I’m roused out of my sleep by the distant trumpeting of elephants and singing of thornbirds. It is morning on the Kinabatagan River and the animals announced the day's commencement. (Actually, it was the roosters outside my window that first awakened me, but I have learned to ignore them by now. Besides, it is much more entertaining and exotic to claim that I was awakened by wild elephants rather than the domesticated birds!) I have to kick Liz a couple of times before she finally rolls over and grumbles about waking up so early. I agree, but we have to hurry so I push open the curtains. It is still dark outside and the early morning light has only begun to filter through the thick canopy of jungle overgrowth. Although we are situated directly over the muddy waters of the Kinabatagan, our view of the river is obstructed by a thick layer of mist that has cast an eerie glow over the usually serene landscape.
We sleepily dress by candlelight and climb down the rickety ladder of our wooden loft. The children are still sleeping in scattered heaps on the floor, wrapped up in a mess of arms, legs, and
tattered blankets. I have to tiptoe over them to the kitchen area where the “mother” of the household is stirring coffee by the fire hearth. As we are sipping the last few drops of aromatizing brew, our guide comes in through the curtained front entrance and warms his hands by the fire. He seems to be a gentle, pleasant man whose face is well weathered and wrinkled from years and years on the river. We trail behind him to the river’s edge where his battered green fishing boat sways gently against the dock. Since the thick morning fog has yet to lift, we sit on the dock and wait a few minutes, taking time to listen to the sounds of the jungle. Our guide smokes a fragrant pipe and the sweet smell blankets us in a cloud of comforting aroma. Finally, it is time to go and he gives us the thumbs up sign, indicating that we were to have an excellent morning tour on the river.
Excellent was an understatement. Sakau, a humble fishing village tucked away from modern life and far from the tourist trail, has much to offer both the weary traveler and wildlife enthusiast. We
hitchhiked here from Sandakan, catching rides with people from all walks of life. Many of our good-samaritans offered not only rides and conversation, but they also recommended places to stay and gave us addresses and phone numbers of family members to contact along the way. Even now, it still amazes me how friendly complete strangers can be.
We came to Sakau to catch a glimpse of jungle life and organized two boat rides with the local guides to see some of nature’s finest. The river tours were fantastic. In the early morning hours, our boat glided through the swampy waters, silently approaching groups of chattering monkeys, flocks of rare birds, and an exorbitant amount of interesting reptiles. The monkeys were especially fun to watch. They swung wildly from branches and tree tops with their babies tucked securely on their tummies. The proboscis monkeys, native to this area of Borneo, were a treat indeed. These creatures, with their huge noses and multi-colored hair, were incredibly curious and inquisitive. I thought they would hide. However, they seemed to enjoy the attention and put on an amusing show with their acrobatic stunts. We also caught sight of some wild orangutans, a special
spectacle that had us climbing ashore to creep closer to the long limbed monkeys.
Our afternoon cruise was even more exciting. I saw elephants - beautiful, wild, Asian elephants!!! There was an entire herd eating along the riverbank. It was an unexplainably awesome experience. We motored our little boat right up to the edge, within arms distance of the majestic beasts. Several of them were bathing playfully off to our port side and we were splashed several times as they sprayed water into the air. On the shore was an itty-bitty baby who was having a delightful time throwing dirt on himself and other members of his family. He was enjoying himself until one grumpy member of the herd smacked him on the behind as a reprimand. The baby sulked and hid under his mother’s tummy for the remainder of our stay. I was having a staring contest with one old boy. He was an amazing creature, clearing the largest in the herd with an incredible face full of wrinkles and beautiful eyes. He pulled leaves and chewed slowly, staring at us until he decided that we posed no threat. Another section of the herd was grazing further into
the jungle and we were lucky to hear them calling back and forth to one another. It was really a surreal experience!
I think we are some of the more fortunate travelers. Instead of taking a package tour to the Kinabatagan, we wanted to support the local families and arranged all of our own travel, guides, and tours by ourselves. Sakau has a wonderful home stay program where all of the profits go directly to the local individuals instead of being soaked up by middle men and tourist agencies. The family we stayed with was delightful. There were about a dozen grandchildren roaming throughout the house, popping up from under our bed and exploring our modern gadgets. We spent several hours playing tic-tac-toe and shadow puppets with the little tykes. The food was excellent as well (although not as good as yours mom!) and we were feasted on fresh catch from the river and fruits from the jungle.
The following days were packed full of further adventures. We traveled down to southern Borneo to Semporna. We caught a boat to Seaventures dive resort, an interesting old rig in the middle of the ocean, directly off of Mabul Island.
The neighboring oceanic site of Sipidan is world renowned for excellent diving and has a wall that rises at a depth of 600 meters off the ocean floor. The entire area is teaming with over 3000 types of marine life including barracudas, white tipped sharks, hammerhead sharks, lionfish, frogfish, huge turtles, octopus….the list goes on and on. We did ten dives in three days, racking up our dive logs and checking off list after list of sights to be seen underwater. At one point, I was swimming with a dozen sea turtles above me and ten sharks below me! Turning around another bend was a school of hundreds and hundreds of jackfish. I swam into the middle of the school and was completely surrounded by the quick, silvery fishies. It was a struggle to keep up with them as they darted back and forth, but the extra swimming was well worth the effort. Another dive took us further offshore from Mabul Island where we saw neon yellow and green eels and poisonous crocodile fish laying on the sandy bottom. They were incredibly ugly fish, but it they were defiantly a highlight of the dive.
I have to admit that Borneo has been one of my favorite travel spots thus far. We went white-water rafting on the Padas River, hiked through some of the prettiest jungles in Asia, saw amazing wildlife in their natural habitat, and spent day after day swimming with sharks and turtles. What gets better than that? Sarawak, the neighboring state of Malaysia is right next door and offers even more jungle life, cave exploring, and river adventures. Unfortunately, we don’t have time during this trip to devote sufficient time to this prime travel destination. We already had to juggle our schedules a bit and pushed back our mountain hike due to proper decompression dive time. That will be tomorrow’s adventure. It will certainly be interesting. Liz has an icky cold and I’m running a temperature. However, we fly back to Kuala Lumpur in three days and this is one feat that we must accomplish. We are adequately stocked up on cold medicine and I am about to search the town for chicken soup and oranges. Wish us luck!
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