It cost me something to be out there in the jungle. I didn’t know it until after we were back in Singapore, but I was using reserves I didn’t know I had.
The Kinabatangan is the longest river in Sabah, Borneo. It is a wildlife haven and home to endangered Orangutans and Proboscis Monkeys. The forest is in massive decline due to deforestation from logging, mining, and palm plantations. The animals are in a losing battle for habitat. Heading up to Uncle Tan’s camp felt like we were traveling backwards to a time and place where Nature, not people, was in power of the planet.
Living on the river, it seemed humans were the interlopers, permitted to exist at the whim of nature. I was pretty low on the totem pole—down at the bottom was Me, and then above were the mosquitos, then bigger insects (massive spiders, stinging ants, giant venomous millipedes), then further up various birds (songbirds, cranes, hornbills, eagles), then the sizable reptiles (red banded snake, python, monitor lizards, crocodiles) and then higher were the bigger mammals (civet cats and wild pigs and pygmy elephants)
We were staying on the edge of a forest reserve, all secondary dipterocarp forest. Endless varieties of ficus and cashew trees stand tall, competing for sunlight and roots gripping red brown soil. Lush vines cover every vertical surface.
The ragged border of trees still left on the edges of the plantations is called the “corridor of life.” In the late 1990’s the Malaysian government instituted some conservation laws to try to help the wildlife and give them a protected line along the river’s edge. The concentration of animals in the area is good for wildlife photographers and adventure tourists (like us) but not so good for the animals.
There is not enough space really for everything to thrive here and it feels a bit like the animal kingdom X Games. Nature said must have said challengingly to herself “how many biological systems can I possibly have concurrently before the whole thing crashes?” Because everywhere I look, I see photosynthesis, respiration, reproduction, consumption, decomposition, and elimination. Life piled upon life.
I was never so acutely aware of my footprint until we stayed in the jungle. I could see that I was just another animal here, needing food, water, and air. I was living life at its most basic–consume and eliminate.
All potable water needed to be purchased from the guide’s cooperative store and as the days passed, the pile of 1.5 liter bottles stacked up in on our deck—visual marker of how much water we needed to live. At the end of each meal, all the food scraps were collected in compost bags to be transported away from camp with the morning boat back to the city. Our waste was washed away down stream using buckets of mud-brown river water. I found the evidence of my biological self ironic since this was the least self- indulgent week of my life.
Our days on the river were pretty simple. We woke early, around 5:00am, to insects calling the day to begin. Then the birds began their salutations—songbirds I couldn’t see in the trees, but heard all around us. The cacophony of the jungle throbbing and hunting for food urged me to slather on bug juice. I quickly packed a bag for our morning and was cruising on the river by 6:30 am.
Our guide Teo was determined to help us spot a wild orangutan. Knowing how keen Emma is to find an orangutan living in their natural habitat, he took us out each morning on a private boat with the firm intention to find one. We traveled through small tributaries, up river past the usual areas and deeper into the shallow parts of the Kinabatangan and still the orangutan evaded sighting. We were not lucky enough to spot on this time but I am hopeful that we will eventually. We did see some fantastic birds, lizards, crocs and insects.
After our early morning cruise we had a quick breakfast break (fried banana and honey with hot tea) we re-packed our bags for the workday. Emma’s science project involved testing the quality of the Kinabatangan River. Before we left home she used Google Earth to find a tributary that originated in the palm plantations flowed to the main river. When we got here, the guides knew just where the tributary was and thought it was a likely spot to investigate. She wanted to test upstream and downstream of the tributary to see if there were measurable differences in the water. She set up a testing protocol and we moved between the two locations during the morning and afternoon.
We worked on the river each day for about 6-7 hours a day collecting data. All five of us moved as a synched team. Emma directed the project, and we were her support staff. Max and Teo collected information about the pH, temperature, turbidity and nitrogen in the water. Emma and another guide Jeff found dissolved oxygen and alkalinity. I recorded all the measurements, GPS locations and photographs of the water sample sites. It felt great to be working on a project that was vital — we all took our responsibilities very seriously and had some urgency to perform well.
