Into the Jungles of Borneo – Uncle Tan’s Jungle Camp, Lower Kinabatangan Valley, Malaysia

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We thoroughly enjoyed viewing Orangutans and Proboscis monkeys up close at a “rehabilitation centre” and “wildlife sanctuary.” Of course, the only reason these semi-wild animals can be found in these sanctuaries is due to their native habitat – the Borneo rainforest – quickly disappearing under a carpet of perfectly-planted rows of palm oil trees.

Palm oil is a cheap oil used in everything from chocolate, to mayonnaise, to cosmetics. You probably use some form of palm oil every single day without realizing it. We were gutted to see how much of the once-thriving rainforest has been replaced by palm oil trees. The destruction was something we saw with our own eyes – from the plane as we pulled in to Kota Kinabalu, peering out the windows of buses as we criss-crossed the region, and from the countless tanker trucks rolling down the road with “PALM OIL” printed on the side. You can even spot the rapid spread by looking at satellite photos. We started to wonder if there was any real “jungle” left.

Local families on the Kinabatangan grow and sell palm oil along with huge commercial plantations.Local families on the Kinabatangan grow and sell palm oil along with huge commercial plantations.
Local families on the Kinabatangan grow and sell palm oil along with huge commercial plantations.24-Jul-2011 16:07
 

Most tourists to Sabah, Malaysian Borneo, include a visit to one of the jungle lodges dotting the Kinabatangan River, where a narrow band of native trees supporting Borneo’s abundant wildlife line the river, forming a “corridor of life” through an otherwise endless sea of palm oil plantations.

Huge Palm Oil Plantations are quickly destroying Borneo's rainforests and threatening endemic species such as the Orangutan and Proboscis Monkey.Huge Palm Oil Plantations are quickly destroying Borneo’s rainforests and threatening endemic species such as the Orangutan and Proboscis Monkey.
Huge Palm Oil Plantations are quickly destroying Borneo's rainforests and threatening endemic species such as the Orangutan and Proboscis Monkey.25-Jul-2011 17:49
 

These lodges generally have air conditioning, hot water, electricity, and all the other modern conveniences. We decided we wanted a more authentic experience, and booked with Uncle Tan’s Jungle Camp – the most rustic and remote (not to mention the cheapest) option on the Kinabatangan.

We don’t mind roughing it a little bit, but we were a little worried when we heard that the camp had no running water (just buckets of cold, brown river water) and sleeping huts that had no doors or windows (just a mattress on the floor with a mosquito net). This would definitely be more of an adventure than our previous jungle tours in Las Pampas, Bolivia and Iquitos, Peru.

We started our 3-day, 2-night jungle experience in Sepilok, near the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, where we had spent a night to enjoy a second look at the orangutans and a walk through a rainforest park.

Getting prepared at Uncle Tan's operations base in Sepilok.Getting prepared at Uncle Tan’s operations base in Sepilok.
Getting prepared at Uncle Tan's operations base in Sepilok.24-Jul-2011 14:42
 

After a delicious lunch, we boarded minivans and departed for a jetty on the Kinabatangan River. Next, we boarded small boats for the 2 hour journey to the jungle camp, getting a chance to view wildlife along the riverbanks on the way. We were delighted to see wild monkeys, great hornbills, and even a sole orangutan resting up in a tree. The orangutan was much further away than the ones we were able to see at Sepilok, but still, it was great to see one of these magnificent creatures in the wild.

An orangutan is hanging in this tree - can you spot him?An orangutan is hanging in this tree – can you spot him?
An orangutan is hanging in this tree – can you spot him?24-Jul-2011 16:56
 

After arrival at the camp, we unloaded our bags and were shown to our huts. The staff advised us to remove any food or liquids from our bags and place them in sealed containers to prevent rats and other wildlife from being attracted to the huts. Yuck!

Entrance to the camp.Entrance to the camp.
Entrance to the camp.25-Jul-2011 14:03
 

While the accommodation was basic, the food at Uncle Tan’s was phenomenal. We piled up heaping plates of delicious food for dinner and were briefed on our upcoming activities for the next few days.

Dinner at Uncle Tan's.Dinner at Uncle Tan’s.
Dinner at Uncle Tan's.25-Jul-2011 20:07
 

That night, we went on an evening boat trip, checking out sleeping birds and keeping an eye out for crocodiles. While we didn’t spot any crocs, we did see a large carpet python. The guide pulled the boat over to the bank so we could get out and take pictures.

A large carpet python sliding along the banks of the Kinabatangan.A large carpet python sliding along the banks of the Kinabatangan.
A large carpet python sliding along the banks of the Kinabatangan.24-Jul-2011 21:42
 

Back at camp, we settled into our huts and tried to get some shut eye. I won’t lie – it was hard to fall asleep worried about what sort of animals might crawl through the non-existent door or windows. We woke up tired and damp from the jungle’s humidity the next morning.

