Proboscis Moneky (Marie Javins)
Blog Words : Wander Woman | 24 February

In search of Borneo's big-nosed monkey

Wander Woman, Marie Javins, heads deep into Sabah in search of a proboscis monkey and discovers they're not as ugly as you expect

I was on a half-full tour bus, in for a long day and evening. We were heading two hours back in the direction of the Malaysian state of Sarawak, though I'd just come into Sabah this way two days ago when I headed in by bus and boat from Brunei, one of the three countries that shares the island of Borneo.

The tour was to the southwestern wetlands of Sabah, the plan being to observe proboscis monkeys and fireflies. The latter would be easy – I wondered if the tour operator threw the mention of fireflies in so that clients wouldn't be disappointed if the famous "ugly" proboscis monkeys didn't show. I hoped we’d see them. They’re endangered, and only lived here, on Borneo.

I'd booked the trip yesterday after talking to several Kota Kinabalu travel agents long enough to realise that they were all trying to book me onto the same trip with Only in Borneo Tours. I checked out their website, then went to their office and asked for the online booking discount. “Sure,” they said.

Yesterday had been kind of a washout. I was tired and grumpy and needed some time off from my constant motion. I spent several hours catching up on work for my comic book editing job in Kuwait. Working on the road was a necessity for me, given how long I was on the road during my trip around the world. But I was determined to see something of Sabah today.

I took a quick, surreptitious glance at the group on the tour bus. Dutch, Italians, Japanese, Thai, and another Chinese backpacker. I'd encountered several Chinese backpackers on this trip, but this was the first young Chinese woman I'd met who was travelling alone. We hit it off, and later she friended me on Facebook. Though Facebook isn't allowed in China, many Chinese citizens sign onto the wider uncensored web through proxy servers.

The bus drove the 130km to Garama Village on the Garama River, then we all walked 700m down a boardwalk through the wetlands. This took us to base camp, where we were fed with sticky rice, coffee and fried bananas.

Base camp kittens found their way onto the table to also eat the fried bananas. That seemed so strange to me, but they didn't seem to mind. Maybe fried bananas alleviate hairballs or something.

Our guide, a Malaysian naturalist named DJ, led us onto a small motorboat, driven by a local student. We put on our flotation vests – the water was about a foot deep and I think I'd be more afraid of crocodiles, but this was probably a legal requirement, or at least good business sense.

We motored down a small channel under a canopy of branches and out onto the Garama River.

"A monkey!"

Excited, we all leaned forward and aimed our cameras... but it was a regular monkey – a macaque – with a plain old monkey nose. He looked like a nice-enough monkey, but this wasn't the monkey we were looking for.

When the boatman pulled up under a branch and DJ himself pulled out his SLR, I knew we were seeing something rare. It was a snake – a black snake with yellow rings – clinging to a branch. These are rarely spotted during excursions and even if DJ hadn't told us how rare these sightings were, we would have known this was unusual by his excited clicking away with his camera.

After a few minutes of invading the snake's privacy, we continued on, as DJ regaled us with tales of eating lizards with curry with his grandfather when he was a small boy. His church forbade that now, or at least that was my confused understanding of the story he told us. Why would a church forbid eating lizard with curry? I think I must have misunderstood.

We had partial-view seats for the proboscis monkeys in the end, but we did see several of them with their bulbous, floppy noses. They really weren't as ugly as their reputations had made them out to be.

Finally, against the pink and orange sunset, water buffalo frolicked in the river, heading home after a long and busy day of eating grass. As the sun fell, we headed back to base camp for dinner before wandering back down the dock to look at fireflies.

Was I still tired? Of course. I’d be glad to get back to my hotel room in a few hours. But I wasn’t grumpy anymore. Even though tomorrow I was due for a long day of flying.

I was grumpy again the next morning, when I had to get out of bed early so that I could head to the airport.

My hotel in KK had been many things – cheap and friendly, mostly – but they seemed stumped when I’d ask about restaurants or wifi or in this case, an airport taxi. And so I left in the morning, carrying my luggage to the nearest taxi stand, where I hired a driver to get me to the airport.

I scouted around for a wifi signal at the airport, but wasn’t really surprised to not find one. I tried again at the Kuala Lumpur airport a while later, but that one wasn’t working. I started to worry now, so I headed into a Starbucks and sat down. I was frantic for a connection – I would arrive in Ubud, Bali, tonight. What I really needed – given my late arrival time – was a hotel. Tomorrow, I would find a rental for the month I planned to rest there, but tonight, I just needed somewhere to sleep.

Wow, I thought. Prices sure had gone up in Ubud in the last decade. And then I read that single women of a certain age prowling about town are thought to be Eat, Pray, Love aficionados on some kind of soul-searching, man-scouting retreat. Oh, no. Well, too late now. My ticket was going to Ubud and so was I.

I scoured the discount sites – they all have the same inventory, I think. I cross-referenced with online reviews.

A common theme seemed to be "loud rooster crowing starting at 4am."

I clicked "Buy" on a decent place past the Monkey Forest, then started shutting down my laptop so I could hurry to my gate.

A new email landed in my inbox just before the laptop went off.

What was this? Oh, right. I'd signed up to volunteer at the Ubud Writers Festival. I was now an official volunteer. Great, I thought. Then I read the next line. I needed to dress nice. A "frock," no less. Uh-oh.

Anything that might have been nice when I’d started this trip months ago was certainly not nice now, after backpacking across Africa and Asia. I hurried off to my plane to Bali.

Tomorrow I'd find a place to live for the month. And also, apparently, a frock.