On the trail of wildlife

IT’S known for its wildlife adventure — a resort amidst a rainforest with a village lodge, home-cooked meals and experienced tourist guides that all add up to a great family “Nature” outing and a learning time for the young ones.

I am having a Sepilok Tropical Wildlife Adventure flashback — sleeping (probably with a giant scorpion under the bed), watching naughty monkeys chattering among the trees that might just venture close enough to steal your shoes, waking up to the calls of birds at the crack of dawn in the heart of the primary rainforest, observing a female orang utan nursing its baby in the wild, the boat cruise and most memorably, the corridor of life along Kinabantangan River.

ENTRY POINT: Entrance to Agnes Keith House.

ENTRY POINT: Entrance to Agnes Keith House.

Seven of us — two adults and five children — were met at Sandakan airport by Junaidi, the senior tour executive of Sepilok Tropical Wildlife Adventure Sdn Bhd.

We passed by the water village and stopped for breakfast at the central market. At my request, Junaidi arranged for us to visit Agnes Keith House.

Agnes Keith was an American writer living in Sandakan, Sabah, with her English husband, Harry, a Conservator of Forests, from 1934 to 1952.

She wrote three books on her experience of her stay. The first was Land Below the Wind (1939) recalling the pre-war days, followed by Three Came Home (1947), focusing on hardships during the Second World War and White Man Returns (1951) about her life in Sandakan after the war.

The Department of Sabah Museum has restored and turned the house where Agnes lived into a museum as a tribute to her. In her own words, “the house is located on the finest hilltop in Borneo with a magnificent view of the habour of Sandakan.”

She loved her beautiful house, saying people from far and near came to see it and had their pictures taken outside it.

Agnes wrote about her book room: “There is a mental energy in this room, discharged and accumulated from the past, which seems to exhilarate you when you enter it. Not only is it a good place to work in but also a good place to stop while the bathwater runs or when dressing for dinner or waiting for breakfast … for there is always something unfinished to be gone on with there.

Land Below the Wind

A learning time for the children was Agnes’ belief in achieving a peaceful world.

Even after three and a half years of brutal imprisonment by the Japanese Army during WWII in Borneo, she believed a peaceful world could be achieved as she expressed in her book (Three Came Home, 1946):

“I believe while we have more than we need on this continent and others die for the want of it, there can be no lasting peace. When we work as hard in peace time to make this world decent to live as in wartime to kill, the world will be decent and the causes for which men fight will be gone.”

Our next stop was Puu Jih Syh Temple on top of a hill overlooking the Sandakan Bay. This Buddhist temple is one of the landmarks of Sandakan Nature City and certainly a should-not-miss tourist attraction.

I first visited the temple with a consultant from England, Cedric Pulford, who made this remark: “The size and colours of the temple were hugely impressive. I was stuck by the multiple Buddhas to be seen as if increasing the images of the Enlightened One encouraged the sense of holiness of the place.”

We arrived at Bilit Adventure Lodge and were invited to the communal dining area, overlooking the Kinabatangan River, for afternoon tea while waiting for our river cruise.

HELLO THERE: A group of visitors with Junaidi and staff of Bilik Adventure Lodge.

HELLO THERE: A group of visitors with Junaidi and staff of Bilik Adventure Lodge.

As the wooden boat cut across the slow waters of the Kinabatangan during the leisurely ride along the river, for seven of us, the adventure seemed like Captain Willard searching for Colonel Kurtz except we were looking for wild animals in the heart of the jungle. We kept a sharp eye out for the slightest movement in the thick foliage.

Suddenly, Junaidi pointed excitedly to the trees: “Proboscis monkey, have you seen it?”

The only binoculars on board was passed around for the children to watch. At that moment, I thought how good it would be if I had a better zoom lens!

The search did not end there. Junaidi and the boat operator knew the environment like the back of their hands and could spot from afar camouflaged animals that we wouldn’t be able to see even up close!

We saw rhinoceros hornbills, kingfishers, long tailed macaques, silver leaf monkeys, proboscis monkeys and even an orang utan nursing its young. Seeing these wildlife in their nature habitat was a whole new experience for us as we previously got to see them only in the zoo.

“Mummy, mummy, look up,” my teenaged son shouted from the boat berthed by the riverbank. Looking up, I saw a small monkey staring at me just a foot away on a tree branch right above my head.

Five hundred and sixty (560) km long, the Kinabatangan is Sabah’s longest river, having its source in the steep mountain ranges of the southwest and flowing out into the Sulu Sea through the largest tract of mangrove in Malaysia. The banks are sparsely inhabited — and seemingly always have been.

This forest has the largest population of orang utans, proboscis monkeys, snakebirds as well as other exotic wildlife in Malaysia.

In 1998, a Kinabatangan Partners for Wetlands project was initiated by WWF Malaysia and Sabah Wildlife Department, supported by WWF Netherlands, to encourage the stakeholders in the region to work together to conserve the biodiversity of the ecosystem and the natural environment. The area has been dubbed a “mini Amazon.”

Returning to the Lodge, we had a home-cooked meal ready for us.

After dinner, a night walk to spot wild animals was organised for us. Limited by my vision, I had to opt out.

Three boys in our group went with the tour guide and came back with stories after stories to tell.

At the communal dining area, I met Gerald, a scientist who has been living in Africa for the past four years. He is on holidays in Borneo and has visited Kuching, Brunei, Kota Kinabalu before coming to Sandakan. Gerald was all excited about the wildlife adventure! After the boat cruise in the evening, he said the ride along the river was wonderful. He braved the rain for another cruise the next morning but I did not get to ask whether he came across any new wildlife in the early hours.

We were also forewarned that small creatures like jungle roaches, spiders, geckos and ants we might see in the room were not attracted there by an untidy surrounding.

You sometimes see them because you are in the jungle and for us, we didn’t want to kill these small creatures of Nature.

Yet, when we discovered a giant scorpion under one of the boys’ bed, we cringed! After the initial the screaming (and holding each other for safety), the children learned that cutting off the scorpion’s tail (metasoma) where the telson (sting) is located, could render this creepy crawly harmless.

Our tour operator — Sepilok Tropical Wildlife Adventure Sdn Bhd — rounded up the Kinabatangan adventure with other Sabah memorable attractions such the Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre, the Gomantong Caves, the Rainforest Discovery Centre and the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary.

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