Kinabatangan Nature Lodge… It’s a Jungle Out There

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A bumpy 3.5 hour bus ride south of Sandakan to Sakau has us arriving at the jetty.  We jump on a boat and cross the river to our camp.  Given a briefing about the very busy upcoming days.  Luckily, they ring a gong before anything significant is about to take place.  All of the cabins are named after birds in the area, we get the Hornbill cabin.  We have already won the cabin lottery, the hornbill is the bird we want to see the most in the wild ever since seeing one at the KL bird park.

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We had 10 minutes to get settled in before the gong rang and it was time for our first excursion.  Our names written on a white board with our guides name, Khairul.  He will be our guide for the next 3 days and 7 tours.

Kinabatangan is home to a lot of wildlife with many different species of birds, monkeys, elephants, cats, and crocodiles.  We are gung ho and excited to see as much as we can.  Within 5 minutes we see movement in the trees.  We can’t see what it is but Khairul insists that it is orang-utans.  I’m not impressed, they are way too far back.  They should be hanging out drinking water and entertaining me, this tour was expensive.  As we continue we see long tailed macaques hanging out in a tree, looking at us like we’re idiots.  We stop and turn down a mangrove where there is a rope running across the river.  It was put there so orang-utans can cross the river since they cannot swim.  It’s empty right now though.  As we go further into the mangrove, we come across proboscis monkeys.  There is a local word for these guys that translates to “Dutch Monkey” because of their pot bellies and fur color resembling the dutch flag.  Our guide tells us that only the males have the big nose and the bigger the nose, the more handsome he is.  Went he pointed this guy out he says “there is a male proboscis monkey… and his red hot chili pepper”
Unfortunately the picture of the big male we saw is quite blurry (stupid new camera)

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As the sun goes down, all of the monkeys come to the edge of the river as that is where they will sleep for the night.  A group of proboscis monkeys are jumping around the trees across the river from each other.  The females watch across the river to see if they can spot a male with a bigger nose than the guy they’re currently with.  Other males, jump around the trees to show off their strength (sounds like going to the gym).  There’s no loyalty in monkey relationships.

Bam!  Out of nowhere someone shouts “hornbill!”  We look and there he is cruising across the river landing in a tree nearby.

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The rhinoceros hornbill is quite cool looking.  With a colorful horn, they usually travel as couples.  Now Kristi insists that her and I are hornbills.  This guy hopped around pecking at the branch trying to find food: tractor millipedes, grubs, beetles, etc.  Check hornbill off the list.  This is a great start.

It seemed like the wildlife just didn’t stop.  We saw more hornbills and macaques, a storm stork, silver leaf monkey, and more proboscis monkeys and their red hot chili peppers.  Kristi took a lot of pictures of monkey genitals.

When we got back it, we had 30 minutes to relax before dinner.  Buffet: Black pepper beef, french fries, rice and some of the most tasty green beans we’ve had since we left on our trip.  The food was cold but the flavors were there.

After dinner we changed into long sleeves and applied more mosquito repellant.  It was recommended by Khairul that we rent boots because the mud would ruin our shoes.  Alright then, we are renting boots.  10rm each for the duration of our stay.

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We are all about style.  We are in a group of 8 plus 2 guides.

Khairul started explaining what we were going to be looking for: sleeping birds, western tarsier, Asian palm civet (the one that helps in making kopi lewak), and the slow loris.  Oh…Emm…Gee… I start praying to the Jungle Gods: if you let me see a slow loris, I promise to name my first child “Loris” and when he/she does something dumb, I will refer to him/her as “Slow Loris”.  Fingers crossed.

Khairul in the lead, all that we saw was one sleeping bird and a frog.  I guess I should have made a better offering or sacrifice. It was mostly just a 45 minute walk through the jungle at night time.  However, it was a good thing that we rented the boots as the mud was shin deep in a few places.  The most entertaining part of the night walk was the cute Dutch girl in front of me who is clearly not a jungle person.  She kept shining her light up which attracted bugs causing her to stop, swat and back up into me about 4-5 times.  Her boyfriend in front of her just continued walking, completely oblivious to her nearly having multiple panic attacks behind him.

