I’m roused from my slumber by the distant trumpeting of elephants and singing of thornbirds. It is morning on the Kinabatangan River and the animals announced the day’s commencement. (Actually, it was the roosters outside my window that first awakened me, but I have learned to ignore them by now. Besides, it is much more entertaining and exotic to claim that I was awakened by wild elephants rather than the domesticated birds!) I have to kick Liz a couple of times before she finally rolls over and grumbles about waking up so early. I agree, but we have to hurry so I push open the curtains. It is still dark outside and the early morning light has only begun to filter through the thick canopy of jungle overgrowth. Although we are situated directly over the muddy waters of the Kinabatangan, our view of the river is obstructed by a thick layer of mist that casts an eerie glow over the usually serene landscape.
We sleepily dress by candlelight and climb down the rickety ladder of our wooden loft. The children are still sleeping in scattered heaps on the floor, wrapped up in a mess of arms, legs, and tattered blankets. I have to tiptoe over them to the kitchen area where the “mother” of the household is stirring coffee by the fire hearth. As we sip the last few drops of aromatizing brew, our guide comes in through the curtained front entrance and warms his hands by the fire. He seems to be a gentle, pleasant man whose face is well weathered and wrinkled from years and years on the river. We trail behind him to the river’s edge where his battered green fishing boat sways gently against the dock. Since the thick morning fog has yet to lift, we sit on the dock and wait a few minutes, taking time to listen to the sounds of the jungle. Our guide smokes a fragrant pipe and the sweet smell blankets us in a cloud of comforting aroma. Finally, it is time to go and he gives us the thumbs up sign, indicating that we were to have an excellent morning tour on the river.
Excellent. Inspiring. Amazing. Simply Astonishing. These are understatements. Sakau, a humble fishing village tucked away from modern life and far from the tourist trail, has much to offer both the weary traveler and wildlife enthusiast. We hitchhiked here from Sandakan, catching rides with people from all walks of life. Many of our good-samaritans offered not only rides and conversation, but they also recommended places to stay and gave us addresses and phone numbers of family members to contact along the way. Even now, it still amazes me how friendly complete strangers can be, and Sabah is no exception.
We came to Sakau to catch a glimpse of jungle life and organized two boat rides with the local guides to see some of nature’s finest. The river tours were exciting. In the early morning hours, our boat glided through the swampy waters, silently approaching groups of chattering monkeys, flocks of rare birds, and an exorbitant amount of interesting reptiles. The monkeys were especially fun to watch. They swung wildly from branches and tree tops with their babies tucked securely on their tummies. The proboscis monkeys, native to this area of Borneo, were a treat indeed. These creatures, with their huge noses and multi-colored hair, were incredibly curious and inquisitive. I thought they would hide. However, they seemed to enjoy the attention and put on an amusing show with their acrobatic stunts. We also caught sight of some wild orangutans, a special spectacle that had us climbing ashore to creep closer to the long limbed monkeys.
Elephant sighting – Our afternoon cruise was even more exciting. I saw elephants – beautiful, wild, Asian elephants!!! There was an entire herd eating along the riverbank. It was an awesome experience. We motored our little boat right up to the edge, but kept a careful and respectful distance from the majestic beasts. Several of them were bathing playfully off of our port side, and we were splashed several times as they sprayed water into the air. On the shore was an itty-bitty baby who was having a delightful time throwing dirt on himself and other members of his family. He was enjoying himself until one grumpy member of the herd smacked him on the behind as a reprimand. The baby sulked and hid under his mother’s tummy for the remainder of our stay. I was having a staring contest with one old boy. He was an amazing creature, clearing the largest in the herd with an incredible face full of wrinkles and beautiful eyes. He pulled leaves and chewed slowly, staring at us until he decided that we posed no threat. Another section of the herd was grazing further into the jungle and we were lucky to hear them calling back and forth to one another. It was really a surreal opportunity!
Lucky travelers – I think we are some of the more fortunate travelers. Instead of taking a package tour to the Kinabatangan, we wanted to support the local families and arranged all of our own travel and river guides by ourselves. Sakau has a wonderful home stay program where all of the profits go directly to the local individuals instead of being soaked up by middle men and tourist agencies. The family we stayed with was delightful. There were about a dozen grandchildren roaming throughout the house, popping up from under our bed and exploring our cameras and batteries, modern gadgets they are not often exposed to. When the sun went down, we spent hours playing tic-tac-toe and making shadow puppets in the candlelight with the little tykes, and they sat beside us at every meal. We feasted on fresh river catch and jungle fruits, living off the land as our own ancestors did before packaged foods entered our pantries. It’s a simple life here along the Kinabatangan, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. What an incredible experience.