Twice! Twice in the past I had planned to go to Borneo but twice I had to cancel. So when my brother told me he was going to spend a year studying in Malaysia, you can imagine what my first thought was… “BORNEO!”. As we all know, studying abroad is more like super long holiday than late nights studying. I am not sure I know anyone who hasn’t had a great time studying abroad for some time. On the other hand if you are a parent and reading this, studying abroad is such a valuable experience to open one’s eyes on the world and broaden one’s mind.
Anyway, so why Borneo? Because it’s one of the last place on Earth where we can observe untouched nature? Yes! Because it’s home to a large number of unique animal species which can only be found here? Yes! And because what makes this island so special is under threat and could simply disappear on the short term? Sadly, that’s a strong “yes” too… So I really want to go and see this natural wonder before it’s gone.
So straight away, I book my time off work, take out my favourite travel guide and start planning the activities. The programme is quite simple: spend a couple of days in Kuala Lumpur (“KL” as the locals call it), search for wildlife in the heart of the jungle and deep underwater and finally climb the highest peak of South East Asia just over 4000m. For the anecdote, I was trying to arrange a 5 day long expedition with a private guide to maximise my chances of spotting rare wildlife. It took 2 months to get a plan I was “kind of” happy about, which he wanted to charge me £3000 for… That is £600 a day! I was left without arrangement only 2 days before the expedition was supposed to start… not great.
Thursday 9 October, straight after work, I take the direction of Heathrow airport for a 13 hour flight to Kuala Lumpur with Malaysia Airlines (at that time, one of their planes was still lost in the indian ocean and another one had been shot down in Ukraine. For me that was just misfortune which means that it’s probably one of the safest airline at the moment.) I got to KL airport late evening, a couple of hours behind schedule, where my brother picked me up. I wanted to get to bed early for an early wake up but the jetlag wasn’t going to let me…
Day 1 – 2 Exploring KL
The programme was pretty much around all there is to do in KL: shop, eat drink and see the Petronas Towers. Shopping we did, at the busy malls for GoPro accessories and trekking gear in preparation of the adventures to come. Eating and drinking we did, at the numerous food stalls and the famous Jalan Alor food street. Seeing the Petronas Towers we did, from every possible angle but unfortunately without clear sky as a photo maniac like me would have hoped for.
When completed in 1998, they were the highest skyscraper in the world, but replaced by Tapei 101 in 2004. Today, they are ranked 9th in the list of the world’s tallest buildings.
Day 3 Kota Kinabalu to Danum Valley Conservation Area
Right, Borneo is a large island, the 4th in the world actually. It is split in 3 regions: Sarawak and Sabah in the North/North West form part of Malaysia, and Kalimantan to the South, part of Indonesia. Yesterday night, I landed in Kota Kinabalu largest town in Sabah. But I want to get away from here as quickly as possible and get to the jungle. The objective for today is simple, getting to Danum Valley Conservation Area. It’s mostly frequented by scientists doing some research on the fauna, flora and the surrounding environment. Consequently, it isn’t set up for welcoming tourists, therefore not a very popular holiday destination. This is exactly why I want to go there. Because there is very few humans, I am hoping that wildlife is more abundant there than in other areas. But it’s also difficult to reach.
I have already booked a flight to get to the closest city, Lahad Datu, hoping to find a way to get picked up and brought to the research centre. To that end, I am going to a travel agency not quite like any other. As you can imagine, there are loads of tourism companies called very similar names such as “Borneo Travel”, “Amazing Borneo”, “Borneo Holidays”, “Borneo Tours”. To me, they clearly state “tourist packages for tourists in tourist places”. In other words, exactly what I DO NOT want. This other company caught my attention as their statement is more like “we’re different”. They offer alternative options and they’re called “Sticky Rice”. An hour in their office and I’ve found the way of getting to Danum Valley, booked 4 nights in the research centre hostel with all meals included and a nature guide for the group*.
* Just me 🙂
That’s perfect timing to now take a taxi, get to the airport, hop on the flight to Lahad Datu and walk over the the Conservation Area office. There I meet Bedley, the guide who is going to take me around for the next few days. All my bags and imagery equipment in the car, we can start the 3 – hour drive to the research centre. Once we get there, it’s already 6pm. From there we have two options, have dinner and get some rest before tomorrow or have dinner and go out into a jungle for a night walk.
