I was dropped at the Lahad Datu office again, given a packed lunch and loaded into a new van to be driven to the river at Sukau, where I was to spend one night at the Kalibatangan River Lodge. There I was introduced to Irix, my guide, and told to wear a sarong to dinner. Sarongs, floral for the ladies and checked for the men, are found on each bed in the lodge. Rather like Sepilok, the lodge is an open restaurant and lobby, with cabins linked by a wooden walkway. It has an attractive riverfront location, but the simple cabins are not air conditioned so can be rather stuffy. Although it was still hot, compared to Danum it felt rather pleasant on the river.
My first boat ride was that afternoon. We loaded into a boat. In my group were two English families of four. We set off up the river. On the way, we saw some proboscis monkeys but they disappeared when we got close. Next we saw some long-tailed macaques. They were sitting on the ground next to the river, and there was a lovely mother and baby, as well as another pair (presumably also mother and child) having a long grooming session. The youngster looked right at me as I photographed them.
Further along the river we swung into a tributary and saw a small flotilla of tour boats. We parked alongside, stern against the bank and with the prow pointed towards the main event, a herd of Borneo’s pygmy elephants on the opposite bank. I counted fifteen, but there may well have been more. One was drinking and spraying herself with water. We then watched them graze for a while, before two youngsters approached the river for a drink. One of them then had a roll in the mud and a rub against a tree before joining the others which were grazing.
On the way back, we saw more proboscis monkeys settling down for the evening. They sleep with their backs to the river, facing the jungle, so they can drop into the water and swim away if threatened by a leopard. As we watched the monkeys, we saw a crocodile stealing a fish from a fishing line below the monkeys as the monkeys shrieked an alarm call. Unfortunately it was too dark for photos of the thrashing croc.
Back at the lodge, I dressed in my sarong for dinner, and joined my group who were all similarly attired. I had a lovely chat with nine year old Charlotte, who scarcely paused for breath. In the middle of a story, she suddenly told me how much she liked my bracelet. We all chuckled at her abrupt change of subject, making her embarrassed. I cheered her up by telling her she could buy one in the airport in South Africa in aid of malaria charities, she just had to persuade her parents to take her to South Africa for their next holiday! I also told the other family how much they would enjoy Danum Valley, where they were off to the following day.
The following morning we got on a larger boat to transfer to the sister lodge, Abai, about an hour down river. On the way we stopped to admire a huge crocodile, lying on the bank with his mouth open. At Abai, I was handed over to a new guide, who turned out to be Zali, my guide from Sepilok. Abai is similar to the Kinabatangan River Lodge, but has a boardwalk at the back, complete with bird towers. The big difference between the lodges is that Abai sits by itself, whereas there are a number of lodges at Sukau which means that there are far more boats at every sighting.
Later that morning, I joined my new group and we set off across the river to the village opposite the lodge. We collected a young villager and some saplings. We planted the saplings a bit further down the river, before returning to the village. The villagers have a pet hornbill which they rescued from a nest in a fallen tree. We all got to have a photo taken with her. She gnawed on my baseball cap while I held her. She must be a fan of the South African cricket team!
We then had a wander around the village, seeing their school, their fruit trees and their fishing baskets. They sell their surplus catch to the lodge, and use the money to buy rice. At the end of the tour, a villager climbed up to pick us some rambutan, a pretty fruit which tastes much like a lychee. The hornbill flew up with him, to supervise his efforts.
Back across at the lodge, Junior the bearded pig had turned up to say hello and pose for photographs. He snuffled around under the boardwalk for a while before wandering off again. I in turn wandered around the boardwalk behind the lodge. Other than a macaque, I saw no signs of life in the afternoon heat, but I was accompanied all the way around by a small white cat, who even climbed the bird tower with me!
After lunch, Zali told me I was to join a different group as most of the group I was in was leaving the following day. He introduced me to my new guide, Abbas, who had also been on the night walk at Sepilok. My new group comprised of Richard and Suzanne, a lovely couple from Newcastle, London family Tony and Lisa and their two teenagers and a Dutch couple, also with two teenagers. All the boys on the boat wanted to see was a crocodile, whilst Abbas promised to do his best to get me a shot of a stork-billed kingfisher.
We set off in the late afternoon and immediately saw lots of proboscis monkeys looking for a suitable place to spend the night. It is amazing to watch them swing through the canopy. They do not always get it right though. We watched one huge male catapult himself off a small tree onto a brach, which promptly broke under his weight. He did not seem any the worse for his fall, though.
True to his word, Abbas looked for kingfishers for me. We saw several stork-bills, which flew away when we approached them, but we did see a beautiful collared kingfisher which allowed us to photograph it. As the evening wore on, we saw lots of proboscis monkeys settling down for the night, with much squabbling and chattering, as well as macaques. We even saw a wild orangutan, high in a tree. It was a youngster, so its mother must have been nearby, hidden by the trees. It was hugging a branch so we could just see its arms and legs, so it did not present photo opportunities.
We passed a pair of graceful purple herons, one of which I captured just as he took off. An excellent spot from the boatman showed that hanging just above the water in the branches of a bush was gold ringed cat snake. We drifted slowly past it to allow everyone in the boat a chance to take photographs of it. I do not think Lisa appreciated the chance to be so close to a snake, as it hung just above her over the boat, even though it just hung motionless as we went past. It was keeping a close eye on us, however.
