I don’t handle the heat very well. I get angry, irritable and miserable when the temperature gets above 73 degrees. So why did I decide to travel by myself deep into the rainforests of Borneo for a 40th birthday “trip of a lifetime?”
I have an overwhelming love of animals—particularly monkeys, elephants and birds. I had visions of getting up close to the “Wild Man of Borneo” –our beautiful cousins the Orangutans– at a sanctuary, floating quietly down the lower Kinabatangan River and getting glimpses of the reportedly “friendly” wild Pygmy Elephants, hearing the glorious metallic honk of the Oriental Pied Hornbills, seeing those crazy,big-nosed Proboscis Monkeys and whatever else might come drifting through the mysterious and exotic mangrove forests…
It was all there described and depicted with amazing photographs on the Internet…jungle resort, river cruise, rainforest treks….incredibly appealing and exciting to an animal enthusiast.
Even as I read the list of recommended items to bring with you—bug tent, leech socks, anti-malarial medication—I still imagined through my rose colored glasses that the trip could only be a magical exciting adventure. So I made a reservation at the Sepilok Jungle Resort near the Orang Utan sanctuary for a 5 day stay. The resort was wild, beautiful and quaint from the images on their website. Elevated wooden walkways criss-crossed the swamps and lead to and from low resort buildings situated right in the heart of the jungle, there was even a small restaurant on the grounds. I had reserved the most expensive deluxe room at the resort, still only a low $48US per night. I knew it wasn’t a luxury accommodation, but I confirmed that it had the basics I needed including a/c.
I flew in to Kota Kinabalu in Sabah (part of Malaysian Borneo) for my first stop. I stayed one day and night at the Shangri-LaTanjung Aru, an incredible beach resort and spa (another part of my treat). The weather seemed fine! Along the ocean the wind blew in and it was quite comfortable and mild. I lay on the beach sipping a tropical drink and sighed… this is the life, happy birthday to me! Although it was definitely humid, the breeze and ocean (and a refreshingly strong air conditioner in my room at the resort) made it lovely, and I was looking forward to my trip into the jungle the next day.
The flight to Sandakan across the island is short, 45 minutes. A driver from the Sepilok Jungle Resort is there to meet me and we pile in to his luxurious air conditioned SUV.
I arrive at the resort deep in the jungle 3 pm Saturday. The SUV drops me and drives away. I enter the open air lobby of the hotel. The air is completely still, temperature and humidity begin to press in on me, it is unbearable. I’ve been here less than 5 minutes, I am standing completely still with no exertion, and sweat begins to pour like a river down my face and neck. I take out a handkerchief and begin to mop my head.
The seemingly cool as a cucumber Malay women behind the counter get me checked in, and I rush to my room for some a/c relief. The a/c has not been left on, so it is even hotter inside the room than out on the jungle walkways. I switch on the tiny conditioner and it barely eeks out a dribble. The humidity and still air are beginning to make me feel claustrophobic, panic-stricken, wild eyed with trying to find a way to escape it.
I begin to freak out, run back to the lobby yelling in alarm at the staff, demanding a different room with working a/c, a fan, some kind of relief! I start to go into a full panic attack– there is no where to escape the pouring sweat falling off my face and neck– there is no breeze, no fan in the room –the Malay people sit there coolly looking at me like why is this nut going so crazy? Getting no help or sympathy from the staff, I run back to my room and sit on the balcony and madly dial Malaysia Airlines, changing my flight, rebooking the hotel in KK, arranging my escape out of there asap! I am literally going to lose my mind, I had never felt this kind of heat, this kind of panic before. I’ve been hot while traveling in dusty India– India was a deep freezer compared to this.
It’s Saturday at 4 pm. I can’t get a flight out til Monday a.m. I go back inside the room after one hour and it is now SOMEWHAT cooler than the outside. The hotel staff has dropped off a fan. I lie down and try to un-panic. I take a few xanax and drink a glass of wine—the cure for most problems. Now I am a little less upset and frantic. Since I have no way to leave, I decide that I must try to do at least two nature/animal tours on Sunday. I can’t go back and tell my friends and family that I came all the way here and left without seeing ANYTHING? I lie on my tiny twin bed til dark to wait out the heat.
