If you truly love Nature, you will find beauty everywhere. — Vincent Van Gogh, painter
Finally, my personal travel drought has come to an end as the 2-year pandemic becomes endemic. International borders have started to open up but we decided to go domestic, and head to the jungle instead in search of Bornean flora and fauna.
Packing list prepared and checked, luggage dusted and packed, and air tickets for a return journey to Sandakan was sorted within the week. Not only was this my first leisure trip since late 2019 but also a rare occasion that I made a daring move to invite a new companion to travel with me.
We took the first flight out from Kota Kinabalu (KK) to Sandakan on the east coast of Sabah at 7:05am. Short of an hour later we arrived and was picked up from the airport. The first thing on our agenda was to look for sustenance as we got up at the crack of dawn and dashed to the airport for the flight on an empty stomach. After a delicious plate of noodles with all the trimmings and a hot drink at a local coffee shop at Mile 8, we were all set for the adventure ahead. Our final destination would be a 3-day/2-night stay at Nature Lodge Kinabatangan, near Kampung Bilit on the bank of the longest river in Sabah, the Kinabatangan River. But first, we would like to say hi to the red-haired apes at Sepilok.
Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre
We arrived at the centre with plenty of time to spare for the orangutan feeding time at 10am. The rescued orangutans started to appear and approach the feeding platform in wait for the ranger to come with the daily supply of fruit and vegetables.
We were informed by our guide Aljun that this 21-year old Malin was not a resident of the sanctuary but he does come and visit now and again. We were fortunate to be there as he made his rare appearance.
Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre
The next stop after the exciting sighting at the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre was the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre next door.
With the word “bear”, the image of huge grizzlies came naturally to my new travelling companion, HW’s mind. I could almost sense her bracing herself to come face to face with the ferocious-looking animal. Until she saw the cute-looking dog-sized honey-eating sun bears in shiny black coat with their distinctive and unique chest marks that she secretly breathed a sigh of relief.
we journeyed on
When all was done and after our lunch at the Nature Lodge Sepilok situated not far from the rehabilitation and conservation centres, we were whisked away for our onward journey. It would be another 40km from Sepilok, about an hour and a half of road journey before we reached Kampung Bilit, where across the river from there stood our home away from home, the Nature Lodge Kinabatangan.
What, boat ride? HW exclaimed but within seconds she was assured that the boat ride would take less than 5 minutes as we just needed to travel from one side of the river to the other side of the river.
Nature Lodge Kinabatangan (15 – 17 April 2022)
The meals with local dishes were good and more than what we needed for the 3 main meals. We also had afternoon tea with biscuits, delicious freshly fried banana and tapioca fritters. I was impressed that they asked us prior to our arrival if we had any special dietary plans or if we had any allergies. They prepared 4 dishes for us for each meal and we were strengthened physically for all the activities.
This was our itinerary:
Day 1 – 4pm afternoon boat ride, 9pm jungle walk
Day 2 – 6am morning boat ride, 9am jungle walk, 4pm afternoon boat ride, 9pm jungle walk
Day 3 – 6am morning boat ride
Busy but not packed that we were exhausted. We would always have some time for a breather before the next adventure.
While we were getting ready for the first afternoon boat ride, the dark clouds suddenly appeared and within minutes came the heavy downpour. What a disappointment! Our guide Ramzan later came knocking at our door just after 4pm and announced it was time to go as the sun was showing its face. HW was apprehensive so I asked her, “Have you ever been on a boat in the rain before?” In the end she decided it was worth a go so we quickly changed into our shorts, took out our cap and rain jacket and put on our slippers and headed to the jetty.
Not long after we started our boat journey the rain stopped. The air was crisp and the breeze cool and soothing. The river was calm so HW started to relax and enjoyed the pleasant ride as I did. Ramzan pointed out to us loads of mischievous-looking macaques on the banks, birds like herons, kingfishers and hornbills among others on the branches or flying low, a few proboscis monkeys in a distance and even crocodiles which were fortunately, far away from us by the banks. We were overjoyed when we spotted a few Bornean pygmy elephants.
Bornean pygmy elephants
We sighted just a few pygmy elephants on the first day and we were already counting our blessings as there is never a guarantee on wildlife sighting. As a result, we were over the moon when we spotted the herd near the river bank on the second day.
The time had come for us to “suit up” and go for jungle walk. Wellington boots are made available at a minimal charge and they help trekking on muddy forest paths so much easier. HW was persuaded to wear them and once she realised how to walk in them, i.e. stump like pygmy elephants then she trekked on with no restraint.
after the boat rides and jungle walks
After we came out of Kinabatangan, we went back to Nature Lodge Sepilok for a relaxing lunch and to meet up with our other friend KA who would be flying back to KK with us. We caught up with Alex Yee, Managing Director of Nasalis Larvatus Tours SB, the tour company that operates both lodges at Sepilok and Kinabatangan.
