After the cruise we had a good breakfast (including a rarity- baked beans!) and with our early morning catching up on us we went for a quick disco nap. After this, we got back into our attractive leech socks and welly combo and prepared for a daytime jungle walk making a 4km round trip to the nearby ox-bow lake. It was obviously much easier to spot wildlife in the daytime and we saw quite a few different species to those we had already encountered.
Insects were incredibly common in the jungle and we saw some HUGE millipedes one of which the guide kindly placed onto me. We also saw some ant hills with large biting ants, some pretty lantern insects which are normally nocturnal, a cricket, more spiders and various species of butterflies including an amazing black and white paper butterfly. Insects are pretty difficult to photograph but here are some of our best efforts...
Among the insects, we also spotted a tiny yet dangerous tree frog which looked very unassuming perched calmly on a leaf, but apparently touching it would make you ill for the next week.
There was also a snake scare as we saw a serpent-crested eagle swoop down into the trees but return empty-beaked. Wassil went to investigate further and firmly warned us to stay back as some deadly snakes reside in this part of the jungle. He couldn't find anything in the end and we all breathed a sigh of relief.
Two of the species which we were most excited to see- wild orangutans and Bornean pygmy elephants were still proving elusive although we did find traces which indicated they weren't far away. Firstly we found a second orangutan nest above us and recently eaten fruit remnants on the ground, although without any sign of the ape. Secondly we found a number of elephant footprints imprinted deeply into the forest floor, although Wassil told us they hadn't been in the vicinity for the last two months.
There were a huge number of different plant species within the jungle unsurprisingly. There were some cool fungi including one solitary mushroom growing out of some solidified elephant dung. There was also a tree which had served a fairly unique purpose. In the 19th century there was a tribe called the Headhunters in Borneo who had played a fairly gory role in the regions history. They would behead enemies and hang their heads on this, and other, trees as a deterrent and an offering to their god. It was also known that they did the same thing within their own homes. The bottom part of the tree also looked remarkably like a gorillas head...
We reached the oxbow lake after a 2 hour walk (2km in 2 hours is pathetic but trying to find a path through the jungle certainly isn't easy!). We did a quick leech check and found at least 6 on each of us which had obviously crawled up when we were walking through the deep mud which made up a significant part of the trail. Thankfully we got them all off quickly.
We walked down a vertical plank onto the deck (thankfully not falling off into the crocodile filled lake beneath us) to appreciate the lovely view. Wassil also showed us a cool trick with some bread which attracted an insane number of white piranhas to him. They aren't flesh-eating but they do love dry skin so if you put your hand on the surface of the water they would come and nibble it.
Before we left, we sat and applied some more insect repellent to try and ward off the mozzies, but it didn't work on one insect as a giant butterfly came and landed directly on my forehead (obviously attracted to my colourful headband). It stayed there for a while before fluttering off at which point Wassil declared that it has blessed me with good luck and fortune! Unfortunately there was nowhere nearby to purchase a lottery ticket in the hopes of this paying off.
Walking back, apart from picking up a few more leeches, we didn't see a huge amount more. We were starving so powered through the walk in anticipation of lunch and after being fed and watered we had some more free time to take yet another shower and prepare ourselves for a final river cruise. Setting off the sky looked remarkably bright and clear and there was high optimism within the boat.
Embarking on the cruise, Wassil greeted us with an announcement that he had good news! Knowing that this was probably about the location of pygmy elephants (as we had pestered him about this continuously for three days) we were super excited!! He told us that he couldn't guarantee anything but we could tell from his face that he was more than hopeful. The herd hadn't been sighted in the area for the last 7 months and there are only 270 elephants living on the banks of the Kinabatangan. Elephants are a migrant species who move around a lot so we knew we would have to be very lucky to experience a sighting. There are only 3000 pygmy elephants across Borneo and this is the only place where they live in the world, so spotting them would doubtlessly be the highlight of our trip. Our hopes started to build as we set off upstream while the other boats set off downstream obviously not wanting to take the risk that they wouldn't be there.
We powered up the river not stopping for any other animal sightings. Wassil looked nervous after about half an hour and pulled over to the banks of the river. A combination of heavy rain and another announcement from Wassil quickly changed the mood in the boat. We had used almost half of a tank of petrol and reached the boundary of where he was authorised to take us. The elephants were nowhere to be seen and we were the only boat in sight. We were informed that the best course of action would be to wait for a boat coming around the bend in the distance and to ask whether they knew of the elephants' location.
We sat nervously in our rain ponchos for a good 10 minutes before finally spotting a boat coming towards us from upstream. Wassil shouted in Malay to the guide and we saw a huge grin cross his face. We started moving again, rounded the next meander in the river and spotted the herd. Over 50 elephants were congregated around the grassy banks. Wassil punched the air and leant in for a high five and a shoulder pat. We approached the animals in utter amazement passing a few who were cooling off in the river (yes, the sun had also reappeared too).
We couldn't have been more than 5 metres away from the closest members of the herd and were able to watch them splash water, drink, feed and play with each other. They are much smaller than other species ranging in size from about 3 feet for the babies and between 1.5 and 3 metres for the adults. They were spread out with some on the flat land and some further into the jungle, some of which couldn't be seen although you could hear the rustling of trees and deafening trumpeting coming from a short distance away. We sat for a good 45 minutes watching their natural behaviours in awe. One of the babies started backing towards us at one point obviously aware of our presence, and as this is the first sign of aggression, we had to back up before his large father came to protect him.
One of the elephants seemed to find it incredibly difficult to get from the river up to the bank and he struggled to shift his massive weight. Watching the monumental effort it took was staggering but he did eventually make it to terra firma!
With dusk encroaching quickly, we unfortunately had to leave the herd and what had most certainly been a once in a lifetime experience. The journey back was uneventful apart from spotting a huge proboscis monkey in the trees above which was quite orange making us hopeful for an orangutan. I think even with my butterfly blessing, this would have been greedy to hope for! Wassil asked us to keep the elephant spotting a secret from the other guests on the tour who had travelled in the opposite direction. He had gone outside of his authorised limit to take us there and would be unable to do the same again and wanted to save himself a headache I think! To be honest we were happy to do this as had the roles been reversed, we probably would rather not have known what we missed out on.
After dinner, we had another early night worn out from the excitement of the day and wanting to fully appreciate our last opportunity to be woken by the call of birds and monkeys living wild in the tropical jungle. We waved goodbye to the lodge in the morning sad to be leaving what had been one of our most memorable travelling experiences to date....