Going to a “nature-camp” along the Kinabatangan river and taking sunrise, sunset boat tours for wildlife sightings is a popular tour in Sabah, Borneo. Everyone hopes to see Borneo Pygmy Elephants, Orangutans, Crocodiles and Probiscus Monkeys (the funny looking ones with huge floppy noses) in the wild but more common are Macaque Monkeys, the Hornbill Bird and Monitor Lizards (which get big!). I researched a few different tour groups and became very turned off to the idea of sitting in a boat with a lot of other tourists, all snapping away for the same picture. A number of tour reviewers also questioned the effects on the eco system of so many boats up and down the same part of the river daily.
When I found the website for MESCOT, I thought they struck a great balance - a touristic river experience that would be operated by and benefitting an indigenous community. MESCOT was founded by a group from the Orang Sungai people of Lower Kinabatangan in 1996, with a goal of sustainable eco-tourism to promote and protect what remains of the wetland forests and wildlife around their villages. In the 1960’s massive deforestation began in Sabah and Sarawak, Borneo and in the 1980’s the remaining forests were cleared on the fastest scale in human history. With natural resources disappearing and their villages left without a sustainable income, they turned to eco-tourism. Volunteers can come to lower Kinabatangan to live at a “homestay” with one of the families in the village and they can participate in conservation projects for the forest or lake, or work within the community (village beautification, social work, health clinic, school, etc). School Groups or travelers like us, can also opt to visit their eco-camp a few miles down the river. At eco-camp you experience the wetlands and wildlife up close with river tours and nature walks. The cost to a visit to their eco-camp is quite inexpensive when compared to the more touristy options up river.
The bus dropped us off at an unmarked bridge and we followed the road down towards a village. Someone spotted us on the main road and a young man brought us to MESCOT’s main building where we were debriefed on camp life and given the schedule. We spent the morning catching up on emails, playing with the adorable young children who accompany their MESCOT Moms to work and stocked up on leech socks (OMG!) before it was time to head to camp. We were introduced to our guide, Athai and learned that we would be the only visitors at eco camp at this time. Funny thing, we asked if we should bring bottled water and were told that there was clean drinking water at camp but that we should bring a couple of bottles of cold water. We thought, why waste money if there is already water? The water will be warm by the time we get there. The first thing we discovered when we got to eco camp was that they had freshly BOILED water on hand at all times. Nothing like a hot tea or cocoa in 95 degree weather! I think I was sweating more liquid than I consumed from every cup of tea.
After a short scenic boatride down the river, we arrived at camp. Our accomodations were tiny cabins on stilts, each cabin with 2 mattresses, pillows, mosquito nets and a lockbox for anything with an odor (aka to keep animals out, not for valuables). There is a roof overhead but the shelter is completely open air. You just hope that every noise is a monkey….. The first wildlife we spotted were Macaque monkeys playing in the trees above and a beautiful hornbill bird (they appear to have 2 beaks – really freaky looking!). It’s truly a forest experience; there is nothing around, no electricity, only the 3 guys who run the eco camp and a few shelters (dining hall and a building where the guys live). That evening we took a sunset river cruise and spotted tons of monkeys, birds but no elephants or orangutans – apparently it was the wrong season for elephants and there are so few orangutans in the wild. Afterwards we had a simple dinner of fried fish and long beans, which tasted heavenly, and we mutually agreed to medicate for an early and fearless night’s sleep (hello Benadryl!).
We woke up early for the morning nature hike but Athai seemed quite un-eager to head out. We inquired about the conditions and learned that the night’s torrential rainfall meant LOTS of leeches would be out on the trails. Our hike became more of a leech obstacle course and the only thing I truly remember was the still visible elephant tracks in the mud from when they passed through a month before. And yes leeches hooked on to both our guide and James (but were removed before they dug in). Next we took a boat ride down river, to gather ferns to be cooked for dinner. This was fun until both Kelsey and I were leeched – thankfully they were on top of our pants but in our horror of discovery we dangerously rocked the boat in the river. I now understood why our guide said not to panic if you find a leech on you. Athai deemed tree planting in the mid-day heat too difficult for us, so instead we prepared Bongkol tree seedlings back at the village. One day 20 of our seedlings may be growing in the new forest! We returned to eco camp in time for afternoon siesta, after which we spotted a huge monitor lizard (at least 3 feet long) by Kelsey’s cabin. At dinner that night the only veggie option was the ferns we’d picked in the morning – they were tasty but OMG Keley and I were so hungry. All I could think about or talk about was food, specifically NYC food – fish tacos from Calexico, pizza from Roberta’s or Paulie G’s, bagels n cream cheese from H&H, ANYTHING from Five Leaves. To distract ourselves from the hunger we learned how to make a traditional animal trap using a tree branches and a rope. James had it down pat in minutes - those Canadian roots!
When we left the next morning I was truly sad to leave the beauty of the eco-camp, especially the view of the lake from the dock, but I was so grateful for the civilization WITH FOOD (and hot showers) that awaited us.
For more info on MESCOT go to: http://www.mescot.org/index.htm