Borneo – Sabah Part 1

1st October 2017 to 6th October 2017

Kota Kinabalu, Sepilok, Kinabatangan, Lahad Datu

Our journey from Labuan Bajo to Kota Kinabalu, although a relatively short distance as the crow flies, would take 3 flights (via Bali and KL) and a full day of travelling. This meant that we arrived to Kota Kinabalu (KK) tired. With a rucksack full of laundry, some trip admin to do and some Spanish studying to catch up on we were never going to see much of KK in the couple of days that we were there.

However, what we did get to enjoy in KK was the food. It was so good to be back on Malay food. We had both enjoyed Indonesian food, but in my humble opinion it just can’t compete with Malay cooking. We were particularly glad to have roti back on the menu and wasted no time in visiting a local roti joint in the basement of Centrepoint shopping centre. I ate roti Cobra, which was a plate of chopped up roti, vegetables, chicken curry and a fried egg. It was every bit as delicious as it sounds. Kim was straight back on the tried and tested Murtabak.

KK also served as a good base for a day trip to Kinabalu Park in the foothills of Mt Kinabalu and the Poring Hot Springs. We hired a car for the day and got our first taste of the Bornean countryside. The drive offered plenty of views of the peak and our first glimpse of the palm oil plantations that cover so much of Borneo.

There was a notable drop in temperature when we reached Kinabalu Park, due to the altitude, so much so that for the first time on the trip I put a jumper on! We spent a wonderful couple of hours hiking round some of the many trails that criss-cross the park. We didn’t see much wildlife and we got bitten by quite a few leeches, but we both thoroughly enjoyed our first experience of the Bornean jungle.

After a tasty lunch in Ranau (roti again!), we drove on to Poring Hot Springs for a bath in the natural spring water. Whilst the spring water may have been natural, there was nothing natural about the pools themselves. Each pool was essentially a bathtub, where one could run themselves a bath. The water pressure left a lot to be desired and it took us quite a while to get something we could actually sit in properly. Still, it was nice to have a bath after so many days of cold showers and it was a great spot for people watching so all in all it was a nice day trip.

From KK, we took a comfortable 7 hour bus ride to Sepilok for a night at Uncle Tan’s Ops Centre/ B&B before our Kinabatangan tour with the same company the next day.

Before our tour started, we had an opportunity to visit the Orangutan and Sun Bear Conservation Centres, conveniently located down the road from where we were staying.

We started our visit of the orangutan centre at the outdoor nursery (viewed from inside a visitor centre) and caught our first ever glimpse of the Bornean Orangutan.  Four young orangutans were playing on a purpose built series of ropes and platforms, whilst picking through piles of fruit and veg left for them on the platforms.  They were an entertaining bunch and certainly seemed to be keeping their trainers busy!  However, we hadn’t come all this way to watch animals through glass, so we quickly made our way over to the feeding platform to get a good spot before feeding time.

Even though we had arrived early, there was already quite a crowd building in front of the feeding platform surrounded by jungle.  The start of feeding time was signalled as a guy carrying a huge bucket of fruit and veg appeared on the feeding platform.  Before he could even get the food out of the bucket, he was accosted by one of the semi-wild orangutans that are fed by the conservation centre.  There was soon a steady stream of orangutans swinging their way towards the feeding platform to get their fill.  Each new orangutan entering the scene followed a similar pattern to the one that had gone before it.  First, a tree in the background would shake unexpectedly.  This shaking would then move slowly forward, but with the source of the disturbance still invisible.  Eventually, a flash of ginger hair would appear before the latest entrant swang their way across one of the maze of ropes from jungle to platform.  It was at this point that the real fun began as the latest round of squabbling began over who would take which bit of fruit.  All in all, about 8-10 orangutans came by for a feed whilst we were there, which made for a very lively watching experience in the scorching mid-morning heat.

We returned to watch the younger orangutans at the outdoor nursery, as it was quieter and had air conditioning. Maybe watching through glass wasn’t so bad after all!

The Sun Bear Conservation Centre is considerably less famous than its neighbour in Sepilok. So too are it’s occupants, when compared to the iconic ginger primates across the road. So much so that I knew almost nothing about Borneo’s endemic Sun Bear nor what to expect from the conservation centre.  

