Published: November 19th 2008November 17th 2008
I wanted Jub to put his hand in the picture to demonstrate just how gigantic this thing was. The jerk said no.
Monday we returned to civilization and flew to Singapore following a rewarding, week-long animal-watching extravaganza in the jungles, rivers and coastal islands of Borneo in the Malaysian state of Sabah.
First stop was Selligan aka Turtle Island, a tiny barrier island fifteen miles off the east coast of Borneo that happens to be the most active nesting ground for endangered hawksbill and green sea turtles in the world. A dedicated conservation area, Selligan also has rooms for a few guests, staff, guides, naturalists and, as we learned after check-in, several uzi toting Malaysian commandos--the latter necessitated by concerns over pirates who have carried out kidnappings in recent years in the adjacent Phillipino territorial waters. Upon hearing this news, we bemoaned having not falsified our registration cards to list our nationality and occupations as something like "Eritrea/Sheppard," instead of our more ransom-worthy answers of "American/Lawyer" in the event there was a mole on the island. But we took solace in our guide's description of the commandos' automatic firepower, and spent a relaxing afternoon on Selligan's Corona-ad-quality beaches, waiting for dusk to prompt the lurking mama turtles ashore to lay their eggs.
Before that happened--but after Anna detailed the
What looks to be a tropical paradise is actually much more ...
"fail-safe" escape plan she'd devised in the event of an attack (cover ourselves in leaves, wait for a break in the action, swim to the neighboring island, hotwire a boat to the mainland)--a stream of tiny baby turtles, flippers flailing, appeared on the beach out of nowhere twenty feet to our left. It took us a few seconds to realize that a whole nest of little guys had just broken through the top layer of sand and were making their dash to the ocean! We were able to watch the whole thing unfold, cheering the first ones to glide out over the waves, and then whispering concern but shouting encouragement as the last few finally picked their way around chunks of driftwood and pulled themselves out of footprints and floated out of sight. After dinner, we walked the beach under cover of darkness and watched as three card table-sized greenbacks trudged through the sand, slowly dug burrows, deposited hundreds of eggs, and began their slow march back to the sea.
We returned to the mainland the next morning, and spent three days at Uncle Tan's Nature Lodge on the animal packed Kinabatangan River, followed by three days at the
Borneo Rainforest Lodge, deep within the primary rainforest of the Danum Valley Conservation Area. We saw an amazing variety of wildlife at both locations, although animals were easier to spot at Uncle Tan's for the unfortunate reason that they are squeezed into a relatively narrow strip of habitat by an encroaching ring of palm oil plantations. Our official tally for the week included: crocodiles, mangrove snakes, a flying lemur, mouse deer (the smallest species of hoofed animal in the world), proboscis monkeys, stick insects, a flying squirrel (in flight!), fire-crested quail, a civet cat, bearded pigs (including the "pirate pig" who escaped from a poacher's snare trap minus part of a leg and who is now the unofficial mascot at Uncle Tan's), wrinkled hornbills, rhinoceros hornbills, a borneo blood python, pygmy elephants, monitor lizards, blue-legged tarantulas, long tailed macaques (both in trees and in the kitchen stealing condensed coffee sweetener), tractor and pill millipedes, centipedes, scorpions, orangutans (!), king fishers, eagles, gibbons (three times), pig-tailed macaques, black squirrels, a daddy-long leg whose bite is more venomous than a black-widow (yikes!), and ten kinds of frogs including the smallest species in the world, and another that is the only species to
keep its tadpoles on its back until they become frogs and hop off.
The huge number of animals near Uncle Tan's made up for the decidedly rustic conditions, which included small, shared open huts encased in macaque-proof wire meshing; no running water; four hours of electricity a day; outhouses that we were advised to use at night only after checking our shoes for scorpions and minding the insects and snakes that like to recreate there; limited (albeit tasty) food that led the staff to encourage a rapid response to their buffet presentations with a big sign reading, "Don't be shy, you shy, you die;" the tragic consumption of all the camp's beer on our first night that left only cheap, warm rice wine for the rest of our stay; and the Sub-Saharan Africa-esqe quantity of flies that prevailed at all hours. Fortunately, the staff was awesome, entertaining us with intense, cleated soccer games each afternoon, and guitar-backed American top-40 sing alongs each night. Our fellow travelers were another major plus. Each younger than us by at least 5 years, they hailed from eight different countries and taught us the following worthwhile tidbits during our stay: houses in New Zealand
don't have central heat, you can't graduate high school in Finland unless you can tread water for twenty minutes; no one in Australia actually drinks Fosters; Lance Armstrong evaded doping tests by taking undetectable steroids originally developed by the U.S. military; and Germans are not even a little amused by comments that the boat they are riding in looks like it is going to sink "Just like the Bismarck."
Heading south, we knew things were different immediately upon arriving at the Borneo Rainforest Lodge when we learned that the staff outnumbered the guests 3 to 1, and that 1/6th of our fellow guests were either on their honeymoons or were recently retired partners from Arthur Anderson. Suffice to say, the service and accommodations were amazing and were roundly praised by everyone we met. The single issue we found fault with was that the patterns on the coffee cups clashed with those on the china, which lent a rather hoi polloi quality to high tea. But so many other areas were outstanding; we particularly loved the fact that Anna could enjoy a good Shiraz and Jub a Grand Marnier on the rocks after our night treks, and that we could
They're so small
they are almost furry.
not do anything (including walking, eating or drinking) without a smiling staff person materializing with a refreshing chilled towel--a nice touch given that it was 90 degrees with 95% humidity throughout our stay, which kept causing another guest's scuba computer to activate and indicate that he was now under water. Our guide, Sanrafiel, was appropriately earnest throughout our stay, and we could tell he prided himself on meeting the sometimes demanding requests of visitors when he graciously--and without a hint of irony--declined Jub's joking request that he adorn himself with a venomous, 15-foot Borneo blood python that had just been flushed out of the kitchen so that we could get a good picture. ("Sir, I can't, it's just too dangerous."). Also of note was how the lodge masterfully massaged everyone's concerns about the leeches that inhabited just about every square foot of the jungle paths we walked on by providing us with stylish leech socks, did-you-know factoids on the medical benefits of leeches, and, after a tiger leech struck gold on Anna's uhhh...chestal region, a frame-ready certificate stating that she is now a member of the Danum Valley Blood Donor's Association.
Stay tuned for pictures and an update from
Kota Kinabalu and Singapore, as we seek out excitement in the big city before heading to the beaches of Northern Malaysia and Southern Thailand in early December.
There are more photos below