So here we are, finding our way at the light of our head lamps. It doesn’t take long before I feel miles away from any sort of civilisation. There is absolutely no light and I can hear nothing but the jungle. In a way, it’s a little bit oppressing but so exciting at the same time. There are several species of rare cats in the area, including the highly endangered clouded leopard. They come out at night to hunt so now is the best time to see one. It know it’s going to require luck, a lot of luck, but I can’t help to hope for it. The first 30 minutes reveal the local, insects, birds but no mammal. I know it’d make bird watchers extremely happy but that’s not my thing. And the difficulty in searching for wildlife is that it’s easy to get demotivated. After an hour of search, I’m starting to lose focus: “I was dreaming! I won’t see any animal, it’s impossible. Researchers stay for months and don’t see them often! … Hold on! …Come on Guillaume what was I thinking? To turn up in the jungle, have a 10-minute promenade and see animals coming to me? Don’t be so naïve, it’s going to take a lot of efforts. And I will only see them if continue searching, day and night!”
We are walking at a very slow pace, listening for any noise and stopping regularly to look into the bushes and up in the trees. Our light will reflect into their eyes and we should see the 2 littles shiny dots looking at us from the bushes. Creepy? Now Bedley has stopped some 5 meters in front of me, he’s fixed his lamp to a bush. “It’s a mouse deer”, he says when I approached quietly. Oh yeah, I can see it… It’s tiny! I mean, it hasn’t been called this way randomly. I’d say it’s about 20-30cm long, the smallest species of deer on the planet. It doesn’t seem bothered by our lights and hangs around for about 10 minutes before going further into the woods. That’s a really cool sighting. Having searched for about 2 hours now and observing the first animal is really exciting and encouraging.
It doesn’t take long before Bedley stops again, looking far ahead on the path. “There is a cat, look ahead!” Hearing that, my heart rate went mad!!! “Clouded leopard?” No it’s a civet. It runs across the path into the bushes. We approach quietly to try and see it… what happens next is on the video 🙂
Have you ever heard of the Kopi Luwak? Supposingly the best coffee in the world? Well, the coffee cherries are eaten by an animal which digestive system let the beans out and give them a special flavour. They are recolted in the animal’s scats and then sold to up to $600 a cup. (you read well, up to $600 for a single cup). Well the animal in question is a palm civet, similar species to the one we’ve just seen. Thinking about it now, I should have gone after its poop to try and make some money 🙂
A couple of hours and another mouse deer later, we get back to the research centre. It’s 1 am. Bedley and I agree to be up at 5:30am to climb the observation tower and watch the sun rise from there. The night is going to be short…
Day 4 Danum Valley Conservation Area
The alarm rings and it wouldn’t take much to convince myself to stay in bed for another couple of hours. But my motivation of seeing wildlife is still intact and manages to get me up. The reward for the effort doesn’t take long to come, a group of read leaf monkeys are just over the main track of the research centre. You see their redish fur? Well you can imagine that my obsession for seeing rare animals led me to confuse them for orang utans at first… idiot!
So… what are we looking for today? The rare clouded leopard car comes out at night so what comes out during the day? Well orang utans as I’ve just mentioned, pigmy elephants (they’re big I know but rare still) and the bornean rhinoceros. Nobody knows how many individuals of the latter are left but their number is estimated to be under 20…
The climb up the observation tree isn’t as easy as expected. The resin being that the ladder is “caged” for safety reasons and my tripod attached to my bag keeps getting stuck between the metal wires. It’s better be worth it! Once at 30 meters, we stand above most of the rainforest. I say most because some trees are as high as 80m. The spectacle is mostly auditive. As the sun comes up, the jungle awakes. Birds being their sweet melody as the mist enlightens. I sit there for 30 minutes without making any movement not to disturb the surrounding peace.
Back on the groud, reality hits back… leeches are everywhere. They’ll stay on a leaf, “smell” you arrive, extend their long thin body to reach you and try to sneak in any king of hole they can find in your clothing to get to your skin. And eventually suck your blood!
They also generate an anti clotting particule. So even when they’re fed, you will keep bleeding for another few hours. That’s how I discovered I had been bitten, when I saw a big stain of blook on me tee shirt… really not nice.
By the way, how do you imagine my outfit to go trekking? Brown and green clothing, muddy rangers, Indiana Jones hat, machete on the side?
Hum, not really… I’ve got red and yellow shoes, light blue pyjamas, white tee shirt and yellow bag. Definitely closer to Harlequin than Indian Jones…
The rythm of the day is based on the meal times. Breakfast at 8, lunch at 12 and dinner at 6. We spend the time in between searching in the forest. But today has not been successful at all. I’m sitting down with Bedley waiting for dinner to be ready and so far we’ve haven’t seen a single animal… nada. I am trying to see it the positive way. I will be so much more excited when I see one of the animals I’m looking for. Or even better, Mother Nature is keeping everything for the last day, a little bit like the Grand Finale of the New Year’s Eve fireworks 🙂
The night walk didn’t really offer us much more. I saw a couple of cameleons, which is quite cool and a sambar deer on the way back to the centre. Opposite to the mouse deer, the sambar deer is the largest species of all on the planet. As today didn’t quite work out, I am more determined than ever. Tomorrow, we’ll be up at 5am for a morning walk and then we’ll head further into the jungle for a day long trekk. May we be more furtunate.
