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Kinabatangan River

June 27

By 6:45 am we were loaded up and more than happy to be walking out of the Semporna Inn! We had a bus to catch bound for Kinabatangan to do a 2 night, 3 day stay at the Nature Lodge where we heard we could see orang-utans, monkeys, including the Proboscis, and if we were very lucky pygmy elephants. I was doing a happy dance – despite the weight of my pack.

At about noon we got dropped at the side of the road in Kinabatangan. We were to meet at a café of sorts and had the name written down, now to find it. It’s a bit unnerving to be dropped at the side of a road, in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language – or read it. I stayed with the bags and had every mini-bus driver stop, honk at me and offer rides, while James walked down the road looking for our shop. Once we found it we settled in with chicken fried rice (the old standby) yummy lemon iced-tea (fresh, that I am now addicted to) and our kindles to wait for our 1:30 pm-ish pick up.

At about 2 pm-ish our ride showed up and we crammed into a minivan with a bunch of other foreigners. The scenery so far for the day had been pretty much palm trees. It is very sad to see the amount of land (jungle?) taken over for the palm oil plantations.

A side note on Borneo: Borneo, the 3rd largest island in the world, is divided between Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei. It was once densely covered with rainforests but it (along with its tropical lowlands and highland forests) has seen extensive deforestation (in about the last 60 years). The cause is a combination of humans moving in, burning, logging, being replaced with agriculture and, most dramatically, palm oil plantations. From wicki - Between 1967 and 2000 the area under cultivation in Indonesia expanded from less than 2,000 square kilometres (770 sq mi) to more than 30,000 square kilometres (12,000 sq mi). Deforestation in Indonesia for palm oil (and illegal logging) is so rapid that a 2007 United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report said that most of the country’s forest might be destroyed by 2022. The rate of forest loss has declined in the past decade. That’s crazy, and seeing it firsthand (and in Sumatra, Indonesia last year) is a bit scary. James and I started to look up palm oil and how we could use/eat less, but as far as we can see EVERYTHING has it! If you are interested, I can send you my things to avoid list……but be warned, at the top is Kit Kat chocolate bars.

Proboscis Monkey Hanging Out

So back at the Lodge…..we got dropped off at a wooded dock in a beautiful jungle area, no palm trees could be seen, and caught a boat for the very short ride across the river to our lodge. We were met by the very organized and friendly staff who served us cold juice as they went through the itinerary for the next three days. How fun! Once checked in we had time to drop our bags in our very tiny wooded hut and grab our life jackets for our evening boat ride on the river.

The river was so peaceful. We passed a tiny village that had a cute mosque and a few other lodges but other than that it was jungle. How refreshing. About 10 minutes into the journey our guide spotted a crocodile, yikes! No kayaking for us later. It lay still in the water waiting for the many many many monkeys to get too close so he could eat them. We were hopeful – monkeys are evil. We putted on our way a little further until a large monitor lizard was seen creeping along the river bank looking for crocodile eggs – seems only fair if the crock is out hunting monkeys. Of course I have to mention there were all kids of birds. Sorry, we aren’t big birders but everyone kept getting excited at how many horned billed something or others there were.

Sunset On The River

We took a right turn down a tiny tributary of the river and immediately saw about a hundred or so monkeys, and a few different kinds. (By the end of the 3 days we would see five different species of monkeys, in abundance.) At dusk they head to trees at the river’s edge to find a safe place to sleep. Our guide slowly putted down the river pointing out different monkeys and birds and we sat back and watched like it was a nature movie. Finally we caught a glimpse of the shy proboscis monkey! It honestly looked like he was peering around a tree trunk at us, curious to see what we were doing. This group was also finding safe places to sleep in tress and you could hear them talking back and forth, the dominate male louder and grumpier, all arguing who gets the best places. It was amazing. Other than the odd glance our way, they went about their business of settling in. After what seemed like only a few short minutes our guide said it was time to turn back. Luckily we had a few more boat trips on the schedule. On the way home we had our eyes peeled for the pygmy elephant. Jess, our friend from Myanmar, had seen them only a few weeks ago and we (I) was so excited we might too. We didn’t see the elephants but a few more birds, monkeys and an amazing sunset over the river.

I think I actually heard the leeches laughing - JW

Back at the lodge we had time to take a look around and settle in before dinner. What a beautiful spot! The cabin was a bit….rustic, but clean and the staff very helpful and organized. The jungle, although a bit scary with the giant lizards and monkeys and bats and crocs, was amazing and just what I hoped for. We almost skipped this bit of Borneo to do some diving and am so happy we didn’t.

