WILD NIGHTS IN BOR­NEO

A noc­tur­nal ven­ture down a Malaysian river puts rare and in­cred­i­ble wildlife in the spot­light

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - Escape - - DESTINATION MALAYSIA - MAR­GARITA STEINHARDT

The moon­less trop­i­cal night is per­fectly still, as we cruise along Bor­neo’s Kin­abatan­gan River in search of noc­tur­nal wildlife. Our spot­light beam dances across the cur­tain of the ghostly dark for­est on the river bank. The only sounds that break the si­lence are the rhyth­mi­cal puff­ing of the boat en­gine and the oc­ca­sional squeaks of fly­ing foxes gorg­ing them­selves on fruit high up in the dark canopy.

With me in the boat are Jo from the UK and Jens from Swe­den, as well as our two guides: Mike, who is guid­ing us for our en­tire two weeks in Bor­neo, and Os­man, our host on the river for the next two nights. Both of them, we come to be­lieve, have su­per­hu­man vi­sion when it comes to find­ing wildlife.

Soon Os­man spots some­thing on the bank and the mood in the boat changes dra­mat­i­cally. Now five pairs of eyes are glued to the cen­tre of the spot­light beam.

Mike sees the an­i­mal im­me­di­ately. “It’s a Philip­pine slow loris. Very low in the tree,” he whis­pers ex­cit­edly point­ing out the lo­ca­tion.

We see it too now. What was just a pair of bright dots at first (loris’s eyes re­flect­ing in the spot­light beam), now trans­form into the cutest face imag­in­able.

Look­ing down at us with its car­toon­ishly large eyes, the loris ap­pears as sur­prised to see us as we are to see it. We stare at each other in mute amaze­ment.

Of all the wildlife-watch­ing hot spots in Bor­neo, lower Kin­abatan­gan River in the Malaysian state of Sabah is where you are most likely to ex­pe­ri­ence wildlife up close.

Sadly, the rea­son for this abun­dance is that the wildlife has nowhere else to go.

Pushed by the en­croach­ing oil palm plan­ta­tions, the an­i­mals are trapped in the nar­row stretch of for­est on the river bank. If more land is cleared, we will lose this un­ex­pected wildlife haven for good.

But for now, the loris is safe.

We leave the loris to its nightly ex­ploits and sur­prise a Buffy fish owl that has just landed on a weath­ered tree stump ris­ing out of the wa­ter in the mid­dle of the river. With its mas­sive wings out­stretched, it fol­lows us with a pierc­ing gaze of its huge yel­low eyes, that give its face a per­pet­u­ally baf­fled ex­pres­sion.

The only crea­ture that is not sur­prised by our ap­pear­ance is the tiny and in­cred­i­bly bright blue-eared king­fisher. Perched on a thin branch over­hang­ing the river, it lifts its head to­wards the dark sky and pre­tends not to see us drift­ing slowly with the cur­rent right un­der­neath it.

Overnight, we stay at Os­man’s home­s­tay. It is a large wooden house with a spa­cious ve­randa lifted on stilts over the bank of the river. Above the TV, in be­tween Is­lamic cal­lig­ra­phy art, hang pho­tos of Os­man with Sir David At­ten­bor­ough.

The next af­ter­noon we re­turn to Me­nang­gul and find our­selves in a com­pletely dif­fer­ent world. By day the river is burst­ing with life. Noisy horn­bills fly over­head, pro­boscis mon­keys crash through the canopy and pig­tailed macaques squab­ble on the river bank while keep­ing a watch­ful eye for the croc­o­diles.

“Jens, here is some­thing for you,” Mike calls. “There is a snake in the branches up ahead.” We stare at the tree he is point­ing at, but un­sur­pris­ingly see noth­ing.

“No, two snakes,” pitches in Os­man. “No wait, four snakes!”

Jens has been dy­ing to see a snake ever since miss­ing one a few days ear­lier, but four to­gether seems like a bit of a stretch.

Yet as we ap­proach the tree, we are able to make out four bright yel­low coiled shapes.

“Grey-tailed rac­ers,” Mike ex­plains as we watch the snakes wake up one by one and move lan­guidly through the branches. None of us has seen any­thing like this be­fore, and in the case of Mike and Os­man that says a lot.

Are we wit­ness­ing some kind of un­known rep­til­ian be­hav­iour?

At night, we find another rar­ity – an Ori­en­tal Bay owl – a bird so rare that even Mike has never seen one be­fore. At first, we hear its call com­ing from the thick jun­gle. Mike mim­ics its call, trick­ing the bird into be­liev­ing it’s be­ing chal­lenged by another owl.

Out­raged, the bird comes to in­ves­ti­gate, even­tu­ally land­ing in a rea­son­ably open spot where we can fi­nally see it. It is tiny and looks like most other barn owls, yet by play­ing “hard to get” with the bird watch­ers it el­e­vates it­self to the top of their bucket lists.

The last en­counter we have on the river is with a Western tar­sier.

A dis­tant rel­a­tive of all the other pri­mates on the river, this an­i­mal is so strange, you would think it is made out of spare parts. Its enor­mous eyes take up most of its face. In fact, each of its eye­balls is as big as its en­tire brain.

Its fin­gers are so long that some reach the length of its en­tire up­per arm. It is a lit­tle grem­lin out of chil­dren’s fairy­tales, im­pos­si­bly cute, and the big-eyed face stays in my mind long af­ter we leave the river bank.

On my last morn­ing at Os­man’s, I dis­cover yet another face of Kin­abatan­gan when I find the river shrouded in thick morn­ing mist.

It is an eerie scene of vague shad­ows con­cealed by the ghostly white haze – a haunt­ing farewell from the river.

PIC­TURE: MAR­GARITA STEINHARDT

It’s amaz­ing what you’ll see on Bor­neo’s Kin­abatan­gan River with an ea­gle-eyed guide or two in your boat.

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