Day 5 Danum Valley Conservation Area
This morning, the alarm rings even earlier, at 5am. It’s my last day, I haven’t seen any rare wildlife so I’ll spend every single minute looking. The sunrise walk takes us to a old burial site. The sungai kinabatangan (people of the river), used to bury their dead over the river banks. As always, the objective is the observe rare wildlife on the way… but no.
Nevermind, I haven’t had that much energy for a long time. We swallow our breakfast very quickly, grab some sandwichs for lunch and head to a remote waterfall, 7km away from camp. It doesn’t sound like much but because of the terrain and our walking pace, it’s going to take us the whole day. I also means that the path is even less frequented. After two hours, we hear some movements up in the trees, it’s obviously a monkey. Straight away, I’m thinking “Orang Utan”, like if it was the only ape living in the rainforest… No it’s actually a Bornean Gibbon, very thin body, extremely long arms, can travel up to 30km in a day and is also highly protected. But at the moment, I can only see moving leaves and hear cracking branches. Until its curiosity leads him to show up in the open to observe us. We observe each other for a few seconds until he goes back hiding further under the jungle canopy. Apparently, he is a juvenile because of the size… seemed fairly tall to me.
That’s a very promising start for the day as we continue to get deeper into the rainforest. There is a number of orang utan’s nests but they’re all empy. No sign of the red-hair great ape. Soon we reach a clearing in the dense rainforest. A small stream flows into the main river building a number of crystal clear pools into the rock. There are also many signs of humans here: kitchenware, tooth brush and tooth paste, drying cloths and more. We find the camp just on the other side, very basic. It’s made of 6 vertical large branches, some more horizontal to make a straight platform and plastic covers on top. They are supposingly researchers that are doing some tree identification work. They’re absent so we continue our way via a suspended bridge to the other side of the river.
Now we are on the other side but it’s not very clear which way to go. We take to decision to follow the most logical option and continue our walk. But this part is a lot less enjoyable than this morning. There is a lot of chopped wood on the forest floor to clear the way for a big water pipe. That goes on and on until we see a sign for short trails around the reasearch centre… S***, we’re going in the wrong direction. There is no time to lose, let’s quickly turn back and reach the more “animal friendly” part of the forest. It’s 2pm when we make it back to the camp we saw earlier, where we probably took the wrong direction. Hopefully, the researchers are back and can help us finding our way. But in the mean time, we allow ourselves a little break for lunch in this wonderful setting… but first, let’s have a little dip.
This is one of those moments that make life so worthwhile. Covered in sweat, mud and blood from several hours of hiking, I get to relax in a very cool river, deep in the jungle of Borneo, far from civilisation and for only noise the songs of tropical birds… delightful…
(I’m right now sitting on my couch, writing this and looking at the rain falling outside my window… so depressing. Can I go back there?)
The guys at the camp say that the waterfall we are trying to get to is still a long way. We have limited hours of daylight left so we’re heading back to the research centre. Apparently, they’ve spotted big broken branches on the floor which are signs of large male orang utans… fingers crossed. But instead, we are granted of a typical tropical rain, the kind that get someone drenched in a few seconds. Being my last hours in the jungle, I’m really starting to despair. It’s not even possible to look up in those conditions, a single rain drop is as big as my eye.
However, it seems to calm down as we arrive at our hostel. I reckon we still have another 45 minutes of daylight. In which case, let’s go out again. And Bedley, as always, is up for it. So far I haven’t been an easy guest, in bed at 1am, up at 5am, hiking in the jungle all the time, no break and yet he is always keen to go, a large smile on his face. Thanks mate 😉
Now that night has fallen, it’s time for the night walk. We are going to stay on the dirt road, the park rangers have told us some elephants could be around. We walk for 4 hours but no sign of life. In one occasion, we saw the shiny eyes of a cat reflecting the light of our torches in the middle of the road… but it was dead. Now I’m thinking the car takes me back to town at 7:30am tomorrow, we should have some time to have a short walk in the morning! Bedley? “Yes, sure”. Let’s set the alarm at 5am again then 🙂 Just before going to bed, I need to go to the dining area to get some telephone signal. On the way I am still pointing my torch to the trees, just in case I am lucky. But it doesn’t need to be that hard, two sambar deers are eating grass next to the road a few meters from me. What’s the point of spending hours in the jungle if the animals are coming inside the camp? It’s not really what I’m so keen to se but still proof that the wildlife is here, hopefully tomorrow will be the Grand Finale I am dreaming of.
