Borneo Travellers Part 2 of 3

Avid travellers Graeme and Sue share their adventures through Borneo.


The 1st Kota Kinabalu Experience

The flight DID take off on time, but it won’t take long to describe the 1st Kota Kinabalu (KK) experience. Arrived at 5pm, efficient pickup, comfortable ride to the oldest Hotel in KK, The Jesselton (‘faded grandeur from the outside, and updated jewel inside’), finally some wi-fi that works in the rain, and a walk for two blocks to the Biru Biru Backpackers eatery. Had our first Poke Bowls, a bucket of Anchor Beer (4 cans) and a glass of Chilean Merlot ($NZ 37). Early night, leaving at 4am for a flight to Lahad Datu, gateway to the Danum Valley.

The Danum Valley Experience

After registering at the Borneo Nature Tours office in Lahad Datu, we joined three other ‘adventurers’ (Russia, Phillipines and France) and minibused our way up a windy, bumpy, gravel (with no gravel left) ‘road’ for 2 ½ hours to the Borneo Rainforest Lodge. As ‘swish’ as you can be in the middle of a rainforest (very similar but grander than the Ecolodge in the Amazon). Met with cold towels soaked in citronella (or similar) and a drink of lemongrass water (apparently also an insect repellant). Given a complimentary neck massage to tempt us to pay for spa treatment (thanks, but no…) and met our guide, ‘Cheffick’ also known as ‘smiley’. Our standard room was just right … beautifully constructed out of Bornean hardwood, spacious, very private. It even had cell phone charger adapters, and fridge full of ice cold diet coke. Lunch was spectacular … a huge buffet … sitting on the covered balcony looking out towards the huge forest canopy trees across the Danum River. Because we are in a valley, the forest is tiered on the opposite valley slope only 100 metres away. For a tall straight tree lover like me … perfect! On the top of the slope the varied canopy shapes standout against the sky.

The 3:30pm ‘jungle trek began in an unpredictably splendid way. An 18 year old male orangutan called ‘Son’ had decided he wanted to forage in a tree 5 minutes down the track about 5 metres off the ground. We watched for about 10 minutes before he descended suddenly and approached as fast as we retreated. Almost playing a game with us, he then climbed up another tree and displayed for a while before ‘frightening the tourists’ again. We thought perhaps his antagonistic behavior may be because he is actually wild and would rather not be the subject of gawking humans for the entire afternoon. The rest of the trek was very pleasant, shared with Maria (Moscow), Elaine and Dianne (Melbourne), but it was only at the end that we came across another, younger orangutan intent on building his evening ‘nest’. Great to watch him purposely folding over and then breaking the small branches, testing it for comfort from time to time. The most numerous ‘smaller’ animals we came across were several species large millipedes (6 – 8cm long) and quite large, beautiful camouflage-green spotted lizards. We were a bit annoyed that the sounds of the forest were being disturbed by the human sounds of a staff Sunday football match, and I was horrified to hear the classic South African-style vuvuzela horns (Football World Cup) … loud ….. inappropriate … except ….. the vuvuzela-imitator was a 15 cm cicada, called ‘the 6 o’clock cicada’. An unbelievably LOUD sound (repeated outside our room 30 minutes later at … 6 o’clock!!! …. and ….  as we got ready the next morning at 6 am for our early morning trek).

After buffet tea with beer and G & T, we went on our night drive (electric golf carts with hunting-style search lights). In fact, we never saw very many animals except, again, 5 minutes into our drive … a tarsier, with his huge eyes looking slightly surprised that it had been spotted. We watched from only 5 metres away for what we thought was too long, as other groups joined us … it became a bit of a ‘circus’ really and we felt uncomfortable. From a biologists’ viewpoint, this rated a 9 out of 10 …. respite Tarsiers reputedly being in the Borneo jungles, they are rare, and I felt we had no chance in hell of seeing one. Next stop … the Slow Loris and a closeup view of a Rhinocerous Hornbill. … perhaps tomorrow. Surprisingly, despite driving over many, many mounds of Pygmy Elephant dung on the road in, we are yet to see one in the flesh.

