Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Animal Magic

Borneo's lush rainforest is one of its main draws and we were eager to sample it after arriving in Sabah (the Eastern side of Malaysian Borneo) for our Easter break. After touching down in Kota Kinabalu (KK), the province's capital, we headed straight to the Kinabatangan River to sample the natural wonders this incredible part of the world had to offer.

To get there required a bus, van and boat journey of epic proportions. We took the 9am bus but it was beset with problems, culminating in it breaking down for about 2 hours which wasn't so fun in the baking heat. It was still better than taking an Arriva bus in the UK though.

Once we finally got moving, we jumped off at Sukau junction about 7 hours later where we were met by a disgruntled van driver who had been waiting for us for a very long time. He drove us to the rainforest from where we hopped on a boat to get to Osman's place, our quaint home for the next 2 nights.

Osman was a great host and I'd absolutely recommend him for a Kinabantagan tour. He's friendly, funny and knows his stuff (having toured David Attenborough around no less) and is much cheaper than the other tours in the area. Osman is an incredibly warm man with a big, booming laugh and a gazillion outlandish stories to tell. He speaks with such conviction when he tells them that it's almost impossible to tell whether they're fact or fiction. Certainly, be prepared to hear a lot about the sex habits of various jungle dwellers, himself included.

What sets Osman way above the others is his ability to find nature amongst the vast rainforest. From our boat, he was able to spot animals I never would have seen in a million years. On our first morning cruise alone, we spotted proboscis monkeys, macaques, rhinoceros hornbills, a snake (hovering precariously above the boat on a branch) and an insane number of elephants. Apparently the elephants don't normally hang out so close to the water so early in the morning so we got really lucky. I was like an 8 year old when one of the elephants let out a distinctive hoot from its trunk. It was very, very exciting.
It was a complete privilege to see these animals in their own territory where they are most comfortable. I'd seen more exotic wild animals than ever before in my life and I hadn't even had breakfast yet. What a start to the day!
There was a more tragic undercurrent to this sighting though since Osman told us 10 years ago, you'd be lucky to see one elephant eating by the river. Deforestation and the construction of palm oil sites has shrunk the rainforest drastically and forced the elephants to the river. Borneo's rainforest is one of the most incredible natural wonders in Asia and, through greed and power, humans are steadily destroying it. Hopefully there will be a U-turn soon. This jungle is too precious to waste.
The morning tour was one of three we took that day, with an afternoon boat cruise that saw us come face to face with dozens of elephants, more bizarre proboscis monkeys and an orangutan sighting that was akin to playing 'Where's Wally?'. After heading back to Osman's to dinner, we then ventured out for the night safari. I was a little sceptical about this - how much would we really be able to see in the pitch darkness?
I was immediately proved wrong in what was probably my favourite experience of the whole trip. The jungle takes on a completely different hue at night. The fantastic thing about the night trip was that we were practically the only boat on the river so the jungle was giving us a personal show.
Osman was adamant he'd be able to catch us a crocodile and he didn't disappoint. The trick is, he explained, to go for the back of the head since this prevents them snapping at you. Unfortunately, he mistimed his catch and got the tail meaning he had to ham-fistedly release the (admittedly small) crocodile into the boat. This obviously prompted much hysterical screaming and jumping up from our party though things eventually calmed down and we all got a go holding the crocodile before returning it to its home which was fun.
We found several more crocs, each increasing alarmingly in size, but our safari wasn't just limited to reptiles. Osman's insanely good vision found us owls, flying foxes, some sleeping kingfishers and a civet cat, best known for its role in Vietnam's renowned 'weasel coffee'. This was extraordinary since I'd never even seen most of these creatures before, let alone got up close to them. The night setting made us feel more like explorers, as if we were stumbling across things nobody had ever found before. It wasn't true of course but, as mentioned earlier, there was something so childlike about us sitting in that boat with no idea of what incredible species we were going to stumble across next.

It's a trek to get to but if you do one thing in Sabah, please do this. I've run out of adjectives to describe how good it was. There is not a single sanctuary or zoo I have visited that can compare even in the slightest to seeing these animals in the jungle where they belong. In fact, I daresay I won't visit such a place again. Because it doesn't matter where I go - the greatest zoo on earth or the best sanctuary on TripAdvisor - nothing will get my spine tingling quite like the wonders of the Borneo jungle.

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