Tag Archives: animals

Kinabantangan River: It’s a Jungle Out There

It hurt to stand up.  It hurt to sit down.  It definitely hurt to walk.  And stairs were out of the question, unless absolutely necessary.  Such was the state of my body the day after finishing the Kinabalu climb.  But somehow my dad and I managed to get on a bus (not without some struggles) to ride 4 hours away, to the Kinabantangan River basin in eastern Sabah.  About an hour away from the mountain, a deluge of rain set in, and the bus slowed to a crawl, as the roads quickly turned into streams, and we forged our way through a small flood.

The river at dawn on Christmas Eve.

The travel plans that we had set up in KK relied largely on faith–a bus that would make an unscheduled stop to pick us up in a parking lot and drop us off at an intersection, where a man with a truck would be waiting to take us another hour away to a village bed and breakfast–but surprisingly worked exactly as planned, despite the downpour.

The Kinabantangan River, or sungai, snakes through some 350 miles of Sabah, making it Malaysia’s longest river.  As a floodplain, the area surrounding the river is lush and packed with wildlife–which is the area’s main draw for tourists like us.  Unfortunately, it is also seriously threatened by logging and palm oil plantations.  We passed scores of these on the way to the village, seemingly endless evenly spaced rows of palm trees.

As we arrived at the Bilit Kinabantangan B&B, a deafening cacophony of unseen frogs echoed throughout the swamp of the yard.  After a quick cup of Sabah tea, Aroy, our nature guide for the next few days, was ready to whisk us off on our first wildlife cruise, despite the fact that the rain was still pelting down.  My rain jacket was a joke in the face of the prodigious sheets of water, so I simply embraced the wetness and sat back for the ride.  Our vehicle was a painted longboat, with a small motor attached and some plastic lawn chairs.  Only about 15 saturated minutes after leaving the dock, we cut the engine and floated to the bank of the river where seven pygmy elephants (but what does pygmy really mean, in this case?  they looked pretty big to me…) were minding their own business munching nonchalantly on riverside grass, and glancing at us occasionally.  We stayed a short distance from the shore, as a few days before, a tourist had been killed in the area by a charging pygmy elephant.  The elephants ate, we watched, I cursed the rain for preventing me from bringing my camera.

Luckily, these were far from the last elephants we’d see.  The following day–Christmas Day–we sat for half an hour watching a herd of 25+ elephants of all ages grazing by the river.  They were amazingly insouciant about our presence; some laid down and rolled around to take mudbaths, babies were feeding, and they made gentle noises as they rooted around in the mud for their food.  Over the course of our boat rides–one at dawn, one at dusk, and one in the midafternoon each day–the amount of wildlife we were able to spot (or, more realistically, that Aroy was able to spot and point out to us) was astonishing.  Egrets skimmed over the water, proboscis monkeys jumped from tree to tree with weighty crashes, macaques dotted the treetops (and lurked around behind the B&B in hopes of stealing some scraps).  We saw a green snake, silver langur monkeys, kingfishers, hornbills of many varieties, hawks, herons, and a very distant orangutan.

By night, the symphony of frogs and insects set in, and we ate dinner on the B&B porch, watching “The Voice” with our hosts, and enjoying the relaxed atmosphere, while clouds of ravenous mosquitoes devoured me, regardless of what I put on.  The three days spent here, which consisted mostly of eating, sleeping, and sitting in the boat scanning the horizon for creatures, were a good time for healing our aching limbs.  The accessibility of the wildlife was simply astounding.  We weren’t at a zoo, but the animals turned up, without fail, up close and personal and practically inviting us to get closer and take their pictures.  In part, this was thanks to the richness of the floodplain, but in part, sadly, because of their rapidly disappearing habitats.

An alarmed male proboscis monkey.

The only jungle inhabitants we didn’t get up close and personal with truly in the wild were Borneo’s famous orangutans, so on the way out of Kinabantangan, we stopped at the nearby Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre.  Here, orphaned or illegally captured apes and kept and trained to survive again in the wild before being released elsewhere in Borneo.  They have free range through the surrounding forest, so can only be reliably spotted at mealtimes.  We were luckily enough to arrive in time for lunch and catch two mothers with their babies snacking on fruit.  They were amazingly humanlike as they babies squirmed away from their mom’s embraces to comically experiment with clumsily eating all of the tropical fruits.

