Monday, September 26, 2005

back from the wild

People have been asking me… “So where exactly did you go on holiday? What did you do?”

It was easy to say where I was going – Uncle Tan’s Wildlife Camp at the lower Kinabatangan River, Sabah.

It was a little harder to explain what I went there for.

Earlier this afternoon I was chatting with a friend online, and the same question was posed. After awhile a near-perfect answer came to mind – to appreciate the rainforest reserve and the efforts the Sabah Government is doing to help and expand it. Fancy answer to an excuse for a holiday, but it sounded good, and I daresay it pretty much rings true.

So… on with the show.

My journey started really early Friday morning at an ungodly hour. Sluggishly got myself up and onto the plane in time, where I caught up on my sleep just a wee bit. My friends (Veron, Jeremy, Eric and Alexzis) were already at Sandakan having gone there the day before. I was to meet them at the Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre before 12:30 noon for a pickup to Uncle Tan’s ops base at Gum Gum.

I arrived at Sandakan pretty much on time; bought a ticket and hopped on a cab to Sepilok. The driver seemed to know where he was going when I showed him the name of the place I’d wanted to go. But… after 20 minutes of driving, he turned into a compound with buildings and said, “Sini ke?” (Is it here?)

I didn’t know where I was, but it looked like an official-ish building so I replied, “Ya, terima kasih” (Yes, thank you) and got down the cab. Unfortunately after 2 minutes walking around the compound, it dawned on me that maybe… I wasn’t quite at the rehab centre yet. I approached 2 guards on duty and asked if this was the orangutan rehab centre and they said, “Bukan… kena jalan jauh sikit lagi.” (No, have to travel a little further.) The cabby had dropped me off at the Forestry Research Centre instead.

Oh dear.

I looked down the shaded road and thought that it couldn’t be that far since there was a signage up front at the junction that said the rehab centre was this way. So… started walking further down the road, occasionally passed by cabs, cars and buses. Well, if there are people travelling on this road, I must be headed in the right direction. I only hoped it wasn’t too far.

Thank my lucky stars, after about 10 minutes of walking I did reach the orangutan rehab centre. But by that time it was already 11:30 a.m., and the ticket counter was closed. So much for catching a glimpse of the orangutans. All I could do to appease myself was walk into their souvenir shop for a look-see (there wasn’t anything interesting there either). I was going to call my friends to check where they were, when they turned up behind me. Apparently they had gone for the little tour around the rehab centre but said I didn’t miss much – the orangutans were mostly juveniles and not adults. Hmm… perhaps I’ll be lucky enough to see them at Uncle Tan’s Wildlife Camp.

The rest of the journey to the Camp was pretty much a waiting game. There was a lot of free time with nothing much to do (really, really nothing to do, no kidding) except have a drink once in awhile to keep hydrated. We finally departed to the Camp via the Kinabatangan River around 4:30 p.m. when wildlife’s a little more active along the riverbanks.

The boat ride was quite interesting – there were macaques (get plenty of these in KL too), egrets, a couple of small crocodiles, lizards and proboscis monkeys. A lot of photo-taking done, and though I knew my shots would be pretty much blurred due to the distance and shakiness of my hands, I had to try my luck and take a few anyway.

Arrived at the Camp late evening, and it was… different. No running water, no electricity except between 6:00 p.m. and midnight, no shower, no “chalets”. The huts were basic 4 walls and mesh wiring for windows and doors. Mosquito netting was provided with basic thin mattresses. Well, this is certainly Camp. Oh yea… and three resident bearded pigs running around. Darn cute. Not good for eating though, someone told us they don't taste very good, haha!

The evening passed without much activity except dinner, quick bath kampung-style (bucket of water and a ladle), and camp briefing. Lightning started to light up the sky every once in awhile, and as we prepared for the 9:00 p.m. night safari the guide reminded us to bring our rain jackets. Looks like it’s gonna pour while we take our little tour of the river.

True enough as we got on the boat to start our night safari, rain started pelting down slowly at first, and then got heavier as the night wore on. I thought I could keep fairly dry with a light drizzle, but by the time the safari was over I was miserably cold with wet pants and underwear. The only consolation was the top half of my body and head was kept dry by my rain jacket. Scenery-wise, there were kingfishers, monkeys and owls all doing their best to survive the rain as well. I was too tired to really enjoy the experience; I kept nodding off and sometimes wondered if I would’ve rolled off the boat if I fell asleep. Lights out at midnight, thank goodness. Time to catch some snooze. I abandoned the thought of sleeping in my hennessey hammock which I’d set up earlier and took to the stale-smelling mattress instead.

There was a morning safari at 6:30 a.m. the next day which none of us participated in – it was still too wet outside and we were pretty lazy to do anything adventurous early in the morning. After breakfast we went on the morning jungle trek, and were rewarded with sightings of a female orangutan and her baby. We stayed at the spot for a pretty long time watching mother and baby, till it got tired of our stares and moved on to another tree. There’s lots of wildlife to be seen and appreciated, as pointed out by our guide. I took quite a few photos of the world’s smallest frog, the orangutan and her baby, bats that hid in the cones of wild ginger plants, dung beetles…

The afternoon was pretty much uneventful. A lot of free time was spent watching my friends try their luck at fishing, reading my book and listening to tunes on my iPod (the very one luxury I was so thankful of bringing along!). It was peaceful at the oxbow lake, the silence occasionally broken by cries of the monkeys or birds on the other side of it.

5:00 p.m. came and we had an afternoon boat ride scheduled. (By the way, most activities are arrange early morning or late evening / night as those are the times when the animals are out from hiding.) We gladly hopped on the boat for a little gush of wind in our faces. There was a girl with us that wore a full knit sweater on the ride, and I was thinking that she was out of her mind. Little did I realise that maybe I was the stupid arse who didn’t prepare for the very cool evening temperature that magnified 100 times with the moving speedboat to a level that left goosebumps on my skin. The scene on the boat ride itself was dotted with lots of proboscis monkeys sitting out on their bare-ish trees, staring at us as dusk fell.

By nightfall I was feeling a little lazy, a little slow. I chose to skip the night jungle trek to the swamp, opting to read a little more instead. My friends also opted out and went fishing again or sleep out at their hammocks. I had the hut to myself till the others came back with my iPod and book as company. Only then did I realise I was quite tired from the entire trip, and found myself nodding off by 10:30 p.m. Lights out earlier for me tonight.

The next day we departed Camp around 10:00 a.m. and despite our 1-hour delayed flight, we made it back to KLIA by 9:00 p.m. In between we had a scrumptious lunch in Sandakan town, and visited the Puu Gih Jih Chinese Temple on top of a hill facing Sandakan Bay.

I must say that I had mixed feelings about the trip. I was glad for a getaway – no phones, no Internet connection, not even newspapers. I was cut away from the outside other than the people (and animals) around me. Every once in awhile I felt totally bored and needed to talk to my friends, yet other times I didn’t want any company except myself. The solitude time I’d spent there allowed me to think and sort out my mind, though unfortunately nothing much conclusive came out of it, except for the decision to let things be. Maybe that’s what the Camp had taught me – appreciate what I have, leave alone what’s not meant to be disturbed.