It is early in the morning. A group of backpackers and I have just got off the bus in the middle of nowhere and are now headed towards a group of taxis. We ask the drivers to take us to different tour operators near Sepilok, but there is just one problem. My tour operator, Uncle Tan’s wildlife adventures is in the opposite direction. I start walking, but soon realize that I have no idea how far I am supposed to walk.
Surprising everyone on my Borneo safari
I find a small group of local men sitting at a bus stop and decide to ask them for direction, but they don’t speak English and I don’t speak Malaysian. All the sudden a woman comes by. She speaks a bit English and knows where the camp- She makes arrangement for a car to drive me, but the driver takes a wrong turn and ends up at family Tan’s house. Luckily they can explain him which way to go and after short ride we end up at the Kinabatangan River, where I am met by three astonished men. They have never met a traveler, who managed to make their way to the river on their own. They don’t know what to do. They place me at the jetty while they call the head office. I am told that I have to wait for a few hours before I’ll be able to travel to the camp, but we leave a few minutes later.
The boat moves slowly down the Kinabatangan River. The huge trees surrounding the river, a shout out from a long tailed macaque and the colorful kingfisher flying next to the boat immediately tells me that we have left civilization and entered Borneo’s jungle. The only thing reminding us of the modern world is the low sound of the boat’s working engine.
For the next hour and a half my guide takes me up the river to our small jungle camp, which is hidden between the mighty trees. Our eyes are focused on the treetops during the short ride, in hopes of seeing the remarkable orang-utan, but without luck. We arrive at the jetty and are welcomed with smiles and laugher. They are also surprised to see me and feel guilty that they haven’t prepared any food for my arrival, but I get some of the leftovers from breakfast for lunch. I spend my time in the eating area talking to the guides, listing to music and writing my diary before the rest of the group arrive.
Settling in at the jungle camp
We all get a small tour of the camp and then get some time to settle in. The camp area is big with several toilets, a dining area, a small football field, several huts and a footpath above the mud and between all the areas. We are shown to our Spartan hut, where we are going to stay for the next two nights. All we have for those nights is a roof to keep our heads dry, a mosquito net to keep animals away and a thin mattress to sleep on.
The toilets look like a “regular” western toilet, but it is just for the appearance, it is basically a hole in the ground. We are all advised to put food and everything with an odor into huge plastic buckets to keep rats away from our bags. We all meet in the dining area for a cup of tea and a small chat. Our group is small and consist of a Canadian couple, five Dutchmen and two other Danes.
After a few hours of relaxation we are properly introduced to the camp staff. Every staff member is presented for the group and every time we are cheering and clapping the best we learned. After a great dinner we are all heading down to the boats. It is time for the night safari. We are all sitting in the boats surrounded by darkness. A single flashlight helps us search for animals. We don’t see a lot of animals that night, but it is an exciting experience to sail in the dark. Tiredness catches up with me in the boat, so I decide to go to sleep just after the safari while the rest of the group head for the dining area.
The attack of the fire ants
The next morning we wake up at 6 a.m. because of two guides shouting: “Morning safari, morning safari in half an hour!” Hardly awake we all manage to roll down from our mattress. We all check our bags to see if any rats passed by during the night. After months of travelling with food, Elyse and Brad (the Canadians) are the only ones getting their bags bitten by rats. We head down to the jetty and board the boats. We are all tired, but sitting on the edge of the seat with excitement. Every time the guides point out animals along the river we are hold our breaths. It is magnificent to see wild animals in their right environment.
This morning we see a beautiful kingfisher, elegant herons, mighty eagles, cheeky macaques and our first proboscis monkey. The first part of the safari passes by quickly, but after a while our butts get soar and our stomachs start complaining. It is time to get back to the camp, where a great breakfast is waiting for us. Fresh fruit, toast, pancakes, tea and coffee fill our empty stomachs.
Cruising the Kinabatangan river
After the breakfast we prepare for the jungle trek by dressing up in high jungle fashion; long trousers stuffed in long socks and our Adida Kampung (a pair of Adidas looking rubber shoes we bought in Sandakan for RM 5) or a pair of wellies. When everyone is ready we jump down trails onto the mud. I am one of the first down. All the sudden one of the guides yells: “RUN, FIRE ANTS RUN!!” but it is too late. As one of the first people on the ground I am bitten by the ants. The excruciating, stinging pains from the bites are going to follow me for the rest of the day.
