We will meet in Sukau

A journal of my recent travel to the Kinabatangan River, one of the best places for wildlife viewing in Borneo.

Now as I am writing this, a tiny house bat brushed past my face twice.

The area is serene, while the air is clean and the environment – almost magical. As if the air itself is infused with vigor and life.

Not 5 minutes after Winston came up to me to hand me my room keys, Saat the Lodge Manager pulled me away from the growing crowd that was congregating around Mr. Teo, the Managing Director of the Sukau Rainforest Lodge.

“Good!” I thought.

This would give me the opportunity to empty my bladder which has been retaining fluid for the whole 2-hour overland journey from Sandakan to Sukau.

But then again, odds would always play cruelly against your will. I was brought to the Information Gallery instead.

“Macaques..” Saat said.

I looked at him oddly and then asked him why, after several seconds of uncomfortable silence.

He pointed to one of the hanging Coconut Pots which barely had a living plant in it, and explained that a troop of long-tailed macaques have been hanging around the lodge and eating the flowering orchids. Apparently they have acquired the taste for orchids, especially the bright succulent ones.

And as I nodded in comprehension, we reached the information gallery which was at the other end of the verandah.

It was rather cool, like a scene out of a jungle movie, with shaded areas complimented by warm lighting and Borneo motifs, quite fashionable as it had the minimalistic décor effect that everyone was after nowadays.

Strolling further down, I realized that we were already walking along a covered pathway, apparently 1.45 km which looked pretty mysterious. I had to remind myself constantly that I am in the rainforest of Borneo, the real thing, not museum stuff that we are all used to.

The sounds, the darkness, the dampness, the smell…. Wait a minute!

What about the ‘Sights’?

Well, this was explained to me in detail by Saat that unlike the grasslands of Africa, animals in the deep rainforests are masters of camouflage. You may smell them, you may hear them, but don’t be disappointed if you don’t see them. They’re there alright, perhaps calmly looking down at pale-skinned bipeds (humans) walking past, just occasionally croaking, or chirping, or hooting to get us all excited every once in a while. And to think that we rule the world. SHEESH!

One thing is for sure though. It is pretty obvious why this piece of heaven is called a rainforest. The very air that you breathe in causes your nostrils to go damp. My bed is damp, my shirt is damp, the floor is damp, and even this notebook that I am writing on is limp from the moisture in the air.

Scanning the parameters of my room, a bible sits all crinkly on the nightstand, while my bed-side lamp flickers from the surge in electricity, which gives it the effect of candlelight, but brighter.

Don’t get me wrong about the dampness though. It’s surprisingly cooler here than in the bustling city, and obviously quieter, evident from the efficiency and speed of my writing. Finally, for once I can hear myself think again.

Recalling the rest of the evening that just went past, I think I should have taken the boat up so that I could ride the Kinabatangan to spot wildlife, and now I am jealously admiring the excitement felt by the guests that witnessed an Orang Utan and a troop of Proboscis Monkey during the afternoon boat trip. I promised myself that I’d be on the first boat out for the River Safari in the morning.

I am hungry. The faint smell of garlic sweating over a hot stove from the nearby kitchen has enticed my appetite. Oh dear! Now I am thinking of the superb lunch I had with a couple of friends at Sim Sim Market in Sandakan earlier; juicy and flaky grilled fish and rice, with a generous helping of Calamari and vegetable ala Java. There were 3 of us eating but I only paid RM 25. BARGAIN!!

Back to reality. Apparently dinner is an experience on its own here at Sukau Rainforest Lodge. Firstly, I have never seen that many people in batik sarong, and secondly dinner is served on the jetty, under the stars. Best of all is, at the sound of 3 gong beats, dinner is announced ‘served’, just like at a western country farm, except with Borneo Class added to it.

Dinner was delightful, about 1 hour after everyone has taken their meal, Brett (the workaholic Ozzy) and I finally sat down to have ours. The meal was buffet style with a mixture of local delicacies and western favorites, but what astounded me was the soup which was super-super good and made me want to go for second or third helping, if only pride wasn’t an issue.

Oh! I almost forgot. Before Brett and I sat down, while comparing our prowess at alcohol consumption, Stinky the Fishing Owl came splashing into the water and then bounced onto the river bank. To be honest with you, I thought Stinky was a dog at first and wouldn’t believe it when Brett told me it was a fishing owl. As far as my eyes could see, it was a brown thing moving about in the grasses and was pretty big. And then Brett explained that the Fishing Owl is one of the biggest of its kind and are pretty common along the Kinabatangan.

Hmm.. I am more motivated to go on the morning river cruise now.

