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Desperately seeking wildlife in Borneo

semi-overcast 30 °C
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Arriving in the early hours of the morning at Kota Kinabalu (KK), the capital of the Sabah state of Malaysian Borneo, we had arranged to stay at a backpacker hostel in walking distance from the terminal. It was indeed just across the road so we found it very easily and then sat up drinking a beer with Marcus, who runs the place, before finally sloping off to bed. In the morning light we realised the place was really expensive for what it was, it was rather grubby and we only had a share bathroom (which we’re used to, but not for £13, that buys a lot in Asia), however the guys were really friendly, gave us noodles for breakfast and picked us fresh mangoes and coconuts from the trees in the garden, plus it was a place we felt at home for a couple of days, using the kitchen as we pleased, visiting the little kittens in the building next-door and watching world cup football or films on the cable tv with the guys, so we liked it.

There’s not too much worth saying about KK, there is a beach (close to where we stayed, not in the centre) which is clean for a city beach and good for a stroll before sunset but it’s not used for bathing much, we did see the local sailing club out though which was good to watch a while, plus there are a few bars and hawker stalls around there so we had some cheap food options. The town centre is not exciting, the waterfront and market were worth seeing since we were there, but nothing special and quite fishy stinking; then Borneo is known not for its towns but for its wildlife… So off we went in search of that.

Heading to Sandakan, in Borneo’s north-east, on the Sulu Sea, we took a 6-hour bus (plus 2 buses before that, to get us to the north-bound bus terminal in KK…). This was another town that was not too pretty, we have learned that towns in Sabah are not tourist attractions in themselves! This was a base to arrange a trip into the jungle proper and to visit the Sepilok Orang-utan Rehabilitation Centre. This is not quite a ‘sanctuary’ and certainly not a zoo, with enclosures. The centre has feeding platforms and ropes and provides fruit for orang-utans twice daily (and they always know exactly when to show up!) but the jungle leads out into the wild and the intention is that they will look after largely themselves if they are able, this is encouraged by feeding them the same things each day, so that they will get bored with the same nosh and also seek out their own food in the jungle to balance their diet. We did see quite a few as we made sure we arrived for the 10am feeding time, it was quite amazing to watch their movements, expressions and interaction with each other.

Happy to have finally seen the orang-utans, we also walked for a while along the jungle trail behind the centre, with Heidi and Kelsey (from UK and California respectively) whom we had met in the minivan on the way to the centre. As it was approaching midday by that point, it was not really a good time to see the more exotic creatures that live in the area including various birds and flying foxes (bats), so we mostly saw bugs, some MASSIVE ones though including the biggest ants we have ever seen, a few lizards, some macaques (your common garden monkey in these parts) and leeches. Tess was particularly fearful of leeches, and as if the tiny blighters knew it, they found only her, she first had one on her foot which she swiftly spotted and flicked off before it had got a good grip… Soon afterwards, and no-one is sure how it got there, Kelsey spotted one wriggling its way through T’s t-shirt. Both Rach and Kelsey tried to flick it off but it seemed firmly wedged amid the fibres and on its way through the other side, so Tess flings off her top and stands there in the jungle in her bra squealing while Rach pulls the little bugger off and flicks it far away. Ah, how we laughed – later on that is.

Whilst waiting for our bus back to town, a line of police jeeps and vans files in to the car park, filled with 30 or so Malaysian Policemen, all in uniform, we were wondering what major incident could be happening at the orang-utan sanctuary only for the police officers to pile out brandishing huge smiles and start taking photos. They started posing in front of the main entrance for photos so we went to take our own pics of this funny sight, but then of course that led to them insisting we pose with them for photos. The four of us had countless photos taken with the police and had a bit of a laugh with them until, about 10 minutes after they arrived they all piled back into the vehicles and left again. We have no idea what this was all about, it looked like they were on a school ‘end-of-year’ outing or something, but it was all very amusing and helped pass the time waiting for our van back to town.

Next day we were off to the Nature Lodge on Kinabatangan River, along with Heidi and Kelsey who had coincidentally booked the same trip. We had 2 nights of seeing real Borneo nature, including the very rare pygmy elephants, still fairly big, but only half the size of regular elephants. These live only on Borneo and we were very lucky to spot some bathing in the river and standing around eating the elephant grass. We also saw the other highlight of the area, Proboscis Monkeys, these are terribly funny looking, with long snouts (the alpha males have the longest noses, apparently it makes them the most desirable) and pot-bellies, plus a fur pattern that makes it appear they are wearing white underpants, very intriguing creatures indeed. Plus we were extremely lucky to see a wild orang-utan mother with her baby building a nest for the night high in a tree. Other than those we saw quite a lot of Hornbills (beautiful exotic birds), plus hawks and ospreys, a few crocodiles and many macaques. In the evening we did a night-time jungle walk on which we saw lots of tree frogs, much to Rachel’s delight, plus a variety of weird and wonderful bugs, including a large, hairy, blue-ish spider that jumped onto the neck of our guide (thank goodness it was his neck not anyone else’s!).

