Article and pictures by M. Maxine George
The jungles of Borneo are reputed to be deep, dark and full of secrets. Curiosity took me there. Awe, amazement and a real sense of adventure kept me eagerly involved in each new adventure presented. Redzuan Mustapha, a young man in his late twenties, introduced himself, as our guide, to me and my Canadian traveling companions. With black wavy hair, flashing dark eyes, and a friendly and confident manner, his Wildlife Expeditions shirt confirmed the identification. “Just call me Zuan,” he told us. This was our second Wild Life Expeditions guide. Far from the fearsome head-hunters I had heard about, those young good-looking men soon gained my confidence. They were knowledgeable and always willing to answer our many questions, openly and honestly. I instinctively knew they were brave too. These descendents of the head-hunters still know many of the secrets of the jungle, as we soon discovered.
We had flown into Sandekan on the east coast of Sabah , the former North Borneo, via Malaysia Air. Now, with our new guide, we traveled south by bus on the first leg of our journey. The first stop, en route to our jungle destination, took us to the Sepilok Wild Life Centre for Orang-Utan Rehabilitation. In the thick maze of tropical vegetation, we found a sanctuary for the care and rehabilitation of orphaned or injured Orang-Utan. A wooden trestle led us into the jungle to a vantage point from which we could watch while an assortment of those endangered animals came to keep their appointment with the human, who brought them a ten o’clock brunch of bananas and milk. Thick ropes had been strung, like the spokes of a wheel leading out from the large tree, for the convenience of the animals approaching the platform built around the tree. Within fifteen minutes prior to the appointed time, the long, red-haired members of the ape family began to appear, coming in, hand over hand, swinging through the trees. Disregarding our presence, these animals waited their turn- their pecking order was not obvious to us – to jump onto the platform where the caretaker sat on his haunches doling out the food. The animals usually took a bunch of bananas and climbed back up into the trees to eat, out of range of other Orang-Utan. However, some of the smaller ones stayed on the platform to eat or drink out of a bowl. After watching the Orang-Utan feast, we stopped for lunch at a very nice restaurant on the grounds of the Sepilok Nature Resort. A small river and the jungle flora and fauna provided a beautiful view for us to enjoy, from the verandah, during our relaxed meal.
We continued on for several hours by bus, then boat until we arrived at the Sukau River Lodge. Settling into our cabins, I found my accommodation was comfortable and clean, with twin beds under a canopy of mosquito netting meant to be pulled around at night, a private bathroom complete with hot and cold shower and amazingly an air conditioner in the window. (Obviously they had a good generator.) We learned later that the Sukau River Lodge was the only local lodge with air conditioners. We were lucky.
Our first foray into the jungle took us by boat on a search for the elusive Proboscis monkeys. The river was bordered by dense jungle. Tall trees played host to a variety of vines that provided a nearly impenetrable visual curtain. Zuan and our boatman Aloy Zhahiren proved to be good spotters for they were soon pointing to movement high in the tall trees. Sure enough a colony of rust coloured Proboscis monkeys were scampering through the upper branches of the trees.
The boat stopped and we sat watching the antics of the monkeys for some time observing the males whose prominent long noses gave rise to their name. They appeared to be wearing white shorts as their lower torso was covered with contrasting white fir. A very bright red spot in the white fur indicated that we were seeing a male, always ready for amorous action. Zuan informed us that the noses of the males continue to grow throughout their life-time and may end up as long as their chins. The females are easily distinguished by their scooped noses. My friends and I all attempted to take pictures as the monkeys scampered quickly through the tall trees, however given their rapid movement and the dense foliage around them, it was a daunting task.
Our boat moved slowly up the river, for probably an hour, until we came to a heavy overgrowth of water hyacinth, which I thought might end our journey. The boat came nearly to a stop as it slowly drifted through the floating greenery, which separated sufficiently to allow the boat to pass through, then closed in behind us. In all we watched three colonies of Proboscis monkeys that evening, some long-tailed macaques, an assortment of birds, and a snake coiled in the branches hanging over the river, before returning to our lodge for the night, happy to have seen the rare and endangered, truly wild, Proboscis monkeys in their own native habitat.
The next morning we arose early for another adventure with Zuan. On this particular morning I dressed in my jungle garb, high necked, long, cotton top with long sleeves, long pants with knee high cotton stockings, my Tilley hat, backpack and the hiking boots that took up half of my luggage space. I slathered mosquito lotion over all exposed areas and some that weren’t exposed. Now, I thought I was prepared for anything.
