Uncle Tan’s

Day 452 – 26 May, 2016

“The facilities are extremely basic,” Eugene Tan warned us. No running water, open huts with mosquito netting, limited generator use for electricity, jungle creatures free to come and go as they please – these were some of the things we could expect. I had lived in these conditions before so I thought it all the better for the adventure.  

I was joined by Amanda from NY, Nanna from Denmark, two brothers from China, and three ladies from Poland. Our river cruise on the Kinabatangan River began in the afternoon in a small metal boat and we were going upstream toward Uncle Tans Wildlife Camp. After my close encounters with orangutans in Sepilok, it would be hard to beat unless we could spot an orangutan in the wild. Wildlife to expect included proboscis monkeys, long-tailed macaques, crocodiles, snakes, spiders, frogs, scorpions, and countless bird species. I am not a birder, but Borneo is a dream destination to spot rare feathered friends.

The Polish ladies looked a bit out of their element on the boat as if they had accidentally joined us when they intended to go to the spa. I sat next to one of them and she gripped the side whenever we bumped a floating log, as if she was convinced we would flip into the milk-chocolate colored water so easily. About halfway, our motor died. Not the kind of big dramatic death where it smokes and splutters, but the kind of death where it quietly stops running and you know it is final. Because we had been traveling upstream, the current was quickly taking us back the way we had come. Our guide paddled us to the side to get out of the current, but without any control, we brushed up against an overhanging tree. You don’t really want to touch trees in the jungle without regard for what is there. A shower of ants began raining down on our heads. They didn’t seem to be biting ants (I was more concerned about snakes and spiders), but the Polish ladies were squirming and trying to push us away from the side. One said, “It’s going to be dark soon,” in an exasperated, angry, unsmiling voice that almost made me wish it really was going to be dark soon. It was only 4:00. Our guide had radioed ahead to get a different boat and meanwhile, another fishing boat had towed us to a more acceptable and safe place to wait. The new boat arrived and we continued without another incident.

The camp itself was basic indeed. The huts included 2-6 beds in each one. They were completely open in the front with a bamboo roof, and the sides were both bamboo and heavy-duty metal caging (which, I presume, was to keep the bats out). The damp mattresses were on the floor, draped with mosquito netting, with fresh smelling blankets and no pillows. There was a plug for charging devices when the generator was turned on between 6pm-10pm every evening. And there was a plastic bucket and lid for our cosmetics and snacks that might attract hungry rodents in the night.  

The bathroom hut was shared for men and women and included 4 western-style toilets (I make the distinction because non-western toilets are usually the squat variety) with no flush. River water was filtered to large barrels with spigots that you could use to fill buckets that were available for flushing and showering. The shower was just a mat in the open next to the buckets.

The dining hut had a small store with water, beer, and soda for purchase. There was coffee and tea available all day and chocolate packaged cookies free for the taking. Our meager, yet hospitable, staff prepared impressive buffets of food three times a day which was delicious considering the limited space and resources for cooking.

With fresh sheets, western-toilets, an electric outlet, and unlimited coffee and cookies, this place was better than I expected. Yet, the Polish ladies looked around in disgust. They were out of place with their large rolling suitcases and their high expectations.  

The first night we went on a night jungle cruise, departing at 9pm when the sky was inky black. This is the best time to spot crocodiles because their eye shine is usually illuminated under a heavy spotlight. In fact, we did spot two sets of eye shine in the water with about 100m between us and them, although as we approached, the noisy motor sent them both underwater. You would expect night to be a difficult time to find wildlife, but using a strong light, you can often find sleeping birds and monkeys, or sometimes a snake. Only one of the three Polish ladies joined us so our boat was feeling spacious.

The next day we had four activities – a morning cruise, a morning trek, an evening cruise, and a night trek. The 6am morning cruise was the ideal time for active monkeys and primates and colorful tropical birds. Two Polish ladies joined us and then all three took the first boat back to town immediately afterward. Jungle excursions are not for everyone to be sure….

The morning trek was especially quiet, but if you’re into bugs and plants, then this activity would have been your speed. Daytime is quiet in the jungle and almost makes you forget what’s out there. The heat stifles even the most hardy species.
Evening cruising brings out more proboscis monkeys and bats. Another interesting observation was the river level. In the morning, we had climbed on to our boat from a submerged ladder when only 3 steps were visible. In the afternoon, the water level had dropped so that 6 steps and a platform were revealed. And in the evening, another ladder with six more steps was now required to climb back up the bank. Perhaps this is proof that a jungle flood can happen quickly and can be quite dangerous if you aren’t prepared.

And a night walk is prime for spiders, frogs, scorpions, and the elusive nocturnal slow loris. Sadly, we didn’t see a slow loris, but one had been spotted in the area twice in the previous two weeks. I can understand that night jungle sounds might make a person itch, but for me, they are cathartic. I wish it was possible to bottle it up and bring home as a souvenir.
I don’t know why, but I felt indifferent about my time in this jungle. We had seen plenty of wildlife, although no wild orangutans and no endangered species. Aside from the Polish ladies, everyone else seemed to relish their time and I wanted to see the camp through their eyes. Amanda even considered staying on an extra night. My only explanation is that I’ve been to the vast Amazon rainforest on two different occasions and I was comparing the two. I hated that I was doing this. The itinerary may have mimicked the itinerary for an excursion in Ecuador or Peru, but there was most certainly different wildlife. I want to appreciate each place I visit for its own character and its own attributes and it wasn’t fair that I was comparing a relatively small-ish island in the South China Sea to the monstrous size of the Amazon Jungle, but that’s exactly what I was doing. I tried to keep my thoughts to myself and not tarnish the experience of the others. I silently vowed to make a conscious effort to live in the moment and if a situation were to arise in the future where I didn’t think I could do that, then I shouldn’t go. It would be a waste of time and money to travel so far and not value each day as uniquely as the last.

Uncle Tans had been great in every way. They have operated the camp for more than 20 years in the same location so it was disheartening to learn of the changes to the landscape, and as a result, the diminishing wildlife sightings. We sped back to civilization in the same metal boat, noting the lushness of the green tropical rainforest on the left hand side and the orderly manicured palm oil plantations on the right hand side. Where are the wild orangutans? Hopefully, far away from these lucrative plantations that are so keen to destroy more and more of their habitat.

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