Malaysian Borneo - Sabah

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August 3rd 2012
Published: August 3rd 2012
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From Siem Reap we flew to Borneo (via KL again!) for two weeks.

We arrived in Kota Kinabalu (or KK for short) in the evening and spent two nights there before going to Mount Kinabalu. There are a few islands scattered off the coast of KK, only a short boat ride from the jetty, with great beaches and snorkelling. We spent the first day there, having craved the beach for a while. The snorkelling was a little disappointing, with hardly any coral, and only a few parrot fish, but the beach was nice and the islands are so small it was nice to be on a little piece of paradise - although full of locals enjoying their weekend. We did find a reasonable snorkelling patch later in the day, so decided to come back and search out some more fish then.

We checked out the local shopping mall, and wandered around the city a bit. It is very glossy and upmarket compared to Cambodia and Laos. A few banks and office buildings, and more than 4 shopping malls, but nothing mega highrise. There were plenty of markets selling delicious BBQ seafood, and apparently handicrafts during the day, but we never made it back to them. We also found a lovely air conditioned cinema, so we went to see Batman for RM11 each - just over 2GBP - and got popcorn for RM3. (Nice clean developed city, cheap prices! Great!)

Despite the city fun we were having, we were still both really looking forward to getting away to the parts of Borneo we really came to see. After KK we headed to Mount Kinabalu National Park, with the main aim being to climb the mountain. We had had to book on a package deal, so stayed the night before the climb at the lodge at the entrance to the park. This was probably the most expensive part of our entire trip (the full 6 month trip I mean) and you could really tell. Our room at the lodge had two floors!! AND two bathrooms! Seriously! Who books a double room and expects two bathrooms?! There was also a balcony with chaise longue, a massive sofa, satellite TV, a fridge, free toothbrush etc. Shame we couldn't get more value for money and camp out there for a week for the same price! All of our food was included, so we had buffets for every meal - and yes we stuffed ourselves. The food was probably some of the best we had in Borneo though. Including huge syrup pancakes for breakfast - Ian I thought of you :-) And lots of fresh fruit and veg, which we had been craving for almost the entire trip!

Obviously the main focus of us being there was to walk up an enormous mountain, rather than eat lots of food and slob in a luxurious hotel room (although all of that helped me get through it!). The climb itself was a challenge but didn't feel too difficult for the most part, and we were so lucky with the weather. It was a beautiful clear day for the day of our climb. Lots of the trail was sheltered by trees so we didn't get too hot - the sun was scorching though, so the gaps in the trees were almost unbearable to pass. There were a huge number of steps. I didn't even try to count them. I really didn't want to walk up stairs for 6 hours, but luckily the path was really varied. Some areas were gravelly with steps cut in them, others were just wooden boardwalks with steps between them over the more precarious ground, and some of it was just plain boulders to scramble over - hands and feet! There were plenty of places to stop and rest, with little shelters and toilets where needed. Overall I wouldn't say it was a hard trail to climb, it just got hard at the end when we were 1km from the lodge and my legs were tired from walking for 5hours, and there were hundreds of massive boulders to clamber over. I thought my legs were going to fall off!! But luckily they didn't.

We made it to the lodge at about 2:30pm, having started our climb just after 9am. We were pretty chuffed with our time, as we expected it to take 5-6hours to do the total 6km (which I interpreted at Charlotte speed as about 7-8hrs!) and it was very nice to get to a little house in the hill and gaze out at beautiful scenery which we could never have enjoyed if we didn't put all that effort in! The house on the hill was a lot more basic than the house at the bottom - we shared a dorm with 3 other people, sleeping in bunk beds, with no heating, no hot water and the window jammed open - the top of a mountain is cold by the way. But we both ate loads (of course) for our buffet dinner, buffet supper at 2am and buffet breakfast at 7am, so we warmed up, slept well, and were prepared for the next part of the trek to the summit and back - starting at 2am and returning at 7am. Fun! Unfortunately I got plagued by a cold overnight and felt awful when I woke up. I dragged myself about 300m towards the summit (it was about 2km further than that) and then nearly passed out because I couldn't breath or see. Decided it wasn't such a good plan to carry on, so had to let Eoin carry on without me. He made it to the top, froze in the bitter wind for 45 minutes waiting for sunrise, got some great pics, then came back down. I had to clamber down in the pitch black, alone, with only my own torch light and a vague memory of where I came from (and nearly got lost because of it!) over some pretty massive boulders, in order to get back to bed - you can decide which was harder :-)

We both really enjoyed it though and were very glad we did it. Climbing down the next day was much easier, surprisingly, but was probably the culprit for our aching legs and being unable to take any stairs for the next 3 days! We spent those days recuperating on another island beach off the coast of KK, and then Kota Belud. Unfortunately, it rained a lot while we were on the islands, so we sat in a shelter on the beach instead of sunbathing. And when trying to go back in for the snorkelling, between rain, we saw a girl get stung by a jellyfish and then I spotted a big one in the shallows, so we got out and returned to reading - much safer.