Realizing that I was one of the last at the Melapi jetty (Brett left earlier as someone was looking for him), I slowly made my way back to the lounge. I could see that the slideshow was already on, but what really caught my attention were two enormous geckos on the wall. Looking more like miniature dinosaurs instead of tiny lizards, these animals could apparently grow up to 1 feet in length, compared to the 3 inches for the common house gecko and 1.5 inches for certain forest geckos. The giant Borneo Gecko emits a ‘Tok kay’ shrill repeatedly as a mark of territorial dominance. I was awed as I’ve never seen geckos this big in my life. Wish I had one at home.

An Australian lady here told me that she had always wanted to visit Borneo ever since she first heard of it when she was 13. Now, 45 years later, she finally fulfilled her dreams. I asked her, what made her want to visit Borneo and she replied “the animals, the tribes, the rainforest, the name Borneo”. It made me feel blessed to hear this from someone else. I now realize that a place that so many people call home, and sometimes take for granted, is a fantasy to many others, an ambition and even a lifelong dream. I am truly humbled to be living in such a place.

“Yang.. Bangun Yang…” my alarm clock went off.

The time on my mobile phone indicated 5:30 am, but I know better that all my timepieces are set 15 minutes faster, so this would be a good time for a short snooze… zzzzzzzz…….

“Knock Knock!!!” two loud raps on my bedroom door suddenly pulled me out of dream state.

Morning cruise!

Took a quick shower, rushed out and was greeted by Fernando the river guide. He asked whether I wanted to join the early morning ox-bow lake trek, which I said yes to, and so he looked at me from top to bottom, which made me self-conscious for a moment until I realized that everyone else were in trekking gear, while I was in my Joseph Abboud shirt and Rip Curl Denim shorts. I SEE!

“Hahahaha.. Stupid me!”

I am not dressed appropriately for the trip; even I wouldn’t approve myself trekking looking like this. Trekking the damp forest with leeches crawling up my pants? No way Jose!

*Sigh* Another 1.5 hours until breakfast. Well, this would be a good time to look around the lodge, and perhaps go back to the room for a quick shave.

7:15am rush-rush to the jetty. Mr. Teo was already having breakfast with Saat and we are supposed to ride up to Bilit to drop Mr. Teo for a dialogue session with other operators in the area. I’m relieved that the ideally relaxed condition gave me enough time to grab some marmite on toast and coffee before catching the boat.

I was told that the Sukau Rainforest Lodge has several tree planting sites along the mighty Kinabatangan. Mr. Teo mentioned that the company is continuously searching for barren patches of land along the river to replant trees for forest regeneration. Well, based on what I see, the idea seems to be working. The pilot project which started in the year 2000 has trees over 15 feet tall now, while there are several other sites for replanting which has been granted to Sukau Rainforest Lodge by the Government. What a great way to give back to the environment I thought.

As we were leaving Bilit, I could hear Mr. Teo talking passionately about his experience setting up the lodge, and how in all his effort, tried to bring the local community out of the ‘poverty’ state of mind through job and business opportunity, and training. 15 years down the line and he is still strongly fastened to his ideas and efforts. I like the idea that one should believe in the power of persistence as it will always pay off in the end. Although progress in terms of human resource development is slow in these parts, the fruits of efforts put in all these years are also beginning to show.

The trip back was a breeze. It was already mid-morning and I didn’t expect to spot wildlife as most have retreated back into the coolness of the forest canopy. So I just laid back a little to catch up on nap for a minute or two… or twenty..

Kari Boardwalk connects the jetty to the lounge, and was named after the original owner of the 7-acre land that SRL is on now. As a matter of fact, room number 3 was also named after Kari. Come to think of it, other rooms are also named with the likes of Dr. Dale Straughan (room 1), Dr. Dino (room 2), Dr. Junaidi (room 4), HRH Prince Henrik (room 10, Arq. Hector Caballos (room 11). All of which have visited the lodge once or twice, or 23 times like Dr. Dale.

Just to share with you about an SRL personality, Winston Marshall. He’s a white, 70 something man who works as a naturalist here and apparently been living on Borneo for the longest period of time learning about our plants and animals. Witty but deep in knowledge, Winston organizes talks, or walks after breakfast at 10:30am and never ceases to amaze people with his know-hows on local plants which he conducts along the Elephant Walkway (aptly named as a section has been left open to allow elephants through).

As usual, Winston was in the lounge talking to a group of people. He always seems to attract a crowd as he weaves his knowledge into stories. Looking at him, this thick-glassed, heavy framed chap doesn’t seem like the type person that would impart knowledge, but looks can be deceiving. Never judge a book by its cover people always say. Winston speaks fluent Malay too By the way, so he sure knows his way around.

