Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Wonderful Wildlife on the Kinabatangan Part One

So after leaving our island paradise, we were due to travel the two hours to the Kinabatangan River where we would be staying for two nights in a jungle lodge in order to further explore the natural wonders of Sabah. The Kinabatangan is the largest river in Sabah stretching approximately 300km, predominantly through the remaining rainforest of the island in the East. It is host to many different mammal, bird, reptile, insect and plant species, several of which are endemic to Borneo.

Before heading there, we made a brief stop back at Sepilok in order to see the rescued Orangutans one last time. We saw a total of 7 orangutans which is a high number as normally only a couple show up. They were all different to our previous visit except from one small juvenile who is obviously more reliant on the free food. Again we saw an alpha male, a mother with baby and some smaller apes although they were of slightly different colouration to our previous visits with darker fur. One highlight of this visit was when one bold orangutan came onto the boardwalk and was less than 30cm in front of us. He looked quite lazy at first with his back to us but then started to get quite feisty moving towards us and trying to snatch belongings so the ranger took him by the hand and led him away like a naughty schoolchild. 

The orangutans visit to the feeding platform was much shorter than on our previous trip- they came, ate and then left. Most of the tourists left with them, so we had a great opportunity to observe the many macaque monkeys two of whom even treated us to a display of monkey affection. They were quite happy to continue this while others fought for scraps around them, seemingly undisturbed.

We continued to watch the monkeys for a while longer before heading to a nearby restaurant for lunch. This was the start of many buffets to come and the concept of sweet and sour fish sounded quite odd, although it was surprisingly nice! After this we made the two hour trip to the Kinabatangan and it was shocking to discover the true extent of palm oil plantations which are now present in Sabah. Although the palm tree is not native to Borneo, it was shipped from the Americas in the mid 19th century, and the plantations now provide a huge revenue stream into Sabah. It's really sad to think of the habitats which have been lost to the soulless rows of palm trees now found. On a more positive note however, the increase in tourism is encouraging the local authorities to replant a significant amount of forest and remove some of the plantations, hopefully bringing Borneo back to its former natural glory.

We finally reached the rainforest and the river, which was certainly a welcome sight, and after a quick boat ride (the first of many) across to our lodge we were greeted warmly with afternoon tea. We checked into our log cabin which was basic but offered amazing views of the jungle (including our first wild monkey spottings only a few metres away from the cabin). 

The lodge is situated right on the banks of the river offering a highly convenient location from which to start river cruises. We had three scheduled within our itinerary to look forward to, comprising of two late afternoon cruises and one early morning one (the best times to spot wild animals). We rented binoculars in order to see some of the creatures which usually reside high in the tree canopy and hopped onto the speed boat after navigating one of the most dangerous jettys in the world. Even in the early moments down the river, we could see trees rustling and hear the calls of birds and monkeys. The anticipation made us super excited.

Thankfully, our new ranger Wassil had amazing vision and could spot things from hundreds of metres away, even if only a fraction of the animal was visible. Obviously the natural world is so unpredictable that we were never fully sure which animals would appear, so each time he asked the driver to slow down we got a new wave of excitement approaching the forest. His focus normally went to a certain area and you could tell by his demeanour that he had spotted something. Not knowing whether it was a common sight such as a hornbill or macaque, or the more elusive wild orangutan, we all immediately froze with silence and waited for him to tell us what it was he had seen. 

We were incredibly lucky in our first wildlife spottings. We saw the endemic hornbill (both white and black). These birds would normally be spotted at the highest point of trees but we spotted several gliding low over the water and even saw several catch their dinner from the river. 

Following this, we saw a huge number of macaques which are the most common primate of the region. There are two main species- the long-tailed and the black macaque. They tend to stay in large groups as a defence mechanism and if you spotted one there was bound to be a troop not far away. On some trees there were 20 monkeys of varying ages and sizes.

The next thing that we saw was a crocodile which we would NEVER have spotted. All that was visible were its eyes peering out of the surface of the water. Wassil pointed him out but before we could get a picture he had fully submerged himself. It was unnerving to think how many crocodiles were beneath us which we didn't know about and we were careful to follow instructions and keep our limbs well inside the boat.

Wassil then mentioned the word orangutan making us look up sharply but he quickly followed it with the word nest, pointing out a black shape in the highest tree around. Who knew that orangutans build nests? No spotting of the orangutan but we keep an even keener lookout from this point onwards.

The next thing Wassil managed to spot was a snake which was wound around a tree trunk in a spot of bushy leaves! It was a reasonably large mangrove snake however with the yellow and black colouration it was well camouflaged. Wassil drew quite a crowd of other boats with his sighting and it took us five minutes with binoculars to even find what he was pointing at!!

The next animal sighting was exciting- we spotted a troop of proboscis monkeys which are again endemic to Borneo. With their 'child-catcher' noses and huge bellies they are very easy to distinguish from other species. They leap from branch to branch at incredible heights and sit dangling from branches stooped over like little old men. 

A few more bird sightings including the colourful kingfisher, the red ibis standing on the river banks and a large number of storks then we made our way back to the lodge. 

We had a shower (which would later prove completely redundant) and had some dinner before embarking on our next adventure- a night walk through the jungle to spot nocturnal animals. We suited up renting leech socks and wellies to protect ourselves from the blood sucking pests. This was a much more practical outfit than it was fashionable as can be seen from the picture below.

We also took a torch although it was still very difficult to navigate the tree roots, low branches and muddy pathways in the pitch black. We could soon tell entering the jungle that watching from afar on a boat is much easier and more comfortable than trying to walk through it. We felt like Bear Grylls or David Attenborough exploring the leafy undergrowth by foot for the first time not sure where we were stepping or which direction we were headed. There was also a full moon overhead which made the walk ultra-creepy. Our luck appeared to have ran out this night and apart from sighting a sleeping kingfisher, a lizard and some extra large spiders, we didn't find much else. We were hoping for a slow loris or a western tarsier but they were nowhere to be found, except for a few false alarms. 

We returned to the safety of the lodge slightly disappointed but obviously natures unpredictability wasn't working in our favour this evening. What we did find however was a leech on my trousers which was delightful! Thankfully we got it off before it bit though as they take a few moments between latching on to actually dig their fangs in. Feeling disgusting from the humidity within the jungle and now the leech, we both felt we needed ANOTHER shower. We were exhausted by this point and had a super early start the next day for a morning cruise, so we called it a day looking forward to exploring the best of Borneo again having felt that the Kinabatangan had treated us to plenty of wildlife thus far.

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