Cheffick suggested that we start out on our morning trek early to avoid the heat and see (and hear) the jungle at its misty best. The sounds at 5:15am were memorable, especially the Bornean gibbons whoop-whooping all around us. We had high hopes later of seeing them, but not today. The walk after 6am breakfast was leisurely and uphill for 2 ½  hours to the lookout point at the top of the neighbouring ridge. Along the way we smelt gibbon and monkey urine, but never saw the owners. It was a fantastic nature walk. The biggest trees I have ever seen, non-stop ferns, climbers, unidentified glossy-leaved trees and sub-canopy shrubs and the odd flowering begonias and orchids. Cheffick was full of really interesting information about the plants. Every turn provided another visual feast (if you love distant misty jungle slopes with emergent canopies). The early morning sounds were unforgettable and incessant. The view from the top was magic. On the way down we stopped to see the ancient coffin ‘burial’ sites in natural weathered deep cavities in a roof face. The thinking being that being deposited as high as possible would aid the passage to the next level after death. We also were encouraged to bathe in a lovely clear cool swimming hole at the base of a 5m waterfall. Upon entering the shallows, dozens of 15cm long striped fish arrive and nibble at your feet. Sue loved it, describing it as a ‘tickling sensation’, as the superficial dead skin was rapidly consumed. I felt like hundreds of large crabs were picking at my skin. I swam away … only to find they followed me … I didn’t last too long, but was wonderfully refreshed. The tree-hole tarantula didn’t want to come out in the daytime, apart from the tips of its legs extending from the opening when we tempted it.

In the afternoon, the heavens opened and at 3:30pm only two of us appeared for the trek, now restricted to tracks fully on boardwalks. No new highlights apart from some even larger dipterocarp trees, two of which were going to be outcompeted by the strangler figs. The other danger to the jungle giants are the termite mounds, either at the base of the trunk or sometimes hanging high in the canopy branches. We were still hopeful of seeing the gibbons but again no luck. Did find out that when it rains heavily orangutans shelter under their nests or go down to the ground and pick the massive yam plant leaves to use as umbrellas. Wet orangutan fur stinks and attracts clouded leopards. Mothers in particular do everything to avoid getting wet.

The night walk was better than the night drive. Again, ‘Cheffick’ (actually Syafiq) filled us with amazing information and anecdotes, especially about the dangling Wagler’s pit viper that is highly venomous and very common, and small (30 cm long). Apparently, amputation is required to avoid the black necrosis spreading from the bite site. With that, we tempted the tarantula out of its burrow, but it didn’t like the limelight and retreated further, not to be tempted again. Along the track we saw the smallest deer in the world, the Mouse Deer, with its tiny forked antlers, and amazingly a top predator, the Malay Civet cat, with a large frog dangling from its jaws. A visit to the shrub-enclosed frog pond was like a treasure hunt …. Different species of frogs everywhere. As ever, heaps of stick insects, millipedes, large pill bugs, 20 cm long centipedes and even a small grey-throated babbler (fluffy, short-tailed bird) fast asleep on a low branch.

The early morning sounds were surprisingly muted …  apparently, the gibbons are quiet after a night of rain. Wonderful forest vistas with mists obscuring the tallest canopies as we walked 2km to the canopy walk. The actual ‘sky walk’ is not as long as at Mulu but better constructed and wider. The 240 metre length is supported by five trees each with substantial viewing/gathering platforms, but two months ago the fourth tree was taken out by a lightning strike. Thus, a walk to that point and back out. The vistas for photographing were even better from this height and the epiphytes easy to observe. Vacated orangutan nests were visible all over the place, and the sounds of woodpeckers and orioles were identified, but remained unseen. More stories on the walk back. At breakfast, we were lucky to see a black hornbill swoop into a tree next to our table, but not enjoying the instant recognition it shyly retreated into the foliage and then flew off. Sue reminded me that the night before during dinner we had watched a fruit bat feeding close by. Time for one more walk to photograph nearby giant vines that loop from the canopy to the ground (natural ‘layering’ to start the growth of new vines) before check out and the bumpy return to Lahad Datu airport. Apparenty the ‘looping vines’ are essential as jungle highways for infant orangutans, as their arms are too small to cling onto the large tree trunks that their mother is in.

