After our stay in coastal Kota Kinabalu, we checked out of our hotel on the edge of the China Sea and hopped on a short flight eastwards across the island. We flew over lush rainforest and snaking rivers. Hulking outside our airplane was the impressive Mount Kinabalu that we explored only the day before with our guide Dominic. The mountain was formed by the convergence of tectonic plates and so it was very different from the volcanic island cones we’ve see more often. The long jagged ridgeline of Mount Kinabalu towers over the jungle at 14k feet and looks like fierce teeth snapping at the sky.
On the descent, we began to see the muddy river below us undulating through the forest. It twisted and turned making secret paths that swallowed up the land. We were traveling here just a week before the typhoon season commenced. I couldn’t imagine how much more impressive it would be swollen after the rains.
We were picked up by our guide, Larry, and taken for our first visit to Sepilok Preserve (more about the Orangutans in another post…) and a taste of sweltering jungle. Then we gratefully got back onto our AC van and headed inland for a 2-hour journey to the river. Larry advised us to get some sleep as there would be nothing to see for a while.
What did he mean nothing to see? Just endless palm oil plantations. To clarify — NOTHING BUT PALMS. It was as if a giant editor in the sky did a search for “Borneo Rainforest” and replaced it with “Palm Trees.” Swoop, just erased acres and miles of habitat in exchange for oil producing trees. I won’t belabor the point here, but suffice to say it was v. depressing.
Suddenly we turned off the “highway” and the lush vegetation began. We had arrived at the river and drove down the bumpy mud track (some might call it a road). There was a bleak little dock at the bottom of some rickety steps. Tethered to the dock was a “raft” made of 2 giant logs (rainforest special) and a leaning shack. Did someone order an Instant Floating Outhouse? Josh and I exchanged nervous looks – what kind of a place was this “wilderness lodge?”
Our first take on the camp was… well, “not very impressive” might do… but it grew on us. Our small cabin had 2 single beds and a third on the floor. It was tiny and HOT. I know that all of you who have spent time in the South can understand the hot-wet-hot where sweat runs down your back just standing still. In our room there was running water, flushing toilet, overhead fan and electric lights (sometimes). I have now run out of amenities to share with you. Josh went back to the “hotel office” and explained that since we were booked at a per person rate we needed 4 beds for the 4 persons. So we changed rooms to get 2 adjoining cabins (that’s 4 beds total!) and we were good to go.
With a bit of forced cheerfulness we changed clothes and slathered on the DEET and told the children “isn’t camping fun!” Then we were back down at the docks to get our first river cruise in before dinner. The friendly staff waved us off and hoped that we might see a hornbill, a monkey or two, or if luck was with us the elusive Pygmy Elephant. We were excited and fully loaded with 4 cameras and a video camera.
Cruising in the jungle is just what I imagined after reading Heart of Darkness and those other ominous stories about the mysterious jungle rivers. There is a wildness to the place that is hard to describe. Perhaps because the brown river hides all that lurks in it, or because the thick vegetation along the river’s edge thrums with insects, frogs and the yells of Macaque monkeys at war. It is a place where you feel the order of life; we are simply another animal in this predator/prey circle.
We wandered downstream in search of animals. The birds we saw were far away (frustrating for the eager photographers) and the monkeys well camouflaged. Then around the bend we saw several other boats hugging the bank. Elephants! Our little boat cranked up and found its place in the cluster to goggle at the display before us. We were supremely lucky to see not just one elephant in the wild… but THIRTY. There were bulls with tusks, cows taking shower baths and even little calves staying close to their mamas. They were flapping ears and tails to ward off the flies, throwing soil on their backs to keep cool and dusty. This was incredible. We were so close, close enough that I was worried about the kids at the front of the boat. At one point Max said, “I can smell elephant!” We shot and shot and shot pictures until it was time to turn back.
Fully satisfied, our cameras stuffed with great images, we were feeling more optimistic about this backwoods wilderness lodge. Heck if they could deliver wildlife like that, they must know how to do this.
We had dinner — a rather sad affair because the tasty meal was prepared and then put into catering chafing dishes but someone forgot(?) to use any sterno beneath them and all of the food was cold. Chicken curry, pepper beef and steamed bok choy all congealing in sauces. Max ate rice.
Our guide offered to lead us on a night hike in the jungle to see the nocturnal animals. We had been looking forward to real trekking for weeks and were ready for the adventure. We slathered more DEET on everyone, then donned leech socks, long pants, long sleeves, torch (flashlight) and gum boots (thick rubber boots).
