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 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.
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…