This time the boat followed another river to the shore of a lake, bordering on the jungle. Aloy stayed with the boat while we climbed up a steep, root-encrusted bank following Zuan through an opening into the trees. He proved to be an excellent guide as, using his long knife, he was soon pointing to the footprint of an elephant that had preceded us through this jungle. As we continued Zuan described the quirks of nature that the various flora and fauna present in the jungle. Showing us the vines that destroy their host trees and remain as a hollow twisted trunk themselves, spiraling tall and convoluted towards the jungle canopy roof searching for sunlight; the mushroom and other fungus forms that attach to other vegetation; termite nests attached to trees; an amazing assortment of vegetation clustered there in the deep, dark jungle. Farther along Zuan pointed out fresh elephant dung, making me keep a wary eye out for a grey hulk lurking amongst the trees. We came to a big mud depression in our path. The mud had obviously been well trampled and disturbed. Here, Zuan told us that a wart hog had been taking a mud bath to keep insects off his skin. Remembering tales of their ferocious nature, I became even more wary.
“Oh, my gosh! What is this?” one of my companions loudly exclaimed. A leech had fallen onto her hand. Zuan quickly came to her rescue, demonstrating how to deal with the loathsome creatures. Explaining that one end had its biting apparatus and the other had a suction device. “You have to catch the leech in the act of moving to flick it off,” he explained. “Otherwise, it must be pulled off, rolled between the thumb and forefinger until it curls up into a ball, then it can be flicked away.” He informed us as he demonstrated the action with the leech.
Trekking requires alert senses. Wary, your eyes constantly vigilant for movement, your ears noting the slightest sound, you become acutely aware of the various sounds of the jungle: bird calls, animal screeches, insect noises and the crunching of twigs as our feet tread the trail. Zuan was constantly pointing things out to us. At some point in this trek I became aware of a sore spot on my rib cage, just below my bra band. I made a mental note that a mosquito had probably bitten me there, as my Mother used to say, “Maxine, how do you always let mosquitoes bite you in such unusual places?” I did not stop to investigate in the midst of the jungle, but continued on our trek. Eventually our hike led us back to the waiting boat. Aloy started the motor and took us to a peaceful cove, where we shared some refreshment that had been provided by the lodge. As I sat munching on a cookie I again became aware of the sore spot on my chest and decided to investigate. Lifting my top, I was horrified to discover a leech had settled in for a meal! Thankful for the lesson about leeches, I quickly tugged it loose, rolled it into a ball and flicked it into the water. Now I realize that no clothes should be left loose. The last preparation for a jungle trek has to be: Tuck everything in!
Our successive forays into the jungle included bird-watching, more monkey spotting and visiting the cave homes of terns and bats. A night-time jungle walk really tested the mettle of we four Canadian women. Before leaving, we overheard talk amongst the guides about an elephant recently being seen near the trail. Several guides grouped their charges and interspersed themselves first, last and at intervals between us. Armed with only small flashlights to show us the hazards along our pathway, we set out on our night walk. We were soon aware that night jungle walks are much more spooky and scary than daylight jungle walks! We walked single file, keeping a wary eye open for things around us, trying not to get slapped in the face with branches as they snapped back from the person ahead, and at the same time having to carefully watch each step as the path was strewn with exposed roots. All the while we were trying to keep up with the person ahead and not become lost. We found sleeping birds, and large unsuspecting insects, huge spiders and small reptiles; heard the night sounds of animals and birds and saw the amazing glow of the firefly. All the time we were constantly aware that we might be observed by unseen eyes. The screech of an unseen animal close-by sent shivers up my spine. Our night-time jungle walk was a fascinating but scary experience!
Arriving back at the lodge we walked to the main dining verandah where the manager and staff were relaxing around a table. A friendly group, we were invited to join them. One had a guitar. Soon the manager, Douglas Jamalu began to sing a very poignant song, with a beautiful, strong, clear voice. As it came to a close another young man flipped through a song book and chose the words to another familiar song. We all joined in. It was nearly midnight when my friends and I left the group to stroll back to our cabins, listening to the strains of ‘Yesterday,’ being sung by the assembled group. Our adventure in the deep, dark jungles of Borneo, with the descendants of the headhunters, was short but so very memorable, one of those never-to-be forgotten experiences that happen rarely in a lifetime.
Article and Pictures by M. Maxine George
Pictures of Wildlife Expeditions' Sukau River Lodge courtesy of Lenora Hayman
For further information contact:
Tourism Malaysia Canada
1590 - 1111, West Georgia Street Vancouver, BC V6E 4M3
T (604) 689-8899 F (604) 689-8804 Toll free : 1-888-689-6872
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Last Updated on Monday May 17, 2010 by M. Maxine George editor.
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