Monday, 13 April 2015

At Abai

We awake to a beautiful morning and tea and coffee before our morning cruise. First spot is a White Crested Waterhen, which flies over us too quickly to be photographed. A Little Egret and a Green Imperial Pigeon are more co-operative. We stop to photograph a family of Long-Tailed Macaques, and attempt to do the same with an Oriental Data, a Purple Heron and a Changeable Hawk Eagle – so-called because each bird has a random mix of male and female plumage.

We spot the other boat from our lodge and go to see what they’re looking at – it’s a small clawed oriental otter digging for crabs on the beach – he seems oblivious to our presence, breakfast being of more interest. The next Purple Heron we see is drying his wings after fishing, and we spot another Oriental data, a tiny black bird with red wings and a blue beak.

Erdy asks our boatman to steer close to the bank and we peer beneath the overhanging leaves to see a Saltwater Crocodile! He’s enormous and we are disconcertingly close, although he shows no sign that he’s even seen us. I’m relieved when we move on, spotting a Straw-Headed Bulbul, a Brahmin Kite in flight and more monkeys. Jack steers our boat to the end of a future oxbow lake where the water doesn’t flow strongly enough to deter a carpet of water cabbage and water hyacinth of forming. There we see four Green Imperial Pigeons sitting in a dead tree.

Back at the lodge we eat breakfast on the jungle platform and feed our scraps to the warthogs. The big male bullies the little ones so we make sure they get more. I walk a loop of the boardwalk to try and get a better view of the macaques and get back to the platform just after they have made off with the bread.
The boys go to the restaurant to use the wifi and I sit on a lounger on the sun terrace and read, looking up occasionally to watch black and white butterflies feed on the multicoloured flowers along its edge.
Late morning we take the boat across the river to Abai Village where Erdy gives us a tour. The village spans a small peninsula, with a landing stage either side. We’re welcomed by a tame Oriental Pine Hornbill. We walk first through the school, where children in neat blue and white uniforms call to us and a very small boy hurries shyly past to go to the village shop. Along the side of the inevitable football ground – complete with mini grandstand – sunbirds fly between hibiscus bushes.
A large blue building turns out to be a kind of village hall, erected to accommodate weddings and parties. The houses are modest and built on stilts. As we complete our circuit of the village, we see two boys assembling a rudimentary musical instrument from steel cans.

 We are invited to plant a tree, part of a project funded by the Abai Jungle Lodge which benefits both the village and the forest. Our saplings will be transplanted to a deforested area when they are larger. For the record, our trees are 3696 3, 4 and 5. I like the idea that I’m leaving something behind here.

Carolyn and I go to spend some money in the village shop – the five packs of snacks I pick up cost just RM1 (less than 20p). Returning to the boat, Erdy tells us that it’s the birthday of one of the local boys who has come to see us off, so we sing happy birthday and I give him one of my purchases.
Back at the lodge Simon and I treat ourselves to a beer in the hanging chairs on the landing stage; Alex has a coke. We have lunch, then a couple of hours free before this afternoon’s river trip. We have all told Erdy the animal we most want to see is elephants so we’re setting off earlier to make the long trip upriver to where they were last sighted.  As we get ready to leave, a White Bellied Sea Eagle flies overhead, too fast to photograph. We travel fast upriver but stop a couple of times, once for an Orang Utan, who sits stubbornly with his back to us and refuses to turn around, and also for a Wallace’s Hawk Eagle, a Bushy Crested Hornbill and, to the delight of Angela and Carolyn, a Rhinoceros Hornbill.

We pass a massive transporter being pulled by a tiny tug, a river ferry and the landing stage for a palm oil plantation. After an hour or so, we spot a number of boats from other lodges clustered by the shore. Excitement – we can just see – and most definitely hear – Pygmy Elephants feeding behind the bushes. It seems unlikely that they’ll approach the water, though, so Erdy says we’ll come back later.

After continuing upriver for a while, we turn around and head for the spot where the elephants were – then, suddenly, we see a single elephant feeding on the riverbank. Ours is the only boat around, and we watch while the elephant calmly eats the foliage that is obscuring our view, revealing a young one behind her legs. Soon, another mother and her baby appear and we watch all four of them for quite a while before any other boats arrive. The elephants seem totally relaxed and the two little ones play, when there’s nothing left to eat they all fade away into the undergrowth. What an absolute privilege.

The Kinabatangan River still has some treats in store for us. On the way back we see a Black Crowned Night Heron, an Oriental Pine Hornbill, Pig Tailed and Long Tailed Macaques – many of these, on the beach as well as in the trees on the riverbank. Later, there’s a wrinkled Hornbill and a Storm Stork.
It begins to get dark, and we watch the stars come out – it’s a beautiful clear night and with no light pollution the stars are so much more visible. Even after it’s dark, Erdy is spotting wildlife for us – a Blue Eared Kingfisher sits perfectly still as we approach, his iridescent colours more vivid in the torchlight.
Once the afterglow has faded it’s pitch black on the river and we are all conscious of the fallen trees and other obstacles that Jack had to negotiate on the outward journey. He and Erdy have powerful torches but if the boat capsized and these were lost we’d be sitting ducks for the crocodiles. We’re all relieved when we begin to recognise familiar features that indicate we’re nearing the lodge. The evening has one final treat for us – a tree full of fireflies, twinkling like the lights on a Christmas tree.
We finally reach the landing stage at 7.30, just as dinner is served. We're relieved to have survived the journey back, and delighted to have seen so many species today – especially the elephants!

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