Day 6 Danum Valley to Mabul Island
Easiest wake up of the week yet, I’ve got an hour left in the jungle for some great time. Unfortunately, there is not enough time to go very far. I get to see some long tail macaques. But they’re not rare, you can see them in the jungle as well as in cities. Coming back to camp at 7am really means the end of this expedition in Danum Valley, there is no more “last chance”. But, hey! Once I have picked up the little brother, Florent, in Lahad Datu, we’re heading to Mabul Island for some great diving, incl at one of the best dive sites in the world Sipadan Island. So I’m sure we’ll see plenty more.
Now we can’t lose time. I really want to spend the night on the island, not on the mainland town of Semporna. After so much efforts, I can’t wait for this cold beer on the beach later today. Luckily everything goes to plan, the bus from Lahad Datu to Semporna, getting to Semporna Harbour and catching the last boat to Mabul Island. We’re staying at Mabul beach resort, operated by Scuba Junkie. When we stepped on the jetty, divers were unloading their gear, talking about their dives… maaaan, I really want to get in the water. We only take 5 minutes to drop our bags, get changed with swimming shorts (which are going to be our clothes for the next 5 days) and grab some snorkels to swim between jettys. Even with only 2 meters of water, the life is really abundant, cornet fish, scorpion fish and many more. I can only imagine what it’s going to be like tomorrow when putting the tanks on and going deeper. 🙂
Day 7 Diving at Mabul
Today, my brother and I are going to follow separate paths. I’m going diving while he’s… staying in a classroom, héhé! Well, he needs his advanced open water course before going to Sipadan. We’ve been told we’ve got more chance to see hammerheads sharks below 20m.
The pace of life at Mabul Beach Resort is all based on dive times. Boat ropes off at 9:30am, gets back a 11am for tea time, leaves again at 12, gets back at 1:30pm for lunch and finally leaves at 2:30 for the third and last dive of the day. Unfortunately, there are no night dives here. The area is frequented by pirates and a few tourists have been kidnapped in the last few months. What do you think of when I say pirates? Wooden leg, eye patch, tricorn hat and a parrot on the shoulder? Haha, me too 🙂 Would you imagine at the end of your night dive, you reach the surface and Jack Sparrow pulls you out of the water: “You’re coming with me on the Black Pearl my friend!”.
The first day of diving wasn’t really exceptional. There was alot of the things you’d expect to see, corals, tropical fish, stingrays but nothing out of the ordinary… until the safety stop of the third dive. We were about to go back to the surface when I see a huge turtle on the reef… I approach and realise it’s probably as big as me… Yes I told you, it’s huge. After a few minutes laying down, it lifts off and start swimming just in front of me… WOW! This is exceptional! This massive turtle is a couple of meters away from my face and I could touch it if I wanted to. There are even 3 remoras on its belly. That turtle has just made my day. I can come up to the surface, I’ve had an amazing day diving. 🙂 🙂 🙂
Now at the resort’s bar, I have re-joined Florent and we can share our stories over this well deserved chilled beer. (Another one of those amazing life moment 😉 )
Day 8 – 10 Diving at Mabul with a GoPro
My GoPro will come with me on every dive now. There is no other way to tell a story than showing it in images…
Mabul island isn’t very big and it doesn’t take long to walk around it. It’s also inhabited by fishermen and the Bajau people, living at the pace of the sea. They extremely friendly and will say “hi” to us every time with a large smile.
We’ve got an excellent view of the sunset and the Bajau village from an abandoned jetty.
Where we have the company of children, fishing, and even a turtle we can see in the water.
Day 11 Sipadan 😀 😀 😀
The day has come, we’re going to Sipadan. The boat ropes off at 6:30am. I’ve checked very thoroughly that I have all my equipment. I’d be stupid to forget a fin on the jetty… The sea is flat and the 45 minutes journey is enjoyable. The excitement is building up… Sipadan is a natural reserve and we need to check in on the island before getting in the water. There are a limited number of diving permits per day. So if you’re thinking of going, I recommend you book in avance to avoid being disappointed.
