|Fisherman on the Santubong River, Borneo|
When we boarded the boat on Borneo's Santubong River, my daughter was immediately enthralled by the wildlife photos lining the ceiling. Pictures of proboscis monkeys with their comical, Jimmy Durante noses stared down at us. Irrawaddy dolphins with their characteristic rounded heads and snub noses were shown frolicking in the water. Images of crocodiles glared at us, daring us to get a little closer. As the boat began to chug its way out into the river, she went on and on, telling me everything she knew about proboscis monkeys and their endangered status.
After a while, she paused for a breath and said, "Mama, we should go and see these animals sometime," waving her arm at the pictures
"Honey," I told her, "That's why we're on this boat. Those are the animals we're going to see!"
She was so surprised and delighted. The look on her face was akin to a preschool girl who has just been told she's going to DisneyWorld to have breakfast with all the Princesses. It was as if she had stepped into the pages of National Geographic. A world which had so far only existed on paper was suddenly about to become real.
We were going to see these animals in the wild. Of course, this can be a little trickier than seeing them at the zoo or aquarium. They aren't captive and waiting for you to come by to look at them. No, these animals are living free, and we needed a combination of luck and familiarity with their habits to find them. Luckily, we had a guide who knew a few tricks.
|Waiting and staring, hoping to see proboscis monkeys.|
Our first successful sighting was of some Irrawaddy dolphins. They are known to hang around fishing boats, so our boat would cut its motor and silently float whenever we came upon a fisherman.
"There!" someone would cry, pointing excitedly. The dolphins quickly came up out of the water and dove back down again. We would watch for a while before continuing down the river looking for more fishing boats to stalk.
Before you start scrolling down to see fantastic wildlife photos, I need to let you in on something. Photographing wildlife can be really hard -- perhaps even more difficult than taking pictures of uncooperative toddlers. Basically, none of my pictures turned out. All the ones of dolphins show nothing but water. I only got one photo of an animal the entire evening, and it was taken right as we were climbing on board.
|Mudskippers are amphibious fish that use their pectoral fins to walk on land.|
Yup, that's the sum total of all my successful wildlife photos. At least I have my memories...not that you can see them.
As we reached the mangrove forest, the boat took us closer to shore to look for proboscis monkeys. The key is to look for violently shaking branches. Night was approaching which is the time when these monkeys move from the inland spots where they spent the day back out to the river to forage for food. We spotted a few moving through the trees but never got the closeup look that we'd been hoping for. From what my friends tell me, we would have had a better chance of seeing them if we had spent the night at one of the Bako National Park cabins where the proboscis monkeys come crashing through the area every morning.
|Fishing village on the Sanbutong River|
For me, one of the best parts of our river excursion was stopping at a Malay fishing village. The brightly painted houses were raised up on stilts to keep them out of the way of rising water. Boats were tied up all along the shore.
|The fishermen have returned home for the day.|
This place is so remote that they are not hooked up to a power utility. Instead, the loud drone of gasoline powered electric generators filled the air as we pulled up. There's a small school to serve the younger children, but teens interested in getting an education had to go elsewhere for classes, only coming home on weekends.
|Toddler boy hanging out the window over the water.|
The lack of power and secondary schools made me realize how different my life was compared to this fishing society. After all, I had reached their village on a 3-hour pleasure cruise and was going to lay my head down to sleep in a lovely hotel in Kuching that night. The fishing families, on the other hand, did not have the economic means to travel this distance often. Their poverty keeps them isolated.
|However, they do have the money for satellite television.|
The evening call to prayer was just about go out as we landed, so most of the footpaths were empty as wandered through the village. In fact, we never saw a man the whole time we were there as they were off praying. I did see a Winnie-the-Pooh baby blanket hanging up to dry, though.
|Wooden walkways between homes lead down to the river.|
|One little boy dressed up in his Friday finery.|
|The fanciest house I saw in the village.|
We only spent a few minutes walking around. I actually felt a bit odd taking photos, wondering what I would think if some stranger stood a few feet from my home taking pictures of it.
|Sunset from the fishing village|
As the sun began to set, we got back on board for our return trip. The guide shone his powerful flashlight at the mangrove forest's shoreline, sweeping its beam back and forth. He was looking for crocodiles whose eyes reflect the light, making them glow in the dark. My girl was the only person to see a crocodile (or so she claims).
We ended the evening cruise floating by a couple trees filled with fireflies blinking on and off. Fireflies are pretty much impossible to photograph in the dark from a bobbing boat. While I remember seeing fireflies on summer nights when I was a kid, this is the first time that my own children have seen them. I wonder if the fireflies are dying off in Houston, Texas as my parents still live in my childhood home, and the fireflies no longer flit through their yard.
All of us were quiet on the 40-minute van ride back to Kuching. It's excursions like this that make me fully appreciate all that travel can show my family. Wildlife transforms from being something we read about in books or visit in captivity to something that we see in its natural habitat. We're introduced to people whose society is physically located close to our own modern world yet remains so different from ours. We weren't just flipping through a copy of National Geographic. We were experiencing it in real life.
IF YOU GO:
We booked our tour through CPH Travel Agency. They picked us up from our hotel in Kuching in an air conditioned van and provided fruit snacks and non-alcoholic beverages on the cruise as part of the tour. The boat had life-jackets if you elected to wear one, even ones small enough for preschoolers. The cost was a little more than US$50 for adults and US$25 for children.
Don't Anger the Orangutans
This post is part of Travel Photo Thursday on Budget Travelers Sandbox, "Oh the Places I've Been" on The Tablescaper, Sunday Traveler on Ice Cream and Permafrost, and Travel Photo Mondays on Travel Photo Discovery. Check them out form more around-the-world travel inspiration.