The River’s Edge

Animals are everywhere. Some are more romantic, like tigers and elephants and chimpanzees, and some are less romantic, like earthworms, but they are just as interesting.

– Isabella Rossellini

We arrived at the Sukau Rainforest Lodge in the middle of a deluge. A water taxi had just taken us on an hour long ride upriver from Sandakan. Along the way, palm oil plantations had gradually become thick, secondary growth jungle, and the relentlessly sunny morning had turned into an overcast and rainy afternoon. Several staff members greeted us, doling out sturdy umbrellas, as our boat docked at a riverside jetty. They led us through the lodge’s restaurant, which sat on stilts above the Kinabatangan River, and then along a forested boardwalk to a reception area where we, and a handful of other guests, were greeted with welcome drinks and a quick orientation. Along with our room key, we received a packet of welcome materials, including a handy illustrated wildlife guide so we could keep track of all the animals we saw during our stay. Once orientation was over, we had ample time to settle into our room and then have afternoon tea before it was time to meet up at the jetty for our first water safari.

Our guide, Fernando, was waiting for us at the dock and we boarded a much smaller boat with the same few guests we’d spent most of the day with so far. I didn’t even try to hide how giddy I was feeling as we pulled away from the dock. My mind was racing, wondering what kind of animals we were about to encounter. For the first part of the ride, we saw several interesting birds, including some Asian black hornbills, a crested serpent eagle, and a brahminy kite. But it wasn’t long before we heard a commotion coming from some nearby treetops, and then spotted a female proboscis monkey (our third species of the coveted Borneo Big Five), staring straight at us.

I must confess, my first thought was that she was possibly the strangest looking monkey I’d ever seen. For one thing, there was her nose, which was still quite pronounced although not nearly as long as her male counterparts’, but there was also her bloated looking belly, which is a result of having a stomach with several chambers. This aids in digestion, but also gives proboscis monkeys a very distinct shape. She wasn’t alone either; several other females and juvenile monkeys hopped about in the tree branches as Fernando told us a lot of interesting information about them, including teaching us what the call of the dominant males sounds like (a tidbit that would become very useful throughout the trip). We spent the rest of the ride watching them and Fernando explained that they spend the nights close to the river so as to avoid predators like the clouded leopard.

On our return ride back to Sukau, a beautiful rainbow spread across the sky, punctuating what had been a lovely introduction to the Kinabatangan River.

Darkness was engulfing the forest by the time we made it back to the lodge, and the boardwalks had been illuminated with torches, giving off an atmosphere that was a lot like how I imagine going to tribal council on Survivor would feel (although there’s an argument to be had that I might consume too much Survivor, and am therefore abnormally primed to think such things).

We cleaned up back at our room and then had dinner at the restaurant on the river-the buffet was served inside of the very boat that Sir David Attenborough rode in when he visited the lodge, which had been converted into a table. Vince and I scarfed down some food, but didn’t linger at the restaurant because the jungle after dark was too inviting. Instead, we set off along the boardwalk, accompanied by the near-deafening sound of insects which made the air itself feel alive. Bats swooped around hunting insects and narrowly missing the top of my head more than a few times in the process. And then Vince spotted a large bird sitting on the far end of the jetty. We approached to see what it was, and to our surprise, it stood its ground until we were standing mere feet away from it. It turned out to be a buffy fish owl that apparently spends its evenings around the jetty, which explains why it was so strangely tolerant of us.

Our after dark adventure didn’t end there. We signed up for a night cruise, which started off with some dramatic action when we spotted a palm civet attempting to hunt our buffy fish owl. It was interesting to watch because the civet seemed obviously outmatched by the large bird, but it still persisted, chattering loudly as it chased it higher and higher up a tree until the owl had finally had enough and flew off into the night. The civet threw its head upward and made one last loud chirp as if calling out in frustration at its missed meal.

The rest of the cruise yielded up-close encounters with smaller birds (my favorite was a black-and-red broadbill), and a sighting of a small saltwater crocodile.