After the safety briefing, Dave, our divemaster, explains that we are going to dive a site called Barracuda Point. So far, I’ve dived in Manta Point but didn’t see any Mantas, Eel Garden but didn’t see any eel, Shark Allew but didn’t see any shark and more. My expectation of seeing barracudas is therefore very low. But it’s going to be an amazing dive anyway with guaranteed sharks, turtles and massive schools of fish. I let you see for your self 😉
Sipadan is mind blowing. The pages on my dive logbook are not big enough to write everything that we saw. Sadly, it marks the end of our stay on Mabul. A part of me is thinking: “this is paradise, let’s stay another couple of days!”, but the other: “no, let’s move to our next destination. We’ve still got a lot to see!” Not even half an hour after we’ve come back from Sipadan, we are already on another boat, direction mainland.
We’ve made all travel arrangements to get to a town called Sukau. It’s located on the Kinabatangan river, another major wildlife sanctuary in Borneo. We’re also going to be staying with a local family, this is a great chance of sharing their way of living and discovering their culture.
We reach our destination at 11pm, Bam welcomes us to his house. We have a quick chat over a cup of tea. He is the chief of the homestay program called Balai Kito. He is also managing a conservation NGO called Hutan which is doing a lot of work on the Kinabatangan river. It’s actually one of their member who is going to guide us tomorrow to observe wildlife, can’t wait. 🙂
Day 12 Kinabatangan River
We’re on the boat at 5:30am. Early morning is one of the best time to see wildlife as the temperature isn’t too high. It’s even a little bit chilly with the wind of the boat. But it is soon forgotten when the boat stops for the first time, he’s spotted a group of proboscis monkeys. I was looking forward to see them. This species of monkey has quite a unique look, a large nose in the middle of the face. They’re even sometimes called long-nosed monkey. The proboscis monkey is classified as endangered according to the IUCN Red List and can only be found on the island of Borneo.
We are actually looking at females, which have a smaller nose than I expected (still you can’t miss it though).
Every group is composed of a large number of females and a single dominant male. Unfortunately we can’t find it this time.
A little later, there is a long-tail monkey on the river bank…
… and his baby not far hiding behind the leaves.
The guide and the boat driver slow down and talk about something they’ve seen (I guess). There are fresh prints of elephants in the mud, probably from this morning. They look into the jungle to see if they’re still here but it seems they’re gone. To me it’s amazing that a large animal like an elephant can be so hard to spot. They even travel in herds so you should hear them and see the trees moving from kilometers away… But it seems we are not lucky this time either.
We continue our cruise on the river looking in the trees. I never see anything anyway but the boat driver’s eye is exceptional. He slown down again, I turn around and ask to the guide what he’s seen: “Orang utan”. OH! I jump on the boat, grab my camera and start screeing the forest. Here it is…
That’s fantastic… I’ve been looking for Orang Utans for 3 days in Danum Valley and finally I see one. They’re a lot more difficult to spot than other primates. First of all, because they’re solitary so they’re a lot more discreet. Second of all, because they don’t jump from branch to branch, they swing. So they don’t create the disturbance to the jungle’s silence that other monkeys do. And finally, because the Orang Utan is an expert in hiding which he soon demonstrated by disappearing into the foliage.
Borneo is also home to the diversity diversity of snakes on the planet. But until now I haven’t seen one, until now…
We cross the path of a pig tail monkey who apparently just woke up. “OOOOOOOAAAAAAHHHHH!… I wouldn’t mind staying in bed for a bit longer…”
The baby long tail monkeys are probably the funniest to photograph 🙂
On the way back to the jetty, I spot some movements on the river bank probably 100m away. At the start I’m not convinced there is an animal there. But as we get closer, I can definitely see there are 2 of them on the sand. They are long, thin and move relatively fast. At first I take them for monitor lizards, we’ve seen already a few of them. Wrong! We’re looking at 2 otters, which apparently are very hard to see. They’re shy, will hide from humans and will do it fast.
Back at Bam,’s house, we are served a huge breakfast. There are so many things, we will never be able to eat this much. And it’s excellent too, fried bananas, fresh fruit juice, cakes, rice, noodles and much more. I have to admit I was a little hungry, so I’m trying a bit of everything. Now we’ve got plenty of time until our next boat cruise around 4pm. It’s the occasion for have a long chat with Bam about his conservation activities. He’s done a lot of seminars around the world about wildlife protection. He manages a team of people with the objective to replant trees and reconstitute the rainforest, develop wildlife awareness in the area and beyond, help generate revenue for everyone in the village. He’s promoting tourism as a protection strategy. If visitors come to Borneo to observe wildlife and all the population benefits from it, it will then dissuade the locals to kill it. He actually explains that some of the boat drivers and host families used to be poachers. His little organisation has supported a reconversion which benefits the ecosystem as well as the local population. Of course it’s necessary to ban illegal poaching and punish those who do. But some people will not do poaching by choice but by necessity, to earn money and feed their family. It’s important to create alternative sources of revenue which will dissuade them from poaching. What Bam is doing here with Hutan and Balai Kito Homestays is remarkable. I definitely recommand it to anyone who’d like to go wildlife spotting in Borneo.