All meals were included and served in an open air restaurant where we got to sit and chat and speculate with the other travelers. As usual we got lucky and ended up with a great group from all over; China, Nepal, Germany and France.

After dinner we got ready for our night walk through the forest….where there are leeches! YUK! YUK! YUK! I did everything I’d read to prevent getting them and ended up layered in clothing and sweating my ass off. James enjoyed the look.

Stick Bugs

To be honest we didn’t see much, a few stick bugs, a few spiders, lots of elephant poo and even more mud, but it was still fun. After the hike we drilled our guide about the allusive elephants and he sadly informed us that they were nowhere near and in fact in the interior of the jungle – not near the river. Seeing them would be unlikely. “sigh”

James and I headed to bed, we were tired after our day of fresh air and excitement. We closed the window screens but opened the wooded shutters so we could see and hear the jungle around us. A bit scary to be honest, but amazing. From my bed I could see the stars through a break in the trees and had to pinch myself to make sure it was real.

June 28

5:45 am the gong rang out announcing it was 5 minutes until our next activity, the morning boat ride. UGH! We hauled our butts out of bed and sleepily grabbed our life jackets and headed to the dock. It was a short, quiet, boat ride. We saw birds, crocodiles and of course – monkeys.

Cute Little Leech

At breakfast we relaxed with coffee with fresh milk (such a treat!) and enjoyed the jungle waking up. It was so peaceful. After breakfast the manager of the lodge asked us to come to the reception desk. I guess there was a misunderstanding with our booking, I booked for 2 nights and the travel agency who booked it only sent in a request for 1. After bring up emails and explaining we wanted to stay (actually the boat and minivan had left, we had to stay) there was still a bit of confusion so we left for our nature hike and said we’d figure it out later.

The nature hike was not quite what we expected. There was a lot of mud, a lot! So we basically slopped through muck that came almost to our knees (we had rented rubber boots) and stared at our feet for a few hours….sat for a break at the lake…..and slopped back to the lodge…staring at our feet trying not to fall. Oh, and trying not to get leeches. It wasn’t a highlight, and we didn’t see much but we got some exercise and it was a hike through a Borneo rainforest. Things could definitely be worse.

After lunch the manager came and found us. The travel agent who booked us wanted to talk to us. HUH? Okay. She admitted that after reading my emails it was clear we wanted 2 nights but she had quoted us for one so we’d have to pay the extra. Okay. Not like we had any other choice. To be honest, if we had of known the real price we may not have go ne. It was very expensive considering we were in Malaysia and had just spent a month paying $13 a night for a hotel and $15-$20 a day for both of us for food (and we ate well). The 2 nights, 3 days at the lodge cost $150 /person. We could have saved a few bucks if we’d stayed in a dorm but they didn’t have lockers and we don’t like to take chances with our stuff. Once there, I was glad of the mix up because I loved it. We assured the manager we’d pay the difference and headed off to have afternoon tea. A few steps down the walk he called out to us. “Do you want to move to an Agamid Wing Chalet?” James went to shrug no, but I was quicker. The Agamid Wing was a newer wing of big, beautiful chalets with hot water showers and views of the forest. We were surprised, how nice. Just goes to show what niceness gets you. The manager followed us to our tiny cabin and helped us move all our stuff to the fancy wing.

We finally had afternoon tea in the open air restaurant. It was pouring rain out and the group of us had a great time trading travel stories. Borneo seems to attract well-seasoned travelers and the stories were funny and interesting. Just before our evening boat ride the rain cleared up and we again grabbed our life jackets and headed for the dock. A few new faces had showed up, all excited and hopeful. Cute! Our guide started off and we saw another croc, monkeys and a few birds. Early into the trip we were rewarded with a single lone orang-utan. He was sitting high up in a tree and we could barely see him but he was there. An orang-utan in the wild!

A few minutes later our guide cut the engine and explained that the elephants were down the river and we could speed down and hopefully catch them before they headed back in to the forest. Ah yes! The new comers sorta shrugged, I quietly threatened that anyone disagreeing would be thrown overboard and we’d pick them up on the way back. So away we zoomed!

How can I even describe how exciting it was! We were in the back of the boat, in front of the guide, and as we passed other boats he’d hand signal the drivers then have a huge beaming smile on his face. OMG! Would we make it? We came around a bend and saw about 4 other boats along the shore in the distance. And on the shore – ELEPHANTS!

We sat and watched them until they slowly headed back into the forest. They are such amazing animals. So graceful and funny all at the same time. These are pygmy elephants, so much smaller than I’ve seen before, but still pretty big. I asked if I could go up on to the shore to see them better but the guide said no, the park authorities were there and wouldn’t allow us. Hmmmm, so if they hadn’t been there?

