Sepilok feeding time

Sabah safaris

Wildlife was what most drew us to Sabah, one of two Malaysian states on the island of Borneo, during our March 2014 tour. Upon reaching the Kinabatangan River on a Sunday afternoon, we negotiated a downward sloping gangplank and climbed into a motorboat for a five-minute trip downstream and across to the Bilit Rainforest Lodge. The Bilit is one of several safari launch sites on the Kinabatangan, which flows through the rain forest on its way to the northeast Bornean coast to empty into the Sulu Sea.

View from our lodge
Bilit Rainforest Lodge
We were delighted to find that the lodges had been air-conditioned since the the guidebooks and websites were written. Advised upon arrival to hasten back to the open-air reception/eating area for tea — some Colonial era customs prevail even in the jungle — we joined a Los Angeles man who creates film trailers and two UK women on holiday. A staff member introduced us to another visitor, a small bronze snake, and encouraged us to touch its beautiful skin. After tea long-tailed macaques made known their presence in trees and on roof-tops. Between tea time and dinner we walked the boardwalk connecting the public area, lodges, and a jungle trail; tried out our lodge porch hammocks; and I settled in one of the rattan chairs to write, although flies were bothersome.

Colorful Bornean kingfisher
Stork-Billed Kingfisher

Immediately after 7:30 pm dinner (which included large local river prawns), we set off in the dark for our first river cruise with guide Paul. The “captain” (boatman) used a “torch” (flashlight) and very sharp eyes to spot wildlife, then pulled the boat in close so Jay could take photos. It was a thrilling ninety minutes as we spotted a night heron, Buffy Fish Owl, Flying Fox (actually a large bat), a macaque trying to sleep, and two snoozing Stork-billed Kingfishers. That largest species of Bornean kingfisher is gorgeous in yellow breast, blue back, and rosy bill. More menacing were the eyes of a crocodile, a Racer snake on a limb extending over the boat, and a Reticulated Python that got irritated by the light and proximity of our boat. It was going on 10 pm by the time we returned to the Bilit dock, too excited to immediately shower off mosquito repellant and go to bed.

Morning on the Kinabatangan
Misty Monday Sunrise
During the night we both awoke several times to the sound of macaques on the roof. When the alarm awoke us at 6 am, we slathered on sunscreen and insect repellant, dressed, and were at the reception area in fifteen minutes. After downing only a protein bar and anti-malarial pill with Sabah tea, we set out on the misty river just after sunrise with guide and captain.

During the 2 1/2 hr cruise we saw a wild orang utan (literally “people of the jungle”) high in a tall tree doing what orang utan do most of the day: create leaf nests in one tree after another. The rest of the time they eat figs and other fruits. Proboscis monkeys showed themselves, as did more macaques.

Hornbill on the Kinabatangan River
Oriental Pied Hornbill

Kinabatangan River
Oxbow Lake inlet

We also glimpsed a crocodile and saw many birds including two kinds of hornbills, two Crested Serpent Eagles, a pair of Storm Storks, a Green Imperial Pigeon, egrets, three Greater Coucouls (usually very difficult to sight), and Oriental Darter birds. Low tide kept us from proceeding through Oxbow Lake so we had to turn around.

Back to the Bilit there was just enough non-Western breakfast buffet left for those of us on safari, although the roti was a bit tough by then. Our guide let us rest a bit before linking us with a young couple from Leeds, Jordan from LA, and their guide to walk to adjoining property for a home visit. Oreng Sungei (river people) are another of Sabah’s four ethnic groups. All removed shoes to show respect and entered a very large front room. At a low table surrounded by upholstered seating, the women served “tea,” which was sweet coffee with steamed banana leaf-wrapped tapioca and deep-fried tapioca. After eating we were shown the equally large kitchen where food preparation, laundry, and other household tasks are done. Bedrooms were behind closed doors to one side of the main room. As with the Dusun preference for longhouses, Oreng Sungei seem to prefer dwellings that can be expanded to accommodate the next generation as daughters marry. Our young male guides pointed out that advantage over “modern” single-family houses we saw somewhere along the highway.

Oreng Sungai home
Tea time

Our final cruise, late in the afternoon, was best of all. Not far down the river we had the rare good fortune to catch sight of a mated pair of orang utang high in a tree. Further on were a large family of proboscis monkeys in the trees–an alpha male, perhaps a dozen mates, and their young.

