Published: May 2nd 2012April 26th 2012
When Sunjay first told me about Borneo, I admit I had to research it. Borneo had been on his list of destinations for some time and when we had an opportunity to take a vacation during Maya's Spring break, Sunjay contacted an agent from Borneo Adventures and made all the arrangements. It was quite reasonably priced package given that we had decent accommodation everywhere with breakfast and lunch included most days. The TV shows Survivor and Amazing Grace have been shot in Borneo.
From my research, I discovered that Borneo is the 3rd largest island in the world after Greenland and New Guinea. Interestingly, it is divided among three countries Brunei
with 73% owned by Indonesia followed by Malaysia (26%) and Brunei (1%). Our trip was to the Malaysian side comprising of the 2 states of Sarawak and Sabah. With a chance to see Proboscis monkeys, Orang utans, green turtles and many other animals and birds in the wild, Borneo sounded like an exciting destination for nature lovers. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Borneo
We took a Malaysian Airlines flight from Bangalore to KL, rested a few hours in KL at the pricey airport hotel, ate lunch at the Satay Club
(good) and caught a Malaysian airlines flight to Sundakan in the state of Sabah. We were met at the airport by our guide Ron. On the way to the hotel, Ron told us that there is never a dry season in the area, but it is the drier season now. My first impression of Sandakan was that it was clean with good infrastructure (going from Bangalore, you notice this immediately) and reminded me of Hawaii and Australia. In fact, Borneo is home to one of the oldest rainforests in the world just like the Daintree Rainforest
in Australia. We were dropped off at the Sabah hotel, a beautiful and comfortable hotel with good facilities such as free wifi, swimming pool in the midst of lush green trees, exercise room, restauraunts and a nature trail. Dinner was at a small restaurant along the water front which was a mistake since Sunjay had a stomach issue the day after. A Sheraton and shopping mall are coming up by the waterfront soon. The highlight of the evening was the Hagen Daz ice cream post-dinner. Day 2 Selingan Island Turtles
After breakfast at the hotel, we decided to explore the nature
Maya snorkels cautiously for fear of jelly fish
trail. Yes, I am morbidly afraid of snakes and yes, a snake crossed our path while crossing a bridge along the nature trail. I had always imagined that I would yell, scream and fall down unconscious in such a situation. Surprisingly, I did none of the above, and calmly asked Maya to follow me back. It helped that it was a small colorful snake. We were later told that it was probably a Paradise Tree Snake.
We packed a small bag for our one night stay at Selingan island in the Sulu Sea. Designated as a marine park, Selingan island (7.1 sq hectares) along with 2 other islands in the area, is one of the most important turtle breeding spots in SE Asia for endangered Green turtles and Hawksbill turtles. Only 7 species of turtles survive in the wild now. The 3 islands were bought from locals for 85000 RM and the locals were relocated to another island. To make it seem like a lot of money, they were paid in 1 RM notes.
Sadly, our excitement of seeing these turtles in the wild was short lived when Sunjay announced that he had a bad stomach. He
decided to brave it anyway and didn't regret it in the least. After picking up some basic supplies such as snacks and a torch, we headed to the jetty where we stowed away our big suitcases. We took a speed boat to Selingan island and checked in to our chalet which was a small clean room with basic necessities. Maya immediately noticed the absence of a television set. After resting for a while, we had lunch and went snorkeling. Maya was excited about using her newly acquired snorkeling equipment, but did not venture far because of the fear of jelly fish in the area. Philippines is just a few miles away from the beach. Jalan Te Pantai means Way to the beach (jalan - path).
Post dinner, we watched a documentary on turtles. Ron gave us more information while walking around the turtle hatchery. We were crossing our fingers that it would not rain since the chance of seeing green turtles is slim if raining.
These are amazing creatures really. Females lay eggs 5-6 times in their lifetime. Nesting happens during the months of July to October. Eggs are laid in a body pit when it's dark
usually in the same place where they were born. Even though they may have 1500 eggs each nesting season, they only lay fertilized eggs. If they still have unfertilized eggs, moms go in search of males to ferilize them. There can be as many as 40-190 eggs laid at a time. The eggs are then buried under sand in the body pit and the mom leaves. When the eggs hatch, they come out of the sand and use the driftline to go where the food and other turtles are. Green turtles are mostly vegetarian, while the others eat jelly fish and invertebrates. Hatchlings are born with a sac which they use for food until they reach the food area. The shells and not completely developed when they are born.
The rangers collect the eggs as soon as they are born and transfer them to the hatchery within 2 hours. A pit whose depth is determined by the type of turtle eggs is dug. The incubation temperature determines the gender of the baby (in warmer temperatures, they grow up to be females). In order to maintain equal numbers of males and females, some are buried in the shade and
some in the sun. Monitor lizards are a major predator. So they protect the pit with wire mesh around it. Once the eggs hatch, the turtles come out of the sand. They are released into sea in groups of 30 so they have a
better chance of survival (their prey eat them 10 at a time). The survival rate is below 3 pc.
