Snake-like, the Kinabatangan is a 560 kilometre river and after a road trip from Sandakan I’m picked up by boat to travel on it to the Proboscis Lodge where I’m staying 3 days and 2 nights. Sabah’s longest river, this area of it is the 26,000 hectare Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary, home to all 8 species of hornbill, as well as orang-utan, proboscis monkey, crocodiles, pygmy elephant and many colourful tropical birds and many other species of Malaysian Borneo’s remarkable wildlife.
I love it when I learn something new and I join other guests on a boat to go to an oxbow lake. I thought it was a funny name for a lake, and it’s not until the next day, browsing in the Lodges library, that I realise exactly what it is we saw. They’re a unique feature of this unusual area, an area that’s influenced by tides as well as the flooding from heavy rains, and there are about 20 ‘oxbow lakes’ in the Lower Kinabatangan. I learn they’re formed by large meandering bends in the river’s course that eventually get cut off from the main river by erosion on the bends; flooding then changes the river’s direction as the gush of water rushes directly towards the sea. This eventually leaves a lake behind, cut off from the main river flow and the ‘oxbow’ refers to the shape of the wooden harnesses on oxen – and the only oxbow I’d ever heard of until now.
These occasional massive floods slowly change the river, and the lakes too are eventually claimed by vegetation: this process is speeding up by the invasive water hyacinth which has been in the area for about 100 years. Listed as one of the most productive plants on earth – it can double in size in 12 days and is considered the world’s worst aquatic plant. It forms dense mats that competitively exclude native submersed and floating-leaved plants and low oxygen conditions develop beneath them. Recent studies have shown it to be very useful in absorbing heavy metals from polluted water and here in Malaysia, this plant has also been used to feed ducks and pigs.
Travelling up the narrow stream that joins the lake to the river suddenly it opens out to a huge expansive lake: fascinating and peaceful. It’s a great spot for birders and fishers who mainly use nets for their fishing.
I take four boat trips while at Proboscis Lodge and each one provides a different aspect to this scientifically, and historically, important region and I see one of the four tallest trees in the world, the Mengaris. Locals believe these trees, in which bees often form hives, have spirits living in them and that ill fortune will come to those who cut them. Driving around, areas that have been cleared for oil plantations often have these tall trees reaching skyward, more I suspect for practical reasons than because of myths, I’m told the tree has silica which soon blunts saws!
It’s in this region, in the ‘land of Hornbills’ that I’m finally seeing many hornbills although the Malaysia Nature Society says there are less around. Like New Zealand’s native Kereru, the world’s largest wood pigeon with its distinctive swishing sound, I hear the hornbills in flight before I see them as they fly into a roosting tree at the lodge. It’s for sights, and sounds, like these that I love to travel, and for my concern for habitat both here and in my country (NZ).
I could have, I wish I had, stayed twice as long in this magical place, and more blogs will follow!