Sukau - Lower Kinabatangan River, Borneo

Trip Start Apr 30, 2004
Trip End Jan 28, 2005

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Monday, September 13, 2004

Fri Sep 3rd - Day 121
Sungai Kinabatangan (SK), Sabah's longest river courses 560km from its source in the southwest of the state to a point just east of Sandakan where it empties into the Sulu Sea.

The lower SK foodplain is renowned for its astonishing variety and richness of plant and wildlife and is regarded as one of the best places in not only Borneo, but all of S.E.Asia in which to view it.

This is because much of the wildlife is hemmed in by oil palm plantations into a narrow corridor of rainforest on the northern riverbank. Once again Sabah's economic reliance on oil palm and logging means larger animals such as asian elephant and sumatran Rhino as well as probiscus monkey and orangutans are being squeezed out of their habitat and the river is slowly clogging up with silt.

In the last few years some action has been taken and mostly due to the world wide fund for nature (WWF) 'Partner for Wetlands' project areas of the lower SK are now protectd. But according to wildlife experts regardless of what action is taken in the lower reaches of the river, unless logging upstream is halted, the lower SK has a short future as the damage from deforestation and silting will be too great, and with oil palm barons and loggers making vast sums of money it seems unlikely.

Cheerful stuff, but that's the reality.

Anyway, we had booked a 2 night stay at the Sukau Tomangging River Lodge. Jesse, who was to be our driver and guide picked us up from our hotel in a new and very comfortable Toyota 4x4. A 2 1/2 hour journey with nothing to see but a billion, trillion million oil palms. They are like small squat coconut palms, but instead of coconuts there is an orange coloured fruit from which the oil is extracted. The trees have a 25 year shelf life, then they are cut down and new ones replanted. Jesse tells us the plantations are full of rats who love the fruit and make nests in the trees, and large king cobras who love the rats. Renes decided against doing her girl guide advanced camping badge here.

The only highlight of the drive was spotting a saoring brahminy kite and a white collared kingfisjer.

The last hour of the drive is on a very bumpy, dusty, unsealed road but eventually we reach Sukau, and just beyond is the tiny village of Tomanggong.

The accomodation is in very basic but clean wooden chalets with attached toilet and shower. Across the very small road is the riverside lodge, which has a superb frontage view of the towering Tomanggong limestone outcrop and its undisturbed forest across the river. They have a telescope to view the wildlife and a raised jetty which juts out into the river. Having been lucky enough to see Orangutans in Danum, we are hoping our luck might hold and that we could catch a glimpse of the bizarre looking, only found in Borneo, proboscis monkey.

We dropped our bags in our room, grabbed our camera and binoculars for the late afternoon river trip, walked over to the lodge and had a look through the telescope. There, sat in the trees opposite, were a group of proboscis monkeys. Unbelievable, less than five minutes since arriving. Their social structure is a hareem consisting of a mature male and several female and their young. Their habitat is riverine forest and coastal mangroves. They have partially webbed hind feet and swim well. The male has a huge floppy nose and the female has a smaller upturned nose. The body fur of both is mainly orange and pale grey limbs and white rump and tail. They are the strangest looking monkey and it was great to watch them clattering about in the trees.

Our luck continued on the river trip when we discovered we were the only two guests in the boat. The other guests were all Malays in Sukau for tomorrows National Day celebrations (different parts of Sabah celebrate it on different days).

So it was just us and Jesse in a small open wooden boat with an outboard motor. The river is quite low at the moment as its the middle of the dry season and as always its colour is muddy brown due to the upriver logging. Jesse told us that if we were lucky we may see elephants that sometimes come down to the driver to drink in the dry season. The huge river with its forest lined banks is an awesome sight, we travelled dpwnstream for about 40 mins, then slowly worked our way back. If any of us spotted something the engine would be cut and we'd drift past silently. There was a lot of engine cutting. As well as our small binoculars we were also using the lodges huge Nikon spies binoculars which were fantastic.