Bornean monkey
Proboscis Monkey
Suddenly even guide Paul’s excitement rose when I spotted a Bornean Pygmy elephant on the bank, apparently the last of a herd that had swum across the river. The elephant was not happy to see us and disappeared into the bush before any other boats, alert to our movements, could arrive. Paul, who is on the river many times per week, said it was only the second elephant he’d seen that year; some years he sees none. During the rest of the two-hour cruise we saw a Water Monitor lizard, another Oriental Darter, a pair of Oriental Honey Buzzards, a Blue-eared Kingfisher (the smallest Bornean kingfisher) that posed nicely before flashing his iridescent blue back in flight, and lots of playful macaques. Dubbed “cheeky monkeys,” long-taled macaques are bold and team up to take anything and everything that’s left lying around.
Eyeing boaters
Water Monitor Lizard

Smallest Bornean kingfisher
Blue Eared Kingfisher
Rare elephant at Kinabatangan River
Bornean Pygmy Elephant

Only seven travelers and three guides were left at the Bilit Rainforest Lodge for dinner. We ate together–one of many delicious Malaysian meals I’ll describe in another blog–and sat talking for another hour. Returning to our room Jay and I found not only the 7” or 8” gecko who had moved in that day–now on the wall at my side of the bed–but also ants massing on a plastered wall. A staffer directed us to move with only valuables to the VIP cottage two doors down. There we fell asleep on a bed with a partial canopy of mosquito netting.

The next morning staff found an ant “castle” under our bungalow after we had packed and toted our luggage down the boardwalk in time for breakfast. We boated across the river and boarded a van for the trip to the Gomantong Caves. On the way we stopped to photograph Maroon Langurs (Maroon Leaf Monkeys) swinging in the trees. While Jay photographed langurs, I spotted a Rhinoceros Hornbill after hearing its loud call several times.

Upon arrival at the Gomantong Caves we donned plastic helmets and hiked a short way through jungle to the cave opening. A Chinese family has long owned the caves, hiring multiple generations of a local Malay family to gather the nests of White-nest (Edible-nest) swiftlets. Coveted by the Chinese for birds’ nest soup, scientists have never verified the nests’ purported health benefits despite their expense. The stench was repulsive only at the approach. The sight inside the cavernous room was simultaneously impressive and disgusting: swiftlets and bats overhead, dung and reddish-brown cockroaches underfoot.

Mama & baby
Orang utan mama

From the cave we went on to the Sepilok Orang Utan Sanctuary where we had a close encounter with an orang utan on a boardwalk. At the feeding station we watched a large male, a big female named Michelle with her infant clinging to her, and several smaller orang utans feast on fruit.

That night we stayed in a Sandakan hotel with lush grounds, but biting insects and high heat and humidity limited exploration. Our bed was typical for Malaysian hotels, with only a duvet and no top sheet. By then Jay had figured out how to bunch the duvet so that we could sleep with just the sheet-weight cover over us rather than the too-warm duvet. Next morning after breakfast, we left our suitcases with the bellman and found new guide Lawrence and yesterday’s driver in front of the open-air lobby for a ride to the jetty. After 45 minutes observing wharf life–fishing boats offloading small catch which are turned into chicken feed and fertilizer, passing Philippine traders’ boats, and arriving Turtle Islands Park passengers–we boarded a partially covered speedboat with eight other international travelers and two guides. The first quarter of our 55-minute ride over the Sulu Sea was pleasant but after that, swells made it feel a bit like a roller coaster. The speedboat beached on Pulau Seligaan sand and we toted our bags up to our spartan room–twin beds with a low table between, two towels, soap, toilet paper, and two bottles of water–no chair, hooks, or shower curtain. Air conditioning is the only frill when you go to see sea turtles.

Nesting Sea Turtle
Green turtle laying eggs
Seligaan Island doesn’t take much time to circumnavigate. In the afternoon we changed to swim suits and walked in the water along the beach where enthusiastic first-time snorkelers urged me to use their gear, showed me sea cucumbers, and guided me to where I could see a few brightly colored fish. It was nothing like the Florida Keys but fun never-the-less. Following our guide’s advice we rested awhile before reporting to the dining room at 6 pm to await turtle arrival while supping, learning history, and chatting. At 8:45 pm the “Turtle time!” cry went up and all scrambled for shoes, “torches” and a ranger’s trail to the right spot on the beach. Over the next hour we watched a Green turtle lay about 125 eggs while a ranger transferred them from the egg chamber to a bucket, saw the ranger place the eggs in an already-prepared sand hole in the nursery, and watched another ranger release fifteen just-hatched turtles on the beach. Then we went to bed. According the rangers in the morning, seven turtles landed but only three nested.

Before 7 am we were back on the boat speeding to the Sandakan jetty, and well before noon we had reclaimed our luggage and arrived at the open-air, sweltering airport. After a four-hour wait we boarded a flight to Kuala Lumpur, now shrouded in smoke from drought-related fires. At the Anggun Boutique Hotel the desk clerk welcomed us with “I’ve been waiting for you.” It was 8 pm when we had regained enough energy to walk over to Jalan Alor and past all the food stalls, deciding to repeat our first night’s traditional meal of Clay Pot chicken and rice. The next day we flew home in complete agreement that our 45th wedding anniversary trip had been wonderfully enriching. We were carrying the friendly people in our hearts, amazing sights and experiences in our memories, and more than 1500 photos to inspire our glass work, writing, and speaking for a long time to come.

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