Darkness falls and the temperatures are still steaming. I suck it up and head out to the resort’s small restaurant “Banana Café” figuring as long as I can make it to that building and get into the a/c there, I might be okay. I head across the swamp on the wooden plank walkway. There is no railing. The swamp is all around you, and it is pitch black. The twisting, turning, interminable path to the restaurant is lit only occasionally by a dim lamp at the next corner. It is one of the scariest walks I’ve ever taken. There is not one other person around. The dark walkways carry you over swampy lagoons and thru a deep, heavy rainforest. Around you and very close are mysterious and haunting jungle sounds, unseen things plopping in the dark water, hoots and calls in the trees, and low insect buzzing is a constant hum in the background. If you lost your balance or tripped, you’d be down in the dark swamp. Who knows what is in there waiting for you to fall??
I finally spy some lights in the distance, it’s the café finally, thank God – everyone that stays in the hotel is there, breakfast lunch and dinner. It’s all there is. I am horrified to see that it is also an open air situation. Oh, when will I find relief? I crowd in close to a tiny fan near a corner table. The food is delicious, extra spicy. I ask the waitress if they have any rice wine. In my Internet research I read that this was very tasty and I did not see it on the menu. She pauses one moment, looks me up and down, then disappears in some back closet and brings a large reused beer bottle for me, filled with some homemade hooch, the rice wine. Wow, it’s good. I am still sweating in rivers while sitting perfectly still. The food was so good I ordered another plate of the same dish.
Since it was getting no cooler, I decided to head back to my room. It seems even darker now on the jungle path. I turn a blind corner and am startled by a ghostly dog figure looking down at me from the top of some stairs. It is standing completely still, a backlit silhouette staring at me in the dark. It doesn’t move and is blocking my path.
What the hell. I can’t see his face, so I don’t know how to judge his demeanor or intent. Its just this ominous, silent, still silhouette in the jungle dark…. Aggghh!!! Now let me tell you I love dogs beyond reason and have never feared any dog, but this was almost too much.
There is not a soul around, and no place to go but past him, so I walk up, try some cooing and gooing, crouch down to his level, try to suss him out, reach out my hand gently for him to sniff, and he growls at me and snaps at my hand as I quickly jerk away. Its just a warning, he just grazed my hand, but I was so shocked, startled, and mad– in my mind I shouted how dare you!! ALL DOGS SHOULD LOVE ME I AM THE BEAST MASTER!!! So I jumped at him and rushed him yelling HOW DARE YOU!!! GET AWAY FROM ME!! And he jumped aside and let me pass.
Back in my room, I opened the door to the bathroom and flipped on the light. A four inch lizard darted across the ceiling and into a crack. Agghhh!!! I don’t mind if these things are out there in the jungle, but inside my room? No!!! So I ran out of the bathroom and shut the door and put a towel down to block the space under the door. Luckily I DID bring the suggested bug tent, and now I knew why. I set it up and gathered all my necessities, water bottle, lip balm, cel phone, flashlight and crawled in and zipped up. Wow that thing was great. I never slept more soundly– knowing that absolutely nothing could get in there. I slept even better than in my own bed at home, as there are always spiders, moths and flies around my house somewhere….
Woke up Sunday at 8 am to screeching metal of circular saws outside my room–construction on the pool. I called to reception screaming again in full melt down—”I didn’t come here on vacation to have my ears assaulted by saws at 8 am Sunday morning!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” The desk girl says she will ask them to stop. They don’t stop.
