On the animal trail in Borneo

Chasing crocodiles, hanging with bats and monkeying around with orangutans, living out our very own animal song

Baby proboscis monkeys look exactly like human babies – in fact, they even cling miserably to their protective mothers the same way irritable kids do when faced with a barrage of strangers; in the dead of the night, it’s the red-glow of crocodile eyes that give away their stealthy presence; orangutans, classified as one of the most intelligent primates, appear smarter than most politicians (re: a certain orange-skinned world leader) and if you venture into a cave full of “one million cockroaches” – make sure your gag reflex is super controllable (and you take your guide literally). Animal world, indeed.

Into the wild

The giant island of Borneo, shared by Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei is home to one of the oldest rainforests in the world – making it ideal for seeking out our animal friends in their natural habitat, and human-created conservation/ rehabilitation centres. It accounts for just 1 per cent of the world’s land mass, but accounts for 6 per cent of the globe’s bio-diversity ! After three days of exploring the underwater world in Mabul, an island off the coast of Sabah, we ventured back to the mainland of Malaysian-Borneo – we began by exploring orangutan and Bornean sun bear country, spent three days on the Kinabatangan river and finished up by paying a visit to the long-nosed proboscis monkey.

Bear with us, as we Monkey around

Sepilok Jungle Resort

We began our animal song, with a short flight from Tawau  to Semporna. Here, we sought refuge at Sepilok Jungle Resort. The rooms are small and basic, with barely functioning air conditioning, while the food is average – the resort’s USP however is its spectacular and animal-friendly landscape (think bridges over water, and lots of greenery) and proximity to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabiliation Centre and the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation centre (both within walking distance).

Orangutan song

The best time to head down to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabiliation Centre is a little before feeding time (10 am and 3pm), so you have the chance to saunter around and see the orangutans in peace – as once the feeding frenzy begins, so does the crowd’s need to get click happy. More than 43km of protected land along the edge of Kabili Sepilok Forest Reserve is home for creatures that have been orphaned or confiscated, leading to debates whether it really is the best environment for these wild animals. Detractors wonder why the government isn’t focused more on protecting the rainforests, but we strongly believe any step towards protection is a step in the right direction – and currently, the space is home to over 60 orangutans who have been rescued from inhumane conditions.

At the Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre

Bear necessities
The next stop on our wildlife tour was the neigbouring Bornean Sun Bear Conservation centre (9am-3:30pm) – home to the world’s smallest bear. The bears at the centre are orphaned and/or ex-captive bears, brought into their natural environment in the Sepilok-Kabili Forest Reserve. Currently, about 43 bears reside at the centre and we’d be lying if we said we didn’t feel the urge to cuddle the large-dog resembling bears, after gazing into their watery eyes. It was hard to say goodbye to the animals, but we did – as a 3hour long bus ride took us to Kinabatangan, which is abundant in fauna.

Monkeying around at the Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre

Like a river flows… so do we

And after a 2min boat ride, we made it to eco-lodge Bilit Adventure Resort, our home on the banks of the Sabah’s longest river Kinabatangan. We were welcomed by log cabins on stilts, the sudden arrival of rain clouds and the as precipitous disappearance, the defeaning silence of nature, the twitter of unnamed birds and the hissing of unknown predators.

Our jungle home

Cruisin’ along

Our mornings and evenings were spent on the river cruise spotting a barrage of wildlife in their natural habitat – think Proboscis monkeys, hornbills, kingfishers, Malaysian flycatchers and lots more. It was the intrigue, and attraction of spying the crocodile that sent us on an awe-inspiring night cruise – the night was dark, and full of stars – as before the moon rose, we were treated to a sky full of stars, a blanket of twinkling lights which was soon cloaked by darkness. It was in this quietude, and under sparse torchlight and the expert guidance and bravado of Moose, our local guide who himself had an uncle, carried away by a crocodile on the river, that led us to spying two baby crocodiles slinking away as quickly, as they appeared. Those glowing red eyes are not a sight we’re likely to forget soon.

The next night, we ventured around the property on foot. With Blair Witch-like jungle vibes to keep us scared, and the thrill of trudging along led by torchlight to keep us going we were rewarded by sightings of moon rats, minuscule (and speedy) jungle cats and a barrage of birds. Afternoons were spent basking in the sun with cans of Snow Beer, views of the endless river – while we returned to our cosy quarters (ac-ed and comfortable) sweaty and satisfied, each night. It was with a very heavy heart that we said goodbye to Mother nature, and the peace that no-network brings.

Caving in

The cockroach and bat infested Gomantong Caves

But our wild adventure hadn’t ended yet, and on our way to the airport for the next leg of our trip, we drove to the Gomantong Caves. The hill is the largest limestone outcrop in the Lower Kinabatangan area, set in a Sabah Forestry Department forest reserve, the caves and the surrounding areas are a protected area for wildlife, especially orangutans – and we were lucky enough to spy one hanging around as we made our way out. Inside, the stench of a million cockroaches awaits as the cave system is home to massive populations of cockroaches and bats. Walls covered in cockroaches, floors strewn with the insects scurrying about, and a glance at the ceiling revealed colonies of bats, in all their glory. The Gomantong Caves are also well-known for their valuable edible swiftlet nests, which are harvested for bird’s nest soup. Half our party abandoned us on this adventure, as the sight, and smell of the creatures proved too much to handle.

Monkey see, monkey do
But then, we were on the sunshine trail again as we made our way to the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary – nestled in the centre of the mangrove forest along the coastal land near Samawang Village at Labuk Bay, Sandakan. Here, we witnessed families of proboscis monkeys, leaping from one tree to another and feeding. We have to confess, we spent 30 minutes mesmerised, watching as a minuscule monkey was schooled on life (and leaping) by the elders of the group. And thinking, they did it better than most humans.

The proboscis monkeys at feeding time

Vacations always teach us something – sometimes it’s the fact that we need to slow down and relax. Often, it is to disassociate with what’s troubling us. This one, reminded us quite powerfully to be aware of the world we’re living in – that the concrete world of ours is simply creating a wall, shutting us out from the real world – where nature is fighting to survive. And animals, are not that different from us – we’d all like to survive, and leave legacies for generations to witness. Because a world without trees, fresh air, the silence of nature and survival of essential species – is literally no world at all. And are we really ready to lose our world?

 

 

Serai Serenity – Give it to me, I’m worth it

There’s nothing more exhilarating than driving 5 hours away from an overly populated city and in to the green arms of Mother Nature. The air is crisp yet slightly smokey from nearby village woodfires, the trees spindly with silvery white trunks yet losing much of their greenness due to the onset of the dry season and birds flying low guiding you to your haven . This space looks raw yet inviting and as you drive on the makeshift rocky road you reach a gem in the middle of the jungle – The Serai Bandipur.