don’t know what they are, go to YouTube now and ask it to show you a slow Loris eating and fall in love). Instead, we saw many frogs, spiders, sleeping birds and insects of all colours and shapes. On our way back to camp, we spotted a clouded leopard lurking around, and I was glad we were watching him from the boat, as he looked big and potentially deadly. With a day packed with adventure, we crawled back into bed and passed out.

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The call at 6am did come the next morning, and we promptly got ready for our last cruise in the Kinabatangan. Only half the crew made it out of bed, so it was only Shane, the new arrivals (a lovely Aussie couple) and us in the boat. It was a fine morning, though the breeze made me feel quite cold while in motion. We again saw the proboscis and macaques waking up, and our bird friends fishing as well. I was quite ready for breakfast when we returned, and devoured everything in my sight as if I would never eat again. Time came to pack up and say goodbye to the jungle camp. It was great to stay there and we had a wonderful experience, but good things eventually come to an end and it was our turn to return to civilization. The trip downriver was much faster than the original trip up, and we were back at Uncle Tan’s HQ by lunch time. We stocked up on calories while we could (not many chances we would see another buffet for quite some time), said goodbye to the Irish and walked with our German friends to catch the bus to Kota Kinabalu.

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