After lunch, the kids want to play a spintop game with us. But first, they need to install the play area. They grab 2 large wooden plaques to bring them on the terrace. But instead of walking around the little wall, they’ve chosen to climb it, plaques in hand… They find some stairs pillars to lay down around the play area. Then they take a wheelbarrow to the back of the dry and grassless garden. It gets filled up with concrete blocks. Everything goes well at first, when all 3 of them join their efforts into bringing the cargo to the terrace. It turns to disaster when two of them disappear and leave their brother alone to cross a ditch. The wheel gets trapped, the bucket rocks to the side and empty its load… Nevermind, he takes them all back in straight away, brings them over to the terrace and places them around the wooden pillars. The arena is now ready!
Now they explain to Florent and me the rules. We need to wind a piece of cord around the big spintop and then throw it into the arena. The last to remain wins. Sound easy? Well I can’t even get the thing to spin… And I’m being laughed at by an 8 year-old kid… :s After some more technical explainations, I manage to understand how to do it and we can play a few rounds. They have so much energy, they’re running everywhere, fighting each other when I can’t even move because of the heat and humidity. So I take my camera our to capture the great moments we are sharing with our hosts. But I didn’t realise it was going to be confiscated from me by the youngest boy. He is fascinated by it and takes pictures of everything and anything. He’s literally filled up my memory cards with shots of me…
… the spintops…
… a little terror 😉
Time has come for the next boat cruise and we’re heading to the jetty with the the older brother. The sun is still quite high in the sky and the air hot, the wildlife is hiding. Our first encounter is with a couple of oriental pied hornbills.
We find another group of proboscis monkeys, in the trees right above us. And this time, I find the dominant male and his big potato nose. 🙂
Did you notice the turbulences in the aire which seems to be coming from his armpits? Wonder what it is… smell? hormones? haha
We cross the path of a number of kingfishers, extremely colourful tiny bird.
A couple of wrinkled hornbills.
At dusk, one more species of primate, the silver leaf monkey.
Just after dinner, we go again on the water for a night cruise. The boat has a massive light projector to look for animals in the trees. He soon spots a owl in a branch hanging over the river and a few other birds. But the most amazing was yet to come. We were some 15 meters from the first tree that the boat stopped. “He must have seen something” I thought. He gets closer, passes under a couple of trees and shows us what he was. There is a tiny baby crocodile in the water… The guy saw it from 20 meters away, between branches and in the dark… Impressive.
Well today was a fruitful day to say the least. I can’t believe how much wildlife we saw, even an orang utan. I couldn’t have been better. We’ve got one last cruise tomorrow morning, I am sure there will still be plenty to see.
Day 13 Kinabatangan River and Kinabalu National Park
As usual, we’re going to try to fit as many activities as possible into today. Alarm rings at 5am for one last boat cruise. We’ve already been lucky so far but we could get even luckier, who knows?
It starts with nothing more common than a monitor lizard laying on a tree trunk.
To something slightly more special, a stork-billed kingfisher.
and an Anhinga (also called snake bird because of its neck)
To the greatest of all sightings, a second wild orang utan.
It happened, again, when I was the least expecting it. We were on our way back, going at reasonable speed and I was now thinking that it’s the end and we’re not going to see much more. I wasn’t even looking in the trees anymore. And that’s when the boat driver stopped to show us one last time the red hair great ape. So, to anyone going on a wildlife spotting expedition of any sort, lower your expectations to the maximum and let Mother Nature surprise you when she’s ready. 😉
Back at the house, we’ve got an hour before our taxi driver comes to pick us up and take us back to the main road. From there the plan is to stop a bus which is likely to go to Kota Kinabalu and we’ll ask him to drops us off at the entrance of Kinabalu National Park. Nothing’s been booked, I have no idea of the bus times nor I’m really sure that the bus will stop on demand to pick us up and drop us off. But I’m sure we’ll find a way. In the mean time, let’s have another great breakfast, sit down with the entire family watching tv and finally say goodbye. They’ve been wonderful hosts and we’ve really felt like home, Terimah Kasih!
On the way we are stopping at Gomantong Caves, a large cave system inside a limestone hill. There is a 10 minutes walk from the park entrance to get to the cave… but you can smell it well before you can even see it! Yes, that’s right! They’re inhabited by an incredible number of bats which generate an incredible amount of bit shit! Hills of bat shit actually, look for yourself.
