Borneo. Although few people can locate it—the world’s third largest island and home to three different countries—on a map, the name alone conjures visions of a vast, unexplored jungle where wild animals and indigenous tribes mingle beneath the dense canopy of the forest. Borneo is a haven for sundry wild animals: for now, it’s one of the last refuges of the “man of the jungle” (orangutan), the only home of the Borneo pygmy elephant, and holds a dwindling population of the Sumatran rhinoceros. But Borneo, like the rest of Asia, is rapidly changing thanks to its human denizens. It is also fighting a losing battle with deforestation; the world’s oldest rainforest is quickly giving way to vast tracts of oil palm plantations and slash-and-burn farmland. Much of the flora and fauna of Borneo is on the brink of an abyss, being driven ever closer to extinction by the encroachment of civilization. We knew that so much of the island was changing so quickly that, if we didn’t see it now, it might be gone by the time we had the opportunity to come back. We only had a mere three weeks to explore the Malaysian half of the island, a paltry amount of time that many assured us was woefully inadequate, but we intended to try and see a least some of what Borneo is so famous for while we had the chance. We had already seen the yawning oil palm plantations stretching to the horizon as we journeyed to and from Sipidan, and we knew that we would have to venture far out into the wilds if we wanted to see an animal in anything like an approximation of a natural habitat.
The best jumping off point for any meaningful exploration of eastern Borneo is Sandakan, the second largest city in the province and a bustling port town chock-a-block with eco-tour companies. Sandakan is an industrial hub, and looks the part. The city itself offers little to see or do, so getting on a bus and into the jungle as quickly as possible is really your best choice should you make your way there. Thanks to the rave review of a couple we met at Sipidan, we knew exactly where to go to escape Sandakan’s drab environs: tucked away near the center of town is a little mom ‘n’ pop hostel called Rose Guesthouse that offers Borneo wildlife river safaris of the mighty Kinabatangan river at a reasonable price. Their 300MYR (~$100US) two-day tour included transportation to and from the river, lodging (a basic, but clean, private bungalow), six meals, a jungle trek, and four wildlife river safaris (including a night safari). Borneo is actually really expensive, so this package was a steal, and we happily booked our trip. Fortunately, the guesthouse itself was also quite nice, and offered an oasis in an otherwise unremarkable city.We had been told that many of the river guides stealthily communicate the location of various critters to each other once something is spotted, using whistles and other noises, thus allowing the work of sighting craftily concealed animals to be spread out among the many guides leading tours. While this is certainly true (and understandable), we noticed that Lewis in particular seemed to have a preternatural sense for where animals would appear. Often avoiding the clusters of boats staring at one lonely animal, he would pilot our small boat down the river, calling out “snake”, “monkey” or “lizard” in between his concise lessons about life on the river. His abilities bordered on astonishing, and we would have been hard-pressed to believe he saw as much as he said he did, but for the fact that he unfailingly stopped and made absolutely sure we shared in his discoveries, waiting until the shy jungle creature either disappeared or we grew bored before moving on. Seeing our first proboscis monkey in the wild elicited hushed squeals of glee from both of us. Sitting on a branch high above the forest floor, he slowly turned his head to watch us watching him, occasionally adjusting his tremendous barrel of a belly or scratching his outsized nose. His proportions were so ridiculously bizarre, he looked like a bumbling Dr. Seuss character.
Lewis showed us a plethora of monkeys, lizards and birds on our first trip, and as the sun began to dip towards the horizon he turned the boat back toward the lodge, stopping in a confluence where the river splits to allow us to enjoy the beautiful sunset over the jungle. As the last color leeched from the sky, Lewis took us back to the lodge for dinner, visions of primates and birds still spinning in our heads.
Sitting with Lewis after we ate our delicious curry, he told us a bit of his life. He had been a guide on the river for over 20 years, and had spent his entire life on the river or in the jungle. His knowledge of the area, and its nuances was remarkable, and it was clear that he was a lifetime learner: one of those people who understands that, the more you learn, the more clearly you see how much you don’t know. Fascinated by his depth of knowledge, we asked him as many questions as we could think of. When we asked what his favorite animals were, he quickly replied (in this order): the scorpion, the clouded leopard and the pygmy elephant. When questioned why he loved the scorpion so much, his reply was slightly baffling and mostly terrifying. No longer shy, he told us that he kept hundreds of scorpions in his apartment in Sandakan, and his favorite thing is to let them crawl on him and sting him. According to Lewis, surviving the sting of the scorpion is achieved through naturally strong blood and whiskey, and since he had both in excess, why not see how many stings he could endure? In fact, he believed that the more stings he survived, the stronger his blood became, though if his blood were ever too weak he could always use the whiskey to stave off sickness or death. Sitting in silence for a moment after this revelation, I decided that somehow, this made me like him more. His candor in admitting something that, if we’re being honest, is insane, combined with his otherwise gentle disposition and enquiring mind formed a puzzle that I might never understand, but I inexplicably trusted him nonetheless.
