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....
I'm not a huge "bucket list" type of traveler...running around trying to tick something off a list isn't typically my style. However, I think we all have bucket list or dream trips....and Borneo has been one of mine for many years. If you are like some of my friends, you may not even know where Borneo is :) Borneo is an tri-country island in Southeast Asia--part of the island is Malaysia, part Indonesia and part Brunei. I visited the Malaysian part and spent time in the Sabah region.
I have so much to share from this trip that I've decided to break it up into sections. This part will be about my first destination (I flew into Kota Kinabalu the night before...the main city of Sabah, but only slept a few hours before heading out). I flew into Lahad Datu and began the 2.5 to 3 hour drive into the rainforest of the Danum Valley. Let me go back a bit---the reason this was a dream trip of mine is that I love animals and support efforts to keep them safe in their natural habitat. Orangutans are only found in the wild of Borneo and their numbers have been dwindling in the past few decades because of habitat destruction. One of the main economic activities for people living in Borneo is palm oil production. Primary rainforest (the home terrain for Orangutans....and other creatures) is torn down to build palm oil plantations. Those plantations are just as they sound---mass planting of palm trees designed for maximum output of the part of the tree used to make palm oil. The few remaining areas of wild forest--especially primary forest (meaning it has never been torn down)--are now areas for eco-tourism. Me (and my money) came to these areas in the hopes of seeing Orangutans in the wild.
Back to the journey---the drive from Lahad Datu is mostly on unpaved roads. With each minute that passed, I felt like I was going deeper and deeper into another world. Most of the drive is in what is called secondary forest---forests that have been replanted in the hopes that the eco system (and all its critters) will return to what it was years ago. The rainforest grows fairly quickly, but you can tell secondary from primary.
I stayed at Borneo Rainforest Lodge--a leader in the eco-tourism market of Borneo. I knew it was exceptional because of its location, but I had no real idea what the lodge would look like as the website is out of date. I didn't care---I was going for the wildlife and if I was in rustic accommodations, no big deal. Well, was I in for a pleasant surprise! We arrived around 10am and were greeted by a team of staff---fresh drinks and fruit and taken directly to our gorgeous room. The rooms were recently upgraded and looked to be out of a design magazine. One wall is all windows overlooking the Danum river....there is also a balcony with a plunge pool and an indoor/outdoor shower. I was completely immersed in the rain forest and the design was very sensitive to the unique location, but it is 5 stars all the way.
I visited in the shoulder season---a time when the weather is pretty good and the crowds are less. The resort can hold more than 80 people in the 30 chalets, but there were just 6 people when I was there. There were many more staff than guests and my experience was phenomenal! The food was excellent (buffet and food stations to order al la minute) and there was lots of variety. I had my own guide for excursions and they were scheduled at 3 per day-- morning walk after breakfast, one in the afternoon and one in the evening.
I knew there were leeches in the rainforest. I have had leeches on me before (in India) and while I wasn't looking forward to having another get attached to me, it was the price to pay to be in the rainforest. The resort sold leech socks and I knew they would know better what I would need than me trying to order in advance from the States (what do leech socks even look like, right??). I got a quick lesson from my guide and proceeded to get prepared for our afternoon walk.
The quick overview is that leech socks look sort of like a Christmas stocking....larger than normal socks. You pull them on over your normal socks and pants and cinch the drawstring above your knee (they come in multiple sizes). You then put your shoes on over the leech socks. Wearing leech socks do nothing to deter the leeches from getting on you...but it does add another level of protection from them getting attached to your skin---as some can attach to you through a layer of fabric.
All dressed and ready to go, we headed out into the forest. There were all sorts of sounds--of birds, frogs, insects and occasionally monkeys. We got about 10 minutes of dry weather before the rain started falling....and it poured. It was still fun to explore, because it is a rainforest and it rains....sort of adds to the atmosphere. We saw lots of little critters and smelled some Orangutan (think monkey house mixed with a man that needs a shower and wet fur...not exactly a scent I would bottle and sell as perfume!). However, Orangutan....and other primates...don't like rain. They retreat to nests in the trees and cover themselves with leaves. Super camouflaged, you could be right under one and not know it. We were lucky enough to see some very playful red leaf monkeys once the rain calmed down a bit. Photo NOT attached because I had on the wrong lens to get a good photo (good lesson to learn early in a trip!). We headed back to the lodge and the real skill isn't getting dressed to go into the forest....it is trying to get undressed without getting one of the leeches on your skin. They are all over your clothes and you have to slowly pluck them off and make sure nothing is attached. I am not exaggerating when I say it takes about 30 minutes. Once naked, the shower feels great as after every adventure, I was soaking wet and dirty.
It was raining for the night drive, so all we saw was a glimpse of an elephant....who made it known that he was NOT happy to see us! So, the driver decided it was wise to get out of there. The next morning it was raining again but I decided to try the hike with the guide up to the lookout spot. I figured it wouldn't be a view for miles like it can sometimes be, but I wanted to explore. I saw several monkeys on the way up---more red leaf monkeys, Gibbons, and long tailed Macaque, as well as all kinds of insects and bugs. The view from the top made me feel like I was on top of the world....and alone in the world (in a good way!). Very peaceful.
In the afternoon, I tried the canopy walk. It is a great way to get above the rainforest and see things in the trees at eye level. It was dry when I started but after getting to the highest platform and hoping to see some primates.....the skies opened up again. This was not the part of the trip where I would see the Orangutan, but wildlife sightings are never guaranteed and I left the Danum Valley the next morning hoping I would see Orangutan at my next stop (spoiler alert: since I have a photo of Orangutans...you probably know how stop 2 went!). More on that later....
Tracey is the owner of Unraveled Travel and has traveled to every continent except Antarctica.