And so, the river and the mountain conquered, our fatigue beginning to fade, we departed Sabah for Sarawak, the other state of Malaysian Borneo.  The epic sunrise and ginger primates were behind us, and now we were heading underground, to the caves of Gunung Mulu National Park…



Filed under Borneo, Malaysia

Crikey!: The Australia Zoo

Since I didn’t think I had seen quite enough Australian creatures on Fraser Island (the only kangaroo I had seen so far at this point had been roadkill), I stopped off in Nambour on my way south to allow for a day trip to the Australia Zoo.  The zoo itself is actually in Beerwah, but Nambour is not far away, and since I had a place to stay there, that’s where I headed.  “Why are you going there?!” asked the bus driver when I handed him my ticket, “No one goes to Nambour.”  While this seemed to be true, as I was the only passenger to disembark several hours later, the ride was made worth it by a stop at a Matilda gas station, where I saw this 42 foot, winking, kangaroo from the 1982 Commonwealth Games.

The Australia Zoo belongs to the Erwin family, as in Steve the Crocodile Hunter (RIP ’06).  His family franchise has continued to thrive after his death, and the Erwins, Terri, Bindi, and Bob, were at the park running the crocodile show for the day, since it was in the midst of the “Spring Holidays” in Australia.

The highlight of the zoo visit for me was not the jumping crocs, however, but getting to see all of the other native Aussie animals in action, and petting some very disinterested kangaroos and koalas.

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Fraser Island: Creatures Big and Small

In the trees: the kookaburra’s crazy laugh can be heard throughout the forest.  We spotted this one sitting very still next to the freshwater creek awaiting an unsuspecting fish.

In the undergrowth: a wary goanna lazes, keeping an eye on us passersby and hoping we don’t get so close that she has to move from her sunlit resting place.

What’s that in the leaves?  Just a 7.5 foot long copper python.  Non-poisonous, and drunk on sunlight, this guy was calm and relaxed enough to touch as we walked by (he was also missing an eye from a previous, less-friendly, altercation).

On the beach: watch where you step.  Jellyfish, horseshoe crabs, and sea snakes are some of the many ocean-dwellers that meet their end on the sand.

In the tide pools: anemones, trilobites, crabs, and sea squirts hide in this rocky playground.

Open water: on my brief airplane joy ride over the island, I spotted this mother humpback and  her calf heading south.

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Filed under Australia, Fraser Island

Gecko, gecko, on the wall…

Vientiane doesn’t have a lot to offer in terms of wildlife…except for of what some might call the “creepy crawly” variety.

Huntsman spiders are more common than I’d like, a bit too large for comfort, and unfortunately seem to like to hang out in bathrooms–perhaps the last place one would like to be surprised.  They’re much preferable to scorpions, however, which exist here but seem to be relatively rare (I saw one while driving once and a coworker had one in her house).

When I first arrived, I delighted at the abundance of geckoes in my life here.  They’re literally everywhere, inside and outside the house.  Most people here seem to be squeamish when it comes to geckoes.  In response to the icebreaker question “What scares you?” numerous students have mentioned that they’re afraid of them.  They can be disarming at times–I’ve found them hanging dead by several fingers from the ceiling, or scrambling to get out of my bathtub when I turn on the lights, and they’ve fallen onto my leg while motorbiking at night.  Small gecko turds are unpleasant, but commonplace…on my desk, in my bathroom, underfoot in the house when I least expect it.  And the chirps are a new sound to add to the ordinary ambient nature sounds, but I find them charming, and am still happy to see geckoes around the house.  After all, they eat the dengue-ridden mosquitoes.

Caught in the act of wreaking havoc on my room.

There are two main varieties of geckoes–the little, chirpy ones that scamper around the kitchen, and the large, spotted characters that say their name, gap-gay, gap-gay–if they chirp nine times, it’s lucky–and glare intimidatingly from the porch.  I had one of the latter making mayhem in my room for a few days last week, knocking things off my desk, until I finally spotted him in a corner one evening.  We haven’t seen each other since, and the frequency of the jumbo-sized gecko poops on the floor seems to be decreasing.

My, what a long body you have...

