I finally made it to see the Orangutans and to do some exploring in the Rainforest jungle area. I still can’t quite believe I did it. I was gung ho about the whole thing until I turned up at ‘Uncle Tan’s', a lodging house near to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehab settlement. I’d chosen this as not only did they arrange trips to see the Orangs, they also offered group trips into the jungle. I was ready for some group dynamics, having spent a couple of days away from other westerners using public transport and staying in off-track accommodation. That was fine as the local people are really very friendly but conversation was limited. However, the other guests at Uncle Tan’s weren’t exactly reaching out the hand of friendship. On top of that, they all looked super fit and bristling with youth. Four Swedish lads, all golden tan and eight packs, looked like they were auditioning as foot soldiers for ‘Thor – the Movie’. Otherwise it was young couples who only had eyes for each other. I failed to see how I could fit in with this lot on a three day, two night trip and was convinced I’d hold everyone up due to my bad fitness levels.
When I set off for the Orang Rehab centre, I was joined by a young Aussie woman who was having trouble getting herself a flight home. I didn’t mind listening to her incessant rant about this in the minibus, but when she continued her shrieking monologue as we walked down the wooden walkway into the jungle towards the feeding platform for the Orangs, I was really put out. There had been several signs on the way in about how you have to stay silent if you want to attract the orangs (or any other wildlife). There were a few other visitors sauntering quietly along the walkway. I noticed how they all looked round to see who was breaking the number one rule. Finally, I found a subtle, half-joking way of pointing out to her that she really should be quiet. It did the job.
At the platform we arrived just in time to see two female orangs swinging down on the vines with their infants clutched to them. A magical sight. They seemed to be quite interested in communicating with each other, making eye contact, getting close and even admiring each other’s babies. The tiny ones, as you can imagine, were breathtakingly cute. Then another orang arrived. One of the guides explained that this was the local male who’d fathered the infants. Apparently there was an alpha male, but he was often away from the area for months at a time, leaving this little guy to get on with his role as superstud. He simply swung down onto the platform and completely ignored the others, happy to sit there for some time just stuffing bananas into his face. It was one of those occasions where I wished I had a super hi-tech camera with a massive zoom rather than my fifty quid jobbie from Argos.
Back at Uncle Tan’s, the Aussie finally sorted out her trip and left. Then they started rounding us up for the Jungle Tour. At this point, rather exhausted with all the heat and humidity, I convinced myself that I wasn’t up for it. I happily watched the young, superfit crowd drive off in the van and decided that if I wasn’t in the mood for it the next day, I simply wouldln’t go.
The very next morning I was having my breakfast when a Finnish couple asked if they could join me. Very pleasant, intelligent people, mid-thirties, not too fit, open and friendly. This was more like it. They too were booked for the jungle trek, so I thought, what the heck, just go for it.
By the time we were ready to leave, others had joined us. It was looking good. Hayley and Dan, she a doctor (nearly 30) and he an engineer; both looked reassuringly pasty and British. Of course, we weren’t getting off that lightly; another lone traveller also joined us – Tim, a New Zealander of 25. With his giant build and Viking looks he would have got the job of Thor himself, no problem. From his very expensive looking travel gear and gadgets I could tell here was a man who meant business.
It took about three hours to get to our jungle base camp which was perched by the river in the heart of the Kinabatangan jungle. After a minibus ride, we had to take a motorised longboat downriver. Getting onto this posed a problem as there’d been bad flooding earlier in the week and we had to walk along muddy planks to get onto the boat (whilst wearing backpack!). However, I managed this just fine. Whilst my energy levels are suspect, one thing I do have is good balance. It seemed to go down well with the group, who’d probably expected me to either burst into tears or fall in the river.
They’d made it clear to us that where we’d be staying would be very spartan. For sleeping there were six mattresses with mosquito nets in a stilted hut with only three walls. The only water for washing and loo was brown river water. Electricity was generated at night for only three hours. Mosquitoes were rife, as were various forms of wildlife.
