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).

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

News
peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
News
news
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
life
New Articles
i100... with this review
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Voices
Holly's review of Peterborough's Pizza Express quickly went viral on social media
Sport
footballTim Sherwood: This might be th match to wake up Manchester City
Arts and Entertainment
musicHow female vocalists are now writing their own hits
New Articles
i100
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
News
Blahnik says: 'I think I understand the English more than they do themselves'
people
Arts and Entertainment
Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Crawley in Downton Abbey
TVInside Downton Abbey series 5
Life and Style
The term 'normcore' was given the oxygen of publicity by New York magazine during the autumn/winter shows in Paris in February
fashionWhen is a trend a non-trend? When it's Normcore, since you ask
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    IT Administrator - Graduate

    £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY FO...

    USA/Florida Travel Consultants £30-50k OTE Essex

    Basic of £18,000 + commission, realistic OTE of £30-£50k : Ocean Holidays: Le...

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Sales Account Manager

    £15,000 - £25,000: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for ...

    Day In a Page

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam