Sandakan: A River of Darkness

This entry continues directly on from our Wild Pygmy Elephant experience. If you don’t like spoilers, go here first and then come back to finish the adventure. 

There is a general rule on the Kinabatangan River – all boats are moored back at your Lodge prior to night fall. There’s a really good reason for this – it is really REALLY dark on the river!!

I’m not talking ‘walking down the street’ dark. I’m not even talking ‘up in the middle of the night, fumbling for the toilet door’ dark.

I’m talking ‘can’t see the person sitting next to you in a two-seat wide long boat’ dark.

I can’t even share photos to show you. It was that dark.

So why would we be out on the water, breaking curfew, with young children in this level of dark? Because we had just spent the afternoon chasing one of the rarest and simply most breathtaking animals in the area, down a very long river. We had found a herd of wild pygmy elephants, including a baby. And it was marvellous.

During our adventure, our afternoon river cruise turned into an evening cruise. Which in some cases would be manageable, even with the blanket rule of “no boats on the river after dark“. But that was only half the problem.

As we came out of the small branch of the river, Loi advised we needed fuel immediately – we were pretty much running on fumes. There was a small resort with a shop just minutes from where we were but in the opposite direction to the Bilit Adventure Lodge, where we were staying. Loi then pointed out the very dark storm clouds moving towards us from the other direction. Once again, everyone in the boats turned to Brent and I, looking at our kids. N had already passed out since the adrenalin rush had worn off; S was not far behind. It was late enough to have missed dinner. But there was really no question: we needed the fuel.

Of course, to buy petrol you need money. Most people don’t take their wallets on a river cruise. It’s not like they offer you the purchase of cocktails at Sunset. As we gently glided in the direction of the shop, there was a frantic search on both boats for any cash to spare. In most cases, people had a few ringgits bouncing around in the bottom of a pocket or two. But when you are a parent travelling with kids, you start to create little habits to ensure you always have a contingency plan for the kids.

My contingency plan is to carry the equivalent of $20 tucked into my glasses case, or behind my mobile phone, or some other sneaky spot on my person. Chalk it up to some mistakes on previous trips – in this case, it was the saving grace.

We made it to the shop. I have no idea which local river deity or elemental helped us out with that one, but we made it to the shop! While B and another passenger ran inside to pay for petrol, the remaining passengers started handing over rain coats and jackets to cover the boys. Yes, it is usually very hot in Borneo. But on the river, the temperature can plunge drastically – especially with a storm brewing. Make sure you take a water-proof / wind-proof jacket; and always carry a little cash on you somewhere. ALWAYS!!

Not only did B pay for the petrol, but we had enough cash to be able to buy some biscuits to share around the boats. The look of relief on Loi’s face was amazing – it was the equivalent of Tour Guide Treasure. Loi had satisfied the clients with wild pygmy elephants, found petrol before needing to swim to shore, and now had food to keep the grumbles away. If he could just take the boats home before the storm hit us, it would be the same as winning the Lottery.

As the storm drew closer and closer, the darkness started to envelope our little boats. B and I cuddled the boys in tight to us; more to do with safety than cold. With no moonlight, and only sporadic light from other lodges off the river, the safety of the boat was paramount. Anyone who fell into the water would not be easily found again. There was also a danger of other boats on the water not being able to see us – between the two boats we had three small torches, and our guides were flicking them on and off to create some small level of visibility. To help calm our nerves, we started to chat with the other passengers about our experience. That night, under the cloak of darkness, fueled only by adrenalin and sweet biscuits, we created a bond between our boats. I remember little of the stress that night, and more of the camaraderie I felt with the other passengers. It was a beautiful experience that could never be recreated again.

Finally, we pulled into our jetty, still dry but totally exhausted from the whole experience. I still don’t know how THAT happened, but I kid you not: we had just put the boys to bed, and B had headed out to the dining area to check the photos when the clouds simply burst. Huge heavy rain fell on the roof, with drops big enough to hurt you. Thunder boomed so loud, I expected the boys to wake up. They didn’t – as I said, total exhaustion.

It was quite seriously the most emotionally charged evening of our entire holiday – and all I remember afterwards was falling asleep to the sound of thunder and rain, with the most relieved and grateful smile on my face.


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