The itinerary was as follows:
First night – a one hour boat ride in the dark with the guide highlighting wildlife with a flashlight.
Second Day: morning – up at six for a two hour boat tour. Back for breakfast then off for a two hour trek into the jungle. Back for lunch, then an optional fishing trip. At five, a one hour dusk boat ride. Back for supper and then out again for a one hour night trek in the jungle.
Third Day: same thing all over again, but you could leave at midday if you wanted to.
Yep – that’s what little old me managed to do in the end. And, guess what? The only time it was really difficult for me was in the daytime jungle trek when we took a track leading uphill and my lungs threatend to collapse. They were all very nice about it and waited for me without making me feel like a drip. Indeed, at some point I picked up on the fact that Tim (the young ‘Thor’, who probably thought of his mum whenever he looked at me) was being rather protective towards me.
So what did we see? < Well, in no particular order, we saw the following in the wild: hornbills, kingfishers, a python (!), several different types of monkeys, including the rather revolting looking Proboscis Monkey, which is eerily like a caricature of an alcoholic old human, with its pot belly, skinny arms and legs, and dangling red nose. We also saw lots of different types of spiders and creepy crawlies, a baby crocodile and, for my money the best sighting, a gorgeous thing called a 'mouse deer', which was a small deer with a pointy face like a mouse. Remarkably, the guide saw it in the night jungle through several layers of foliage. It wasn't too scared and when we stayed dead still it popped its head through and we got a good look at it. All the others had very powerful torches and superior cameras. I couldn't get any shots at night with my tacky camera from Argos, and as for my torch: well, I don't know now how I could be so stupid, but I was actually trying to plod through the jungle using my clip-on Kindle reading light! Not very effective, as you can imagine.
Two things I’ll always remember from the night trek in the jungle: one was the way in which the guide could spot things so far away which to our eyes would be so camouflaged as to be totally imperceptible. Twice he found these stunning little birds sleeping under a leaf on an eye-level branch. They were like miniature kingfishers with incredibly electric colours and very fluffy feathers, their little coral beaks poking out comically. We all agreed that they actually looked slightly unreal and could have come from the shop window of some Chinese fancy goods shop.
The other thing I remember is the way in which the guide got very frustrated if he wasn’t finding something for us to look at at least every two minutes. After we’d seen the mouse deer, quite a long time elapsed where there was nothing to see. The jungle floor was incredibly muddy in places. We all wore Wellie boots which were on hire from the camp, and it’s a good job we did as the mud sometimes came almost to the top of the boot. After plodding exhaustedly through the mud we suddenly heard the guide cry out: Quick! Over here! We plopped and stumbled to where he was leaning over, shining his torch onto something at the base of a tree. He was very excited. As we reached him and crouched forward we could see it was…..a frog. Just that. The sort of frog you might see in your garden pond any day of the week. Same size. Same colour. And yet, because no-one wanted to let the guide down in his enthusiasm, everyone with a decent camera reached in to get a shot of this thing. Three of the cameras were only inches from it, flashing and whirring away like paprazzi from ‘Hello’ magazine. The poor old frog just sat there frozen (stiff with fear, no doubt). It was a comical sight to me and I think more photos were taken of that boring little frog than of anything else we saw in the three days.
And one final wonderful sighting, just for me: when everyone had gone off to bed after the incredibly tiring day, I stayed in the bar just nursing my beer and letting it all sink in. Suddenly something appeared in the corner of my eye. It was a civet. It was about twice the size of a domestic cat, its pelt was a gorgeous mottled black and cream and its face looked like a cross between a cat’s and a dog’s. I’m told they are in the same family as the mongoose. Well, this fine creature was only a couple of metres from me, poking his nose into the rubbish bin. He saw me and backed off, but I remained totally still so he returned. We even made eye contact. My favourite jungle sighting ever.
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