The air here in unbreathable. It’s extremely acid, oxygen seems to be absent. I can only walk around the cave with my tee shirt over my nose (which quite frankly doesn’t smell like rose either but it’s a Channel perfume compared to the ambient air). You can also imagine what a feast it is for cockroaches… they’re everywhere. The path is covered of them, a muddy bat shit hill underneath… BEURK!
Needless to say, we do not linger in this hostile environment. And we also have a bus to catch. We get back to the car now hoping that our travel plan will go smoothly. And we couldn’t hope for better!
The car dropps us off on the side of the road and we are just taking our luggage out of the book when the bus arrives. It stopps, loads our stuff and has no problem dropping us off where we need. Brilliant! We reach our destination six hourse later, and now we’ve got only half an hour to walk with our barda to the hotel, Kinabalu Mountain Lodge. It’s a bit chilly, we’re in altitude and inside the cloud. So when we get there, the view from the balcony is pretty limited.
We spend the rest of the afternoon relaxing, reading books with hot drinks. We need to reboost the energy levels before the last expedition of our Borneo trip tomorrow, the climb of Mount Kinabalu at 4095m.
Day 14-15 Mount Kinabalu hike
In the morning, the cloud is gone and the view much more pleasant.
We don’t hang around too long and soon take off to the Kinabalu National Park entrance. The climb is a two day expedition. On the first day, we go up to 3200m to the refuge of Laban Rata, where we’ll spend the night. On the second day, we start at 3am to complete the ascend to the summit and then come all the way back down. This activity is highly regulated, so there are many things to sort out, guide, permits, conservation fees, etc upon arrival. (There always is a debate of what’s more economical between a package deal or taking care of everything yourself. Based on my experience, I would recommand to book the night at Laban Rata refuge (about 800MYR) and then do the rest when you get there. This way you have the guarantee that you will be able to do the hike and you do pay for a third party to do the arrangements for you. It worked all well for us.)
After an hour to sort everything out, we meet with our guide Cigu (below with the green tee shirt) and we begin our climb at around 9am. The clear and sunny sky we had this morning has already been replaced by a grey and humid fog.
On the way, we cross the path of many locals carrying heavy loads, strap on the head. My guess is that they’re bringing supplies for the Laban Rata resthouse. We’ve got fancy bags with reinforcements here and here, comfort paddings in the back, straps everywhere… they’ve got nothing more than a potato bag with 2 strings but yet carry a lot more weight. I can only imagine their pain…
We’ve now been hiking for a couple of hours. There are definitely lots of people on the trail, no chance of being alone and enjoy a peaceful hike. The commonality between those people is the suffering they seem to be going through. In a way, it’s normal. Who would expect a 4000m peak to be easy? Many travel guides will confirm that by writing it’s incredibly hard. But there is a simple reason for that. It’s one of the only peaks in the area accessible to pretty much anyone, physically fit or not. So many people will attempt it, without prior preparation, and that’s hard. But a little bit of training and it’ll be as easy as a sunday promenade. For me, that was my first physical effort since I cam back from Mont Blanc. I was a little bit nervous about my knee as I know it’s not fully recovered. But actually, it’s only causing me a little bit of discomfort and nothing else.
Above 2900m, the environment changes suddenly. There are no more high trees with dense vegetation. They’ve been replaced by smaller bushes a lot mroe scarce. That’s the effect of altitude.
After 3 and a half hours of hiking, we reach the refuge of Laban Rata.
Whoo! It feels right to sit down in the warmth of the common room, drinking a hot coffee. Later in the evening, the clouds disappear for a very brief moment, giving a beautiful sunset over Laban Rata and the higher peaks. Tomorrow, that’s where we’re going
1:30am… The alarm rings. It doesn’t even feel like it’s a different day. We are ready by 2am to have some breakfast and head for the summit as soon as possible to avoid the big crowd. And we do! We step into the dark, headlamps on, and after a few hundred meters, we’ve taken over the few groups who left before us. We are progressing very slowly through the dark. We’ve left all our stuff at the resthouse, we’re going to get it back on the way down… apart from all my camera gear (body, 4 lenses, tripod and other accessories). I still have a good 10kg on my back. It becomes slighly inconvenient when we need to climb a very smooth surface of rock by grabbing a cord and pulling ourselves up.
As we are still alone, I’m starting to imagine ourselves reaching the summit first. It should be quite special to be there alone, without any other tourists to bread the silence. But for that, we need to continue our progress at a steady pace.
