“Do you know how we call English people?” Asks Vijay, our guide, referring to their secret tour-guide language. “We call them Ulu Kinabatangan, you know U.K.”. “And for Germans we do this”, he says while stroking an imaginary mustache. “The Dutch, however…” and bursts into laughter while pointing to his nose. I immediately understand what he means because half an hour ago I was face to face with one of the most bizarre inhabitants of the Malaysian rainforest: the Proboscis monkey. The animals, with their huge noses and bellies, looked so much like the well nourished Dutch colonialists that they nicknamed them ‘Dutch monkeys “. If you’re somewhere in the Malaysian jungle, and a guide rubs his nose, you know why.
Now the chance of watching your guide while in the jungle of the Kinabatangan River, is about nil. Everywhere you look, there’s life that is much more interesting. Every hundred meters or so there is a special bird to admire, from tiny bright blue kingfishers unwilling to pose for the camera to the hornbill with its impressive yellow beak that skims over the treetops. We are five of us in a boat going slowly over the brown waters of the river. Closely we keep an eye on the riverbanks, hoping to see a saltwater crocodile. The tired look of our captain speaks volumes: not every piece of floating wood we enthusiastically mistake for a crocodile is actually one – quite the contrary! We should better look out for monkeys, at least you can hear them before you see them!
The nice thing about Malaysia is you never have to search very far for them. It is funny to see that all boats with tourists stop at the first group they encounter. If you wouldn’t know better, you’d think every camera nowadays comes with a huge telephoto lens. A boat like ours, to the brim with Chinese and equally impressive-looking photographic lenses, is leaning dangerously when the cameras suddenly point the same small piece of jungle. I mumble something silly about “watching monkeys” and suggest we look elsewhere. Plenty of Monkeys to go around here!
“These tracks are just a few days old,” says Vijay a little later after we quietly enjoyed another troop of monkeys. He points to a muddy patch on the side of the river. “Traces of Pygmy elephants, maybe a week old” he says, “I’ve heard they are upstream now”. “If you want help out with paying for gasoline, we can see if we find them, I give it about 50%”.
Despite the long sail, we are not alone and boats appear out of nowhere all over the place. After some waiting one of the guides points to his ear and imitates a trunk with his other hand. He heard something! Everyone is silent immediately and not before long a scene from Jurassic Park breaks loose: all around us we hear trumpeting sounds: intrusive, scary, loud and very aggressive. It’s strictly forbidden to go ashore to approaching the animals, we now understand why. This type of elephant doesn’t trample you but makes a run for you, turns around and delivers a deadly kick. Definitely not an attractive prospect.
Suddenly, a tusk appears out of the thick bush, it’s a young male followed by his mother and five other elephants. The animals barely visible, only their backs stick out above the tall grass. Why they are called Pygmy Elephants is a mystery, the animals are huge and eat at a phenomenal rate. With the grass almost eaten Mom and son are briefly visible, playing with their food. Endless clicking of cameras breaks the silence, followed by many “ohh’s and ahh’s”. And then, just as quickly as it began, it is over. The sun is nearly down and what remains is the long journey back across the river. Our smiling faces speak volumes, this is really something to remember and now I understand why everyone here with such excessive cameras around.