Max and Emma were very anxious about leeches. Max had asked every guide on the trip about them; do they hurt? What do you do to get them off? How will I know if I have one? Can they kill you? Can I kill them? He brought with him a small orange container on a string, filled it with salt and was ready at a moments notice to “salt” a leech if it came near him and attacked. Emma was just scared and asked every 2-3 minutes “Can you do a leech check?” and we looked her over to see if they were crawling on her (they weren’t). After the 100th time it was a little annoying and we didn’t take it too seriously. She was trying to manage her anxiety about the leeches with a little OCD behavior.
Off we whacked into the bush. The guides led us out of the camp on a trail beyond their electric fence. They thoughtfully turned off the 5000 volts while we stepped over it and then re-connected the line so the rest of the camp could sleep soundly protected from animals that roamed the night. We were now hangin’ with the wild things.
We hiked in silence. Our guide had briefed us that we would see more animals if we were quiet. Emma held my hand and trembled with fear as we trekked through the dark. Our flashlights made arcing swipes at the green walls around us but couldn’t penetrate the black night. The only sounds were the pulsing noises of the insects and the squelching of our boots in the mud.
Did I mention the mud? Yes, it seems that the rain forest has some rain (this means water) and forest (this means soil) and when the two combine (and they do so everyday) there is a vast about of mud. Theoretically I knew that there would be mud but nothing like this. This is mud heaven. Max was delirious—getting to stay up late, go on a hike and hunt for frogs, but best of all he was wearing boots and tromping in sticky mud. We saw some sleeping birds and a couple of tree frogs. It was a successful night and time for us all to get some rest.
The next morning we were up at 5:45 for our morning river cruise. We went upstream and saw some Probiscus monkeys and on the way back to the camp we spotted a crocodile! Glad we didn’t walk down near the river last night… Had breakfast (Max had rice) got back in muddy hiking clothes for a trek to a nearby lake. Josh and I were feeling pretty confident about the leech situation at this point. We already did a night hike and were ok. We knew the kids were freaked out but it seemed like not really an issue.
Well on this day hike there were leeches out to get us! On the hike there were tiger leeches stretching themselves off leaves seeking warm bodies, dozens of them every few yards. I watched as Emma passed by a leaf and the leech whipped its tubelike trunk and stretched out far to try to cling to her. It wriggled and leaned hoping to make a meal of us. But we were pretty clever. We were able to see most of them on the foliage and we checked each other at regular intervals. I got one on my pants and brushed it off. Josh had several during the 3-hour hike. (Yes — a three hour hike in a leech infested jungle in 88 degree, 90% humidity weather. SUPER FUN.)
We returned to camp and cleaned up again before our afternoon rest. Emma and I were getting dressed when Max banged open the door “Daddy’s in the shower and he has a really big leech!” I rushed over and there was Josh with a towel wrapped around himself, blood running down his side and cursing about the poor lighting in the bathroom because it was challenging for him to get a photograph of the blood sucker! On the wall of the shower stall, was the leech that he removed from his armpit. It was about 3 inches long and swollen with Josh’s blood. TOO GROSS. I didn’t let Emma see it because she’d absolutely flip. Max was hopping from foot to foot with excitement. He wanted to SALT it. I was revolted and went back to my room to tell Emma all about it.
Of the many fascinating facts about leeches: Did you know that when they bite their host, they secrete an anti-coagulant into the wound so that the blood will keep flowing nicely? Mosquitoes do the same thing and to many of us, we itch a bite because our skin reacts to the anti-coagulant. Josh’s leech did a good job. The blood was running down his side and he couldn’t staunch the flow. He had trouble deciding which shirt he should wear to lunch (Max had rice). We went with the red one.
After another great night cruise (more elephant fun!) and dinner (Max had rice) we debated about going on the last night hike. Emma really wanted to see a Tarsier but was terribly afraid about the leeches. She thought it would be ok of we all skipped the hike but was not happy if Max went on it and then he saw something really good and she missed it. We all agreed that the leeches were not bad at night and she was willing to go out again.
It was a good hike — lots of cool bugs and birds to see. Unfortunately the tarsier was elusive, but we did have one last bit of excitement for the night. As we returned to the cabins for clean up and bed, I was the first to get out of muddy clothes because I was dying for a shower — even a cold one sounded good. When I took off my hiking pants Emma shrieked “Mama what’s that!” and pointed at my underwear. Sure enough there at the edge of my bikini line was a black sluglike goober stuck on my leg. “Get Daddy!!!” I yelled. In a flash Josh was there and sprayed DEET on the sucker. It was the GROSSEST thing ever, although it was totally painless, the thought of a leech sucking my blood just creeped me out.
So there you have it. Both Josh and I were leeched and the kids were spared. I think that it was nice and balanced for us both to get one. I don’t need to do it again but the leech was a good reminder that we are part of the food chain too.