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Sunday 11 Aug 2013
Kinabatangan, Malaysia

Fish, bats and hitch hikers

A very early alarm call got us up for a 6am river cruise.  We went in the same group with Ramzan, yesterday's guide, but either he was as tired as us, or just feeling lazy, but he hardly pointed anything out.  Instead he was content just to go where all the other boats had gone and see what they’d found.  All we saw was a handful of macaques and another monitor lizard.  Like almost everyone else in the boat, I fell asleep for half of it.  The misty river was very pretty in the early morning light, but it didn’t justify getting up for a 2 hour cruise if the guide couldn’t be bothered either.  When we got back for breakfast, we overheard a couple of other girls talking about how great their guide had been and all the things he’d pointed out – including a crocodile!

Mid-morning, we assembled again and donned our wellies for a longer jungle walk, this time to reach the oxbow lake full of ‘special’ fish.  Ramzan told us that we had three hours for the walk, but he’d try and get us done in two and a half so we’d have time to rest before lunch.  He also told us the walk was more about getting to the lake than about looking at things on the way.  This translated to him trying to route march us through the jungle and not stopping or waiting for photos or questions.  This got very annoying, as he was nowhere to be seen when we had questions and seemed to get more and more irritated with us too.  There were leeches in the jungle, so we all wore attractive leech socks – linen tubes tied up around our knees – and stopped for the occasional squeal when someone realised they’d picked up a hitch-hiker.

When we reached the oxbow lake, we climbed down a steep set of wooden steps (a bit daunting in slippery muddy boots) to the floating jetty to see what all the fuss was about with the fish.  It turned out they were the same kind as you get in fishy foot spas.  Before long there was a line of people lying on the jetty with their hands in the water, giggling helplessly as the fish nibbled and tickled their hands.

On the way back, Dani, Na, Mike and I got left behind once too often and got completely lost in the diverging trails.  We were rescued by a different group, who managed to direct us back to our guide.  We told him we didn’t want to be rushed, as we’d actually like to see the jungle properly.  We spotted a weird and wonderful assortment of insects, like long red millipedes and tractor centipedes.  I even found a stick insect, which was incredibly well disguised when he tucked his legs in.   

After lunch we had another boat ride, similar to yesterday’s but we went further upriver.  We again saw macaques, proboscis monkeys and a mangrove snake, but still no crocs.  I skipped the evening jungle walk, which was as unproductive as the last one, but joined in the excitement when a long snake invaded the dorms.  The two rows of dorms backed on to each other under the same roof, with a large open space above the walls in the centre.  A big snake had slithered in and was curled up on top of the dividing wall, about 8 feet above the bunkbeds.  Everyone crowded around the door to watch as the guides tried to catch it with a grabber stick, but succeeded only in sending it off inside the roof insulation.  It emerged into a tree outside and got very cross with the guide who grabbed it by the tail to pull it out into the open.  Everyone leaped back as the snake went flying and whipped around to hiss at the guide.  From there they were able to keep poking at it with a long stick until it took the hint and slithered off toward the jungle again.  It seems the dorm is far more exciting than the jungle!

I also skipped the morning boat ride in favour of a few more hours of sleep, which was a good decision as the others said Ramzan was as lethargic a guide again as he’d been the day before.

After leaving the Nature Lodge, instead of going back to Sandarkan, we’d arranged to be taken to the Gomontong bat caves, from where we’d been told we could get a minibus or taxi back to Sandarkan.  The two biggest caves are home to thousands of bats and sparrows.  This is one of the largest natural roosting caves of these particular sparrows.  Their edible nests are harvested to meet the demand for bird’s nest soup.  A crazy network of bamboo ladders and tiny platforms is built twice a year, once at the start of the mating season, when there is still time to build a new nest, and once at the end when the nest are no longer needed.  David Attenborough filmed an episode of Animal Planet here a few years ago. 

We followed a boardwalk through the jungle to the cave entrance, where it split and ran around the inside of the cave walls.  The centre of the cave was filled with a mountain of guano from all the bats and birds flying through every day. It was heaving with cockroaches! They were all over the walls and scuttling about on the boardwalk, looking remarkably healthy with their glossy bronze shells.  I’m not a great fan of them, though they don’t freak me out half as much as spiders, but somehow in this cave it didn’t seem wrong.  We were in their territory, after all. 

Despite the assurances we’d had about getting a taxi easily, we discovered that actually referred to the main highway, not to the caves themselves.  We were about 2.5km from the public road and 25km from the main highway.  The guy at the ticket office offered to call someone he knew, but it would take him an hour to arrive.  We played cards for a while, then realised it had been 90 minutes, so we asked again.  This time the guy wandered off into the office without a word and didn’t return for over 10 minutes.  When he did, he seemed surprised to see me still standing there.  I asked again and he grudgingly made a phonecall and told me the guy was just leaving, so it would still be 45 minutes.  A tour bus arrived in the meantime, so we persuaded them to drive us up to the public road where we could try and flag a minibus.  I’ve never hitched a ride before, but Na, Dani and Mike were old hands at it.  We waved at the first pickup to come along and it stopped for us. We’d been picked up by two electricians, who piled our bags in the truck bed and squeezed four of us into the back of the cab.  Could it really be that easy? 

No.  It seemed not.  We got ten minutes down the road and blew the front tyre.  We looked nervously at the other three tyres, which didn’t look a whole lot better, but they had us underway again in no time.  They dropped us off on the main highway, but the minibus drivers there wanted over 100 RM for the ride back.  We hitched another 20 minutes with a family who squashed us in the back of their car, then flagged down a minibus who took us the rest of the way for only 10 RM each.  The driver was a lovely cheerful guy named James, wearing an Arsenal shirt, who chatted away and dropped us off right at the door to our hostel.

I hadn't managed to find the same t-shirt as Na had bought in Mabul, but a couple of weeks after I got home, a parcel arrived for me, sent all the way from Korea.  Dani and Na had found the t-shirt after I left and bought it for me! What stars! Thank you girlies!

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