Primate Watching

So, where was I?  That’s right, our trip to Bilit.  We should mention that our trip included six other people: an Italian couple that had immigrated some years before to Australia, a Dutch couple, and a German couple.  The village of Bilit itself is no more than a cluster of small shacks set off from the main dirt road we had taken through the palm plantations.  It sits alongside the Sungei Kinabatangan (Kinabatangan River), a wide, lazy, muddy river that is one of the largest on Borneo.  After we all arrived, we hopped into two small local-style boats and motored a couple hundred yards up the river to a small camp on the other side.  The boats were just wide enough for two people to sit comfortably next to one another, but were quite long, perfect for zooming along a placid river.  The camp was just one shack with six rooms, each containing two twin beds.  No fans, no air conditioning, cold running water from a small tank on stilts, and generator-supplied electricity from sundown to 10 PM only.

Now, to understand this next part, we should clue you into one of the highlights of this tour’s brochure.  Apparently cognizant of the desires of Western tourists to be contributing to the local economy, the brochure proudly claimed that all the people employed were local people, "the chef, your guides, the other staff, all come from local villages."   It’s part of the eco-tourism thing, sort of akin to buying fair-trade coffee and refusing sweat shop labor.  It lets crunchy Westerners assuage their troubled souls while still consuming.  Whatever.

Well, few of the folks working there spoke any English, but I spoke Malay to them, so we communicated just fine.  It was funny, though.  I had said no more than two words before they asked "so where in Indonesia did you live?"  It appears that JM and I have developed sort of a Jakarta accent, something that they could pick up on easily.  Why?  It turns out that none of them (save one) was actually Malaysian.  All were workers from Indonesia, mostly from Flores, one from southern Sulawesi.  So the company was actually banking on the tourists not being able to tell that their workers were not actually locals.  Seeing as they spoke little English and they don’t cater to many Malay speakers, it’s a safe bet. And, being illegal Indonesians workers, they would work for cheap and not complain.   More on this later.

After a drink–because really, when it’s 90 degrees with 98% humidity, what I want is a steaming mug of coffee–we then set out again in the boats for a sort of riverine safari.  Our guide really wanted to find us some wild Bornean elephants, but after 2 1/2 hours, we concluded that we had missed them.  We did, though, see tons of monkeys, specifically, proboscis monkeys, which are found only on Borneo.  Flat out, that is one of the weirdest animals you’ve ever seen.  They have huge noses and big bellies and look so content up in the trees.  They spent their time chattering away, climbing to the tops of trees, and then throwing themselves off the highest branches only to fall 20 feet or so and grab onto a new branch with a large CRASH and a flutter of leaves.  This was one of the funniest things we’ve ever seen.

Along our trip we saw hundreds of proboscis monkeys.  We also saw several types of hornbills, giant birds with funny beaks and colorful feathers; silver lotongs, a different kind of monkey less crazy looking than a proboscis monkey but no less fun to watch; dozens of graceful egrets; a monitor lizard of disturbing size lying on a branch; kingfishers; and a large and weird bird whose name escapes us, but which proceeded to demonstrate its crazy behavior for us.  As we slowly approached on in our boat, it took one look at us and then did a mighty bellyflop right into the river.  Our guide explained that this bird fishes underwater and can stay down for more than 3 minutes at a time.

We missed the elephants, but that wasn’t too disappointing.  Other animals that folks have seen along this river (according to our guides) include a wild Sumatran rhinocerous (which, despite the name, also is found in Borneo), orangutans, freshwater alligators, other types of monkeys, and various other types of birds.  This doesn’t include the other animals found in the area that don’t show up along the river, including leopards, civets, tarsiers, honey bears, and others.

On the way back we got caught in a thunderstorm that would have been quite refreshing had we not had no way to keep dry.  We pushed on through, though, and arrived back at the compound thoroughly soaked.  After a change and a shower, we had a nice dinner, only a little bit spoiled by our European companions complaining that the beer wasn’t cold, and then went to bed.  These beer complaints were a little annoying.  I mean, it’s the jungle, man.  They don’t have refrigerators there.

The next morning we took another boat ride and then headed back to Sepilok to catch a ride to Sandakan for our flight.  Along the way, we had an interesting experience.  On the way out, we saw that at one point along the main highway, scary policeman with M-16s were stopping and checking all the cars.  This included ours.  We inquired of our driver, and he explained that they were on the watch for illegal Indonesians.  On the way back out, we happened upon the same group.  Now, while we became very friendly with our Indonesian hosts, we never asked it they were illegals.  It’s just not polite.  We found out when, about 100 feet before the security check and out of sight around a bend in the road, our driver pulled over and let out one of the helpers who had snagged a ride in the bed of the pickup truck we were riding in.  We nodded to our driver, called out jumpa di bawah which means "meet below," and vanished into the thicket of palm trees and tall grasses.  We proceeded through the checkpoint with no trouble–the driver, himself Indonesian, was apparently confident that the police would not question a lone Malay-looking chap driving four tourists.  As we proceeded along the next bend of the road, our driver stopped for a cigarette on the side of the road.  Several minutes later our friend emerged from the plantation, a little sweaty, but with a nice smile on his face, and hopped in the back of our truck.  Off we went.