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River Wild Along Kinabatangan

As the sun peaks over the horizon and the mighty Kinabatangan river catches the first rays of sunlight, my three-year old son, Seth keeps his gaze steady scanning the river…

As the sun peaks over the horizon and the mighty Kinabatangan river catches the first rays of sunlight, my three-year old son, Seth keeps his gaze steady scanning the river banks in a hunt to find the herd of Pygmy elephants that were last spotted a day ago grazing at the river banks. Our guide and spotter Jamil knew how much Seth wanted to see elephants and readily agreed to the elephant spotting hunt when we set off from Sukau Rainforest Lodge just before dawn that morning.

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The mist lifted from the face of the river and the riverine forest came to live. Egrets took flight in the air and the colourful stork-billed kingfisher awoke for a catch. The forest echoed a symphony of tunes from the low hum of the cicadas to the chatter of playful macaques. Then, we spotted the majestic hornbill flying overtop before perching on a faraway tree. Truly, this was the best wildlife playground for any three-year old – especially, for Seth who is crazy over animals!

The mighty Kinabatangan river stretches 560kms, starting from the Crocker Range in southwest Sabah and ending at the Sulu Sea southeast of Sandakan. It is the longest river in Sabah and is incredibly rich in biodiversity. It is perhaps the most sought after destination in Sabah to spot wildlife – more notably the Borneo Big 5; the orang utan, Pygmy elephant, proboscis monkey, crocodile, and hornbill.

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The best way to enjoy the river and her wild inhabitants is by boat. Every morning and evening we set out on safari trips in groups no bigger than 10 people. Small vessels with very quiet electric motors were used to explore the river as we snake into narrow waterways and into mangrove forests. We had cameras and binoculars ready at all times.

Our guide and boatman with laser-sharp eyes pointed to a dark speck on the big tree and through the binoculars, we saw a wild orang utan having his morning snack. Another time, our guide steadied the boat and pointed to the glistening eyes of a small crocodile. I caught a glimpse of it before it swiftly disappeared into the water.

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Traveling with a three-year old toddler and a three-month old baby was an adventure on its own. One time while on an evening safari, we felt a light drizzle starting. Within minutes, the drizzle turned into light showers and I found myself hiding under a raincoat with Seth at my side and Enya, my three-month old on my lap hiding from the rain. We waited patiently for the rain to pass and soon after we were rewarded with a scene of swinging proboscis monkeys and long-tail macaques who came out to play after the shower.

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Back at the lodge, we explored the jungle by foot on the 1,500 feet boardwalk in search of insects and small mammals. We waited for the resident orang utans to make an appearance and to our delight, we sighted two different orang utans during our stay. Our meals were served on an al fresco deck overlooking the river. It was also where new friendships were made as we exchanged notes with other guests on the day’s findings.

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In the dark of the night, after dinner, adventurous guests were given the option to go on another safari treat. It was too good to pass and Seth was eager as ever for another wildlife spotting hunt. The gentle motor boat sputtered on the shadowy river and our boatman scanned the jungle with his spotlight. We saw a kingfisher, a green paddy frog and a family of proboscis monkeys retired for the night. Yet, the most spectacular sight was when the boat came to a halt and the jungle stood still. The star-studded skies twinkled above as we trace our fingers across the milky way. I looked down and little Enya was fast asleep, lulled by the peaceful harmony of nature and the gentle rocking of the boat.

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After three days and two nights in this beautiful riverine jungle, we found it hard to say goodbye. Seth turned me as we were just about to leave and said, “Mom, I don’t want to go home. Can I stay?” There was good reason to stay as we did not see the elephants. In my effort to convince him, I told him – we will be back next time and hopefully, we will be able to see the mighty beast.

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Getting to Sukau Rainforest Lodge:

Treat yourself to a fine holiday at Sukau Rainforest Lodge, a member of the National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World. Fly into Sandakan airport and you will be transferred to the jetty where you will take a two-hour boat ride to the Kinabatangan River. This boat ride is a prelude to the adventure that awaits you. Wildlife spotting starts the minute you reach the river mouth. You will pass through small village settlements, oil palm plantations, mangrove and palm forests. The sight of proboscis monkeys is almost a guarantee.

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Photo Journal: Gunung Mulu National Park

Gunung Mulu National Park is remote, and is typically accessed by only one commercial flight, MAS Wings on a small twin otter airplane. The flight is quite frightful and rather…

Gunung Mulu National Park is remote, and is typically accessed by only one commercial flight, MAS Wings on a small twin otter airplane. The flight is quite frightful and rather different for those of us who are used to flying Boeing airplanes. This nature hideout holds much to discover and I’m glad it’s not flocked by mass tourists.

Located in east Malaysia’s Sarawak state, Gunung Mulu National Park, a World Heritage Site holds the world’s largest natural cave chamber, the Sarawak Chamber. Sprawling an enormous 700 meters in length, it is massive enough to fit an airplane. Another highlight of the park is the Pinnacles, a series of razor-sharp limestone peaks rising from the earth, a view unlike any other. Unfortunately when I visited Mulu a couple of years back, I wasn’t able to do any of the overnight hikes since I was in my first trimester.

Even then, I was able to glimpse at the wonderous beauty that Mulu has to offer in her rich biodiversity tucked in primary rainforest and nearby caves. My photo journal will tell a better story in the images captured this pristine natural wonderland.

Arriving at Mulu in a twin otter airplane. So glad the journey wasn’t long as I was getting antsy!
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Savouring wild bananas and was surprised to find crusty black seeds in them! The park was teeming with all sorts of native plants and some were devoured by insects leaving them hole ridden.

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Traveling upstream to the indigenous Penan community. Here they sold handmade handicraft and told stories of long gone.
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Trekking to Deer Cave and Lang Cave was a lovely stroll, walking on well-maintained boardwalks under a dense canopy of rainforest trees. The trek to these caves would not be complete without bat sightings that take place every evening. Thousands of tiny Wrinkled-Lipped Bats rush out of the cave’s chambers in search for their night-time meals. The sight is nothing short of spectacular as they circle and form snaky-lines in the sky before dispersing into the forest.

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Night hikes are not to be missed! Upon nightfall, creepy critters come out to hunt for food. Within a 100 meter radius of the campsite, a variety of insects can be found. A word of caution, it’s not for the faint-hearted. If you’re afraid of insects and reptiles (like I am), stay in the middle of the group and carry a torchlight to light your path.

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