A video of one of the elephants (Click on picture for link to video - 2.4MB)

Eventually the guide reluctantly turned the boat back down the river. There were the newbies on the boat who hadn’t seen anything really but the elephants and the outline of an orang-utan and as amazing as they were, it wasn’t really fair to sit and wait for the elephants to maybe come back.

We ended up back on the “monkey” tributary and were surprised to see a giant tree full, and I mean full, of monkeys. There were about three different kinds of monkey all playing and chatting and sleeping and some even getting up to some “monkey business”, as our guide called it. It was like a village festival was going on. On the other side of the river we were treated to more cute proboscis monkeys. Finally our guide turned the boat around and we headed back to the lodge, we were a little late for dinner but well worth it.

After another friendly dinner James and I went back to our new fancy chalet, opened the curtains fully and sat and watched the rainforest. We could have done another mud/leech night walk but decided to enjoy just looking at the rainforest not interacting with it. Let someone else feed the leeches.

Enjoying the view from Nipah Lodge before almost being eaten

June 29

We had seen everything we came to see so decided to enjoy a coffee (well for me) and the jungle around us instead of another 6 am boat ride…a great indication of how beautiful the place is if I am getting up at 6 am to enjoy it. Around 7:30 we wandered down for breakfast and then got ready to check out. What a great experience.

A few hours later we were dropped again at the side of the road but luckily the Lodge had called the Nipah Lodge, where we were staying tonight, and they were waiting for us. After a short bumpy ride we pulled into to the lodge. A beautiful wooden structure built out over the mangrove swamp and surrounded by jungle and palm trees. We checked in to the eerily quiet dorms, we had a room that slept 9 to ourselves, and thought we might actually be the only ones staying here.

After dropping our bags we headed back to reception to catch our free ride to…..drum roll please!....the Labuk Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary. We could have stayed about an hour away in Sandakan and done a day trip but by staying at the Lodge we could do as many feedings as we were there for, not to mention the lodge was in the jungle not a city.

The Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary was started in about 1994 by a palm oil plantation owner when he learned about the proboscis monkeys and their struggle for survival. The 400 acres he originally bought for commercial development (Oil Palm Plantation) was quickly changed so the monkeys could continue to survive without fear of losing their natural habitat. As the food sources dwindled efforts were made to supplement the monkey’s diet and water, fruit and eventually sugar free pancakes were supplied. Today something like 60 proboscis monkeys, as well as other monkey species, come for regular feedings to both platforms. In total there are about 400 proboscis monkeys in the sanctuary. The two platforms have 2 feedings each per day and the monkeys, although wild, get up close and personal with the visitors. You can stay 30-40 minutes away from the park or right in their own new Lodge, the Nipah, where we were staying.

We had arrived a few minutes early for the 11:30 am feeding and saw a bunch of proboscis monkeys hanging out in the trees. They are so much like little old men, sitting around in little groups, chatting and playing with their kids. When the big alpha male came along all the young bachelors screeched and ran off. The monkeys have a main pack consisting of the alpha male and the females, his harem. The second group (s) is made up of the bachelors, males over the age of 3 or 4. The alpha male stomped around for a bit, made a bunch of noise and then settled down in the prime seat for, what I figured would be, eating. Yup, a few minutes later a young (very brave I’d say) guide took out bowls of fruit and pancakes. He dropped them in a few places around the park and from all over the jungle the monkeys started to crawl, jump, run, swing…out of the trees. It was quite a site. They fought a bit over the food but eventually settled in for some serious eating.

While there the guides also called in giant birds and other monkeys and fed some by hand, they were very friendly and answered all 152 of my silly questions.

Scary Lizard

After the feeding we went back to our lodge to have lunch and relax. Like I said, the lodge is built out over mangrove swamps and we found a quiet place (well it was all quiet, we were in fact the only quests) to sit and read with a view of the tiny river/stream that led to the back of the Lodge and jungle. James wandered off for a few minutes and left me alone… to be eaten by Monitor Lizards! I saw a movement out of the corner of my eye and a huge monitor lizard (James’ Note: if she’s scared of a 5ft lizard, the Komodo dragons should prove interesting next month) was creeping up the back steps to the deck I was sitting on. I squealed and jumped on top of my chair and shooed it with my kindle. It stopped, turned around and went back a step or two, giving me enough time to jump down and run for help. Help laughed at me…but did return to take pictures.