How the Nature Lodge Kinabatangan came about all started with a dream of kayaking along the Kinabatangan to see what the Bornean nature had in store as Alex, a then keen kayaker more than 16 years ago reminisced. What additional motivation to turn this dream a reality was when the head of the village (Ketua Kampung) of Kampung Bilit approached Alex and asked him to provide jobs for the children from the village.
Alex proceeded to have just a few tiny lodges built to start Nature Lodge Kinabatangan and the following year, he kayaked on the river and dream realised. With only around 150 houses in Kampung Bilit at the time, it increased to 200 houses as time past and jobs were provided especially to the youngsters to entice them to remain in the area instead of going to the city or other parts of the state to find work. The village elders were delighted that not just work was made available in general to the village folks but also that with their next generation staying put, they were able to ensure their family and racial traditions and culture were passed down the line and preserved.
The business grew over the years and bigger and more comfortable chalets were subsequently built. All was well until the pandemic hit. The lodge was never closed but the situation did not permit any travelling. Alex lamented that recovery after the pandemic would be slow and it would not be a U-turn but a reset. Our Bornean flora and fauna have been appealing to foreign travellers for decades but the reality now is, is it still a priority for them to come to this part of the world with higher travelling costs and where competition is fierce among our neighboring nations?
One other issue remains, deforestation. We cannot stop landowners from converting their land into agricultural purposes for commercial gains but we hope with our voices, albeit small and faint and especially that of the younger generation we are able to make a difference. We hope we can cause the landowners and authorities to see and stir their conscience to devise plans to strike a balance if it is not already too late to help preserve our rainforests with the precious flora and fauna before they completely disappear. What do we want to leave to our next generation and beyond?
A few powerful quotes that speak not just to me but many others out there from Sir David Attenborough, British naturalist:
We humans, alone on Earth, are powerful enough to create worlds, and then destroy them.
We can now destroy or we can cherish, the choice is ours.
The question is, are we happy to suppose that our grandchildren may never be able to see an elephant except in a picture book?
Many individuals are doing what they can. But real success can only come if there is a change in our societies and in our economics and in our politics.
Another quote from John Muir, American naturalist (1838 – 1914):
The battle for conservation will go on endlessly. It is part of the universal battle between right and wrong.
I am a nature lover and it is not hard to notice from many of my writings. I am extremely proud of the biodiversity and eco-system of our state in North Borneo with the wildlife and vegetation especially when many species are endemic to the region. I love the tropical rainforests and all that come along with them. Instead of waiting for foreign tourists to come back to revive the economy and for the simple reason of nature-appreciation, I hope our fellow Malaysians will start looking at what we have at our doorstep and back garden, get to know them and be honoured to have them. One will surely be amazed by how fresh the forest air is and how one’s senses will be tickled and spring to life by the call of the nature, the living rainforest and the wildlife.
Fear of leeches? Come prepared and put on your protective gear. Fear of mosquitoes? Drench yourselves in environmentally harmless insect repellents. Hate the humidity? Well, what do you expect? You are in the tropics! As the saying goes, “We can complain because rose bushes have thorns, or rejoice because thorn bushes have roses”. We put up with the creepy crawlies and insects and the rest in order for us to get close to nature, to see and appreciate God’s marvellous creation. Let’s not focus too much on the fears that we lose sight of the beauty of nature in front of us.
There is so much to learn and experience in the great outdoor. When one treks across the forest, hears the cicadas and discovers interesting vegetation, goes for early morning boat ride and sees the misty distant, hears the early birds and spots the long-tailed big-nosed potbellied proboscis monkeys, or locates a colourful kingfisher on a tree branch, witnesses a family of beautiful hornbills flying home overhead and stumbles upon a herd of migrating Bornean pygmy elephants during sunset boat ride, one will unpretentiously agree that the air of beauty of the wild can never be fully captured on film but to be admired and savoured with one’s senses silently and profoundly. One will go through a spectrum of reactions and emotions, and in the end simply resolve to a sigh of enthrallment and contentment.
So, will you answer to the call of the jungle?
It is waiting.
In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks. – John Muir
A heartfelt thanks to Alex Yee and his teams especially at the Nature Lodge Kinabatangan, and also at the Nature Lodge Sepilok for the hospitality and for taking care of us. We had an amazing time!
last last note
HW and I survived our first trip in the jungle together. Hurray! We did not fight, well, nature lovers are not fierce people and I think we rather enjoyed each other’s company, flaws and all. I was pampered as HW was so meticulous and prepared with her packing, not to mention the varieties of snacks and well-equipped first aid kit, she even brought along 2 travelling mugs for our tea and coffee!
I found it amusing though how our personality traits came into play as we went round. After being in human resource for decades, HW would be inquisitive about the behaviour and characters of the orangutans and sun bears, if the siblings/friends would fight among themselves and how they would know when the feeding times are and so on. I, on the other hand, being a creative person with imagination runs wild most of the time would simply be amazed by my surrounding and keep going on and on about the trees, the flowers, the animals, the birds, the wind and the sound of the rainforest.