The next morning we had an early river cruise, which started out foggy, which isn’t ideal for spotting wildlife. It was slow going at first, but we did see another tiny saltwater croc, and a water monitor lizard. Eventually the sun began to burn away the fog, and Fernando followed a pair of rhinoceros hornbills down a narrow tributary that was washed in golden sunlight. As luck would have it, the hornbills led us to a tree where an orangutan was spending its morning eating fruit. All of the animals were too far away for me to get any good photos, so I just enjoyed the experience, sitting in the sunlight and watching the birds and the orang until it was time to get back to the lodge for breakfast.

Midday was a perfect combination of relaxation time and educational activities. Fernando led us on a walk around the Hornbill Boardwalk. We didn’t find any animals, but he still had plenty of interesting things to show us, such as poisonous plants to avoid, and a set of massive footprints that had been left by one of the area’s pygmy elephants. So far, the elephants had proved to be elusive, but I still had hopes that we would get to see one before our trip was over. Fernando recommended that we take as many trips around the boardwalk as possible during our stay because the animals come and go frequently.

Vince and I had a bit of time to jump in the pool for a refreshing swim after we finished our walk. The pool was a peaceful place to relax, surrounded by trees and equipped with comfortable loungers. I saw several Oriental Pied Hornbills fly overhead as I was sunbathing, and iridescent dragonflies zoomed around the pool deck.

We dried off just in time to make it to an orangutan presentation given by the lodge’s naturalist. No one else showed up, so we got a private lesson on everything orangutan from their social structures and child-rearing techniques to their varied hairstyles. We even got to hold an authentic blowpipe made of heavy ironwood.

Vince and I snuck in another lap around the Hornbill Boardwalk after the presentation, and while we didn’t see any large animals like orangutans or elephants, we did find a huge stick bug. Somehow, Vince managed to spot it, even though it was doing what stick bugs do best-looking exactly like a run of the mill stick. Astonishingly, there are 337 known species and subspecies of stick insects that have been documented on Borneo. I wouldn’t even hazard a guess at what species this one may have been, but it whatever it was, it was definitely a cool find.

After the afternoon rain had cleared, it was time to go back out for our final cruise of the day. A raucous troop of silver langurs had gathered in the trees above the jetty, and they watched as we got aboard our little boat and donned life vests. This time Fernando steered the boat downriver, stopping to look at a male proboscis monkey that was on a lower branch of tree, making him much easier to see than any of the ones from the previous evening. His nose was utterly preposterous, but to a female monkey, this would make him a very attractive mate.

Presently, it dawned on me that we had seen four of the Borneo Big Five; the only one left was the one I was most eager to see, the Borneo Pygmy Elephant. A couple of other Americans had taken the afternoon to go off on an extended elephant search that afternoon, but Vince and I had opted to stay with our included cruise in the hopes that we would find some elephants without having to spend the extra time and money. This turned out to be a good choice because as Fernando drove the boat further downriver, we eventually stumbled upon a handful of little boats gathered near the river bank, their occupants staring expectantly into the dense jungle.

“There are elephants back there,” Fernando whispered, “We will wait until they come down to the river.”

And just as he said it I noticed some movement in the bush and a large shadow that was barely visible behind the tangle of leaves. My heart leapt in excitement as I realized there were several of them hidden expertly in the undergrowth. I struggled to believe that an animal so big could be virtually invisible from this distance. Although pygmy elephants are smaller than their African counterparts, they are still formidable and it seemed unbelievable that they would be able to hide so well.

We waited in anticipatory silence, as though all humans present were holding their breath in an attempt to not scare the elephants away. Finally, the first one came into view. She had eaten all of the available bush cover in front of her and as she continued to rip grass from the earth, shaking clumps of dirt from its roots before putting it into her mouth, she became more and more visible. One by one, more elephants ate their way out of the forest, until eventually we could see seven of them along the river’s edge, all deeply concerned with continuing to graze on leaves and grass.

