My trip had failed. I had taken two weeks off from work to visit the Malaysian province of Sabah on the island of Borneo to find and photograph the elusive and endangered Bornean pygmy elephant in the wild and, hopefully, write an adventure travel story that would make my reputation as a travel writer.
This was my plan: buy a hammock tent, rent a motorbike, and drive from Kota Kinabalu to the eastern side of the province where the endangered Bornean pygmy elephants ranged. There I would inquire about how and where to find the elephants.
This is what actually happened. On the second night I ended up navigating the windy road up Mount Kinabalu on my motorcycle, freezing cold, in the fog, at night, with no headlights. On the third day, I got lost for eight hours in a monsoon and learned that it had been raining heavily in that area for weeks and that there was no indication it was going to stop.
This part of the story begins on the fourth morning in a dingy room in a cheap hostel by the harbor in a port town called Sandakan, about a four-hour drive from Kinabatangan Park, the place where I was most likely to find pygmy elephants.
I had arrived the previous night. Everything in my bag and on my person had been soaked during the drive. The only things that stayed dry were my camera and laptop. I was thankful for that. My travel insurance would not have covered their full value.
I had hung up my clothes on the door, bedframe, desk, chair, and curtain rods the night before, but they were still soaked. My passport, which I had fanned open on the desk, was still sopping. Outside the rain hammered on tin roofs with a loud crackle. Inside the air was so humid that I felt wet.
I went downstairs for the hostel’s complimentary breakfast. It consisted of Wonderbread, margarine, and jam. I met a sour British Couple who told me that the rain had kept them in the hostel all week. All tours were cancelled. I made a quadruple-decker margarine and jam sandwich and went back to my room.
I plugged in my laptop hoping to pass the rainy day blogging. The hostel’s Internet, however, wasn’t working.
With nothing better to do, I dwelled on my situation. Why hadn’t I checked the weather before coming to this country? Now I would waste my vacation in this dirty room and I would have to drive my motorcycle for two more days in the rain to get back to Kota Kinabalu for my flight.
Laying on my lumpy mattress and staring at the paint flaking off the ceiling, my thoughts turned to the last conversation that I had with my ex-girlfriend in Taiwan. It went like this:
“Where are you going for Chinese New Year vacation?” She asked.
“I’m going to Borneo. And you?”
“I’m going to Bali.”
“That’s cool. Are you going to take surfing lessons?”
“I’ve heard the surfing is great there.”
“I heard that the surf instructors are pretty great too. I’m really looking forward to it.”
I munched my Wonderbread sandwich and imagined her in a sunny beachside bar filled with large-shouldered scruffy-haired Australian surfers. I abused myself this way for several hours. Eventually, I snapped.
I had not come this far to give up. Rain be damned, I was going to find some fucking pygmy elephants.
I did some pushups and sit-ups to get my blood circulating. Then I noticed that there was an air-conditioner in my room. I turned it on and arranged my belongings as best I could in front of its cool dry breeze. The room got cold quickly, but at least it was dry.
I went out in the rain to find a café with Internet access. There I looked at maps and planned my route for the morning. First I would visit the nearby Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary. After that I would visit the Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary. Then, weather permitting, I would continue south to Kinabatangan Park and find a lodge on the Kinabatangan River that would have a guide and a boat to take me looking for pygmy elephants.
The next morning I woke up at 7 a.m., showered, packed, ate a quadruple-decker Wonderbread, margarine, and jam sandwich, and left. It was raining lightly and I made good time. I arrived at the orangutan sanctuary early for the 10 a.m. feeding.
I followed the elevated wooden walkway to the feeding area, which was an elevated wooden platform about the size of a large swimming pool. Two young women wearing rain jackets were already there. They turned to see who had arrived.
“Fancy meeting you here.”
They pair were two Swedish nurses that I had met briefly in on my first day in Kota Kinabalu. We had eaten breakfast together before I started my motorcycle trip.
“Heyyy!” They shouted.
We traded stories about how we had come to the orangutan sanctuary and chatted like we had known each other for years. Travel is funny like that. Talk to another traveler for twenty minutes, and you’ve made a good friend. Run into her a second time somewhere else, and suddenly you’re old buddies.
People trickled on to the platform from the walkway. A few minutes after it filled up the first orangutan arrived. Everyone was silent. Several orangutans came to eat. I snapped photographs frantically, worried that they might be the only photos I would take on my vacation.
The girls invited me back to their hostel for lunch on the restaurant patio. Over lunch they suggested that I stay at the hostel and continue with them to Kinabatangan another day. I agreed of course.
I told the girls that I also planned to visit the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary. The idea excited them. The orangutan feeding had whet their appetites for anthropoids. The clouds broke and the sun came out for the first time in days.
The three of us squished onto my dirtbike. The publicly funded orangutan sanctuary had been well advertised and easy to find. The privately owned monkey sanctuary, however, was not so easy. It was located about 12 km off the main highway accessible only by unmarked back roads. We had only the directions that were told to us by the receptionist at the hostel.
We joked and laughed as we cruised down the potholed road beneath the first rays of sunshine that any of us had seen all week. We were the only vehicle on the empty road, which was lined with palm oil plantations and rolled over gentle hills until it disappeared in the distance.
The monkey sanctuary also had a wooden walkway, but this one lead through mangroves, rather than jungle, to a large covered platform. The alpha male greeted our group and led it to the platform where the guide fed him and people posed for pictures with him. Around the platform dozens of monkeys played in the trees. At one point the alpha male suddenly screamed sprinted off of the main platform, scaring the hell out of everyone near him, to chase away another group of monkeys that was encroaching on his territory.
I shot hundreds of pictures. The light was good and I knew that they would turn out well.
We returned to the hostel to find that a backpacking British couple and two tall blonde sisters from Holland had checked in. We all ate dinner together. Afterwards we sat on the patio drinking and playing cards. I sat next to the younger of the two sisters, a pretty business school graduate. She told me about an entrepreneurial school trip to Argentina she had recently taken. She was intelligent and charming. We talked for most of the night.
By the time we all returned to our dorm rooms the sisters had decided that they would come with us to Kinabatangan.
It seemed as though things couldn’t get much better—but they did. The next day I received an email that turned my nearly failed trip into the most successful expedition of my writing career.