Tuesday, May 6, 2008

A Little Hiking

Kinabatangan River (Mar. 7 - Mar. 9)

There were so many things that I wanted to do while in Borneo: scuba dive, climb Mt. Kinabalu, see orangutans... But I quickly learned that I couldn't do everything and that it's ok not to do everything. Anyway, I've already accepted the fact that I'm going back to Borneo.

After 2 days of staying in Vincent the Drunk's guest-house I moved to the North Borneo Cabin. So much nicer. And my home for the next 16 days. The rooms were spotless, bathrooms were nice, and the staff was awesome. So awesome that they booked and arranged all of my travel around Sabah for me. I didn't have to think at all; I just sat at the reception, told them what I wanted to do, and a few quick phone calls later my itinerary was set.

After 4 days of volunteering, I headed east toward the Kinabatangan River on a 6 hour bus ride. I got off the bus at a small roadside cafe in a tiny town. I'm not even sure it could be considered a town. I was then supposed to be picked up by a guide who would take me to a jungle lodge on the Kinabatangan. I did find a guide (Jay), but he was looking for Amanda. Apparently I was Amanda, or that's at least what he decided. We were soon picked up by Sam, who was also looking for Amanda and who also readily accepted that I was she. The three of us first stopped at a small grocery store to pick up a some food supplies. I still wasn't sure whether I was with the correct guides, but for some reason I felt quite comfortable with Jay and Sam. Everything turned out fine. After driving for about an hour through endless palm oil plantations, we arrived at the river.

The lodge was absolutely basic and absolutely lovely. It was run by locals (river people - orang sunai) and when I arrived was immediately greeted with a warm cup of rose tea. The women then showed me to my room: a dorm shared with David, a British guy that I actually knew! I had previously shared a dorm with David while at Vincent's guest house. It was so nice to see a familiar face, especially considering that everyone else at the lodge (13 other guys) was part of a Dutch fraternity reunion.

Less than an hour after I arrived, the 15 of us piled into a boat just in time for the rain. It poured. And the leeches were out in force - the guys still had leeches on their rain gear from jungle trekking earlier that day. It was pretty funny watching those grown men squirm away from the little leeches. One of the Dutch guys had a leech on his cheek and David had one on his chair. After watching him try to flick it off for a few minutes I grabbed it and tossed it overboard.

The rain slowly cleared and we saw heaps of macaques and a few proboscis monkeys as we boated down the river. The highlight of the trip was a green tree viper. One of the Dutch guys (Strong Man) pointed it out and our guide, Kai, positioned the boat directly beneath the overhanging branch on which the viper was perched. Kai got a kick out of placing the boat and us so close to the poisonous snake. More than once, the boys scrambled to the far side of the boat as the snake approached their heads. I was already on the far side of the boat and didn't have to move - I just hoped we wouldn't capsize. Crocodiles or a viper? Don't know which I'd prefer.

That evening we all ate together. I quickly got to know the Dutch guys quite well. This was their second reunion. Since graduating from university they have organized a trip every 5 years. They fund these vacations by creating a pool of money to which everyone contributes a portion of their monthly salary. Then when year 5 rolls around they have all the money they need to travel together in a foreign country for a couple weeks! Amazing, huh? Such an awesomely simple idea. After eating we decided to play a game. I can't remember the name or even all of the rules, but it had to do with putting celebrity names in a bucket and each person would pull a name and try to describe the celebrity to their teammates without using proper nouns. The next round we used the same names, but you could only use one word to describe the celebrity, and for the final round you could only pantomime. The added twist was that everything had to be in English - for the sake of David and me. It was hilarious. The 13 Dutch were constantly arguing. In Dutch "I" is not a proper noun, so lots of the guys used it to describe their celebrity only to be quickly admonished by people from the opposite team. The game got pretty heated and was made even more exciting when "Strong Man's" plastic chair broke under his weight - an entire leg snapped in half. I think I almost peed my pants. The next morning one of the women asked what happened and the only answer she got was, "Oh, it was Strong Man."

David and the Dutch guys left the following day and I spent the afternoon trekking with Nelly, my guide, in the jungle. The banks of the Kinabatangan are teeming with wildlife: monitor lizards, macaques, proboscis monkeys, orangutans, pygmy elephants, hundreds of birds, and snakes. The high diversity of rare animals in such a small space is quite spectacular, but also very sad. Palm oil plantations are all over Malaysia. Native forests are cleared and replaced with the economically important palm oil trees. The palms take about 2 years to mature and can then be harvested for their fruit, from which oil is extracted, every month for about 20 years. The success of the palm oil industry has resulted in the mass destruction of much of Malaysia's natural forests. The high diversity of rare animals along the Kinabatangan is a direct result of palm oil plantations: palm plantations are slowly encroaching upon the Kinabatangan, destroying these animals' habitat and forcing them closer and closer to the river's banks.

On the third day I started my journey back to Kota Kinabalu. Sam drove me from the lodge back to the small roadside cafe, where together we waited for the bus. To pass the time Sam and I practiced his English and he taught me some Malay. It was an awesome exchange of information - I even learned how to construct some simple Malay sentences. I was also very grateful for his company. I wasn't quite sure how I was going to wave down the bus, much less know which one to stop. Sam took care of everything for me; he even escorted me to the bus door.

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