Wildlife riverboats and Orangutans http://www.offbeattravel.com/sabah-malaysia.html

Sabah: Malaysia Mystique

Our New Book

Borneo is surprising with posh resorts, golf courses, and boutiques, although modernization is a bit challenged in our remote location of Sabah (a Malay word meaning "land below the wind"), one of Malaysia's 14 states on the northeast tip of the island.

Along the Kinabatangan

Our small electric riverboat minimizes disturbance to wildlife. We cruise into a shaded expanse which offers some relief from the sweltering heat. The operator turns off the engine and we drift into the abyss of this bewitching rainforest.

Juan listens and scans the area from starboard to port. Slowly, he points to a bush leaning over the water. A closer glimpse reveals a handsome black yellow ringed cat snake wrapped around a limb. A strong swimmer, this arboreal reptile feeds mainly on birds, rodents, lizards, frogs, fish, and other snakes.

The two other women almost jump as a Blue-eared Kingfisher rattles from the lowland woods. In an open canopy, an Anhinga spreads its dark wings and serpentine neck to receive the sun's nourishing rays.

The wildlife parade has officially begun. Suddenly, there is loud crashing through the branches. Out boatman paddles gently and brings us within view of an acrobatic show. Rustling overhead in the branches is a family of endemic proboscis or Dutch monkeys. These endangered mammals are so named for the male's over-sized fleshy pinkish nose, which it flaunts to lure females with diminutive snouts. We watch in awe as a group of six swings from vines and adeptly leap over a wide stream.

Next, several pig-tailed macaque loom from the overgrowth as dusk shrouds the trees. This is our cue to hum back to the rustic Sukau Rainforest Lodge.

Though hardly a five-star hotel, we are adequately comfortable with ceiling fans and private baths with hot showers. A gong summons us to dinner. Women don the sarongs left on their beds. Everyone removes their shoes before entering the revered eco-dining room. The aroma of seasoned locally caught fish wafts from the kitchen. Steamed vegetables and fresh fruits also taste wonderful. Geckos chirp outside in harmonious approval.

Sepilok and the Oran Utan Santuary

The next morning we ride in an air-conditioned van to Sepilok. This haven contains the world's largest Orang Utan Santuary. Positive attention, care, and hope are given to orphaned, injured, and ailing orangutans. When these endangered inhabitants are deemed ready, they are released in the wild. Like their proboscis monkey cousins, this species continues to suffer tremendous habitat loss as farmers continually clear land to grow palms for cooking oil and cosmetics.

It takes all my willpower not to grasp the outstretched paw of a baby that climbs within our reach. Touching these animals can increase their dependency on humans and retard their preparation for eventual life in the jungle.

Sandakan and Sabah

In the city of Sandakan, our Buddhist guide Juan introduces us to the kampung or water village where he lives. The conglomeration of small stilt-raised, Spartan homes reminds me of the crab shacks of Tangier Island and other Chesapeake Bay fishing hamlets. Laughing children and their mothers welcome us to their wooden abodes where they sell handmade jewelry and paintings.

We conclude this segment of our journey at the hallowed Puu Jih Shih Buddhist Temple. On a hilltop south of the city, it affords a breathtaking panoramic view of Sandakan Bay. Inside the temple is a remarkable collection of gilded Buddhas, dragons, and pleasant incense.

A 30-minute plane ride from Sandakan whisks us to Kota Kinabalu, the bustling capital of Sabah. Lovely flame of the forest and golden shower trees line the roadsides of the city.

Mount Kinabalu and Flowers

Two hours later we glimpse 13,432-foot Mount Kinabalu, Southeast Asia's highest peak. At Kinabalu National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Centre, we hike the floristically rich lowland forest. This sanctuary supports a healthy biodiversity of birds, mammals, and plants found nowhere else on earth. The ecoregion contains the world's greatest concentration of wild orchids with more than 750 species. In a protected penned area we are allowed to see the planet's most expensive orchid and tiniest orchid, the size of my smallest cuticle.

An hour away on a private farm's woodland edge, we discover the world's largest (and ugly) flower. Rafflesia begins as a dark, round substance resembling decaying cabbage. About a year later on a rainy night, buds pierce the bark-like material. An enchanting orangey red-brown speckled bloom lasts from five to seven days. Then, the darkened petals wither and the decomposing smell attracts pollinating insects.

Back in Kota Kinabalu, we skim the South China Sea in a motorboat. Wildness, and pampering at afffordable five-star resorts. The people are friendly, the food is tasty, and recreation is endless.

For more information, contact Tourism Malaysia

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Emily M. Grey, a native of Onancock, Virginia, is an award-winning photojournalist, educator, and attorney. She also volunteers for various conservation and historical entities and lectures on wildlife gardening and her remote journeys. Grey strives be a friendly ambassador to wildlife and to people. Visit EmilyGreyPhotography.com to see more of her photos.

Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author

Updated: January 2, 2017

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