Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Plan B -Sandakan

Why do the fates conspire against me? Every night before a reasonably long journey, for some reason, something happens that prevents me sleeping properly. This time very oddly it was an insistent hammering on the adjoining door between our room and the next at 3 A.M. The hammering moved to the door to the corridor so I opened it to a Malay girl in her twenties who said, "Sorry," and ran off down the hall. Actually now I think about it, this is the reaction of most women to me in my boxer shorts.

Plan B was a 6 hour bus ride to the town of Sandakan, known as a gateway to wildlife. The bus journey wasn't too bad although quite dull. Not far out of Kota Kinabalu the landscape became utterly dominated by palm oil plantation, on both sides of the road stretching as far as the eye could see. This went on for miles and miles. Eventually we had a lunch stop, but neither me or Gemma really fancied anything so we just stretched our legs in the carpark of the restaurant. When we got to Sandakan we got a taxi to a hotel mentioned in the Rough Guide (Hotel New Sabah) which was pleasingly cheap. Straight out again looking for a place we could book an overnight trip to Turtle Island a nearby haven for nesting Green and Hawksbill Turtles. At this time of year they come onto the beaches each night and lay their eggs as well as the hatchlings making their way to the sea under cover of darkness. Only 20 people are allowed to stay over on the island and hence see the turtles do their thang after dark. Unfortunately many more than 20 people want to go do it, meaning the next available date would have been a week and a half away. Instead we booked a jungle river wildlife spotting trip with overnight stay, with the option of swapping onto Turtle island in the unlikely event of a cancellation coming up. In the evening we went to a restaurant very much bigged up in the Rough Guide, The Supreme Garden Vegetarian (none of your ordinary gardens here!). It was very nice and deserving of its write up. Gemma was amazed with her substitute chicken and cashew nuts.

We weren't due to be picked up for the trip until 11:15 but we were at the pick up point stupid early so sat around in the sunshione. It was at this point, about to take a photo, that I noticed that Gemma's teleconverter was broken, and couldn't be fixed without the use of tools we didn't have. An annoyance when you are about to go wildlife spotting. The previous evening we had managed buy a pair of binoculars to replace those that I lost in South Africa. I also realised that I had lost my sunglasses -the 3rd pair lost or destroyed so far on this trip.

We were picked up by the bus and driven about 5 minutes away to S.I. Tours' jetty, amongst the village stretching out into the sea -all interconnected walkways between houses built over the water on stilts. After a short wait for everyone to arrive we met our guides, boarded our boats and set off speeding across the bay to the mouth of the Kinabatang River. On the journey up the river we only spotted a group of Proboscis Monkeys, which were fairly hidden by the trees and not totally in view. Still I view any spotted wildlife on a trip like this as a bonus and try not to get disappointed when we don't see certain things. I was happy to see many Egrets on the river as well as other birds darting past. We ate lunch at the Abai Jungle Restaurant on the river before continuing to our lodge at Sukai. There are a few lodges nestled on the riverbank here, and all fairly tastefully done, blending in reasonably well with the surrounding jungle. After a cold towel and drink we were given our key and warned the room was 'Basic'. It was fine though, and better than a lot of the places we've stayed so far.

After a fried banana snack we got into smaller boats and set off up the river towards it's tributary, the Menanggol. The tribtary is easy to spot. The Kinabatang river is the colour of under-brewed and over-milked tea whereas the Menanggol running into it is a dark chocolate. We span round where the colours mixed and along with a number of other boats from our and other lodges set off up the tributary. This is a favourite spot of the Proboscis Monkeys who like to bed down for the night in the trees by the waters edge. They have become habituated to the presence of the boat and so either watched us or just went about their monkey business. We also saw Snakes, Crocodiles, Macaques and Hornbills. All very good to see but quite difficult to photograph.

After watching wildlife we had an hour or so to get ready for dinner, which our guide assured us wa, 'No sarong, no dinner.' I wasn't too bothered by the idea, but one British guy we'd been chatting too was very much unsure, I don't think he liked the idea at all. Still in the end he came out wearing his sarong, after popping back in when he'd seen me wearing mine with a T-Shirt and realising that he didn't have to wear only the sarong. While waiting for Gemma I was watching the lizards on the porch go nuts at all the insects that were attracted by the lights. Also after the insects, and quite startingly for me, was a bat zooming right past my face down the porch.

At dinner a guide asked if anyone wanted to take a drive with one of the lodge staff looking for Elephants. I was a bit tired so decided not to, watching the jungle for wildlife is quite a tiring business, although it doesn't sound like it should be. I couldn't face peering into the dark looking for Elephants, although they are big they can hide amongst the trees pretty well. The next morning after breakfast we joined our new guide for our trip back to Sandakan. Wildlife spotting was slow, with only more Egrets, some Macaques and Hornbills being spotted. That is until shouts rang out to stop the boat. One of the other couples had spotted three Elephants feeding and drinking in the long grass at the waters edge. As we sat in the boat facing them I counted another 20 individuals joining them. I could also make out shapes and the odd flick of an ear through the trees so there were certainly a number more nearby. It was excellent sitting watching them and I managed to get what I hope are some OK photographs. At one point a pair of young bulls had a bit of a fight. The guide was as excited as we were and clicking away like a tourist, explaining to see them is quite rare and especially for so many and so clearly. Two more of the boats from our lodge appeared and we slipped away and left them to it.

At the jetty in Sandakan there was, predictably, no news of cancelled Turtle island trips, so we got dropped back at Hotel New Sabah and checked in for another night. Given the slight amusement on the staffs faces I guessed that they don't see so many repeat visitors, at least not westerners.

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