Just a smidgen before sunrise in the Borneo rainforest when a gray mist still veiled the chocolate-colored Kinabatangan River, the macaques and proboscis monkeys started dropping down from the trees in search of breakfast. From our motorboat on the water, we kept an eye out for movement among the leaves. The monkeys often traveled in packs, so many times when we’d see one swinging down to the river’s edge, the rest of the group — either bachelors on the prowl or a harem of moms with clinging fur babies — would be right behind.
We’d come to Borneo, not to seek out headhunters, but to experience some of the last truly wild places on Earth. Despite widespread logging on Borneo island (which is shared by the countries of Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia) the shores of the Kinabatangan River remain a sanctuary for monkeys, hornbills, sea eagles and the stars of the show: wild orangutans. On our morning and late afternoon river safaris, we saw many orangutans, though they are shy and solitary animals. Only mothers and their young travel in pairs.
We were told that these wild forests still contain small groups of even more elusive, endangered creatures like rhinos, leopards and pygmy Asian elephants, but their tiny populations make them even harder to see. “We have maybe one elephant sighting a year,” Mohamad, our guide at Nature Lodge Kinabatangan, explained. “Some years there have been none at all.”
Even without an elephant sighting, nobody among our polyglot group of adventurers — Belgians, Dutch, British and American — was complaining. When a crocodile as big as a sofa appeared floating serenely near the riverbank, we all got excited, including Mohamad, our guide. “Yes!” he crowed, throwing his arm in the air like he’d just scored the game-winning touchdown. We had gotten very lucky, he explained, because it’s very rare to see crocs during the season when the river is high.
Our guide, who spent his boyhood in a village downriver, also led us on a trek through the dense, muddy, eerily alive jungle one moonless night. When we turned off our flashlights in unison, we could not see the person standing beside us. The humid jungle remained alive with sounds — chirps, chitters and rustles carried in the thick, humid air— but the blackness was so complete it was as if I’d gone suddenly blind.
When we turned our lights back on, there were marvelous things to see. Mohamad pointed out bright green frogs, giant spiders and a colorfully plumed bird sleeping on a tree branch just inches above our heads. (below) A little while later, we shined a light on a pygmy deer, only as big as a poodle, asleep in her burrow.
Our guide admitted that occasionally guests wander off on their own and get lost in the jungle. “We always find them alive,” he assured us. “But sometimes it takes a couple of days.”
Despite the name of our blog, Two Lost Americans, we had no desire to try it! Yet we felt very fortunate to experience Borneo’s wilderness firsthand. Much of the rainforest which covered the island during the days of the headhunters has been bulldozed to make way for palm oil plantations. We passed acres upon acres of these farms — which cannot support orangutans or other indigenous wildlife — on our drive to the Kinabatagan River. At the current rate of deforestation, it’s possible that Borneo’s jungles might disappear during our lifetimes. “It’s a very special place,” said Edwardo, the lodge manager. “We’d like to help it survive.”