ECO-TOURS IN BORNEO

Slowing down to the pace of nature

by Jon Burbank

Looking for an unusual vacation this winter? How about floating along a river deep in the jungles of Borneo?

Thick, fragrant bushes crowd the water’s edge and delicate violet flowers float by. In the branches of the massive trees above a mother and baby orangutan nonchalantly forage. On the channel’s other side proboscis monkeys do the same.

The Malaysian state of Sabah on the island of Borneo has been heavily logged, but boat tours along the river near the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary provide a rare chance to observe orangutans (below) and other remaining wildlife.

Welcome to Sukau Rainforest Lodge, on the Kinabatangan River, about 100 km east of Sandakan in the Malaysian state of Sabah on Borneo.

Several “eco-lodges” hug the bank upriver from the village Sukau, but this highly recommended lodge is the most remote. Your only neighbors are monkeys rattling the neighboring trees.

It’s not luxurious, but rooms are clean and comfortable: entirely and unobtrusively in keeping with this lush environment. A generator supplies electricity at night. Beside the large verandah the open lobby-lounge has a good library and plenty of comfortable sofas.

At night bugs gather around the lobby’s lights, and the bugs in turn attract small bats. At first it’s disconcerting when a tiny brown form whizzes past as you read, but you soon put down the book to observe them.

The lodge is pleasant and surprisingly relaxing, but the highlights come on trips up and down the river. The Sukau Rainforest Lodge is unique in that its boats are powered by extremely quiet electric outboard engines. They are slower, but much better for maneuvering close to shy birds and other wildlife.

Much of Sabah suffers from heavy logging of its dense hardwood forests (as much of Borneo does), but here near Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary the forest is still unchanged. With luck you can see as many as 10 species of primate a day. During our excursions, we never went far before heading to the bank to observe the wildlife.

Orangutans, our naturalist told us, hardly ever touch the ground, preferring the safety of high-up tree-to-tree life. We watched them reach out calmly with long, loose limbs, grabbing branches with a grip that could crush our hand. Their effortless movements, where a single slip would send them plummeting to their death, left us in awe.

Birds were everywhere, most notably hornbills, with their distinctive, rhinolike casque on their beaks. Even more plentiful were cormorants. Sitting in the trees, these slender, skillful fishers resembled huge, right-side up bats.

The Kinabatangan River, Sabah’s largest, is 300 meters or more wide here, and in the rainy season turns a milky brown. Relaxing at sunset on the lodge’s dock we felt and heard a low rumble. Slowly a powerful boat pulling a huge barge of enormous logs eased past.

Somewhere upriver another chunk of rain-forest habitat had disappeared. The logging pace has slowed down recently, but that’s probably because the remaining forest is harder to access. The aftermath of logging is perhaps even more devastating environmentally.

Driving to Sukau from Sandakan we passed kilometer after kilometer of palm plantations planted over the cleared forests. Neat rows of low trees stretched as far as you can see.

Palm nut oil now accounts for a major part of Sabah’s economy. Government and business believe palm plantations support the environment, but the plantations fundamentally change the jungle habitat. Orangutans can’t live in the low palm trees, and the open plantations eliminate dense jungle. The rain forest isn’t devastated — it’s erased.

Elmo, the head naturalist at the lodge, pulled out a map to show us the remaining corridors of jungle running by the river and into the sanctuary. While going over the map he spoke passionately of the plight of a band of elephants, one of the last in Sabah, who depend on this jungle corridor to make their annual migration to and from the sanctuary. Determined to protect them, Elmo never looked happier than when describing the elephants waking him up as they foraged beside the lodge.

All the staff were great wildlife spotters. One morning Jamal, the lodge’s boat driver and handyman, agreed to take us for a jungle walk. His English was limited, except when it came to naming birds that he seemed to make materialize out of thin air.

Taking the boat back, my wife and I were both amazed at how relaxed we felt. The Sukau Rainforest Lodge had turned out to be a real winner.