Jungle life

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August 18th 2007
Published: September 27th 2007
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The package we'd chosen for a short stay in the Kinabatangan jungle started with a drive on a rough road through palm tree plantations. Unfortunately for Borneo's ecological diversity, logging of the jungle is taking place in both the Malaysian and Indonesian parts of the island, with revenue-earning palm trees being planted in its place. A short boat ride then took us to our "resort". Wild elephants had stumbled into the camp a few months ago, causing a fair amount of damage, so a 5,000 volt electric fence encircled it now - worth knowing if you're keen on moonlit midnight wanderings. We were able to upgrade to a cabin for our first night but had to slum it in a dorm for the second. [In a darkly amusing incident, I joked with LA Woman that it would be great if one of the current cabin residents died on the first night and we could then take their cabin - we found out the next morning that one of the incumbents had swallowed a mouthful of kerosene after we'd gone to bed, thinking it was mineral water as it was in a mineral water bottle. The girl had some stomach pain but was otherwise unharmed.]

The entire clientele of the resort was non-Malaysian, making us feel our most touristy in several months. This was further reinforced by the communal eating arrangements and I found it a real strain to engage in the usual traveller's questions again ("Where've you been? What've you seen? Where'd you stay?" etc.)

The Kinabatangan floodplain is no ordinary area of land. It's one of only 2 places in the world where 10 species of primates reside. Saltwater crocs, like the ones I saw in Australia but not quite as big, glide menacingly through the river's waters. Sharks and rays live in some stretches of the river, a highly uncommon state of affairs for what are normally sea-based creatures.

Included in the package were 2 afternoon river cruises, 2 dawn river cruises, a mid-morning trek, and 2 nocturnal jungle walks. Both the afternoon cruises were miserable, their timing unfortunately the same as the daily wet season downpours. Even in my Marmot kaghoul, every part of me was soaked, with water getting up my sleeves, pooling in any concave nook, and wicking its way through my clothes. The first day, we saw proboscis monkeys high up in a riverside tree, diving around in the canopy and with their strangely penis-like noses just visible at the maximum extent of a x12 zoom. Then the heavens opened. The second day, we weren't even half-way there before the monsoon began but the guide doggedly continued to the same spot, we briefly raised our bowed heads to see the monkeys and let some water into our hoods, then headed back to camp to arrive both drenched and cold.

The night walks were a different story. Long sleeves and trouser legs were essential safeguards against mossies and leeches, and wellington boots were required for both protection and to avoid shoes becoming mud-caked. The mossie situation was actually worst near the camp - you only needed to stand in shorts for literally 10 seconds on the stairs leading up to the dining area and you would find 3 of the buggers feasting on you. Our spotting list on the 2 night walks included a baby python coiled around a branch, umpteen millipedes, various frogs, a few spiders, a large scorpion that the guide picked up and let run over his arm, and a palm civet (high up in the trees and with its enlarged shadow scarily cast on the underside of the canopy). With our torches the only illumination, branches and creepers loomed in the narrow beams of light, and the occasional head caress by one of these got my imagination working overtime.

The guide, Luis, was an interesting character, having previously worked for a surveying company in the jungle. This had involved months at a time in the wild, with supplies dropped by helicopter. He didn't like cities and his manner implied he wasn't so keen on groups of people even as small as the resort's inhabitants. He was so softly-spoken that if you were at the back of the group when he saw something, he'd announce it inaudibly then, when the group had bunched together, he'd ask insistently "Can you see it? Can you see it?" but you'd have no idea if you were supposed to be looking for an earwig or an elephant. Subsequent requests asking what it was were met with a look suggesting you were a simpleton.

The morning river cruises were also far superior to the afternoon ones. With the mist still clinging to the water's surface, the boat's outboard motor was a rude interruption to the dawn calm. We saw hornbills, several endangered Storm's storks (there are fewer than 500 extant), kingfishers, a large group of otters (who squeaked and raised themselves up on their hind legs in order to get a better view of the approaching boat), a family of tapirs, and a wild orangutan (which hid itself so well in the leaves that only an arm or leg was visible as it moved around).

The mid-morning trek to Oxbow Lake was a sweaty affair, with arms and legs needing to be covered even in the heat of the day. Unfortunately our group contained a young child and over-indulgent mother, the former's hyperactivity and general noisiness proving both an annoyance and a warning to all wildlife to scatter from our path. My prayers for the sudden appearance of a hungry python went unanswered. Sightings included some spiders, an adult crocodile, and an orangutan nest, plus the lake marking the turnaround point for our trek was full of small, voracious fish that demonstrated their ability to nibble a slice of bread into oblivion in seconds.

I was very pleased with our jungle visit and certainly seeing the wildlife in Borneo is the best thing I've done since Xi'an. Looking at the distribution of blogs from Malaysia, it would appear that the peninsular part receives the most visitors - I'm interested to see if that's justified.

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