The twin Yamaha 150 horsepower engines gurgled and spluttered to life, as the boat chugged away from the Sandakan dock on the emerald island of Borneo. The Captain leant on the throttle, sending us roaring across Sandakan bay. The nose of the boat was pointed towards one of the richest ecosystems on the planet – the Kinabatangan River.
Excitement was rising as we entered the estuary and snaked our way through the valley. I was already alert to every movement as my eyes scanned for critters in the air, the trees, and on the river bank. Two and a half hours had passed when the boat glided to a halt against the dock of Sukau Rainforest Lodge. A much needed welcome drink was served, but the real welcome was the sight of a troupe of Silvery langurs feeding in the canopy above the boardwalk. An immediate immersion into nature and a teaser for what was to come.
Wildlife was abundant around the boardwalks of the jungle lodge. Langurs were plunging through the foliage and hornbills chattered behind my hut. A closer look at the old tree trunks brought a tiny Black-bearded Flying Lizard into focus. The mottled green back of the little dragon was melting into the lichen on the gnarled bark.
I wandered to a small dipping pool to seek relief from the heat and humidity of the day. I put my bag on a chair and turned to find that in that same moment the most beautiful Paradise Tree Snake that I had ever seen had landed on the pool deck behind me. It reared up cobra style, but this danger noodle was missing the cobra’s venom. I grabbed my camera, laid on the floor in front of her. She allowed me to make a couple of shots before she slithered between the planks of the deck in search of a gecko lunch.
An early night was in order as the boat for the river safari was scheduled to depart the dock at 6 am. Nevertheless, I couldn’t resist a torchlit night walk along the boardwalk, in search of the things that go croak in the night. A large praying mantis revved my heart rate when it landed on my back.
The weather had been dry, so I could hear frogs but couldn’t find them. Finally, my torch landed on a tiny Harlequin Flying Frog; my first ever flying frog sighting! It looked like it was poised to hop away, so I dropped to the deck and laying flat, I hung half of my body over the boardwalk, squeezed between the deck and the bottom rail. With arms outstretched, I could just get close enough to make the photograph that I wanted. This little orange frog usually lives in the canopy, where the webbing between the toes helps it glide between the trees. Their foot-wings are a remarkable evolution that recognises flight as more useful than swimming in their treetop habitat
With Civet cats tap dancing me to sleep on the roof of my hut, camouflaged colugos on the tree trunks, and squabbling squirrels leaping from branch to branch, I already felt bathed in nature. The real excitement was for the morning river safari to come. The alarm clock rattled me out of bed and sent me bouncing down to the dock, where I climbed into the waiting boat. The boat set a drift from the dock and purred into the morning mist.
The morning started with an early sighting! Before I had time to rub the sleep from my eyes I was gazing up at one of Borneo’s endemics – the Proboscis monkeys. These iconic long-nosed strawberry blondes were in the high branches, catching the warmth of the rising sun. They sat in groups, like some strange fruits, as they filled their rounded bellies. With only a passing interest in our small boat bobbing on the river below, they continued the serious business of munching leaf after leaf.
The Proboscis monkey is a large monkey, with mature males weighing in at up to a massive 30 Kg. This size combined with their comical faces, combed hair and orange colouration makes them a source of fascination and one of the must-see Borneo species.
After the first encounter the Captain turned the boat into a small feeder tributary. It is in these narrow channels where close encounters with wildlife can occur, and this started with more monkeys. We drifted through the watchful stares of some of Asia’s more easily spotted primates – the noisy and boisterous macaques. First the large families of Long-tailed macaques and later the large, muscular Pig-tailed macaques.
Having passed by the macaques we were back in Proboscis monkey territory. I don’t think I’m being unfair in saying that the large rotund Proboscis monkey does not give the impression of being a natural athlete. Despite their size and shape, there are few creatures in the jungle that have mastered the navigation of the arboreal and river habitat. The colony goes from chewing leaves to sudden explosions of energy as they fly through the air from tree to tree in a chase, and make huge vertical plunges to demonstrate bravery and fitness. In addition to their jumping and plunging abilities, the Proboscis monkey is a highly proficient swimmer, often plunging into the river to cross the smaller tributaries. This is when the monkey is at its most vulnerable. The Kinabatangan River is home to a large population of hungry Saltwater Crocodiles. These huge reptiles have learnt to wait patiently for the monkeys to enter the water.
Stretches of the Kinabatangan are walled by towering limestone cliffs that plunge down into the river water. The captain guided the boat alongside the cliff. It wasn’t immediately clear that this sheer rock face would be a wildlife habitat, but as we pulled alongside and peered into an opening in the rock, a miracle was revealed. The wondrous sight of about a hundred tiny nest cups, each containing its own tiny little oil-slick black bird. This was a colony of Mossy-nest swiftlets.
The little brown cups do not look particularly appetising, but the structures made of swiftlet spit, spiders and brown river water are an ingredient of the highly prized bird nest soup. That said, the mossy nests are not the preferred source, as the Edible-nest swiftlet and the Black-nest swiftlet provide the nests of choice.
Across the river, on the opposite bank, a large fruiting tree was hosting a family of Oriental Pied hornbills. The branches were bending under the weight of hungry hornbills. I counted 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8 as one by one they launched themselves from the tree, crossing the river. Last to leave was the adult male with his magnificent casque glowing in the morning sunshine. He tossed down a couple more fruits before gliding over the boat in pursuit of his family.
