“Orang-utan, Orang-utan!” A campmate was gesticulating wildly/madly and whispering as loud as possible. I was suspicious; declaring that there were Orangutan spotted on every excursion had become a running joke, but this was different, we were just sat around in our jungle camp base. Suddenly, I realised this wasn’t a new version of the prank, it was the real deal. I grabbed my camera and walked along the wooden footpath to the end of the line of huts. I looked up and there in the trees was not only an Orangutan, there was a baby Orangutan too!

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What followed became one of my most treasured memories. As I observed the Orangutans hanging out at the edge of the camp I saw the most beautiful moment when the baby Orangutan picked a leaf and gave it to his mother. That simple gesture between mother and child was so sweet and caring that it made the observation all the more symbolic due to the immense environmental pressures these gentle giants are suffering. All around us, humans were destroying the Orangutan’s home; this ape family came into our camp to remind us to be kind to one another.

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I had stumbled into one of the greatest wildlife viewing secrets on Earth, Uncle Tan’s Jungle Camp. Set in the heart of the Bornean rainforest it was a basic, yet incredible experience. I’d been given the tip-off by my friend’s husband and decided to check it out. Uncle Tan himself was a bit of a legend. A former cadet in the British Army he later taught some of the regiments jungle survival skills. In 1990 he started taking tourists into the Lower Kinabatangan area and the basic but brilliant concept became a success by word-of-mouth. Unfortunately Uncle Tan himself died in 2002, but his legacy lives on as family members continue to run the camp using his eco-friendly approach.

boat on river

The journey to the camp itself was pretty epic and emotional. After a six-hour bus ride from the capital Kota Kinabalu and another minibus jaunt from Sandakan we hopped into a long skiff and set off down the Kinabatangan river. Along the way we could see huge swathes of palm oil plantations, savagely cutting into the primary rainforest.

As we approached camp the trees grew denser and denser; the banks of the river began to sing with the sounds of different bird calls. Monkeys casually swung from branch to branch and crocodiles masqueraded as logs in the water. All of a sudden I had a realisation, literally. This was what I had imagined as a child reading books about adventures! I had spent my youth escaping to far off lands in my mind and now I was actually in such a place. Amazing. There were even noisy flybys of hornbills that I mentally substituted for the novel’s character of Kiki the pet parrot.

football and volleyball pitch

The camp itself was practical and primitive; a central bar and eating area, ablution blocks, and accommodation cabins which featured nothing more than a mattress on the floor and a mosquito net. It really was a jungle camp, surrounded by river out the front or a thick maze of forest out the back. Besides the rare Orangutan visit, there were other wild guests too; macaques often tried to raid the kitchen in the early morning and large dragonesque monitor lizards slowly plodded about. Excursion wise you could go on the guided boat or walking safaris.

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rooms at uncle tans

During the trips, you could spot many types of primate, the most famous of which are the Proboscis monkeys. These guys look odd, with a very unflattering appearance, as if they are wearing a huge fat false nose. They also have pot bellies and make honking noises to each other. All of this ends up appearing like some strange comedy show which is certainly entertaining.

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It also seems that the lower Kinabatangan is full of cute animal moments. The other highlight of the trip was encountering the Borneo pygmy elephants. We were lucky enough to be able to find some of these gentle giants, that despite being the world’s smallest elephant species are still pretty impressive in size. When we stepped off the boat to get a closer view of a small herd, I was aware of how dangerous the situation was. I took a few photos, but remained towards the back of the group, and was in line to be able to scoot back on the safety of the boat in a jiffy. My instincts were right; the crowd of humans began to annoy a young male and the guide advised us that we should move back. The elephant decided that show time was over and became more aggressive, at which point it was a case of everyone should jump to the ships.

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However, there is always that one person, who selfishly wants to take more photos and is willing to risk his life and the safety of others. The lead guide yelled and yelled at this idiot to stop and leave before it was too late, and as the elephant approached it was almost a deadly ending. Having just escaped a pretty serious incident, not only for the sacrificial tourist but also the reputation of Uncle Tan as well.

group and elephants

Our second encounter with these beasts was much more relaxed, in fact, it was super cute. There was a small group of elephants crossing the river in front of us. All we could see was a trio of trunks and the crests of two heads bobbing through the water. When the elephants emerged on the other side a beautiful story was revealed; two female elephants had been guiding a baby elephant through the water, one on each side. In contrast to the previous experience, this little scene showed their immensely protective behaviour in a much calmer fashion!

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Uncle Tan’s may have no luxuries but instead offers an unforgettable immersion into the wilderness. And that is priceless.

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If you need travel advice, request a free 30 minute coaching session. In the chat Annie will help you choose a destination, create your itinerary and review safety precautions. Or she can discuss how you can incorporate more travel into your life by saving, making money, travelling for free or being paid to travel.