The jungle trek is still amazing. Unluckily we don’t find a lot of animals, but the week before they saw a small group of pygmy elephants. We do come across a pill millipede, which rolls into a ball immediately, spiders, tree frogs and a poisonous hairy caterpillar. Ali and Along tell us about how the population of Borneo spend the woods of the jungle on houses, furniture and communication by hitting the trees. How people and plantations cut down a lot of the trees until 60-70’s without knowing the consequences of their actions. Today Uncle Tan’s Wildlife Camp fights for the jungle and its inhabitants by keeping the camp as ecological as possible and by planting new trees in the jungle. We swing in the lianas, sit on huge tree roots and enjoy the flora of Borneo.
Our guides: Ali and Along – they do not work at the camp anymore, but have used their earnings to get a degree
An eventful river safari
After the trek we have some free time and the staffs quickly suggest a football match on the small field next to the dining area. Teams are quickly formed. The staff are well trained and aren’t afraid of showing off some tricks, but team players, so everyone including me and the two other Danes get a chance with the ball.
We are having so much fun, it is hard to play in the mud, but I still score a goal. The game stops when a small rainfall passes by. We seek shelter under the roof of the dining area and spend time playing card, drinking tea and coffee, listing to music, napping and getting to know each other even more. Before we know it, it is time for the next boat safari.
Brad after a small “accident”
We spot the first gibbons high up in the trees, a couple of different birds including a beautiful Hornbill, a small frog. After spending some time on the water the Canadian guy, Brad needs to use the toilet. We are far away from the camp and wouldn’t able to return immediately and the Brad can’t hold himself. So we end up sailing close to the riverside to drop him off and then ride away to give him some privacy.
Not long after the drop off we hear a scream. Apparently the mud was so soft that he sinks in so deep that the mud covers his knees. Nature is still calling, so he tries to walk further towards the jungle to pee. When he is done he calls the boat again. We pick him up and he washes his legs in the river while we sail away. We spend some time searching for more wildlife before watching the beautiful sunset and heading to one of the guides’ favourite spots on the river. From there we are able to see a swarm of flying foxes heading towards the jungle to eat.
Back in the camp we are served an amazing dinner. A part of the group grabs their head torches and join Ali and Along for another trek in the jungle. It is completely different walking about in a jungle hemmed in darkness than walking in it during daylight. We are all a bit tense to see what we might come across. Not far into the jungle we see the first animal, a huge Malayan porcupine, which quickly disappear into the night.
During the trek we see a lot of animals including sleeping birds, a beautiful butterfly, a bat eating. We walk up and small hill and are suddenly surrounded by small points of lights, fireflies. It is magnificent and truly magical being surrounded by lights. Ali catches a few fireflies and hand them out to the group, so we are all able to hold one, studying it and releasing it back into nature, where it belongs. We head back to the dining area, all uplifted by the wonderful night trek.
A bat eating during our night walk
A magical evening at the camp
The rest of the group and staff are already there. We all spend hours together drinking beers, whisky, telling stories and playing the guitar while singing along. We are all singing a song while we all the sudden hear something nearby. Everyone stop and listen intently. Then out of the dark jumps a rare marbled cat right next to the dining area. We realize how lucky we have been when the staffs jump up and down in excitement. The cat was only there for a few seconds before it headed back into the darkness.
We return to the singing full of joy and enjoy the evening until the lights go out at midnight. In the light of our headlamps we find our way back to the hut, brush our teeth and go to bed. It is not easy to sleep tonight. It is the rainy season and during the night we get to experience the heavy rain, wind, thunder and lightning that Borneo can offer and during the night a few from the group are even woken by rats running next to the mattress.
On day three we are once again woken by the guides shouting: “Morning safari, morning safari in half an hour!” We get ready and walk down the trail to the jetty, but are all surprised because of a thick tree lying on the trail. It must have fallen during the night; several people from the group heard it fall. The tree is so huge that we actually have to climb it to get pass. We hit the river once again, but we don’t see anything new. We see a lot of birds, a huge number of macaques, a few gibbons and a couple of proboscis monkeys. We are all really tired and some of us are even taking small naps on the boat.
The guides sense our lack of enthusiasm and ask whether we want to see another heron or just want to go back to the camp. We all agree to go back to the camp, where we fill our stomachs with today’s breakfast. We spend some time packing our bags and heads towards the dining area again. We spend the last minutes talking, laughing and saying goodbye to the staff.
Then we are taking down the river one last time to reach the pick-up point for the minibus to Uncle Tan’s office at Sepilok. We may not have seen the orangutan or the pygmy elephants, but we have had great fun and a wonderful time thanks to each other and the staff at Uncle Tan’s Wildlife Camp. We have made new friends and memories enough for a lifetime.
The entire team
Kinabatangan River travel information
Company: Uncle Tan’s wildlife adventure camp
Price: RM 420 (+ RM 10 in conservation fee) –
must be paid in cash, they don’t have a credit card machine
This tour is NO way sponsered by Uncle Tan, it was just the company I used when I travelled Borneo back in 2011.
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