“Is that a human footprint?” as Nick pointed to an approximately sized 10 male footprint in the mud.
“Must be. But why were they following us, and why were they, um, barefoot?” I asked, closely examining the prints as they made their way along the muddy trail we had blazed into the jungle an hour earlier. We were now carefully retracing our steps, making our way out of the jungle, back to “civilization”. There were many locals in the village of Sakau, where we were staying, but contrary to our ill based and naive perceptions of Borneo’s wild northeast region, we had yet to see anyone tramp around the jungle barefoot.
“They disappear after 20 or so yards. Veering left, over there.” Nick pointed deeper into the jungle, away from the river we had been following. “That’s creepy.”
“I agree. Lets get out of here. Besides, I smell like elephant crap.”
Per usual, we had flown into the the Malaysian region of Sabah, in Northeast Borneo on a whim. Tales of dense jungles, mighty orangutans (with the strength of 4 grown men), and nearly extinct indigenous pygmy elephants led us to the airport, cash in hand, to purchase a flight departing only an hour later.
Housing the tallest mountain in SE Asia, the number 3 top scuba diving location in the world, and the largest and most ecologically diverse river in Borneo, the Kinabatangan, the northeast region of Sabah is truly an adventurers’ paradise. Unfortunately, its reputation has caused most of its major cities to westernize their attractions – throwing up KFCs, Pizza Huts, and Burger Kings on every street corner. However, the tiny village of Sakau, nestled on the Kinabatangan river, is not one of these major cities.
It was in Sakau, that we found ourselves alone trudging shin deep in mud following a loose trail of elephant dung in the hopes of viewing a herd of the rarely seen and nearly extinct Borneo Pygmy Elephant. A venture that was eventually aborted after the trail of footprints and dung was lost and the leach count had entered into the teens. We had been accompanied into the jungle by a young British and Australian couple, who had met a year prior while she was on a guerrilla tracking tour in Uganda and he was the one doing the gorilla tracking, but had abandoned us after 30 minutes once his lighter fluid had run dry from burning off leaches. It was here, alone, that we ran into the mysterious footprints, later explained to us, belonging to an elderly orangutan. Usually thought of as tree swinging inhabitants, as orangutans get older they loose their ability to navigate in the trees and are forced to move by foot on the ground. Apparently one had decided to follow us along.
Later that day on a boat trip down the Kinabatangan, we got to see a few our ape cousins face to face. Two massive orangutans making nests in the trees above us (they build a new bed in a new tree every night), alongside swinging hordes of long tailed macaques and proboscis monkeys. Proboscis have easily become our new favorite fratnimal as their awkwardly shaped long noses and protruding bellies resemble the form of a grumpy old man after years of proper beer drinking. You can’t help but laugh every time you see one.
Finally making our way out of the jungle, we shot over to the far east coast of Borneo towards the island if Sipidan. Sipidan is touted as one of the top 3 scuba diving locations in the world! Due to restrictions by the Malaysian government, Sipidan limits the amount of divers per day and has no island accommodations. Therefore, most shack up on one of the nearby islands waiting for their turn to dive. We chose the island of Mabul, home to the infamous hostel, Uncle Chang’s. The island of Mabul is not much larger than two football fields, but its inhabitants have surrounded the island with mangled homes build on stilts far beyond the beaches edge. The entire area near Sipidan sits on a submerged shelf, keeping water depths around the islands very shallow.
Our three days on Mabul included multiple snorkeling adventures around the island, watching the local children reel in fish for dinner with a line and coke bottle (twisting the line around the mid section of the bottle creating a makeshift fishing rod), and sipping illegally imported rum while listening to poor Malaysian cover bands. The employees of Uncle Chang’s are a roughed up group of Malaysians that give diving lessons by day and play hard rock by night. Being two of the only “snorkelers” on the island, we quickly became the joke of the local employees with our “extreme snorkeling” maneuvers, under water twists, and elaborate dismounts from the side of the boat. We offered to stick around and give snorkeling lessons, helping people gain their level 5 certifications in “extreme snorkeling”, but our offer was less than graciously declined.
Finally on the third day, it was our turn for Sipidan. The morning began with treacherous thunder storms and threatening surf that put our small dive boat at the mercy of the sea for the 3 mile journey to the island. Once on site, there was no waiting around for the storm to clear. We strapped on our masks and flippers and went straight after it. Luckily after our first dive, the storms faded and the previously murky ocean cleared revealing all that Sipidan is cracked up to be. Elaborate corral reefs stretching for 100s of yards out surround the island, small white and gray tipped reef sharks swim ominously below, and six foot wide sea turtles move gracefully through the water – a kind of beauty we had never seen before.
On our second dive, we were dropped directly in the middle of a school of silver backed jack fish and barracuda. Thousands of fishing swirling around you. Once completely submerged, its like being dropped into the funnel of tornado – completely enclosed by a dense moving wall of glistening silver. An experience like no other!
After Sipidan, it was on to Phnom Penh to meet Berner and pick up our motorcycles for a cross country adventure in Cambodia!
For those keeping close tabs, its clear that our blog is about a month behind reality. Do to slow internet and an unfortunate incident in Cambodia involving me, my laptop, and it getting stolen, we are a bit behind. We should be throwing up some rapid “catch-up” posts shortly to get back on track.