“Doooong…. Doooong…Doooong”

Three sounds of the gong temporarily drowned forest sounds to announce that lunch was served. Today’s menu included Chicken Curry, Butter Prawn and Sabah Vegetables. It was good and wholesome, cooked all the way through Malaysian style. I had another long chat with Brett about today’s happenings. 10 guests checked out this morning and 19 more are on their way up, expected to arrive at 3 pm. This place is always bustling with people. Good sign!

Walking back to the lounge after our meals, Brett showed a group of Australian guests a DracoDraco – or a flying dragon which was hardly visible, unless you looked really hard and closely. It actually changes colours, and this specimen has taken on the colour of the bark it was on, so to the untrained eyes, it may look like another twig.

This reminded me of something I wrote earlier; “you don’t see them, they see you”.

But, then again all morning Brett has been spotting these creatures which are supposed to be Masters of Disguise. Maybe Brett has special eyes, or maybe he is a gecko incarnate. Whatever it is, he is doing a wonderful job of keeping the guests on their toes with his reptile encounters.

I need to remember “bring a flask of coffee for the Bilit Cruise later”. Hopefully wildlife sighting would be good.

The lounge rumbled as the wooden floors started shaking. Lodge staffs were running back to pick the laundry as the first droplets of rain pattered on the roof.

No wonder it was very warm earlier. The warmth was tell-tale sign of the impending rain. Rain is good, rain is cooling. Hang on!! Rain for 2 minutes?!

“Hahahaha… My wish was short-lived.” My consolation would be the overcast of clouds, so still it has gotten slightly cooler.

The lounge is bustling all over again. In-house guests have started appearing for afternoon tea. Nothing like a hot cup of locally roasted coffee with freshly made ‘Pisang Goreng’ or Banana Fritters. An SRL ritual apparently. I LIKE!

The group of 19 guests just arrived, all looking fresh and happy, apparently from the excitement of seeing a herd of Borneo Pygmy Elephants along the boat ride from Sandakan.

Hmm… Yeoh Siew Hun, a prominent media figure just walked past along with the group of people that just arrived. I checked with the in-house boat schedule and I was assigned the same boat as her for the trip up to Bilit. This would be good. Looking forward to my first boat Safari.

(A few hours later)

Well, I need to ask you. Have you seen an Elephant in the wild before? Better yet, have you ever seen a Borneo Pygmy Elephant in the wild before? No? Well I have and there were lots of them. 3 bulls, countless cows and 3 calves as far as my eyes could see them. I love elephants! And seeing calves was a good sign that the population is growing.

Ok.. ok..  I need to be fair here.

We also spotted several troops of Proboscis Monkeys, lots and lots of Long-Tailed Macaque or Crab Catching Macaques, many bird species including the Rhinoceros Hornbill, the Storm Egret and a couple of Fishing Eagles. Oh dear! I can’t even remember all of them now as the excitement took over my emotion. And best of all, I got pampered on this boat ride as local coffee and pisang goreng was served by Hamit our guide and boatman.

“This is too much..Just too much” Siew Hun said with a contented tone in her voice.  My other boat group members, Diana and Timothy smiled in agreement. 

This place is simply amazing. The number of animal sighting was tremendous. This fact only dawned to me when I saw Siew Hun recording our sightings on the board within a span of 6 hours. Although we couldn’t catch a glimpse of the Reticulated Python or Orang Utan along the way, what we saw made-up threefolds in terms of experience. I can’t wait for tomorrow’s early morning cruise. Hamit, our superb guide said our quest would be to look for Orang Utans. I’m excited!

We finished the evening off with late dinner, where Saat had so kindly arranged to separately prepare it, along with a bottle of Red Wine and under the moonlit sky, in the middle of mystifying Borneo, above one of the greatest rivers in Asia. We chatted the night away talking about the elusive Borneon Clouded Leopard, and local legends of the Orang Sungai. Nothing could be more perfect.

(The Morning After)

“Oh well…” I sighed.

No Orang Utans again this time. But we got to see many other animals including the Smooth Otter, the Oriental Darter, several troops of Proboscis Monkeys, 4 Pygmy Squirrels, one Mangrove Snake, and a crocodile and so on. Such a great experience! It is a wonderful feeling to be able to get close to nature again. It is a wonderful feeling to be able to hear myself think again and it is a wonderful feeling to be able to smile from the heart again.

As I leave and bid my thanks and goodbyes to Saat, Brett, Asmudi, Winston and Zilah, I cannot help but feel sad that I am leaving this place. Only two nights here and already I feel very much at home. I will miss the gibbon calls, I will miss the sounds of the insects, I will miss the yellow waters of the Kinabatangan, and surely I will miss the people that have made my stay here so great! I wish I could stay here longer. I wish that I could return here one day.

By Mizal Khan

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