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Mudskippers, rare dolphins and other curiosities on this surprising cruise

Colourful shanties on stilts back onto the forest in this Malaysian fishing village.

Jill MacInnes/Jill MacInnes

We are in Borneo, in the Malaysian state of Sarawak, and my husband suggests that we take an evening river boat cruise. Sounds a bit, how shall I put it, more elderly appropriate? Touristy? Dull? But the lure of the less-humid night air and the prospect of seeing some Malaysian aquatic life sway me.

The tour company's van picks us up at our hotel on its way to our fellow travellers' lodgings. I am still apprehensive at the possibility of being trapped for four hours on a dawdling, sedate, mapped-out tour with a dozen binocular-wielding, shutter-happy tourists, but am pleasantly surprised to see the other seven guests are all young bohemian backpackers from across the globe. I figure, if this activity is appealing to each of them, I'm stoked.

At the marina, we pour out of the van and congregate on the wooden dock. The pier is long, set high on pillars to accommodate the immense tide. We must be careful to avoid the missing slats. The structure creaks and sways beneath our weight, and, as we wait to board the boat, we hear the less-than-reassuring sound of the engine trying to engage. We exchange nervous laughter.

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Passing the time, we gaze into the water. To our amazement, fish – dozens of them – some 20 centimetres long, crawl out of the water and walk onto the muddy beach. "Mudskippers," our tour guide explains; amphibious fish. Occasionally, one will comically trip and fall cheek-first as one leg-like fin sinks into the wet sand. They look like fish out of water, literally, and appear to be embarking on some ill-conceived trek – which feels curiously familiar. I wonder if this is the most exciting thing I'll see and wish that we weren't going on this boat ride. But the motor has caught, and it's time to board.

The plan is to spot the rare Irrawaddy dolphin before the light dies, all the while keeping a close eye on the shore for resting crocodiles. Almost immediately, we see two little black dorsal fins nearby. The Irrawaddy dolphin are more cautious and less acrobatic than their seafaring cousins. They do not leap completely out of the water, but roll quickly with their heads usually remaining beneath the surface. They are so graceful, and fleeting.

The boat's mate keeps a crocodile-seeking eye on the shore. Nothing yet.

The lazy river and shoreline are stunning. Thick, green forest gives way to spooky bare-limbed mangrove swamp. Craggy rock cliffs tower over deserted white-sand beaches. We flit from one area to another, then quietly drift close to a bank of leafy trees. A quick rustle and flash of orange reveal clown-nosed proboscis monkeys scampering to the top branches. As dusk approaches, we softly slip past a tiny fishing village – a string of colourful shanties on stilts, sandwiched between the water and the forest, docks for driveways. There are no cars here, no modern conveniences, the inhabitants unfamiliar with any other way of life. A chorus sings out from a loudspeaker to signal the end of the daily fast and the beginning of evening prayer. It is serenely beautiful.

It is completely dark now. As we head back, a torch is focused on the shallows, but it is not our night to see crocodiles. Instead, we float slowly alongside the mangroves and the mate raises his light into the black woods. One, two, then thousands of tiny lights twinkle back in response. The trees are alight with fireflies. It is like watching a spectacular fireworks display from space. Our guide reaches out and collects a few of the tiny insects and brings them on board. It's magical.

In Borneo, as it turns out, an evening river cruise could never be sedate or dull.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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