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Travel: Big nose, bulging belly, unmissable

Wildlife tourism is new to Sabah in Malaysia, and all the better for it. By Frances Cairncross
Look for the red chilli pepper," suggested Bingo coyly. Spotting a male proboscis monkey is easy when you know how. He has a great pendulous nose, a bulging belly and looks as though he is wearing white underpants over grey tights and a brown bomber jacket several sizes too small. But his most striking characteristic is a spectacular, permanent erection, guaranteed to reduce teenage girls to giggles and young Malaysian guides like Bingo to euphemism.

The monkeys were getting ready for the night. In the Kinabatangan region of Sabah, the best place in northern Borneo to see these enchanting creatures, the rivers were in flood: the monsoon had gone on for a month longer than usual, and our riverside lodge was perched precariously a couple of feet above the brown waters which had engulfed the bank. Bingo had collected us in his boat (a fine 1940s metal launch built in Hayling Island) to get to lunch and had ferried us back for our rain gear and mosquito repellent. Now we were a mile or two downstream, along a tributary, and had spotted a family of proboscises preparing to tuck down.

One of their many charms is that they like to sleep in trees along the river bank. That, of course, makes their bedtime rituals extremely easy for waterborne tourists to watch. They live either in bachelor groups or in harems. This group was a harem, whose paterfamilias positioned himself in a tree rather to one side of his chattering wives and children.

The womenfolk and babies squabbled and argued over who should sleep where, erupting every so often into shrieks and crashes (proboscis monkeys seem quite unable to land gracefully when they swing from branch to branch). To calm them, the male would periodically say in a deep bass voice, "uh- oooooo". It seemed to work a treat. My husband was impressed: the next day, I got into an early morning argument with my daughters, so a deep "uh-oooo" boomed from the bedroom.

Wildlife tourism is new to Sabah, Malaysia's most underdeveloped state. On the whole, the locals still see trees as something to chop down and sell rather than as a way to attract tourists. Sandakan, the town where we had started from, grew rich on deforestation: at one point in the 1970s it was said to have a higher proportion of millionaires than anywhere else on earth. But with many of the accessible trees gone, Sabah is looking for other ways to make a living. The land between Sandakan and Kinbatangan is planted with mile after mile of dreary palm-oil plantations. But some 100,000 tourists a year now come to look at the region's wonderful wildlife.

The company Bingo worked for, Wildlife Expeditions, is Sabah's second largest. To judge by our guide, it knows its stuff: not only was he well organised, he could identify every bird that flapped over our heads and every insect that plopped into the boat from the overhanging branches. We watched rhinoceros hornbills with their preposterous crested beaks, saw a Storm's stork flap lazily overhead and, to Bingo's especial delight, glimpsed the trailing white tail of an Asian paradise flycatcher swooping across the river in the dusk.

These were just some of the highs in a week of wonders. Earlier, when Bingo first collected us from the airport, we took a fast launch out to sea for an hour or so, through shoals of leaping fish, to Selingan island, which is run by the Sabah Parks department. There we snorkelled. On the beach were curious tracks, like the markings of a small tractor. That evening, as we sat drinking coffee at our lodge in the centre of the island, a park ranger ran up and called us. In single file we hurried down to the beach. There was the yard-long shape of a female green turtle, dimly illuminated by the torches of the guides.

As we watched, she periodically deposited clutches of what looked like white ping-pong balls into a sandy hole by her back flippers. Each new plop of eggs was scooped up by Bingo and the rangers into a plastic bucket. I picked one up, and found that it promptly dimpled. The shells remain soft for a couple of hours after they are laid, said Bingo, to absorb the shock when they fall into the hole. The turtle seemed oblivious to the whispering semicircle of tourists, and indeed she reacted only when a ranger tagged her right flipper.

When she had finished, we trooped back to the area behind the lodge, where a deep hole, about nine inches across, had been scooped out with a coconut shell. The 80 or so eggs were decanted into it and covered with sand, and the hole was marked with a net tube and a dated white stake.

On the far side of the hatchery, dotted with tubes and stakes, one tube was seething with a mass of tiny turtles. Bingo began counting them rapidly into the bucket. As he did so, we noticed that the next-door tube contained a single sleepy-looking baby turtle. Bingo prodded the sand gently with his fingers and shone his torch on it. Gradually, the sand began to heave. Suddenly a small leathery head appeared, and another, and another. Faster and faster the baby turtles scrambled up, and within two minutes, there were almost 100 creatures wriggling in the bucket.

Down at the beach again, a ranger drew a line in the sand. We all stood back and switched off our torches: the light of the moon on the water is the primeval trigger that lures the little turtles out to sea. Then he tipped them along the line, shone a torch brightly on the sea, and off they scuttled, scrambling down to the phosphorescent surf. As they reached it, the waves gathered them up, swept them out, swept them back, and they scuttled into the sea again.

How to get there

Flightbookers (0171-757 2444) has a London-Kota Kinabalu fare of pounds 620 return, travelling on Malaysia Airlines, Singapore Airlines or Philippine Airlines.

How to sign up

Wildlife Expeditions can be contacted in Kota Kinabalu, on (089) 273093. A two-day/two-night holiday costs M$500 (about pounds 125) per person.

What to read

Proboscis Monkeys of Borneo is a charming book by Elizabeth Bennett and Francis Gombek, published by Natural History Publications, PO Box 13908, 88846 Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia.

Who to ask

Malaysian Tourist Office, 57 Trafalgar Square, London WC2N 5DU (0171- 930 7932).