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Published: January 30th 2010
We arrived in Kota Kinabulu, aka KK, previously known as Jesselton, a week ago. It’s a slightly odd little sliver of a town, perched between the mountains on one side and the South China Sea on the other and full of wonderfully friendly and smiling locals. Our first couple of days were spent acclimatising - wandering through the muggy streets, exploring numerous markets and eating excessively well. The Filipino Markets lived up to expectations - sumptuous crabs, fish and almost foot-long tiger prawns freshly barbecued as we waited.
KK is also blessed with five tropical islands a half an hour boat ride away and a wonderfully lazy day was spent alternating between lying on the beach and snorkeling off-shore. Although much of the coral has been damaged, the hundreds upon hundreds of neon-coloured and luminous fishies were still in abundance and we allowed ourselves to float lazily in the beautifully warm water as the clouds slowly wafted overhead, watching massive monitor lizards bask around us. The ever-observant naturist in me pointed out two particularly large ones who seemed to be touching tongues with each other. “Look baby, how nice. They’re kissing…” Moments later they reared up onto their hind legs,
emitted ferociously loud screeches and proceeded to brawl their way along the beach. Yeah yeah, I know what I’m talking about.
Resigned to the fact that we had better move on, we then made our way up to the Kota Kinabulu National Park, dominated by the ever-looming Mt Kinabulu which at almost five thousands metres, is not only visible from KK but even from the Philippines. A lovely day was spent wandering on various trails throughout the park, vainly trying to spot the hundreds of birds that we could hear all around - we just couldn’t spot the buggers in the thick canopies above us. We overnighted in a lovely little place as the clouds rolled up the valleys, shrouding the hotel, the mountain and us in a thick, dense mist.
An early start saw us standing on the side of the road, again shrouded in the fog, flagging down a bus that was heading towards Sepilok. (Thankfully Jane was wearing her bright red jumper - yes, I wouldn’t have thought jumpers were particularly necessary in Borneo, but there you go.) We slowly trundled the few hundred kilometres from Ranau towards Sandakan, a route that roughly corresponded with
the one that the Japanese established their notorious death marches along during the war. It was sobering, to say the least, to think that of the 1800 Australian and 600 British POWs who were forced to undertake the trek barefoot, with minimal supplies and the ever-present threat of disease and execution, only the six Aussies who somehow managed to escape survived. Sandakan actually accounted for more Australian deaths than the much better known Burma Railway and an eighth of all deaths in the Pacific arena. We had also stayed just near Australia Place in KK, where the diggers had set up camp when they first arrived to begin the counter-campaign. The local café, where we sipped our morning coffee, is adorned with a simple plaque dedicated to the troops, the sacrifices that they made and the gratitude with which they are still remembered. It was a much more sobering and indeed relevant way to spend Australia Day than the increasingly ritualistic chest-beating and flag-draping that seems to be so prevalent at home these days.
That night was spent in a gorgeous villa edging onto the jungle in Sepilok where we visited the Sepilok Orang-utan Rehabilitation Centre - a place
where they are undoubtedly doing wonderful work but which feels a little like a circus during feeding times, where the tourists and their cameras well outnumber the local primates. None the less, it was still amazing watching our close cousins cavorting among the trees and fending off the ever-harrassing macaques as they sought to nick their dinner...
But it is the Kinabatangan, where we now sit drinking our beers, which has undoubtedly been the highlight of our trip so far - an area that is world-renowned for its immense and varied wildlife. Unfortunately, the proliferation of unique creatures in this area is due to the ever increasing palm oil plantations that now cover much of this north-eastern part of Sabah. Indeed, much of the drive from the KK National Park to our final destination was marred by these seemingly endless plantations and it really is heart-wrenching when you finally see the jungle proper and imagine what it all might have looked like thirty years ago. Such massive deforestation (or dejungle-isation) has resulted in a narrow band of protected areas along the Kinabatangan River, which is now home to an amazing array of all matters fauna that have been forced
into this small stretch of land.
However, before embarking from Sepilok, we were warned that the area has been inundated with rain over recent weeks and we arrived in the tiny speck of a village called Sukau to find much of it under water, including the information hut and most of the houses. The Kinabatangan, which normally is a couple of hundred metres across and around eight metres deep had grown substantially, rising about four metres. However we managed to meet up with our local guide Robert and settled into the longboat for the trip upriver to our camp.
We arrived to find our lodgings much like Sukau - that is, underwater. Thus the trek from the main building to our room consists of an expedition through knee-high water, all the while keeping an eye out for beautifully decorated reticulated pythons.
The flooding has also meant that the riverbanks where one would normally spot the abundant wildlife have also disappeared twenty or thirty metres back into the impenetrable jungle, thus making it that much harder to spot the critters. But nonetheless, the boat trips have been unforgettable. We’ve spent nearly ten hours at various times of the
day cruising up the river and various tributaries spotting macaques, gibbons, proboscis monkeys, appropriately named due to their bulbous noses, (incidentally, they are also called Dutch Men after the original colonists here - due to said nose and their obscenely bulging bellies) bizarre looking squirrels and our first truly wild orang-utan - a massive male perched in the top of a tree munching on handfuls of fruit. After the relative domesticity of Sepilok and, to a lesser extent, Bukit Lawang in Sumatra last year, it was a truly wonderful experience.
And then there are the birds that come with names as colourful as their plummage. The Stork-billed Kingfisher. The Green Imperial Pigeon. The Oriental Reed Warbler. The Bornean Blue Flycatcher. The Purple Heron. And of course the Rhinoceros Hornbill, adorned with the most amazing multi-coloured beak and possessing a resounding honking call (which sounds a bit like a mongoose barking through a microphone while suffering from a cold…)
It was a truly amazing experience as we slowly meandered downstream just after dawn this morning, the dense jungle peaking through the thick mists that slowly rose from the river, the air resounding with innumerable calls and cries and screeches
as the jungle slowly came to life.
We ended our time at the camp with our new friends Ding (master boatman) and Lim (spotter extraordinaire), trying to find some proboscis, who were proving particularly elusive. After cruising upstream for a few hours and far from any signs of civilization, we finally gave up and decided to kill the engine and just let the river carry us back downstream. Just as the sun was about to fade, the boys’ ears perked up and they excitedly streered the boat to the far side of the river. Sure enough, there was a large family of proboscis, crashing through the trees like a bunch of slightly inebriated, pot bellied creatures who seem to believe that a thin branch will hold their up-to-50kg weights. Incredibly as we turned to go home, the moon rose, full and huge over the jungle. We often plan to be somewhere special on full moons but this one was a pure fluke which could not have been planned better if we’d tried. We spent another half hour or so just drifting down the river, watching the moon rise, turning occasionally to grin in disbelief at each other...
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