The variety of birdlife here is hard to believe, John and Sue you'd love it, drifting along in a boat as amazing coloured and strange named birds fly past and overhead. Hornbills are our favourite and in 2 hours we saw Rhinocerous, Black, Oriental pied, Wrinkled and the Bushy crested Hornbills. Plus a Jerdons Baza (a large bird of prey), the rare Storm's stork and Oriental Darter, dozens of great egrets and dollar birds plus scores of other small birds darting about. To add to this menagerie we also saw proboscis monkeys, silver langur, long tail macaques and a wild boar.

On our way back up river we spotted in the distance two boats (there are a number of lodges in Sukau, each with their own launches) up against the river bank. As we got closer we could see through the binoculars elephants near the river bank, a small herd of Borneo Pygmy Elephants. We couldn't believe it. We also couldn't believe the complete lack of awareness and stupidity of the guides and their charges who had landed their boats and disembarked right in the only spot where these all too rare elephants could get down to the water to drink. Even when a mother with her baby nearby was flapping her ears and trumpetting loudly at them, 3 men, with all the jungle gear on and paparazzi lenses cameras, remained a mere 10 ft away taking photos.

Rene and I were absolutely fuming at these complete muppetts and we let them know exactly what we thought of them. In les than a minute they had been verbally assisted back into their boats. The elephants, too spooked to drink, moved away through the tall riverside bamboo.

Jesse had been completely bemused as to why we hadn't wanted to go right up to the bank and we spent a long time when we got back explaining that it's vital not to get too close, that the elephants drinking is more important than a good photo. Nowhere else we've been would a guide have allowed anyone near a mother with her young, least of all an elephant, and it seems bizarre that here in an area of such abundant but threatened wildlife there aren't at least some wildlife viewing guielines. What can you do!

Mosquito net assembly leaves us exhausted, so it's an early night.

Expenses (7 ringgit / pound): Sukau trip 680, internet 15, flip flops 22, lunch 14, laundry 16

Sat Sep 4th - Day 122
The rambuttan tree above our chalet was fruiting and we were woken as something was feeding and dropping the empty cases onto our corrugated roof.

At 6.10 the river was earily quiet and shrowded in early morning mist. We headed up stream and entered one of the many narrow tributaries full of islands of purple water hyacinth and the remnants of fallen trees and branches.

The mist quickly lifted as the sun rose behind the forest, sending shafts of light through the canopy. With the haunting hooting of distant gibbons and the unmistakeable call of the hornbills it couldn't have been a more perfect Borneo morning.

Every now and then on the river a very pungent smell hits your nostrills, it's a strange, unique smell, neither nasty or nice. It's the semll of the proboscis monkey and a sure sign they're nearby. And they were, about 8 of them in the trees lokking down curiously at us as they ate their breakfast leaves.

The constricting waterway was alive with birds, many fishing such as the white bellied fish eagle, oriental darter, great egret and the blue eared kingfishers, all perched and alert. Hornbills flew overhead. Lizard statues lay on logs and we heard the distinctive call of a straw crowned bulbul, apparently.

As we chugged our way back to Tomanggong with a gentle breeze in our face and the sun at that lovely, just up temperature, we couldn't think of a better way to spend the first 2 hours of a day.

Breakfast Tomanggong style was thick fried noodles with banana balls. Odd but tasty. A morning of half hearted verandeh based binocularing. By 10am everythings hidden, it's too hot to be out. The only noise was from a man in a 6ft long plywood boat with a disproportionately large outboard motor, practising for the afternoons National Day sppedboat race further down river.

Jesse was taking us on another afternoon river trip at 4pm, instead of the night cruise which we didn't fancy. He'd also agreed to take us along to watch a local football final in Sukau village. So at 2.55 we drove the 5 mins to the pitch.

Proper goal pasts with orange nets, a flat if bumpy pitch, with a large sandpit centre circle and aggressive, prickly grass. The Peel sized wooden stand had its back to Sukau village and a David Beckham penalty at one end would see the ball in a field of oil palm and at the other end soaring towards the mighty SK river.