We didn’t sleep well at night.  I guess I should mention that our cell phone fell out of my pocket in the lobby of our hotel while we were waiting for the bus to pick us up.  So we didn’t have an alarm clock and we were worried we wouldn’t hear the wake up gong.  I set an alarm on my tablet but wasn’t sure if it would work because I’d never used it before.  Also, the beds here suck.  A thin foam mattress on widely placed slats of wood allowed us to feel everything.  I thought it was just me being sensitive but everyone we spoke to agreed.

5:45am and gonnnngggg.  We brush our teeth and head out to the boat.  One hour morning cruise before breakfast.  We were able to see a few things that we saw the morning before, we spent a good 10 minutes watching a bunch of young macaques play in short trees in games of chicken where they knock each other out of the tree before tackling them on the ground.  We also saw an oriental darter, more commonly known as the snake bird because of its long neck.  On the way back, we start to speed off before jamming on the breaks and circling.  This has to be something good.

It’s a giant male orang-utan.  He’s in the trees right in front of us having a bite to eat.

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In the boat behind us, we can hear the two guides talking to their tourists, “Much congratulations! This is very rare”.  Turns out you don’t normally get to see these guys up close and personal.  Especially a big, dominant male like this guy.  We have been incredibly lucky so far.

Our breakfast was fantastic.  Fried eggs, baked beans, toast and fried noodles.  Still hot this time.  We sat with the Dutch couple and got along immediately.  They were really nice and cool to chat with.

The gong rang and it was jungle trekking time.  3 hour walk through the muddy jungle.  The whole time I was concerned I was going to step in quicksand by accident.  It’s easy to get careless when you’re wearing these huge gumboots.  We hike/walk 90 minutes to a lake with a small jetty (dock).  Here we are shown many small tilapia or “Borneo Piranha” as Khairul called them because you put your hands in the water and they go crazy eating the dead skin off your hands and giving you a free manicure.
I spend some time talking with Khairul and our other guide (whose name I cannot remember).  Khairul’s nickname is Papai like the sailor man.  I like this and that is what I decide to call him the rest of the time there.  He’s 20 years old and a very happy guy.  His English has lots of room for improvement but he truly loves what he does and was great to be around.  Our other guide is a “City boy” from Kota Kinabalu.  He’s working at the lodge as our chef and is training to be a guide.  He used to work as a cook at the Promenade Hotel in KK which is a high end hotel where the cheapest room is over $100usd per night.  No wonder the food has been so good here. His English is minimal but we get by.

We ask Papai about crocodiles and he says it’s rare to see them because they just go under water whenever a boat comes within sight.  He then shares a story with us about how he saw a crocodile attack a villager, while he was with a tour group which was quite traumatizing for him and everyone on the tour.  It was very uplifting.

As we head back we learn that the elephants are no longer in the area and they are further up river.  However, if the group would like, we can take the boat up river in hopes of seeing them. Everyone is in.

We arrive back in time for lunch. Fried chicken, rice, big potato wedges… I am loving the food, going up for seconds and thirds.  We spend more time chatting with our new Dutch friends.  They are fantastic. Just on a long vacation from work, they are both very smart people who are doing well for themselves.  While they are away, they are renting their condo out on AirBnB and it’s almost paying for their trip.  This is their first experience with it but now they are planning on renting it out for Christmas and New Years so they can take another vacation.

We spend the afternoon relaxing and at 3:45pm the gong rings for our afternoon two hour cruise.

We’ve already seen hornbills, macaques, orang-utans, proboscis monkeys, silver leaf monkeys, oriental darters, storm storks, mangrove snakes and monitor lizards.

I still want to see elephants, crocodiles, slow loris, and the western tarsier.  I am very optimistic.