Our sleeping hut - shared with two other couples.Our sleeping hut – shared with two other couples.
Our sleeping hut – shared with two other couples.25-Jul-2011 12:27
 

Not a big deal anyway as we had to be up early for the “morning safari” – another boat ride up the Kinabatangan River. Sadly, it was very foggy and misty, so we weren’t able to view much wildlife, though generally early morning is the best time to spot animals (since they slow down later in the day when it gets hotter).

The very misty "morning safari."The very misty “morning safari.”
The very misty "morning safari."25-Jul-2011 06:44
 

We returned for breakfast, followed by a walk through some trails surrounding the camp. It was muddy, but thankfully we were given rubber boots for the trek. We learned about medicinal plants, locals’ way of life, and saw a pretty cool spiky lizard.

A very cool spiny lizard.A very cool spiny lizard.
A very cool spiny lizard.25-Jul-2011 11:55
 

With the sun now shining brightly, we were given some free time. A couple brave souls decided to cool off by taking a dip in the murky brown river. After ensuring none of these pioneers were snapped up by crocodiles, we donned bathing suits and joined them.

Heather freaking out about crocodiles.Heather freaking out about crocodiles.
Heather freaking out about crocodiles.25-Jul-2011 14:44
 

Before dinner, we departed on another evening boat ride, in time to catch the sunset. We were treated to a display of thousands of flying foxes (fruit bats) taking to the skies at twilight. These bats are huge – with an average wingspan over 1m (3 ft) – an amazing sight!

Thousands of flying foxes taking to the skies.Thousands of flying foxes taking to the skies.
Thousands of flying foxes taking to the skies.25-Jul-2011 18:33
 

That night, we put on our boots again and took another jungle walk in the dark. It was a good chance to see more sleeping birds and some neat frogs.

This Danish girl was crazy about frogs - crawling around in the mud at every opportunity to look for them.This Danish girl was crazy about frogs – crawling around in the mud at every opportunity to look for them.
This Danish girl was crazy about frogs – crawling around in the mud at every opportunity to look for them.24-Jul-2011 23:09
 

In no time at all, it was the third day and time for us to leave Uncle Tan’s Camp. We once again boarded the boats and made the trip back to Sepilok, where we caught a bus bound for Kota Kinabalu. This would be our last stop in Borneo before flying back to peninsular Malaysia.

Suspended walkways leading to the sleeping huts at Uncle Tan's camp.Suspended walkways leading to the sleeping huts at Uncle Tan’s camp.
Suspended walkways leading to the sleeping huts at Uncle Tan's camp.25-Jul-2011 10:30
 

We enjoyed our time at Uncle Tan’s, as we did our entire two and a half weeks in Borneo. However, we left this island a little disillusioned – the pristine, untouched wilderness we had heard so much about is quickly disappearing. What will the future hold? We can only hope the world’s great remaining rainforest and wilderness can fight back the destructive greed and exploitation of mankind – a battle Borneo has lost.

One thought on “Into the Jungles of Borneo – Uncle Tan’s Jungle Camp, Lower Kinabatangan Valley, Malaysia

  1. Rudolf Diesel

    my Smartphone “disappeared” in uncletan’s camp

    Hello follow Travellers,
    I am forced to give a negative vote for uncletan.com, which is something I rarely do but, there is my reasoning.

    To make a long story short: perfect communication for booking – NO communication if you have a serious problem!

    I booked uncletan long in advance and very successfully communicated with them several times well be fore my arriving and there was always a fast response – as they promise in the internet.

    I went to the jungle camp – we were only 4 tourists including me.

    In the communal meeting/drinking/eating pace (to make no error – there was only one place!) I switched my Smartphone off (at arrival, not needed), put it on the table and left/forgot it there.

    After returning to Sandakan, I wanted to check the time and missed my Smartphone. In Sandakan, I did write 3 emails to enquire about my smartphone eg. eugene@uncletan.com and I wrote SMS too, to enquire about my smart phone.

    I did ask them to give me “any answer what so ever” in order to know what happened with my Smartphone. There was – NEVER AN ANSWER until to date, 1,5 months later!

    I can not and I do not accept this behaviour of not answering an important mail.

    You may know how difficult it is to travel without a Smartphone (no phone, no internet to book the next destination, no alarm clock etc.

    Fact: my Smartphone “disappeared” in uncletan’s camp – I could give you more details on the situation.

    Uncletan does more or less the same job than any other company along the Kinabatangan River: You travel on the river through depressing oil-palm plantations – devoid of life – with a few larger reaming ‘forest’ trees lining the river shore where a few of the last surviving proboscis monkeys, maybe gibbons or hornbills and Co find their last, little refuge. You can hardly take a reasonable picture of the far away creatures.
    At night they do the common river journey to the few birds they know of their sleeping place along the river. You will see sleeping kingfishers from 1m distance (unfortunately they are always on the same tree branch every night) – pyrotechnics of cameras are discharging on them until they are forced to fly blinded into the dark (I never figured out how they find a new branch to alight in the dark) and on the return trip, we do the same job on them again (that is: wow, they are there, lets take more photos).

    HELP! What a disaster!
    Dr. Rudolf Diesel

    Reply

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