The hours on the river working together were satisfying because we all had important roles. It was truly a team effort. I think both Emma and Max were surprised that they could work so cooperatively when the need was great enough. I can’t tell you the results of her data—you’ll have to stay tuned for her science fair project. But I will say that after running tests for three days I have a deep appreciation for scientists in the field.
The nights were the hardest on the river. Living so close to the equator our daylight hours were almost exactly 6:00 am to 6:00 pm. When the sun went down it got dark quickly—raising the curtain on the main event for most jungle critters. In a kind of audio track replay of the dawn, the bugs cranked up again at dusk. I can’t really describe the sound because there are so many parts to it. The cicadas, frogs, geckos, night birds all screamed to each other: “Eat here!” “Don’t Eat Me!” “Take me home tonight “ “Don’t I look fantastic?” and the classic “It’s a marvelous night for a moon dance!” But the pounding, chirping and throbbing in the air felt like Jungle MTV. The warm still air shimmered with sound.
Because it rained a few hours everyday, it was pretty wet everywhere. We were living above the mangrove swamp on the banks of a river so we had to get used to pervasive damp. Sometimes the wet made walking difficult but as long as we stayed on the raised boardwalks we didn’t have trouble with leeches or mud.
The boardwalks to the bathrooms were creepy at night. In the shine of our flashlights swarms of ants marched across the walkway. Occasionally our light caught a reflective wet shine of hunter spider (ones as big as Max’s fist) waiting, poised for action. As our footsteps approached they skittered back beneath the deck and waited for better prey to pass.
It was this part of the trip—getting ready for bed with seeming normalcy—tooth brushing, face washing, last trip to the toilet, tucking the kids in—that was the most stressful. The dark was a living, lurking thing. Each night I could feel the anxiety building in each of us. Like a backpack, we carried Fear around and then once back in the cabin we set it down and sleep fitfully beside it.
Did I mention that our cabin had walls and corrugated roof (no doors or windows) and foam mattress and mosquito net? I’ve reached the end of the amenities now. Pretty basic accommodations, but in the dark with our fatigue it didn’t really matter. The kids layer down in their silk sleeping bags, and by the light of their Kindles, I tucked the mosquito net around their mats. The funk of our unwashed bodies and wet clothes hanging but not drying filled the air.
I lay there into the hot thrumming night waiting for unconsciousness. I did manage scraps of sleep, from about 10 pm to 3 or 4 am. Then I lay awake listening for danger. I knew that this was completely irrational, I can’t say I understand it even now. But the Mama in me was on high alert at all times during the night, watching over my young. I wanted to sleep. Badly. I needed sleep. But knowing things were hunting us drove the seductive, clingy longing for sleep out of my head. Instead I lay, rigid, attentive, on alert.
On our last night after we were all in bed, Max lurched up and started thrashing and smashing about. He was trying to squish something that fell on him—but he couldn’t find it. I climbed into his mat and tried to help but it was all too much and he was at breaking point. He said plaintively “Mama I don’t like it here.” And that was really it. Although we all pushed ourselves during the days seeking adventure, at night Max just wanted to feel safe and cozy. In the dark, after days of wet and hot and work and Spartan meals of rice and tea, Max was just done. So was I.
Just a day (that felt like an eternity) later we got off the river and checked into a proper hotel in Sepliok. The kids were so considerate to let me have the first shower (or perhaps they thought we would all benefit from my bathing?). We ate French fries and drank ice-cold water in the restaurant. Then that night we settled down on proper beds with clean white sheets and a fan cooling the room. Max slept for 11 hours solidly. Emma joyfully put on clean clothes. And I texted Josh to let him know we were safe.
Hunger and fear and exhaustion and I are all better friends now. I didn’t realize how much effort I used keeping us all moving forward, staying positive. While we were there I was too tired to write in my journal, too focused on the next activity to be reflective. Perhaps it was a mental strategy to protect myself from dwelling on my discomfort. The kids were similarly affected–not complaining or fighting with each other. Maybe they were just too exhausted, but now I think that they knew that I didn’t have any extra patience for their squabbles. I wouldn’t recommend taking your kids to the deep jungle to find cooperation and peace but I guess it worked for us.
Stay tuned for our final adventure at Sepilok—in which Emma and Max have a dream day with Orangutans.