We go way upstream seeing a lot of things that we’ve already seen.  Add to the list the red-leaf monkey which is only a reddish color when it’s young before turning more silver.  We saw many hornbills and other monkeys.  Unfortunately no elephants.  The best was the brief exchange between the Dutch guy and Papai:

D – “Is it possible to see elephants?”

P – “It is possible.  We need a permit to see them”

D – “So it’s impossible without the permit?”

P – “It is possible”

D – “So we can go look for them?”

P – “It is not impossible”

D – “…so you’re telling me there’s a chance” (in his Floyd from dumb and dumber voice)

I’m still not sure if there was a chance to see them or not.  Either way we didn’t see any.

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After dinner it was time for our final night hike.  I feel like I should be much more tired than I am but I’m way too excited to potentially see a slow loris (my offer still stands, Jungle Gods) or western tarsier.  The gong rings and we meet Papai eagerly to tell him that we are going to see some wildlife tonight.  A slow loris, western tarsier, civet,  a spotted leopard and crocodiles.  Papai laughs and informs me that crocodiles are not in the jungle.  We probably won’t see any crocodiles with an attitude like that.

Our added enthusiasm and smaller group seems to have inspired Papai.  He is determined to find us something cool.  We first stumble across a sleeping King fisher.  Able to get nice and close to take a picture, this guy is a deep sleeper.

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We cross paths with another group and the guides exchange words.  10 minutes later there is excitement in their voices as they speak with each other.  Papai tells us to line up in a straight line and wait.  Dutchy whispers out loud “This is how most horror movies start.  Hey guys, I think we should split up”.  I hold my laugh. Kristi doesn’t.  I shush her. The anticipation has me antsy.  They are in the bush, moving quickly.  We watch Papai so excited, bail… flashlight spilling into the ground.  Then he calls out.  “Guys. Everyone come here.  Quick.”

Kristi and I were sharing a flashlight and in my excitement I run into the jungle darkness away from Kristi’s light and towards Papai’s.  Running through my mind what it could be… a slow loris… tarsier… civit… crocodile… I need to get there.  Guide me moonlight, I can’t see shit.  It was chaos as everyone is running to find the best route to Papai.  Dutchy gets there first but I’m right behind him.  It’s a western tarsier.  It’s super ugly.

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I believe it’s part of the primate group.  It has fingers like a frog, tail like a rat, ears like a bat and eyes like an owl… basically a whole bunch of ugly animal parts packed into an ugly relative of the monkey.  The thing is small. It would fit in the palm of my hand. Papai sits down on a log, sweat pouring down his smiling face.  He knows he’s done well.  I give him a silent high five so as not to scare the tarsier while others take pictures.

We wrapped up the tour with adrenaline still pumping through our veins. Papai congratulates us and tells us how incredibly lucky we’ve been these couple days.  We thank him and go to bed.

We wake up to the gong.  We have one more river cruise for an hour in the morning.  It goes by without us seeing anything that we haven’t seen.  You could see lots of bubbles where there were crocodiles under us, but the water is too murky to see anything underneath us.  I’m gonna count this.

Breakfast was delicious as usual.  It was now time to pack and leave.

We got a deal on this tour.  For the 3d2n package, we paid 375rm each (most range between 450rm-600rm).  It was worth every ringgit.  This is by far the best tour we have done in the entire 3 months that we have been on the road.  I loved every moment of this and it am so thankful that we decided to do it.

The company was Nature Lodge Kinabatangan.  Our guide was Khairul and other than the bed, everything about this place was nothing short of spectacular.

If you are in Sandakan, don’t pass up on this opportunity.  We talked a girl at our hostel into going on it the day after we returned and she got to see elephants.  I guess it wasn’t impossible.  We saw more wildlife in these 48 hours than we have in three months on the road.  It was incredible.

We had a couple days where we laid low and hung out at a hostel before flying back to KL for two days.  Next stop is Phuket, Thailand with my birthday right around the corner.

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