The crowd was building slowly as the Sukau team changed unabashed in front of the stand. For some reason the opposition team from the village of PAris (honest) changed amongst the trees and undergrowth behind the goal. The teams warmed up less than half heartedly, and in the scorching 35C heat who could blame them. The PA announcer (it was Peel) was sat next to the trophy table, and was I presume, introducing the teams to the now considerable crowd. The teams lined up for a photo and then did a crap sought of Mexican wave to the crowd, who clapped unenthusiastically back. Very strange. Even stranger was the fact it was 9 a side. Up until now everything looked set for a decent standard of football. Proper nets, half decent pitch, a stand, a crowd and teams with boots and matching kit. Kick off soon put me straight, it was dire, absolute bobins, five minutes in Rene commented that her Nana was beter than Sukaus left back, but I'm still not sure, it's been a while since Win played.

First half highlights were whenever the ball went in the centre circle and great cloudes of dust obscured play for a while. Half time was a blessing. It also heralded the arrival of a Malaysian minister and his entourage, who were in Sukau for the National Day celebrations. Five Toyota Landcruisers bedecked in Malaysian flags parked up by the touchline and out they all trooped. The Minister who obviously wasn't shy of a free lunch and was wearing one of those shiny, flowery shirts that Nelson Mandela always has on, made his way to the stand where a row of seats had been set up for him and his gang. If he was attempting to look interested he wasn't showing it as he slumped down. The players returned to the pitch and lined up facing the stand. The minister then wlaked over, shook hands with all the players, had his photo taken, got back in his vehicle and was gone. He hadn't seen a second of football, but then again, nor had I.

Rene and I left too, we hadn't come all the way to Borneo to watch local football (well Rene hadn't) and due to a late kick off it was now 4.30pm. Jesse on the other hand stayed put, he didn't want to miss the second half, and told us he'd take us out on the river in the morning instead. We weren't best pleased, but left him to it and walked back to the lodge. On the way we saw six Rhinocerous Hornbills.

Jesse got back to the lodge at 5.15 and offered to take us on the river for half an hour or so before dark. We jumped at the chance and within 10 minutes were again watching the elephants. 2 other boats were already there, in against the bank but to one side. The elephants, about 15 of them, were taking it in turns of about 3 or 4 at a time to take a drink. We were about 30 yards out with the engine off, driftin, when one of the other boats decided he wasn't close enough. He turned his engine on and drove straight towards the drinking elephants, who on being startled retreated quickly away from the bank. If we'd had a canon we'd have sunk him, but we didn't so he was verbally hairdryed out of the way. He got the message, and slowly the elephants returned to drink and one even had a long swim. As the sum set they one by one headed of up the river bank and disappeared into the trees for a bamboo barbeque. We disappeared for dinner and another early night.

Expenses: Beer 14

Sunday Sep 5th - Day 123
Out on the river at 5.45am. A beautiful clear still morning. The river appeared to be steaming as we rtavelled down stream and then turned into a different tributary. The sky glowed orange behind us as once again we weaved between water hyacinths and long ago fallen trees.

We saw and smelt proboscis and floated silently under a tree full of pig tailed monkeys, one of which, with us directly below him, proceeded to wee on us. A very funny, cheeky, monkey.

We also saw lots of stork billed kingfishers, including a mating pair singing to each other, a purple heron, ninor birds, jerdons baza, brahminy kite, common cuckoo, black hornbill, egrets and oriental darters. Another stunning ealry morning on the Kinabatangan river.

We left the lodge at 8am as Jesse had more guests to pick up, and by 10.30 we were back in Sandakan. A cancellation meant we managed to get a room back at the Mayfair Hotel. The rest of the day sort of evaporated.

Expenses: Lunch 15, internet 3, tea bags 9.40, chocolate 6.40, dinner 20.
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