We would discover that sun bears are one of the world’s smallest bears and as with most things in Borneo thrive in the tall trees of the rainforest. As such, the conservation centre mostly comprised of a series of raised walkways and viewing platforms around a fenced off area of rainforest that was used for rehabilitation. With the help of the people already on the viewing platforms, we soon spotted a couple of bears, both up in the trees and on the forest floor. A ranger at the centre also helped Kim get close up photos of the bears using a telescope and her phone. We spent a very peaceful hour or so watching the bears before heading back for lunch at the ops centre.

After lunch, we travelled to the Kinabatangan river by minibus, before transferring to a small boat and travelling along the river to our jungle camp. 

 Slightly concerningly for a wildlife tour centred on this stretch of river, we saw very little on this boat ride to camp. We were confident our luck would improve for our night safari later that evening.

Due to the location in the heart of the Kinabatangan wetlands, most of the living quarters at camp were on stilts above the water and were joined by a series of boardwalks. Our room was shared with two other couples and the sleeping arrangements were simply a mattress and a mosquito net. It was basic, but the location was stunning. We settled into camp and had a tasty dinner in the dining hut/living area before heading out for our first taste of a Borneo safari at about 9.

Our boat took us along the Kinabatangan river whilst our guide, Otto, shined an impressively bright torch into the jungle canopy in search of owls and civets. Crocodiles, usually a common sight on night safaris in Kinabatangan were off the cards due to the height of the river at the time we were there. The banks on which crocodiles would usually be sleeping were currently underwater! As we made our way along the river, Otto continued his search for wildlife, but to no avail. We were more than halfway through our night safari and we had seen absolutely nothing! Otto’s relief was palpable when he found a flying fox hanging in a tree. On our part, we were pleased to open our account, but having just seen thousands upon thousands of flying foxes in Komodo, a single bat was distinctly underwhelming. Over the second half of the safari, we would see a small troop of long tailed macaques and a single kingfisher. For an hour and a half in one of the most biodiverse places on the planet it seemed slim pickings, but that is very much the nature of trying to spot wildlife, so we were still in high spirits when we arrived back at camp.  

We rounded off our evening with a shower under the jungle canopy using river water and a bucket. Nobody else seemed that keen on the shower, but Kim and I thought it was hilarious.

After a hot and sticky night’s sleep, we woke up early for another go at spotting wildlife from a boat along the river. This safari started much more promisingly with a large troop of long tailed macaques (aka the Jungle Mafia). This was quickly followed by a fleeting glimpse of a hornbill and more excitingly an orangutan nest!  An orangutan had been seen in the area recently and when Otto spotted a really fresh nest, we thought we would be lucky and have a sighting of a truly wild orangutan.  Unfortunately, what followed was a frustrating and fruitless search for Borneo’s poster child.  Despite a promising start, our second safari had also fallen slightly short of its billing, though not due to a lack of trying from our guide, who seemed as disappointed as us to have drawn a relative blank on both boat rides.  Still we remained hopeful for the rest of the tour.

After breakfast, a game of 5-a-side was organised.  The home side hosting tourist fc for a swelteringly hot game of jungle football.  The plucky tourists lost 14-6, putting in a strong second half performance despite some very tired legs as the heat took its toll.  Particular highlights of the second half being a couple of screamers, one from a certain beardy Englishman and one from a Dane from the previous tour group.

After the football,  I was suffering from the heat.  With no fan or A/C on the horizon, it was difficult to see how I would get cool again, particularly as a river water shower seemed to have very little cooling effect!

With activities coming thick and fast, there was little time to dwell on the heat.  It was time for another blast of DEET and off for a jungle trek with our new guide, Tam.

Tam was quick to impress, spotting a baby crocodile on the way to the trekking route that nobody else would have seen were he not there.  On the trek itself, we saw a kingfisher and another hornbill and learnt some more about the rainforest.  Despite not seeing a huge amount of wildlife at this stage, trekking through the undergrowth was a reminder what a privilege it was to be in this pristine rainforest, when so much around it has been destroyed.  Regardless of what we saw during  the rest of our time in Kinabatangan, this would have been a very worthwhile trip.