There was an experiment done to release babies when they were a bit older, but the imprinting process didn't work and so they are now released immediately after they hatch. When all the eggs have hatched, nests are removed, cleaned and new ones are setup. Turtles reach maturity at 15 yrs. They leave open sea and come to shallow waters when juvenile. The first time turtles come to shore, they are tagged. So the rangers have been able to count the number of turtles and have noticed an increase in their numbers since the program started. Plastic bags and fishing nets can be deadly since they need to come to the surface to breathe. There are sharks and 30 species of sea cows in the Sulu sea.
It was an amazing experience to see
Mama laying eggs
Saline water makes it look like she is crying while laying eggs
all this - a mamma green turtle laid 56 eggs and was tagged since this was her first visit to the island, the eggs were buried in 70 cm pits, the new hatchlings were released into the sea. The highlight though was picking up a few escapee hatchlings and putting them back in the hatchery. We were all ecstatic. Sunjay was feeling well again. Day 3: Orang utans
We took an early morning speed boat from Selingan to Sandakan. Sim-Sim, the place where we had breakfast, is a Chinese village characterized by a large number of bridges which was setup by an Englishman. This was the second settlement in the area. After breakfast, we headed to the Sepilok Orang utan Sanctuary where rescued orang utans are reintroduced into the wild.
Orangutans are 96.4% similar to humans, are solitary and are the largest tree dwelling animals. There are under 30000 in the wild. Their habitat is decreasing thanks to the palm plantations and destruction of forests for logging and timber. Orang utans also used to be kept as pets in homes and abandened when the family couldn't take care of them anymore. There is now a big fine
and jail time if found in possession of an orang utan. All assets are taken away if the fine cannot be paid. Sumatran tigers are the number one predator of orangutans. In the Bornean jungles, the predators are the clouded leapards.
I was amazed to hear that Orang utans build their nest for sleeping each
night. The nests are usually built at the fork of 3 branches strong
enough to support it. Building starts around 4:30 or 5 depending on the
weather. If cloudy, they start building earlier. The nests are also used
as their toilet. Given that they are very clean animals, if they are
forced to use the nest again, they usually put some leaves or branches
before lying in it. Hmmmm!!!
At the 4500 hectare sanctuary, orang utans are taken care of in the nursery till they are 4. They are then moved to the feeding grounds till independent. Older orangutans are left with the younger ones so they can teach the younger ones. The same food is fed for a year so they get tired of it. The nursery and quarantine area will soon be open to visitors. It usually takes 10
Rangers bury newly laid eggs in hatchery
There were 56 collected from the mother that day
to 15 yrs to rehabilitate them. The number of orangutans in Borneo has increased since the prgm started in 1964 by an American lady.
We observed Orang utans at their feeding stations in the rainforest for some time. There were plenty of macaques as well that were trying to steal the food meant for the orang utans. A macaque came and stretched out in front of us. He looked like a very hairy, human baby.
We got back to the jetty in Sandakan for a boat excursion to the pristine mangrove forests to the 27800 hectares of the Lower Kinabatangan wildlife sanctuary along the river delta. Lunch was provided at the Abai Jungle restaurant. Post lunch, we continued by boat to Sukau. After check-in at the Kinabatangan Riverside lodge, we took a river cruise along the Kinabatangan river to Menanggul river.
The Kinabatangan river at 560 km long is Sabah 's longest river. It has several small rivers feeding the main river. The Lower Kinabatangan is said to have the largest concentration of wildlife in all of Malaysia. In fact, all 8 species of hornbills have been spotted here. It is a haven for two of my
favorite primates, the proboscis monkey and orang utan. One unique landscape feature of the Kinabatangan is the unusual oxbow lakes. The water is a bit muddy because of erosion.
There were several villages along the way and the boat slowed down
whenever we passed a village on seeing an AWAS or slow down sign (one
guide joked that AWAS meant All Women Always Sexy). The guide told us
that villagers sometimes ignore warnings and swim in the water only to
be eaten by crocodiles. Their income derives from fishing of fresh water
fish and prawns. Boats are the main means of transportation.
Orang utans are extremely shy by nature and sightings of orangutans in the wild are rare. We were lucky when a fellow passenger spotted one hanging from a high tree branch on our way to the lodge. We also spotted several proboscis monkeys and a couple of crocs. The largest croc caught here was 6.6 m in length. They can grow upto 7 m.
After checking into the lodge, we did the river cruise. The first animal spotted was a viper. I wondered how the guide knew to take us to this spot directly.
Apparently vipers do not move from their spot while digesting food. This guy has been at the same spot for almost a week. Proboscis monkeys: The guys with the funny nose
Only males have the characteric long noses. They develop these by the time they are sub adults. The longer the nose, the more attractive they are to the females (I think the females have a funny nose too).
