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Primitive circumstances at Uncle Tan's Jungle Camp

The jungle camp of Uncle Tan at the lower Kinabatangan river in Sabah is legendary. Under primitive circumstances, many endangered species can be seen here from up close. A stay here is definitely a unique experience.

One of the cabins at Uncle Tan's jungle camp

The resort at Sepilok arranged a minibus for us to bring us to the office of Uncle Tan in the morning. From there we are transported to Kinabatangan river, and on by boat to the jungle camp.

The boat trip is fantastic. Soon, the palm oil plantations make room for the jungle, and we see a lot of animals in the trees along the river. The proboscis monkeys are high in the trees, the macaques a little lower. There are also hornbills, with beautiful colored large beaks. But as the dusk sets in, it start to rain. The last half hour of the boat trip we don't see much and are just shaking in the cold rain.

When we finally arrive the rain stops. The simple landing-stage and steep river bank are pretty slippery though, and it's not easy to climb up with our backpacks on. And then we have to move through the dark jungle over a muddy path to the jungle camp. Once there, the open cabins are not exactly comfortable, and it is a challenge to keep our gear as mud-free as possible. But Uncle Tan is waiting for us with a good meal, so we can relax at the table.

Living Legend

Uncle Tan is a man in his early sixties who set up the camp around 20 years ago. He was the first tour operator in the jungle and in the meantime he is some kind of living legend. Over the years, large parts of the jungle have disappeared because of the illegal logging and the creation of palm oil plantations. Uncle Tan has resisted those and fought different fights with the illegal loggers. Many times he has been threatened, and once his house has been set on fire. His mother and law and a help died in that fire, and his wife got wounded. He his telling those stories with a lot of passion in his voice, and we are clinging to his lips.

The jungle camp has remained simple over all of these years. Uncle Tan wants to keep the jungle accessible to budget travellers, and thinks people should not come here if they are not prepared for the inconveniences of the jungle. Different resort organisations have tried to compete, but his camp is attracting much more visitors than the nearby, almost empty resorts.

Because of the rain, the evening safari is cancelled. Instead, we are talking with the 10 other guests who arrived with us, and the 5 who were already here. We learn from them that Uncle Tan only arrived yesterday, and that made a huge difference. His personnel consists of young men, who are willing to work, but a bit lazy when it comes to cleaning up. Uncle Tan returned after a half year of absence because of a stroke. And he put the boys at work immediately.

Uneasy night

It is not easy to catch some sleep that night. Despite the mosquito net, we have itches everywhere, and the jungle sounds don't help either. Once asleep, we have to rise early for the morning safari. With a cup of tea in our hands we follow the muddy path back to the river, where we enter the boats again. While the sun rises we get to see different kinds of monkeys, birds, wild pigs, and otters. Satisfied we return to the jungle camp.

After breakfast one of the staff takes us for a walk. But we are with too many people making too much noise, so we don't see any wildlife. When we return, we can watch the rest of the staff building a new cabin. But after 11.00 AM it gets too hot to work, and after lunch everybody takes a nap. Not long after that, it starts to rain and the jungle camp looks a little sad.

Monitor Lizards

When it gets dry we go outside for a walk. But when we arrive at the tables we hear and see a few large monitor lizards jump from the table and run away. Because it start raining again we decide to sit at the table to watch the scene. Monitor Lizard on the table at Uncle Tan's jungle campAfter a little while the lizards come crawling back. They are a little smaller than the komodo dragons we saw, but some of them are still over 2 meters long, and the resemblance is striking. They come very close, but when we move they hurry back. We enjoy this little game until it stops raining.

After another good meal (Uncle Tan is a fine cook) the boys take us for a night safari. With a large spotlight on the boat we go from one bird to the next. We see herons, owls, and king fishers from up close. And then we start looking for crocodiles. Every time we spot one they hurry back into the water. But in the end, one is blinded by our light and stays on the river bank. We all take our pictures until he runs back into the water, banging his head against our boat. As we return again, we are happy with what we saw today.

Our second day in the jungle camp starts as the first one did. After the morning safari it gets quiet in the camp. Only two people arrived yesterday, and the rest returns in the morning. After lunch, the lizard ritual starts again, and there are two wild pigs as well, searching for left-overs.

In the afternoon we take a canoe to peddle over the small lake near the camp. There are oriental darters here, and again herons and king fishers. As dusk sets in in the camp, monkeys arrive in the trees nearby to eat the fruit. Again a nice scene we can enjoy from our seats.

The second night safari is much shorter than the first one. The battery of the spotlight is almost dead so we have to stop. We do see a big proboscis monkey with a huge nose and ditto belly. It is quickly nicknamed Uncle Tan. Back in the camp, we stay up late to try to get a glimpse of the civet cats that come here regularly. But we are out of luck this time.

When we wake up the next morning we are visited by squirrels or monkeys, who opened our backpack to find the sugar bags we took carried around. They must have opened the zipper and ate through a bag to find it. This is also part of a jungle camp: don't bring your own food, even if it's just a small sugar bag.

We are very satisfied with what we have seen in the jungle camp. An experience richer we head back to the civilised world. And we take a lot of itching mosquito bites with us as a short time souvenir.

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