Make no mistake, it is a bit of a trek to get there, but the moment our plane touched down in Sandakan, a short flight from Kota Kinabalu city, and we crammed ourselves into the minibus heading for the Sungai Kinabatangan river, and braced ourselves for the long, bouncy trip, we knew we were in for something special.
We were enroute to the Borneo Jungle Safari – a fantasy world of wild Orang-utan, monkeys, exotic birds and every kind of insect known to mankind. We were staying for three days and nights at the Nature Lodge Kinabatangan. A strange mix of accommodation ranging from the very utilitarian to junior deluxe suites with signs everywhere telling us to: ‘LOCK YOUR DOORS AND WINDOWS’ ‘DO NOT FEED THE MONKEYS’ ‘BEWARE THE RUNAWAY ELEPHANTS’, ‘MIND THE CROCODILES’ and of course ‘LOOK OUT FOR THE LEECH’.
Terrifying as it was (if you stopped and thought about it too much), the tremor of excitement at being so close in proximity to these creatures on their home turf was a feeling unlike any I’ve ever known. For this Holiday Goddess, going to Borneo was a dream akin to going to Disneyland. I’d fantasised about it since I was a little girl, always favouring toy monkeys, chimps and pandas over those silly little Barbie dolls.
Located along the Sungai Kinabatangan, our lodge is the only trace of civilisation. Around us is the kind of surreal lush greenery that Disney Films are made of, so mind blowingly perfect as to leave you all misty-eyed and full of wonder and profound frustration at the absurdity of what commercialism has done to our natural forests.
A bit of background research reveals that Sungai Kinabatangan is Sabah’s longest river. Logging and clearing for plantations have completely devastated the upper reaches of the river, but somehow the forest near the coast was so hemmed in by oil palm plantations that an astonishing variety of wildlife lives amongst it and is easily seen any time of the year.
Thanks to the WWF (formerly known as the World Wildlife Fund) the forest has been left untouched for our viewing pleasure – the banks of the river and the trees simply brimming with wildlife. They say that the Kinabatangan is one of only two known places on earth where ten primate species can be found and I’m pretty sure we saw them all!
Staying in Nature Lodge Kinabatangan, the staff and the jungle guides are generous and passionate people who live simply and remotely from the outside world. They also like a bit of a sing-a-long and a beer as I discovered when I joined them down at the riverfront one moonlit night. Somehow, don’t ask, I found myself belting out a solo version of Hotel California while Jake, our jungle guide strummed his guitar, and dozens of barefoot children who’d appeared seemingly from nowhere danced around me – I didn’t see that one coming!
There was plenty of organised activity daily, from the 6.00am wake-up call for the dawn boat tour where we would head off for a surreal trip down the river. These trips were without a doubt the best way to see the wildlife because you can see and hear everything in the forest without disturbing it. Here you would spy upon the early morning habits of the macaques, gibbons and of course, the Orang-utans – shy, magnificent and awe inspiring. It’s still hard for me to believe that I actually saw one of these majestic creatures in the wild – but I did (a moment’s silence please) and it’s a moment that I’ll never forget.
You will also see dozens upon dozens of the famous long nosed Proboscis Monkeys and watch as they go about their daily, and quite bizarre, mating habits, along with every kind of rare bird imaginable. The organised jungle walks, both through the day and night, ensured that at as we lay down in our bunks in the black of night and slept like logs, that there was no thought given to the potential of creepy crawlies slithering into our cabin for a look-see.
Before we knew it, it was time to pack up and head back to civilization. Once back in KK, nothing could stop me from looking up in the tree tops hoping if I might spot a cheeky Proboscis monkey pop its Pinocchio nose out and give me a big grin.
I’d go back to Borneo tomorrow if I could. It’s a slice of paradise that tragically won’t be there forever.