We travelled north for 2 hours to Kota Belud to spend another 2 nights at the beach. We knew to expect basic accommodation, and have stayed in beach huts before, but this was a new experience (and for RM90 a night too!) - there was no door on the bathroom, no seat on the toilet, no tap on the sink, no hot water, soaking wet damp bed clothes and no lock on the door. We did have a mosquito net over the bed, which was lucky because the bathroom was "open air". But we made do, knowing we were on a lovely beach with soft sand and apparently great snorkelling. We spent the morning playing in the sea and swimming, then attempted the snorkelling around the rocks at both ends of the beach but saw barely any fish and definitely no coral. Seemed a shame seeing as that was why we had come, but the sea was lovely to swim in and the beach was great. Then I got stung by a whopping great big jellyfish! (Possibly small, but definitely huge tentacles that wrapped around both my legs) Ouch!! It hurt a lot. I could barely climb out of the water and limp to the bar, it felt like someone was holding my legs in a fire. Luckily vinegar is a miracle cure - not only did it stop the pain instantly, it apparently stops the sting particles from continuing to fire. Unfortunately fresh water does not help, it does the opposite. So a nice American lady who tried to help me when I first got out actually made it worse. I was in a huge amount of pain for a good hour after it stung, and then my foot swelled to the size of a tennis ball and I couldn't walk properly for 4 days. Good job I didn't have any cause to wear shoes! It also meant that neither of us wanted to go anywhere near the sea for the rest of our stay, so the slightly lame accommodation was no longer compensated by anything. Even the food was a bit rubbish, but we chilled in the nice bar and chatted to the other guests - who had also all been stung by jellyfish (literally someone from all of the six couples that were there had been stung in the same water as me). Nice of the staff to warn us. I'm still glad of the experience, and I have a huge jagged black line on my ankle to show off even now, but it hasn't made me any less afraid of jellyfish. Maybe even more so.

After this "ordeal" we headed over to the East coast to Sandakan, via a slightly slow-going 6 hour bus. We spent 3 nights in Sandakan, visiting the Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary and the Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary, both of which have been set up because there is barely any rainforest left for the animals to live in the wild. It is actually heart-wrenching to see the entirety of Borneo, and a lot of mainland Malaysia too, is palm plantation. This was emphasized by our 6 hour bus journey, and the 3 hour journey south to Kinabatangan too. We saw a lot of country and no countryside. Just palms.

The Orangutans in the sanctuary are all rehabilitated orphans, who are raised to survive on their own. The sanctuary continues to help any that return for food or "emotional support" from the keepers, but a lot of the mature animals never come back and prefer to fend for themselves in the jungle. We saw about 7 on the day we visited. The centre operates feeding times for visitors to see the Orangs, so it was quite busy with tourists in the morning, and not as good as seeing them in the wild, but the afternoon was quieter and a couple of them got very close to the path so we got to see them pretty close up, which was amazing. The Proboscis sanctuary was a lot more expensive, but also very worthwhile. Again they feed the monkeys, and quite close to the viewing platforms, but the monkeys were a lot more chilled than the Orangs and seemed to like the attention. We could have stood and watched them for hours, they were so entertaining. They have a very tiny area to live in, on the edge of a palm plantation, to the sanctuary is sort of a double-edged sword - owned by a prior plantation owner.... But it was still good to see so many surviving, even with help - we saw two troops, one family group and one bachelor group. They are such funny looking animals, and they make really funny noises too, we laughed at them a lot.

After our trips to the sanctuaries, we headed over to Kinabatangan to stay by the river and try and see some animals in the wild. There is much more rainforest still remaining in this region, mainly along the river, but you can still see a lot of palm plantation edging closer. There is also a 10,000 hectare area across the more mountainous areas, which is hopefully being preserved to encourage wildlife rather than business. (I felt a bit better once we knew this.) At the lodge we stayed at, we knew to expect basic accommodation and were well prepared after our experience in Kota Belud, but obviously it wasn't nearly as bad. We again had to book a package, including all of our meals, 4 river cruises and a jungle trek, and it was expensive, but we had such a great time and the environment was so peaceful that it was well worth it. As soon as we arrived, we headed out on our first 2hr boat trip down the river. Within minutes our guide had spotted an Orangutan - a huge dominant male too! We saw Proboscis monkeys and both types of Macaques (long-tailed and pig-tailed), as well as some huge and beautiful rhinocerous hornbills and pied hornbills. (My photos aren't very good so I might have to get some postcards!) It was amazing to see so much in such a short time, and all wild animals that we weren't sure we would see! The night cruise and the early morning cruise (6am) were less impressive in terms of type of wildlife, but we saw a lot of hornbills, fish eagles, two bright coloured king fishers (one very tiny) and some beautiful wood owls. We also saw an otter sliding around in the mud, and lots more macaques and Proboscis. We went looking for elephants as they had been around the area recently, but no luck.

After the morning cruise, we went for a walk in the jungle surrounding the lodge and local village. We were told not to expect much, and that it would be 40 minutes. It was more like 2hours, and we were so hot and tired from climbing through mounds of ankle-deep mud and trying to avoid getting leeches in our socks, that we started to wonder if we were ever going to go back and relax with a book by the river (our plan for the afternoon). All we had seen were some funny looking bugs and a few bats in a cave, but to serve us right for moaning, our guide then spotted a big male Orangutan in the tree in front of us. We must have scared it a bit as it then climbed a very tall tree and started shaking it to try and scare us off. We moved away to watch it, and then saw a female leap from the tree below and swing off into the jungle, closely followed by him too. It was awesome to watch, if a little scary, but our guide assured us that they never come down from the trees....!

Our last cruise was in the afternoon that same day, and again we managed to see so much wildlife - heaps of Macaques and Proboscis again, plus a young Orangutan and then a mother with a tiny baby making a nest in a nearby tree. We were absolutely awe-struck, and thrilled that we had seen what we came here to see. The guide told us later that it is actually pretty rare to see Orangutans, and a lot of people come and see none, or one at most. We saw 6!

We were sad to leave when the time came, and headed back to Sandakan for our last night in Borneo before flying to Bali. Wishing for clear water, tropical fish, stormless seas and a severe lack of jellyfish!


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