Click click. The buzz of the motor muffled the satisfying click of my shutter as we cruised up the Kinabatangan river. The sun beat down on us from a clear azure sky flanked by wispy clouds in the distance, and reflected pictures in the muddy colored water of the lush green trees along the banks. I shook my head in awe; I couldn’t believe I was finally in Borneo! I gave myself a mental pat on the back and nodded in satisfaction. I’m SO National Geographic right now.
The boat was small, wooden and blue, fitting four rows of two people and the driver on the back edge looking over our heads to navigate. To board it, we’d had to walk down a steep and muddy embankment carrying our luggage, and then tip toe along some rickety pieces of wood across the water into the boat while the guides stood around watching us bemusedly, in a way that seemed like they almost hoped we’d fall in, just for a laugh. So this is how it’s gonna be, I thought blandly.
We buzzed up the winding river, and each time we turned a corner the boat tilted so the edge nearly touched the water. The occasional fisherman would cruise past and offer a friendly wave, and small, overturned boats sat lazily along the sandy banks, waiting for their turn in the water. The sound of the motor suddenly dimmed and the guide pointed to the shore. “Baby crocodile,” he said, directing our eyes. He steered us closer to the edge but the shy creature slid gracefully into the water and dipped out of our view, probably to tell his mother that fresh meat had just arrived.
An hour and a sore butt later, we pulled up to the dock and once again clambered out of the boat with our luggage and up a steep, muddy hill to the Uncle Tan’s camp. Wooden planks wound a path between mangroves and across a green and murky swamp. The huts we stayed in were three-sided with open fronts facing the walkway, and our beds were simple mattresses on the floor with mosquito net coverings. The toilets were the kind you flushed by pouring buckets of water into the toilet, and to shower you poured buckets of water over your head next to the swamp. It was all very basic, yet it was exactly what we had signed up for and I loved it.
When showing us our cabin, the guide, who had taken an instant shine to me and called me “Little Cute” in his adorable accent, warned us not to get too drunk when walking back at night. He pointed to the swamp directly in front of our cabin and laughed, “One time a girl got so drunk she fell in right there. It was late at night and no one could help her get out, so she had to swim all the way over there to climb out.” The girls and I looked at each other in horror and instantly decided on a buddy system.
For the next three days we trekked through the jungle and cruised up and down the river, hunting for sights of proboscis monkeys, crocodiles, snakes, bugs, and anything else we might be lucky enough to spot. During the day the sweltering heat and humidity weighed down on us like a blanket, and at night we bathed in bug spray to avoid the swarms of mosquitos. During one night jungle trek, streaks of lightning lit up the sky and thunder crackled above us. The jungle canopy protected us from the rain and it created a fun and mysterious atmosphere to hear the sound of water dripping on the trees around us. But the fun dwindled when we had to cover ourselves in plastic ponchos and sit unprotected as the rain pelted us on the boat ride back.
Despite my high hopes, we never saw another crocodile. The guides assured us they were there, though, and told us the story of how one time a crocodile had jumped out of the water and grabbed a little boy sitting on the shore. We were instructed to never get too close to the water alone, and the only way to swim was if it’s a large group willing to splash around and make a lot of noise the whole time. And even then, you’d be flirting with a too-close encounter.
The experience at Uncle Tan’s was amazing. The food was delicious, the guides were friendly and knowledgable, and at night we all sat around drinking and singing and dancing until the wee hours of the morning. It’s definitely not for the faint of heart, and you are truly roughing it, but that’s exactly what it’s all about. Borneo isn’t for “glamping”; it’s for people who want to live among the raw beauty of nature and appreciate every little sight and sound that the environment has to offer.