We spent our Thanksgiving in a slightly non-traditional way. After rising early to catch the only bus out of Semporna, and enjoying an uneventful 4.5-hour bus ride through eastern Borneo, we got dumped off at the side of the road next to the Medan Selera Coffeehouse in Bukit Garam. This was the appointed rendezvous spot where the good folks at Nature Lodge Kinabatangan had promised to pick us up. One problem: this might have been the former location of said coffee shop, but it was clearly closed due to construction. And none of the locals hanging around the disheveled strip mall had any idea what we were talking about. So we hung out at the one open restaurant across the street and hoped for the best. Along the way, we picked up a trio of confused-looking Swedes, who'd just gotten off the bus from Kota Kinabalu and had received the same enigmatic instructions from the lodge. Happily, misery (aka confusion plus stultifying heat) loves company. It's always better to be lost with someone else!
Fortunately, the Nature Lodge folks did eventually happen along, and whisked us away for an hourlong journey to the lodge that included off-roading over a bumpy dirt path and then a quick boat ride across the mighty Kinabatangan river. And, finally, we'd arrived!
Nature Lodge Kinabatangan is a pleasant, rustic cluster of buildings along the banks of the river. There's a main lodge that houses the kitchen and open-air dining room, a dorm cabin, shared toilets, and several smaller cabins sprinkled throughout the property. The staff are friendly (like almost all Malays, if you don't count cabbies) and energetic. We'd signed up for the two-day package, which turned out to be a highly-structured series of morning boat rides, midday hikes, and a night walk or two. Normally such precise agendas are not the way we prefer to experience a place, but trekking with professional guides seemed like the best option for wildlife-spotting. So, after a quick moment to freshen up and dump our bags, we trooped back to the boat dock for our first guided boat ride. Our crew consisted of "Jungle Jay," our sprightly and knowledgeable guide; Carolina, Josefin, and Emma, the three jovial 20something Swedes; a sardonic German woman named Yvonne; and a pungent Czech dude called something like Hamze or Janze. (I never did quite catch his name. He'd been traveling for the better part of two years and clearly relished hanging out with wildlife much more than conversation with other people.) We piled into the boat and set off down the mighty, muddy Sungai Kinabatangan.
At first we didn't see anything besides a few other resorts, tastefully set back from the shoreline. But eventually long-tailed macaques and proboscis monkeys availed themselves. Many brown-blob-in-a-tree photos were snapped. Jay proved adept at spotting hornbills and other birds, as well as monkeys and the occasional lizard along the river banks. I have to admit, after three days of diving in the world's most stunning aquarium, and seeing all manner of sea creatures at arm's length, it was a bit anticlimactic to have to pull out a pair of binoculars to see the jungle wildlife. We'd clearly been spoiled.
After another quick break and a surprisingly tasty dinner of fresh fish, it was time for the night hike. We donned some nasty rubber boots -- the jungle equivalent of bowling shoes, bleccch -- and our best long pants/long sleeves garb to discourage leeches. Bug spray, check. Flashlights, check. OK, let's go see some nightlife! Mostly we saw some bigass bugs -- scorpions, enormous grasshoppers, a shaggy caterpillar -- but we also lucked into a tarsier spotting. Feet like a frog, 180-degree turning head like an owl, giant creepy eyes like a space alien, tarsiers are funky little nocturnal primates. They jump between trees to catch bugs and sometimes even birds. We were fortunate enough to surprise one with a high-powered flashlight and it stayed in one place long enough for everyone to snap some great photos. And then, in a flash, it bounced away without touching the ground once. Freaky-deaky.
No leeches spotted on this trip, despite everyone's paranoia. Really, the most disturbing part of the night hike was the hideous slurping sucking sound our boots made in the ever-present jungle slurm. Lovely. The fact that we couldn't see much made it even worse. Plus it was hot and mercilessly humid. By the end of the hourlong hike, we were well ready for bed. 'Twas an interesting alternative to overeating turkey and carbs with some inane football game in the background, I tell ya what. Happy Thanksgiving!
Nature Lodge Kinabatangan
Sabah, Malaysian Borneo
(book through Nasalis Larvatus Tours)