The swirling chocolate waters of Borneo’s Kinabatangan River are flanked by rainforest so dense that it is easy to forget the destruction wrought upon the country’s fragile ecosystem by the palm oil industry. In reality, the rainforest that lines the Kinabatangan is something of a mirage, a narrow corridor of untouched nature fighting for survival against the encroaching tide of development. For now however, it is still a paradise, where the calls of a thousand exotic birds create such a cacophony that the sound of our engine as we motored slowly upstream was all but drowned out.
We soon encountered a family of proboscis monkeys holding court in a silver-barked tree overhanging the river. With their distended bellies and huge, bulbous noses, proboscis monkeys are simultaneously one of Mother Nature’s greatest oddities and one of her most fascinating creations. Upon taking our leave of the troupe, a tropical storm swept up the river- an impenetrable wall of torrential rain that dressed everything it touched in a shroud of mist. When we reached the lodge that was to be our home for the night, it was beautiful- a fairy-tale gathering of stilted wooden cabins and boardwalks in the midst of a jungle filled with orchids and hibiscus. The myriad sounds of the rainforest swelled and receded around its perimeters, while the river flowed ceaselessly past.
That afternoon, the rain abated and we decided to explore one of the Kinabatangan’s narrow tributaries. The jungle pressed close on both sides, and it was alive with noise- strange bird calls, sudden crashes, and the vibrating hum of countless cicadas. Occasionally, the denizens of the forest came into view- a big family of squabbling macaques, several more troupes of spectacular proboscis and endless flocks of bejewelled birds. As darkness began to encroach upon the jungle and the gathering twilight staked its claim upon the still waters, we turned for home. On the way, we spotted a small family of monkeys grouped on a branch over the river, silhouetted against the first blushes of sunset. Their nervous chattering alerted us to the presence of a huge saltwater crocodile, swimming sinuously in front of our boat. As the crocodile passed beneath the monkeys, mothers grasped their children to them and they all fell quiet, waiting for the danger below to safely pass them by.
The river was suddenly dark, the inky blackness cast by the shadow of the trees broken only by a silver path of reflected sky. Along the banks, flotillas of water hyacinths glowed palely in the dusk, shivering as the passing of the crocodile and our boat displaced them. In the brief lull between the daytime chaos of the jungle and the awakening of the night-time circus, following that crocodile home was for me a snapshot moment of rare and spectacular beauty. It was also a stark reminder of the importance of preserving Borneo’s dwindling rainforest- a moment that encapsulated all that will be lost if human greed and ignorance are allowed to prevail.