The humid air is circulated more by buzzing insects than by our boat’s easy gait. I yawn – and promptly inhale some of them. We are cruising along the only highway this land will ever know, the Sungai Kinabatangan, Sabah’s longest river and Malaysia’s premier wildlife haven. Our goal is to track down and photograph Borneo’s famed pygmy forest elephants, reputedly the rarest in the world.
Proboscis monkeys crash rowdily through the foliage above. An hour ago we’d have stopped for them, but now they offer little consolation. It has been three hours and we have found few signs of our quarry. I don my National Geographic cap in resignation.
Suddenly the lead boat erupts with excitement, its two passengers frantically snapping pictures of shadows we cannot yet distinguish. Straining my eyes, I think I see something moving behind the foliage. Something huge.
“Up ahead,” announces our wildlife guide and boatman Osman Umi. I glance back and hope he will say the magic word. He grins and gives off the slightest of nods.
I first heard of the Kinabatangan River after summiting Mount Kinabalu in November 2007. Four years later, I found myself scouring the web for tours. The name “Osman” quickly came up, along with testimonials of his outstanding skills as both tracker and boatman. Soon we had set up a three-day, two-night trip to see Borneo from a boat—at a fraction of commercial rates. Osman promised to meet us at Sukau junction, 135 kilometers south of Sandakan City.
We reach Osman’s riverside house a little after noon. The simple but spacious lodge has five rooms and sits perched atop solid stilts, insurance for when the river swells each December. A row of upturned rubber boots adorn the porch.
Soon Osman arrives to bring back great news: elephants were spotted downriver the other day!
The 37-year-old first began ferrying adventurers nine years ago and knows each meter of his primeval playground. Still, he admits, “It’s easy to get lost.” One night he set out to find tokay geckos alone in the forest. Eventually losing direction, he hunkered down until dawn with nothing more than a knife and a defective flashlight. “I not want to do that again!” he laughs.
I ask him if we might also see another animal on my list – the tembadau, Malaysia’s wild cattle. “Not likely,” he says. “Ever since palm oil plantations come nearer and nearer to the forest, many wildlife now gone.”
Up to 90 percent of the Kinabatangan’s forests have been cleared, mostly for African oil-palm plantations. About 20 processing mills dot the region. Requiring just three years to become productive, these sprawling plantations produce oil for soap, fuel and other commercial products.
Osman continues: “But elephants easier to see now, for the only good forests left are near the river. Sometimes though, even they must pass through plantations, looking for food. Guards scare them off with explosives.” As if on cue, a baritone boom reverberates across the Kinabatangan. I look at Osman, but he is staring at the river.
At dawn our guide brings us to an oxbow lake, a prime spot for tracking wildlife. “This track of mouse deer, maybe two days old,” gestures Malaysia’s incarnation of Bear Grylls. “This one Sambar deer. Just pass through now, see? Tracks still filling up with water.” Animal signs are indeed everywhere: mud churned-up by forest hogs, elephant rub-marks plus leopard scratches on trees. We encounter centipedes – and something much worse.
Though no tigers prowled Borneo, throngs of tiger leeches await warm-blooded clients along trails, canals and dense undergrowth. Before starting our elephant cruise, Osman teaches us how to dress and cover the bleeding bites with tape. Leech wounds take days to heal but make for cool bar tales—a fair trade. This done, we set out to find elephants.
We rapidly approach the excited lead boat. I can see movement behind the foliage, but just can’t see through. I duck for a second to remove my cap—and suddenly, there they are.
Elephants. Three of them.
Frozen at the bow of the boat, I no longer notice the buzzing of mosquitoes, nor the throbbing in my boots. There are only the elephants, passing slowly by a small break in the foliage 20 feet away.
The boat jolts and hits the bank. Osman is bringing us in! With tensed muscles I explode off the boat, knowing guides rarely allowed guests to land. When I snap pictures, the nearest animal retreats trumpeting into the green. Did we scare it off? Before I can react, the elephant re-emerges and charges straight towards us. It is gaining ground fast. Only, the boat is moored in the mud, and I am stuck out front.
I crash back to the boat, an elephant on my tail. In seconds it reaches us and does an about-face, revealing it to be female. “She’s gonna sit down!” shouts Paco, one of our friends. She doesn’t. Instead, she gives our boat a thunderous kick, knocking us – along with pieces of our boat’s wooden bow – back into the river. Then, she is gone.
We are all breathing hard. “Intense!” exclaims Ann. Our spirits soar, having just experienced elephant kung-fu. We’ve done it – we’ve seen Borneo’s elephants from a boat. Little did we know that the smiling Osman has something even more substantial planned.
“When I say run,” instructs Osman as he sits calmly in a clearing six feet ahead, “You run.” I nod, straining to see what the herd will do next.
We are again in the forest, sunrays filtering through the canopy to paint our world with dappled shades of jade and chocolate. Five elephants stand shoulder-to-shoulder 40 feet away. Overpowered by the wafting stench of musk, I wrinkle my nose.
Three of us are crouched behind tiny trees, trying not to make any sounds. The boat – with our more sensible team members – is 80 feet behind.
I came to Borneo to see elephants up close. Now it seems I’m getting my wish as a tusked seven-footer trumpets and trots ahead of the herd. Osman notices. “Don’t panic, just keep taking pictures.”
At 30 feet, the moss-covered tree I’m cowering behind seems toothpick-thin. At 20 feet, my heart pounds so hard I actually hear it thumping. Ten feet.
Adios! I turn tail and bolt towards the nearest large tree – grizzled, with a drum-sized trunk. No way am I going to be turned into a human pancake. Turning back, I find Osman laughing and playing with the wild elephant. He looks at us beaming. “This one always curious… so I never say run!”
We laugh along, realizing Osman knows this 40-strong herd well. We watch them play and spar for what seems a lifetime—but is closer to half-an-hour. As we stand to leave, the tusked elephant approaches me, stopping behind some foliage. We look one another eye-to-eye, and I say goodbye.
* * *
Back at the house we enjoy a traditional Malay dinner of Udang Galah, curried river prawns. The day is done – we’ve had our fill of adventure and now, we’re having our fill of food.
Hand still dripping with sauce, I go outside to look for Osman, savoring the cool night air. I want to thank him for showing us where the wild things are. But he’s lovingly cleaning his boat for another run on the Kinabatangan.
I let him be and rejoin the group. Perhaps he’s recalling the generations of people his boat has taken down the Kinabatangan – people whose lives have been forever touched by seeing pot-bellied proboscis monkeys, shy orangutans and magical elephants. I can still see him smiling. And all around him the river flows, the way it has for millennia. •
For a one-of-a-kind wildlife adventure down the Kinabatangan River, contact Osman and Yanty Umi at +6019841525.