I’m first up and sit outside in the morning sun, listening to the sounds of the forest and writing. After breakfast we laze about – Simon in the lounge, Alex in the hammock and me on a sunbed by the lake. Mid-morning I pack ready for our departure after lunch. We can choose from the menu for lunch, which is included in our tour, and I try the lasagne which is made with beef rending and surprisingly successful. After a brief kerfuffle with the credit card machine – which we eventually solve by paying with sterling notes – our driver meets us and takes us to Sim Sim village, a stilted settlement just outside Sandakan.
Our new guide, Erdy, meets us there and leads us down a narrow street between houses to the offices of the company which owns Abai Jungle Lodge. Not just offices, in fact, as it seems to be living space too. And there are tanks containing some of the biggest fish I’ve ever seen – apparently pets. Round the corner are a couple of turtles and a prehistoric-looking horseshoe crab. We’re offered cold water, shown the toilets and left to amuse ourselves while we wait for the other passengers.
Finally we set off in a small motor boat powered by twin outboards with quite alarming pace, throwing fish up with the wash. We travel east along the coast for half an hour before turning inland along the Kinabatangan River for around 45 minutes, then we slow and pull up alongside a flower-decked landing stage.
We’re greeted with cool towels and drinks and then shown to our rooms. They are more comfortable than we were expecting and seem fairly mozzie-proof which is a relief as Alex has a double and in any case there is nowhere to hang mosquito nets. We’re told afternoon tea will be served at 4 and to report to the jetty at 4.30 for a trip along the river to look for wildlife. Meanwhile we take a quick stroll round the resort to get our bearings and encounter two small warthogs.
Erdy is a diligent and enthusiastic guide, becoming very animated when he spots anything interesting. On the boat, the first couple of things we spot are birds – a Dollar Bird and a Green Imperial Pigeon. The next, astonishingly, is a wild Orang Utan! Erdy seems just as excited as we are, and confesses that he spotted it from the boat that brought us here so returned to the spot in the hope it would not have moved away. He’s far off in the trees but the Orang’s silhouette is unmistakeable. After watching him for a while we move off again and stop to look at a Hill Mynah (which flies away before it can be photographed), White Bellied Woodpecker and Brahmin Kite.
More excitement when we reach a tree in which monkeys are preparing to settle down for the night, resting on branches just strong enough to take their weight, with their backs to the river – the vibration of the branch will warn them of predators approaching from the jungle. There are long tailed Macaques and Proboscis Monkeys, and we watch the latter for ages, conscious of the irony of Mas having gone to such trouble to find them in Baku when they are so plentiful here. Further on we watch a family of Silver Leaf Monkeys and more Proboscis Monkeys, all making the same preparations.
Every few minutes Erdy calls out the name of another bird and we stop to watch and photograph it. We see a Great Egret and a Purple Heron. The sunset is absolutely stunning and as we return to the lodge we see a Buffy ("the vampire") Fish Owl perched on top of a dead palm trunk, but by now it’s dusk and too dark to photograph.
Dinner is served buffet style and we sit with Erdy’s other two clients, Angela and Carolyn, who work together in Nottingham and have left less adventurous husbands behind. The food is simple but good and we chat as we eat. Erdy has suggested that we take our night walk tomorrow but we are all very keen to do it tonight as it’s a beautiful evening and we know how heavy the rain can be. Erdy agrees, and we meet him shortly after dinner. We walk round the resort’s boardwalks, using flashlights to help identify the creatures in the dark.
The first find is a snake, a viper (poisonous). We spot hairy caterpillars, butterflies, cotton bugs, lantern bugs and a stick insect, plus a pair of vividly-coloured Kingfishers asleep on a twig. Plus the warthogs we saw earlier, which are permanent residents. Then Simon and I finish off our wine while Alex uses the internet, and we’re in bed by 10.30 ready for tomorrow’s early start. No aircon here and it’s a sticky night; I, for one, don’t get much sleep.