We are reaching the last check point of the ascent, to show our climbing permits. I realise that there is another guy right behind us, he seems quick. As I imagined, I took us over only a few meters after the little office, creating a gap between us. Damn it! Nevermind, we will still be second which should be unique. As far as the landscape is concerned, there is no more vegetation. We are on a rock plateau which rises continuously until the horizon. There are a number of peaks around us, which I take, one by one, for the summit until I realise it’s a little further. We’ve now reached the 3900m mark, we’re getting closer. The gradient is increasing little by little until we reach the bottom of Low’s peak, highest point of Borneo. From there, it looks like a pile of large rocks creating a very steep climb. I can’t even see the top, only the light of the guy ahead of us. At this height, the air is thinner, the oxygen rarer. We get out of breath relatively quickly.
I reach the summit without even realising it when our fit climbing friend tells me so. “Really? Are we at the top already? YOUHOU??” Ladies and gentlemen, welcome at 4095m! 🙂
We are not exactly alone but in a small enough number (3) to enjoy being at the top of the island. The topography of Mount Kinabalu is unique. it rises from sea level (or just bit more) to 4000m. It means that from where we are, we enjoy a 360° view over the entire island, 4000m below, impressive. The sky is clear, we can see the stars, the milky way. An hour later, the sun starts to rise and light pierces through the darkness. We are in the front row for a breathtaking sun rise…
The sun is risen, we need to start making our way down. It’s a long way to go to the bottom. Quickly, I notice the shadow of the peak extending on the plain and to the sea.
It doesn’t matter in which direction we look, the view is endless.
Looking back, I can fully appreciate the height of Low’s peak.
I hate hiking down. It’s so hard on the legs, on the knees, on the feet. You constantly have to refrain your body from rolling down… urgh! I am glad we are doing this in two stages. First, getting down to Laban Rata is done in a bit more than an hour. We relax a little bit, take our second breakfast, pack our bags and begin the second phase: down to the bottom. For most of the distance, we are alone and enjoy the peaceful hike I like. The people coming down are still behing us and those coming up are not that far yet. We meet the first climbers around 45 minutes from the bottom. It’s all very polite, lots of greetings, especially from a group of guys wearing the same tee shirt with the same logo. They’re very enthusiastic to see us, shake our heads with huge smiles on their face. After we’ve met two dozens of them, I can’t help but ask one to what organisation they belong to
“Prison”, he says
“Prison officers”, he corrects.
Pfiou! I think he’s seen my face change colour after his first reply. So now I’m sure we can complete the hike safely, nothing will happen to us. 🙂
We reach the park entrance just before 12 o’clock, grab a bite in the restaurant and jump on a taxi to Kota Kinabalu. We didn’t realise we could be in town so early, so we’ve got free time between now and tomorrow afternoon. I am sure you know what I like to do after some much efforts? That’s right, having a cold beer… a few of them actually. I also like to eat well. So later in the evening we walked around the night market, which is always special in south east asia and have dinner there. A few more beers listening to local singers put an end to a very long day.
Day 16 Kota Kinabalu
This morning I have the traditional blues of holiday end. It’s the last day and tonight we’re going back home. I’ve chosen to optmise my holiday to the maximum so I’ll be landing at 5am and be at work at 9am. Ouch! In other words, I’ll be at work in 24 hours.
It’s even harder that Borneo is wonderful. Feeling lost in the middle of old primary rainforest in Danum Valley, diving in a natural aquarium at Sipadan, spotting lots of wildlife and sharing the life of the local people at Kinabatangan river and finally hiking above the cloud to the highest mountain of the island for a unique view, Sabah is a concentration of natural wonders. Unfortunately, this fragile environment is under threat. Most of the animals we’ve seen (and the ones we haven’t) are endangered because of illegal hunting and destruction of their habitat to the benefit of palm oil plantations (much more lucrative). It seems that the right measures are being taken to prevent further harm to the rainforests and its inhabitants. Only it might be too late… I have read that orang utans used to be able to cross the island (almost the size of France) without touching the ground. Now they’re secluded in small pockets of protected forests.
We can help!!! If you’re thinking of travelling to Borneo, you can make sure your money benefits the local people and the natural environment. Try to find local organizations that are involved in doing conservation work and employing the locals. Hopefully, tourism and the revenue is generates will support the economy of Sabah and further enhance the need to protect the wildlife. I’d love to show my kid a wild orang utan, just like the ones he would have seen in the jungle book, I’m sure you do too!
It’s 3pm, we are heading to the airport in order to catch our flight to Kuala Lumpur. From there I will board an A380 with great in-flight entertainment system to cross the planet… Well not quite yet, the flight has been delayed of 13 hours. There is a technical problmen which need fixing. And knowing what have Malaysia Airlines been through in 2014, I won’t argue with that. Take your time!