Destination: Uncle Tan's (a camp along the Kinabatangan River)
Number of Days there: 3
One thing unexpected:
Estimated KM walked: About 5kms
Where we stayed: There's only one option - a hut in the middle of the jungle with three mildew filled "mattresses" protected by a wire cage to keep the monkeys out
What we liked: All the animals and the nice river cruises. Spotting the Sun Bear on the way out.
What we disliked: Disclaimer: They warn you ahead of time that the accommodations are basic, it still does not mean we have to like it :-). No one takes a shower for the 3day/2night visit. If you choose to shower it's a cold bucket of muddy river water with a scoop on the walkway in front of the "toilets" with no privacy. The toilets are of the squat variety but hey, it was much better than the longhouse! The room was literally a wooden building with a piece of foam on the ground for a mattress and smelled of, well, mildew and people not taking showers for 3 days :-)
After resting our weary muscles for only one night (mistake #1) we got up and went to flag down the bus on the side of the road outside of our hotel. We had asked the hotel before we climbed the mountain to book us a bus ticket and they kept saying don't worry about it, you can just flag it down without a ticket. Considering they live here and we don't, we trusted them (mistake #2). After waiting on the side of the road for over an hour and watching about a dozen buses whiz by waving there hands motioning to us "we're full", one of the ladies from the hotel came out and said, "oh, you still here?" We explained that all the buses were full so far to her so she went in to check. Sure enough, all the buses were full for the rest of the day due to Hari Raya. "Hold on, I make sign for you to help" she says after giving us the bad news about the bus situation. She returned a few minutes later with a piece of paper that read "S'kan" (short for Sandakan, the next town past Uncle Tan's) and showed us the proper way to hitchhike our way there. We asked if hitchhiking was considered safe and she reassured us that it was saying "it's a school holiday so many families will be going to S'kan". We looked at her skeptically and tried to convey our discomfort with this situation but determined to get to Uncle Tan's on time we held out the sign reluctantly. We figured Tracy had a better chance given the number of honks and yells from the numerous truck drivers plying the road over the course of the past hour and a half. After 10 minutes without any luck, the same lady from the hotel came out and told us that "her friend" was heading that way and that he would take us! Her friend ended up being someone else staying at the hotel that was going home and had room in his car for us. Either way, we were saved from the unknown and after a bumpy four hour ride in a new and nicely air conditioned vehicle with a very friendly man from Sandakan as well as a few of his co-workers (thank you Nicholas!) we arrived at Uncle Tan's base just in time.
From the base you travel another 2 hours in a van to where you board the boat to go to camp. Along the way, you pass row after row of Palm plantations. It's sad to think that all that land used to be rainforest and the clearing continues to this day, even government sponsored in some cases. Recently, fortunately, there has been some resistance and there are plans in place to start increasing the size of wildlife refuges. They might be the ones ripping up the rainforest, but it's the world's demand for the products that really fuel this activity. The same thing is happening in Brazil as well where they are ripping up rainforest to plant soybeans.
It takes another hour and a half by boat to get to camp and then a half a km walk from the river to camp. Along the way we passed a troop of proboscis monkeys, macaques (cheeky monkeys), several Hornbill's, an eagle and one couple saw wild orangutans! The 3D/2N program consists of three river cruises and two jungle treks broken up by resting, eating & viewing wildlife from the lodge in the middle of the jungle (there was PLENTY of it). The cost of the whole tour was 320 RM (just over $100 US so all in all a pretty good price). The first activity was the night river safari where we saw a small crocodile, a pit viper snake (how did they even see that in the dark!?!) some more monkeys and a really cool Kingfisher bird.
Wake up call is at 6:00am for another river cruise where we saw more of the same wildlife as before and back in camp, the cheeky monkeys arrived. They apparently know when the feeding times are and if you don't guard your food, they WILL take it. All the same, monkeys are monkeys and still out of the ordinary how bad they can be. After breakfast, we took a mosquito filled jungle trek where the guide talked mostly about the trees and history of the park. He explained how the refuge is broken up into 9 lots scattered along the river broken up by the plantations of palm trees. To keep the elephants out, the plantations build huge trenches making it impossible for them to cross so they are not allowed to roam free between the lots. Currently, they are cut off from 1/3 of the lots, but Uncle Tan's and a couple of other similar companies are trying to buy back some of the land and make "bridges" between the lots so that the Elephants and other wildlife can have access to all that they can. Upon returning to camp, we heard one of the staff say that the cheeky monkeys had broken into one of the huts. Sure enough, in the hut next to ours, they had gotten in and destroyed the place. Medicine was chewed into, wallets and passports were lying all over the ground, and anything and everything was scattered and chewed. They even got into the "rat" proof bucket (yep they got jungle rat problems as well) that had a sealed lid where you put food and medicine. We offered to supply some malarial tablets, toothpaste and triple checked our door to make sure it was locked! Cheeky monkeys indeed! Tracy made sure all valuables were locked away (cheeky monkeys can't open combination locks!). We went out on another river cruise where we saw more of the same animals as before, and more than I can remember the names of! That night we did a night jungle safari where we trudged though the mud in search of insects and bugs. We saw lots of spiders, a moth that would not fly off my arm without a little nudge, held a scorpion that also loved my arm and many other creepy crawlies. That night we stayed up and waited for the civets to arrive at camp as well (and they did).
The next morning we had breakfast and got on the boat back to civilization. On the way out of the jungle, we spotted a sunbear up in a tree, a rare spotting indeed, and a couple more crocodiles. After being dropped off at the jetty, there was a van waiting to take us to our next destination - Semporna for some diving (and long, hot showers). All in all, we felt like the tour was well worth the money spent and a great opportunity to see wildlife, but make sure you set your expections at a notch above camping!