As it grew dark, we did see a storkbill, but I did not manage to get a great photo, as I was right at the back of the boat and he was too far away from me, and flew off before those of us at the back had a chance to get a bit closer. I had better luck with the blue eared kingfisher, which was a more cooperative subject, waiting for us all to have a chance to get a good look at him.
As it grew dark, we stopped to admire the fireflies blinking like Christmas lights on the river bank. Rather than attempt more blurry photos, this time I made a little video of the fireflies, which I then promptly accidentally deleted when I tried to look at it! We then slowly made our way back to the lodge. There was time for one last sighting, as Abbas’ light picked up some eyes low on the riverbank. Peering into the bushes we eventually spotted an elusive flat headed cat right by the bank. It may look rather like a domestic cat, but the distinctive stripes on its face identify this cat as a flat headed cat even though it’s distinctive head shape can be best seen in profile. Sadly I was only able to take one picture of it as the boat drifted by, and it is not my best as I have focused on the branches in front of the animal. Thanks to Brian Phillips for help identifying it.
After a fantastic day of wildlife spotting and dinner with the group, I went to bed, only to be woken a few hours later with pain in my arm. I turned on the light, and could see two tiny marks on my forearm, bleeding slightly. Still half asleep, I decided I must have scratched my arm and tried to go back to sleep. As I lay there, the pain in my arm became increasingly severe, and as I felt it burning I realised that it was no scratch, and that clearly I was not alone in my bed. I switched the light back on in time to see a large centipede scurrying across my bed before disappearing down the far side. I looked at my arm, which was swelling around the two little puncture marks. Arming myself with a torch and my camera monopod, I tried to find the centipede, but I was not successful. Meanwhile, my poor arm continued to swell. Eventually I had a swelling about the surface area of a tennis ball, raised about one centimetre, which was red, hot and extremely uncomfortable. I got no more sleep that night, and went in search of ice in the morning. Rather to my dismay they had no ice at the lodge, but they put some ointment on the bite and I took some painkillers. My top tip in this part of the world would be: do not cuddle up in bed with a centipede.
We set off for another boat trip. It was humid and misty when we got going, and one of the first things we saw was a stork-billed kingfisher. I had another chance to get the coveted shot, and fired off a couple. A quick check revealed my camera lens was misted up! I frantically wiped it and tried again, but sadly the bird flew off, leaving me with some rather foggy pictures, which I cleaned up as best I could. I am not sure why my camera fogged up, as there was no air-conditioning in the rooms, so the camera was not cold. I guess it it is just one of those things in the tropics.
We headed into an oxbow lake off the river where there have been some exciting sightings, but the only thing we saw were a few catfish and some egrets. It is a beautiful spot though, and we sat and had a cup of coffee and watched the catfish occasionally flopping near the boat. We had a fleeting glimpse of a large crocodile but he went straight into the water as we went past. I felt bad for all the boys on the boat. Even the adult men were desperate to see a crocodile but with this group we did not have a good sighting, seeing only the odd set of eyes or this quick glance of a disappearing back.
Sadly we did not see much more that morning, and returned to the lodge for breakfast. Later that morning, my group was going to do the tree planting exercise I had already experienced, so I went back to bed after the staff kindly checked my room carefully for uninvited guests, and caught up on some of the sleep I had missed out on the night before. When I woke up the swelling on my arm was starting to go down, and it was much less painful.
That afternoon’s outing was also a bit unsuccessful. We went looking for some elephants, and eventually saw one at the riverbank in some tall grass. As soon as it saw us it turned and fled into the long grass. We sat for hours waiting to see if the elephants would appear, but they were hidden in the long grass. We could hear a popping sound as they ripped up the grass, and occasionally a low grumble or a bit of trumpeting would settle a dispute, but the only signs of the elephants was the grass waving as they tugged on it to feed. I did feel sorry for the others on the boat, as I had seen so many elephants upstream at the other lodge. Tony and Lisa were headed there the following day, so would have a chance to see that herd, but it looked like Richard and Suzanne were out of luck. Even though we were only metres from the elephants, the grass hid them completely.
Eventually as it grew dark we had to give up and head back to the lodge for dinner. After the meal we went on a short night walk on the boardwalk behind the lodge. Once again we were accompanied by the small white cat. I was at the back of our group of eleven, and to be honest it was a bit of a bust, as by the time the other had seen and photographed whatever Abbas found, he was ready to move on before I had even seen what they were looking at. Fortunately I had already seen oriental dwarf kingfishers. Other than that we mainly saw insects, including lots of huge spiders. I was impressed that the little cat did not try to eat any of the animals carefully illuminated by Abbas. I think she just wanted to make sure we did not get lost!
The following morning we had breakfast on the walkway behind the lodge, closely watched by a troop of macaques, which the staff rather naughtily encouraged with some bread. As these monkeys can become pests, this was probably not a great move, and I am not sure white bread is of great nutritional value to monkeys (or people, for that matter). After breakfast we boarded a boat towards the port of Sandakan. This time there were no crocs or other exciting sightings as we sped down the river and across the small stretch of sea to Sandakan. Once there I was to head for one last night at Sepilok.