They live close to rivers since they only eat certain types of leaves. Just like cows, they have compartments in their stomach. One sac has bacteria. They cannot eat any sweets since it can give them gas and could prove fatal. So no bananas!! Leaves with antibiotic properties are also dangerous since they kill bacteria.
The lone male in the group lives with a bunch of females (usually around 20) and their young ones(Harem). He could easily get booted out by someone from bachelor group or by the ladies if he is not a good manager anymore or if he is not satisfying them. When challenged, they usually fight by making noises instead of coming to blows. The older males in the group are pushed out and
form their own bachelor groups. Female alphas (usually the oldest females) are the ones that make all the decisions and lead the group. They give birth twice a year. They live on roosting trees close to the river.
Their tails are not used for swinging, but to give them balance. It was funny to watch their high long jump when jumping from tree to tree. They are most vulnerable at night when they are asleep with their heads down. A few other notes:
We got to wear sarongs that evening for dinner. There was a documentary on Orang utans and proboscis monkeys post dinner. They were both very good, with the probascis monkey one a bit risque' for Maya. Day 4: Central Market and flight to KK
We took the speed boat back to Sandakan with a 30 minute break at Abai resort. After collecting our big suitcases, we went to the central market for an hour. The market had vendors selling veggies and fruits, a fish section the smell of which would scare off the faint hearted, a Chinese food court on one floor and Muslim food court in another (to maintain halal). We were dropped back at the Sabah hotel where we said goodbye to Ron. Post lunch, we had a lot of time to kill. This would be one of the things we would change about the itinerary. After wandering the stores in the hotel, we were ready
to do something and used the opportunity to visit Agnes Keith's house. Overlooking the Sandakan Bay, this was the home of the Conservator of Forests, Harry Keith and his American wife Agnes Keith from 1930-1942. Agnes Keith wrote a book called "Land below the wind" (pre-war name for Sabah) referring to Sabah's location below the typhoon belt. Her second book about their war experiences "Three came home" was made into a movie.
We took a 6:15 PM flight to Kota kinabalu (I love saying this name) where we were met by our driver (or pilot as the guides called them), a 60+ some year old muslim man, with a good sense of humour. He has 9 children and proclaimed that the third ring he had given his wife after marraige was suffering. To get married, men have to gift the bride the same number of water buffaloes as the number of pillars holding up her home. His wife married him for just 2 water buffaloes which was less than the required number.
Kota Kinabalu or KK as it is called is the capital of Sabah. It is again clean with good infrastructure and is a much bigger town
than Sandakan. We checked in to the Jesselton Hotel at the heart of the city’s banking financial and business high street. We had dinner at our favorite restaurant in KK, Bella (right at Jesselton hotel). The Pizza was really good. Customs:
Footwear are left outside for sanitary reasons and as a sign of respect of the hosts. Sanskrit words are prevelant in the language. For example, pustaka means bookstore and bhoomi putra means son of the soil. Politics:
Malaysia is a democratic country with limited powers. The Bhoomi Putras get preferential treatment in many areas. 9 of the 13 states have monarchies. The king and queen of Malaysia rotate amongst these 9 monarchies. They were occupied by the British.
You are executed in Malaysia if found in possession of drugs and for murder. Stoning etc. is not practiced. Islam is the official religion.
The flag of Malaysia looks strangely like the US flag with a moon and star instead of the 50 stars. Business:
Malaysia is the biggest manufacturer of palm oil followed by Indonesia and Kenya. Palm was brought to Indonesia by an Englishman with the intention of producing palm oil as lubricant
for their machines during industrial revolution. Education:
The British setup a lot of English medium schools. Malay medium schools were introduced later. History of Sandakan:
A Scottish gentleman by the name of Cowie supplied arms to the Sultan of Sulu. He was thus allowed to setup base in Sandakan. In 1883, the North Borneo Chartered company moved capital from Kudat to Sandakan. It was nearly destroyed by allied forces during WW2 to rescue the POWs. Japenese further destroyed whatever remained. The capital was moved to jesselton in 1946. Sandakan was a port for export of logs and timber.
First day in Sandakan, we watched a Hritik Roshan movie on TV. The locals know all the movie stars and the latest movies. Some complain about how the Malay movies try to mimick Bollywood movies. SRK is biggggggg! Headhunters:
Unfortunately, we didn't get a chance to learn more about tribes of Borneo. However, our guide Ron told us that the Iban tribesmen that lived in Borneo were pioneers of headhunting. Intrusion on lands belonging to other tribes resulted in death. Once the enemy was killed, the heads were severed and preserved. The tribesmen
Orang utan Sanctuary
Macaques that like to pose
still live in longhouses.
We were told the story of the Chinese businessman that owns the travel company we used, SI tours (Special Interest Tours). The Chinese couple sold vegetables many years ago. The husband slowly bought out the shares of all the 9 shareholders at SI and is now the sole owner of the company which employs 140 people. Where there is a will there is a way.
There are more photos below