The 2nd Kota Kinabalu Experience

The departure from Lahad Datu was almost comical, especially when at check-in the two checked bags traveled 4 feet on a conveyor belt to where a man was waiting who carried them out through a door, somewhere. Back in Kota Kinabalu we decided to splash out on a bottle of Australian shiraz and found a bottle store attached to our Jesselton Hotel (Kota Kinabalu was called Jesselton while Sabah was called British North Borneo) .. and … you could select anything, buy it, and drink it in the restaurant. Fantastic … beats tasteless Tiger …

Woke up early again and felt far from my best, and Sue was definitely off colour (couldn’t keep breakfast down…). Met by Jay our guided for the next two days. We are now talking a personal guide/driver who also turns out to be a brilliant photographer, taking terrific photos of Sue and me in the most amazing locations. He downloaded them onto Sue’s cell phone later in the evening. By 10am both Sue and I had recovered. Our travels took us close to spectacular Government buildings (‘the battery’ and ‘the charger’), village vegetable markets and fruit stalls. We tried a range of exotic large fruit including soursop and durian. Bought a bunch of their sweet mini-bananas. Arrived at Kinabalu National Park on the slopes of 4,150m tall sacred Mount Kinabalu. The air was noticeably cooler and cleaner. We wandered along several tracks through montane oak forests, that replace the typical lowland dipterocarp forests that we had been familiar with so far. More tree ferns, giant mosses rivalling our own NZ record holder, Dawsonia superba (largest moss in the world), and flowering epiphytic orchids. The buffet lunch with a view of the craggy granite mountain peak nearby was an opportunity to try dishes with all the strange vegetables we had seen at the market.

After checking in to the Kinabalu Pines Resort, we headed off the tourist trail further up the mountain to a high altitude village, Merilau. Jay proudly showed us the amazing vegetable plots that the locals had carved out of the mountainside. Apparently, it was the perfect soil and cool climate for growing tomatoes, cabbages, onions etc. We wandered amongst these vegetable plots meeting the local farmers and their lovely children. The actual village houses had all been renovated to a standard that they could now advertise them as homestays and earn a great income at weekends from all the city people from Kota Kinabalu (total population = 600,000) who want a weekend away up on the mountain, only 90 minutes away. The other excitement was a signpost in the village pointing further uphill advertising the Mt Kinabalu Golf Club (at 6,600 ft). We drove to the golf club and I had good look at some locals playing the 4th and 8th holes. Back at the Pines Resort we bought some cold cans of beer and sat outside in balmy conditions in the dark and chatted with Jay before another magnificent dinner.

Awoke early to photograph Mt Kinabalu at dawn, then went for a walk to see the local market stalls being stocked with leftover vegies and fruit from the huge 4am Kota Kinabalu markets. Off with Jay to Poring hot springs resort, but on the way we stopped to feed huge carp in a river. We bought fish pellets and the ½ metre long fish sucked the pellets out of a clenched hand one at a time in a gummy feeding frenzy. A little different from what I expected from a tiny roadside stall. Then … excitement plus … about 10 minutes before we reached Poring Hot Springs, Jay pulled over at another roadside stall, this one advertising that on their land (a forest really), they had two giant Rafflesia flowers in bloom … RM30 each (total of NZ$24) … had to do it … We wandered down a track and past huge fruit trees with Durian, Rubber trees with latex dripping down the angled cuts until we came to the flowers … magnificent, despite smelling of rotten meat and with flies buzzing around, clearly very interested in diving into the flower’s interior. Alongside each were several cabbage-sized buds. A great roadside income! As we left other cars were starting to show interest.

The Poring Hot Springs Resort has primary forest, waterfalls (unimpressive) and a very narrow wobbly single plank wide canopy walk through the treetops. I suppose by this stage we had already  done two canopy walks and this one added little apart from the shaky experience. Excited slightly pushy Chinese tourists ‘up our backsides’, lost their excitement once they stepped down onto the canopy walk, and ‘chickened out’. A quick trek to the waterfall and this time dozens of little black fish tickling your bare feet rather than biting then. Sue loved it. I took photographs. I had a five minute soak in the hot springs tub, but in the hot climate, the cold pool was more attractive. Jay and I had it to ourselves. Perfectly refreshing before lunch. Said farewell to Jay, and hopped in Lawrence’s van for a 4 ½ hour drive to Sandakan on the coast. The last hour was in torrential rain, and Lawrence proclaiming that based on the weather patterns of the previous week, the rainy season has arrived.

At present on the 13th floor of the Sheraton Sandakan Four Points (five star hotel) in a premium deluxe room (an unsolicited upgrade) overlooking an infinity pool and the lovely waterfront. Great!

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