The next part of my journey began with some sun peeking out of the clouds...so on the drive back to Lahad Datu, I actually saw more monkeys than I did my 2 nights in the rainforest. Funny how life works! I wished I could sit and watch them for a bit, but my schedule to get to the next location was very tight. I had another driver waiting in Lahad Datu to drive me another 1.5 hours or so (this time on paved roads) to a boat jetty. This drive wasn't supposed to be scenic, but it turned out to be fascinating (and I don't mean that in a very positive way). Once outside the city, I started seeing palm plantations...and as the drive continued, that was pretty much all you could see in any direction. We passed huge trucks full of palm fruit headed for processing and small kids running with baskets trying to pick up what had fallen off. This industry has consumed large parts of Borneo. After asking some questions, I learned that most palm trees bear fruit for between 15 and 25 years and then they are clear cut and often burned to the ground only to be replanted with another palm tree to continue to cycle. To see the clear cut plantations were sad...nothing but burned out stumps well into the distance. I had heard the river valley where I was headed was full of wildlife which on first glance sounded amazing, but then I learned why---essentially all of the habitat in the surrounding areas was gone. There are laws about having a buffer zone between industry (the plantations) and native forest to allow for some transition for the wildlife and people. I learned that in practice, that is not the case. I was truly stunned to see the scope of the palm plantations. They were not spread out in between towns or just every so often...on this drive they were everywhere.
Not to be depressing....as I'm sure most of you are reading this to hear about the Orangutans...but this is the backdrop of this experience. Once I arrived at the river jetty--I was a mere 10 minutes ahead of the scheduled 1:30pm departure to the resort (the only one of the day) and was surprised to learned that there were no other guests at the resort. I had a private everything! We headed off for the 1.5 hour boat ride to the resort. I sort of questioned the craziness of the commute, but once I saw how remote I was, it was completely worth it!
The Kinabatangan River is the second longest in Malaysia and is the water is a beautiful shade of chocolate. Since it was just us, the guide stopped and showed me lots along the way. I saw a slumbering crocodile along the bank---a good 3 or 4 feet long---and after the guide said "oh, he is asleep after a big meal and is lazy"---the croc decided to jump up and leap into the water. We were probably 20 feet away and in a boat, but that splash made me jump :) We saw lots of birds--including eagles---and then the guide found an Orangutan. The photo is above. Can you find him in the tree??? Hint, he is towards the middle of the photo on a branch to the right of the trunk. To be honest, I was excited and yes it was an Orangutan in the wild....but I also thought really, is this as close as I'm going to get?? Expectations can be a trip killer and I had in my head that I would be able see Orangutans closer in. With binoculars I did see some definition...at least enough to know that I was looking at an Orangutan. The places we stayed did a good job of explaining that wildlife in a rainforest environment is much more difficult to see as part of a safari....as opposed to the wildlife safaris in Africa. The environment is completely different and even if guides tried to know the routines of each primate, the jungle offer millions of places to find cover. Lions and Leopards just don't have as much room to ride....and travel on the ground and not up in trees, so this is the nature of the experience.
Well, while everything I just wrote it true....I got lucky :) In the afternoon and morning boat rides, I saw so much! I was grateful to be able to see the rare sight of an Orangutan sitting on land (as opposed to sitting in a tree) and so, so many Proboscis monkeys (found only in Borneo) along with several other kinds of primates, trees that had spikes along the bark as a defensive mechanism, snakes, birds, monitor lizards.....and the list goes on and on. To be on their turf and just observe gave me chills on more than one occasion. I was a guest in their world and it felt very primitive....like I had gone back in time. Well, until other guests joined me on Day 2 and took cell phones photos of everything we saw. That pushed me right into the 21st century!
We had a guided night walk along the boardwalks of the resort and saw animals I had never even heard of like a mouse deer and some kind of huge scorpion who THANKFULLY keep hiding from us!. The other night it was a night boat ride and we went to a section of the riverbank that has a special kind of tree that attracts fireflies. If you are like me, you are thinking of the lighting bug type of fireflies...flashing neon green in the back yard. Well, these fireflies are the size of ants and congregate in this type of tree and communicate with light. It looks like someone hung Christmas tree lights...it is crazy! The guide pointed the flashlight towards the tree and it was an instant reaction of a million bright lights. They were trying to figure out who was trying to chat with them. What a cool, unexpected surprise!
The journey to leave the resort was also 1.5 hours, but I was headed to a new place. I decided to add on a visit to the world famous Orangutan rescue center and nursery in Sepilok---just in case I didn't see an Orangutan in the wild. More on that and the rest of my trip in the next installment....
Tracey is the owner of Unraveled Travel and has traveled to every continent except Antarctica.