When night had fully settled, and the only light came from our lodge and the few settlements on our side of the river, we once more trundled into Lewis’s small boat and motored out onto the river. The dark of night fell around us like a net, but Lewis carried a spotlight that cut through it with a tight knife of light. Tirelessly flicking the light over the branches and shore, he began to tease out the creatures hidden in the shadows. If we found his daylight performance impressive, his ability at night only served to more firmly cement the legend of his skills in our minds. He spotted monkeys of all sorts, showed us a cave full of angrily chattering swifts, a baby alligator, a beautiful kingfisher and a juvenile boa constrictor so well-hidden in the rocks that my pictures of it serve no real purpose. Initially, we wondered what we could possibly see after dark on the river and mostly took the night tour as a lark. Thanks to Lewis, we saw a world not available to most people, and it was wonderful.
The next day we awoke early for our final day of touring the river. Lewis was already impatiently fiddling with his boat as we blearily stumbled out of our bungalow at 5:30. We shoved off from the small dock as the sun was rising over the jungle and headed upriver. Lewis claimed there would be fewer boats in this direction early in the day, and indeed, we mostly had the river to ourselves.Of course, we had come on the tour hoping to see some of the rarer animals that haunt the river, such as orangutans and clouded leopards; thus far we had only seen the “nests” that the orangutans make for themselves, but no apes, and in all his years Lewis had only ever seen three clouded leopards, so we held no hope for spotting one of those rare felines. But now we had a rumor of elephants, so we combed the shore, wearily spotting more monkeys and birds, but always listening for the crash of foliage. Then it happened. Halfway back to the lodge we saw them: two pygmy elephants not six meters from the shore, noisily breaking down small trees and tearing up grass. Lewis’s grin covered his whole face and he silently mouthed “yesssss” as he pumped his fist. He killed the engine and our boat coasted into the shoreline, the prow bumping into the reeds and stopping less than five meters from the feasting elephants. We stood on the bow plate of the boat and just stared as the pair busily tore up as much foliage as they could, paying us little mind. It’s hard to say how long we stood still, just watching, but eventually the elephants moved back into the trees and the spell was broken. Jubilant, we set out again for home, no longer worrying about what else we saw, though Lewis would occasionally call out “monkey” or “hornbill,” just in case we hadn’t seen enough by then. As though to commemorate our triumphant return, a large parade of villagers marched down Sukau’s only road shortly after we got off the boat. Megaphones blasting and music playing, we learned that their purpose was far more auspicious than our return: they were celebrating the prophet Muhammad’s birthday and were dressed to the nines. The parade started at their mosque and ended at various homes where they would feast and read scripture. When I stepped out to take a few pictures and enjoy the festive atmosphere, a man approached me and welcomed me to his village with a warm handshake, and told me all about the special day. He was the mayor of Sukau and seemed very glad to have us in his town, and sincerely hoped we were enjoying ourselves. He returned to the parade and we spent the next few minutes waving at the passersby while we digested our delicious lunch. After a brief rest, we hit the water for the last time. We’d seen most of what we came for — though still no orangutans — but we were happy for another chance at seeing more of the fantastic life clustered around the banks of the river. Our final tour was as full of sightings as all of the pervious had been, and we even had another chance to see the elephants. This time it was a larger group, but they were mostly hidden, far back in the forest, just passing through. We glimpsed them as they lumbered around larger trees and over smaller ones, majestically decimating a narrow swath of the jungle.
We motored down the river a bit more, hoping for more elephants, but by then the sun was getting low, and we had to put aside our greed for more animal sightings and head to shore one last time.
The next morning after breakfast, we said goodbye to the staff of RB Lodge, traded Facebook details with our new friends, and packed ourselves in the waiting car that was set to drive us to the nearest bus stop and to the next adventure. Our time on the Kinabatangan River was one full of beauty and life, and offered us a glimpse of untamed Borneo that is becoming increasingly rare. The longer we travel, the more we learn that expectations often outstrip reality, but for now, at least, the mighty Kinabatangan definitely lives up to its reputation.