After lunch, we went fishing for catfish on the river, as an extra excursion.  Football earlier that morning had obviously brought out everyone’s competitive streak as the inaugural Kinabatangan Tri-Nation Angling Chanpionship was dreamt up.  England, France and Malaysia would compete for the title.  Despite Tam being Malaysia’s sole representation versus 4 from England and 3 from France, glory went to the home nation.  Tam pulled out 7 catfish, as well as re-baiting everyone else’s hooks and sorting out issues that arose with 6 novice anglers.  Kim did the business for England, with two catfish of her own (I did not), whilst the French pulled out a last second consolation with the last “reel-in” of the tournament.  Final scores; Malaysia 7, England 3, France 1  as once again the hosts took full advantage of home conditions.  

Later that evening, we went for what was our final scheduled boat safari of the tour.  The newly named “Team Tam” hit the water with high hopes that this would be a fruitful excursion.

It certainly was.  We embarked on a Monkey spotting extravaganza! First up, were a troop of pig tailed macaques, far less common than their long tailed relatives and very curious to work out what these creatures were that were staring at them with binoculars and cameras!  The long tailed jungle mafia were next up soon after and they were as boisterous as ever.

Further along, we hit the endemic primate jackpot as we spotted a male proboscis monkey, with his freakishly large nose and round pot belly, hareem in tow.  What an honour to see one of these bizarre creatures in the wild.  In this part of the world (and many others) it becomes easy to take long tailed macaques for granted due to their abundance, but with the proboscis monkeys, I was in doubt that I was witnessing something both rare and special.  We could have sat and watched them for hours, but they had other ideas as they scurried out of sight in the top of the canopy.

Taking a breather from primates, three hornbills flew past.  These were Oriental Pied Hornbills, possessing one of the more impressive “horns” that we had seen.

We returned to primates, when someone (Kim assures me it was her) spotted a silver langur, perfectly silhouetted against the sky.  It was quite a long way away, but was immediately identifiable by its long tail that hung down far below the branch on which it was sat.
At this point, we waited for darkness.  We watched the sunset over the jungle canopy and were treated to a performance from the flying foxes similar to the one we had witnessed near Rinca the previous week.

In the darkness, we made our way back to camp, attempting another night safari on the way back.  Our luck remained with us and we saw the owls and civets that had deserted us the previous evening.  It had been an awesome couple of hours.

Back at camp, we dined on the spoils of our fishing trip, masterfully grilled by Tam.  After dinner, the staff at camp brought out the guitars for a spot of acoustic karaoke.  Obviously, Kim was over there like a shot, belting out anything going with a huge grin on her face.  I was considerably less keen, but was somehow coerced into butchering Don’t Look Back in Anger with another English guy called James (the other successful English Angler during our fishing session).

Post sing-song, we were off on a night hike through the jungle at the back of the camp. Given the amount of wildlife that we had seen just in the camp (think monkeys, scorpions and huge monitor lizards) and our successful evening safari, confidence was high and we were on the hunt for an unlikely sighting of a slow loris.

We trekked off through the jungle in the darkness, along the way spotting scorpions, tree frogs and some incredibly coloured sleeping birds.  The bird pictured is an oriental dwarf kingfisher.  

As we continued along the trek, hopes began to fade of seeing a loris.  Given how well our evening safari had gone, it really didn’t matter, but my thoughts had turned to bed after a long day.  It was at about this point that Kim squeezed the top of my arm very hard and froze.

“Guys! There’s a Loris!”

It was half whisper, half shout.  As the information disseminated through the rest of the group, the question came back:

“Wow, who found it?”

“Kim!  Kim found it! Kim’s the hero!”

For clarity, that last quote is directly from Kim herself.  She was excited and was rightly pleased that her perseverance had paid off.  Still, there would be mickey taking later…

The Loris watched us closely, as it decided what to do.  It eventually chose to reverse back up the branch that it had been walking down, but thankfully not until we had been able to soak the whole experience in.  It backed away with its characteristic slowness at first, but soon moved far quicker than I had expected for something called a “Slow” anything!

It was the perfect end to an amazing day.  I had met some great people, seen some incredible things that I never thought I would be lucky enough to see, played football in a jungle and had sung in front of a big group of people who I barely knew.  I was tired, far too hot and I had been battling a dehydration headache and an irritatingly itchy heat rash for the entire day. 

If anything could epitomise travelling perfectly, then it has to be this day on the Kinabtangan.  So much travel writing (my own included) is a stylised version of events, focussed on the sights, sounds and experiences that take your breath away.  What often isn’t mentioned is that you often feel like shit in the process!

The whole day been a bit of a struggle, but if you offered me the chance to do it all over again, I would do it in an instant.  It had been epic!

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