I don’t think it would be possible for me to ever get tired of watching elephants in the wild. Their social structures are complex and fascinating, and the way they use their trunks as hands is simply entertaining. As we watched, a couple of elephants sparred with each other, while the matriarch of the herd trumpeted loudly. It was an unbelievably special experience. There are only an estimated 1,500 Borneo Pygmy Elephants left in the wild, and to have the honor of seeing seven of them was more than I could have hoped for.

I felt a persistent internal glow as we rode back to the lodge, where Vince and I spent another evening searching for night creatures, but this time from the Hornbill Boardwalk instead of from a boat. We remarked that it would be amazing to see a tarsier or slow loris, but we both new that the odds of that were slim to none. Instead, we had fun watching several insects crawl around on tree trunks, and stumbled upon a large debris field of chewed fruits and leaves that had fallen from the trees where we’d seen the troop of silver langurs earlier that day. I was still basking in the excitement of finding elephants when we finally went to sleep and was more than ready for our early morning cruise the next day.

The main attraction that morning turned out to be long tailed macaques, although we also saw a red morph silver langur, and boated underneath a couple of rope bridges that have been installed to help primates safely cross the river. The macaques were out in droves however, and we were able to get very close to many of them, which made for some great photo opportunities.

Towards the end of the cruise, we saw a couple more saltwater crocs, and this time the light was good enough for me to actually get some decent pictures. We did see one large croc, but I was partial to a smaller one that was sitting perfectly still on the muddy river bank. There’s something about young crocodilians that I find irresistibly adorable. Is that weird? Who can really say?

Later in the morning, I took a batik painting workshop. Vince made a hasty retreat at the mention of arts and crafts, opting to fly his drone while he waited for me, but a British woman named Lisa that we’d been hanging out with joined me and we had a lot of fun mixing colors to create proboscis monkey batiks. My final result wasn’t anything I’m likely to hang above my mantle any time soon, but I did have a fun time learning about batik and giving it a try.

When Vince was certain he had escaped the possibility of having to craft, he met back up with me to take one last trip around the boardwalk. A walk earlier that morning had yielded some silver langurs, and a male proboscis monkey, that we’d found by following the sound of its distinctive call, so we felt optimistic that we might find more primates this time. As it turned out, we were right. Just as the sky began to drop rain onto the forest, we saw a flash of red hair moving through the trees. A female orangutan came into view and we could see a tiny baby clinging to her chest. Soon after, we saw a juvenile, toddling through the trees, trying its best to keep up with mom.

We couldn’t believe it! We’d found three wild orangs on one pass along the boardwalk! The mother and infant were harder to see, but the juvenile was up to some hilarious antics as it tried to problem-solve ways to swing from tree to tree. Vince and I were so engrossed in watching the little family that we nearly missed our meeting time for our last river cruise. When we finally did make it down to the jetty, we told some new arrivals and the lodge’s naturalist where they could find the orangutans, and then got onto the little boat one last time.

This cruise was low-energy, but it was still pleasant and relaxing to be out on the river listening to the chirping of insects that were the backdrop of everything that went on along the Kinabatangan. We saw several species of hornbill, including a new one for us, a wrinkled hornbill, and got a close-up view of a pig tailed macaque. It was sitting in a tree framed by delicate, white flowers, and looking much more innocent than macaques usually do.

All the while, the sky looked as though it could decide to downpour on us at any moment. This finally happened just when we made one last brief encounter with the elephants. They were on the move when the rain started, so Fernando stopped to let us watch them briefly before racing back to the lodge. I had forgotten to bring my raincoat on the trip (that seems to be a theme for me this year, I also forgot to bring it to Dominica), so I decided to just embrace the feeling of the warm rain on my bare arms as there was nothing I could do about it anyway.

That evening we enjoyed one last dinner at the jetty, knowing that the next day would be the start of our long journey home. Between diving at Sipadan Island and all of the amazing wildlife we’d seen along the Kinabatangan, I couldn’t imagine a more perfect trip. Borneo had proved to be a nature-lover’s dream, and I felt as though I could have spent several more months there and still never run out of amazing adventures.

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