About 1:30 we left for another feeding. It was at a different platform and didn’t have the variety of other monkeys or birds that the other had but the walk to it was down a long dock over the mangrove swamp and we saw the very ugly mud skipper fish. (James’ Note: I plan on carrying one of these around with me from now on, to whip out anytime someone doubts evolution…a fish walking around on fins breathing air, that pretty much settles that)

This turned out to be one of my favourite ever animal experiences. One male, not the alpha, was fed by the guide right beside the platform and after trying to fit all his pancakes in at once and gagging them back out (a classic Susan move James says?!?) he sat watching us as we watched him. Honestly, the cutest thing ever!

Finally full, my new friend went back into the jungle and we went back to the other platform. There was a movie the guide said we should watch about the sanctuary and the monkeys before the last feeding of the day. I enjoyed the movie and James had a good nap. It was very….ahhhh….accurate in describing and showing how the monkeys live, play, fight for control of the harem and repeatedly how they take “care” of the harem. Apparently if the alpha male does not please his wives they will just go visit the young bachelors. Not a bad set up! (James’ Note: As soon as I have my harem, you can have your occasional visit to the bachelors)

A few more proboscis monkeys coming to visit (Click on picture for link to video - 4.7MB)

The movie wasn’t quite done but we heard pounding on the roof, it must be the alpha male coming to stake his place, so we bailed and were surprised when we entered the platform. There were long tail macaws all over the place being fed long green beans, a few small proboscis monkeys and some big birds flying around. Yikes! This feeding was quite interactive and the guides encouraged the visitors to get a little closer for pictures. (James’ Note: Interactive is an understatement, it was mayhem. The viewing platform in the jungle has a nice railing with signs warning the tourists not to cross. Not sure what use they are since the platform itself was filled with monkeys, at least 4 types, not always getting along with the tourists or each other) At one point I was backing up from a scary (actually cute) little monkey and one ran past on the banister and brushed my arm. Yup, a wild monkey touched me! And I reacted just as you would expect…ran to the guide for cover, James, my first choice, was off taking pictures.

The guides fed the monkeys a bit more slowly this time and they hung around longer and more came up to the platform. A very aggressive kind of monkey (I’m learning the kinds) was around scaring the non-aggressive proboscis monkeys and the guides were chasing them away, although still feeding them a bit too. Eventually the monkeys had fed and made their way back into the jungle and our guide came looking for us.

A few of the other monkeys around

We were taken back to the Lodge for dinner and a wonderfully quiet night reading over the mangrove swamp. Throughout the night we were treated to monkeys, another monitor lizard, bats, birds…even a scruffy dog that looked a little afraid of the monkeys. What a great place! The problems seemed to start when we finally decided to shower and go to bed. I had never thought about how very dark this place would be at night and the lights to our wing (dock) were off. Nothing would get me down it, not even with the tiny flashlight James had. It was so scary, nature can be very scary. Lol James finally found the light switch and we grabbed towels and soap and used the female showers together, there was no freakin way I was being left alone.

James’ Lengthy Note. Susan understates the creepiness of the night there. The lodge sleeps about 200 guests, in 12 dorm rooms and a bunch of chalets…and we were the only ones spending the night. I assume there were staff somewhere but I hadn’t seen any sign of them in a couple of hours when we decided to make our way to our dorm. The dorm was about 500 ft down a wooden walkway through a jungle, and all the lights were out, and the sky overcast to be sure we had no moonlight. I will admit I was a little nervous, but it wasn’t that silly nervous back home where your imagination gets the better of you, we knew for a fact what was around. We’d spent days looking at the various animals that could hurt us…”that snake is only medium poisonous”…”those scratches are from wild boar”. Three days in a row, three different guides had pointed out the same type of monkey and warned us that they were very aggressive and under no circumstances should you make eye contact. The same species of monkey that had been gathering around our chairs in the afternoon a few hundred feet away. If they don’t like eye contact, I’m sure being blinded by my flashlight was really going to impress them. I think the only thing that got us to our beds through the last scariest 100 ft was Susan deciding she was going to find the waitress from earlier so she could go ahead of us and turn on the lights. There was no way I was going to let my wife go ask a girl who looked to be about 15 years old and 85 lbs to go ahead of us, apparently that is the limit for my manly pride.

I know I am constantly telling people to add things to their “bucket lists” but honestly any animal lover should try to get to the the Labuk Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary with a stay at the Nipah Lodge. This whole area can easily be reached from Kota Kinbalau, even as a day trip, but I’d suggest a few days. Most people do the Sepilok Orang- Utan Sanctuary but then skip the proboscis monkeys, and what a shame. It was a great place to get up close and personal with them and was also very educational.

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