As the sun heats up the day, the creatures of the early morning disappear into the shade of the jungle. There is one sun worshiper that can still be found in the heat of the day. Silt builds up on the inside bends of the river, and these mudflats are the perfect loungers for the Kinabatangan’s apex predator, and the planet’s largest living reptile species – the Saltwater crocodile. We cautiously approached a large animal with a barrel belly. I wondered what was inside that barrel. Perhaps a large monkey or a small deer. The croc had no intention of moving as it soaked up the sun while it digested breakfast. It opened its murderous jaws, showing off a full set of stalactite teeth. Whatever it had eaten must have had no chance of escaping that toothy snare.
Day turned into night, and supper was consumed to a cicada serenade. A post-supper night cruise was arranged. The wild night boat set off at 8pm. The star spangled sky was already that shade of black that can only be found in places many miles from the light pollution of the city. The captain shone his light towards the mud at the end of the dock. Immediately, two pea-sized golden headlights beamed back at us, followed by the toothy smile of a pint-sized predator. The baby crocodile allowed itself to sink out of sight beneath the soupy brown water.
The spotlight moved up, and this time two canary yellow orbs turned to face us. They belonged to a magnificent Buffy Fish owl. This charismatic bird showed no concern at our presence. A regular at this dock, he was more interested in the fish circling below than the clicking camera from swooning human. The owl studied the water with his buff furrowed brow, but no supper arrived.
The boat engine hummed and we drifted away from our beautiful owl. For the next hour I enjoyed a drift alongside reed beds and overhanging bushes. The fruiting trees played host to civets and flying foxes while the low branches were decorated with kingfishers.
A tiny Blue-eared Kingfisher lit up in the amber light. No bigger than a hen’s egg, this vibrant jewel was a female. The males have dark bills while the females look stunning with their matching scarlet bill and stockings.
The next find was the mighty Stork-billed kingfisher. This is a big bird at around 35 cm (14 inches), with a personality to match. When the light bounced back from this avian rainbow I gasped. If the melting blues, greens and ambers were not enough, the Stork-bill, like a bloodstained dagger, was a magnificent sight. It is hard to imagine why this species of kingfisher needs such a huge and ornate bill for its diet of fish, frogs and other river morsels.
The night safari was coming to an end but there was just enough time for one more surprise. The light danced across the overhanging bushes causing something to catch the captain’s eye. The boat engine was cut and the little tub drifted under branches so low that we had to duck down in the boat. Our eyes were greeted by a wondrous sight. A little huddle of Black-and-red broadbills dressed in scarlet with emerald eyes, and a wedge bill of yellows and turquoise were looking back at us. My first time seeing this impossible colourful species.
Several boat safaris had passed, but no sign of the star of the show. The wild Orangutans had remained entirely invisible. That’s the way it goes with wildlife; sometimes you see amazing things but sometimes you see nothing. Another apeless morning cruise had come to an end, but suddenly there was excitement in the camp! There had been a fleeting glimpse of an orangutan passing though the canopy above the camp. All eyes were pointing upwards but nothing was moving.
About fifteen neck aching minutes had passed when it happened. Maybe there was movement or maybe it was a shift in the sunlight, but suddenly a large patch of warm rust appeared in the green leaves. A large adult female orangutan was above the camp, feasting in a fruiting fig tree.
This was not my first wild orangutan. I had seen a male and female back in 2009, on a previous visit to the Kinabatangan, but the same feeling was there. It is indescribable to stand in front of a legendary creature, so elusive, in such peril. These are animals that are so much like us humans, only a better, kinder version.
Higher up in the canopy there was another movement in the dense foliage. The sunshine lit up a tiny red bottom, as a baby orangutan appeared and disappeared too quickly for me to capture photographic evidence. The proud mother had her little one following close behind. The whole encounter only lasted a few moments, but it was a few moments that everyone present would remember for the rest of our lives.
The following afternoon we set off on our final nature cruise of the trip. With no other local Orangutan sightings, the captain set the boat on a course for a tributary that was some distance downstream. We roared passed hornbills, langurs and Proboscis monkeys in our search for a final glimpse of the great red ape.
The light was dying when we turned into the narrow tributary. The engine was tilted out of the water and replaced with the electric motor for silent running. We trundled beneath a group of Long-tailed macaques that were picking juicy tidbits from a raft of water hyacinth. A little further up stream the boat came nose to nose with 3 metres of Saltwater crocodile. The huge reptile drifted log-like towards us before allowing himself to sink submarine style as it passed under the boat.
A few moments later the boat was buzzing like a beehive. Finally, a great ape had been spotted. There in the twilight was a large female orangutan with the unmistakable glow of her bright orange baby with her. What a moment of joy!
As we watched, mother made her way down the trunk and waited for baby to follow. The little one got the message and started shuffling down an angled branch like a child sliding down a banister. Baby came to a spot where her mother sat a few meters below.
Mother Orangutan tried to encourage baby down the tree. Perhaps she misjudged the little one’s arm length or perhaps she was training her to be brave and make good decisions. At one point baby found herself stuck upside down in a star shape while mum watched on. We were willing the baby on, cheering her in whispered tones.
Eventually it was mum to the rescue as she found an easier, safer route down for her little one. The two disappeared into some dense foliage. I thought that would be the final sight of them, but a few moments later a curious little face appeared for just a few seconds to take a last look at us before vanishing again.
It was a fantastic end to the trip, but there was just enough time for a final look around after dark. The wise old Buffy fish owl sat silently on its post at the dock, quietly watching over its wonderful world of wildlife.
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