Into The Wild: A Slice of North Borneo by Yvonne Kilat
The stench of ammonia hit our nostrils. The cool interior was a relief from the heat. A young woman skedaddled out, shrieking, away from the scampering cockroaches. An opening on the roof in the far end gave enough light to walk along the wooden walkway, slippery in places from water dripping from the 90m high ceiling.
"Guano makes a very fertile land," my husband Malcolm said.
The Gomantong Cave was well known for its edible swiftlets' nests. We were lucky to get a bonus trip as our real destination was another hour's drive away but somebody wanted to see the cave.
Outside, high above the entrance, a red leaf monkey disappeared among the foliage. A lone Borneo mount baboon was foraging on the ground next to the boardwalk.
"Don't go near it, it's very fierce," our van driver warned.
Back in the tour van, I again felt as if I was in the wrong country. Except for the driver and me, all other passengers were of different Western nationalities. We were travelling to Sukau in East Sabah.
Along the way, all we could see were palm oil estates, small factories and wooden houses on stilts. A passenger had his head deep in a book, oblivious to his surroundings.
At last we arrived at the Sukau Backpackers Lodge, located in the midst of palm oil trees. The restaurant was built over a gorge to save space. Several duplex wooden lodges looked charmingly inviting with its wide stairs and balcony.
After a light snack, we were ready for the first river cruise. We gathered on a tin-roofed platform next to a narrow, floating jetty. A fallen tree trunk anchored it to the shore. Brightly painted canoes bobbed nearby. Kinabatangan River was 560 km long, always muddy and teeming with crocodiles. Our young guide Mus handed out orange life jackets. We got into a boat with several rows of hard-backed benches. Malcolm and I sat at the rear, in front of the boat operator.
"Captain Jack Sparrow," Mus introduced. Both men were typically Sabahan, of short stature and sun-kissed complexion.
Cruising upland, we saw other lodges and tour boats, egrets, pig-tailed and long-tailed macaques, a mother and child orangutan settling in their nest for the night, a colony of proboscis monkeys on an almost bare tree, a monitor lizard, a hornbill and a coiled snake camouflaged on a branch. Captain's binocular-like vision was most admirable. Mus did all the talking, shouting over the roar of the outboard motor which was switched off when we approached the bank for a closer look. The sky was on fire, a fusion of gold and ochre, when we headed back to the lodge.
A buffet dinner awaited us, of mild chicken curry, beans, leafy vegetables and slices of watermelon. Tables with red spreads were laid on the deck with our room numbers, roofless so we could enjoy the star studded sky. A local Chinese group with a young girl was served fish. I guessed they bought the fish from the area. We said goodbye to a German chap who was on a day trip, going back with the driver to Sandakan.
Another cruise at 7:30pm, peaceful with a pale half-moon and hardly any breeze. Captain spotted sleeping kingfishers, unperturbed by the beam from a powerful torch; baby crocs' snouts and fireflies illuminating trees like Christmas lights. Mus taught us how to identify them; females one blink in one second, males one blink in two seconds.
The next morning, we started at 6am. The rising mist over the water limited our visibility. As it cleared, Captain pointed to a Brahmin Kite Eagle high above a treetop. Mus called it the Angry Bird.
A jungle trekking to Ox Bow Lake followed. Mus forgot to tell the other group, mostly youngsters, to wear suitable attire. They came in shorts, sleeveless shirts and flip-flops. We saw ear-shaped yellow mushrooms and a gigantic, ancient tree that had escaped the timber forage. There were different species of insects and large spiders hanging on their webs right across our path. We paused to watch a white crested woodpecker feeding its young through a hole. And slimy, fawn-coloured leeches! Malcolm seldom wore trousers but sure glad he did. Then we almost got lost because we lingered behind for a tiddle.
Malcolm's brolly went on all the cruises. I was content with a bandana worn like a headscarf to cover my face from the sun.
The other group wanted to buy ikan ubi (Marbled Goby) so we stopped at two different places along the river until they found one weighing 1.6 kg. The fish were put in cages which were lowered unto the river and pulled up when customers came.
Breakfast was served at 9am, after which Malcolm and me went back to the river to soak in the view before exploring a run-down abandoned lodges but gave up when mosquitoes attacked.
About noon, a couple from Switzerland joined us. Only six of us remained as the local groups had left. Our lunch consisted of curried aubergines, soya-sauced chicken and pak choy with garlic.
Another river cruise at 4pm and after dinner at 7pm jungle trekking across the road. Unfortunately, recent paint markers made by another lodge had scared away the regular nocturnal. Mus was fuming. We saw a few crawling bugs. I caught a firefly on a leaf, releasing it just before we went back to the lodge.
Next day, I was first on the jetty where a filming crew and a young woman were doing a documentary on elephants. Two miles away from us, a family of six elephants were trapped in an estate. Electric fencing had confused their navigation, leading them close to a settlement with an elementary school. Luckily it was the school break. Too bad we didn't have transport as we would have helped in tracking them down.
The experience left us wanting for more wildlife adventure, bringing our own vehicle for we never know what opportunity presents itself.
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