I decide to head out for a tour of the Proboscis Monkey sanctuary. A jeep arrives to take me and another couple (all three squashed into the back seat) over the most INSANE rough road for an hour through a Palm Oil Plantation, which, by the way, is one of the things destroying the animals natural habitat…the demand for palm oil. In the jeep I was like a cartoon character, bouncing up and hitting the ceiling with my head, knocked side to side and whacking my head against the window, the couple and I looked at each other laughing throughout because it was just the most ridiculous ride we’ve ever been on!! At least it was airconditioned.
It was worth it. At feeding time in the sanctuary, we saw three different families of Proboscis, a pair of Oriental Pied Hornbills (wow!), Silver Leaf Monkeys (Langurs) and the ubiquitous RAT pest of all countries: the Macaque monkeys making trouble for everyone. The monkeys appear for feeding like elvish specters from deep in the jungle, one here, one there, until an entire family group is almost right in front of you in the trees and perched on the grotesquely human looking mangrove roots.
After they retreated back into the undergrowth after feeding, I had to take a bathroom break. The bathroom seemed clean and fine but it was also a room with windows open to the jungle. I flushed the toilet and caught a glimpse—oh my god the biggest spider I’ve ever seen was struggling to survive the flush. He had been under the seat the entire time I was sitting there, oh my god!!! It was as big as my hand, and easily crawled out of the flushing water back up the side of the toilet. I ran out.
We were driving back through the plantation when a giant monitor lizard appeared in the distance in the middle of the dirt road. My god it was huge, about three feet long! I was dying to get a photo, but it ran away as our car approached.
That afternoon, I went on my second tour. I walked about ½ mile from hotel over to the Sepilok Orang Utan Sanctuary. Yes, it is a high tourist area, all prepared and served up to you. BUT, when everyone is waiting quietly and someone whispers “here they come!!” it is the most exciting thing to see. 4 Orangs come swinging in, arm over arm on ropes strung between the trees, they come from the depths and appear quietly out of nowhere. They swing up to a platform right in front of us and start to eat bananas, cucumbers and pancakes(!?) that the caretakers throw them. Then in about 15 minutes they swing away off into the jungle again. Most of the tourists leave, yap, yap, yapping loudly. The Insider Guidebook says wait until after feeding time, see what happens. So there are about 10 of us super-dedicated types left. We just stand there, looking at nothing, just quiet, just waiting… for what? Nothing is happening.
But just then, someone says “oh my god, look!” and a young male has snuck up BEHIND us on the watching platform– he gallops across and jumps up in a tree and goes across to the platform. We watch in awe and adoration. Then, another gasp—here comes a mother with a baby. This is very rare– apparently orangs only have one baby every 6-7 years, so this is a treat. The baby makes faces at us, sticks his tongue out, hangs upside down by his feet, acts goofy and shows off. So darling.
Then, the mom and baby begin to crawl up the tree and over to where we are standing, coming down right in the middle of the crowd. We all scatter but yet are still taking picturess every second. She moves down the walkway away from us back into the rainforest and 5 or 6 of us follow her, stopping every time she turns around, not wanting to get too close to make her nervous. It is really amazing.
After the thrill of the sighting has gone, I now look like someone threw a bucket of water on my head. I am completely soaked and dripping, it is THE MOST MISERABLE FEELING I’VE EVER HAD. With no escape, no relief. I can’t cool down. I can’t dry off. 24 hours in the jungle.
One more night at the “resort” goes the same as the previous night. This time I am faced down by TWO ghost dogs along the path to my room in the pitch black. A large cockroach runs out as the bathroom light flips on. At least this one I could kill with my shoe so I didn’t feel it was lurking around my room like the lizard the night before.
It is 9 pm Sunday night. It seemed I had been suffering in the jungle for days. Its only been 30 hours. The sweltering heat, the saws, the spiders, menacing midnight dogs, lizards and cockroaches in my room, swamp hoots and plops in the dark water, I can’t take it any more. I discovered I really need to have some kind of refuge in order to venture out on these nature trips. My room, my bed, have to be cool, sealed and safe. There was no escaping the jungle, it was everywhere, it followed you outside, and crept inside your room.