Afiq arrived in his van the next morning to take us to the jungle.
Afiq is an earnest young man who was born in a village alongside the Kinabatangan River. He is affable, but intense about his job as a jungle guide.
Once he and his father caught malaria on a hunting trip because they didn’t pack any netting or repellent or coils. They both almost died. He looked sheepish and admitted, “My mom was furious.”
Afiq and his van lurched and bounced us for two hours on paved road through miles of palm oil fields, tucked in behind slow moving trucks, wrapped in the belch of their exhaust.
“Malaysia is the third worst country in the world for car accidents,” Afiq explained cheerfully. “But don’t worry, I’ll drive carefully. Does anyone want some beer? We can make a beer stop.”
He pulled off at a one-room convenience store which sold everything from dried mangoes to shampoo to cans of gasoline. I was worried about what was to come, so I grabbed three frosty 20 ounce bottles of Tiger beer.
I carried it all to the front of the shop.
“Oh my,” the woman at the counter said. She looked at Afiq. He looked away.
Ramona and the boys scoured the store for minibags of peanuts and potato chips and crackers and cookies. Eventually the storekeeper got into the spirit of things and joined the fray.
“How about this, only 2 ringgits!” she said, holding up a six pack bag of some kind of stale nuts coated with some kind of salted egg powder,
“Sure thing!” we said and threw it on the pile.
Her son, home from school for lunch, came out to watch, wide-eyed and silent. He was small, probably six years old and immaculately dressed in his school uniform, a white button up shirt with long sleeves, a tie, navy pants, neatly combed hair. We admired his hygiene in loud American mother voices.
One large Santa-Claus sack full of snacks later, we were finished.
“Come again!” the woman encouraged as we staggered out the door.
An hour later we arrived intact at the jetty in the town where Afiq grew up.
Afiq explained that we needed to ditch our suitcases and carry only enough clothes for two days and nights. “There’s no room for suitcases in the jungle,” he told us.
We sat on the dusty floor in the covered part of the dock and unzipped our suitcases. It was about 120 degrees. The dock was lined with bored men smoking cigarettes, waiting for something to happen. They watched politely as we shuffled and consolidated underwear and t-shirts and mosquito repellent from five bags to two.
“Swim suits?” I asked.
“Oh. No,” Afiq shook his head. “Crocodiles.”
“Hmm,” we said. “Guess we won’t go swimming.”
“If you’re very lucky,” he said, “you’ll get to see the biggest crocodile in all of the river. He crosses in front of our camp sometimes. He is 6 meters long.” He paused. “Huge.”
We all gasped, obediently.
“Yes,” he said. “That big, head to tail: 6 Meters. Like your whole body, but bigger. I have never seen a crocodile that big.” He took a breath. “And you know what we call him?”
We shook our heads.
“Bleggh,” he said.
We looked at each other.
“BLEGGH,” he repeated.
We waited, politely, trying to look like we understood.
“Because of his COLOR,” he said, slowly, his dramatic moment slipping away. “Bleggh.”
After our suitcases were rearranged we waved goodbye to our audience, who waved back politely before returning to their cigarettes and boredom, then loaded ourselves onto a slender river boat and bustled down a brown river, lined with palm oil trees, lifting our chins gratefully into the breeze.
After twenty minutes, the boat docked. We unloaded, scrambled up a muddied hill, walked a trail through the jungle across a spit of land, boarded another boat, escaped the palm trees and entered honest-to-god jungle.
Tanjung Bulat Jungle Camp sits along the otherwise undeveloped jungled shore of an oxbow lake. We were the only guests on our first night. The afternoon of the second day, a couple arrived from South Africa, faces lined, eyes dark-circled, just off a series of planes from continents away.
“You should be using solar power,” the woman told Afiq, because she wasn’t too tired to see ways for him to improve.
The camp is small, consisting of a stilted building with six bedrooms on top and a shadowed “chill out spot” with tables and hammocks underneath, an open-air dining room with views of the river and, in back, a long three sided building with platforms for sleeping bags.
The dining room and kitchen are on stilts, too, but instead of hammocks underneath, monitor lizards lurk, with beady eyes and long flicking blue tongues. Sometimes they argue and chase each other down the beach and it sounds like someone dumped a bottle of rocks off the side of a building.
Three toilets and bucket shower rooms and a sink sit off to the side of the property, an easy walk without a flashlight on a moonlit night, as long as the sleek civet cat, fat on kitchen scraps, doesn’t intimidate you. A generator distributes electricity for three or four hours each night, though the kitchen must have a more regular source since there was a refrigerator to store my three enormous bottles of beer and only South Africa knows what solar power could bring.
There’s no air conditioning. Once after a walk in the jungle I stood in the shower room with all my clothes on and dumped buckets of water over my head, then swung and dripped in the hammock until I stopped sweating.
Afiq is the proud owner, boss and chief guide of the jungle camp. His right-hand-man broke both legs in a motorbike accident a few weeks ago and he had to scramble for someone to run wildlife spotting trips while he is away from camp. He hastily promoted a dapper young man with sparkling white shoes, whose name I didn’t catch.
“I’m trained as a dentist,” the new hire told Ramona solemnly, “but I’m looking forward to learning about animals.”
Another worker, a lithe young Muslim man with a sparkling smile, whose name I also never heard, was also learning the ropes of guiding.
The dentist and the cook went out on the boat with us for our first nighttime “river cruise”. They sat in the back and smoked and chatted with the guy running the engine and navigating past the snags, while Afiq stood proudly in the center of the boat, scanning the landscape with his binoculars.
We puttered slowly up and down the river as the sun went down, watching as families of proboscis monkeys and silver tailed langours and long tailed macaques gathered in the trees along the bank for the night. Monkeys sleep close to the river to protect themselves from the clouded leopards that live deeper in the jungle.
The air tinted pink with sunset. Various types of hornbills rattled overhead and iridescent green and blue kingfishers of all sizes darted by our boat. Serpent eagles sat sentry in the treetops and white egrets silhouetted themselves across the sky.
Based on our experience at Afiq’s jungle camp, certain protocols apply for wildlife viewing.
One: you can only legitimately be excited to see a species the first one or two sightings. After that, treat a sighting as No Big Deal.
For example. During the first half hour of our first river cruise safari Afiq eagerly directed the boat to park right next to the shore so we could see as many proboscus monkeys as possible.
After fifty or so monkeys, he didn’t even bother to slow the boat.
“What’s that!?!” we would point. “Proboscus,” he’d say offhandedly, and continue scanning.
Another wildlife spotting doctrine is that only certain species merit delight. Macaque monkeys, for example, do not.
“Ack,” Afiq said, when we pointed out groups of twenty grey monkeys bounding down the beach. “We call those the garbage cans of the jungle. They everywhere. Our government pays people to shoot them.”
(MONKEYS. On the beach right in front of us. Frolicking.)
There is a third, equally important unspoken rule of wildlife spotting. I’m not certain how to define it, so I’ll describe a time when we broke it.
Once while Afiq was still excited about the proboscus monkeys, he cupped his hands and made snorting sounds towards a hefty russet-colored male poised in a tree above us.
The dentist, the cook and the boatman exploded into giggles.
Afiq glared at them.
“It is the sound of the probiscus,” he said reprovingly and did it again.
They giggled again, violently, trying to hide behind their hands, and their cigarettes, and spasms of coughing.
Afiq squared his shoulders and ignored them. He made the sound again.
The monkey above us, glorious in his nose, his tail, his tree, didn’t deign look our way.
This time, we all laughed, jungle gods forgive us, we really did.