On Sunday, I encountered the most disturbing wild visitor to the house thus far.  I innocently strolled into my room, looked up at my wardrobe, which I was preparing to pack up (I’m moving this week), and…meter-long snake!  We stared each other down.  I ran out of the room and ran back in.  Snake was still there.  Luckily my landlady was here with some gardeners, so I ran out for some assistance.  What does one do when faced with a three-foot long snake in the bedroom?  They came to my rescue, while screaming themselves.  The bamboo stick they brought to throw the snake out the window with ended up turning into a bludgeon, and the snake didn’t leave the room alive.  I was a bit upset, as execution wasn’t exactly what I had in mind, but I couldn’t exactly complain when I was the one standing on my bed.  And my room is now a safer space.  Afterward, the landlady told me that finding a snake in the house is considered lucky in Laos, so I should buy a lottery ticket.  Lucky me.


Filed under Laos, Vientiane

The Big Easy

I’ve just returned from a 5-day trip south, to New Orleans and Biloxi, Mississippi, where I went to visit Josh.  Thursday night, I arrived late in the Crescent City, and we set out early Friday morning to do some exploring.  We got on the St. Charles streetcar just as a big thunderstorm was beginning, and rode all the way through the magnificent garden district in the rain.  From my brief impressions, New Orleans seems to be an unusual blend of old and new, fancy and run-down, decadence and austerity…and the Garden District definitely shows off the fancy.  The street car bounced along past old Southern style mansions, red bricks, palms, white columns, and old twisting trees that looked like weeping willows because of the many years worth of Mardi Gras beads strung from their branches.

St. Charles streetcar

St. Charles streetcar

Our final destination on the streetcar was the large Audubon Zoo, and with the rain just clearing up, it was the perfect time to visit.  The storm had cut through the oppressive Lousiana heat and humidity and the animals were out and active, from the silverback gorillas, to the river otters, to the swamp bobcats, who wrestled just like a pair of playful housecats.  But the most unusual animals at the zoo were a pair of white alligators, which are the world’s rarest animal, apparently.  The bigger of the two was floating still, nose pressed against the glass, as if waiting.  Couching down and staring into those beady eyes, the giant teeth only centimeters of glass away from my face, I couldn’t help but feel slightly uneasy.

rare white alligator

rare white alligator

As the morning wore into afternoon the heat returned in full force, so we retreated back downtown for lunch to the French Quarter, famous for its ornate iron balconies, free-flowing liquor, history, and tourists.  After a summer in Paris, it was fun to see some French writing on many of the signs, menus, and street names.  Shop windows boasted the city’s best pralines, beignets, and gumbos.  After lunch, we walked close to the water, by street performers, horse carriage rides, musicians, and Jackson Square, arriving at the French market.  Not long ago, apparently, the market was known for its fresh foods and produce, but these days all that can be found there are souvenirs—fleur de lis pendants, leather bracelets, and figurines.  As it approached 5pm, it became clear the French Quarter was already livening up.  Strip clubs were flashing their lights (one boasting “Thousands of beautiful girls, and three ugly ones”), and on the streets bartenders tried to hustle tourists into their particular hangout, claiming it was the true place to be for happy hour.  We came across a few already rowdy bachelor and bachelorette parties, and music was already filling Bourbon street, from rock to Cajun, to hip hop.  I needed a rest before I was ready to truly tackle this scene, after a long, sweaty day walking around the city.

French Quarter

French Quarter

This turned out to be a good decision, because once we did head out to Bourbon Street after dark, I discovered that a night out in New Orleans is a force to be reckoned with.  After spending some time walking the street and just enjoying the festive ambiance and the street musicians serenading the crowds, we started the night at Pat O’Brien’s, a classy but lively piano bar, where the waiters wear green jackets with their suits, and I had by far the strongest drink I have ever tasted: The Hurricane.  Hurricanes are favorite cocktails all over Bourbon street, but in most places just taste like glorified daiquiris.  Pat O’Brien’s Hurricanes are more like the evil twin of the daiquiri, on steroids, and armed with a sledgehammer.  The piano bar was blast: two skilled pianists and singers played entirely by request, as the Hurricane-sipping crowd wrote the names of their favorite songs on their napkins and slid them across the piano, and then sang along to everything from Bon Jovi, to John Denver, to the Temptations.  One night was enough though, and the next day we drove back to Biloxi, Mississippi, where I was staying for the rest of the visit with Josh’s brother and his family.  The next few days were much slower-paced then the visit to the Big Easy, but fun, as we enjoyed all the activities one should on the Gulf coast: hanging out at the beach, sailing, eating shrimp, spending a morning at the Hard Rock pool, and an evening at the Biloxi casinos.  Just a few days later, I’m already back home, sunburnt, but happy.  Laissez les bons temps rouler!

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Filed under Louisiana, New Orleans