Whilst we were very happy to see the jungle and wildlife, it has been very depressing to see the extent that Borneo is being ruined by palm oil plantations. We were aware that this was a problem before traveling here but it is crazy to see it with our own eyes. Where once would have been jungle supporting all of this wildlife, now there is mile upon mile of mono-culture palm plantations, supporting nothing except the bank balances of a few businessmen, they are truly ruining this once unique island.

At the end of the two night Nature Lodge trip, we were dropped off at the junction on the main road and picked up a bus to Sempurna, where we were to meet our friend Sarah (the very same who we had previously hooked up with in Hanoi, is now based in Borneo in a new job), for a weekend away on Mabul Island. We had a bit of a ‘to do’ with the bus ticket guy who appeared to be over-charging us, the 50 Ringgit fare seemed v expensive but when we asked for a ticket to confirm he shooed us away and said we would get it at the office. An older Australian guy travelling with us who we knew from the Nature Lodge also spoke to the driver about this only for the driver to stop the bus and say he should get off if he was going to ask questions! When we eventually reached the office he brought out tickets with 50 RM written on in pen and the 40RM price crossed out, and that was the price all the way from Sandakan, we had only come two-thirds of that way so the price should have been proportionally less. Of course we weren’t going to accept this nonsense so we spoke with a lady behind their ticket desk explaining the rude-ness and the obvious over-charging, she apologised and returned 10 RM each to us and the other three foreign tourists, it should probably have been more, but this was something at least.

So the 20 Ringgit we got back we spent in a supermarket in Sempurna buying a couple of bottles of booze to take to the island for our fun weekend away (anticipating high island prices!). We then met up with Sarah and some of her colleagues and off we sailed on a very bumpy boat ride out to Mabul. We arrived at Uncle Chan’s guesthouse/diving school and checked into two dorms, one for the boys and one for the girls. The rooms were basic, to say the least, there were no showers just a tap by the toilet in a skanky cubical at the back, so we didn’t shower for 2 days, just used buckets from the tanks where the scuba gear is rinsed to wash the salt off after diving and swimming; but we didn’t mind too much as we were here to catch up with Sarah and have a fun weekend. That first night we enjoyed a few drinks and a bit of a party night listening to a local cover band (who appeared to select as their vocalist the bloke who could read lyrics in English the best rather than one who could actually sing…) and practicing some dance moves….all fuelled by the local rum of course!

On the second day, T, R and Kyle (Sarah’s American colleague) went for 3 dives around the island – fairly good diving, with good visibility, but not nearly as good as we have recently had in the Philippines. Close to here is one of the world’s most esteemed dive sites, around the island of Sipadan, but alas that is far too expensive for us to partake in on our current budget, at over 3 times the price we paid for the local Mabul dives. We saw lots of turtles and a monster Giant Grouper (fish) – he looked really grumpy but we wouldn’t tell him so as he was way bigger than us! In the evening after diving we had a few relaxed beers at the beach bar, gossiping about stuff back home with Sarah and generally having a pleasant time.

Our group separated the next morning with Sarah and her mates heading back to mainland (some people have to go to work!) whist we stayed on to catch a later boat. We explored the main beach but found it to be fairly filthy, with tons of rubbish floating near the shore. Not very appealing. But there was a pier, with a dive school at the end of it, where we could do a spot of sunbathing, reading and jumping off into the sea which was lovely and clear that far out (well, R jumped into the sea, T walked in like a lady – i.e. she was too scardy to jump from the platform!)

We caught the supposedly 4pm boat back to mainland (it actually left at 4.45pm but that’s what they call on time in Asia…) and checked into a place for one night in Sempurna before moving on to Tawau the following morning where Sarah is now based and it was also the place from where we could catch a flight to Indonesia, so this all worked out perfectly!

We checked into the same hotel Sarah was staying in in Tawau, since she hadn’t moved into her new found flat yet, and met her there after she finished work. She took us to a good rooftop bar from where we could see views of the whole city, (including a burning building, which we were sure shouldn’t be on fire; we saw flashing lights sometime later so think all was put out ok). We had a beer tower (it would have been rude not too) then dinner in a local eatery, followed by a karaoke night at a local joint, mostly filled with local people. It was a comedy evening, S and R took a turn on the mike, which was a good respite from the endless Chinese/Malay love songs we had to endure! We said our final goodbyes to Sarah (we won’t see her again for at least 15 months now) but realised how lucky we’d been in seeing a friend from home both in Vietnam and here, so that cheered us up.
Onwards to Bali…………….!!

Posted by TessAndRach 03:57 Archived in Malaysia

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